Stolen Time

Niamsha Pereyra sank to the floor beside the worn out cot her papa used for a bed, her eyes fixed on the sweat-streaked paleness of his face. A slight bluish tinge clung to his skin as he coughed, the deep, rattling sound a sign his illness had weakened him further.

“Papa?” Her voice shook, the childish whisper barely audible over the crackle of the fire from their small hearth. Niamsha steeled herself against his raspy breathing, forcing more courage into her words. “Papa, whatcha need? I can get—”

“No, girl.” Her papa’s mouth stretched into a pained smile. An attempt to soothe her fears, no doubt. “Watch yer speech. Guild’s got enough reason ta turn ya away. That gutter speech is all they need ta—”

He cut off, thin frame shaking as he held back another fit. Niamsha reached a hand forward, pausing with her fingers just over his cheek. The darker tint of her skin stark against his too-pale figure. She laid the hand down and shook her head.

“Ain’t gonna take no ’prenticeship,” she said. And she couldn’t, anyway. Not now that the physic had raised his price again. But her papa didn’t need to know. Niamsha smiled at him. “Not with you sick an’ Em too young ta care fer ya.”

Her papa sighed, patting her hand with one of his own. His gaze settled on her hand and she knew his fears without needing to hear them. Niamsha’s coloring mirrored the mother she barely remembered, darker than the native-born residents and always drawing looks when she wandered the streets. Not many foreign-born had remained through the old emperor’s abuse, and those that stayed chose to sequester in small villages of their own over retaining their spaces in larger cities. With the war’s end that was changing, but not fast enough. Guilds had shifted apprentice policies and standing had been lost that no lord could give back to them. Her papa’s worry the glasswright’s guild would reject her held more weight than either of them wanted to admit.

Niamsha frowned. “I leave ya, who pays the rent? Who gets yer dose from the physic? I’m gettin’ good enough at glass here. I’ll learn from you, when yer better.”

“I’d wish you wanted another trade—” He coughed again, his breath tight and pained as he waved her away.

Hovering over him, Niamsha dipped a hand into the bowl of cool water she kept by the bedside. Sweat beaded on his face again as a fierce heat swept through his body. Same as every time the physic’s dose wore off. Her hand found the scrap of cloth in the water and clenched down, wringing the water out and folding the cloth into a cool patch to ease what little pain it could. The doses wore off sooner every time. Barely two hours this time.

“Papa, you need a proper healer.”

“We’ve no coin for that, girl,” her papa said. “And I ain’t taking more tinctures. It’s time. Call Emrys in.”

“He ain’t ready,” she protested. But her papa had already slumped, eyes closed as his chest rose and fell with labored breaths. She couldn’t deny Emrys a chance to speak with their papa when he was this ill. They all knew he’d never fully recover.

Niamsha laid the cool cloth on her papa’s forehead and rose, pushing aside the curtain that separated the bed from the rest of the house. The main room—just large enough to fit a table beside the dual cots for Niamsha and her brother and a set of rickety shelves that once held her mother’s books—was dark and cold. She paced through the room toward the back door. No fire in the hearth and the doorway on the far wall revealed her papa’s long-abandoned workshop. The chairs had seen better days, but they’d be sturdy enough for any guests. Not that anyone came to see them now that her papa’s health had faded.

Rumors swept through the other crafter’s children of evil magic tinting the kingdom. They said the new high lord had a demon servant whose skin ran red with the blood of human sacrifices. Some even said the blood had seeped into his being, leaving a constant glow of an unholy tattoo that flowed through him. A curse from the gods, no doubt.

Except the rumors were silly. Holy Aeduhm and His divine children protected the Laisian Empire in return for the devotion old Emperor Laisia had shown. That’s what temple taught her, and her papa had never contradicted it. Niamsha’s gaze drifted to the alcove hidden behind her mother’s shelves. The books she’d once placed there had slowly vanished over the months of her papa’s illness, the value too high to let sit untouched while Niamsha and Emrys starved. But the salves had stayed, masking the small table where Niamsha’s mother used to pray to the foreign gods of the homeland she’d loved. If Aeduhm protected the empire because of the old emperor’s devotion, then what did He think of a loyal family hiding the heretical shrine of a long-dead woman?

Niamsha stepped over the the shelves, dust thick on the aging wood as well as the table and figures behind. She should throw them out and beg forgiveness from the divine Father and His children. But her mother’s cheerful humming lingered in her memory, stopping her hand before she touched the figures. She closed her eyes and muttered a prayer to Aeduhm. Even He couldn’t save her papa now, anyway. No need to discard the last thing left of her mother in such a futile effort.

She pulled the back door open instead, walking out into the bare patch of garden where her brother played. Emrys sat in the dirt, drawing crude pictures with a stick. A few months ago he’d been running wild through the streets with the other glasswright’s sons, his paler tan skin blending better with the locals than her darker tones did. But even those children they’d called friends wouldn’t risk coming near for fear her papa’s illness might spread.

“Em, Papa wants ya,” she said.

Emrys rose with a shrug, his shoulders hunched in the way of a child who knows he’s about to be scolded. A look he’d been wearing since their papa had first closed the shop to the sickness. Niamsha caught Emrys’s arm as he passed.

“It’s gonna be okay, Em.” She squeezed once, releasing him as he pulled away. “Papa’s sick, but you an’ me. We’ll make do.”

“With what?”

Emrys stepped inside without waiting for her answer. And what answer could she give? They had one apprenticeship’s worth of coin, almost a full gold jayl in value, but when their papa died the deeds for house and shop would go to the guild. No heirs of age to take possession unless he could hold out another ten months for Niamsha’s birthing day. Under the guild’s new rules they didn’t even have to pay fair value in trade. A response to the high lord’s new regulations, her papa said.

Niamsha sighed, leaning against the wall and swishing the worn skirts of her dress around her legs. Her friend’s mother made it for her near two years back, when they’d gone together to a formal gathering of the glasswright’s guild. The dress hung too short now, after two years of growing, and only Niamsha’s too-skinny frame let her fit into it at all. But it was still the nicest dress she owned and the only clothes she could wear to temple without disgracing her family. Temple might be the only chance for her and Emrys to get help. The new high lord had ordered charity for the poor, handed out by acolytes to those most in need. He must have known the temples would choose their favorites among the needy, but Niamsha had connections there. Her papa had paid a small fortune for her to get schooling—three or four times the apprentice fees he’d gathered now. Enough money, her papa had hoped, to overcome the hostility imperial natives felt for those with foreign blood. And not enough to buy her security among the chosen servants of the merchant god Istvan.

With a shove against the rough wall behind her, Niamsha stepped away from her home and strode to the gate, stepping between the small patches of dirt that had held her mother’s garden years before. She pushed the gate wide, glancing down the narrow alley in a habitual search for the poorer customers who used to buy trinkets of scrap glass to set beside a candle flame for a brighter burn. Save on candles by throwing the light, and her papa had always sold the scraps too cheap for their value. Said the low had to help each other or be stepped on. But no one dared linger near their house any longer, and there’d been no scrap to sell even if they did.

The unmistakable chime of her papa’s door bell rang out the back door behind her. Niamsha hesitated. Her papa wasn’t working and Emrys was old enough to send whoever it was away. She counted her breaths, waiting for the repeated jingle that would mark another customer lost to the illness that plagued the house. If she turned back, asked what commission the customer needed… She couldn’t work glass like her papa or any other glasswright, really. Even the apprentices had more practice that she did. But Niamsha knew a few of the techniques her papa hid from his fellows. A simple commission for reduced price might pay for another visit to the physic.

Twelve breaths, heart pounding as she debated the choice, and she heard voices drifting out of the shop. Not Emrys. He should have handled it. Should have looked after their papa. But Niamsha knew her papa’s thick voice even through the weakened breaths that left him wheezing. She hurried toward the door. Her papa should be in bed.

The back door swung open at her touch, the conversation barely audible from the workshop. He’d walked so far? Niamsha turned toward the open doorway, the form of her papa’s visitor hidden and voices muffled. Emrys caught her arm.

“Father said wait,” he whispered. “Something ’bout an old pact.”

“You knew better, Em,” Niamsha snapped. “Papa ain’t up to handlin’ nothing. What you think he’s gonna do if they ask fer work, or a favor?”


She pulled away, storming to the doorway, and froze at the hushed tones of her papa’s voice. His back was turned to her but the hunch of his shoulders held as much deceit as weakness.

“Ya know I can’t pay,” her papa said. “What ya plannin’ ta take? Me last bits a scrap?”

“Master says ya got something he wants,” the other man replied. “Debts get paid, one way or t’other.”

“Ain’t got nothing. Tell yer master—”

The door bell chimed again and the heavy clunk of boots entered from the street. The men fell silent, Niamsha’s papa wheezing against the strain of standing so long while waiting for the newcomer to say or do something. Niamsha peeked around the corner, but all she could see was the bulky form of the first arrival and the narrow form of someone else behind, neither offering any consideration for her papa. Swallowing a lump of tension, Niamsha edged further into the room for a better view.

“Master Trieu, I’m pleased to see you standing,” the newcomer said, her papa’s family name rolling off his tongue like a fancy flag waving in the wind.

His voice was smooth as the water in a new-drawn bath, pitched too high for any man she’d known. Niamsha’s papa nodded, lips pressed into a tight line. Why wouldn’t he say anything? Even her papa’s stubborn dedication to his craft had faded by now.

The slight figure nudged the larger man. “Our friend looks a bit under the weather. Do get him a chair. Debts can’t be paid by dead men, now can they?”

“Aye.” The larger man took two steps to one side and grabbed her papa’s work stool, swinging it over to her papa’s side. “Sit.”

Her papa hesitated, glanced toward the doorway into their house, and sat. His face gave no sign he’d seen Niamsha, but he must know she was listening. Her papa hadn’t hidden anything from her since her mother died.

“I can pay,” her papa said, turning back to the men. A lie he’d just contradicted, but they waited for him to continue. “Me shop. Worth half the sum at least. An’ me girl ain’t takin’ to the glass, so I got her ’pprentice fees.”

Niamsha clapped a hand to her mouth, muffling the sharp gasp of breath his words drew. Give away the shop and the last of their coin? How would they live?

“The shop seems excessive,” the slim figure said. “How would you earn the rest of my due? Hand over the coin, and I’ll offer an adjustment. Take some time to recover. No further payment due this season. I’m sure we can come to an arrangement once you’ve recovered.”

Her papa nodded and pushed himself to his feet. The other man stopped him, pushing her papa back onto the stool before crossing the room to dig out her papa’s strongbox. Hidden where no one ought to find it, but this man pulled it out as if Niamsha’s papa had left it on the table in plain view. They knew the shop, then, and had no need to speak to her papa if they planned to steal. Niamsha’s heart thudded in her chest as the man dug through and pulled out the handful of coins to count.

“Three cails short fer ’pprentice fees,” the man announced.

“Shorting me silver, are you, Master Trieu?”

Niamsha’s papa turned in his seat, lips parting in shock. “Can’t be. I put it there safe. She’s got full fees just waitin’.”

The smaller figure stepped forward, just into the edge of the light to scan the room. He looked almost a boy, barely grown into his shape as his eyes fixed on Niamsha’s hiding spot. He smiled.

“I imagine your daughter helped herself, Master Trieu,” he said. “You’re so very ill, she must have feared for you.” He waved at his companion and turned away. “Come on, then. We’ll take it. I’m not one to punish a child for loving a parent.”

Niamsha waited until they’d both left the shop before darting out of her corner to grab her papa’s arm.

“Papa, are you—”

“What’ve ya done?”

He muttered the question under his breath, clearly not expecting an answer. Niamsha frowned, kneeling on the cool stone of the workshop floor.

“Physic said ya needed a new dose. Old one ain’t working. What should I done?”

Her papa shook his head. “Don’t matter now. Ya gotta go. Get Emrys, pack yer clothes, get gone.”

“But papa, who’s gonna take care of you?”

“Nothing left ta care for,” He caught her face in his hands, his worn body trembling. “Go. Take nothing from no one. Can’t know who to trust. An’ don’t tell no one my name no more. Yer mother’s. She always said ta give ya hers fer the bloodline. Use it, find yer brother a safe place.”

“I can’t, papa.” Niamsha shook her head. “How’m I gonna keep us fed?”

“Yer smart. Find a way. Take care of yer brother. You promise me.”

The words stuck in her throat. But he’d never asked her for anything like this, and she’d never seen him so frightened. Whoever that boy was, he had power her papa feared.

“I promise, papa.” Niamsha swallowed a lump, squeezing his hands as she stood up. “I’ll take care of Em.”

With a nod, her papa shoved her toward the doorway into the main house. A fit of coughing took over as he leaned against the stool, hands on knees. But he waved her away as she hesitated. Nothing she could do would help him now. But the new high lord might be able to help her. Word on the street was he fancied himself a man of the people. Her father’s words stuck with her. Trust no one, take nothing, and protect Emrys. She’d only promised to protect Emrys.

Niamsha choked back a sob a grief and walked into the other room. “Come on, Em. Papa says we gotta go.”


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All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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