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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Outcasts of Order

Saga of Recluce (Volume 20)

L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Tor Fantasy



Beltur sat bolt upright in the dark, sweating and shivering, the echo of thunder in his ears so loud that it took a moment before he could hear the pelting of heavy raindrops on the split slate roof. Even so, he first wondered where he was, before realizing he was in his bed in Athaal and Meldryn’s house.

Except Athaal is dead … because you couldn’t save him.

Beltur took a deep breath. He knew, honestly knew, that he’d done everything in his power to try to save Athaal, and it hadn’t been enough. It might not have been enough if he’d been almost beside Athaal … or you both might have died. But he’d been where he’d been, and Athaal had been where he had been, and from fifty yards away Beltur had only been able to contain the chaos of the Gallosian mage, but he hadn’t had enough power from that distance to also protect Athaal when the order of Athaal’s shields had meshed with the chaos of the Gallosian’s shields. He could still see that awful moment when that mixed order and chaos had destroyed both Athaal and the white mage. And nothing was going to change what had already happened.

With that realization, one that he had experienced more mornings than not over the two eightdays that had passed since the defeat of the Gallosian invaders, he slowly rolled into a sitting position with his legs over the side of the bed. Dark as it seemed, he had the feeling that it was close to the time he needed to be up, a feeling reinforced by the odor of baking bread that drifted upstairs from the bakery.

Beltur washed and shaved quickly, pulled on his clothes, except for his tunic, yanked on his boots, and hurried downstairs to the kitchen, where Meldryn had started the fire in the kitchen hearth. As quickly as he could, while being as careful as he could be, he fried some mutton strips, sliced the small melon into strips, and scrambled eggs and cheese.

Then he walked down the side hall that led to the bakery, stopped at the door, and said, “Breakfast is ready.”

“I’ll be there in a few moments,” replied the gray-haired and bearded baker and black mage.

Beltur had only been back in the kitchen long enough to pour the hot cider into mugs and seat himself before Meldryn appeared and sat down at the table. He set a small loaf of bread on the end of the table. “This is for you. You have City Patrol duty today, don’t you?”

“The first time since before all the fighting. This eightday, my duty days are threeday and sevenday. Patrol Mage Osarus requested that I be transferred back to patrol duty as soon as possible. He never wanted me to leave.”

“He was wrong about that. Without you, things might have been very different.”

Beltur couldn’t argue about that. Whether, in the end, they would have been better for Athaal and Meldryn was another matter.

Meldryn took a sip of the hot cider. “You know I appreciate your staying and helping.”

“It’s the very least I could do,” replied Beltur, not for the first time. And it was, given that Athaal and Meldryn had taken him in when he’d had to flee Gallos with nothing but the clothes on his back and a handful of coppers in his wallet. Besides, more practically, where else did he have to go? “I don’t cook as well as you do.” Beltur had almost said “as well as Athaal,” but managed to change his words, knowing that Meldryn would still likely choke up at any mention of Athaal. That wasn’t surprising, given that the two had been together for more than twenty years.

“I still appreciate it.” Meldryn took a bite of the eggs, nodded, and then said, “Is it tomorrow when you go back to work with Jorhan?”

“Just for the day, unless he gets more copper.” Beltur didn’t want to dwell on that. “Have you talked to Cohndar recently?” He doubted that had happened, but he definitely didn’t want to mention Athaal, and he did want to know anything Cohndar might have said, since Cohndar was the senior black mage in Elparta and wasn’t exactly the most favorably inclined toward Beltur.

“No. He’s been noticeably absent since before the invasion, except when he’s had no choice, and he was cool toward … us, even then.”

“Since Waensyn arrived, really,” Beltur pointed out.

“Waensyn’s a strong black, but…” Meldryn shook his head. “And how he could believe that Jessyla would ever be attracted to him is beyond me. She’s much more suited to you, and everyone can see that.”

“Except him.”

“He’s one of those people who only believes what suits him. That makes him very dangerous as far as you’re concerned.”

Beltur nodded as he took a mouthful of cheesed eggs. He didn’t need to be told that, not after he’d heard Waensyn’s and Cohndar’s maneuverings during the invasion, maneuvering that had led to Beltur being given the most dangerous assignments possible for a mage-officer. A very temporary mage-officer. And one quickly returned to nonmilitary status as soon as possible. “I’ve got to leave early, especially in this rain. I’ll need to see Raymandyl at the Council building before I go to the Patrol building.”

Meldryn frowned quizzically. “You’re still in the same duty period.”

“I got a message saying I need to report there first before going to Patrol headquarters.”

“They didn’t even give you an eightday off after mustering you out.”

“No, but they did pay me through the end of this eightday.” And at three silvers an eightday, his mustering-out pay had amounted to over two golds, which Beltur could definitely use, especially since he hadn’t been able to do any work with Jorhan forging cupridium. Still …

“What ever happened to that horse of yours?”

“Slowpoke? I don’t know. By the time I was on my feet, Second Recon had left to return to Spidlaria. He wasn’t in the stables. I went to look.” Beltur had at least wanted a last moment with Slowpoke, especially since he doubted he would have survived without the big gelding. “They must have taken him with them.”

“From what you’ve said, he was something.”

“He was.” Beltur would have liked to have kept Slowpoke, but he couldn’t have afforded to feed him, and the bakery had no stable.

After he and Meldryn finished eating and he quickly cleaned up the kitchen, Beltur went upstairs and donned the mage’s black tunic that matched his trousers, then pulled on the visor cap he’d been issued as a mage-officer—since he’d been told he should wear it when he was working with the City Patrol, but only then. He almost forgot his whistle, but pulled the lanyard over his neck and slipped the whistle inside his tunic.

He left the house at slightly after sixth glass, wearing a waterproof that had been Athaal’s with the loaf of bread wrapped in cloth inside his tunic. The rain had subsided to a cold drizzle, all too common in mid-to-late fall, Meldryn had told him. He checked his shields, not that they were much use against rain, but he’d only been able to hold a full set of shields in the last eightday or so, given how order-depleted he’d been. Early as it was and with the rain, there were few people out on Bakers Lane. The north wind made the air feel even colder, even when Beltur’s back was to it when he climbed up the street to the Council building.

When he stepped inside the door on the north side, he took a moment to shake the rain from the oiled waterproof, then walked toward the desk where Raymandyl usually sat. For a moment, Beltur didn’t see the Council clerk, but then the black-haired clerk sat up straight from bending over, retrieving something from the file chests flanking his desk.

“As always, at the last moment,” said Raymandyl, smiling, as Beltur stopped in front of the desk.

“I didn’t get the message until late yesterday,” replied Beltur. “You would have been gone by the time I could have gotten here.”

The Council clerk frowned. “I gave the message to the runner on oneday. I’ll have to look into that.” He gestured to the single straight-backed chair in front of his table desk. “You have to sign some papers, and pick up your medallion.”

Beltur had forgotten about the medallion worn by all mages working with the City Patrol and was glad to be reminded, but … “Papers?”

“You have to acknowledge that your duty has been extended to end seven eightdays from now.”

Beltur frowned as he seated himself. “I thought it was six.”

“The Council gave you an extra eightday’s pay as a mage-officer.”

Beltur almost shrugged. An extra eightday of patrol duty meant another two silvers, and he couldn’t work every day with Jorhan in any event. Assuming he can get hold of more copper.

“I’ll sign whatever you need me to sign.”

The clerk handed across the record book. “Sign under the words that say you understand your duty has been extended.”

Beltur signed and handed the book back. “Payday is still the same?”

“Starting next eightday for you.” The clerk placed his seal beside Beltur’s signature.

“Is there anything else I should know?”

“Not yet. I’ve heard that there’s some disagreement about how to pay for all the expenses of the invasion.”

“What’s the problem?”

“The traders in Spidlaria and Kleth feel that those in Elparta should pay more.” The round-faced clerk added, “They don’t say it that way. It’s something about payment corresponding to benefit. Councilor Jhaldrak’s anything but pleased.”

“They don’t think it wouldn’t have cost them far more if the invasion had dragged on or the Gallosians had taken Elparta?”

“They’re traders,” replied Raymandyl, as if that explained everything. He extended the silver medallion. “Don’t forget this.”

Beltur took it and slipped it over his neck and inside the waterproof. “Thank you. I’m glad I’m just a poor black mage.” He rose from the chair and inclined his head.

“You’re likely happier.”

“But poorer.” Beltur grinned before he turned and made his way toward the door.

Outside the Council building, the cold drizzle still fell, and Beltur couldn’t help but wonder how many vendors would actually be at the market square. He walked steadily down the hill and past the north side of the market square on Patrol Street, where, somewhat to his surprise, he saw a number of vendors setting up stalls and carts and tables despite the rain. He glanced to the north, where the sky seemed a little lighter. Or was that his imagination?

He shook his head and kept walking. Five long blocks later, he reached the City Patrol headquarters, roughly halfway between the square and the River Gallos.

He entered by the north door, which led into the duty room. Immediately inside the door was a modest open space. A table desk was set forward of the single other door in the foyer, which opened onto a hallway leading deeper into headquarters. Behind the desk sat the duty patroller, uniformed in Spidlarian blue, as were all patrollers.

While Beltur didn’t recognize the duty patroller, the man immediately smiled. “Welcome back, ser.”

That surprised Beltur. He didn’t recall any of the patrollers calling him “ser” before. “Thank you. I’m glad to be here.” Even as he said the words and moved to the side of the desk to sign the duty book, he realized that he was glad to be back. Was that because the worst he ever had to do to someone was to restrain them with shields? While that was likely part of it, he felt that there was more, although he couldn’t have said why at that moment.

The patroller eased the ledger-like book toward Beltur, and he dipped the pen lying on the blotter in the inkwell and signed. “Do you know who I’m working with?”

“No one’s told me.”

A voice behind Beltur said, “Who do you think?”

Beltur turned and couldn’t help grinning at the sight of Laevoyt—tall and thin, long-faced with a beakish nose between two pale blue eyes and beneath reddish-blond hair. Even with his dark gray waterproof over his uniform, he still reminded Beltur of a river heron.

“I didn’t expect that I’d be working with you again,” said Beltur.

“Osarus thought it would be best for a few eightdays. After that, it might change.”

Beltur couldn’t help but wonder why Osarus had felt that way. Because of Athaal’s death … or just because it would be easier for Beltur to get back to being a patrol mage? “I’d just as soon it didn’t, but we don’t have much say in that, do we?”

Laevoyt laughed. “We don’t, and we’d better get moving.” He turned and headed for the door.

Beltur followed, noting as he stepped onto Patrol Street that the rain seemed lighter. Since Laevoyt didn’t speak again, Beltur asked, “Have there been more problems at the market square?”

“I wouldn’t know. They had me on the waterfront with Dorryl.”

“Is he big and tall?”

“Of course.” Laevoyt laughed. “I’d rather be here.”

The patroller didn’t speak for several moments. “The word is that you saw a lot of action … and that, for a while you were in pretty bad shape.”

“That’s true,” replied Beltur, “but the injuries were because of magery. That means … well … you either die or get well. I was fortunate. Athaal … he wasn’t.” That was an oversimplification that bordered on untruth, but Beltur really didn’t want to explain. “Lhadoraak just barely made it. I understand another mage died also, but I never knew who it was.”

“We heard about Athaal. He was a good man. Quiet, but good. He’ll be missed.”

“By more than a few people.”

Laevoyt nodded.

“I saw there were a fair number in the market square already,” Beltur observed, “even with the rain.”

“Rain’ll likely let up. Then it’ll get colder. But folks will be trying to stock up on things before the snows start in earnest.”

“I suppose I ought to show my face and medallion before I raise a concealment.” Beltur eased the medallion out from under the waterproof.

“That will make the lightfingers more cautious. The ones with any sense.”

By the time the two reached the square, Beltur could see that more people had appeared, both buyers and sellers, although the numbers seemed to be only a little more than half those he’d seen on his patrolling during harvest. While Laevoyt continued east on Patrol Street, Beltur strolled down the edge of the square on West Street, letting both vendors and sellers see him, listening and trying to hear what was said.

“… mages are back…”

“… good thing, too … last sixday … and sevenday … musta been four cutpurses here in the square…”

“… think it’s the young one…”

“A mage is a mage.”

Beltur winced at the last words, knowing that wasn’t so, not that he would have contradicted the old woman, because it was likely better that people in the market square didn’t really think about the different levels of ability between mages. When he reached the south end of the square, he raised a concealment and eased into the square itself, trying to sense the flashes of the kind of chaos indicative of cutpurses or lightfingers. Usually there weren’t that many attempts at straight smash-and-grab thefts in the market square, because with the crowds, escape for an obvious thief was problematical. Lightfingers were the biggest problem. Even with the two of them patrolling the square, some of the most accomplished lightfingers likely would still make a score.

He moved slowly through the aisles and spaces between stalls and carts, grateful that the drizzle finally dribbled to an end, heading back toward the north side of the square, where those who sold more expensive wares located themselves, unlike the produce sellers, who congregated more on the south side. While he’d been recovering from the effects of the last battle, he’d thought about patrolling the market, and he’d realized that he’d often been looking in the wrong places. The reason the lightfingers were around the stalls that carried more expensive goods wasn’t because they wanted to take those goods. It was because that was where those with silvers and golds were most likely to be, and lifting wallets and golds was generally easier than boosting well-watched goods. Also, coins were far less identifiable, which meant that, unless the lifter was caught in the act, wallet in hand, proof of the theft was harder to establish.

Once he neared the tables with the more costly items, he dropped the concealment just so he could get a better impression of the people passing by, since he could only sense people as patterns of order and chaos when he was under a full concealment. Also, he had to admit, he wanted to see what might be available from the silks vendors. He could still recall the intense green shimmersilk scarf he’d once admired and had wanted to buy for Jessyla. He hadn’t been able to afford it, and probably still couldn’t, not and have enough coins to be able to pay Meldryn and meet other obligations with any certainty.

He pushed those thoughts aside and, as he moved toward the silks stall, kept sensing for trouble. As he passed a table with rings laid out on it, the man behind the table nodded politely. Beltur thought the vendor was the one who had almost lost a valuable ring to a trader’s daughter—who had later been released from detention with merely a reprimand. But at least the vendor had gotten the ring back, plus a gold in damages from the trader. Beltur doubted some of the others he and Laevoyt had caught had gotten off that easily, and were still in the workhouse and would be for seasons, if not years, possibly without a hand.

When he reached the silks stall, tended by the same older woman he recalled, he glanced across the array of scarves on display, looking for the one that had caught his eye before. He didn’t have to look far, because it caught his eye once more, with the way the colors shifted from pale seafoam green to a deep and rich sylvan green. He smiled as he thought, again, just how perfectly it would suit Jessyla.

“You’re still thinking about buying it for her?” asked the vendor with an amused smile.

“I am, but not today.”

“It won’t be here forever. She might not be, either, if you wait too long to show her how you feel.”

“It may not be here forever, that’s true, but it’s not exactly an inexpensive trifle.”

“I told you it was three silvers, just for you, almost a season ago. It still is.”

Once more, thinking about just how expensive shimmersilk was, Beltur studied the scarf. “She’s a healer.”

“She could wear it, then, whenever she wanted.”

You wouldn’t be where you are without Jessyla. “Thank you. You’re right. I’ll buy it.” Beltur eased three silvers and two coppers from his belt wallet and extended them to the vendor.

“I only said three,” she said.

“The silvers are for the scarf. The coppers are for the advice.”

As she eased the scarf off the polished wooden rack, she said, “I wish you and the healer the very best, ser.” Then she wrapped a small woolen cloth around the scarf and handed it to Beltur.

“Thank you.” Beltur paused, then asked, “Will you be here all winter?”

The woman shook her head. “Once the snows stick, you won’t see me until spring.”

“Then, if I don’t talk to you again, I wish you well.”

The vendor nodded.

Beltur slipped the wrapped scarf into the inside pocket in his tunic, then turned back toward the stalls and tables with the jewelry.

He was again nearing the man who had nodded to him when he sensed a flicker of chaos to his left. He turned to see a man perhaps ten years older than Beltur himself attired in a dark brown jacket and trousers with a waterproof folded over his arm. Something about the man, as well as a faint aura of chaos, bothered Beltur enough that he fixed his eyes on the other, coldly.

The man met Beltur’s gaze. “Have I done something to upset you, ser mage?”

Beltur managed what he hoped was a lazy smile. “Not yet. I do hope you don’t. For your sake, not mine.”

“I wouldn’t think of it.”

“You already have. Just don’t do it.”

Beltur could sense the other’s dismay by the swirling of order and chaos.

“I appreciate your solicitousness, ser mage.”

“You really don’t, but you should. Good day.” With that, Beltur drew a concealment around himself, but kept his senses fixed not only on the man in brown, but those around him. The other turned, slowly, seemed to scan the stall beside him, and then moved on. Beltur followed the other as he made his way toward the east side of the square, seemingly browsing as he did so.

Another figure approached the man Beltur had followed. “You weren’t gone that long.”

From the voice and the patterns of order and chaos, Beltur felt that the newcomer was a woman dressed as a young man.

“They’ve got a mage on duty. Young one, but he spotted me even before I got set up along the jewelry row.”

“How do you know that?”

“He made it clear, and he did it in a way that told everyone else around what he thought I was. Everyone was looking at me. We’ll have to try the other market square.”

“That’s a long walk, and the pickings aren’t as good.”

“There’s only one mage on duty on any day. If he’s here, he won’t be there.”

That wasn’t quite true, Beltur knew, because Osarus occasionally patrolled the squares, but it was largely so.

The two turned and walked northward on East Street, clearly headed for the square not all that far from where Jessyla and her mother lived with Margrena’s sister. Beltur couldn’t do much but let them go, since they hadn’t done anything, and might not. Not today, anyway.

He had mixed feelings about his encounter with the lightfinger, because if he’d just walked past and out of sight, then doubled back under a concealment, he might have been able to catch the man lifting something—and that would have brought him a token worth two silvers. Somehow, that felt wrong to Beltur, even though it was more than clear that the man was a lifter of some experience and likely would never change.

At ninth glass, according to the routine he and Laevoyt had set up eightdays and eightdays ago, Beltur made his way to the corner of Patrol and West, where Laevoyt was already waiting.

“You haven’t whistled for me yet. Losing your touch?” The tall patroller grinned.

“I did manage to scare a lightfinger away from the square.” Beltur went on to explain, briefly, what had happened, then said, “I know he was going to lift something, but I didn’t feel right about trailing him around.”

“I don’t know about that, but what if he’d been put there as a decoy for another lightfinger? You could have tailed him all morning, while the others were lifting. Osarus warns us about that every so often.”

Beltur nodded, then offered a crooked smile and asked, “So we’re really here to catch those who are less skilled?”

“Mostly. The most skillful lightfingers prey on the wealthy. It makes sense. Why risk spending a year or more in the workhouse, or even losing a hand, for a few coppers, or even a few silvers?”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“You had enough to learn, and you were doing just fine. Better than a lot of mages much older.” Laevoyt gestured toward the square. “We need to get back to work. See you at first glass.”

“Until then.” Beltur stepped away from the tall patroller, raised a concealment, and headed back toward the tables and stalls with the more expensive goods, wondering if he’d find more traces of the flickering chaos.

For whatever reason, he didn’t, and he made his way through the square, dropping the concealment as he went down the produce rows, which seemed largely to feature, unsurprisingly, either late-season crops, such as heavy apples, or root crops, although he did see some beans, but then he remembered that some growers planted beans for late harvests.

Despite the chill in the air, which had lessened somewhat as noon approached, Beltur was still thirsty as he made his way to the single ale cart, located, as always, halfway between the north and south sides of the square on West Street.

The clean-shaven and stocky Fosset watched as Beltur approached, then said cheerfully, “So you’re back from the fighting.” He took a small mug off the wooden rack. His black curly hair was still damp and plastered against his skull.

“They didn’t seem to want me any longer than they had to have me,” replied Beltur, taking out his loaf of bread. “I could really use a mug of your ale. The ale I got with the company I was assigned to wasn’t all that good.”

“That’s because the Council only buys the cheapest stuff.” Fosset filled the mug and handed it to Beltur, a single small mug on each Patrol day being the only free perquisite allowed to patrollers and mages working the market square.

“And your uncle isn’t about to brew something that bad?” Beltur took a mouthful of bread and followed it with a swallow of the ale, a smooth solid medium dark brew, better than most, and definitely welcome.

“Not for as little as he’d get for it.”

Beltur nodded. “Meldryn had that problem baking bread to supply to the troopers.”

“How’s he doing? I heard about Athaal. Didn’t seem right.”

“He’s still upset, but he’s keeping the bakery going. I help as I can. He and Athaal took me in when I fled Gallos and barely had a handful of coppers. I think I might have told you that.”

“Not my type, but they’re good people.”

“In that fashion, Athaal wasn’t mine, either, but neither had eyes for anyone else.”

“There’s a lot to be said for that. I should have followed that path sooner.” Fosset shook his head. “You consorted?”

“No.” Beltur smiled sheepishly. “There is a healer, though.”

“Good for you.”

“Fosset! Stop jawing and draw me a large one. Begging your pardon, ser mage,” added the short and stocky graybeard who approached the cart.

“I wouldn’t want to keep a man from slaking his thirst.” Beltur smiled politely. He thought he’d seen the older man before, probably asking for an ale from Fosset, but wasn’t entirely certain.

When Fosset turned to draw a large mug of ale, Beltur ate more of the bread, and then sipped more ale, trying to space it with the mouthfuls of bread. When he finished, he had to wait for several moments until Fosset finished with another customer before he returned the mug.

“Thank you. Much appreciated.”

“Any day, ser mage.”

Some time after meeting Laevoyt at the first glass of the afternoon and then returning to the square, Beltur made his way along the jewelry row again, once more not under a concealment.

“Why didn’t you take in that lightfinger?” asked the man who had nodded to Beltur earlier. “You made it pretty clear what he is.”

“He hadn’t done anything. I can’t have the City Patrol take someone in for what he’s thinking. I have to catch him in the act, the way I did with that ring that was switched on you.”

“You were that mage?” The vendor frowned.

“I was that mage. You got the ring back and a gold in damages.”

“That doesn’t happen all that often. I just thought … you were younger.” The vendor shook his head.

I was, in too many ways. “I was new to Elparta then.” Beltur smiled. “I suppose I still am.”

“Thank you. I got a good look at the lightfinger, anyway. So did several others. It might help.”

And it might not. “I hope so.” Beltur nodded and continued on.

Although Beltur varied being concealed and being visible, while he did occasionally sense flickers of chaos, the rest of his duty time was uneventful, and at fourth glass, he and Laevoyt walked back along Patrol Street toward headquarters.

“It didn’t seem as though there were as many shoppers or possible thieves around today.”

“There weren’t. It’ll be worse on sevenday. That’s if it doesn’t rain or snow.”

Beltur glanced northward, but the sky was clear.

“We’re getting to that time of year when northeasters are more frequent. Just hope you’re not on duty when one hits.”

“One hit during harvest. It was pitch dark.”

“That was a mild one.”

“Then I definitely don’t want to be on duty when one hits.”

Once they reached headquarters, Beltur signed out and said goodbye to Laevoyt, then hurried out and up Patrol Street to Bakers Lane, where he walked swiftly north until he reached the corner with Crossed Lane—and Meldryn’s house and bakery.

As he was about to open the door, he could sense someone else in the house, in the front parlor, in fact, where neither Meldryn nor Athaal ever sat unless they had company. Beltur paused, then nodded as he sensed the blackness that signified another mage or possibly a healer, although, if the other person happened to be a healer, it couldn’t be either Margrena or Jessyla, because Beltur would have recognized the order/chaos pattern of either. Since he was curious as well as wary, he completely shielded himself from another mage sensing him and then raised a concealment before easing the front door open just enough to slip inside before he closed it as quietly as possible.

Then he just stood there, listening.

“Cohndar and Waensyn insist he’s not a true black mage.” Meldryn’s voice was low. “He’s got strong shields, and the skill to handle the tiniest bits of order and chaos.”

“I understand that. Even Waensyn will grant that. His concern is that while Beltur may be a good man and a strong mage, he’s neither fish nor fowl.”

“Why is that a problem? He risked his life for all of us more than once.”

“Ah … you … and, well … Athaal as well … you’ve always tried to help people like some collect stray dogs. Beltur’s not a lapdog nor a guard dog. He’s a talented and well-meaning mongrel. Mongrels are unpredictable.”

“You sound like Cohndar.”

“I just don’t want to see the blacks here divided. We have enough trouble with the Council as it is.”

“So what does Cohndar want? To throw him out into the winter?”

“I don’t know. I know that Cohndar has met with most of the other blacks…”

“And they asked you to bring the matter to my attention.”

“It’s for his own good.”

“I like the way Cohndar and his friends are willing to define Beltur’s own good in a way that makes them comfortable.” Meldryn’s voice was wry. “I should think you’d be happy to have another strong black on our side.”

“I am. But I don’t want to see us split.”

“Why should Beltur be a problem? He’s never done anything—”

“Waensyn would disagree. He finds Beltur most arrogant.”

“Why? Because Beltur politely told him that he was full of sowshit? Because Beltur defended the man who raised him when he was orphaned? All that told me far more about Waensyn than I ever wanted to know.” While Meldryn’s voice was level, Beltur could sense the anger behind him, and likely the other mage could as well. “Or is it because the young healer prefers an honest, talented, and forthright young mage to a slimy snake like Waensyn?”

“Waensyn didn’t mention anything like that.”

“Talk to Margrena about it.”

“Talking to everyone would just do more to split us.”

“I didn’t say everyone. I said Margrena.”

“Waensyn claims she is also tainted because of her ties to the whites in Gallos.”

“She’s as black as black can be, and Beltur is black in the best of all possible ways,” said Meldryn firmly.

“Will you let me judge for myself?” replied the mage that Beltur could not identify.

“You will, anyway, I think.”

Beltur decided it was time to make an entrance. He eased open the door silently, then closed it firmly and loudly, dropping his concealment and chaos/order shield as he did. “Meldryn! I’m back!”

“I’m in the parlor,” Meldryn replied loudly.

Beltur hung the waterproof on one of the pegs behind the door and then walked to the archway on his left, which offered the entrance to the parlor from the hallway leading off the small front foyer.

Meldryn rose from his usual armchair and gestured to the older man in black seated on the settee. “Beltur, I don’t believe you’ve ever met Felsyn. Felsyn, this is Beltur.”

“I’ve heard a great deal about you, ser, but I’ve never had the pleasure.” The older mage didn’t look the way that Beltur had pictured him at all. He’d thought to see a wizened old man with tangled white hair, instead of a trim-looking older man with sparse but short-cut gray hair, a round face, and muddy brown eyes.

“I’ve seldom found that I’ve brought much pleasure to most other mages,” replied Felsyn without rising. “My tongue is too often sharper than my wits.”

“I’ve heard otherwise,” said Beltur. “I know Lhadoraak speaks most highly of you, and Athaal and Meldryn certainly respect your knowledge and understanding of magery. I’m certain there are others who do as well, but since I haven’t met them yet, I won’t try to speak for them.”

“Please sit down, both of you,” said Felsyn.

Beltur took the straight-backed chair and waited.

“I understand that your uncle was a white in Gallos.”

“Yes, ser. He raised me from the time I was nine. My mother and her family, all except my uncle, died of a flux when I was very small. My father died of the green flux when I was nine.”

“Were you ever a white?”

“My uncle tried to make me one. I wasn’t any good at it. I really didn’t learn how to be a mage until Margrena’s daughter made the comment that I was really a black. That only happened a few days before Arms-Mage Wyath and his men killed my uncle. He held them off so that I could escape. I didn’t want to leave him, but he insisted. He said that my mother would never forgive him if he let anything happen to me.” Beltur then described what had happened in the audience chamber in the adjoining room when six white mages and the archers with iron-tipped arrows had attacked the two of them.

Felsyn nodded slowly. “I had heard of that. Did you ever kill anyone in Gallos?”

“No, ser. I did shield some guards to help my uncle when he took me to Analeria…” Beltur went on to explain the mission to scout out the plains raiders and how they had been attacked three times by raider bands.

“You never initiated an attack against these plains people?”

“No, ser. All the times, they attacked us first. We didn’t even ride toward them.”

“Your uncle. Why did Wyath have him killed?”

“I don’t know. I would judge that it was because he didn’t agree with Wyath, but he never did anything against the Arms-Mage, and I never heard him say anything against Wyath except that he felt Wyath didn’t like anyone who didn’t agree completely with him.”

“How did you end up here in Elparta?”

“I didn’t dare return to my uncle’s house when I thought all the whites were looking for me. The only people I thought I could trust were Margrena and Jessyla. I went to their house, and Athaal was there. He and the healer thought I should go with Athaal to Elparta.”

“You didn’t ask them first?”

“No, ser. I really didn’t know what to do. I was just looking for a safe place to figure out what I could do next. They were the ones who suggested I come to Elparta.” Beltur wondered why Felsyn was asking questions about something that surely he’d heard about. Was it just because he wanted to hear for himself? Or hadn’t anyone told him?

Felsyn turned abruptly to Meldryn. “Is that what Athaal said?”

Meldryn smiled wryly. “Yes. In fact, he said that Beltur was so distraught and confused that someone had to help him. He also wasn’t terribly pleased that Beltur’s uncle hadn’t wanted to acknowledge that Beltur was a black.”

Felsyn shook his head. “I’ve heard enough. I don’t know why Cohndar and Waensyn are so concerned, but I wouldn’t worry about it.” He rose slowly, then shook his shoulders, as if trying to loosen them. Finally, he looked at Beltur, who had also stood. “As Meldryn has said, you’re as black as any in Elparta, and that’s what I’ll say. I’ve taken enough of your time, and I need to be heading home.”

“Would you like—” Beltur began.

“You’re kind, but I’m not that old. Not yet. If I can’t walk four blocks…” The older mage walked to the foyer, followed by Meldryn and Beltur.

After closing the door behind Felsyn, Meldryn gestured toward the parlor, and once they were both seated, he turned to Beltur. “How much did you hear before you made your appearance?”

“I thought I was shielded.”

“You were. But I heard the door click. Felsyn didn’t. His hearing isn’t quite what it once was.”

“He was saying something about Cohndar and Waensyn saying I wasn’t a true black.”

Meldryn nodded. “Then you overheard most of the important parts. Before that we were mostly talking pleasantries. He said he came to see how I was doing … because of Athaal. That clearly wasn’t really what was on his mind. Or not all of it.”

“What do you think was on his mind besides Athaal?” Beltur had his own ideas about that, but he wanted to hear what Meldryn had to say.

“I think Cohndar has been trying to influence him. Felsyn doesn’t like that.”

“Why won’t Waensyn and Cohndar leave me alone?”

“Because Waensyn wants Jessyla, obviously, and he’s spent eightdays flattering Cohndar, who’s always been susceptible to flattery.”

“So what should I do now?”

“We should have dinner. Felsyn is most likely on your side, and certainly Lhadoraak is, and we can’t do anything more at the moment.” Meldryn smiled. “I did make a meat pie.”

Dinner sounded very good to Beltur after a long chilly day.

Copyright © 2018 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.