Thursday, June 15, 2017

Chapter Thirteen: Stand Not Idle(Part Two)



"Oh, hey, roc." Theron Greenhaven adjusted his cloak as Belthor entered their dorm. "Was beginning to wonder what happened to you. Almost went out looking."

"I was with Tori and Sam," Belthor explained.

"Ah."

"Do you have plans?" the initiate asked, glancing at Theron's dark clothes and taking an experimental sniff of cologne-scented air.

"One of the things, roc, is that you always have plans," his roommate replied. "It makes you seem like a busy man with much to do. The ladies love that."

"I'll take your word for it," Belthor replied, though that sounded about the opposite of what he thought logical. "Are you saying you have plans for real, or are they illusory plans?"

"I have a study group," Theron replied, which reminded Belthor that the senior did, in fact, take classes when he had free time from romancing the local female population.

"Oh." He shifted his weight. "Well-"

"What?" Theron turned, eyes darkening from their usual cheer. "Roc? You look like something's bothering you."

Belthor hesitated. "You heard that Yvette disappeared?"

Theron nodded. "Terrible. I like Yvette."

"Well..." Belthor took a breath. "Someone saw where she went."

"Really?" Theron frowned. "You planning on doing something with that knowledge?"

"Theron, I was wondering..." Belthor sighed. "It's me, Agnete, Sam and Tori. We could use your help."

"You're breaking a bunch of rules," Theron observed. "Students are allowed to wander, but chasing things like this is a matter for the Masters and the Greenhaven family."

"That's just it," Belthor said. "You're a Greenhaven."

"Wow," Theron deadpanned. "My whole life has been a lie."

"If you come with us, that makes it legitimate," Belthor said.

"You know, I really should report what you're planning to Master Protec, in all honesty," Theron said. He adjusted his cuffs. "I'm not the Baron, roc: that would be my father. If I go with you, I just create a legal debate."

"Theron, I have to do this," Belthor said. "I can't just leave Yvette."

The senior eyed him for a long moment, until he finally sighed and adopted a resigned expression. "You're a troublemaker."

"So, you'll-"

"No." Theron shook his head. "I have a study group, I have a date, I have homework, and at some point I have to sleep. I've got a lot on my plate, and honestly I think I'd be more of a hindrance to you than anything if you did catch up with Yvette's kidnappers." He picked up his staff. "I'm not but so good with this thing."

"I need all the help I can get," Belthor protested. "And you're a senior."

"I'm sorry." Theron shrugged. "I can't. But I won't tell anyone where you've gone or why - I'm no rat. And if you're not back by the time it gets late, I'll know where you went. And I can do something about it." He mustered a smile. "Believe me, roc. I know you did some pretty cursed stuff in Rosa. And if what I heard about that thing the other night is true, you kicked some major Owned rear. I'm more likely to hurt you than the other team in a fight." He shrugged. "Potions aren't exactly a combat magic."

Belthor sighed. "I guess you're right. I just thought that since you're a senior-"

"We train in many things here, roc," Theron said. "Not every wizard is a butt-kicking name-taking magic-powered war machine like Master Kulkas. Like I said, I like potions, and I like history, and I like Gifted studies."

"Do you have a Gift?" Belthor asked. Theron shrugged.

"Haven't found it, if I do," he said, voice light. "I keep trying, though." He laughed. "Imagine if I could shoot lightning like Sam. I'd have to stop saying I'm a noncombatant, huh?"

"Yeah." Belthor mused about Sam and lightning for a moment. "Well, I wish you'd change your mind. We could use you."

"No. You couldn't." Theron shook his head. "I'd slow you down, more than you know." He patted Belthor's shoulder. "I'm rooting for you, though."

"Thanks." The initiate took a breath. He turned and reached for his coat, then paused. Frowning, he stuck his hand out.

The coat twitched, like the wind had picked it up for a moment. It slipped off its perch on the arm of their couch, falling in a pile on the floor.

"Getting there," Theron encouraged. "You'll have it down soon."

"I hope." Belthor summoned his staff with much less difficulty, and made a flicking motion with the tool. That flung his coat into the air, where it opened its sleeves and slid onto his arms easily. "Let's hope we both have successful nights."

"Oh, I know I will," Theron said cheerfully. He adjusted his collar. "And I have nothing but faith in you either."

***

Agnete clutched her bookbag as she walked through the campus, trying to seem for all the world like the infernal warmth wasn't choking her and boiling her inside her own skin. How humans found this pleasant was beyond her, even if she understood things like body temperature and physiological differences.

A Summer drow would be at home here, she thought. They live in volcanoes. Even a Spring or Autumn might not find this heat stifling. She wiped her brow. I am none of those.

And then there was the door ahead, and Agnete gasped in relief as chill washed over her exposed skin. She rather wished she could strip her coat, but she knew no human would accept without question one of their own running about practically unprotected against temperatures that veered into the negative on their scales.

"I like snow," she muttered, as her boots sunk into it. She glanced up at the rapidly setting sun in the sky overhead. "Snow is home."

She hurried into the brush, ignoring the footpaths that were practically invisible under the snow. She couldn't even see any footprints on them, and supposed no one truly cared for the things. Typical of humans to build such convoluted and purposeless pathways.

"No, Agnete," she told herself. "Keep an open mind. Be like Belthor. He has an open mind." She ran his name through her head, frowning as she pictured the letters and the boy alike as accurately as she could. "B-E-L-T-H-O-R." Two syllables. Bel and thor. The O in thor was hard, like or, which made sense. But why were there not two Ls in his name? Bel and bell should not sound exactly the same. What would be the point of the second L if they did?

"Open mind," she reminded herself. "I imagine there's a story to that."
She approached the little brick...it wasn't a wall. It was a drop, about as high as her waist, shrouded in the shade of the trees and bushes on all sides. Agnete idly noted the absolute swarm of footprints going through the area toward Dorm Six and off toward the Hall of Honors.

"Terrible pathways," she muttered to herself. She paused a moment later, as her eyes fixed on something else in the snow.

It must be the new year already. She knelt, setting her bag down, to reach out and fondle the first bulbs of snowdrops growing in the shade. A smile touched her lips.

"I like snowdrops," she murmured. "Snowdrops. S-N-O-W-D-"

"Oh, hey. It's the spelling bee champion."

Agnete jumped. She looked up the rise, pulling her hands back as she saw Hastel Greenhaven and a collection of four or five additional students, all with staffs and bags of books.

"Hello," she said, trying very hard not to be flustered. She claimed her bag quickly. "I was just...hello. I like flowers. Hello, Hastel - I said that already!" She fidgeted, trying to bite her tongue, but she couldn't stop herself. "H-A-S-"

"You weren't kidding," one of Hastel's friends observed. "She really does spell everything."

"What?" Agnete blinked. "I...this is not my first language." She looked around, hoping to see Tori, Sam, Belthor or Master Kulkas. "I was on my way back to my dorm. Excuse me."

"Why hasn't she got a staff?" another of Hastel's friends asked. Terribly rude, Agnete thought, since she was standing right there.

"She almost froze half the diner without one," Hastel said. "Maybe they're afraid she'll freeze the school."

"Please. May I pass?" Agnete glanced at the rise, gauging whether she could slip by.

"How'd you make the ice?" Hastel asked. "What kind of Gift have you got?"

"It...it is a Gift," Agnete said, trying very hard to keep her cool without cooling Hastel. Again. "A Gift is a Gift. I...I do not know that I can explain much further."

"Bet you'd be right at home with drow," Hastel said, which made Agnete tense. He snickered. "Ice-spitter like you."

"May I pass?" Agnete asked. Almost pleaded, really: she felt her veins chilling. "Please, I would like to get inside where it is warm." She almost meant it.

"Sure, sure." Hastel extended his hand. "Here. Let me help you up."

"...really?" Agnete asked. Hastel nodded.

"Since I was poking fun at you. Only nice and all." There was a glimmer of mirth in his eyes.

Do not trust him, the voice of Agnete's uncle rasped in her mind. He will use this against you. He is only human.

Keep an open mind, she imagined Belthor or Master Kulkas telling her. Be reasonable. The people here are kinder than Uncle implied.

"Thank you." She extended her hand and took his. He twitched at her touch.

"You have cold fingers." He pulled, and she braced a foot on top of the drop.

"Yes, I was in the snow-"

"Oops!" Hastel's grip vanished, and Agnete tumbled backward with a cry. She hit the snow and sunk in, almost completely, landing on her bookbag. She clutched her shoulder.

"What was that for?" she demanded, pushing herself up while Hastel and his friends roared with laughter. Several of them clapped his hand.

"Just a joke. A prank, lighten up." Hastel offered his hand again. "For real, this time. Come on."

"No." Agnete swept up her bag and boosted herself up the rise herself.

"Not very polite, are you?" Hastel asked. Agnete blinked.

"You just dropped me in the snow, and you are asking this question?" She wasn't certain she'd heard him right. Maybe this was a colloquialism? Something lost in translation?

It must have been, because Hastel and his friends started snickering. "Odd duck," one whispered, which mainly upset Agnete because she had never seen a "duck" and only vaguely knew what one was. A bird, she thought. A predatory bird? Or was it the flightless one with the long legs? There were so many creatures outside of the North that she couldn't keep them all straight.

"I am not flightless," she replied, cool with irritation as she picked the one she was fairly sure was the duck. "Nor do I bury my head in the sand!"

Hastel and his group erupted into laughter. Agnete twitched. "What is funny?"

"She..." Hastel seemed unable to continue past that. He nearly doubled over, howling with mirth.

"I do not like being laughed at," Agnete said, but she resigned herself to no reasonable answer being provided.

Humans, her uncle's voice told her again. What do you expect? You're a joke to them.

Keep an open mind, she told herself, very sternly. Open mind, Snowdrop. Let them laugh. At least you have spread cheer. Trying very hard to focus on that thought, she turned and made her way off toward Tori and Sam's dorm.

Her open mind didn't stop Hastel's laughter from cutting like a knife.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Chapter Thirteen: Stand Not Idle(Part One)



"That'll do, darling," the mysterious stranger said, as Yvette's blonde replacement gave him and Belthor their food. "As long as the lady's sure."

"I do not eat much," Agnete replied, clutching her bookbag tightly. "I am fine."

"All right." The stranger shrugged. "Then that'll be that."

The waitress moved on. She smiled at Belthor reassuringly before she did, though, not that it reassured him all that much. He eyed the enormous hulk of muscle across the booth from him, grateful his staff was within easy reach while at the same time wondering if it would help him in the slightest.

"You said you saw where they went?" Belthor asked. The stranger nodded, though he didn't refrain from tearing into his mutton.

"Aye. I did." He took another large bite. "I want to know why they're after you."

"They are not after Belthor," Agnete said. She flinched as the man's dark blue gaze turned to her. "They are after me. The Gifted girl is what Yvette called me."

"So, it's not because of the other thing?" the man asked.

"What other thing?" Belthor asked, while Agnete let out a sharp gasp.

"You want me to say it aloud, in front of everyone?" the stranger asked. "Do you? Because I can. The reason your friend don't eat people food. The reason she's got that Gift."

"You..." Belthor hissed. He reached for his staff, and he quickly thumped it on the floor, erecting a cone of silence over the table. "How do you know?" He didn't take his hand off the tool.

"I've got ears," the stranger said, glowering more than usual. "I've got eyes. Glamours don't fool me, not a bit." He glanced at Agnete. "You're better-looking than some of your kind, girl, but I wouldn't go entering any beauty pageants."

"You knew she was a drow this whole time?" Belthor asked. "You've known this?"

"Since the day I saw her." The stranger crossed his arms. "Now, I ain't told nobody. And that ought to be a tad bit of a clue in your sparkly head about what kind of man I am, and what kind I ain't."

"Why?" Belthor regretted taking the outside seat. Agnete fidgeted like she wanted to bolt. He even had to gently kick her shin when he saw ice appearing in her drink.

"Believe it or not, but I've been around," the stranger said. "I'm a bit older than my handsome face would leave you suspecting." He snorted into his stein as he took a deep drink. "And I don't care how devilish someone looks. I've spent enough time with drow. I hunted with 'em, a couple times. Winters are odd ducks, but I ain't got no beef with 'em."

"I..." Agnete still fidgeted. Belthor put a hand on her shoulder, and she jumped at the touch like a spark had flown between his skin and hers.

"What's your name?" the initiate asked.

"Ain't got one. You wouldn't need to know it even if I did." The stranger crossed his arms. "What matters is that you and I had a nice little talk about Yvette. The fact is, you've taken Miss Elf under your wing, and you seem like an alright boffin, much more so than Theron or Hastel or any of the so-called Masters putrefying this joint."

"Um." Belthor blinked.

"She came for you," the man said. "I'm figuring sooner or later, she'll find you again. And I like Yvette. She's a sweetheart. I got a soft spot for the sweet ones." He slammed a hand on the table, so suddenly Belthor and Agnete both jumped. "And I want her rescued from whatever spell she's under."

"And you think I can?"

"I think more than anyone else, you might," the stranger said. "So I'll tell you which way they went. And you and your little friends can sneak out some night and take a gander around. Whatever you find, you tell me about."

"Why would we?" Agnete asked. "Why not go yourself?"

"Good questions." The stranger bared a smile. "They already know you're on to them. I'm in the dark right now. You go do the scouting, they're none the wiser to the fact I know what you know. You find where they are, and I can pay whoever did this to my girls a visit."

"You aren't a wizard," Belthor pointed out.

"You really think I need to be?" In that moment, the initiate supposed the stranger reminded him very much of another non-wizard who had never seemed altogether impaired by it, even if his coarse manner was very different from Estelle's. "They'll expect you. They won't expect me."

"How do I know I can trust you?" Belthor asked. "You could be working with them. You could be leading me into a trap."

"Boy." He straightened his spine. "If I wanted you dead, and if I wanted to take your woman, they'd already be measuring you for a coffin."

"Not if I killed you first," Belthor said. "I'm not defenseless."

"Hah!" The man nearly doubled over as he guffawed. Belthor waited, glad for the spell of silence as no one came rushing over to investigate. The stranger pulled himself back up after a moment, wheezing and wiping at his eyes with his meaty fingers. "If only, boy. If only."

"...what?" Belthor asked.

"Ain't happening, kid. That's what that means." The big man drained the rest of his stein. "I ain't on their team. You can either trust me or you can't. No skin off my nose either way. All 'at matters to me is whether you'll do the job I asked for."

"Belthor." Agnete clutched his arm. "I do not trust this man."

"Well, this man don't trust you neither, precious," the stranger replied. "But we got a common purpose. You find them Owned ladies and whoever their Owner, as I suppose the duck's called, is. Then I bring his house down around his ears."

Belthor blinked. "I'll find him. But I'm coming with you when you-"

"Son." That was possibly the gentlest word the stranger had said. "You don't know what it's like, when people are coming for your head. And unlike for me, there'll be consequences for you if it goes badly."

"I've fought." Belthor's face hardened. "I stopped an Iron Sea War. I went toe-to-toe with a death cult of ninjas-"

"Oh." The stranger's eyebrow went up. "You met the dear fellows in the Guiding Light? Bunch of two-bit patsies, they are. Crying babies. I'm different, and I bet the Owner is too."

Belthor met his gaze. They eyed each other across the table for long moments, neither one blinking. Finally, the stranger cracked a grin.

"So," he said. "If that's a yes, what are you still doing in my booth?"

***

"And...you trust him?"

"Well, tentatively," Belthor agreed. He accepted a floating slice of pie. "Thanks."

"If he is working with the Owned, he's got Agnete right where he wants her," Sam pointed out. "There could be traps all along the route he pointed out." The Gifted initiate leaned against the wall with his own slice of pie, and Belthor felt a vague sense of guilt.

"I can stand-"

"You're a guest." Sam shook his head.

"I can stand," Tori suggested, from Belthor's left. Beside her, Agnete ignored speaking and simply started to rise.

"Sit down," Sam ordered. "Ladies first, then guests. That's the rule."

"He's such a gentleman," Tori observed, feigning a swoon. "Isn't he, Agnete?"

"I do not understand what that means," the drow said. "But I have discovered I like pie."

"But you can't eat food," Belthor objected. "You drink."

"Well, yes," Agnete said. "But I can taste it. And my body can process it - just not very much at a time. I have a small stomach."

"This may be a bad time, but I've been wondering," Sam confessed. "Do you mind if I ask a drow question?"

"I would be happy to educate you," Agnete replied, as she put a little bite of pie in her mouth and smiled like a child.

"So, you drink blood," Sam began. "How does hunting work? Does it matter whether it's alive?"

"No," Agnete said. "But it must be freshly killed. And sometimes children must be assisted in their meals."

"...assisted?" Tori asked.

"Yes." Agnete frowned. "Like birds. It's natural."

Belthor choked on his pie. Tori blinked. Agnete's frown deepened.

"...I'm sorry I asked," Sam muttered.

"In any event!" Tori clasped Belthor's shoulder before Sam or Agnete could push the topic. "The stranger. If he's lying..."

"I don't think he is," Belthor said. "I don't see what his motivation would be. And I don't get the sense that he's a foul man, just...crude. Hard."

"He seems quite foul to me," Agnete disagreed.

"There's a difference between crude and foul," said Belthor. He paused for pie. "I think he's on the side of good. But I don't intend to not cover our backs."

"Good." Sam smiled. "I was starting to think you weren't planning ahead. What are you thinking?"

"We can't tell any of the Masters," Belthor replied. "Masters Protec and Vignette, whatever Master Kulkas had to say, I still suspect. And Master Kulkas himself told me not to pursue this. If his colleagues are involved, I also don't want to draw him in."

"So we're going behind his back." Tori didn't sound enthused by that possibility. "If we vanish in the forest, no one will ever know what happened to us until we reappear with the Owned."

"That's not true," Belthor said. "I thought about that."

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Chapter Twelve: Turbulence(Part Two)



Belthor sat, chewing on his thumb. He eyed the papers before him, muttering past his nail as he tried to come up with additional words.

"What're you casting?" Theron asked, as he slipped his cloak on and admired himself in a mirror-spell hanging in the air before him.

"What?" Belthor blinked. "What am I..." he sighed as Theron gave him a patient look. "Oh. Slang. What am I casting. I get it."

"Some days, I really can believe you're from South Shara, roc," his roommate said. "When I hear South Shara, though I may be wrong, I immediately think-"

"-endless cornfields," Belthor said with him. Theron laughed, and the initiate shrugged. "Yeah, well, there's a bit more to it than that. Not a terrible load. We have the occasional potato field."

"Probably the odd spot of squash too," Theron said. He waved his hand, and the mirror-spell dissipated. Belthor watched with fascination.

"How do you do that?" he asked.

"Hm?"

"You didn't cast a spell, did you?" Belthor asked. "Not without a staff or a wand-"

"Oh." Theron made a face. "You're not at that level. It's advanced stuff. But hand magic is a thing."

"It is?" The initiate stared in wonder. Theron chuckled.

"You look like a South Sharan farm-boy when you do that, roc," he said, but it was only teasing and not mocking. "What does a staff do?"

"Um...translates your impulses to spells," Belthor said. "It lets you affect the world around you."

"Why do you need the tool?" Theron inquired.

"Because...I can't just wave my hand and open a door." The young man furrowed his brow. "I've tried. We all have. It doesn't work."

"It takes strong magical skill and a lot of practice," Theron said, "but hand magic is a thing. Pay attention to the Masters, and occasionally you'll see them do it."

"Why do we have staffs, then?" Belthor asked.

"Because it's easier to use a staff or a wand," Theron said. "And Runes can be put on them without putting them on your body. The upside of a Rune as a tattoo-"

"-is that you can use the power without a wand or staff," Belthor said. "The downside is that the deity in question can take that power away at any time or cause you pain if they're unhappy with you. And it's more taxing to use the power without a tool."

"Exactly. You're a smart cookie, roc. You remind me of me." Theron winked. "So we put runes on the tools instead of us unless we're really comfortable with the god in question. Plus there's all the other myriad rules about Runes. But!" He lifted his hand, and Belthor watched his hat soar from the hat-rack over to him. "You've done it before, I'm sure. With your staff."

"That's the staff, though," Belthor said. Theron shook his head.

"Nope! That's all you. If you know you can do it, it's a lot easier, and a lot of people start by summoning something they already know is magical and paired with them. They think that's why it works." He reached down and plucked Belthor's quill from where it lay. "Here. Call it."

"Um." Belthor adjusted his shoulders. "Do I do anything but-"

"No. Just wish it over to you, like you would if you had your staff in your hand." He held it out, about two feet out of reach. "You want it. You want it in your hand."

"I..." Belthor cleared his throat. He let the impulse override even his conscious thoughts. He breathed low for a moment, then stuck his hand out just like Theron had.

The quill twitched. Belthor gasped...but deflated when it didn't come to him.

"That was well-done," Theron said. "Most people's first tries go worse than that. Practice it, roc. In your copious free time."

That reminded Belthor that he was supposed to be writing an essay. "I will. Can I have that back though?"

"Sure." Theron handed it over. "I've got to run. Potions class with Master Protec. I'm going to find out the result of a little bet I made with him. Not to be cocky, but I think I've got it in the bag."

"You go, and good luck," Belthor said. "I'll just finish this essay for Master Vignette." He paused. "Theron?"

"Roc?"

Belthor gestured. "You, ah...back of your neck."

"What?" Theron rubbed at the area in question with his sleeve. He glanced at the red lipstick he'd picked up. "Oh! Hah. Didn't even feel it. You get so used to it, you know?" He winked at Belthor.

"...no," the initiate replied. "I don't."

"Don't lose heart. It'll be you, someday: the sexy senior no one can keep her hands off of. You're already off to a good start! I would have killed to have two hot lady friends in my first semester." He considered. "Well, one hot and one cold."

"Agnete is just a friend," Belthor said quickly. "And so is Tori. They're not hot lady friends. I mean, they're not ugly, I'm not...but they're not hot and-"

"Stop stammering," Theron said. "Word of advice, roc: the ladies love a man who knows who he is and doesn't apologize for it."

"...doesn't that mean arrogant?" Belthor asked.

"Exactly." Theron winked again. "Fine, fine line you've got to walk there...but you'll do fine. Men with the Rune of Healing tend to have lots of luck with the ladies. They like the sensitive types, you know, like us."

"Um."

"Catch you around, roc." Theron waved as he turned with a flourish of his cloak, sticking his hand out and summoning his staff and bookbag alike. Belthor watched him leave the dorm, whistling a funeral dirge to himself.

"...I do not understand that man," the initiate finally muttered to himself.

***

"Hand magic?" Agnete asked. Belthor nodded.

"Yes! Theron just waved and there was a mirror-spell hanging in the air. And he undid it the same way, and called his hat..."

"I have seen Master Kulkas do this," Agnete replied. They tromped through the thick snow side-by-side, Belthor bundled up far more severely, while the drow seemed to enjoy being out of the heat of Sam and Tori's dorm. There was color in her cheeks, and Belthor liked seeing her happy. "Not often, but every once in a while..."

Belthor paused outside the diner. He glanced around, unsure what he was expecting to see while Agnete related her story of Master Kulkas' hand magic. He supposed that green in the dark would be a fairly good start-

"You do not have to protect me." Agnete said it quietly, but it cut through Belthor's world. He met her brown-Glamoured eyes.

"You're my friend." He said it quietly.

"Friend." Agnete seemed to roll that concept around in her mind. "I have never had friends."

"I'm sure you did in your village," Belthor started.

"No." She was blunt about it, as snow flicked into her hair where it scattered from under her cap. "No, my village lived on the edge of the wild. Most of my life I spent at my uncle's elbow, and he, while wise and while kind enough, is harsh, and not at all friendly. He was forged in the ice of the north, caring for our people with his hands and mind and words and weapons alike."

"So, he's...a chief?" Belthor asked. "You're the chief's niece."

"We call him mayor," Agnete said, which made him wince. "But yes."

"Do...you have other family?" Belthor asked. "Aunts? Father?"

"I never knew my father. And you know what happened to my mother." Agnete considered while Belthor kicked himself for prodding. "I have no siblings. My uncle has sons, but I never knew them well. I don't suppose I belonged, even back home, for my heart was full of dreams of the outside world rather than the ice of the north. I did have an aunt, I think."

"You think?" Belthor asked.

"She left," Agnete said. "There was an incident when Highland warriors occupied the village she had settled in with her husband, across the mountain range from us. This was before I was born, but she fled to settle in our village. There was some sort of scandal she ran from, and it eventually drove her on further by the time my mother died."

"...oh." Belthor fidgeted. "I didn't mean to pry. I'm sorry, Agnete."

"You asked a question. I supplied an answer." She frowned. "I do not understand what is impolite about asking a question."

"It's...some people don't like talking about things like that," Belthor said. "And it's none of my business anyway."

"Master Kulkas says that asking questions is the mark of a healthy mind." Agnete still looked lost. "Are there times you are not supposed to have a healthy mind?"

"There are some questions that people would rather you didn't ask," Belthor said.

"Oh. Secrets."

"Not necessarily secrets," Belthor hedged, "though there are those too. Just...things that are painful to talk about, or that the other person doesn't really need to know. Like..." he hunted for an example. "Like, if someone was interested in someone else, but a third person asked...it's not really their business."

"Oh. I see." Agnete mused. "So one should not directly ask questions like that?"

"Not usually, no," Belthor agreed. "I mean, if I was interested in you, I would be supposed to tell you myself."

"And if I was interested in you...I see." Agnete nodded slowly.

"Well, usually, it's the boy who says it," Belthor told her. The girl frowned thoughtfully.

"Oh, I see. Your mating customs are very heavy on the separation between stud and mare." She winced a moment later as Belthor sucked in breath. "I am so sorry. I do not mean to insult you like this. I do not think before I speak."

"That's...all right," he said. "Don't worry about it. I know what you meant."

"Good." She shined him a relieved smile. "I am still sorry. But I have a question."

"What is it?" Belthor wondered if they were ever going to go inside. He promptly shelved the thought: Agnete liked the cold, and he got to be warm all the time. The least he could do was let her be as comfortable as possible for as long as possible.

"If a...girl is interested in a stud," Agnete asked, "how is she supposed to inform him?"

"Um." Belthor resisted the urge to pry at his collar. "I'm not really an...expert on that sort of thing."

"What would communicate to you that a girl was attempting to convey her attraction?" Agnete asked, sounding for all the world like they were discussing an arithmetic problem. "Provide me with examples, please. I would like to understand your mating rituals."

"Um." Belthor finally gave in to the urge, and he pulled at his robes, letting cold air in on his neck. "Um. I suppose, if a girl...I mean...if she..." He waved his staff helplessly. "Words. I'm struggling with words."

"I just want an example," Agnete said, her voice low.

"Oi!"

"What!" Belthor jumped, and his staff fell from suddenly nerveless fingers. He spun-

The big man from the diner loomed in front of him, almost seven feet tall, his muscles bulging like boulders on his wide frame. Belthor retreated two steps, scrambling to pluck his staff from the snow.

"Can...can we help you?" he asked. The big man glanced at Agnete, who Belthor noticed gravitating behind him.

"I think it's a mutual thing, really," the man said. "That girl's the Gifted one who froze half the joint, ain't she?"

"We....yes," Belthor admitted. He clutched his staff. "If you're here to take her-"

"You got jumped by those crazy green-eyed birds just out of town, yeah?"

"...yes," Agnete whimpered, while Belthor tried to decide whether to simply hex the man. For his part, he looked remarkably unfazed by the initiate raising his staff defensively.

"Put that toy down, kid." He patted the tip of the tool carelessly. "I ain't here to kill you and take your woman - I could if I wanted to, but that ain't how I go."

"Then what are you here for?" Belthor asked, proud that his voice didn't crack.

"I'm here," said the big man, "to tell you that I saw which way Yvette and her girlfriends went."