“Beware of they who speak of doing good without speaking of those whose good they seek.”
– Theodore Langman, Wizard of the West
The townsfolk of Beaumarais were not particularly superstitious or zealous, but when the number of practitioners in town more than doubled over a season’s span it was only to be expected that there would be unease.
Olivier tried to think of it in the same terms as if the number of people carrying swords had swelled by the same amount, but he knew there were differences. An unscrupulous mage could to a lot more damage with a little black knowledge than a rapacious fantassin could do with a sword and heartlessness. But unease was not outright fear, and it’d remain that way so long as the House of Light kept supporting this arrangement through Sister Maude. It was only a matter, then, of soothing away apprehensions and making clear that all these ‘wizardly vagrants’ – as he’d heard Old Gontrand call them quite loudly in the streets – were useful to the town. Thankfully Olivier had been raised among practitioners and spent most his life since trying to make coin out of thin air, so when it came to acquiring usefulness he had ideas aplenty.
The first two who’d come, a certain Master Maurice and his young daughter Segoline, had been the easiest of all. They were peddlers by trade, openly offering Maurice’s services as a smith in small towns without one but more discreetly offering some healing and enchanting in towns that seemed to have a tolerance for magic. The man was a widower who wanted a place to raise his daughter in peace, and as soon as the town smith Mistress Caroline was reassured that none of her business would be taken from her all opposition melted away. Olivier’s private suggestion of a partnership with Master Maurice, enchanting some of her products for a fee so that she might sell artefacts herself, had caught her interest. The town smith even began throwing her weight around in favour of the ‘guests’.
It was the arrival of the one who introduced himself Maxime Redflame, a middle-aged and grizzled man who claimed to have served in several fantassin companies as a war wizard, that began to complicate things. Much as lords and princes might prize those whose Talent could be turned to violence, Olivier had no real use for them. It did not help that he liked his drink and got rowdy when drunk. Alisanne, who’d never heard of half the companies who’d supposedly employed him, suggested the drinking was why he’d sought refuge out here in the mountains. Drinking could be forgiven in a simple soldier, but in a mage it was another thing: no one wanted a drunk throwing around fireballs. The man was put to work gathering herbs out in the mountains, for he was handy with a knife, and made to learn enough to improve his rather mediocre brewing.
Maxime Redflame resented the work and took no pains to hide it, but he was in no position to bargain.
Just before the snows the fourth practitioner arrived in town, in almost every way unlike the last. Morgaine was her name, and she was both young and comely – not even twenty-five, and though obviously a wanderer she was well-dressed and of some means. She claimed to come from the Principality of Orne, to the south, though she was a traveller who’d spent some time in the Free Cities and the Thalassocracy. Morgaine was well-read and genteel in ways that sometimes made Olivier uncomfortable, for his own worldliness had never ventured much farther than these mountains. Though she remained vague on the depths of her leaning in matters magical, she proved a very fine healer as well as capable of predicting the weather to some degree. The latter did much to endear her to the town, as it the snows had come early that year and might have caught the townsfolk by surprise otherwise. Morgaine was charming and well-spoken, and so for all the power that she was known to wield she quickly became a darling of the town.
It was a young man called Ludovic that proved to be the greatest trouble of all, though in a fit of irony. Ludovic himself was shy and gentle, with all the temperament of a mouse, and was half-dead of cold when he stumbled into Beaumarais after having taken the mountain paths before the ice could take enough to make them unusable. He knew no magic, though it was undeniable he had the Talent, and had been almost abjectly grateful for being given a bed and a hot meal. Ludovic, as it happened, came from the town of Grisemanche. A little under two weeks away by wagon, when the paths were clear and dry. He’d run away from home after losing control of his Talent and rendering his mother mute, hoping that the rumoured ‘home for wizards’ in Beaumarais would take him in. It was unlikely that Ludovic’s family would be coming after him anytime soon, not with winter making such a trip so arduous, but with spring that would change.
Olivier saw to it that the younger boy was given a cot in the back of the shop until proper accommodations could be found for him, and reluctantly he asked for Morgaine’s help in ensuring that the weeks travelling in the cold with little food or rest would not leave marks. He gave them privacy during the examination, and when the slim dark-eyed woman emerged from the backroom it was with a look of tightly controlled displeasure on her face.
“Ill news?” Olivier asked.
“The frostbite was mild, and though he has thinned it is nothing that regular meals will not be able to fix,” Morgaine said. “It was also the least of his troubles. Most of the bruises on him are older than his travels and some of his bones were broken several times.”
The young man breathed out sharply. It was not unheard of, this. While it was against the teachings of the Heavens to mistreat a child, magic made things different in the eyes of some people.
“Understood,” Olivier simply said.
Morgaine fixed him with a steady look, a strand of her crow-black hair having come loose from her elegant hairdo.
“And what do you intend to do about this?” she asked.
“Settle affairs with his family when the snows melt,” he replied. “So long as the curse of muteness is lifted and reparations made, his kin should be willing to surrender their claim to him.”
“That boy was beaten,” Morgaine said. “Often and cruelly. And you speak of reparations?”
“I speak of removing him from that peril,” Olivier calmly replied. “I am not a lord or a magistrate, to be able to take it further than that.”
“There are other ways to discourage that sort,” Morgaine said. “Some are discreet. It would not be so difficult to arrange for persistent nightmares or move a few sprites to mischief.”
“And when his kin go to the mayor and the House of Light to complain of being harassed by mages intervening in their family’s affairs,” the young man flatly replied, “which they very well might even if we do nothing, mind you, but if they do and we have harassed them – what will we do, when hard-eyed men in House livery come sniffing around and we truly have something to hide?”
“Is your deal with Sister Maude not meant to shield us from that very scrutiny?” Morgaine said.
“She is a single sister in a backwater town,” Olivier replied. “This arrangement has been allowed to continue because for some it represents an opportunity. If it ever becomes a threat, even a written contract will weigh no more than smoke.”
“I had believed you bolder than this, from the stories told in this town,” the dark-eyed mage said.
“I had believed you wiser than this, from all the stories you’ve told of your travels,” Olivier flatly replied.
It ended with that, the two of them parting ways with courteous words but also a distinct chill. He sensed he had disappointed Morgaine in some way, but then she had also disappointed him. He spoke of it with Alisanne, the following evening when they spent time together, and she was unsurprised.
“She believed you to be ambitious in a different way than you are,” she told him.
“I’m not ambitious in the slightest,” Olivier said.
Alisanne’s grey eyes were rich with the laughter at his expense she was too well-bred to indulge in.
“Indeed?” she said.
“I’ve some notions of what the future might look like,” Olivier allowed.
“You’ve proved a fair hand at soothing the fears of the townsfolk,” Alisanne said. “That aside with the smith might even have worked better than you think.”
His brow rose.
“I have it on good authority that our own Master Maurice has been going on long walks with Mistress Caroline,” she said. “A widower and a widow, brought together by the… heat of the forge. How passionate, no?”
She was teasing, as she often did, but months of increasingly ardent embraces away from prying eyes had taught him to tease back.
“I know no passion, save the taste of her lips,” he quoted in answer. “Is it not a folly, how my heart skips?”
Her cheeks pinked, as he’d thought they might. The following poem by Genevieve the Rossignol grew rather more risqué than the first two lines might lead one to believe.
“It is a good thing that you are not as handsome as your brother,” Alisanne decided. “Such a man would be entirely too dangerous to my gender.”
It was difficult to feel insulted by that when she followed up by catching the back of his neck and dragging him close for some very enthusiastic kissing. It was late, and there were only the two of them in the shop, so when clothes began to drop the ground – first his shirt and then her robes, until neither of them wore much of anything at all – Olivier said nothing. It was only when they were to be entirely bare, and what they both knew would follow, that he forced himself to speak.
“Are you certain?” he asked, though he might just go mad if she said no.
“Gods yes,” Alisanne hissed.
The visible desire in her eyes only fed into his own arousal. There were no more objection from him after that, and hardly any words at all until they were well and spent. The two of them ended up holding each other on the rug of the store’s backroom, enjoying the warmth of the other’s body.
“What kind of ambition did you mean?” Olivier asked. “Earlier, I mean, when were talking about Morgaine.”
“You want to talk of another woman now?” Alisanne said, sounding mightily amused.
“I could withdraw my question until tomorrow, if you’d prefer,” he drily said.
She dragged him closer, silenced him with a kiss, and he took it as the end of the conversation. It wasn’t, however.
“You’ve the services of several wizards, some coin and ties with the House,” Alisanne sleepily said. “I hear tell you’ve even been seen seducing highborn ladies of late.”
“Lies,” Olivier amiably said, “I assure you it was entirely the other way around.”
His shoulder was swatted in half-hearted admonishment.
“She expected you to make yourself into a sort of lord, using the mages as your enforcers,” Alisanne said. “Now, since you’ve had the indecency of forcing me to think you’ll have to fetch a blanket as atonement. I’d rather enjoy you for a little while still than return to the temple.”
Disinclined to argue with that, Olivier extracted himself from their embrace and rose to his feet. His heart skipped when he noticed the door to the front of the shop had been slightly cracked open this entire time, a damning testament to how… distracted they had both been. No one had come in, however, so after closing it shut and grabbing the blanket he’d been sent questing after he put the whole matter out of his mind.
It was not a long winter that followed but it still felt too short to Olivier.
He’d not wasted the time, instead cementing the usefulness of the shop in the eyes of the town by arranging for the mages to create enchanted stones capable of radiating heat as well as light when firewood began to run low in some homes – freely given out, though with a signed promise of payment when the season turned and coin was had again. Roland and Morgaine had proved to be a remarkably gifted team when working together, and though the other practitioners had not helped much the successes of those two had reflected on all of them. Yet when spring came there would be changes. There would be fewer quiet evenings where he and Alisanne could lose themselves in each other, for one, but there was also a hanging sword above their head: Ludovic’s kin would come for him, sure as dawn, when the ice thawed. Roland’s visits had also grown rarer, as he dove into his studies with both their parents and accepted Morgaine’s own gracious offer of sharing some of knowledge. Olivier took to visiting him regularly instead.
It was one night on the eve of spring that he found his younger brother in his rooms at the family house, reading through Mother’s eastern poetry book, and to his surprise Roland eyed him with thinly-veiled antipathy.
“Ollie, is it true that you and Alisanne are lovers?” Roland said, closing the book and hastily putting it away.
Olivier’s brow rose. He’d believed the two of them to be discreet, or at least as discreet as one could be in a small town. He did not consider lying, though it would have been simpler.
“Yes,” he admitted. “Though that is best kept secret.”
Though no rule of the House forbade dalliances, a lay sister would be expected not to dabble in them if she’d been sent to a temple to learn temperance in the first place. It’d reflect poorly on both their reputations if it became common knowledge they were involved.
“You know that I am fond of her,” Roland accused.
“So am I,” Olivier frankly said. “And you barely know her. I am sorry that this pains you, but you’ve no real call to be bruised over the matter.”
His little brother’s face reddened. Though he was not exactly spoiled it could not be denied that Roland was used to getting his way, especially if he put in the effort. It sometimes brought out ugly things in him.
“It will not last forever,” Olivier sighed. “So put it out of your mind. She will bore of the town and leave eventually, Roland. She’s too clever to stay in a place like this forever.”
“She might,” Roland denied. “She is the youngest of seven, she has little to inherit.”
The young man’s brow rose as he considered his brother. He’d known that Alisanne had siblings – she’d mentioned two in passing – but he’d not known how many, which made it more than passing odd that Roland did.
“How do you know that?” Olivier asked.
His brother looked aside.
“Roland,” he sharply said.
“I asked, that’s all,” Roland angrily said. “Let it go, Olivier. It’s none of your business.”
He swallowed the angry reply on the tip of his tongue and nodded. Perhaps it wasn’t.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Olivier stiffly said.
His little brother grimaced, looking guilty.
“I’m sorry,” Roland said, then hesitated. “Do you mean it, though? That the two of you won’t last?”
“I cannot see how it would,” Olivier admitted.
He would miss her sorely when she left, and be morose for a long time, but he would not delude himself into thinking that their affair would keep her from leaving this backwater when the opportunity to return home to Apenun beckoned.
“Then it’s nothing,” Roland firmly said. “Just bruising, you’re right.”
Olivier left, both heartened by the almost cordial way the conversation had ended and oddly troubled. Yet there was no time to delve into his unease, because within days spring had come and fresh troubles with it.
Jacques and Annette of Grisemanche were, Olivier grasped within an hour of first having met them, in their own way some of the vilest people he’d ever met.
Ludovic’s parents had not gone to the shop, when they’d arrived to Beaumarais, but instead straight to the House of Light. Alisanne had slipped out while they spoke with Sister Maude, bringing with her bad news. Ludovic’s wild spell that’d rendered Annette Grisemanche mute had faded over the winter, as untaught magic often did, and the attentions of a priest capable of wielding Light had been enough to chase away the lingering wooden tongue that’d been the last remnant of the curse. There would be no leverage or goodwill to be had by removing it. Olivier sent the youngest mage in his charge away from the village, out with Maxime Redflame to camp in the mountains and harvest herbs for a few days, then prepared for what would no doubt be an unpleasant few days.
That very evening he was invited to have a cup of wine with the two strangers and Sister Maude, so that the priestess might host them and help ‘resolve the dispute’. Given the half-faded bruises on their son’s body he’d half expected the couple to have horns and burning eyes, but instead they turned out to be rather personable. Neither good-looking nor ugly, they dressed modestly and spoke courteously. They were in good odour with Sister Maude’s equivalent in Grisemanche, Sister Lucie, and considered to be respectable by their community. Their children had all found trades, and they donated regularly to their temple.
“Ludovic was always troubled,” Annette of Grisemanche sadly said. “We never suspected it might be something as serious as magic, Sister, but perhaps we should have.”
“The signs were there,” Jacques of Grisemanche agreed. “We were blinded by familiar love, I fear. To think he would attack his own mother!”
“Troubling indeed,” Sister Maude said, turning a steady gaze towards Olivier.
He’d waited patiently for them to cease talking, remembering the look on Morgaine’s face that night. The one when she’d emerged from a room where she’d seen repeatedly broken bones in a boy barely twelve. He understood her anger a little better now, he thought. It was a dead end, such things always were, but then it was easier to be calm when it was not you the blows were raining on.
“Blinded is perhaps the right word,” Olivier said, smiling pleasantly. “For I cannot imagine how else you might have missed the many bruises on his body, or the oft-broken bones.”
There was a moment of silence.
“That is a heavy accusation,” Jacques of Grisemanche harshly said.
He was not a big man, but he was larger than Olivier – who was not done growing but would not be tall even when he had. The older man leaned forward, as if to loom, but the younger one had been faced with bare steel before. Posturing seemed like a trifling thing, after having seen your own death reflected in a blade.
“It was a simple statement,” Olivier calmly replied. “I wonder why it is you might feel accused, Master Jacques.”
“Any parent would feel this way, when told they missed the injuries of their child,” Annette of Grisemanche said. “Emotions are simply running high, Master Olivier. No doubt Ludovic simply hid them from us with his magic, ashamed of his truck with evil spirits.”
Olivier did not doubt for a moment there’d been evil in that child’s life, as it happened. How could he, when at this very moment it was looking at him with measuring eyes?
“A short recess is in order,” Sister Maude said. “It will allow for the heat of the moment to pass.”
Her gaze on him was no longer quite so demanding, but she was still handling the couple carefully. Olivier frowned. Why? She had to know that allowing them some time to speak alone would let them agree on some sort of story explaining away the evidence of beatings. The two strangers left for a short walk through the garden, even as Sister Maude broke with etiquette and filled Olivier’s cup anew herself.
“This is a problem, Olivier,” the priestess said. “You are poking at more than you can afford to provoke.”
Why would she think that? Gods, why would a woman of even middling faith allow a beaten child who’d suffered not just bruises but broken bones to return to – oh, he thought, blood going cold. The bones. They’d been broken several times, yet never healed wrong as such a break badly set or healed often by magic would. Ludovic used his arms and hands without trouble, after all. There was only one person in Grisemanche that would be able to heal the boy like that. And since it happened several times, even a fool would have been able to figure out why, Olivier realized. The couple, he’d been told earlier, was seen as respectable.
They even donated regularly to the temple in Grisemanche.
“I do not wear a red cross on my clothes,” Olivier said. “I do not crusade the cleanse the world from all evils. But I will not return that boy to beatings, Sister Maude.”
“I have not asked you to,” the priestess stiffly replied. “Yet I warn you now that if Sister Lucie requests an inquiry by the House in Apenun, then all that was built here will vanish into thin air.”
So he would have to grease the palms of the hollow things in human flesh that’d sat across him, and perhaps even the crooked sister as well. Else a fuss would be kicked up, before the shop and what it represented was ready to withstand the attention, and the consequences would be on his head.
“I understand,” Olivier de Beaumarais said, tone forcefully even.
“I knew you would,” Sister Maude said. “Patience is a virtue, Olivier. All accounts are settled in due time.”
He did not answer, the anger too sharp and close to his tongue. When the couple returned he began to negotiate in indirect, meandering pretty words how much it might cost to buy their son. They wanted to continue taking a cut of his salary and the profit of his works, the parasites, but he managed to present that as taking from the revenues of the House of Light so they hastily withdrew. In the end it came down to thirteen silvers and three promised artefacts of a nature yet to be determined, the quality of which would be attested by Sister Maude. It was steep cost, but Olivier at least finagled them into having to settle any doubts by their friend Sister Lucie themselves. May they all choke squabbling over what their shares of the bribes should be.
He left the temple feeling exhausted and feeling dirtied, so it was not a pleasant surprise for him to find Morgaine waiting at the shop. Lounging behind the counter, the beautiful sorceress did not take the initiative to greet him and only studied him with dark and knowing eyes.
“Morgaine,” he greeted her. “Can this wait until tomorrow? I find myself in no state to converse.”
“There is a spell from the east that allows one to see what is far away, within certain rules,” Morgaine said. “Mine is a paltry enough imitation, but it still allows me sight within the temple.”
Olivier’s irritation mounted. Not only was she admitting to having spied on him, she was stubbornly refusing to take the hint that he was in no mood for this.
“Should you be caught indulging in that, it is not you alone that will suffer the consequences of it,” he sharply said.
The dark-eyed woman smiled.
“Does it unsettle you, the lack of control?” she asked. “The realization that your authority exists only so long as we allow it to?”
That have him pause. His eyes narrowed.
“You are beginning,” Olivier calmly said, “to speak unwisely.”
“Ah, and we must be wise,” Morgaine mocked. “Always. Else we are wicked, and so we’ll be clapped in irons and ran out and butchered and burned. But you fine folk, well, that is different. Even if you beat us and break our bones we are to smile, and if we’re lucky we can pay you for the privilege of leaving us alone. Eventually, that is. After you tire of the cruelty.”
The longer she spoke the more the anger dripped into her voice openly. Her hands clenched over the counter as her expression hardened and sorcery flickered around her fingers in thread of red light. Olivier had never really thought of magic as something that could be turned against him, that could be used to hurt him, but in that moment he realized that if she struck at him with a spell he would most likely die. She’d not survive the night, for he’d die loudly and draw attention, but simply because of her magic and anger she had power over him. And he was but a young fool in the middle of nowhere, he knew. How galling it must be for an officer in expensive armour to feel like this, or a highborn magistrate. And so Olivier understood just a little bit, now, why people feared mages. Why they wanted them gone. It was a shameful thing, but he understood the fear at last.
And yet for all of Lady Morgaine’s anger it seemed to him that her eyes stayed calm. Calculating. But it must be a mistake, he thought, for there was nothing calculated about this confrontation. It felt too raw for that.
“You ask me to change the writ of things,” Olivier said. “I cannot, Morgaine. It is unfair, and it should not be this way, but it is not in my power to mend. All I can do is what I am doing.”
The sorceress looked tired, suddenly.
“You are not as those two jackals are,” she said. “But this… stray dog refuge you are trying to make for us, it is not an answer. You are trying to protect us like we’re children, to chase away those who’d harm us while we hide in the mountains until you have settled our affairs for us. It is no way to live. You make decisions in our name without truly understanding our troubles, because they have never been your troubles. It is a well-meaning condescension you offer but condescension nonetheless.”
It wounded this pride, that this stranger would come and complain of what he had built with little help from anyone at all. He was not an angel, to be able to solve all troubles with a snap of his fingers, and she was not forced to be here. If there were better offers to entertain, then let her take one of them. Yet that was anger and pride. It was resentment, a many-headed snake that Olivier knew still dwelled in him for all that years ago he had decided to take the other road. One decision, though, did not choose the cast of an entire life. He would have make that same choice again, as many times as it took. So he breathed out, and forced himself to calm.
“You have qualms, evidently,” Olivier said. “Express them properly so that they might be addressed.”
“You have made yourself into the lord of this little town’s wizards,” Morgaine said. “With good reasons and intentions, but you have made yourself a lord still. We are beholden to you, you settle our troubles for us and we ply our magic on your behalf.”
She expected you to make yourself into a sort of lord, using the mages as your enforcers, Alisanne had said. Instead Morgaine thought him to have made himself lord of only the mages, and this it seemed she could not suffer.
“Is this your own belief,” Olivier asked, “or that of all mages of Beaumarais?”
“The sentiment is shared by many,” Morgaine said. “Ask, if you do not believe me, though I imagine some will be afraid of being tossed out if they truly speak their mind.”
He would not take her word for this – she’d done nothing to earn that sort of trust from him – but neither would he dismiss what she’d said outright. That would be dangerously complacent.
“The nature of the arrangement that brought you to Beaumarais is not something I can change,” Olivier frankly said.
“No,” Morgaine softly said. “I imagine not. But for all that it is your name on the parchment, it need not remain so.”
His brow rose. That he might sign over the shop to her was a suggestion both foolish – the House would not accept it – and personally ruinous. He’d invested most of his coin into the venture and drawn on his personal connections extensively. It was also exceptionally presumptuous.
“I do not mean to steal from you,” Morgaine said. “Only that, while keeping your shares of profit, you might eventually pass the reins to someone who might truly make this a home for our kind.”
“And who would that be?” he asked.
“Your brother,” Morgaine firmly said.
Oliver started in surprise.
“Roland does not know how to run a shop, much less deal with the House,” he said.
“He is young,” the dark-eyed sorceress said. “You can teach him.”
That was… not untrue. And it would keep the shop in the family, which settled some of Olivier’s troubles with this. Yet he was balking at the notion, some part of him refusing to even seriously think of it.
“Consider it,” Morgaine quietly said. “That is all I can ask.”
She left him to the silence of the darkened shop, lost in thought.