“A letter from home?” Mikel asked baldly.
“Where did you get this?” Anja demanded. “And why did you open it?”
“It wasn’t for you,” Mikel said sharply. “It came to the Guild via the Council. We’re not even necessarily obliged to let you get mail from outside the Guild even when it does have your name on it.”
Anja glared for a moment, then opened the letter and read over it quickly. “He wants you to send me home?”
Anja watched Mikel’s face closely, but could read nothing from it. At length, she asked, “Are you going to?”
Mikel shrugged. “We might. He can’t force us to, but at the moment we have quite a number of reasons to look at you with some measure of distrust.”
Silence stretched on for a few moments. Mikel wore an expression which begged for a response. Eventually Anja spoke. “Alright. I wasn’t completely honest when I got here, but I have reasons. I left home because that’s the best thing I could’ve done for the most people.”
Mikel lifted an eyebrow.
“I don’t know if I trust you enough to say how,” Anja replied, meeting Mikel’s gaze. “If people here react wrong, that could hurt people I love, and I won’t do that.”
Mikel waved at the letter in her hand. “Haven’t you done it already?”
Anja took a wavering breath and shook her head. She spoke quietly. “I did what I had to do. Send me back if you want, but that’s all I have to say.”
“You’re not wanting in courage, that’s for sure,” Mikel mused. He sat down at an empty table and gestured for Anja to take the place across from him. Dutifully, she did. “Aspirant, all the Guilds got that same letter. Few enough of them care that, were they to find you and return you to your family, you’d become an affair for the Magehunters, and it’s doubtful that would end without someone getting hurt. That’s one mark in your favor. We don’t want blood on our hands.” He regarded her sternly. “Working against you is your stubborn refusal to tell us your whole story. We dislike the idea of putting people in danger, but if you’re hiding something which could endanger the Guild, we don’t know if we’ll have a choice.”
Anja’s eyes widened. “Was that a threat?” she asked.
“That was the official view,” Mikel replied. He leaned closer to Anja conspiratorially and spoke quickly and quietly. “Here’s what’s actually going to happen. First: you’re staying here. Second: we’re getting your sanction papers under a false name. If the other Guilds don’t find out you’re here, they can’t do a thing to you. Third: you trust nobody from any of the Guilds or the Council, or for that matter anyone involved with magic, without checking with me. Fourth: you promise to tell me your story. It doesn’t have to be today, tomorrow, next month, or even next year, but I will hear the whole thing. That’s about the best deal you’re going to get. Will it work?”
Anja thought about it. It seemed to her that, like Hans, Mikel was one of a very few people actually and solidly on her side. She still didn’t trust him, though, and he was asking a lot, but it wasn’t as though she had many choices, and he was watching her expectantly— “I think so,” she said. “Will I have to change Anja, too?”
Mikel shook his head. “It’s been a busy recruiting season for all the Guilds. An Anja Skräskyddsling shouldn’t attract any extra attention. Do you have anything else to say?” He leaned back in his chair. “Alright. Go on, then. Rejoin your band—I eat alone in my study. I’ll see you tomorrow morning. We’ll begin then.”
She turned and walked away, trying to decide whether the caring Mikel or the brusque one was the act.
“Anja,” he said, interrupting her thoughts. She turned around. “I don’t know if you value my word, or what it was that chased you here, but that doesn’t matter. Whatever it was, you are safe now.”
He nodded a goodbye, then, and left Anja more puzzled than before.
Ansgar Leifsson watched this scene play out from the balcony. At its end, he went back to his table, frowning thoughtfully.