The next morning, sunlight poked cautiously into Eirik’s room. Eirik grunted, rolled over, and went back to sleep.
A knocking at his door roused him again, only a few minutes later. He grumbled and got out of bed, wondering who it was that wanted him at this infernal hour of the midmorning, and what it was that couldn’t wait until some more sensible time, like the afternoon.
He yanked the door open, and had to look down to see two aspirants. The first, a boy, was lifting his arm to knock again, while the second, a girl, was trying to stop him. Both were about ten or twelve, and they froze when they saw him. The boy recovered first, elbowing the girl as he bowed his head. She followed suit.
“Good morning,” Eirik said, once it became clear that they weren’t going to ignore the silly rule about saying nothing until recognized by a superior.
“Good morning, Master Eskilsson,” the boy said. “Are you well today?”
“Do you have a good reason for waking me up?” Eirik snapped. “If you do, could you skip the pleasantries and tell me?” The boy’s mouth worked for a second, and he looked to the girl for help. She had none to give. Eirik softened; not everyone had grown up with Baltasar as their point of reference for acceptable standards of politeness. “I’m fine, thank you,” he said, making an effort to sound warmer. “What can I help you with?”
“Master Hrafnssen told us to ask you if we’ll be ready to leave today,” the boy said cautiously, watching Eirik as if worried he would bite. The girl whipsered something to him, and the boy quickly added, “He said we should give you this, too.”
Eirik took the letter from him, unfolded it, and pressed his lips together. A few moments passed before he remembered that the aspirants were still there. “I’m not sure when we’ll be going just yet. Where will you two be later today?”
“We’ll be studying in the library with Master Alvarsson,” the boy said. “Until the evening meal, I think.”
Eirik smiled. He managed to keep his rising ire out of his voice. “Well, if I haven’t found you by then it’ll have to be tomorrow or the day after. Is that all?”
“Then I’ll talk to you later,” he said. In unison, they dipped their heads and scurried off. Eirik retreated to his room and glowered at the letter as he read it in full.
Ten minutes later he was stalking across the grounds toward the canteen. In his years as an aspirant, he had developed a strategy for getting into shouting matches with Baltasar. It had two elements: take him by surprise, and get a good running start. Even when he managed both parts, it wasn’t anything approaching a guaranteed success.
Still, he was going to try. He marched into the canteen, spotted Baltasar alone at his usual table, and was there in a matter of moments. He slammed the letter down in front of Baltasar and shouted, “What is this?”
If he hadn’t been watching very closely, Eirik would have missed the instant of surprise that showed on Baltasar’s face. Calm chased it away, and the old man picked up the letter and read. Eirik glanced to the side, and as he expected the rest of the mages in the canteen had barely noticed. Most of them wore the perpetually hunted look that stemmed from long association with spirits; their eyes darted around, only momentarily settling on things just out of normal sight.
“It’s a letter,” Baltasar said. “A fine example of one, informative and to the point.”
“You know that’s not what I meant,” Eirik shouted, punctuating with a fist to the tabletop. “You’re sending me west doing what amounts to a courier’s job, and forcing me to take—”
“It was Alvarsson’s idea, you imbecile, and he wanted an official reprimand lodged with the Council. I talked him down to this,” Baltasar said. He spoke with the sort of exaggerated patience normally used with small children or the insane. “You’re wrong about the girl, and an idiot for thinking I’d let a difference in opinion stop me from using your vote the way you would, but I can’t stop you from being wrong and stupid.”
“What does he want the reprimand for? I did everything right,” Eirik said. He wasn’t getting any less angry, but he felt the target of his ire shifting.
“You didn’t recruit the girl right then and there,” Baltasar said. “If I thought she was a prospect and not a menace I’d agree with him. If you’d tried to talk to her, you would have seen she had potential.”
Eirik sighed and shook his head. Once again, he’d leaped to conclusions that were entirely wrong, and was worse off for it. “Well, what now?” he said.
Baltasar smiled. “Think of it as a vacation.”