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On a bright, sunny day in late autumn, most of the men and boys of the Sorcerers’ village rode out to take, as they saw it, what the world owed them. Andon watched them go with eyes that held the sadness of centuries. He had done what he could to stop them but he had failed. They had to learn their lesson, he supposed. The old man only hoped it would not be too bitter. Or too costly.
The first days of the journey were days of sunshine and clear weather—warm and pleasant during the hours of light, cool and crisp with the hint of the coming winter at night. Blachloch’s band was lighthearted and merry; the young men, especially, enjoying the break from the drudgery of work in the forge or the gristmill, the mines or bricklaying. Led by the riotous Simkin, who was again dressed in his ranger clothing in honor of the occasion (“I call this color Dirt and Dung”) the young men laughed and joked and teased each other about their difficulties in riding the shaggy, half-wild horses that were raised in the village. At night they gathered around a blazing fire to swap stories and play games of chance with the older men, wagering winter rations of food and losing them so consistently that it seemed likely none of them would eat until spring.
Even the usually morose Joram appeared better for the change, astonishing Mosiah by his willingness to talk, if he did not share in the horseplay and joking. But then, Mosiah reflected, this may have had something to do with the fact that Joram had just come out of another one of his black melancholies.
By the second week, however, the fun had gone out of the ride. A chill rain dripped from the yellowing leaves, soaking through cloaks and trickling down the back. The soft plopping of the drops formed a monotonous rhythm with the horses’ plodding hoofbeats. The rain settled in, falling steadily for days. There were no fires by Blachloch’s orders. They were in centaur country now, and the watch had been doubled, which meant many lost half a night’s sleep. Everyone was miserable and grumbling, but there was one person so much more obviously miserable than the rest that Mosiah couldn’t help noticing.
Joram noticed too, apparently. Every now and then Mosiah saw a look of shadowed pleasure in Joram’s dark eyes and there would be almost a half-smile upon the lips. Following Joram’s gaze, Mosiah saw him looking at the catalyst, who rode ahead of them, jouncing uncomfortably in the saddle, his tonsured head bowed, his shoulders slumped. The catalyst was a pathetic sight on horseback. The first few days he had been stiff with fright. Now he was just plain stiff. Every bone and muscle in his body hurt. Just sitting in the saddle was obviously painful.
“I feel sorry for the man,” Mosiah said on the second week of their journey north. Chilled and soaked, he, Joram, and Simkin were riding together down a stretch of trail that was wide enough for a cavalry brigade to have ridden six abreast. Giants had blazed this trail, Blachloch said, warning them all to be alert.
“What man?” Joram asked. He had been listening to Simkin elaborate on how the Duke of Westshire had hired the entire Stone Shapers Guild, together with six catalysts, to completely redo his palatial dwelling in Merilon, transforming it from crystal to rose-colored marble streaked with flecks of pale green.
“The court can talk of nothing else. Such a thing has never been done before. Imagine, marble! It looks quite … ponderous …” Simkin was saying.
“The catalyst. What’s his name? I feel sorry for him,” Mosiah said.
“Saryon?” Simkin appeared slightly confused. “Pardon me, dear boy, but what has he to do with rose-colored marble?”
“Nothing,” returned Mosiah. “I was just watching the expression on Joram’s face. He seems to be enjoying the poor mans misery.”
“He’s a catalyst,” Joram replied shortly. “And you’re wrong. I don’t care enough to think about him one way or the other.”
“Mmmm,” Mosiah muttered, seeing Joram’s dark eyes grow darker as they stared at the man’s green-robed back.
“He’s from your village, you know,” Simkin commented, leaning over his horse’s neck to talk confidentially in a loud voice that could be heard by nearly everyone in line.
“Keep your voice down! He’ll hear us. What do you mean, he’s from our village?” Mosiah asked, astonished. “Why didn’t you say anything before? Maybe he knows my parents!”
“I’m certain I said something,” Simkin protested with an aggrieved air, “when I told you about his coming for Joram—”
“Shh!” Mosiah hissed. “That nonsense!” Biting his lip, the young man stared at the catalyst with a wistful air. “I wonder how my parents are? It’s been so long …”
“Oh, go ahead! Talk to him!” snapped Joram, his black eyebrows drawing a straight, hard line across his face.
“Yes, go have a chat with the old boy,” Simkin said languidly. “He’s not a bad sort, really, as catalysts go. And I’ve got no more cause to love them than you, O Dark and Gloomy Friend. I told you they stole away my baby brother, didn’t I? Little Nat. Poor tyke. Failed the Testing. We had him hidden away until he was five. But they found out about him—one of the neighbors snitched. Grudge against my mother. I was Nat’s favorite, you know. The little fellow clung to me, when they were dragging him off.”
Two tears rolled down Simkin’s face into his beard. Mosiah heaved an exasperated sigh.
“That’s it!” said Simkin, sniffing. “Mock my affliction. Make light of my sorrow. If you’ll excuse me,” he muttered, more tears streaming down his face, mingling with the rainwater, “I will indulge my grief in private. You two go on. No, it’s no use trying to comfort me. Not in the slightest …” Mumbling incoherently, Simkin suddenly wheeled his horse around and left the trail, galloping back toward the rear of the line.
“Mock his affliction! How many brothers is that who’ve met some appalling fate?” Snorting in disgust, Mosiah glanced back at Simkin, who was wiping tears from his face and calling out a rude remark to one of Blachloch’s henchmen at the same time. “To say nothing of assorted sisters held captive by nobles or hauled off by centaurs, not counting the one who ran away from home because she was enamored of a giant. Then there’s the aunt, who drowned in a public fountain because she thought she was a swan, and his mother, who has died five times of five different rare diseases and once of a broken heart because the Duuk-tsarith arrested his father for conjuring up offensive illusions of the Emperor. All of this happening to an orphan who was discovered floating in a basket of rose petals down the Merilon sewer system. He’s a monumental liar! I don’t see how can you put up with him!”
“Because he’s an amusing liar,” Joram replied, shrugging. “And that makes him different.”
“From all the rest of you,” Joram said, glancing at Mosiah from beneath his heavy, dark brows. “Why don’t you go talk to your catalyst,” he suggested coolly, seeing Mosiah’s face flush in anger. “If what I hear is true, he’s in for a lot worse punishment than saddle sores.”
Digging his heels into the horse’s flanks, Joram galloped ahead, riding past the catalyst without a glance, his horse flinging up mud from its hooves. Mosiah saw the catalyst raise his head and stare after the young man, whose long black hair, whipped free from its bindings, glistened in the rain like the plumage of a wet bird.
“Why do I put up with you?” Mosiah muttered, gazing after the figure of his friend. “Pity? You’d hate me for that. But it’s true, in a way. I can understand why you refuse to trust anyone. The scars you bear aren’t only from wounds on your chest. But, some day, my friend, those scars are going to be nothing—nothing—compared to the scar from the wound you’re going to get when you find out you’ve been wrong!”
Shaking his head, Mosiah urged his horse forward until he rode next to the catalyst.
“Excuse me for interrupting your thoughts, Father,” the young man said hesitantly, “but would—would you mind if I kept you company?”
Saryon looked up fearfully, his face strained and tense. Then, seeing only the young man, he appeared to relax. “No, I’d like it very much, in fact.”
“You—you weren’t praying or anything like that, were you, Father?” Mosiah asked in some confusion. “I can leave, if you—”
“No, I wasn’t praying,” Saryon said with a wan smile. “I haven’t done much praying lately,” he added in a low voice, glancing about the wilderness with a shiver. “I’m used to finding the Almin in the corridors of the Font. Not out here. I don’t think He lives out here.”
Mosiah didn’t understand but, seeing a chance for an opening, remarked, “My father talks like that sometimes. He says the Almin dines with the rich and throws scraps to the poor. He doesn’t care about us, so we must get through this life on our own honor and integrity. When we die, that’s the most important thing we leave behind.”
“Jacobias is a very wise man,” Saryon said, looking at Mosiah intently. “I know him. You are Mosiah, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” The young man flushed. “I know you know him. That’s why I came—That is, I didn’t know or I would have come sooner—I mean, Simkin just now told me—”
“I understand.” Saryon nodded gravely. “I should have come to see you. I have messages from your parents, but … I haven’t been well.” It was now the catalyst’s turn to flush uncomfortably. Grimacing in pain, he shifted in his saddle, his gaze going to the figure of Joram disappearing among the trees.