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Valletta, Island of Malta
The two foreign gentlemen strolling through Valletta’s market square looked like they had pockets worth picking. Nikolai quietly shadowed them through the crowds, knowing they would never
notice a boy his size in the noisy throng. A dozen or more lan-
guages babbled above his head. He recognized all of them, and could make himself understood in most. Valletta was the crossroads of the Mediterranean, a place where Europe, Africa, and Asia met and exchanged their goods.
The men had the pale coloring of northern Europeans. When Nikolai got close enough to hear their conversation, he found that they spoke in English. That was one of his better languages, since his mother had had a taste for English sailors.
Other foreigners roamed the market, but these two had the air and garments of wealth—and they were fool enough to walk alone, with no guards. They’d be lucky to get back to their ship with the clothes still on their backs.
Nikolai followed the men, slipping behind a tethered donkey cart to get closer to his quarry. His talent for going unnoticed had enabled him to keep from starving in the years since his grandmother’s death, though he seldom managed to be well fed.
The taller Englishman, a powerfully built fellow whose dark red hair was heavily streaked with gray, stopped to admire the silver trinkets of a local peddler. He lifted a pair of lacy filigree earrings. “My wife will like these, I think.”
“We saw better in Greece, Macrae,” his companion observed. He was shorter and younger, with a wiry build and a dandy’s taste in clothing. “Tell me again why you were so keen to stop in Malta.”
“Worth it to walk on land again for a day or two.” Having reached an agreement with the peddler, Macrae paid for two pairs of silver earrings. “Besides, I felt there was something, or someone, worth meeting here.”
“Unlikely!” the other man snorted.
Nikolai paid little heed to the conversation, apart from gratitude that it engaged his quarry’s attention. As the taller man turned to his companion, Nikolai’s fingers reached into the fellow’s right pocket, light as a butterfly’s wings. Yes, there were coins there. . . .
Suddenly Nikolai’s wrist was caught, and he found himself skewered by piercing gray eyes. Eyes that saw him as no one had since his grandmother died.
He fought to escape, biting Macrae’s hand and jerking free as the man released his grip with an oath. He darted toward a nearby alley. In the rank, twisting backstreets of Valletta, he could lose these great clumsy oafs in no time.
The short man snapped several unintelligible words. The air tingled oddly, and suddenly Nikolai’s limbs didn’t work. Though he wanted to run, he could barely manage to hold himself upright. He fell against the bricks of the alley wall, his breathing rough. He hadn’t felt so weak since he’d almost died of the fever that killed his mother.
Macrae entered the alley and placed his hands on Nikolai’s shoulders, then knelt so their eyes were on the same level. “We mean you no harm,” he said in fair Italian.
Nikolai spat at him, but somehow missed his mark. Macrae frowned. “He doesn’t seem to understand Italian,” he said in English. “I wish I knew that dog Arabic the locals speak.”
Nikolai didn’t bother spitting again, since it had done no good, but he growled like a mongrel. Dog Arabic indeed! Malti was the ancient tongue of the Phoenicians. Since it had never been trapped in an alphabet, it was the private speech of Malta, a mystery to stupid foreigners like this one.
The short man, who stood behind Redhead, said drily, “Are you sure you want to converse with a rabid pup like this?”
Macrae stood, releasing his grip on Nikolai’s shoulders. “Look at him with the sight, then ask me that again.”
The short man’s eyes narrowed for a moment, then opened wide. “Good God, the boy blazes with power! When he comes of age, he’ll be a formidable mage.”
“If he lives long enough and receives the proper training,” Macrae said grimly. “From the looks of him, he’s halfway to starvation.”
“Don’ talk ’bout me as if I’m no’ here!” Nikolai blurted out. “Rude!”
“The creature speaks English,” the short man said with amazement. “His accent is abominable, but he’s fluent enough.”
“He’s not a ‘creature,’ ” Macrae said irritably. “He’s a boy, probably younger than my Duncan. He’s one of us, Jasper. His power has a different flavor from any I’ve known, but it’s real and has great potential.”
“African blood, perhaps,” Jasper murmured. “There is some of that in his face and coloring as well as in the flavor of his magic.”
Nikolai’s strength was returning, but he was still trapped between the two men. Why was no one noticing this scene? People walked by in the square just a few feet away and didn’t even glance in the alley.
Mage. One of them had used the word. His grandmother had said it meant wizard or witch doctor. They’d used magic to trap him, then to ensure that no one looked their way. He scrunched his mind up like Nona had showed him and dived under Macrae’s arm in another bid for freedom.
A hard hand caught him again. “Look at that, Jasper! The boy has shields strong enough to make him disappear from mage sight!”
“Either he’s had training, or he learned that to survive,” Jasper said thoughtfully. “I begin to share your interest. But what’s to be done with a wild lad like this one?”
“Let’s start by feeding him.” The tall man caught Nikolai’s gaze. “I’m Macrae of Dunrath and this is Jasper Polmarric. You have always known you were different, haven’t you?”
Nikolai debated lying before giving a reluctant nod.
Macrae continued, “We are also different in the same way you are. Or similar, anyhow. Among our duties is to help others of our sort when there is need. At the least, you stand in need of a good meal. Will you join us? If you look at me with your mind, you’ll know I mean no harm.”
Nikolai had always been good at reading intentions, and he sensed no desire to hurt, but there was more than one kind of assault. “Won’ be your whore!”
Instead of anger, Macrae smiled. “I have no interest in dirty little boys. Except when they have the potential you do. Is there a tavern where we can get a good meal and talk in privacy?”
Nikolai nodded and led the two men through the alleys, emerging by the best tavern on the waterfront. It looked over the Grand Harbor and was a favored place for ship’s officers and merchants. Of course he’d not eaten there himself, but he sometimes scavenged leavings at the back door.
The landlord scowled when he saw Nikolai enter, but the obvious wealth of the Englishmen saved him from being thrown out. Jasper paused to order food and drink while Macrae escorted Nikolai to a quiet booth in the far corner of the taproom. Nikolai didn’t like being herded, but tantalizing scents made him willing to tolerate it. He would endure a great deal to feast on the tavern’s best.
Besides, he was curious what these men wanted of him.
Macrae sat on Nikolai’s right, Jasper Polmarric on his left. Though they didn’t crowd him, it was clear they could stop him from running if he tried. Yet he still felt no danger from them. Only a deep, intense interest.
“What is your name?” Macrae asked. “You can lie if you wish, but I’d like to have something to call you.”
Lying was no fun when put like that. “Nikolai Gregorio.”
“Russian and Italian?” Polmarric asked. “Any African blood?”
“Some.” A quarter at least. Nikolai’s grandmother had been pure African, but he didn’t know all his relations. His grandfather had been Malti, and his mother wasn’t sure who his father was. Perhaps an Italian, maybe a Greek, even an Englishman. Hard to say. The fact that his mother had liked the name Nikolai didn’t make him Russian.
Conversation ended when a barmaid sauntered over with a jug of wine and three crude goblets. The tray also held a loaf of sourdough bread, a wedge of cheese, and a dish of pickled fish.
His hunger almost uncontrollable, Nikolai grabbed a piece of fish and gobbled it down while he ripped off a chunk of the cottage loaf. There was a knife on the board, so he hacked a sizable piece of the cheese and crammed it into his mouth, followed by a bite of bread. The sharp flavor of the goat cheese exploded gloriously on his tongue.
“Not very civilized,” Polmarric said in French, his expression a study in fascinated horror.
“Give thanks you have never been so hungry.” Macrae poured the red wine into the goblets and swallowed a mouthful. Though he’d answered Polmarric in French, he switched back to English to speak to Nikolai. “Eat as much as you want, but it might be wise to slow down. If you make yourself sick, you’ll have an empty stomach again.”
There was sense to that. Nikolai swallowed another mouthful of bread and cheese and reached for his wine to wash it down. The wine was a light table vintage, pleasant and probably chosen so it wouldn’t go to a boy’s head. That was another sign of their good intentions, for this wasn’t the wine they’d use if they wanted him drunk.
The barmaid returned with three plates of fenek. Nikolai dug in greedily. He hadn’t had good fenek since his grandmother died. Less
hurriedly, the foreigners tasted theirs. “This rabbit is rather good,” Polmarric said.
“Stew a boot in this much wine and it would be good,” Macrae replied, but he dug in with enthusiasm.
Nikolai finished two pieces of stewed rabbit, then sat back on the wooden bench. With the edge off his hunger, curiosity returned. “You say you are different. How?”
Macrae’s gaze flicked to the taproom, checking that no one was in a position to look into their shadowy booth. When he was sure of their privacy, he raised one hand and sparkles of light danced around it like sprays of golden fireworks.
He scooped up the dancing lights and poured them in front of Nikolai. Enchanted, Nikolai tried to catch the golden sparks. They faded in his grasp, a cool tingle against his palm. “Magic,” he whispered. He thought all the magic had gone from the world when his grandmother died.
“We usually say power,” Macrae said in a low voice. “It’s a less- alarming term than magic. Polmarric and I are both Guardians—members of families where power runs strong. Guardians exist in all nations of Europe, and we are sworn to use our abilities to help others rather than for personal gain.”
“What kind of magic—power—do you have?” Nikolai tried not to show how hungry he was for the information.
Polmarric gave his companion a warning glance. “Are you sure you want to say so much about us?”
“He has to know.” Macrae concentrated on Nikolai. “There are certain things that all Guardian mages can do to some extent. Healing, reading the energies of other people, concealing, creating mage light. Most Guardians are also gifted in some particular area. I am a weather mage, able to shape the winds and storms. It is a common talent in my family. Polmarric here has a great talent for communication.”
“You say you swore to help people. What keeps you from becoming kings? Though you seem to live well enough.” Nikolai glanced pointedly at the men’s rich garments.
“It is harder to become a king than one might think,” Macrae said drily. “Over the centuries, we have learned that it is best not to interfere often with mundane society because the consequences are unpredictable, and usually worse than one expects. Among ourselves, we maintain order by national councils of Guardians. Polmarric will likely become a council member the next time there is an opening, because of his communication abilities. If any of our number turns rogue and injures others—
Well, we have mages who are gifted in detecting evil and enforcing order.”
Nikolai ripped off a piece of bread and soaked it in the fenek gravy. The Guardians sounded like a great, secret family that had both power and wisdom. Thinking of his grandmother, he asked, “Mages are all men?”
“Not at all. Women can be as strong or stronger than male mages. My wife is a very gifted healer. Polmarric’s wife is the best finder in England, I think.” Macrae paused as if deciding what needed to be said. “Usually full power comes when one is reaching adulthood, but it’s not uncommon for those who are unusually talented to show magical ability in childhood. My son, Duncan, has, and so have you.”
Nikolai stared at his empty plate, trying to grasp what he was being told. “Why you tellin’ me this?”
“Because you seem to need help.” Macrae looked tired, and Nikolai realized the man was older than he’d guessed. “There are too many homeless children in the world for us to save them all. But you are of our kind, so I am obligated to try to help you.”
“One possibility would be to find you a place in a Valletta school so you would be fed and clothed and could learn to read and write.”
“I know how to read and write,” Nikolai said pugnaciously.
Macrae’s brows arched. “Impressive. How did you learn?”
Nikolai shrugged. “My grandmother ran a waterfront boardinghouse. She cared for a dyin’ English ship’s mate in return for him teachin’ me. Old Smithy took a long time to die.” Long enough that Nikolai had studied numbers and some history as well as reading and writing.
“You learn quickly,” Polmarric observed. “Your English accent has improved as we speak. Almost as if you can take the language from our minds. Do you read minds?”
Nikolai scrunched down warily, wondering how the Englishman had figured that out. He didn’t exactly read minds, but sometimes he would sense answers that people around him knew. Being with these men who spoke English did improve his own speech. “Smithy said I was clever.”
“A clever lad with power might not be safe in a local school, not with the Knights of St. John ruling Malta,” Polmarric remarked. “The Knights have a history of turning mages over to the Inquisition.”
“I know,” Macrae said. “What you really need is a family, Nikolai. People who care about you, and for you to care about.”
A family. Nikolai looked down so the foreigners wouldn’t see the humiliating sting of tears in his eyes. His family had been small but real. With his mother and grandmother dead, he had thought himself alone forever. Thinking of what he’d lost made it hard for him to swallow his stewed rabbit.