[This little story is a bit of background on some characters from 'The Forge of Dawn', but I couldn't tell you which it's better to read first. I just found it amongst my files while searching for something else and thought I ought to put it up.]

The Captain's Ashes was the sort of tavern you only found in the south. A little too far from the docks to be a sailors' dive, a bit too close to them for respectable citizens. It was built on pilings over a murky, muddy beach, and had to be rebuilt after every hurricane. There were only three walls; the fourth was just a series of slatted blinds that could be tied down when it rained.

It was raining tonight. It was raining sideways. Mikah had enjoyed the excuse to use a colorful umbrella for the first few minutes, but the umbrella had turned out to be totally inadequate, and he couldn't dry himself with a thought while he was pretending to be human. To make matters worse, the umbrella got stuck when he tried to close it. The thin bamboo struts were no match for his annoyed strength. There was a sad small burst of splintering and ripping, and what had been a yellow silk umbrella was now garbage. He threw it down in disgust. He heard people snicker.

He lifted his chin haughtily and looked around, as if to see who dared laugh at someone as important as he clearly was. Actually, he thought it was sort of funny himself, in retrospect. What he was really looking for was a thief. One, particular, supposedly excellent thief. The fellow was said to practically live here.

Since he didn't immediately see anyone who fit the admittedly vague description he'd been given, Mikah chose a table and let a saucer-eyed serving girl bring him wine. He cut off her sales pitch about fresh-caught fish. "I wish to be left alone," he said absently, still studying the crowd.

The girl dropped a startled curtsey and fled. His view of the room now unobstructed, he scanned the crowd again in case one of them might be his thief in disguise. More likely he just wasn't here. He would be obvious if he were. The people Mikah had asked had told him the fellow was uncommonly tall, deathly pale, and dressed only in black. Mikah thought that was a perfectly idiotic way for a thief to look. Like hanging a sign around one's neck proclaiming, 'Look at me! I'm up to no good!' But these same contacts insisted that this man was the only one who had a hope of managing the job Mikah wanted done.

He'd just decided to go home and try a divination or two when a deep voice murmured beside his ear, "Are you waiting for someone?"

Startled, Mikah turned in his chair, and there was his thief, standing right at his elbow. How did he get that close? I should have noticed. He is good. And quite lovely, Mikah added to the thought as he gestured the fellow to join him. "For you, I think. Are you the thief called the Ghost Wolf?"

"I've never called myself any such ridiculous name, and it's rude to call someone a thief," the man smiled, taking the offered chair. He was just as tall, pale, and darkly dressed as they said, but somehow he didn't look like a ruffian. A clerk or an undertaker, perhaps. He held a wide-brimmed hat and a book together in his long white hands, a nervous posture at odds with the chill in his gray eyes. Mikah suddenly remembered seeing that hat, that book -- and nothing of the face between them. He had a vague memory of an old priest. He hadn't looked properly. A nice trick.

"A man named Brass Monkey told me I could find you here."

The smile widened, still without reaching the eyes. "Where are you getting all these silly names?"

Mikah sighed. "Oh, bother. I've no idea how to do these things. Here, drink some wine." He pushed the bottle across. "You know very well I'm looking for you, or else why would you have asked?"

"This tavern has a certain reputation. A particular type of gentleman may come here to meet others of that particular type. If you don't know what I mean, it's probably better I don't explain."

"What? Seriously?" Mikah took another look around the place, and suddenly saw couples where before he'd only seen a general mass of people. "How amusing! Does it make it more fun, to make a big secret of it? This is Verdichane, after all. You could probably do it in the High Temple and no one would blink."

The man looked startled, then laughed. This time his eyes laughed as well. In that moment, he suddenly snapped into focus to Mikah's perception, became real, a person with a world of his own rather than a passing character in a tale that would soon be over.

Mikah said, "You laugh like a man more accustomed to bitter irony than mirth."

"You talk like a spectator who watches his own life like a play," the man returned, and though the chill was back in his eyes, their steely brightness was as interested now as wary.

An unnerving thought crossed Mikah's mind, a marker to a memory he'd erased. He'd left himself a note. You'll learn to love before you're done. He'd puzzled over it, wondering what he'd purged and why. Only because it was prophesy? Or had it been painful? And what had he meant, learn to love? He loved his brother to an epic degree; otherwise, why undertake this quest at all?

Perhaps I meant to love as mortals do? he thought now. To choose someone, out of all the multitude, not just for playing with, but for... what? I don't know how a stranger becomes a love. I would never have dared to find out, before, knowing that whomever I chose, I'd outlive him. But now...

"I want a reason to see you again," Mikah said, watching the pale man's face carefully. "Please tell me you're the one I'm looking for."

Steel-silver softened to raincloud, and a sad smile drifted across the man's face and was gone. He'd caught Mikah's double meaning, and Mikah could see the thought as if it were written: Wouldn't it be nice if things worked out like that?

"My name is Kastor," he said quietly. "It's rude to call a man a thief, but I admit to having clever hands." He took Mikah's hand and set something in the palm.

It was the gold clasp from Mikah's braid. Mikah thought back, but couldn't recall any time when Kastor had been close enough to steal it. His eyes widened. He was impressed. This was the fellow, all right. He glanced up, and saw Kastor, who had never called himself any such ridiculous name as Ghost Wolf but nevertheless had other people saying it in hushed tones, smiling the sort of cynical smile one does when one hopes and hoping hurts.

"Yes," Mikah said, "you're the one."