Varajas trotted up the line, his eyes skimming over the soldiers without taking any of them in. None of them were who he was looking for.
The wizard—who wasn’t at all what Varajas had expected.
On the surface, at first meeting, sure, he’d embodied the Wing image like he’d stepped out of a textbook. Polished in his manner and presentation, with a smile that was too easy, too perfect to be sincere. Dressed in finely tailored blacks that would be utterly inappropriate for summer travel for anyone but a wizard.
All style, no substance—that was the Wing. As shallow and status conscious as the nobility they aped. And Samir looked to fit that mold exactly as he visibly maneuvered to stick close to Lysander as the column was organizing to move. Light forbid, if there was a prince around, Samir be forced to associate with anyone more common.
But as they rode, as the day wore on and Samir relaxed, Varajas was forced to think maybe he’d misjudged. Which was unfortunate, because this mission would be far easier if Samir was just another shallow, selfish Wing wizard that Varajas could dismiss with impunity.
First of all, there was the bat. The impossibly adorable bat, with her soft-looking red fur and big black eyes that seemed to be watching Varajas with a surprising amount of intelligence. She hung off her perch, just behind Samir’s head. Samir periodically reached up to give her a scratch, and she’d rub her head against his fingers like a puppy. Or she would give a scolding chitter and Samir would slip her a piece of fruit. It would have taken a stonier man than Varajas to watch these exchanges without warming a little to the pair.
And then there was Samir himself. By the end of that first morning, his polished, perfect smile had relaxed into something more honest. He didn’t say much—no great hardship for Lysander, who could keep all sides of a conversation going all on his own—but when he did speak, his words were thoughtful and he seemed comfortable with them. He was neither sycophantic to Lysander, nor did he seem interested in proving how smart he was.
Varajas couldn’t help but notice the way Samir’s hand kept stealing up to touch his familiar. At first, Varajas had assumed Samir was just checking the bat was still there. Or that it was merely a gesture of affection. But as time went on and Varajas had little else to do but watch Samir, the repetitive movement started to seem more like a reflex, a tic. That it wasn’t Samir giving reassurance, but seeking it.
What could Samir possibly have to be nervous about?
The other thing just starting to sink in was how alone Varajas was. These were the first of who knew how many days when he’d be surrounded by people he had to lie to, to hide from. Lysander knew who and what he was, but no one else. And Varajas couldn’t trust anyone. Not today. Not a month from now.
He hadn’t thought about this part of it. He’d been so eager to get away from the city, from the oppressive confines of the safehouse. He’d wanted away from the knife, from Ádan, from the dreams. But at least with Nikki and Ádan—and even Korin—Varajas could be himself. If he had complaints, he could be honest about them. If he had nightmares—about the tree, about being tortured by power-hungry archwizards—he could talk about it.
It occurred to Varajas that this was how Ádan had lived a great deal of his life. Alone in Triome, spying, creating a bolthole for the disaster that Derian had seen coming for years. At the time, Varajas had envied Ádan the assignment.
Now, only a couple days on his own, Varajas was already feeling isolated. When ideas came to him, observations about Samir, or Lysander, or just the country they were riding through, he kept looking for someone to share them with. He’d never in his life not been able to just talk. He hadn’t thought to prepare for the fact he wouldn’t be able to.
He’d mocked the idea of Nikki coming on this mission—volatile, honest Nikhil, who hardly had a thought that didn’t pop out of his mouth. It hadn’t occurred to Varajas that maybe he was every bit as ill suited to life under cover. As evidenced by how badly he wished Ádan were here right now so Varajas could share this revelation with him.
Too late to turn back. All that was left was to get through it. And it was still better than hiding in the safehouse.
And worth it if he could keep nosy wizards out of their secrets. Nosy, good-looking wizards, who made little chittering noises at their adorable familiars, and whose real smile seemed to be something slow and fragile that stirred a place deep inside Varajas to wonder if he could coax it into something brighter.
Shit, he was in trouble. And tired after his interrupted night. Varajas had been slow to start this morning, had fallen behind getting Torment saddled and bridled, and ended up at the very end of the column as they’d moved out from their campsite. But Torment had gotten as restless as Varajas riding at the back. And now, as he neared Lysander’s position up front, he realized he’d lost track of the wizard.
Lysander was chatting idly with the captain of his guard—a grizzled, serious man who fought like an angry bear. He’d killed eight knights that Varajas knew of. It was hard not to think about that as he watched the man chuckle at something Lysander had just said.
At Varajas’s approach, Lysander gave a nod and the captain pulled back, giving the two of them space and privacy.
They were still a few days travel away from escaping the moist, stifling heat of the river valley. Varajas didn’t know how Lysander could stand it in his heavy armor of burnished metal, how it didn’t feel like an oven inside. And in fact, sweat trickled from Lysander’s temple, and had matted down his hair. But the heat had done nothing to dim his relentless cheer.
“I love this ride,” Lysander said as Varajas pulled in beside him, matching Torment’s gait to that of Lysander’s stallion. “All the greens. The air, once we’ve left the ocean behind.”
“The mosquitos. The mud. The heat.”
“What a ray of sunshine you are.” Lysander said the words with a grin. Was it even possible to tarnish his mood?
“Where’s the wizard?”
“Ádan didn’t mention what a joy you were to travel with. But since you asked so nicely—Samir,” Lysander said the name with deliberation, “rode ahead alone. Said he needed time to himself. He started talking about magic.” Lysander’s eyes went a little glazed. “I stopped listening.”
That wasn’t at all what Varajas had hoped to hear. “You can’t let wizards off on their own. They’re magnets for trouble.”
“Said the pot of the kettle.”
He glared at Lysander. Who returned a look of pure innocence.
Softer, Varajas reminded, “I’m supposed to be keeping an eye on him.”
Just as quietly—and more serious now, Lysander argued, “You’re supposed to be making sure he doesn’t dig into anything he shouldn’t in Ulek. Since we’re not yet in Ulek, I didn’t see how it could be a problem.”
It probably wasn’t. It certainly shouldn’t be. But still, something in Varajas got all tense and jumpy at the idea of the wizard unsupervised. “I’ll find him.”
“I don’t think he wanted to be found.”
“And I give a damn what he wants.” With a quick press of his heels to Torment’s side, Varajas pulled out ahead before Lysander had a chance to say anything else.