Varajas settled into a routine. Samir would leave the column in the morning and Varajas would follow him. They’d ride together in mostly silence. Then at lunch, return to Lysander’s escort where the afternoon would pass in a different sort of silence as Samir smiled and nodded his way through Lysander’s idle chatter and Varajas rode just behind.
Varajas didn’t know any more about Samir now than when he’d started. Not really. But that was harder to remember during the almost intimate quiet in which they rode together.
Deception was Ádan’s specialty, but Varajas did his best to watch Samir in a slightly-less-obvious way than before. To study him. He told himself that it was important he learn everything he could about the wizard, that even the slightest detail could be important. He told himself that often enough he almost believed it.
The truth was, he liked watching Samir. Not just because the wizard was easy on the eyes—although he was, undeniably. But there was a sense of…discovery. Of kinship. Of…Varajas wasn’t even sure he had the right word.
Right now, for example. They’d been riding about an hour. The whole time, neither of them had spoken, but just because Samir was silent didn’t mean he wasn’t saying anything.
His eyes were in constant motion, scanning their surroundings and instantly drawn by the slightest movement. There was tension, too, in the angle of his shoulders, in the way his fingers gripped the reins. A kind of hyper-vigilance that Varajas was all too familiar with.
But then, a smile would peek out, driven by some thought or observation Varajas wished Samir would share. Because that small smile transformed Samir’s handsome face into something truly radiant, and Varajas started to have thoughts of his own. About what it might take to make that smile even brighter? To turn it from a secret Samir was revealing to a joy he was sharing?
Varajas had known wizards. He’d hunted wizards. He’d known knights and Blades, learning the hearts and minds of so many with the gift. He’d never seen that fragile, wondering smile on anyone who hadn’t had hidden treasures that were worth every bit of effort it took to coax them out into the light.
With that thought came another, unbidden. Ruan had smiled like that.
Varajas pushed that down, turned his focus back to Samir. To trying to puzzle his way through Samir’s secrets.
On that first day, he’d seen the way Samir had tensed at his arrival. The kind of tension that, in a wizard, was always a danger sign. Varajas had been in his own ready-state to deal with any magic Samir let slip. He knew what had made his reflexes so quick to jump to fight-or-flight. He had his suspicions about Samir.
These were questions he wasn’t going to learn the answers to simply by staring. It was time to break the silence. “Did you fight in the war?”
Samir started a little at the sound of Varajas’s voice, but the question itself didn’t make him flinch. “I was there, yes. With Sheluna.”
So—the answer Varajas had expected, but delivered with absolute calm. If it was the war that had made Samir so twitchy, so quick to strike against the unexpected, he was doing an excellent job of masking that.
“What about you?” Samir asked in response. “Were you there with Lysander?”
“I was there, yes.” A comfortably misleading honesty.
“And now you’re going back.”
Samir was watching him, studying him, and it occurred to Varajas to wonder what his own reactions might be revealing. As he was trying to figure out Samir, that Samir might be trying to figure out him.
That wouldn’t do at all. “I go where Prince Lysander goes.” That one was a practiced lie. He knew he delivered it well. Now it was time to turn the conversation back away from himself. “Are you nervous, going back?”
One word, and Samir looked away as he said it. A lie, if ever Varajas had seen one.
Then Samir turned the question back on him. “What about you?”
No amount of practice would have made this lie smooth, so Varajas told the truth. “I’m terrified.”
Samir looked back at him, his brow furrowed. Varajas had surprised him with his answer. But after a moment he shook his head and turned to face forward again, cutting off the conversation in his usual way.
Krys had been asleep, hanging from her perch, her wings wrapped tightly around herself. Without warning, she looked up and screeched and began to flap wildly.
Which startled Torment, and Varajas suddenly had his hands full trying to keep his seat on a half-rearing horse.
“Easy, easy.” Samir murmured—to Krys. He wasn’t paying any attention to Varajas’s struggles.
Varajas was on alert. He pulled Torment around in a tight circle, both to regain control and to make sure nothing was sneaking up on them.
Krys dropped off her perch into Samir’s arms and tried to crawl inside his shirt. She was obviously terrified. And the horses were both worked up, but it was hard to tell if that was from whatever had Krys so upset, or the simple fact of the bat freaking out in their presence.
Samir wrapped his jacket around Krys, whispered soothingly as he stroked her until she calmed. Magic had probably been involved, as quickly as she relaxed.
“Did she hear something?” Varajas asked. “Smell something?”
“I don’t know,” Samir answered calmly. “Let’s find out.”
Samir fell still and closed his eyes. Whatever he was doing, Varajas could be patient. He certainly knew better than to interrupt magic with questions. In the meanwhile, he had his own eyes and ears open and a hand near his sword.
Samir suddenly flinched and gagged. “Oh God, I smell it.” He shook his head, his face a mask of distaste.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know, but it’s awful.” He pointed deeper into the trees. “That way.”
Varajas wasn’t sure if he liked Samir more or less for immediately wanting to go see whatever horribly thing had upset the animals and made him make that face. Maybe a little of both. “Can you give me a hint what you think we’re looking for?”
“You were in Ulek. You remember the smell of the battlefields on a hot afternoon one the sun started baking the bodies full of magic-rot?”
Varajas shuddered despite himself. And drew his sword. “I’ll go first.”
He was expecting an argument from Samir, but the wizard only gripped his reins tighter and nodded.
Varajas had slid his own mind down to the place where magic came easy. Although he’d have to be careful—he could do nothing that could be seen, or recognized as magic. Subtle, that was his watchword. Fortunately, he was good at subtle.
They eased forward, towards whatever had upset Krys. The horses, too, became more obviously nervous. But Torment had been through the war and Varajas trusted him to hold together. And Samir, with his hand steady on Lady’s neck, was likely using magic to keep her steady.
Until a breeze from ahead brought the smell strong enough for Varajas to pick up on it. His stomach turned. “Fuck, that’s…”
“Yeah.” Samir’s voice was soft and smooth. The sort of controlled that Varajas suspected was taking effort. “But we need to see.”
Varajas slid off Torment, dropping the reins to ground-hitch him. Now that he’d gotten a whiff, he didn’t want to bring the horses any closer. Samir followed suit, leaving his own reins knotted at Lady’s neck, but laying a land against her forehead briefly and staring into her eyes. Krys remained with him, still tucked down inside his jacket. He nodded at Varajas, and the continued forward.
There was no question when they reached their destination. And a hollow pulse of horror ran through Varajas as he took in the sight.
Dead, rotting animals were everywhere. Not just decay, but obvious signs of the blight—magic-rot, as Samir had called it. The power of the knife. And in case that wasn’t clear to anyone looking, at the center of the ring of remains was a tree. A dead tree, rotting and black.
Samir took a step forward and Varajas automatically put a hand out to stop him. “It could be contagious.”
Once again, Samir nodded, accepting Varajas’s assessment without argument. Instead of getting any closer, he made a wide circle around the scene.
All while Varajas tried to make sense of what he was seeing. To come up with any explanation except for the obvious one—that somehow the knife’s influence was here. He wasn’t panicking. Not yet. But he could feel a cold sort of fear building inside.
“Come look at this,” Samir said from across the clearing.
What Samir had found was a small circle of rocks. A fire ring. A few months old, by the greenery growing through it. “Someone used this as a campsite.”
And Varajas looked around again. Could this be…familiar?
A few months ago, when he and Ádan and Nikki had been in flight from Ulek. When they’d been carrying the knife with them, unprotected. Had they camped here? Possibly. It wasn’t like one small clearing looked different enough from any other for Varajas to remember.
If they had—if this was because of them, how many more places like this were there in a line between Ulek and Triome? How many boils of decay had they left? And did it form an arrow? Could someone follow this path right to their hiding place?
And even if that wasn’t a danger, what sort of horrific magic was still here, soaking, leaking out?
Light, he needed Ádan here. Except Varajas was pretty sure that, for all his talk, Ádan didn’t actually know much more than the rest of them. And his deeper, darker suspicion was that Derian hadn’t known all that much more himself. That the knights had been performing this secret, sacred duty for years—maybe centuries—without anyone having any real understanding of the power they were trying to hide from the world.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” Samir asked.
Varajas evaded by turning the question back. “Have you?”
“Not since we left Ulek.”
The only marginal upside of the situation was that Samir didn’t seem to find anything suspicious about Varajas’s responses. He just kept staring at the tree, at the animal corpses.
Until he shook his head like he was clearing it, then went to one of the trees outside the ring of death, pulled out a knife, and carved a symbol into it.
“What’s that?” Varajas asked.
“A location sigil. I’ll send a message back to Sheluna. Someone better equipped to figure this out should take a look.”
The last thing Varajas wanted was the Archwizard poking into this. Who knew what she might be able to figure out. But he had no mechanism of his own to send a message back, and he couldn’t turn around and leave Samir to poke around Ulek without supervision.
All he could hope for was that if Sheluna came to look, Korin would come with her. Korin, who Varajas still didn’t trust as blindly as Ádan did, but for better or worse, Korin knew their secrets, and seemed willing to protect them.
“Let’s go back,” Samir said.
Varajas wished he had a better idea, but all he could do was follow.