There was a moment that came, every time they rode back into Triome, where all the tension of the road drained away and Varajas could finally relax, safe in the city that was his home.
By the way Ruan’s shoulders sank and the reins loosened in his hands, Varajas could tell he was feeling the same way.
This had been a long patrol, with Ruan and Varajas picking up extra territory to cover for the Blades who had already been sent south, to keep a closer eye on Ulek. They’d been almost a year on the road, following the coast north and then west, through the city of Whitecliff, where the school of the Eye was placed, then swinging south to cut through the lands surrounding the tower of the Flame, before finally circling back to Triome.
The route was long, but not a year long. In truth, they’d spent more time in Whitecliff and the small towns to the south than they should have. At least, that was what the communications from Brother Eldred had implied. In the end, Varajas had given in to the increasingly direct demands that he and Ruan continue their patrol and return to Triome for their next instructions. Ruan had wanted to stay, but he wasn’t any more comfortable disobeying what had become a direct order than Varajas.
Still, it meant Ruan had been prickly and irritable the entire trip back. Varajas could deal with that just fine, but he was going to need Brother Eldred to be in an agreeable mood, so maybe Ruan should be elsewhere for that talk.
As they turned their horses towards the colorful spires of the Great Church—visible even here, halfway across the city—Varajas reached out to put a hand on Ruan’s arm. “Hey.”
“What?” Ruan snapped.
This was Ruan’s guilt coming through. If he’d just been mad at Varajas, he would be over it by now, but Ruan was mad at himself. Varajas had seen these signs often enough. Seven years since they’d been partnered up as novices, and Varajas knew Ruan inside and out.
“I’m going to talk to Eldred. I’m going to tell him we need to go back to Whitecliff.”
“They’re just going to send us south. You know that. Everyone’s going south.”
The High Father’s obsession with the knights was no secret, and Varajas had never believed any good would come of it. But that was a different argument. “They can’t send every Blade in the world to Ulek.”
“The High Father can send us wherever he wants.” Ruan shook of Varajas’s hand. “You don’t have to talk to me like a child. I know what you’re saying.”
“Still, maybe it would be best if you look after the horses and I go talk to Eldred myself.”
Ruan glared, but didn’t argue. Varajas had to fight down the smile that would only cause more trouble.
As they passed through the side gates of the church, Varajas swung his leg forward and around, then slid off to land lightly on the ground. He stretched, then left Ruan and the horses, heading inside to report.
Brother Eldred was one of High Father Donatien’s chief lieutenants, and the person to whom Ruan and Varajas reported. Only slightly younger than the High Father, Eldred had been in the church all his life, serving with a devotion that bordered on fanaticism. If Varajas were to be completely honest, he would confess he didn’t like Eldred. It didn’t matter, though. Duty was duty. The High Father trusted Eldred, and thus Varajas would too.
Eldred’s office was on one of the higher floors, open and airy, a sign of his rank. Despite the wide windows, open to the ocean breeze, it always felt cramped and cluttered to Varajas. Every wall surface was covered. Maps, marked and scored. Notes pinned over them. Various rosters and requisitions. The desk and tables, too, were piled high with papers in unruly stacks.
Behind them all sat Eldred, who also seemed to be in a perpetual state of disarray. But his mind was sharp, and there were few wizard-hunters who matched his prowess.
“So,” he said at Varajas’s entrance, “the wandering brothers finally decided to return home.”
“As we were ordered.” Varajas didn’t take a seat. He wasn’t interested in getting comfortable here.
“You were ordered weeks ago,” Eldred pointed out.
“Brother Ruan and I were merely performing our due diligence. As I explained in my reports.”
“You were bordering on disobedience. Be thankful the High Father doesn’t believe we can spare a single man right now, or we’d be having a different talk.”
Varajas gave a simple, shallow nod. He refused to be baited. Especially not with hypotheticals. “Since we’re here and having this talk, may I ask where we are to be sent next?”
Eldred’s smile was a bitter twist. “I think you know perfectly well. But if you want to play dumb, that’s fine. You’re going south. To Ulek. The High Father wants every blade available to be down there, gathering evidence.”
“The High Father is looking for an excuse to declare war.”
“Watch your tone,” Eldred said sharply. “And the knights are doing plenty on their own. No excuses needed.”
“And while every blade is in the south, who’s keeping an eye on the rest of the world?”
“That isn’t your concern, Brother Varajas.”
“Two more of us won’t make a difference down there. We left business unfinished in Whitecliff. You should let us go back there.”
“This again.” Eldred leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. Not the air of a man who was open to discussion. “In all your time there, did you find any evidence of wrongdoing?”
“Not yet. Which is why we need to go back.”
“Because you have suspicions. A feeling,” Eldred said with a mocking sneer.
The suspicions—the feeling—had been Ruan’s. But Varajas had learned to trust Ruan’s instincts in all things. When it came to sniffing out wrongdoing, he was almost never wrong.
“It’s our job to investigate these things. If we had evidence, we wouldn’t need to investigate.”
“What you need to do is what you’re told.”
“Please, Eldred.” Varajas wasn’t above begging. Wasn’t above letting his careful pose break a little. “You weren’t up there. I know we have no proof, but we heard about three different apprentice wizards who just up and disappeared as soon as they got their sigils.”
“Wizards graduate and move on. That’s nothing unusual.”
“You weren’t there to see…” Varajas wasn’t even sure how to describe it. That strange encounter in the marketplace. The young wizard of the Eye with a hollow, empty look on his face. Who had seemed to silently be pleading with them for…something.
“Your reports were perfectly clear.” As was Eldred’s dismissive tone. “And now, so are your orders.”
“We can’t just ignore it.”
“This is the end of the discussion. I expect you and Ruan to be heading south by tomorrow. And I’ll have no more of these arguments from you. Why can’t you ever just obey? You walk perilously close to inviting an official reprimand. I’m glad to see Ruan shows better sense by not participating.”
Eldred had no idea the arguments Ruan would be having. But Varajas was happy to take the blame for this, to keep at least one of them out of trouble.
“Light bless you, Brother Eldred,” Varajas managed smoothly.
“Prophet guide you, Brother Varajas,” was Eldred’s offhand response, his attention already returning to the mess of paperwork before him.