“That one? Sure, she used to come by every morning for some fruit and a bit of tea. One day just stopped. Haven’t seen her since.”
Ruan thanked the man, one of the many with a stand along this line of beach. Behind them was the steep, gleaming cliff that gave this city its name. At the top, the School of the Eye.
Like the Balance, the Eye was one of the larger wizard schools, and catered to wizards and non-wizards alike. All the children of the noble families in Whitecliff and the surrounding towns attended. And every year, it graduated five-to-ten new wizards.
Every year, it seemed, one of those wizards went missing.
Ruan and Varajas had stumbled over this trend by accident, after hearing reports of a particular student who had caused trouble in school and wanting to check up on him to make sure he’d learned better since earning his sigil. That he wasn’t abusing his power in any way. That was their job. That was the entire purpose of the Blades. To protect people with no magic from the people who had it.
This particular young man had simply disappeared. Which…happened. People moved. Wizards had an easier time of that than most. Those that entered into an apprenticeship with someone from out of town didn’t always leave a trail.
But in asking about this young man, someone had made the offhand comment of, “Just like that other one,” and that was the start of a pattern that they discovered had been going on for a while.
It was hard to get people at the school to talk. Wizards were always suspicious of Blades. Ruan tried not to take that automatically as a sign of guilt. There were plenty of people outside the school, though. Even students didn’t live entirely in a bubble. This was where Ruan was discovering all kinds of things he didn’t like.
This was where they’d seen, oh so briefly, the wizard who had looked scared, and sick, and alone.
At the end of the row, Ruan met back up with Varajas, who was eating a bowl of ceviche and staring out at the water. “Any luck?” he asked.
“Depends on what you count as luck. I’ve certainly got a new suspect.”
Varajas had been up at the school while Ruan was working his way through the townspeople. “The Archwizard?”
“I didn’t get to talk to Innokent. A star wizard instead, who seems to be his friend, and is almost certainly hiding something.”
They were used to people hiding things. The question was always whether the things the wizards were trying to hide were things the church cared about. “I have some names. People who remember our missing wizards.”
Varajas nodded, his eyes still on the water. Ruan waited, patient. Varajas thoughtful was always a good thing.
They made an exceptional team in so many ways, and one of those was the way their minds seemed to work when they were solving problems. Ruan had flashes—bright moments of inspiration or insight—and moved between them mostly on instinct. He trusted his feelings, let his mind run where it wanted to run, even when that didn’t seem to fit with whatever they were trying to solve.
Varajas’s head was like a puzzle, or an intricate machine. He collected every piece of information, turned it over and over, found all the holes, all the way things fit together. Until he had as thorough an understanding as was possible.
“I’m going to walk for a bit,” Varajas finally said. “You want to keep asking questions out here?”
“I can do that.”
“There’s just something that doesn’t feel right. Something I can’t put my finger on.”
Ruan understood exactly what Varajas meant. He, too, was looking for something, but he wasn’t sure what, and he was trying hard not to focus in too close on that thought. He wanted to leave his mind, his senses open. Some tiny thread was tugging at his brain—had been for a while—but he knew from experience he couldn’t push.
They were both deep in their own heads, trying to figure this thing out. They’d talk as soon as one of them found something to say.
Ruan slowly walked back up the beach. What he wanted was to catch sight of the wizard they’d seen before. Sebastian, they thought, was his name, based on descriptions they’d gotten from people at the school. He’d been a student here. Graduated two years ago. No one had seen him since, or even remembered what order he had joined.
Ruan was getting deeply irritated by the fact no one else seemed interested in this investigation. No one but he and Varajas seemed to care that these people had gone missing. That it kept happening.
It bothered Varajas too. He hid it well, but Ruan knew the signs. Varajas didn’t ruffle as easy as Ruan, but when he was angry, it started as a black ember, deep inside him, growing in strength until he erupted with implacable force. Then Light help anyone who was standing on the wrong side of justice.
Further down, the cliffs turned inland and the crescent of beach widened and solidified into the trailing edge of the city. Whitecliff had a sense of familiarity to it. Like Triome, it was an ocean port city, a cosmopolitan trading hub for the world. Familiar enough Ruan had relaxed, let his guard down.
Which was how he was startled by the wizard suddenly unfolding herself from a seated position on the large rock just at the edge of where sand transitioned to cobblestone.
She was tall and lean, dressed in a simple gray tunic and trousers, with a sword at her side and a matching sigil at her neck. She had to have been concealing herself. There was no other way Ruan hadn’t noticed her. The question was, why?
“You. Priest,” she said.
He bristled at her abrupt tone. “My name is Ruan.”
“You’re the one asking about wizards who have disappeared.”
“My companion and I, yes.”
She nodded. “He was up at the school, yes?”
“Have you been spying on us?”
“Not the question you should be asking.”
Ruan hadn’t met a lot of Sword wizards. They were one of the smallest orders to begin with, and with their school in the deep, deep south, he’d never been near the place that had the highest concentration. They kept to themselves, usually. Hired out as mercenaries on occasion. In general, they simply weren’t around the places most wizards—and therefore Blades—tended to congregate.
Ruan wondered if they were all this aggravating. “Tell me then, what’s the question you want me to ask.”
“Your companion wants help from the Archwizard. You really think these things could be happening and the Archwizard doesn’t know?”
Ruan didn’t have a lot of experience with Archwizards, but wizards in general seemed prone to the kind of self-absorption that made it so they didn’t notice anything that wasn’t happening right under their own noses. “How much attention does the Archwizard pay to students? There are fifty children in the school right now studying magic, and another three hundred there for the academics. I believe a few could go missing around the edges without him being the wiser.” And because he hated being on the defensive in a conversation, he turned the questions around on her. “Do you know something about the disappearances?”
“I know children are missing. And I know you aren’t the first priest in black to be sniffing around.”
Ruan couldn’t determine if that was supposed to be a warning or a threat. “Why are you here talking to me?”
“Because no one else will.” Her stance softened the slightest bit and she lowered her voice. “They did apprentice. Every one. But I can’t tell you to whom. I’m not sure anyone will be able to.”
Ruan wasn’t sure what she was implying. “Some kind of secret apprenticeship?”
“Not secret to everyone.”
Clearly. “Someone at the school has to know who they talked to.”
A very slight nod.
It was a place to start. “Is there anything else you can tell me?”
“Be careful. These are secrets that don’t want to be found.”
Wizard secrets. Wizard abuses. “This is my duty.”
“As you say.” She turned her head to look into the city, the movement so deliberate Ruan did the same. When he looked back, she was gone.