It was their certainty that angered him. Their condescending, unwavering certainty that anyone with magic should burn in hell-fire.
At least, he thought as he approached their grimy compound on the easternmost edge of the Nubrevnan border, they treat all men with equal venom. Usually shouts of Repent, demon! Pay for your sins! were reserved for Aeduan exclusively. It was nice to have the hate spread around.
Aeduan was late coming to the compound. He should have met his father’s contact two days before, but instead he’d run all across Nubrevna, hunting a ghost for two weeks.
Now here he was, hundreds of miles away and facing crooked pine walls perched atop a hill’s limestone edge. The compound looked as sick and barren as the land on which it rested, and Aeduan passed splintered trunks and ashy soil before he reached the two men guarding the tall entry gate.
Though both men wore matching brown Purist robes, neither had the look of an anti-magic cultist—nor the scent of one on his blood. Battlefields and tar. These were men of violence, and they proved it when they lifted crossbows at Aeduan’s approach.
“I seek one of your priests,” Aeduan called to them. He lifted his hands.
“Which priest?” asked the skinnier of the two, his skin Marstoki brown.
“A man named Corlant.” Aeduan slowed so the guards could see that his hands were empty—for of course, his knives were hidden within his buttoned-up coat. “He should have recently arrived.”
“Your name?” asked the second man, his skin black as pitch and his accent Southlander—though which nation, Aeduan couldn’t guess.
Upon giving his name, both men lowered their crossbows. The Southlander led the way through a side door near the main gate.
The interior of the compound was even grimier than the outside, all churned mud and clucking chickens and crude huts that would topple beneath a determined breeze. A string of men and women leaned against the main wall, each with baskets or empty sacks, waiting to enter the nearest hut. None spoke.
“They listen to one of our priests,” the Southlander explained. “Then they get food for their families.”
“They aren’t Purists?”
“Not yet. But they will be.” As the man uttered this, a boy stumbled from the hut, blinking as if coming up from a dream. In his arms was a basket.
Unbidden, a memory stirred in the back of Aeduan’s mind. Another child, another basket, another lifetime, and a monk named Evrane, who had saved him from it all.
Evrane’s mistake. She should have left Aeduan behind.
“You are late.” The words cut across the courtyard. Like mud from a riverbank, they slid into Aeduan’s ears and oozed down his spine.
Instantly Aeduan’s magic stirred. Wet caves and white-knuckled grips. Rusted locks and endless hunger.
Then from the faded wood of a hut, a shadowy shape peeled off. One moment, there were only the shaded planks. The next moment, a towering rope-thin man with Nomatsi features was standing beside it.
The mere presence of the priest grated against Aeduan’s power with a primal sense of wrongness. Like watching an earwig scuttle across the room. The urge to smash Corlant would forever coil in Aeduan’s muscles when they met.
Corlant flicked a lazy wrist at Aeduan’s guide. “Return to your post,” he commanded.
The Southlander bowed. “Blessed are the pure.”
Corlant waited until the man was back outside the compound before slithering his attention to Aeduan. A long stare passed between them, with Corlant’s eyebrows rising ever higher. Three deep trenches carved across his pale forehead.
“Has anyone ever told you,” Corlant said eventually, “that you look more and more like your mother each day?”
Aeduan knew when he was being baited, yet Corlant was a friend of Aeduan’s father. They’d grown up in the same tribe; they now thirsted for vengeance against the three empires. So as much as Aeduan might wish to crush Corlant—and might even imagine doing so from time to time—it was not a dream he could ever actually satisfy.
Once it was clear that Aeduan had no intention of answering, Corlant moved on to business. “Where is the money, boy?”
“I’m getting it.”
“Oh? It is not here, then?” Corlant’s nostrils fluttered, yet it wasn’t with anger so much as hunger. As if he sensed something was amiss like a leech smells blood upon the water. “I was promised silver talers.”
“And you will have them. Not today, though.”
Corlant fidgeted with his chain, a smile curving up. “You’ve lost the money, haven’t you, boy? Was it stolen?”
Aeduan didn’t answer. The truth was, when he had returned to the tree trunk where he’d hidden the money he had earned from Prince Leopold fon Cartorra, he had found only an empty iron box and a handful of coins.
Lingering near the box had been a familiar blood-scent. Of clear lakes and frozen winters. It was the same person who’d conspired with Prince Leopold to betray Aeduan, so immediately Aeduan had set out to track it.
But after trailing west for a week, that smell had winked out entirely, leaving Aeduan with no choice but to give up and come here empty-handed. Money or no, he was still meant to meet Corlant for his next orders.
“Does your father know about this?” Corlant pressed. “For I will gladly tell him when next we speak.”
Aeduan gazed pointedly into the middle distance before answering, “The king doesn’t know.”
A bark of laughter from the priest. He dropped the chain with a hollow thunk against his chest. “Now this is unexpected, is it not?” He spun away, aiming for a cluster of huts in the back of the compound, and leaving Aeduan with no choice but to prowl after.
Chickens careened from Corlant’s path, as did more men in brown robes. Men, Aeduan noted—the Purists were always men. Aeduan followed, careful to stay a footstep behind. Not because he felt Corlant deserved the lead, but because it pleased him to watch the man constantly crane his neck backward to speak.
“We are at an interesting crossroads,” Corlant said over his shoulder. “You see, I need something done, and you need something hidden.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Corlant’s eyes flashed. “You seem to think you have more power than you actually do, boy.” He paused before an open door. Beyond, a set of stairs sank into filmy darkness below the earth. “You may be Ragnor’s son, but I have known Ragnor for far longer than you. When it comes to where his loyalties lie—”