The night had been kind to Varlaine. He slept soundly, and did not rise until the door to their shelter opened to let in morning light. Naz stirred both he and Eryn awake, and while the pair were groggy, they were at least well-rested; the older mercenary had opted to take watch all night, something the young prince was grateful for, if a bit embarrassed. Their morning was less restful than the night, which turned his mind off of her quickly; they were saddled up and on the road before too long, this time with Naz directing the trio with heavy bags of pilfered treasures to return them to their owners.
With the roads clear and bright, and Naz confident in her retrieved gear, the travel itself at least passed quickly. This time, she sat in front on his horse, which left him to wrap arms around her waist for stability. His cheeks had flushed initially when she’d told him to do so, as she hadn’t when she rode behind, but now that they were on the move it wasn’t so bad. His cheek rest against the cool steel of her breastplate, and it soothed his aching head. It wasn’t until Eryn swooped down to inform them that their destination was in sight that his grogginess had finally started to clear, and when they finally did come to a stop it was more the assaulting scents of the air around them that knocked him out of his haze. Burnt wood, mostly, with a twinge of drying blood; he hadn’t known the latter very well before the previous day, but it unsettled him less than it had then.
Eryn landed behind the pair’s shared horse as they approached the gates, and lagged as they entered. People scattered and gave them space, ordinary folk, not the type he was used to; the clothes they wore were not in much better shape than his tattered robe and undershirt, but at least he found some companionship in the weight their faces showed. Each and every one of them had lost something recently, too: family, friends, neighbors.
While they continued forward, a muttering in their wake, Naz turned her head to and fro in search of something. Expecting Eryn to demand what they were looking for, Varlaine turned his head back to her, but saw instead that she was laying over Cassius’ back and hugging him around the neck. Her visage bore a sedated mix of concern and sadness, which left his heart heavy. Sometimes, he forgot that she was only a trainee, and that she had not yet reached an age where she was ready to be away from her family. This was not one of those times.
“Naz!” A voice called out that took him from his thoughts, and all three of them jerked their heads towards its source. A man who looked in his early twenties, around the same age as Varlaine’s oldest brother, with a mess of sandy brown hair on his head and geared in leather armor, approached them on foot. He had a long, exquisite looking bow on his back, and as he got closer it was obvious that he was more unkempt than the woman he was calling to; his cheeks and neck were rough with stubble, and his clothes were untucked, loose and dirty.
“Nico.” Naz responded with less exuberance than she was greeted with, but it didn’t seem to deter the younger male. He bore a smile on his face despite the state of the buildings around him; Varlaine could see a half burned storefront with a family sifting through its charred interior, among a collection of buildings that likely shared the same fate. “I bring good news.”
The archer’s smile grew, and he cast his eyes over both Varlaine and Eryn, as well as the bags they carried with them. “You coming back at all is good news. Who are the kids? Friends of yours?”
“We’re not kids,” Eryn protested.
“Yes. More importantly…” Naz answered for them, swallowing in preparation before she spoke with her scratchy voice. Her response brought Varlaine’s lips up just a twitch. “The remaining bandits have been dispatched. We have located their hideout, and brought back some proof of our findings.” Her head nodded towards one of the bags hanging from the saddle of Varlaine’s horse, and the prince waved when the new arrival’s eyes trained on him. “I need you to gather everyone you can. Bring them to the square and tell them it is important.”
“You got it,” Nico agreed. “I’ll get moving. How soon are we talking? There aren’t a whole lot of people left, and the people who are… they’re not in the best of sorts.”
Naz frowned at his question. “As soon as possible. Put some spring in your step, Nicomenda.” A dash of irritation crept into her voice, and it seemed to get the response she desired, with the man nodding and starting to walk towards the destroyed shop that Varlaine had been watching. He entered and spoke to them while Naz rubbed a gauntleted hand at her eyes, and the trio stalled in the street for a short moment.
“We can help, too,” ‘Laine offered after a moment of deliberation. It seemed the right thing to do, after all, and the debt they would owe Naz if she held her word and accompanied them southward was much greater than the meager work of hauling some of the treasure they’d reclaimed for a half-day. Eryn sat up when he spoke, and crossed her arms, awaiting Naz’s response.
“No,” She answered, “But thank you. You two should stay with me. The people are not in a very trustful mood. I rather they get the summons from someone they know… and keep you near.”
“Why? Shouldn’t they be happy to see someone from the capital is here to help?” Eryn piped up. She puffed out her chest to show her trainee garb, complete with a royal seal on her breast that stood out prominently.
“That’s the reason I want you two near. Capital sentiment is not positive right now.” Her answer disquieted both Varlaine and Eryn enough that neither complained when she spurred the horse she rode onwards, and Cassius followed unordered.