“Why shouldn’t I trust them?”
The air was humid and insects buzzed by my ear. Elenor splashed her feet in the water, sending ripples across the surface.
“They’re nice people,” continued Elenor. “They’ve saved our lives before, suffered a lot of pain to protect us, and even gone out of their way for our comfort and security.”
I frowned. That wasn’t grounds for suspicion, it was grounds for friendship. “And their niceness makes them untrustworthy?”
“No, that was a disclaimer. Just wanted to let you know I like them.”
“Then why shouldn’t I trust them?”
“Because they’re not our friends.”
I frowned. I thought she was going to talk about the stuff with Inline, not question friendships. “What do you mean? Of course they’re my friends.”
She shook her head. “What I mean is, they aren’t helping us because they like us, they’re helping us because it’s their job. We hired them to take us to Bendeck. The second we reach the city, they’ll be released from the assignment, and we’ll be on our own.”
That was true. They were on a guild sanctioned mission to escort us to Bendeck, and we couldn’t rely on them after the mission ended. But that didn’t mean we couldn’t be friends. After all we’d been through together, we’d gotten pretty close. I could eat with them, laugh with them, cry with them, and rely on them to have my back.
“That’s not enough of a reason,” I said. A part of me was happy I wasn’t the only paranoid one but since I’d been over those doubts in my head already, I shrugged off Elenor’s concerns and stood up. “Come on, the sun’s going down.”
Because of the battle with Ulfric’s team, we hadn’t been able to reach the first rest-stop in time, which was why the others were setting up tents back at camp. We needed to get back with the water so we could start cooking dinner.
“But what I love even more than hearing about those stories is reading them.”
I stopped and turned around. “What’d you say?”
“I didn’t say anything,” said Elenor, still kicking the water. “Those were your words. You whispered them into that Inline guy’s ears.”
I frowned. She must have heard me with her magic.
“I didn’t hear it with my magic.” She tapped her ear. “I heard it with these.”
“Good for you,” I said.
“I’ve heard a lot of things, you know. Sally’s complaints about having to keep track of her pickaxe, Jerome’s mumblings about his inventions, Ben’s tone-deaf humming. I’ve heard you muttering crazy things in your sleep, something about books and armchairs.”
My eyes widened. How much did she know about my dreams? Did she know about Static? Did she know about my mission? Humbug, I couldn’t let her find out yet!
“Did I say anything else? I keep forgetting what my nightmares were about, please let me know if there was anything else.”
She shook her head. “Most of your sleep-talking is gibberish. You said something about bananas once, if that helps.”
It didn’t. “I get it, you’ve been eavesdropping on everyone. What’s the point of bringing it up?”
“Because I’ve heard more than sleep-talk about bananas, and humming,” she said. She stopped kicking the water and turned her face to me. The action surprised me, Elenor rarely turned to me while speaking if she wasn’t already facing me. “They knew Inline was going to come after us.”
“Yeah, Jerome said so, didn’t he? It’s not that surprising, considering everything that happened.”
“You don’t get it, they knew we’d be attacked outside Devel.”
“What?” I frowned.
Elenor nodded. “I heard Jerome discussing it with Sally. You were looking for Ben at the stream, and they thought I’d gone after you.”
“What did they say?”
“Jerome was arguing with Sally. He said they should tell the guilds about Skinner and Tanner, but she said no.”
“Why would she say that?”
“The same thing Jerome told us later, Inline wouldn’t come for us that quickly.”
“Doesn’t that mean Jerome was telling the truth? None of this means anything.”
“They kept arguing,” continued Elenor, putting up a finger to stop me. “And Jerome said Sally didn’t know Inline the way he did. They were ruthless, amoral, and unpredictable, they needed to prepare for the worst.”
Sounded like Jerome had some history with Inline. “If he was so concerned about it, why didn’t he just go to the guilds on his own?”
Elenor nodded. “My thoughts exactly. It gets worse though. Sally agreed.”
“But then…” I paused. “They didn’t tell the guilds.”
“They said they would.”
“But they didn’t, did they?”
“Maybe they did.” Elenor stood up. “But that would mean they lied to us.”
“Could have been a white lie. We were in front of the team from Inline.”
Elenor shook her head. “That makes no sense. Telling them we had already told the guilds would be a deterrent. Telling them we were going to tell the guilds, would make us high priority targets.”
My eyes widened. “They want us to get attacked again!”
Elenor shrugged. “Maybe. It’s still possible something happened that made them decide not to tell the guilds after all. However, that was all they said at the time. I don’t think they were ever alone again afterwards.”
Elenor was right, they could have talked about it later and decided not to tell the guilds, although I couldn’t think of a reason why they wouldn’t. But there was a more important question on my mind.
“If they did end up telling the guilds while we were in Devel,” I said. “Then why did Inline still attack us?”
“Maybe they don’t care about the guilds after all? Honestly, Inline has the Front Party behind them, there’s no reason for them to worry about the guilds. In fact, it’s the guilds who wouldn’t want to lock horns with Inline over an insignificant escort mission.” Elenor tapped her baton. “What’s more, the current Official’s been shoring up power like crazy. Devel, Bass, and Bendeck are almost completely under his control, and his votes in Chart were rising just last year. If Gecko Ross wasn’t such an absolute madman, the Side Party would have collapsed by now.”
That was counterintuitive but I guess that’s politics. “Do the others know this?”
“Of course, they probably understand the situation way better than I do. I didn’t know any of this when we left Sett.”
“You overheard it all, didn’t you?”
“People love talking about politics.”
“Nobody likes hearing about it though.”
“I do,” said Elenor. “It’s like a game, sometimes. One with really high stakes.” She began walking.
I followed. “If the others know the guilds aren’t going to stop Inline, does that mean they said all that to make us feel better?”
“I doubt it. In my experience, they’ve been forthright about our situation, most of the time. I think they wanted that team from Inline to know the guilds were involved.”
“Why? Like you said, that just makes us bigger targets.”
“I don’t know.” Elenor tapped her baton on a tree trunk. “They’re hiding something, and I don’t like being kept in the dark.”
I had to walk slowly and carefully because of the pot full of water. It swished and swirled with my gait, threatening to spill. I made sure to test every step so I wouldn’t trip.
“I agree, but I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it right now.”
“Yes, but stay vigilant. Inline is going to attack us again and Sally’s team knows it. And…” She tapped me with her baton.
I stopped and raised an eyebrow.
“When that happens, keep an eye on them too, okay?”
I hesitated then said, “Okay.”
She nodded. We continued walking. The sun was so low it hid behind the short, stumpy trees around us. Elenor led us back through the shrubs although I was worried about snakes and scorpions.
“Oh wait,” I said.
Elenor stopped, her baton on a stumpy, gnarled tree branch.
I squinted in the dimming sunlight. “You said I shouldn’t trust Ben, but never told me why.”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? But you told me I especially shouldn’t trust him. You can’t just say that for no reason.”
“I said I didn’t know, not that I didn’t have a reason.”
I expected her to go on but she didn’t. “What reason?”
“It’s a hunch.”
“My intuition is strong.”
“It also isn’t a reason.”
“It’s good enough for me.” She shrugged. “I’m sure you can think of something more concrete, all I’ve got is a vague sense of unease. Something about him, it rubs me the wrong way.”
“Do you know what that something is?”
“If I did, I would have already told you. All I can say is, he’s the only person who makes me question my abilities.”
He makes her question her abilities; what the hell does that mean? “I don’t get it.”
A long silence.
“I’ll keep an eye on him.”
We reached the camp as the last bit of red in the sky turned blue. The camp was by the road, since that was the only clearing and there was nowhere to hide. Ben stood by the campfire while Jerome fixed up the last tent. Sally sat between them with her backpack open in front of her.
“Finally, you’re back!” said Ben with a smile. “I was about to go looking for you.”
I nudged Elenor with my elbow. “Somebody wanted to dangle her feet in the pond.”
“A pond?” said Sally. “Was it clear?”
I shook my head. “No, it wasn’t.”
“That’s fine,” said Jerome. “I have a filtering box. Just make sure to boil it afterwards.”
Oh, so the people of this world did know how to clean water. A lesson against small sample sizes, I guess.
Jerome filtered and boiled the water, while Ben and I cut vegetables for the stew. Sally washed the meat to get rid of the preserving salts, then put it into the pot with boiling water. We added the vegetables later, once the pot hung over the fire on a makeshift spit.
The stew was warm and the vegetables had a strange texture that made me pucker my lips and roll my tongue. There was enough for seconds but I was full after one round. After cleaning up, Ben elected to take first watch, so the rest of us went into our tents.
Elenor, Sally, and I got into the larger tent, which was big enough for all our sleeping bags and some equipment. We kept the tent’s flap open, even though it let in a ton of insects, because the air was humid and three unwashed bodies smelled really bad.
“Goodnight,” said Sally, yawning.
“Night,” said Elenor, having put away her glasses.
“Yeah,” I said, watching Ben through the flap. “Goodnight.”