Judicar flinched in pain, with a twinge of self-loathing as he did so.
He lay in the specially carved bath, a place where only Saints and select caregivers were allowed admittance. For the second time today, he eased himself into the heated waxy substance, its goo clinging to him with the rancor of burning needles. Judicar, despite his pain – weakness, he told himself, despite knowing many around him would not agree – lowered himself quickly, allowing the shock of the bath to embrace him.
He would not bow to the pain now. Not ever. And he was loath to display it to anyone else.
“You don’t have to hide the pain for my benefit,” came a mischievous voice, one that irked and comforted Judicar in equal measure.
Seated beside him, still in his armor and regalia of service to the Holy Thiat, was his friend and sometimes tormentor. Modan looked towards Judicar as he settled into the heavy liquid, his brown-blond curls hanging low.
“I don’t recall,” Judicar said patiently, “you being much help when I received these wounds.”
Modan shrugged. “You didn’t ask me to help you.”
This was true, he had to admit with grudging self-recrimination. There had not been any command forbidding him from taking a fellow Saint on his mission, but Judicar chose to go alone.
Was that pride? He had asked himself the question several times over the past month that he had been confined to the healing center. And despite the meditations and attempts at frankness within his own mind, Judicar had been unable to reach a satisfying conclusion. He still had a ways to go to truly understand himself and his heart… at least, that’s what his old mentor would have told him.
“I acted to carry out my orders with all due haste.”
“And yet…” Modan allowed the words to hang between them.
Annoyance began to flare up within Judicar, and he leveled his steely gaze at Modan. “Do you have something to say?”
Modan smiled, one that made it easy to remember why they had been friends and battle companions for so many years within the Order. “As I understand it, you were given an order to kill them. To kill the remnants of the Shadow Vanguard.”
Judicar nodded. “And?”
“You did track them down, correct?”
“And yet they still live.”
“Some of them still live,” Judicar reminded him.
Modan nodded. “Fair enough.” He paused. “What changed?”
Judicar took a deep breath and recounted his strange encounter on the road.
Izem regarded the man who sat across from him, and then the chess board between them. Again, he pointed to the piece on the board.
“King’s pawn to E4,” Izem repeated.
The man said nothing. His hair was graying, and his face was lined with the weight of several lives. His eyes were clouded over. Not lost in thought. No, it was more an absence of thought. The man’s eyes were bereft of spark, which Izem found unsettling.
What has broken this man? he wondered.
Izem saw movement out of the corner of his eye, and he casually turned his head. He saw the area where the Sisters congregated, either to fill out paperwork or dispense medications or even occasionally talk. The Sisters were always careful with their speech, making sure not to be loud or disruptive to the patients. Many of the patients were in various states of catatonia, whether drug-induced or not. The Sisters tried to be discrete during their conversations but often they underestimated how far their voices would carry.
“Maeza,” began the one Sister, one Izem recognized as Veru, “I misplaced a chart. Have you seen it?”
Maeza offered Veru her honest smile, something Izem recognized and admired in the Sister.
“No, I did not. Where did you leave it?”
Veru smiled awkwardly. “That’s the thing. I didn’t really leave it anywhere. I was going through the pile of charts that arrived this morning for the daily rounds, and I found one that was… I don’t know. Strange, I suppose. I set it aside until I could find a doctor so that I could inquire about it. But it’s gone missing.”
Maeza frowned in confusion. “Strange how?”
Veru’s hand moved towards her chin, the latter settling into the purlicue. “There was a list of instructions that I did not recognize. Words I had never seen before. And it was for a patient in room 52.”
Maeza laughed. “That must have been a mistake, or someone is having a laugh at your expense.”
Veru maintained her serious demeanor. “It was no mistake.”
“But there is no room 52 in any of the buildings on campus.”
“And yet the order was there, Maeza. I’m not making this up!”
“I believe you. It’s just… incredibly odd, no?”
Maeza turned her head towards Izem, as though some intuition had triggered inside of her. Izem did not look away; rather, he maintained a calm, disinterested look and locked eyes with her.
Maeza smiled politely, nodding as she did so, before moving closer, turning Veru away to continue their discussion. Izem could no longer hear the Sisters, and after a moment, turned his attention back to the man across from him. He waited a moment before speaking again.
“King’s pawn to—” he said.
“I heard you,” the man said. His voice was rough and gravelly.
Izem gave only the slightest startle at the man’s words and waited for him to say more.
Nothing else came.
Izem decided to sit in silence and wait for the man’s move. He had time.
He could afford to wait.