Erint shifted his satchel to his other shoulder. It would bring him a brief respite from the chafing.
The dry, cracked desert stretched ahead of him, and threatening dunes loomed on the horizon. He dreaded reaching them. It was hard-going as it was, the hot air pressing on him as he walked. Going uphill would be murder.
But he had to do it. Because beyond them was the sun. Mercifully soft now, shimmering just above the skyline, the angry eye closing. Dusk was mercifully close.
He had to keep going.
Once the sun touched the dunes, the world darkened quickly. As Erint was thinking of pitching his tent, he glimpsed a flicker of fire further down the road, and made his way to it.
"Watch weapons," Renair barked. "Someone's coming."
His three travelling companions jumped to their feet, their evening chatter dropping away. Blades hissed free of their scabbards and they moved up as the stranger approached.
He was a young man, barely twenty, his long hair dank with sweat and dripping into his eyes. His travel cloak was new, hardly touched by the desert dust. Slung over his shoulder was a huge leather bag embroidered with a bright white badge of the sun.
"Who walks?" Renair called out.
"Erint of Arfall, by the compass," the boy called back. "I seek shelter for the night."
He stopped when he saw the armed men.
Renair rubbed his chin. "Have you food?"
"Yes," he said, hand darting into his bag. He drew a small sack and opened it, revealing dried saltkigs, shrivelled black fruits with a tart flavour. "I know the custom."
Renair did the bow, his one arm swept aside. "Food for shelter, by the compass," he replied, and the boy joined them.
They sat around the fire as the desert chill set in. The boy stared at the horizon as Renair popped the sharp-tasting fruit in his mouth.
"Where do you go?" Wendis asked. The big, bearded man looked much rougher than he really was.
"I follow the sun," the boy said.
Wendis chuckled. "So you go in circles?"
"No," the boy said, but didn't elaborate.
"But the sun moves all day," the big man said. "How can following it lead you anywhere?"
The boy frowned. "It's what I was told to do."
Wendis let out a big laugh this time. "Whoever told you that was yanking your tail. You've been tricked, boy."
Renair saw a flicker of doubt in the boy's eyes.
He wanted to encourage him. To tell him he was doing it right, he just had to keep going.
But he couldn't. Because every person who found the academy was sworn to secrecy. Only those who were willing to take that blind leap were worthy.
So he reached into his sack, pushing the Seal of the Sun further down, and drew out a bapriot. He held it up, the flames dancing across its dry, mottled black skin which gave no hint of the luscious, fruity flesh within, and tossed it to the boy.
"Pay no attention to him. Here. Food for food, to fight the desert heat."