Josiah sat across from Ezra, watching the young man eat some of Nathan's stew. The Kandigaran had decided to make something "healthy" for them by mixing up a pot of stew made from roots and herbs. The look on Ezra's face was priceless. He was trying desperately to look as if he enjoyed eating it. But the way he steeled himself between bites had Josiah almost laughing out loud. He looked around to find that Nathan was off by the trees, out of earshot. "You know, you don't have to eat it."
"Hunter Jackson put so much work into this dish. I would not wish to disparage his efforts. And I am hungry." He also did not want to start another argument with the man. Nor did he want to make the others think he was unappreciative. It really shouldn't bother him what they thought, but for some reason he was beginning to care about their opinion of him even though it would come to naught. In any case, Ezra was tired and didn't feel like bickering tonight.
Josiah saw the indecision there. When no one was looking, he took the bowl from Ezra's hand and switched it with his empty one. He then opened up his pouch and handed Ezra some of his trail rations. They weren't gourmet fare, but they couldn't be as bad as Nathan's cooking.
Josiah surreptitiously watched Ezra eat the food with great care and ceremony, careful not to make a mess or get anything on his clothes. Appearances seemed to mean a great deal to the young man. "So, Ezra. You never did answer Buck's question."
"He asked me a great many questions."
"The one about where you're from."
"What makes you think I'm not from around here?"
"Your accent. It's very unusual. I've done a great deal of traveling as a Hunter and even more wandering before I was Called. I've met people from all parts of this fair country and have never encountered an accent like yours."
"I'm sure there are many people you have yet to meet."
"True. But I can't imagine who they might be. And there's something almost stilted about the way you speak, as if it were fairly new to you. Itreya isn't your native language, is it?"
Ezra didn't think he was giving anything significant away by answering truthfully. "No. It is not."
"You're not from the Outlands, are you?"
Josiah found that interesting. He didn't know what the Outlands were, just as he hadn't known about Kandigar. But why would he have knowledge of Belen? "That's what Itreyans call the northern countries that fall outside the protection of Itreya's benevolent magic. Greymorium, Kyron, Shaddus, and Stegra. Only criminals, madmen, monsters, and fools live there by choice."
"Are you implying that I fall into one of those four categories?"
"Since you didn't seem to know what the Outlands even were, that would be no. But if you're not from the Outlands, where are you from?"
"Why this sudden interest in my origins?"
Josiah chuckled. "It's not so sudden. I've been wondering about you since we met."
"Really, good sir. I'm not all that interesting. I'm just a fellow traveler in search of fulfillment."
"Fulfillment of the monetary kind?"
Ezra gave him a sly smile. "Is there any other kind?"
Josiah laughed outright at this. He had a feeling Ezra's interests weren't all financially motivated, but the young man wanted them to think that. It had not missed Josiah's attention that Ezra still hadn't answered the question. Perhaps he'd leave it be for now. A man was entitled to his secrets. Goodness knows, Josiah had plenty of his own. "Well, wherever you're from, Brother Ezra, I'm glad you're here. You've brought an intriguing and scintillating dynamic to our little group. I'm enjoying the company."
Ezra was startled by this. This man was glad he was here? Why on earth would that please him? He'd been nothing but a burden or a nuisance to those around him for almost as long as he could remember. Surely some witty retort was in order, but Ezra found it hard enough to get the surprise off his face let alone actually say something intelligent.
Josiah saw the struggle in Ezra. It saddened him that his new friend didn't know how to take a genuine compliment. The poor man seemed to have a lot of pride so Josiah pretended not to notice his discomfort. Instead he chose to stoke the fire in silence for several minutes.
Nathan walked over to join them by the fire. He saw the empty bowl in Ezra's hands and smiled. Ezra actually ate his stew! He knew he wasn't the best cook, but the others acted like he was trying to poison them. He thought for sure Ezra would be the loudest complainer of them all. Will wonders never cease. "There's more in the pot if you want some."
"That's alright. I'm quite full and couldn't possibly eat another bite of your astounding stew."
Nathan's smile practically gleamed in the firelight. "Well, I'm glad somebody liked it." He gave Josiah and his unfinished bowl a slight look of disdain.
Josiah gave Ezra a sly wink when Nathan wasn't looking. Ezra found himself smiling back.
As the night grew longer and the conversation shorter, the men turned in for such much-needed rest. Ezra curled up under a blanket, pulling his belongings close to his chest.
Josiah watched with a sad heart. The young gambler didn't trust them. But then, why should he? They'd only just met. And he had a feeling Ezra had been betrayed before. It was in the subtle way he flinched whenever someone touched him or got too close, the way his eyes warily kept track of everything and everyone. Josiah knew Chris and Nathan had taken an instant dislike to Ezra because of his greed, but Josiah felt drawn to the lost soul. Perhaps money was the one thing Ezra felt he could count on to be there for him.
Josiah curled up in his own bedroll across the fire. Ezra looked like he was deep asleep, but Josiah had no doubt he would wake in an instant if he were threatened. He probably even had a weapon close at hand, just out of sight. Such an intriguing and strange young man. He chuckled softly and closed his eyes, waiting for sleep to come.