Crowds had already gathered along the parade route. It seemed like everyone in Triome had turned up. Korin had never seen so many people all in one place. On the streets, packed into balconies, at windows, along rooftops.
Smells of spicy chicken and roasting cinnamon made Korin’s stomach rumble, despite that he’d just eaten. The food in Triome had been a revelation, and Korin had yet to stop being amazed by it.
Korin squeezed through the back of the crowd, moving up the street, but couldn’t find any gaps offering a good vantage point. It hadn’t occurred to him there would be this many people. It hadn’t occurred that there could be this many people.
Something stung his neck, and Korin slapped reflexively. The insects here were another new thing, although most of the time they ignored him. Except there wasn’t anything there. Korin was lowering his hand just as something small and hard struck his knuckle. This time, he saw the pebble bounce away as it fell. Then a third struck his shoulder.
Korin looked around. Was someone throwing rocks at him? But no one seemed to be paying him any attention. His eyes scanned the crowd. He looked all around. Then up.
Two buildings down, on the second story roof of a manor walled off from the street, was a face Korin recognized. A handsome, firstborn face on a solid, warrior’s body. One of the knights, although not the one Korin most wanted to see.
Varajas waved, beckoning Korin to join him on the roof.
Getting there proved an interesting challenge. There were no obvious places to climb the wall that was there to keep people out of the gardens that surrounded this house. Korin had to run and jump, catching the top of the wall with his fingertips, and scrabble up before he lost his grip. He crept nervously through the lush green garden, certain he wasn’t supposed to be there. A sturdy trellis got him to the top of the first story, and from there he had to ease along a narrow eave to reach the part of the second story roof that sloped down low enough to grab, then pull himself up again.
A few weeks ago, Korin wouldn’t have been able to do this. He’d been ragged, exhausted, from hard travel and war, and then from a brutal encounter with destructive magic. But time healed all wounds, especially when one was a wizard like Korin. A few quiet weeks of rest and recovery, coupled with the steamy Spring weather and as much delicious food as he could eat and Korin was in possibly the best shape of his life.
Varajas waited for Korin, nodded as Korin carefully crossed the central peak, then worked his way down the slope to join him. Varajas wore a light cloth wrap around his head, protection from the sun, but also a convenient way to hide his face. He’d pulled the cloth back up over his nose, so only his eyes were visible.
“Were you throwing rocks at me?” Korin asked as he sat down.
“Got your attention.”
In truth, Korin was surprised Varajas had wanted him up here at all. It wasn’t like they were friends. Korin knew the knights’ secrets—the most important of which being the fact that they still existed at all. The rest of the world thought they were all dead, defeated two months ago in Ulek, at the end of a war that still gave Korin nightmares. But Varajas, along with Ádan and Nikki had escaped the final blows and made it to Triome, dragging a horrible, dangerous burden along with them.
“You’re looking better,” Varajas commented.
The last time Varajas had seen Korin had been at the end of a fight against monsters who had almost taken Korin’s life. Varajas, Ádan, and Nikki had saved Korin. “I never got a chance to thank you—“
Varajas waved away Korin’s thanks. “It’s a nice day. No reason to talk about that.”
Korin couldn’t argue. The bright afternoon sun was tempered by the cool, salty breeze coming in off the ocean. Up here, neither the noise nor the smell of the crowds below was overwhelming. Korin had a fleeting regret he hadn’t stopped to grab some of the cinnamon almonds a vendor below was selling, fresh roasted and fragrant, but it wasn’t worth climbing back down to get them.
Cheers rippled through the crowd as the leading edge of the parade came into view. Acrobats in bright flowing silks leaped and tumbled, graceful and colorful as exotic birds. “Oh,” Korin breathed.
Varajas snorted. “Don’t get out much, do you?”
“I’ve never seen anything like this.” Most of Korin’s life had been spent in small, remote towns and villages in the freezing south. Or the small, remote school where he’d learned to be a wizard. Or at war.
“This is just the warm-up,” Varajas said. “Getting the crowd worked up so they’ll cheer properly for the people who matter.”
Korin didn’t know what to say to that, so he just kept watching. After the acrobats came music, flutes and drums and pipes, and behind the musicians, dancers draped in flashing crystal jewelry and little else.
More acrobats and a man breathing fire. Men and women in bright feathers. A flame wizard surrounded by dancing girls whose bodies sparked with illusionary fire as they moved.
It was all magic to Korin.
The cheers of the crowd swelled to a roar as the first riders came around a bend in the street. “Behold the conquering heroes,” Varajas muttered, bitter.
At the front of the line, bejeweled and as beautiful as if they had appeared out of some legend, riding side by side on prancing horses of matching black, Archduke Rhanis zhi Darkivel and his daughter, Archwizard Sheluna of the Wing. Their golden hair flowed bright in the tropical sun as they waved at their cheering audience. The Archduke was old, over one hundred and fifty years, but firstborn aged slowly and gracefully, and he more resembled some fabled warrior prince than a man nearing the end of his prime. Sheluna was a wizard—the Archwizard—of the only order that knew as much about shaping the body as did Korin’s own. Which meant she was exactly as beautiful as she wanted to be. Both were dressed in striking blacks, shining gold, and the dark, rich sapphire color that was known from south to north as Darkivel blue.
The Darkivels. The heroes who had tirelessly led fifty years of brutal warfare to save the world from the demonic scourge of the knights, their Grandmaster, and their King.
“I hate them,” Varajas whispered.
Korin didn’t know what to think. The world, as he was learning, was more complicated than he had ever realized in his time spent on the warfront dealing with the results of the barbaric tactics both sides had leveraged.
Behind the Darkivels rode a man with iron-gray hair, dressed in silver-threaded black. Korin didn’t recognize the man’s face, but he knew the meaning of the twin swords at the man’s hips and the Prophet’s cross hanging from the man’s neck. “Is that High Father Donatien?”
“Of course it is,” Varajas answered. “Who else would be riding with the snakes?”
Korin flinched at the word snake, and shivered under the hot afternoon sun. He glanced at Varajas, but V’s attention was still on the parade. He didn’t seem to have meant anything significant. Nor had he noticed Korin’s reaction. Korin looked back down at Donatien, leader of the Bladed Brothers, the militant arm of the church.
Korin had seen plenty of Blades on the warfront. He’d kept his distance, as had any wizard with sense. The Brothers had been there to fight against the knights, but they specialized in killing the gifted, whether those gifted were wizard-knights or order-sworn wizards. Donatien and all his followers were on good terms with Archwizard Sheluna, which should mean they were harmless to any wizard who kept their oath, but there were whispers. There were always whispers.
An ordered column of Blades rode behind their High Father, pulling a “Shit,” out of Varajas.
Varajas shook his head. “Nothing. Just…Blades in the city. Could be trouble.”
Something in Varajas’s voice sounded off, but before Korin could ask another question, he was distracted.
Behind the Blades, a completely different group of young men. Dressed in bright colors, their horses prancing and sidestepping with restless energy, the vivid opposite of the tight, disciplined column they followed. Korin’s stomach gave a flip as he recognized one of them. “Is that Ádan?”
Varajas rolled his eyes. “Of course it is,” he said with the same flat disapproval as he’d expressed for High Father Donatien and the Darkivels.
“He’s back.” Korin couldn’t keep the excitement out of his voice.
“Along with the prince.” Varajas pointed at the man to Ádan’s right. A firstborn in bright gold mail on a bright gold horse, a flashing smile on his sharply handsome face as he waved to the crowd. “Lysander, the Darkivels, High Father Donatien, and Ádan. This city isn’t big enough.”
Korin was only half-listening. He couldn’t take his eyes off Ádan. He looked like a prince himself. Dressed in silver and black leathers that molded perfectly to his muscular frame, Ádan stood tall in his stirrups, urging his horse to a prancing trot. He laughed in response to one of his companions, and Korin couldn’t hold back his own answering smile.
Varajas sighed. “I’ll see you around, Korin." He slipped away over the rooftop. Korin hardly noticed.
Ádan was back.