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Ádan leaned over the railing of Prince Lysander’s balcony, stared down at the woman wandering through the garden below, and tried not to think about just how much he hated her.

The Ritalle Royal Palace was a sprawling collection of golden-domed buildings and towers, loosely connected by lattice-covered walkways and tiled paths through the lush gardens that filled the in-between spaces. Lysander’s tower was one of the tallest, a stone’s throw from the Grand Gallery where the Queen-Regent held court, and Lysander’s apartment was at the top, offering a spectacular view. A view which, at this moment, was ruined by the presence of Sheluna zhi Darkivel.

“Come inside, Ádan. Stop plotting to drop things on my mother’s guests.”

Ádan turned away from the balcony and returned inside. The entire tower belonged to Lysander, every floor an opulent suite with every luxury imaginable, but this room at the top was Ádan’s favorite. Open on all sides with wide, arching doorways and circled by balconies, magically shielded from weather and insects, and high enough that a person could forget the rest of the world existed.

The room itself was covered in soft carpet and deep cushions, with wind chimes at the corners offering a soft, gentle melody. Ádan could relax here. This was perhaps the one place left in all the world where he could feel at peace.

Lysander was here, draped across one of the man-sized pillows like some decadent sculptor’s dream. Stripped of his golden mail, dressed casually in loose pants and a shirt cut open to the navel, exposing a wide expanse of flawless brown skin. In sprawling repose, he reminded Ádan of a jungle cat—all bundled energy, languid on the surface, but ready to strike. Spread with seemingly careless grace on the pillow, covered in lean, lithe muscles, every inch of himself was under perfect control at every moment. Lysander, the warrior-prince of Ritalle. Beloved of the people, acknowledged king-to-be. And now a hero of the war that had destroyed everything Ádan believed in and almost everyone he’d ever loved.

“How long are they staying?” Ádan asked, meaning the Darkivels.

“Mother is throwing a banquet tonight for Archduke Rhanis—which you’re invited to, of course. She wants to formally acknowledge the great service he’s done. But then I think he’s gating back to Darkivel tomorrow.”

“And Sheluna?”

“Lady Archwizard Sheluna zhi Darkivel of the Wing,” Lysander drawled, “will be staying, a guest of the royal court. She told mother she had some project or another that’s going to keep her in Ritalle for a while.”

“Some project,” Ádan repeated without inflection.

“That’s what she said.”

Sheluna zhi Darkivel had no business here. She’d never shown interest in the sort of research that went on at the School of the Balance—the wizard order headquartered here in the city. She’d never shown interest in anything that went on in the city.

Until now. And what a coincidence that Sheluna’s new “project” in Triome was keeping her here just after the knife had been returned. The knife that had—for good or for ill—lived at the heart of the power of the order she had just destroyed. The knife that had only through the most desperate of efforts escaped her in Ulek.

Ádan might have felt alarmed, if he hadn’t pretty much used up all the energy he had for that already. “Well…fuck.”

“Exactly.”

Lysander knew the stakes, knew what Ádan had to protect. He was one of the only allies Ádan had left. But Lysander was as much a prisoner of his position as Ádan. They both had their obligations and their oaths. Which was why Lysander had been in Ulek, fighting at Sheluna’s side.

But Lysander’s presence, his careful leadership, had mitigated a great deal of pain and even saved a few lives. Just not the lives Ádan had most wanted to save.

A body hanging from the broken gate, covered in carrion birds, eyes gone, skin ravaged.

“I hate her,” Ádan said.

“She’s a monster, no question. But you’re not going to make her go away just by standing on my balcony and glaring at her.”

Which was true. Ádan needed a plan. A plan for how three surviving knights could protect the secret their entire order had been killed for. A plan for how to bind and control the knife when every man and woman who understood the knife’s magic was dead. A plan for how to keep going when everything they believed in had been destroyed. “If you have a better suggestion, I’d love to hear it.”

Lysander leaned back, staring up at the ceiling, his cool green eyes thoughtful. So many people underestimated him. They saw the handsome prince with his wild reputation and wilder friends, who spent his days, not in the court where he belonged, but riding with the city guard or patrolling with the army, or hunting or gambling or various other irresponsible pursuits. So many people missed the keen, calculating mind that lurked behind Lysander’s easy smile.

“I can’t do anything about Ulek,” Lysander said. “That’s lost to you. And I can’t make Sheluna unwelcome, much as I’d love to. But I can do one thing. There’s going to be a council. I don’t know when, but soon. Mother wants me to return to Ulek to speak for Ritalle. We don’t know for sure you and V and Nikki are the only ones who escaped. I’ve got a few men I’d trust with this—to go looking for anyone else who made it out of Ulek at the end. Or who managed to not be there in the first place.”

Ádan hadn’t even thought about other survivors. Which was probably a sign he still wasn’t thinking clearly.

A body swinging in the wind. Face pecked away, but the gleaming signet ring on his rotting hand made his identity unmistakable.

“I’d appreciate that,” Ádan said. And then, “I should go check in with Nikki and V. Tell them…tell them what I saw.”

“Be careful.”

As if that were even possible anymore. “I’ll see you soon.”

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Barbara J Webb

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