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Another peck from the green bird, and this time Korin felt a drop of blood ooze from the spot. Which took only the barest thought to heal, but the message was clear. Keep going. Keep going towards the palace.

How was he going to get in? Were the sentries going to let a wizard in shabby clothes through because he was escorted by a flock of birds? The thought was absurd.

And wrong. Just outside the main gate, Korin spotted a young man dressed in elegant black, an elaborately jeweled wing sigil in plain view around his neck. The man held a staff taller than him, with a hooked top. From the hook at the top, a furry creature of reddish brown hung upside down, it’s small black eyes locked on Korin. A bat, it had to be, except that it was bigger than Korin’s head. Wizard and bat watched Korin approach.

As Korin got close, the man gave a graceful, sweeping bow. The staff in his hand never wavered. “Welcome, Korin of the Staff. I am Samir of the Wing. I was sent to wait for you and escort you to her Ladyship, the Archwizard Sheluna zhi Darkivel.”

“Excuse me?” Korin asked, surprised. He couldn’t imagine being of interest to any Archwizard—particularly to Sheluna.

The bat—Samir’s familiar?—chittered. Samir absently reached over with his free hand and scratched the top of its head. “Please come with me. Lady Sheluna can answer your questions better than I.” Samir flicked a finger towards the bird on Korin’s shoulder and it flew off. “Please,” he repeated. “It isn’t good to keep her waiting.”

What else could Korin do?

Korin was so caught up in curiosity about what he was doing here, he barely saw the palace Samir was leading him through. He couldn’t help but notice Samir, however. Even as he chided himself for it, reminding himself he had his own gorgeous man.

Wing wizards were always attractive. Every one of them looked as good as he or she wanted to look. And Samir, it seemed, wanted to look gorgeous. A perfect smile on a perfect face. Toned brown skin with just a hint of red layered over defined muscles. Soft-looking black hair that hung to his shoulder with ends just starting to curl. Even in the depths of his worry, Korin couldn’t look away.

The palace was huge and sprawling, a collection of buildings of various heights tied together with elegant arching walkways and covered paths. All the space in between was filled with bright, fragrant gardens.

None of the guards—not anyone questioned Samir and Korin as they wandered through the royal spaces. Until they reached a circular building set apart from the rest, with domed towers and an open courtyard at the center, with greenery everywhere. A garden below, and a garden above on the flat roof.

The garden was lush and thick, with walkways leading between broad-leaved greenery and bright flowers as large as Korin’s head. Voices filtered through the garden—talking, laughing. And other sounds. Animal sounds. A screech. A cry. A growl. As the sea breeze stirred branches and stems, Korin caught sight of the people on the roof as they lounged or walked through the garden. Mostly wizards in elegant black. Wing wizards, with a menagerie of familiars. No question about it—Korin had come to the court of the enemy.

The Order of the Wing was the first of the wizard orders. Its founder had created the whole system. That creator—the very first Archwizard—had been a Darkivel. Since then, while the other orders had expanded and evolved over time, the Order of the Wing had always been led by a Darkivel. The leadership passed down like clockwork, always grandparent to grandchild, with one gifted child born every other generation.

That, in combination with the strange red eyes that marked every gifted Darkivel child, along with the credible rumors of the family’s dealings with demons and outsiders—not to mention the brutal deaths the family’s enemies tended to suffer—suffice to say, the Darkivels had a reputation. They were heroes now, but that was more a testament to the hatred the world had turned on the Wizard Knights than any noble quality the Darkivel’s had demonstrated.

And now Sheluna zhi Darkivel wanted to see Korin.

Samir waved Korin forward. No guards at the door, no servants to announce Korin’s presence. Why should there be? No one would dare to intrude on Archwizard Sheluna’s sanctuary without an invitation. Even with an invitation, Korin had to steel himself to continue.

In Ulek, Korin had met plenty of Wing wizards. To the last, they’d been haughty, self-involved, and over-impressed with their own abilities. Darkivel Archwizards had a long history of flaunting their power, their untouchable position, to play fast and loose with the laws their ancestor had set down for all wizards. And the rest of the Wing order took their cues from there. As a wizard of another order, Korin should have been no business of Sheluna’s. She had no authority over him. No right to summon him. No reason to take any interest in him at all.

As Korin passed into the shade, a cool wave of air passed over him, made him shiver. For the first time since he’d arrived in Triome, Korin wasn’t dressed warm enough. It was magic, of course, cooling the rooftop to an environment comfortable to southern wizards in their dark, heavy clothes. It reminded Korin of the lands he’d left behind. The lands he didn’t miss.

Korin crossed the roof, and the voices around him dropped to whispers.

On the far side, the trees and bushes opened up on a mosaicked circle with a fountain in the center and a ring of couches and benches. A dozen wizards sat in comfortable arrangement. Cats and dogs and lizards and birds darted about in a chaos that defied counting.

At the center of everything, Archwizard Sheluna. She reclined on a pile of cushions arranged on one of the couches, her silver-blonde hair loose across her shoulders and her red eyes glowing. She wore a robe of black velvet, embroidered in blue and gold with the sigils of the Wing and the Darkivel crest. Too heavy for Triome's weather. Flaunting the fact she didn’t have to care.

As Korin stepped into the open area, Sheluna looked over at him, a sweet smile spreading across her perfect face. “Oh, finally. Our guest has arrived.”

Soft pressure against the small of Korin’s back. He turned to look, and froze.

A tiger, its head level with Korin’s chest, stared back.

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Barbara J Webb

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