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A little bench sat tucked among the roses. Sheluna sat, waved for Korin to join her. It felt isolated, private. Especially with Cír prowling about beyond the bushes to make certain no one came too close.

“You were in Ulek.”

Korin nodded, although Sheluna’s words hadn’t been a question.

“You saw what happened there. What it looks like when wizards make war against each other.”

“Knights,” Korin corrected. “We were fighting the knights.”

“Semantics. What I’m talking about is warfare fought with magic, when both sides have it.”

The knights had more than just magic. The knights had used the power of the tree, which was its own flavor of horror. But it still fit the point Sheluna seemed to be making, so Korin nodded.

Sheluna leaned forward, elbows on her knees. A strangely casual position for an Archwizard. “The war in Ulek was years in the making. Father and I, we saw it coming. Talked to the church, to the King of Aleton and the Queen of Ritalle. I brought in the Archiwards of the Sword and the Flame and, eventually, the Balance. Thirty years of politics that led to ten years of fighting.”

Forty years total. Almost twice as long as Korin had been alive.

“It was an immense effort; it required all our resources and attention. And now that it’s over, a number of us are looking around at the world and not happy with what’s happened while our focus was on Ulek. Power has shifted. People have been up to things while our backs were turned. But the last thing anyone wants right now is another war. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“I can’t speak for everyone, but I certainly don’t want any more war.” Although something in the way she was talking made it sound like a trick question. Like she was setting Korin up for…something.

“We—wizards, I mean—have all this power. It’s so easy to abuse. That’s why my ancestor created the wizard orders. That’s why we have the laws we follow. The Knights—they thought they were better than that, that they could live outside the laws. And look what happened. Look what they did to the world.”

Korin nodded, mutely. Afraid to say anything, afraid he might accidentally reveal he knew more about the knights and the origin of their corruption than he should.

“The problem is there are those among the wizard orders who also think themselves outside the laws. That they can get away with abuses of power, that no one will notice, or care, or have the power to stop them.”

“The church—“ Korin began, but Sheluna shook her head.

“It’s a good thought, but no. The church was a great help in Ulek, and certainly the idea of a team of Blades coming after you is frightening enough to keep most average wizards in line. But I’m not talking about average wizards. I’m talking about people with power—real power. People who have gone overlooked for years while the rest of us were busy in Ulek. Wizards who have been ignored for too long.”

Korin kept his face blank, focused on his pulse, on his breathing, calling on magic to keep them steady. Was this some sort of trap? Did Sheluna know about the knife? “What do you want from me?”

Her face showed no signs of suspicion, or even concern. But then, Sheluna knew a lot of the same tricks as Korin. Her body wouldn’t betray her any more than his would. “What I’m looking for is allies. Wizards who believe in the same things I do—that magic is in the world to help, not to abuse. I don’t want another war. No one does. But I’m afraid we may see one if nothing is done.”

Korin most emphatically never wanted to see another war. Sheluna was right about that much. But whatever she was talking around, it couldn’t be as harmless as she was trying to make it sound, or she would have come out and asked for…whatever she was asking for. “What is it you want from me?”

“Nothing specific for now. I’d like to get to know you better. An exchange of ideas, perhaps. I’m looking for friends, Korin. People with different perspectives on the greater community.”

Politics. That was what she was talking about. A subject Korin wanted nothing to do with. And even if he’d been interested in the politics—even if he’d been interested in getting entangled in whatever game Sheluna was playing, it was too dangerous. Sheluna was an Archwizard, one who’d spent years studying and fighting against the knights. She’d been in Ulek. She’d seen the power of the knife, even if she didn’t know exactly what she’d seen.

As long as the knife was talking to Korin, haunting his dreams, he couldn’t risk Sheluna’s scrutiny. He couldn’t afford to get that close.

Korin stood. “Thank you. I’m flattered. But I’m a healer, nothing more. I’m not the person you’re looking for.”

Sheluna spread her hands in a gesture of surrender. “It’s your choice, of course.” She stood, smoothing her robes. Cír moved noiselessly into the bushes as Sheluna gestured for Korin to precede her on the path back out into the garden.

As they came back into view, Sheluna tapped Korin’s shoulder and he turned around to face her. “Think about it, though,” she said. “I’ll be around. You’re welcome here any time.”

Korin searched for a response that was politely noncommittal, but his thoughts derailed and he had to bite his lip against the mad grin that threatened to break free.

Across the garden—whistling as he walked—was Ádan.

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