The sun hadn’t quite lifted over the horizon when Samir made his way to the courtyard, his pack slung over his shoulder and Krys still chittering in annoyance at being disturbed from her usual routine. Samir slipped her a small bit of pineapple from the pouch at his belt, trying to mollify her, but she continued to scold him as she ate.
As he reached the courtyard, he had to slow down to navigate among close-packed men and horses. Samir knew how big the courtyard was and wondered just how many people had to be here for it to be so crowded. A hundred? Two hundred? It seemed the Queen-regent wanted to make a point about Ritalle’s strength in the coming negotiations.
Prince Lysander was easy to find, already on his golden horse, his golden armor glimmering softly under the lanterns. As Samir approached, Lysander spotted him, called out to him. “Over here! Raj has your horse.”
Samir liked Lysander. But then, as far as he could tell, everyone liked Lysander. The prince had proven himself a hero in the war, and yet in person managed to be thoughtful and kind, putting nobles and commoners alike at ease. They’d spent time together on the warfront, with Samir always being close to Sheluna, and the zhi Darkivels and zhi Ritalle’s having the friendly relationship they did, but Samir hadn’t seen much of Lysander since they’d returned to Triome.
Well, that was about to change. They had weeks ahead of them on the road, where there’d be nothing but time to talk.
If Samir had been traveling on his own, he could have gotten to Ulek much sooner. Almost instantly, in fact. If he’d wanted to show off, he could have opened a gate that the whole train could move through where the palace courtyard would be on one side and the ruins of castle Ulek on the other. But the last thing Samir wanted to do was show off. Or answer the questions that would come up if anyone saw him using that kind of magic.
Off to the side of the prince, Samir found the horse that had to be for him. A tall, black mare with the long limbs and heavy hooves of one of the Ulek breeds. She’d do well in the mountains. On her back, a saddle with a tall wooden arch that had been attached to the cantle. It would give a place for Krys to hang as they rode. Once again, Lysander being thoughtful.
Holding the reins was a man wearing the golden lion-marked livery of the prince’s guard. Raj, Lysander had said. Who’s iron expression did nothing to hide the beauty of his face. He had the dark copper skin and smooth black hair of a local. He was also tall, broad-shoulders, with a soldier’s solid build. Firstborn, like the prince, like Sheluna, like almost everyone who surrounded Samir these days.
Samir hadn’t been involved with anyone in a very long time, and certainly had no wish to draw that kind of attention. But if he had been looking, this was exactly the sort of man who could break his heart.
“I’m Samir,” he said, summoning a smile.
Raj’s expression didn’t soften. “I know.”
Samir had spent five years teaching himself not to flinch, not to panic when someone glared at him like that. Instead, he calmly reached out to take the reins and said, “Thank you.”
Raj didn’t answer, simply turned and walked away.
Samir put it out of his mind. No sense dwelling. He turned his attention to his horse, ran his hand down her neck, and reached into her with his magic.
A quick, easy check revealed her to be in excellent health. She was well-fed, well-rested. No sore or weak spots; no tension or evidence of stress. She’d be a good companion on the road.
Samir tapped the saddle perch and Krys jumped from the staff to the saddle, grabbing with the hooks of her wings and her toes and climbing to hang from the top, where she stretched her wings, before wrapping them back around herself and settling in to go back to sleep.
Samir secured his staff, then swung up into the saddle. This was it. For the first time in five years, he was leaving Sheluna’s protection. Ready or not, it was time to face the world again.
And any consequences that might still be waiting for him in the south.