Lysander called a halt a good hour before sunset, giving the column time to get a camp established before dark. Samir was exhausted. The riding itself wasn’t so bad—not what he was used to, but he’d be a poor excuse for a Wing wizard if he couldn’t push away some saddle soreness.
No, the exhaustion came from a whole day at Lysander’s side, with Lysander’s constant conversation. And while Samir appreciated the effort Lysander was putting in to make him feel welcome and comfortable, maybe tomorrow he’d make an excuse to spend some time on his own.
Especially since he couldn’t shake the memory of that strange dream. Him in the darkness, in some crumbling fortress. It lingered with him, a shadow in the back of his mind that he couldn’t shake.
Before Sheluna had brought Samir into the Wing, Samir had studied dreams. Most of the time, they were just the mind working things through, images and echoes that had no greater meaning. But sometimes magic got twisted in, and dreams could have more substance. This had felt like one of those dreams. Samir just had no idea what that might imply.
Samir took some time looking after his horse—who he’d taken to calling Lady for her perfect manners. He pulled off and wiped down her saddle, left the blanket where it could air, and gave her a good, long rub-down. He checked her hooves, her mouth, her legs, both with his hands and then with magic, making sure she had no sore spots. It was soothing work, and Samir enjoyed it.
By the time he’d finished and left her munching on a bag of grain, Samir’s tent had been set up. He rated his own private space, which was nice. It was small, maybe an eight the size of the nearby pavilion that belonged to Lysander, but Samir didn’t need much.
Lysander had already retreated into his big tent with Raj, the guardsman. Samir hadn’t missed the way Raj had been watching him all day. Didn’t trust the wizard so close to his prince? Whatever his problem, Samir hoped he got over it. The staring was uncomfortable.
Samir had known this trip would be uncomfortable. He’d just hoped it would take a little longer to ramp up. Raj seemed specifically designed by the universe, however, to poke at every sore spot Samir had. The fact that he was watching Samir so closely, when Samir still wasn’t comfortable being noticed by anyone—that was bad enough. But Raj was tall, and broad, and brooding, with a handsome face and solid body, and if Samir were as recovered as he wanted to believe, he should be welcoming the attention from someone like that. That he was more uncomfortable because of all that, rather than in spite of—it forced Samir to face ideas and thoughts and memories he hadn’t even realized he’d been avoiding.
Which was why Samir wasn’t exactly hiding, tonight, but it worked out that he had this tent to himself and that everyone else was tired enough after the first day of travel that he could justify being alone in here without seeming too anti social.
Samir unrolled a blanket and sat down cross-legged, pulling his fate deck from his bag. Krys hooked herself over the rope that ran along the apex, twisting her head to look down at what he was doing.
This was also soothing, shuffling the familiar cards, feeling their solid presence in his hands. He felt the urge to do…something. Magic for the sake of magic.
Except he recognized that as just an urge to feel more in control. And what was he going to do anyway? He wasn’t Sheluna—or Korin—endlessly entertained by hour after hour of detail work and experiments. He had nothing he needed magic for right now, and using power just for the sake of using power was a start down a dangerous road.
But he had the cards, and he could deal an array, at least, to look ahead. It would be a relaxing way to pass the time. And give him a sense of what was coming.
Looking into the future was a tricky business. An art as much as a science. Which was why hardly any wizards bothered with it outside the order of the Star. And even within that order, a number of wizards turned their nose up at what they saw as a parlor trick more than anything.
But one of Samir’s early teachers had worked a lot through her fate deck, and had taken the time to explain to Samir the limitations of magic for seeing the future.
He still remembered that conversation clearly. They’d been sitting together on one of the high tower terraces, looking out over the ocean. He’d tracked her down outside of class, and she’d been pleased enough by his interest to invite him up here to talk.
“Take this coin,” she’d said, flipping it easily through her nimble fingers. “Could I use magic to determine, if I spin it, whether it will land heads or tails?”
“Of course.” Samir had been twelve, and convinced he knew how everything worked. “That’s exactly the sort of question you can use magic for. There are only two possible answers.”
She’d given an indulgent smile and shaken her head. “And that’s the mistake most people make. They look at the answer, not the question.” She’d set the coin on its side on the table, poised to spin it. “Right now, if I ask that question, there’s no answer magic can give me. There are still too many variables. How much force will I use to hit it? What direction? Or even, will I launch it at all? That’s all my choice, my action, and magic can’t predict it.”
With a sharp flick of her finger, she set it spinning. “Now if I ask the question, there’s an answer for magic to see. Once the coin is spinning, it’s all down to force and motion and energy. Predictable forces.
“Remember that, Samir. The trick of looking into the future is you have to know whether the coin is already spinning, or if it hasn’t yet been thrown.”
Well Samir was on the road now, no turning back. His coin was definitely spinning. Time to take a look at what was waiting for him.
He was too tired to do a serious casting, but he’d worked with his deck enough it would respond to him even if he didn’t have a lot of energy to put into it. So he shuffled, clearing his mind, and turned over the first three cards.
The first card down was his just-received present from Sheluna—the Tower. One of the powers, it had broken Ulek—his destination—rendered in beautiful detail. Samir rolled his eyes. Working with the cards it became tempting to personify them, to anthropomorphize magic itself. If Samir hadn’t known any better, he’d think this was magic showing a sense of humor.
The next two cards were potentially more illustrative. A suit card, the four of air, was in the middle, with its picture of two men fighting each other, nearly obscured by the blizzard blowing around them. This card was a warning of forces he couldn’t yet see. Of being knocked around by power and influence he didn’t yet know or understand.
And next to it Night, which spoke of deceptions, illusions, and false beliefs.
Neither of those cards was encouraging, but for the next row, he needed to focus on one of them to get more information. This entire reading was about Ulek, so no point focusing on the Tower. And the four of air would be slippery. Not likely to give him a good reading. So he focused on Night, shuffled again, and dealt the next three.
This row revealed the Ace of Stone, the Four of Ice, and the Knight of Water. All three modified by Night, they tied into deception, false faces. Could they be people he needed to watch for? People lying to him? Or something more abstract?
The ace of stone was a guardian. A signifier of responsibility. A person, perhaps, who had sacrificed their freedom for duty. Which could be Samir himself. He’d certainly come on this mission out of a sense of duty to Sheluna. Except that didn’t resonate when he thought about it, and Samir had learned to trust his instincts when he was looking at the cards.
The four of ice—it could be a signifier of a person, but not one Samir expected he’d want to spend time around. It was a card of corruption, decay, and even madness.
The knight of water was almost certainly a person he should be watching out for. Influenced by Night, so a person who would be trying to deceive him, which was too bad, because the knight of water described the sort of person Samir might really like. A romantic—someone both intellectual and sensual, an artist or a fellow wizard. Someone with high ideals and the passion to hold to them. If Samir had still been in Triome, he might have thought of Korin. But he couldn’t imagine Korin deceiving anyone about anything.
On this row, Samir had the least sense from the four of ice, so he focused on that card for the final deal. Whatever that card was trying to say, he wanted to know more.
The last three cards, he dealt one at a time, studying each as he lay them down.
The first card was another one of the powers, and not a good one. The Conquerer was staring up at him. A card that spoke of abuses of trust, advantage taken, power stolen without consent. Samir shivered. He knew all too well what that card could be pointing to, and that was almost enough to make him go get on his horse and ride back to Triome this second.
As if the cards heard him, the next card was the reminder of why Samir wasn’t going to do that, and Samir’s hand hovered over it as he saw what he’d just put down.
On the surface, the knight of fire was a strange follow-up to the four of ice. The knight of fire was fiercely honest, an uncompromising crusader for the good. Not the sort of person who fell easily to corruption.
Except that the fire suit had been one of Sheluna’s earliest gifts to Samir, replacing cards that had been over a hundred years of out of date. As was traditional, the fire suit belonged to Ulek, and was illustrated with the rulers of the time. Which meant, for example, the king of fire was the now-dead Koyln and the wizard of fire was the equally dead Grandmaster Derian.
The knight of fire was also illustrated with a specific person. A man who had been—appropriately—a knight. A man who had fought against them all in the war that was only so recently over.
A man who Samir had asked Sheluna about after she’d given him the cards. He was obviously someone important, to be featured on like this, but he wasn’t part of the ruling family or anyone Samir had ever seen. He was a handsome man, no question. A firstborn with hair the color of banked embers and piercing blue eyes.
“His name is Arshtar. He’s one of Derian’s ranking officers,” Sheluna had answered. Only much, much later, had she told him the rest. That he and Sheluna had been lovers. That he and Sheluna had been in love.
Arshtar was, in fact, the reason Samir was going to the south. To find out what happened to him. To bring Sheluna some peace.
The cards seemed to be saying that Samir would find him. But connected to the four of ice—that couldn’t be good.
Samir spent so long studying the knight of flame, staring at the face of the man he was looking for, that he almost forgot to put down the final card. When he remembered to flip it over, he almost wished he hadn’t.
The final modifier to the four of ice—to corruption. This was an old card; Sheluna had never seen a reason to gift him with a newer one because this was one card where the traditional image had remained unchanging for as long as wizards were using the cards.
A knife, with a curved, black blade, sat prominent in the center of the card. Surrounding it, overgrowing it, were twisting black branches and dead, black vines. The illustration always made Samir shiver. There was something sinister about that knife, something the artist had done with perspective or shading to make it seem like it was more real than the card, like it was looking for someone to hurt.
The card was Death.