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Samir was far enough ahead of the column that he couldn’t hear any noise except the sounds of nature around him. It was peaceful. As close as anything came to being relaxing.

Krys hung from her perch, dozing off and on with her wings spread wide to soak up the morning sun. She’d spent most of the night out, exploring this new territory, and had returned fed and with an air of satisfaction that made Samir suspicious she’d found other flying foxes about.

That would stop as soon as they hit the colder climate of the mountains, so Samir was happy she had these last chances to enjoy herself before he dragged her back into lands where she didn’t belong.

Sadly, the morning peace was disturbed by the clear sound of another horse approaching. Even knowing it was probably someone from Lysander’s escort, Samir’s mind slid into an open state of readiness, prepared to respond magically to any threat.

It was, in fact, Raj, the guard, which sent a surge of annoyance running through Samir. For a brief moment, he entertained the fantasy of lashing out with magic—of letting Raj see exactly why one shouldn’t impose one’s unwanted presence on a wizard. Lady sidestepped beneath him, responding to his sudden tension, as Samir’s mind whirled and edged back and forth along the patterns of thought that would…

No.

He forced himself to relax, patting Lady on the neck to reassure her. “Come to stare at me some more?”

Raj had been sitting still on his own mount, watching Samir carefully this whole time. But Samir’s words made him flinch, and his copper-brown cheeks flushed even darker. But his voice was steady. “It’s not safe to be out here alone. Even for a wizard.”

Samir made an exaggerated show of turning in a circle to look all around. “Very dangerous. I can tell. There’s a little snake over by that tree that’s just been waiting for an opening to move on me. And a bird in that branch that looks awfully suspicious.”

Raj didn’t smile. Which was for the best. The man was distractingly good looking, even with that stern expression that lived perpetually on his face. His smile could be devastating.

Samir was in no mood to be devastated. “I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself. And even if I weren’t, it’s no business of yours.”

Raj urged his horse forward until he was next to Samir. “I’ve no interest in reporting to the Prince—or to your Archwizard—that you simply rode off one morning and didn’t come back. Which is why I’m inclined to keep an eye on you.”

“Oh you’re inclined. Because I noticed your eyes were all over me yesterday.” It was a childish retort, but Samir was too frustrated to think of anything better.

And it was definitely a sore spot he was poking. And so many reasons why that could have been, but Raj’s response instantly answered that question. “Wizards need watching.”

The worst part of that argument was that Samir agreed.

And he was tired. Of being angry. Of being afraid. Of being tense just because strangers were near. Of always watching, waiting, wondering when the gate would open behind him and some impossible nightmare would come through. “Fine. Watch whatever you want. But do it quietly.”

And to his credit, Raj simply said, “All right.” And then nothing more. He fell in with Samir, far enough behind that if Samir kept his eyes forward, he wasn’t visually reminded of Raj’s presence.

Krys gave a soft little chitter and nibbled at Samir’s hair. Without looking, he reached up, stroked along her soft fur. Calming himself back down.

“I thought bats slept during the day,” Raj said. Being most decidedly not-quiet.

But politeness, which had started as a survival mechanism, had become a habit. Samir couldn’t ignore him. “Krys roosts during the day, and she certainly sleeps a lot of that time. But it’s not like the minute the sun appears, she falls into a coma.”

“Krys.” Raj repeated her name, like he was making a note of it. “She’s cute.”

Samir agreed, of course, but it wasn’t a sentiment he got from most people. Especially anyone outside the Wing. Familiars that were cats, dogs, even birds got cooed over and adored. And Cír, Sheluna’s tiger, was always admired—from a safe distance. But most people seemed put off by Krys.

Which, if Samir was going to be honest, was, more than a little, the point.

It was hard not to thaw a touch at the fact that Raj liked Krys. Still, appearances had to be maintained. “You’re talking.”

“True.” Raj fell quiet. And stayed quiet. And thus, the morning passed.

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Barbara J Webb

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