Samir sat by the small fire outside his tent, shuffling his cards to give himself something to do with his hands, but otherwise just staring into the flame, thinking.
The tree he and Raj had found—there were any number of things it could mean, and Samir didn’t like any of the options. The best answer was that one or more of the knights had escaped. Trouble in the long run, but identifiable and solvable trouble. Not to mention the fact that since he, himself, was looking for a knight, the fact some might still be alive was possibly not the worst news.
No, the worst possibility would be that magic of theirs—that magic of death and rot and corruption—had somehow leaked into the world. Either on its own, like an infection—which would be bad—or through others who had learned to use it and were now continuing to spread its evil—which was the most troublesome scenario.
He wished he could talk to Sheluna. He’d spotted a useful bird earlier—a high altitude gliding bird that could cover the distance between here and Triome easily—and had instructed it to take her a message, but with him on the move, it was unlikely she’d be able to send anything back. Other magic, more direct ways of talking, were outside the practices of Wing wizards, and this was, unfortunately, one area where Sheluna hadn’t pushed out of bounds. Scrying magic, talking over distances, it was delicate, sensitive work and he and Sheluna had just never gotten to the stage of talking about it before Korin had shown up and distracted her.
Light above, Samir truly wasn’t jealous of having lost his teacher’s attention, his role of favorite student, but his life would have been easier if Korin had just waited a little longer to distract her.
“Excuse me.” A soft voice that nonetheless startled Samir enough he jumped and Krys, hanging behind, gave a scolding screech.
A man stood on the opposite side of Samir’s fire. A soldier, in the uniform of Ritalle, rather than the prince’s personal guard, with the addition of a pale blue chafiyeh wrapped around his head. It didn’t quite shadow his sharp features or long tapered ears—another Firstborn, of course.
“May I join you?” The man was carrying a bowl and a canteen. His dinner, and apparently he wanted to eat in Samir’s company.
“Why?” The question popped out before Samir could craft a more polite response.
“You’re always over here all by yourself. I thought you might like company. I’m Rune,” he said, and gracefully lowered himself into a crossed-leg position on the grass as though Samir had actually extended an invitation.
Samir hated how he was suddenly tense, his body poised for danger, just because someone had decided to try to be sociable. This was part of why he’d left the safety of Sheluna’s side, so he could get used to being a person again. How long was it going to take before his system got that message?
It was effort to be friendly. Honestly, it was terrifying. But Samir had survived Raj intruding into his space, and Rune was definitely making a more friendly approach.
“Samir,” he said, painfully aware of how long it had taken him to respond, how long he’d sat there in frozen silence.
If Rune had noticed, he didn’t comment. Just nodded and took a bite of the rice and vegetables that was the camp dinner this evening.
Samir continued to shuffle, the cards filling his hands with a reassuring weight. He resisted the urge to spark magic through them, to retreat into a casting.
Instead, he studied the man across the fire. Not tall, especially for a Firstborn, and not bulky and broad like so many of the soldiers in Lysander’s escort. Not bulky and broad like Raj, Samir carefully didn’t think. Rune was slim, almost delicate seeming until you looked closely to see the curve of muscles on the back of his hand as he gripped his spoon, the way his shoulders filled the uniform, the easy way he moved beneath the stiff, heavy weight of his armor.
And he was pretty. Samir noted the thought, then shoved it away as another pointless distraction. No sense dwelling on the way the firelight turned Rune’s skin a soft mahogany, or that the wrapped cloth did nothing to conceal the attractive lines of his face.
Realizing he was staring, Samir dragged his eyes back to the fire. Not that Rune seemed to have noticed. His attention was focused on the dark sky over their heads.
“I have to confess,” Rune said, “I’m not a big fan of travel. I was born in the city, and I’d be happy to spend every day of the rest of my life there, if I got to choose. But I will say this for being out in the middle of nowhere—the stars are like nothing else.”
Samir’s first impulse was to make some non-committal noise, to pull in on himself until Ruan got bored and went away. To keep himself safe by pushing so hard no one could get close.
But oh, that was tiresome. He hadn’t always been that person, and he was tired of being that person now. He’d come on this trip to take a risk. To try to find the person he used to be. Maybe, to make a friend.
Whether by accident or design, Rune had hit on a topic that Samir could talk about with ease and knowledge. It wasn’t too great an effort to respond with, “Wait till we get into the mountains. The views there are breathtaking.”
He was rewarded with a delighted smile that seemed to light Rune’s face. “Yes! It’s amazing. There’s so much up there I never even imagined when I was a boy. Back when all I knew was Triome.” Rune lifted his face up again, his expression softening to wonder. “So much out there. So many stars. So bright.”
Samir felt his own smile threaten to break free, and he pressed his lips together. Rune was making an amateur mistake with the particular bright point he was staring at, but Samir didn’t want to look like he was laughing. In truth, he found Rune’s genuine joy a balm. “That’s not a star, actually. It’s another planet.”
“Really.” Rune’s enthusiasm wasn’t dimmed by the correction. If anything, it seemed to grow. “You know the sky?”
A part of Samir’s mind was screaming danger, that this was unsafe ground to talk about, but Samir shoved those thoughts back down into the darkness where they belonged. “I’ve studied it, yes.”
Rune set his bowl down and scooted closer to Samir. “Well then, tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“Everything.” He pointed up, waved his hand. “Teach me.”
Samir couldn’t find it in himself to say no. He pointed south. “That bright star just over the mountains, that’s—