Ruan felt guilty lying to Samir. Especially when, night after night, Samir welcomed Ruan back to the fire to talk about the stars. After a few, once they’d finished their dinners and set aside bowls and utensils, the conversation had relaxed even further and Ruan was discovering that he liked this wizard.

Tonight, Ruan had offered his flask of cacha, the clear, sweet spirit distilled from sugar cane that was one of his few indulgences. Samir had taken a sip, grinned, and now they leaned against a big rock, shoulder to shoulder, passing the bottle back and forth as they stared up at the sky.

They sat in comfortable silence. This was the pattern their conversations had fallen into, and Ruan welcomed the fact Samir, like him, was comfortable not filling every moment between them with talking.

How long had it been since Ruan had simply relaxed with someone? How long since he’d trusted anyone around him enough to let his guard down? Not that he trusted Samir entirely. Samir was still a wizard. But Ruan didn’t feel that sick tension of having to watch him every moment for any sign of betrayal. That was reserved for Ruan’s fellow Blades.

That tense, agitated watchfulness had been Ruan’s life for seven years now. That had been Varajas’s final gift to Ruan.

Samir’s shoulder stirred against Ruan as he took a deep breath and said, “I can’t remember the last time I was able to just sit like this. With a friend.”

There was that flare of guilt. As much as Ruan genuinely did like him, he was still here because he was watching Samir and using him to keep tabs on Varajas.

Ruan’s silence seemed to come across wrong. “I’m sorry,” Samir said. “That sounded a bit pathetic, didn’t it.”

“No, not at all,” Ruan answered quickly. “I was thinking a very similar thing myself.”

Samir turned his head and smiled. He looked even more relaxed than usual. Ruan twitched the flask in his hand, realized they’d gone through quite a lot of the strong liquor.

But Samir’s eyes looked clear as he said, “I have a hard time believing that. That you don’t have friends. You’re very easy to talk to.”

It was something Ruan had been trained to. Because often being easy to talk to meant people would open up and confess their wrongdoings without any need for coercion. It was part of the Blade skillset. A skill at which Ruan had always excelled. And another way in which he was being dishonest, manipulative.

“It’s kind of you to say so.”

“It’s true.” Another deep sigh and Samir looked back up at the sky, his movements slow and dreamlike, and Ruan was starting to suspect Samir might be a little drunk.

“It’s nice, sometimes,” Samir went on. “It’s not that I don’t love Sheluna, and I owe her everything. And Korin seems very nice. And smart. But sometimes I want to…to not think about magic. To just sit and not talk about anything at all.”

Ruan had to ask, “Are you and Archwizard Sheluna…” he trailed off meaningfully.

“Oh no. Light, no. She’s…” he gave a shudder. “That would be weird. She’s my teacher and my friend. And besides, she’s in love with someone else.”

“Really?” Ruan wasn’t sure if he was a Blade right now, seeking intelligence on a wizard, or simply Samir’s friend wanting to gossip. Both were likely. “Sheluna zhi Darkivel has a secret relationship?”

“Had,” Samir said softly. “We’re almost certain he died in the war. But she doesn’t know for absolute. Which is why I’m going to Ulek. So she’ll know, one way or another.”

“I’m sorry.” What Ruan didn’t say was, if you were going to lose someone you loved, at least death was clean. Not that there weren’t worse possibilities, if Sheluna’s man had been lost in the war.

“I didn’t know him. But I know she loved him very much.”

A snuffling sound in the darkness and one of the dogs came into the light of the fire. Big and burly, but with no discernible breed, Ruan was almost sure he’d seen this one around. The dog was almost entirely black, but with a distinctive white mark on his chest that looked like an artistically drawn lightning bolt.

“I wonder what that’s like,” Samir was musing. “To be that much in love.”

“Dangerous.” The word came out, blunt and honest, and it occurred to Ruan that he might have had a little too much to drink as well. “You give your entire soul to someone and hope they don’t abuse that trust.”

Samir looked at him, eyes searching, but he didn’t ask the obvious questions. Didn’t press. Ruan liked him even more.

Liked him enough to lean his head in closer. Until he was close enough to see the pinpoints of stars reflected in Samir’s clear, dark eyes. “You’ve never been in love,” he breathed.

Samir gave a slow shake of his head. “In school, I had a friend. He was...we were very close. But it wasn’t…it wasn’t like they talk about.”

Ruan definitely was too far into the drink, because it suddenly felt so very important that he make Samir understand, “Friendship is good. When you can be friends as well as lovers—that’s the greatest thing.”

Samir tilted his head in so their foreheads touched. His voice, too, had dropped to a whisper. “I’ve never had many of either. Friends or lovers.”

That was sad. So sad. Ruan wanted to make it better, somehow, but he couldn’t quite figure out how.

The dog came over and pressed its head into Ruan’s hand, whining a little. Samir must have been really drunk, because he didn’t seem to notice their visitor at all. Only returned his attention to the sky and lifted a hand to point out a cluster of sparkling dust that he named a nebula.

The dog bit at Ruan’s sleeve, tugging gently. Its eyes seemed pleading. Strange behavior. Ruan sat up, slowly pulled his arm free.

Even stranger was Samir still talking about the stars, responding to a question Ruan hadn’t asked. He still hadn’t noticed the dog, and now it was as though he couldn’t see Ruan anymore as well.

The dog took hold of Ruan’s sleeve again. Not aggressive, but insistent. Ruan stood, let himself be pulled—

A note from Barbara J Webb

I have a discord! Come hang out with me and other fans! In addition, when you join, you’ll get a free copy of the ebook for Twisted Magic, the first book in my Knights of the Twisted Tree series!

I have a Patreon! Read scenes ahead of when they’re posted to the public! Gain access to bonus scenes! And most of all, you’re helping support me so I can keep writing the books I love.

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About the author

Barbara J Webb


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