The stars were so very different in the mountains. Incredibly bright, and awesomely numerous. They felt closer to Ruan, as though if he could just reach up a little higher, he could touch the universe. Staggering to look up and feel a part of something so overwhelmingly huge. So incredibly beautiful.

As he walked through the camp, his face trained up so as not to be blinded by firelight, he was able to easily pick out the constellations Samir had been teaching him. The Old Bear, the Dragon, the Water-bearer. The Twins, the Doorway, the Sword. The things that weren’t just stars. Ruan could find three planets and knew a fourth would be visible several hours from now. He could also find a nebula, a star cluster, and the river of stars that Samir had explained was the plane of their own galaxy.

Speaking of Samir, the man in question wasn’t at his tent. It had become their habit to share dinner, but Samir wasn’t anywhere in sight.

Tonight they camped at the highest point of the mountain pass, packed in on the ground that had been cleared for this purpose that wasn’t quite large enough for the size of Lysander’s escort. They’d reached this point at mid-day, but, after consulting with his scouts, Lysander had called the halt, declaring they wouldn’t be able to make it to the next viable stopping place before dark.

Samir and Varajas had also had a say in that consultation. They’d gone into Lysander’s tent, then everyone else—including Lysander—had cleared out. They’d been alone in there for a while, then Varajas had emerged and talked quietly with Lysander. That was when he’d called the halt.

Up here, the road was steep and narrow, often edged by sheer drops. The land cleared for overnight rest was slightly better, with large rocks and trees placed intentionally to make sure it was difficult for anyone to wander off the side of a cliff in the dark. Tarnath’s Pass was the most viable way to cross the mountains, but that didn’t mean it was easy.

Ruan had only been over it once before, in the ride up from Ulek to Triome just weeks ago. All his other travel to the south had been by boat. The sea also had good star viewing, but they never seemed as close or as clear as up here at the top of the world.

Exploring out into the darkness, away from the campfires and low chatter of soldiers talking, he found Samir. The wizard had climbed up on a tall rock, one right on the edge of a dizzyingly tall cliff. He was sitting on the edge, his feet dangling over into space.

Ruan hesitated, unsure if Samir would welcome his company. This seemed the pose of someone who wanted to be left alone. But his approach hadn’t been completely noiseless and Samir turned to look at him, and in the brightness of the stars, Ruan could see the small smile that came to Samir’s face. It was as good as an invitation.

Ruan climbed the rock and joined Samir at the edge of the world.

“It’s a nice view,” Ruan said. Which was absolute truth. They were near the very top of the range. From here, it seemed they could look out over the entire world. A line of snowy peaks stretched east and west, the spine of the range, but to the south, where Samir was gazing, everything sloped down. Even at night, Ruan’s eyes were good enough to see the mountains below them, the river twisting back and forth, the dark green of trees.

“It’s a lie.” Samir’s voice was soft.

“How so?”

“It all looks so pretty, so peaceful.”

Ruan had a hard time arguing with that, especially given they were riding back into what had until recently been a war zone. “Peace has always been fragile and temporary, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate it when we find it.”

“There’s an ambush ahead.” Samir nodded down the mountain. “Bandits. Lysander thinks some of them may be escaped from Ulek. Not knights, but soldiers who served under King Kolyn. They washed out the road, made it look like a mudslide. Waiting to come down on anyone who stops to clear it.”

“Is that why we stopped?” Ruan asked, but that wasn’t the first question that had occurred to him.

“Lysander wants to surprise them. He’s taking a small group out tonight.”

Probably taking his own men—his private guard, who he trusted the most. Which was why Ruan hadn’t heard anything about it. Varajas would probably go along too.

Ruan had turned it over and over again in his head, and he couldn’t find any way the prince didn’t know exactly who—and what—Varajas was. They might be pretending Varajas had been a part of his guard for years, but it simply wasn’t true, and if Lysander was supporting the pretense, then he knew there was something to be pretending for.

All those thoughts ran through Ruan’s mind, one track. But another layer, in parallel, led Ruan to ask, “How did he find out about the bandits?”

It could have been scouts. Lysander’s people were good at woodcraft. But Ruan had seen Samir go into Lysander’s tent, and it was only after that Lysander had made his decision.

Samir’s next words confirmed Ruan’s suspicions. “I scried the road.”

Now Ruan had to remember his own cover. The simple soldier he was pretending to be wouldn’t be feeling alarm bells about that statement. So he sat quietly, staring out into the night, while his thoughts churned some more.

Scrying was delicate, finicky work. It took a light touch and a flexible mind. It was complicated and unreliable in the hands of most wizards.

As a Blade, Ruan had spent years studying the details of magic and the orders that practiced it. Some magic was simple, straightforward, practiced by nearly every wizard who had graduated to their sigil. Other magic was specialized, usually handled only by wizards of the order who had made it their focused area of study.

Scrying was the purview of the order of the Star. And even within that order, most wizards couldn’t do it reliably. So for a Wing wizard to offer that magic, to perform it with enough confidence that Lysander was willing to listen…

Ruan liked Samir. Liked him a lot. The growing intimacy between them—the other night, Ruan had come close to sharing with Samir in a way he hadn’t shared with anyone in so very long.

But he couldn’t ignore the warning in his gut that there was something strange about Samir, and strangeness in wizards was to be watched. Never trusted. Samir was Sheluna’s apprentice, and Sheluna herself had some dangerous ideas. Add that on top of the fact Samir was heading to Ulek, most likely to try to dig into magic that should be left to die…

“You’re quiet tonight,” Samir said.

“Lots on my mind,” Ruan answered honestly.

“Anything you want to talk about?”

Ruan shook his head, feeling a little sick inside because he truly did like Samir. And because…

Because Varajas was near, and Varajas reminded Samir of choices he’d rather forget. Of complexities he wanted to pretend didn’t exist. Of betrayals and mistrust and…

“I understand,” Samir was saying. “There are plenty of things I don’t want to talk about. But I have to admit, that hasn’t been going well for me.”

Ruan forced that vicious circle of thoughts back down. “No?”

“No.” Samir paused, thoughtful, before continuing. “It’s hard to run from yourself. When we don’t talk, maybe that’s all we’re doing.”

“Is there something you’re trying to run from?” Ruan also ignored the sick twist of guilt as he asked that question, taking advantage of Samir’s trust.

“Fear, I guess. I’m afraid of…well, a lot of things. Reaching out to people. Talking to them. Trusting them. That’s hard for me. But it’s something I need to learn to do again.” With an almost heartbreaking hesitance, he lay his hand over Ruan’s.

As though he were speaking directly to Ruan’s guilt. But it wasn’t enough; it didn’t stop Ruan from catching Samir’s fingers as they curved around his palm, didn’t stop him from asking, “Who did you trust that you shouldn’t have?”

Samir’s mouth tightened and he didn’t answer, but his head turned to a specific point in the southern horizon, like he was looking for something—or at something—beyond what Ruan could see.

Sitting here, in this silence at the top of the world, Ruan felt the weight of everything. This burden he’d been carrying for so many years. The lies he’d been telling to his fellow priests, to the High Father—to himself.

“I trusted…” His voice came out barely a whisper. He had to stop, start again. “I trusted someone I shouldn’t have. For that, I almost died.” There was more. So much more, but Ruan couldn’t bring himself to say it.

Samir seemed to understand. He squeezed Ruan’s hand, leaned in closer so they were shoulder-to-shoulder. “How did you…” Ruan made a frustrated gesture with his free hand, like he was sifting the air around them to try to find the words. “How do you move on from that?”

Ruan wasn’t the person to answer that question. The truth was simply too heartbreaking to admit. He wasn’t going to be the one to tell Samir that there was no moving on. That there was no getting over it. That the hurt, the betrayal, stayed with you forever, a piece of your soul that was damaged beyond repair.

Samir was watching, his eyes huge and dark in the starlight. His face, so open, so full of a pain Ruan could understand. Ruan opened his mouth to say something—anything—that might help ease that pain, but those words were beyond him. He hadn’t found them for himself—how could he find them for Samir?

And then all words were taken from him when Samir leaned forward and covered Ruan’s lips with his own.

A note from Barbara J Webb

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About the author

Barbara J Webb


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