Ruan had to keep reminding himself that Varajas was the enemy. The problem was, Varajas didn’t act like it. He hadn’t changed. He was still just Varajas. Which wasn’t at all fair.

Bolt nosed at Ruan then whined towards the door Samir had fled through. Krys had followed Samir, but the dog was still here and maybe could help them find him.

Or maybe he was whining in that direction because there was some horrible monster waiting just on the other side of that door to devour them all. That seemed equally likely.

Varajas was wrapping his torn sleeve around his arm, a makeshift bandage. Ruan had to resist the urge to offer to help. Even after eight years of anger, of betrayal, of pain, it was hard not to fall into old habits. Hard not to act like Varajas’s partner.

Varajas waved his uninjured hand towards the fire and a thick piece of wood dislodged itself and floated over to slap against his palm. He held it aloft like a torch. The careless, easy use of magic—that was an important reminder. Varajas had changed. They weren’t on the same side any more.

All Blades were gifted. They couldn’t do what they did if they weren’t. But instead of learning to use magic, they trained and drilled to become something other. They set their wills against the wizards, against the knights, and made themselves impervious. Untouchable.

Ruan was incredibly good at what he did. He’d stood against knights and wizards alike, shut down their magic, made them helpless as the giftless they were trying to abuse. That was the duty of the Blades.

Varajas had sworn the oaths, had learned the techniques of the brotherhood, and then he’d turned his back to go join the knights. And now he did magic, like any common wizard.

Varajas gave him a rueful smile, as though, even after all this time, he could still read what Ruan was thinking purely by the look on his face. But all he said was, “Shall we?”

The throne room was an echoing, enormous hall, circled by two tiers of balconies and topped by a stained glass skylight of immense scope. Ruan had been in here, as part of Donatien’s escort on the day King Kolyn had surrendered. That day, the room had been full of light and life as he stood victorious among his brothers and watched the traitor king kneel and surrender his sword.

Here and now the air was murky and gray, so that it was impossible to see from one side to the other. Ruan squinted, trying to see through the gloom as he strained his ears for any hint of Samir’s passing, but everything was still.

“He couldn’t have gone far,” Ruan said, knowing that to be wishful thinking. Normal rules didn’t seem to apply in this place.

Varajas did him the kindness of not arguing. “Normally I would suggest splitting up to cover more ground, but under the circumstances, that doesn’t seem the smart choice.”

“Agreed.” The exchange felt a little too companionable. To push back, Ruan added, “Not that I’m willing to let you out of my sight either way.”

Varajas simply smiled at him, and pointed down the hall, towards the throne they couldn’t see through the darkness. “Let’s try that way.”

But Bolt lifted his head, sniffing the air, and growled.

To which Ruan responded by drawing his swords, noting that Varajas moved with him in near perfect unison, drawing his own weapon as he lifted the torch in his other hand higher. “Still want to go back there?”

“Samir could be there. And besides, I want to see. I want to understand this place.”

Bolt looked between them, his canine face remarkably expressive. His eyebrows were lifted and pulled in, an almost human look of concern. “It’s all right,” Ruan said. “We’ll be all right.”

Once again, ingrained habit kicked in and Ruan found himself swinging to the left as Varajas swung to the right until they were moving down the throne room with about fifteen feet between them, making it harder for anyone to target both of them at once. Bolt followed Ruan, far enough behind Ruan wouldn’t trip over him if he had to dodge back. In this way, they covered the length of the hall.

And found, in place of the throne, a tree.

It was tall, its top reaching up through the shattered ceiling and beyond what Ruan could see. It was also broad, a nest of branches spreading almost to each side of the throne room. The final thing Ruan noticed was that it was dead.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Varajas muttered. As Bolt lowered his head and growled again.

Was there something in the tree? Ruan eased forward, swinging his body so the light from his cross touched everywhere. Nothing moved that he could see.

One thing was clear. Samir wasn’t here.

A note from Barbara J Webb

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About the author

Barbara J Webb


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