Of course it would be the tree.

Varajas wished so hard he had a better understanding of this situation they were in. Whether this strange version of Ulek was pulling things out of their minds, or if the tree here meant there was still some lingering trace of the knife’s power. Or worse, a lingering not-so-trace.

The dog was still growling at it, a low, rumbling sound. It was reassuring, in a way, that the animal could sense the sinister power the tree held. On the other hand, the fact Bolt could feel it meant the tree was really there, and had a sinister power.

Ruan was moving towards the tree. “Be careful,” Varajas said.

“Do you see something?”

“No more than you do.”

Ruan turned back to look at him, eyes narrowing. “You’re lying to me.”

The fact this was Ruan, who knew him so well, had moved beyond the realm of inconvenience and into the realm of dangerous. “Believe it or not, it’s for your own good.”

“I think I will not believe that.”

“Imagine my shock.” It would have been so easy to leave it like that, soaked in the festering bitterness between them, but Varajas found himself wondering again what were the true consequences of keeping these secrets.

How much blood had been spilt in keeping the knife hidden and safe? How much more was going to be necessary? These were the calculations Derian had done. Calculations that Ádan had inherited. Each death was justified by the hundreds—thousands—more who would die if the power of the tree fell into the wrong hands. But after the war, Varajas couldn’t feel comfortable anymore calling their own hands the right ones.

If Ruan died here because of secrets Varajas was trying to protect, was that “right” by any calculation Varajas could make?

“Why did you come to Ulek?” Varajas asked.

Ruan blinked at what must have seen like a random change of topic. “Isn’t it obvious?”

Varajas spread his hands, the indulge me gesture somewhat hampered by the sword in one hand and torch in the other.

Ruan seemed to follow it anyway. “I told the High Father it was to keep an eye on the wizard. On Samir,” he amended in a softer voice. “To keep him from poking around where he shouldn’t.”

Varajas let it go—for now—that Ruan’s answer had been somewhat evasive. That I told the High Father was honest on the surface, but not the true answer to Varajas’s question. He let it go because Ruan had given the answer he needed.

“You wanted to keep him from poking around in Ulek. You and Donatien don’t want wizards poking around in our leavings because you don’t trust what they might find.”

“That’s right.”

Varajas pointed at the tree. “That power you don’t want the wizards stumbling into? Here it is. A piece of it, at least.”

Ruan turned back to the tree with a look on his face Varajas had seen a hundred times before. Ruan interested, studying, sharp eyes taking in every detail to store them in a mind that could find the tiniest thread of connection and spin that into understanding.

Bolt had fallen silent, easing forward to stand at Ruan’s side, his shoulder pressed into Ruan’s thigh. Ruan sheathed one sword so he could reach down to scratch the dog behind his ears, an absent gesture as Ruan continued to look carefully at the tree.

“What is it?” he finally asked.

“I can’t tell you.” At Ruan’s exasperated look, Varajas broke. “What, you want me to trust you with secrets that good people died to protect. How many knights did you kill, Ruan? How much blood on your hands?”

“It was a war.”

“It was a witch-hunt, driven by Donatien’s jealous vendetta and supported by Darkivel greed.”

“It was justice. Your ‘good people’ were—”

“What? What were they doing? What were we doing that was so awful?”

Ruan gestured with the hand that still held a sword, pointing it at Varajas for emphasis. “I was there, remember? I was on the battlefield. I saw the magics you were using. Don’t stand there and ask me about your crimes.”

“Yes,” Varajas conceded. “Lines were crossed during the war. But I’m talking about before. I’m talking about the flimsy excuses that were used to bring that war to us in the first place.”

“Are you saying the knights never touched anything like that until the day they were attacked?” Ruan sneered.

“I’m asking what evidence you ever saw that wasn’t handed down by the High Father.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Ruan said curtly. “It’s over.”

Varajas looked at the tree, at the dark, crumbling throne room all around. “No.” The words felt almost too heavy to speak. “I don’t think it is.”

A note from Barbara J Webb

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About the author

Barbara J Webb


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