Ruan’s problem, now as it ever had been, was that he thought too much. He couldn’t shut off the wild workings of his mind. The first, earliest thing he could remember was being told he asked too many questions, and that had set the tone for his entire life.

He’d tried—Light knew, he’d tried—to be a good priest, a good Blade. To do as he was told. To serve, to listen, to subjugate his troublesome curiosity to the will of the church and those who led it. For the last few years, it had seemed that he’d succeeded.

The war made it easy. Fighting the knights, it had been very clear who was right and who was wrong. Seeing their magic up close, the uses to which they put it, Ruan had, for the first time in his life, felt no need to question.

Now Varajas was standing here, trying to tell him he’d been wrong. That he should have been asking questions through that time. That what Ruan had thought of as a success was really a failure.

That it was Varajas saying this, Varajas who had always listened. Who had encouraged Ruan’s questions. Who had asked questions of his own. Eight years apart and Ruan’s instinct was still to listen, to reconsider because Varajas said he should.

He hated that.

Especially when a small voice inside him—a voice he’d tried so hard to tamp down and stamp out year after year—said he was really this angry because he knew Varajas was right.

He couldn’t listen to that voice right now. It was too hard—too confusing—too much to work through whether or not it might be right. So instead, he focused on the tree.

It was…a tree. More broad than it was tall, its growth restrained by the ceiling of this hall. The branches had spread wide, spread far, fingerling twigs creating a web that made a deep, primal part of Ruan shudder at the thought of spiders and shadows and nightmares.

He’d always been too imaginative. The High Father had forever been quick to criticize him on that. His imagination was certainly doing him no favors right now.

Still, Ruan didn’t look away. He studied the thick, crinkly bark, the knots that looked like eyes, the way the branches were all swaying gently, as if caught in some breeze he couldn’t see. And that careful study let him spot…

He sheathed his other sword and walked forward. “Ruan?” Varajas asked, and Bolt whined, but Ruan couldn’t stop. If he stopped, he’d lose his nerve. At the trunk, he reached up, grabbed the first thick branch that he was just tall enough to reach, dragged himself up into the tree.

“Ruan!” Varajas sounded alarmed. Which evoked a mix of petty delight and hurt and need Ruan chose not to examine.

Ruan climbed higher, noting that the tree wasn’t cold to the touch as he’d expected. Instead it was warm, a strangely living warmth. And the movement that had seemed like wind from the ground now felt more like breathing with his hands and thighs pressed against the branches.

But he reached the high crook he’d been looking for, reached into the V where the branches split, and pulled out the card he’d seen the corner of from the ground.

He sat down on the branch beneath him, bent his knees and fell backwards, swinging once, then releasing to fall to the ground, landing easily on his feet. Varajas was glaring at him, but that look fell away when Ruan held up the card.

It was the wizard of air. Ruan had seen this card before, in Samir’s hands, as they’d sat next to the fire together in Lysander’s camp. Had asked Samir about it, because of the picture it bore. This was not just a card from Samir’s deck, but a card that had Samir himself painted on its face.

“That’s Samir’s isn’t it?” Varajas asked.

“Yes. And I also found this.” Ruan carefully pulled out the other card, the one he’d found in the front hall.

Varajas took it, being just as careful. “This one looks different.”

“I thought so.”

Varajas studied it, looked up at the tree, looked back at the wizard of air that Ruan still held. “We’re looking for meaning. Trying to understand this place. Is there meaning? Are these images thrown up by our own minds? Is that tree there because it’s there, or because I’m afraid of it?”

“Was the card there because it’s there, or because we’re looking for Samir?” Ruan echoed.

Oh but this was too easy. It felt too good, too familiar. Falling back into the rhythm of working with Varajas, of being with Varajas.

He couldn’t forget—must not forget—who and what Varajas was now. “This isn’t finding Samir,” he said, letting his irritation show. It seemed safer than other things.

Varajas looked back up at the tree, a strange look coming over his face. “Isn’t it? Is that—are you trying to help us?”

Ruan snapped. “Are you talking to that thing?”

“Derian used to. And then…” he trailed off, his eyes going sharp and assessing as he returned his attention to Ruan. “Here, trade with me.” He handed the old card back to Ruan, who reluctantly passed him the wizard of air.

Varajas held the card up, staring at it, then pressed it between his palms and closed his eyes.

“Do you know what you’re doing?” Ruan asked.

“Not a clue. But when has that ever stopped us?”

The us sent a spark of warmth through Ruan that he resented and craved all at the same time.

Bolt pressed his nose into Ruan’s hand and leaned against him. “Varajas, wait.”

Varajas opened his eyes and waited.

As a gesture of trust, it was possibly the smallest one imaginable, but still it stirred something inside Ruan. Something soft and vulnerable and utterly inconvenient to the situation. So he ignored it and took the card back, dropping down to a squat to look Bolt in the eye. “This is Samir,” he said, holding the card in front of the dog’s face. “We need to find him. Can you find him?”

Bolt sniffed at the card, then pulled back and sneezed. His tail wagged and he looked at Ruan expectantly. He didn’t seem to understand.

“Samir,” Ruan repeated, touching the card. He then waved his hand around the room, pointed to the card again, and made an exaggerated spread-hands gesture of ‘I don’t know’ and said, “Where is he?”

Bolt cocked his head, looking at Ruan, then looking at the card again. Varajas was waiting patiently through all this, but Ruan was starting to feel a little silly when Bolt gave a huff, then moved forward, casting about with his nose in the air as he turned slowly. He gave another huff, then started to move forward, pausing briefly to look back at Ruan and Varajas.

“I guess we follow,” Varajas said.

That easy acceptance of what Ruan had done. Just like the old days. This was a dangerous path, but what choice did Ruan have? “Let’s go.”

A note from Barbara J Webb

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About the author

Barbara J Webb


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