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Returning to Ulek shouldn’t have felt like much of anything, when Samir could measure the time he’d been away in a comfortable number of weeks. But before, he’d been here with Sheluna. This time he was here all on his own.

Okay, that wasn’t completely true. On his left, Lysander was there, leaning forward in his saddle, hands resting on the pommel as he took in the view. Behind them both, Raj, Samir’s shadow. Further back, the entirety of Lysander’s honor guard filled the road.

Lysander had paused here, as the road came around a ridge that gave their first clear view of the castle. They still had miles to go—down through the valley before them, then up the tall mountain that Castle Ulek crowned, but was the first time Samir felt like he was truly here, that there was no turning back.

I’m in that castle, whispered a part of Samir’s mind. I’m dreaming. I need to remember that I’m dreaming and I need to remember the dream. This is important. Something here is important.

“There,” Lysander pointed at a ridge about a mile down from the castle proper. It was beyond the range of ground where battles had been fought, and thus retained the thick forest that grew so naturally here, but now that Lysander had drawn his attention to it, Samir could see the hints of color peeking through branches. “That’s where the camp’s been set up.”

Lysander called for scouts and a messenger who would ride ahead and announce Lysander’s arrival and find a good place for Lysander’s group to settle in for the duration. Somewhere not too close, not too far, and defensible. “And find out who’s here already.”

“Who are you expecting?” Raj asked from behind as the soldiers rode off.

“Everybody. It’s going to be a circus. Every noble in Ulek will be here to have their say in who gets to be king. And plenty of nobles from the other kingdoms to stick their noses in where they don’t belong.” He grinned and winked, but there was a seriousness in his eyes. “I don’t expect Samir will be the only wizard here. And who knows who else. Everyone will have a score to settle. Everyone will have grudges. Everyone will think they’re owed something.”

He took hold of his reins and sat up straight again. “People are going to be angry. People are going to get stabbed. Mother wants me to try to keep any new wars from breaking out, but we’ll just have to see.”

Other wizards. Samir shivered and reached for Krys.

“You all right?” Raj asked in a voice pitched just for the two of them.

The more time they spent together, the more Raj seemed to notice Samir’s twitches and moments of unease. It was uncomfortable and frightening to think Raj could see him so clearly, but it also summoned a confusing—and not entirely unwelcome—warmth.

“I’m fine,” Samir snapped, trying to put some distance back between them. At the same time wishing…wishing…

“We’ll take a rest here until we hear back from the advance party,” Lysander said, no sign of whether he’d noticed the interchange between Samir and Raj. “I don’t want to ride in till I know what I’m riding into.”

Samir nodded that he’d heard, but his attention was on the castle ahead. “How long do you think?”

“A few hours, I expect.” Lysander, too, seemed distracted. No doubt thinking through the work that would begin for him as soon as they officially arrived. He swung down off his horse, golden armor glinting with every move he made. “I’m going to check in with the guard. Make sure everyone’s ready for this.”

Raj didn’t follow Lysander as the prince moved back towards the line. He stayed next to Samir. It was likely he suspected exactly what was going through Samir’s mind.

Honestly, there was no sense trying to hide it. If time on the road had proven anything, it was that Raj wasn’t going to let Samir simply slip away. “I’m going to ride on ahead.”

“In a hurry to throw yourself into the politics?”

Samir wasn’t interested in the politics, and he was fairly certain Raj knew it. “You don’t have to come with me.”

“Still. I think I will.”

Samir wasn’t going to fight about it. Not this time. Later, once Lysander’s people were settled and the business of negotiations had begun, there would be plenty of opportunities for Samir to explore unobserved. For today, for his first steps back on those blood-soaked fields, he’d be fine with the company.

Because of that, he was willing to play fair. When he sent a burst of energy into Lady to perk her back up, he gave the same boost to Raj’s Torment. “Try to keep up, then.” He gathered his reins and pressed his thighs, and set off down the road at a lope.

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Barbara J Webb

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