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Samir shook his head. He’d had a moment of fright, without understanding what had caused it. Varajas almost broke your spell. Some instinct, a sudden worry of danger, but now it was gone.

Bolt had sat down next to Lady’s shoulder, his head cocked as he looked ahead at the castle. “It’s all right, there’s nothing left there that can hurt us,” Samir said, knowing the words were more for himself than for the dog, who looked perfectly at ease.

Krys behind him, Lady beneath him, and Bolt at his side—Samir was starting to feel like a proper Wing wizard.

Is that who you are, Bolt? Are you someone’s familiar? Was there another wizard trapped in here too? Are they still here, maybe?

From Ruan—He’s smart enough to be.

Samir let those thoughts float away. He could do that. It was fine. As long as he didn’t focus on them too long, they wouldn’t confuse things.

He urged Lady forward. Just at a walk, because the broken battlefields were treacherous, and not because he was in any way afraid of the castle.

There were no signs of life—no movement, no smoke, no sound. Samir knew this was because the castle had been emptied of all occupants. Even Prince Calimar was a guest—hostage, Varajas’s bitter correction—of the camp lower down the mountain. While Dukes and Counts fought over who would be the new ruler, no one wanted to give anyone else the advantage of occupying the castle itself.

That was the public reason, at least. Sheluna had told Samir about the more private meetings—unofficial conversations over drinks or whispered conversations in hallways. No one wanted to be in the castle until they were certain the knight’s influence—their terrible, corruptive magic—was gone.

Sheluna had been so curious about that magic. That was a conversation she couldn’t have in public. Her relationship with High Father Donatien was peaceable enough, but if he had thought for a moment that the knights’ secrets weren’t about to die with the knights, he would have turned all the church’s might in a new direction and the war would have started all over again. Sheluna hadn’t even admitted her fascination to Samir, but he knew her. Knew the signs of when something had her attention.

Samir knew her, and how much it galled her, the existence of anything she didn’t understand.

By all rights, Samir shouldn’t have trusted that curiosity, that burning need to know. He’d seen where that could lead. But just as strong as her thirst for knowledge was her conviction that power—in any of its forms—shouldn’t be abused. She didn’t see weakness as an invitation, like so many did. Sheluna genuinely cared.

There was a small gate on this side, what had been a supply entrance. It was closed and locked, but that would be no trouble to get through. Samir dismounted, heard Raj, behind him, doing the same. “I’m surprised there aren’t any guards,” Raj said.

“Me too.” Superstition would only keep scavengers away for so long. “But guarding the castle—that’s one step towards claiming ownership. A delicate political move.”

“Or maybe no one wants to risk the test of authority that comes with ordering your soldiers to stand up here overnight.” Raj scratched Bolt’s head idly as he walked up to the gate and shook it. “Secure, for whatever good that does.”

Samir looked up at the towering walls. “There are plenty of ways to break into a castle if one is determined. Not that I’d want to climb those.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it. The knights left all kinds of traps behind.”

“That’s why we’re going to be careful.”

Raj didn’t look encouraged. “Going to be careful when we…”

Samir put his hand over the lock. It took almost no effort to turn the mechanism within.

“Wizards are a menace,” Raj muttered, a familiar tone to his complaint. But when Samir pulled the gate open, Raj caught his hand, and when Samir looked back at him, Raj wore a sincere look of concern.

“Are you sure about this? You have no idea—none of us know what could be waiting in there.”

“Someone is going to have to find out.” With that, Samir stepped inside.

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A note from Barbara J Webb

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Barbara J Webb

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