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Ruan stayed with Lysander’s guard until they rode into the sprawling encampment that had grown up all in the time he’d been in Triome. Far enough down the mountain to be away from the worst lingering effects from the war, but not so far down that castle Ulek didn’t still loom, its silhouette crowning the peak, stark against the setting sun.

This camp—Ruan wasn’t even sure he should call it that. It was huge. Lysander’s guard numbered over a hundred, and his wasn’t the largest by any means. Just glancing at the flags spread through the area, it was possible every noble house in the kingdom was here, surrounded by something smaller than an army, but only just.

More permanent buildings and fortifications had been built, or were in the process of being built. If this negotiation went on too long, this place was going to become a town in its own right that might very well continue after all the highborn had gone home.

The crowds and bustle were perfect for Ruan. It was an easy thing to slip away from Lysander’s column of soldier and lose himself in the hubbub. He’d been careful on the road; he’d kept his head down, kept quiet. In truth, Samir was the only person he’d had more than simple exchanges with. It was entirely possible no one would notice his absence.

He pulled his gear off his horse and quietly added her to a picket line belonging to Duke zhi Lutien, who had enough horses one more wouldn’t draw attention. In a quiet corner behind a couple tents, he shed the livery that marked him as belonging to Ritalle and changed into simple, nondescript clothing that would match most of the workers moving through the encampment. Wrapping his weapons carefully in the rest of his clothes, he rebuilt his bundle of gear into a pack he could carry on his back, and adopted a stooped-shoulder, head-down stance that shouldn’t draw anyone’s eye.

In this disguise, he spent some time simply wandering, familiarizing himself with who all was here. Nobility and gentry, with their requisite people to keep them fed, clothed, and protected, but they weren’t the only ones. The people of Ulek—the farmers and crafters and merchants who actually kept the world going—so many of them had been disrupted by the war. So many of them had lost their homes, their families, their livelihoods, and they were here too, seeking justice.

And of course, there were wizards. Wizards of the Flame and Sword who had fought in the war and simply hadn’t moved on yet. Two wizards of the Book who were new since Ruan had last been here, but seemed intent on observing and recording events. A wizard of the Crystal who looked like he was setting up shop alongside a smithy, and if this was to become a permanent settlement, that would be the start.

All of these Ruan noted because it was his training and his habit, but the one presence that caught his attention and set his suspicions on edge: Archwizard Girald of the Star was here.

Wizards were to have no involvement with politics of the land. That was the law, and had been, stretching back to the formation of the wizard orders. There was no reason for an Archwizard to be here, involving himself in the decision of who would take over Ulek.

Ruan had come here under false pretenses, making the excuse that wizards lingering here or coming back here needed to be watched. But, now that he was thinking about it, he shouldn’t have needed to make that argument. He shouldn’t have needed to make any argument.

High Father Donatien was not, and had never been, a trusting man. Just because the knights were vanquished didn’t mean the threat here had ended. For him to simply pack up and ride away, taking the entire brotherhood with him—how had that even happened?

There was no answer to that question that was anything less than sinister. Ruan was starting to wish he’d been a little less clever, that he hadn’t talked Donatien into sending him here alone.

Still. He couldn’t change the past. All he could do was move forward with the tools he had and hope that would be enough.

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Barbara J Webb

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