As he and Raj rode together into the encampment, Samir felt himself tense. All these people around, all this chaos. Being in Triome had been fine—the city was big, but in a way that made him feel anonymous. Here there were too many people who noticed him, who turned to look at him as he and Raj rode by.

The entire place had a restless feel. Samir could see people sitting idle, clumped together around dice or cards, little pockets of argument—too many people too close with too little to keep them occupied. Mostly men, mostly armed. So much potential for trouble.

Raj seemed to be thinking much the same thing. His hands tightened on his reins, and he sat up straighter, looking more watchful than he had been on the ride down the mountain.

Raj angled his horse in closer, close enough his and Samir’s legs brushed as he muttered, “These negotiations better not drag on too long. This looks primed to kick off another war.”

“They’re arguing about who gets to be the new king. I don’t think it’s going to require a fight breaking out in the camp to start a war.”

Raj responded to that with a dark chuckle. “Serves them right.”


“Nothing. Don’t mind me.” He straightened Torment to draw them back apart and raised his voice to a normal conversational level. “We should find Lysander.”

Samir scanned the flags and banners, but didn’t spot the gold sun sigil of Triome. “Let’s circle around.” Lysander wasn’t likely to be deeper into this mess, and Samir had no desire to ride through.

Apparently, his tension was obvious. “You all right?” Raj asked.

“I just don’t like crowds.”

Raj’s lips curled up, the edge of a smile. “Yeah, that much I’ve noticed.”

Which prompted its own mix of feelings. It was good to be known, to feel seen, but also dangerous.

So many nerves on edge, and it wasn’t just about the crowds. Being back in Ulek, he’d known this was going to be hard, but that was the point. He could have run an errand to Luniel or Darkivel or any of a dozen places if this had just been about acting on his own without Sheluna keeping him safe. To come back to Ulek specifically—to face the demons that were here…

Demons that were here. As they came around the western edge of the camp, riding along a path that was being worn into a road, Samir saw the huge, ornate tent. Dark fabric, covered with gold embroidery that mimicked the night’s sky, the tent was tall and wide, big enough a hundred people could sleep inside—not that they would be. Only a select few would be welcome in that tent.

This was what Samir had been dreading, and now that he was facing it, there was almost a sense of relief. This was it—his worst fear standing before him.

Literally standing before him, because as Samir pulled up, trying to decide if they should turn around and take another path, Archwizard Girald emerged from his tent.

Another wizard of the star was with Girald, talking in a low voice coupled with urgent gestures, but he fell silent and still as Girald stopped, his eyes locked on Samir.

This was the moment that had given Samir nightmares. For months, he’d woken in a state of panic just at the thought of coming before Girard. Now that he was here, now, there was no panic. There was no anything. The world seemed to fall away and Samir felt nothing but a cold, empty clarity as he stared back at the Archwizard.

“Samir,” Girald said, soft and thoughtful, like he was talking more to himself than to anyone else.

Girald hadn’t been present at the front lines during the war. There had been a couple Star wizards helping the effort, but Girald himself had kept a safe distance while the knights had still been a threat. Now, in the aftermath, he was here, like a vulture, to pick over the remains.

Louder, Girald said, “I thought Sheluna was still in Triome.”

“She is.” It seemed dangerous, to confirm he was here without his protector, but there was no other option. “I’m here on my own.”

“Not alone,” Raj said firmly, easing Torment forward a couple steps to take up a protective position.

Once again, it was good to be seen, to know that Raj had noticed the tension between Samir and the Archwizard, but it was also dangerous, and not just for Samir. Girald was a danger, but not one any simple soldier could protect Samir from.

In fact, Girald’s gaze flicked to Raj, then away just as fast, dismissing him. “What business brings you back?” There was an artificial sweetness to his tone that sent a shiver of revulsion down Samir’s spine. “Perhaps I can help.”

Samir’s stomach did a sickening flip. He wanted to say something brave, something that would convince Girald that Samir wasn’t afraid. Except no words would come.

It was Raj who cut in front of Lady, turning her, that broke Samir’s paralysis. “Come on, Samir. We have business elsewhere.”

Samir nodded, swallowing against the lump of fear, and followed Raj away. But he could feel Girald’s eyes on his back long after they’d passed out of sight.

A note from Barbara J Webb

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About the author

Barbara J Webb


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