“I’m not here to discuss what you lost, Gaige. I’m here to help you forge a new path forward, even if you didn’t want it to begin with.” I stepped around him, nearing the window and gazing at the silhouettes of training assassins in the faded, heather-purple light of dusk. Swallowing thickly, I tugged at the hem of my vest. “I can train you privately, if you’d prefer.”
Gaige blinked, and for a moment, there was a sliver of the man I used to know. A surprised curl to his lips. A mischievous glint to his eyes. He seemed to recognize his inadvertent reaction, though, and he squashed it immediately.
“There was a time I would have taken you up on that offer. For something else, of course,” he said. My ears burned with his insinuation—so at odds with the suffocating weight of despair in my chest. Slowly, he re-gloved his hand. I doubted I’d ever feel the gentle touch of his fingers again. “But not anymore.”
“Someone else then.” I hated the way my voice came out shaky and weak. “I don’t care who trains you, just get it done. That’s an order from your guild master.”
He chuckled, a dark, nasty sound. “And just how are you going to enforce that? You’re my guild master in name only. I won’t be doing your bidding.”
“I only have so much patience, Gaige. If you continue to bait me…”
“Oh, come on.” Gaige pushed past me as a whirlwind of shadows encircled him. “Don’t you have better things to do? Go run the guild. I promise I’ll, I don’t know, not destroy a book next time.” He toed the shredded pile of parchment and binding for effect, and then let the swirling tendrils swallow him whole. So dark and all-consuming were his shadows that I couldn’t even track his movements. One moment he was there and the next he was gone, whisked away to gods only knew where.
I stormed down one of the aisles until I found a shelf heavy with tomes against the back wall. With far more force than necessary, I tugged a muted-yellow book by the binding, and the hidden door leading to the guild master’s private study swung open. I stepped through and slammed it shut behind me. The telltale, muffled thud of books falling followed, but I didn’t bother to reopen the passage and clean up the mess I’d made.
With the books or Gaige?
Exhaling tightly, I pushed that thought away and sank into the ornate, stuffed chair behind the desk. I grazed a few pieces of parchment. Bounties. A dull ache simmered behind my eyes, and I rubbed my temples. Becoming Cruor’s new guild master was an expected development. Noc couldn’t possibly be both king and guild master, and as his second-in-command, it was only logical for me to take over.
Yet, both Noc and Leena—Crown of the Charmer’s Council, Queen of Lendria, and a sister to me despite our initial rocky beginning—had been somewhat resistant to the idea. They wanted me to remain in Wilheim with them as their advisor. While the idea of dissecting political agendas and helping to strategize the wellbeing of an entire nation had its appeal, there were things here that needed a close eye. One thing—person—in particular, but he wasn’t exactly easy to watch. For the time being, the work that came with being guild master was a wonderful distraction. But even with ample jobs and responsibilities before me, I still couldn’t find the will to focus on my duties.
A whisper of shadows swirled in the corner, and I stilled. Tendrils pulled from every hidden crevice in the office, and they interwove in indistinct patterns until knitting together in the shape of a man. Noc. He craned his neck from side to side before tucking his hands in the pockets of his fitted trousers. He didn’t wear a crown, but the royal insignia, a griffin, was embroidered on the chest of his tunic. It should have been a bold silver, but the shadows washed out all color. Even the crystalline-blue shade of his eyes.
“Your majesty,” I said, burying my frustrations with Gaige in a smile. It was genuine, at least. Seeing my friend would always bring me joy. Shadow walking meant we could visit each other whenever we desired, despite the distance between Cruor and Wilheim. It was a small boon in an otherwise unfortunate predicament. I’d never expected the guild to feel so empty without him.
He scoffed, and the shadows about his jaw fluttered in response. “Not you, too. Calem already says it every chance he can.”
“He does it precisely because it elicits a rise out of you.” I leaned back in the chair, allowing my muscles to mold into the worn fabric. It’d only been a week since Noc and Leena’s wedding and subsequent crowning ceremony. And Calem, who was undoubtedly causing a ruckus somewhere within the guild, made it a point to refer to Noc as “king” whenever the opportunity arose.
“Yeah, well,” he glanced about the room, as if taking in the familiar surroundings of his former office, “I’ll have to come up with something equally irritating to call him.”
“Good luck with that.” I braced my elbows on the desk. “How’s everything going?”
“We’re making progress. Trade has officially reopened with Rhyne, so we should see and increased shipment in goods in the coming weeks.”
“That’s good. Is Rhyne in need of any assistance with their borders? I’m sure we can afford to send a few members if necessary.” I shuffled the parchment before me, eyeing requests and the details of the bounties.
“Not necessary.” Noc ghosted his hand along the bookshelves lining the wall as he moved toward the desk. Shadows dissipated and appeared with every subtle shift as he toyed with the bindings. “If anything, we need the help in Hireath.”
A nagging sensation trickled down my spine, and I pursed my lips. “Gaige hasn’t been back yet.”
“I know.” Noc came to a halt across from me, eyes cast downward. “Kaori and Raven have been asking about him. They’re handling the rebuilding effort just fine, but they worry. We all do.” Of course the members of the Charmer’s Council were asking about Gaige. He’d been a residing member for decades. Kaori and Raven were his closest friends. Yet, he’d cut off contact with them and ignored discussing his home altogether.
“He won’t train. Not with me, not with Ozias, not with anyone.” I stood and began to pace as the study walls closed in around me. Ozias was an expert at teaching members of Cruor to control the shadows. Even so, he couldn’t coax Gaige to learn.
And that was a dangerous thing.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said.
“How close is he?” Noc’s question was barely audible, but it rang through my mind with the force of a gong.
“Too close.” I stopped and removed my glasses, pinching the bridge of my nose. Then, I extracted a small, mulberry cloth from my breast pocket and polished the lenses. “I don’t think he has much time left.”
Noc strode toward me and placed his hands on my shoulders. The lack of true contact was apparent, but the icy familiarity of those dark tendrils soothed my frayed nerves. “He’ll come around. He has to.”
Or he won’t, and we’ll lose him to the shadows. The unspoken truth of Gaige’s future hung heavy in the air, and I clenched my jaw.
Noc let his hands fall to his sides. “Leena and I leave tomorrow for Rhyne. When we return, we’ll stop through Cruor on our way to Hireath. If he hasn’t figured it out by then, she’ll knock some sense into him.”
With a quiet sigh, I replaced my glasses. “I hope she’s successful.”
“She will be.” Noc tipped his chin ever so slightly, peering at me for a long moment before frowning. “I hate to leave to abruptly but…”
“Go.” I waved him off as I returned to the desk. I slid into the chair and grabbed the nearest quill and inkwell. “I need to evaluate these contracts and determine who would be best suited for the jobs.”
“Maybe Gaige needs an assignment. Purpose will help.” Shadows gathered around him, temporarily darkening the room. He hesitated for a breath, half his body already lost to the shadow realm and other still firmly planted in my study.
“We won’t lose him, Kost.”
But as I nodded in answer and Noc disappeared, I couldn’t help but feel like we’d lost Gaige already. The man we knew before had died. This new person was shrouded in a sinister darkness I couldn’t control. No matter how much I wanted to try and pierce that veil, I wasn’t sure he’d let me.
One way or another, the shadows would come calling. And the only person who could stop them was Gaige.
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