For the rest of the morning no one entered or left the great hall at Ironsides’ manor. It wasn’t until well after lunchtime, when we had finished our plotting and Vaudrin went to check the kitchen that even servants entered the room. They came in with Vaudrin, carrying trays of food for lunch. After serving they quickly bustled away—even though by that point we were quite done talking and more interested in eating.

After our late lunch, I went in search of Balleck and Olena.

I found Balleck in one of the barns, hanging by his legs from a stall wall and doing sit ups. Even the dim light of the barn caught the red in his blond hair and skimmed his muscles with an artist’s grace. I approached quietly and had to clear my throat he was so engrossed in his work. Balleck startled, then flipped himself to the ground. “My lady,” he said, dusting himself off.

I hopped up on a couple bales of straw. He came and leaned next to me, waiting for me to say something. “It’s been a wild two weeks,” I offered.

Balleck grimaced. “I’d say so. Zare,” he began, then hesitated. “Lady Zare.”

I grimaced.

He began again, “Our part in this fight is over—such as it was. Gabe and I need to help the girls get back to the circus. We’ve discussed it with Ironsides and our plan is to rest here for a week and then take the southern road to Magadar.”

I drew a deep breath and let it out; what had I expected him to say? “That is sensible.”

He looked at me, “You could come with us. Your brothers and the soldiers can handle things here.”

I had definitely not expected that. I turned to him in surprise, “What do you mean?”

“You’re hunted in this land, come with us to a place we’re regular folk again,” said Balleck earnestly, “It’s dangerous here, Zare.”

“I’m dangerous,” I retorted.

“I know—I’ve heard the girls talk about what you did to save them. But you shouldn’t have had to—we were all close by waiting to go in and rescue them. You didn’t need to take that kind of risk where we couldn’t protect you.” Balleck leaned closer, “It turned out alright—everyone is safe now. But it might not have—we might easily have lost you—I could have lost you.” He picked up my hand and sought my eyes pleadingly, “You should come with me to Magadar, your family will follow.”

I stared at him. His blue eyes were pale with pain and I was too stunned to know what to say. I was suddenly aware that the danger which permeated my life was as familiar to me as the morning dew…and that the circus was already part of my past. I squeezed Balleck’s hand and said gently, “I have to stay.”

Balleck nodded, his face resigned. “I thought you would say that.”

“Do you understand why?” I asked, desperately wishing he did.

“Maybe.” A sad smile spread tipped his mouth and he lifted his free hand to my face, tracing my cheek with his fingers. “I lost you the day everyone was kidnapped.”

At his touch every single fire spinning memory sprang to mind and exploded with fireworks of desire and regret. In another life, I could have been a fire spinner: I could have traveled all over the world performing riding stunts with the circus. Married Balleck and had little wild haired children running around with flaming batons and impeccably trained dancing ponies.

But that was before I fished a mysterious wounded archer out of the Tryber River. Before I found out about a rebellion and found hope to defeat the sorceress.  Before my family was stolen. I dropped my eyes because I couldn’t gaze into Balleck’s soul any longer. He traced my face a moment longer and then let his hand fall, too.

We were quiet, listening to the sound of what wouldn’t be, then Balleck broke the spell, “I had a lovely time dancing with you at the harvest festival. Before…you know…everything fell apart forever.”

I choked out a laugh, “Yes…I enjoyed dancing with you, too. It was a lovely night up until the soldiers came. And even after that it wasn’t so bad since we got out alright.”

Balleck grunted, “It was the beginning of our troubles. Back when I thought you were a former duchess or something.”

“Well,” I scooted off the bale of straw, still holding his hand. “We have a little bit of time before,” I hesitated, “I have to be going again.”

He straightened to follow me, “I won’t ask,” he assured a little tiredly.

“Would you be willing to give one last lesson in fire spinning?” I bit my lip as I looked back at him.

“Of course, my lady,” Balleck bowed, the filtered light catching his smile and pressing it into my memory like a signet ring in wax.

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