Prologue: The Exile

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Darius tugged his hood lower over his face and rapped on the weathered door. As the night breeze whisked away the sound and the knock went unanswered, he raised his knuckles again, hesitantly. Then the door shivered and cracked open. Narrow eyes and a bristly beard poked through.

Darius spoke first when he realized that the man would not: "Weaponsmith?"

"Yes," the man grunted. "And?"

Darius stuffed away his hands. "I'm in need of your wares."

The surly weaponsmith glanced over the black-bundled Darius. "And who might you be?"

"A traveler."

The man stamped and snuffled with displeasure. "No good travelers here. Not in a war." He threatened to shut the door. "No faceless customers. Come back at dawn when I can see under that hood of yours."

"I'll be gone by then." Darius fumbled a bloated velvet purse out of his robes. "I need a sword."

The smith's eyes locked on the purse with reluctant interest. When the drawstring was coaxed loose, revealing a kingly heap of coins, the smith gave a sigh, then a nod. He stepped back, allowing just enough room for the stranger to enter.

Darius slipped inside the building, into the scraggly light of a lantern on a table end. The deeper shadows of the room were soaked with the dirty crimson heat of an open forge.

The smith plodded ahead, into his jungle of strewn tools and half-molded iron. "What sort of sword are you looking for, then?"

Darius scanned the lantern-lit table. Three hilts reached out of the shadows, crude and lustreless as rock. "The kind you don't sell to regular customers."

The smith stopped and hummed, plodding to another end of the room. "I take it that you're not concerned with legality."

"Laws need only apply to those without fair reason to break them."

A chortle ripped through the darkness. "Fair by whose judgement?"

"King Noerling's, I suppose." Darius returned the laugh with bitterness. "Though I hope it doesn't stay that way much longer."

"It's not wise to speak ill of one's king."

"I have asked you for a sword," he said firmly, "not wisdom."

There was no laugh this time. When the smith turned back to him and stumbled out of the shadows of his workshop, he wore an ugly frown, but the sword he carried caught the lantern light like cut crystal. "Azanian steel." He proffered it ceremoniously. "Abylite concealed in the hilt."

Darius grabbed the weapon impudently and sliced twice through the air. As his fingers hugged the leather grip, black sparks shivered up the blade. "It's good."

The smith snorted. "You won't find one better."

A laugh escaped Darius' lips. "Oh, I have." He peeled back his cloak and slipped the sword into an empty holster. "How much?"

"Thirty tennets," snapped the smith. "For you, thirty-five."

Darius produced his velvet purse again. With no hesitation, he fished out his payment in handfuls of lopsided coins and spilled them over the table, where they blazed in the lantern light like stolen stars. As he returned the purse to his robes, he was shocked by the burly, soot-scarred arm that lashed out and clamped onto him. He threw his scowl onto the smith as he turned, already seizing the hilt of his weapon with his free hand. He only realized his mistake when he was released, and ducked back into the shadows of his hood.

"King—!" the smith stammered out. The whites of his wide eyes glowed through the dark. "No...you're dead! He's dead!"

Darius did not turn his head again. "Of this you are certain?"

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