Blessed Epoch: Book Two
Despite their disparate natures, Yarrow, Duncan, and Sasha united against overwhelming odds to save Prince Garith’s life. Now Garith is king and the three friends may be facing their undoing.
Distraught over Yarrow’s departure to find the cure to his magical affliction, Duncan struggles with his new role as Bairn of Windwake, a realm left bankrupt and in turmoil by his predecessor. Many of Duncan’s vassals conspire against him, and Sasha’s unorthodox solutions to Duncan’s problem have earned them the contempt of Garith’s nobles.
When word reaches Duncan and Sasha that Yarrow is in danger, they want nothing more than to rush to his aid. But Duncan’s absence could tip Windwake into the hands of his enemies. In addition, a near-mythic order of assassins wants Sasha dead. Without Yarrow, Duncan and Sasha can’t take the fight to the assassins. They are stuck, entangled in a political world they don’t understand. But finding Yarrow may cause more problems, and with his court divided, King Garith must strike a balance between supporting his friends and assuaging the nobles who want Duncan punished—and Sasha executed.
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THE bairn of Windwake cast off his golden ceremonial cloak emblazoned with the crag eagle livery and let it fall heavily to the stone floor of his chambers. Duncan collapsed into an upholstered chair by the inglenook and rubbed his forehead. The fire had long ago diminished to embers, leaving the expansive suite dark and chill on this early spring night. Ruling Windwake had turned out nothing like he’d imagined, and the stresses of yet another day of listening to the demands of squabbling nobles wore on him. When Duncan had been granted his lands and title, he’d anticipated protecting and providing for his people, much as he’d done when he’d been a knight. The reality clashed hard against his expectations. He’d rather face an entire field of soldiers than those nattering, duplicitous aristocrats any day. At least men with swords were honest about wanting to destroy him, and he knew how to counter them.READ MORE
Duncan had no sooner let his eyes fall shut and his head rest against the padded velvet of the chair when he heard a sound, even softer than the flutter of a night bird’s wings, on the balcony opposite his hearth. He tensed, his exhaustion replaced by alertness. Many of his vassals couldn’t be trusted; he found them avaricious, their only loyalty to their own treasuries. Some of them still owed fealty to Taran Edercrest, the traitor whose mantle Duncan had assumed after the man’s death in a failed attempt to overthrow Selindria’s true king. Duncan knew at least a few of the backstabbing nobles might stoop to murder if they could profit from it. He crept as quietly as he could to the weapons stand and picked up his greatsword. He held it in both hands as he approached the balcony, ready to defend himself.
With the sole of his boot, Duncan nudged the wooden double doors, and they swung open with a rasp and a groan. The red-tinged crescent moon provided little light as he glanced from one end of the parapet to the other. Nothing moved except a few leaves tumbling across the stone in the light breeze. Duncan blinked hard as sweat dripped into his eyes. He knew he’d heard something, but now he wondered if the combination of his weariness and the ever-present threat of treachery toyed with his mind. He’d never been a paranoid man, but as he stood looking out from the western side of Windust Castle, over the deep, round Barrier Bay, sheltered on three sides by high cliffs, he heard nothing but the gentle lap of the waves against the strong, gray ironstone that made up so much of Windwake. On a clear day, Duncan could see almost to the southern shore of Lockhaven from this balcony, but the gloom of the night and the chill mist rising from the water restricted his vision to the dozens of ships huddled close to the shore, bobbing gently on the calm tide.
“You should be more careful.”
Duncan started and turned toward the low, velvety voice. He scanned the shadows but couldn’t locate the speaker. Then, at the opposite end of the terrace, a sliver of shade separated from the wall, and a lithe silhouette tiptoed along the thin, stone railing before leaping down in front of Duncan without even disturbing the leaves. His boots met the stone silently, and the leather armor he wore didn’t even creak or rustle.
Duncan blew out an extended breath and lowered his weapon. “Goddesses, Sasha. Why must you sneak around like that? I could have cut you in two before I recognized you.”
Sasha answered with a sensuous laugh devoid of any genuine amusement. “I don’t think you could have.”
“Perhaps not,” Duncan conceded, his happiness at his lover’s return trumping his slight annoyance. Besides, he knew Sasha spoke not out of arrogance but simply stated the truth. Sasha had been trained by a cult of assassins so legendary and feared most doubted they even existed. The Order of the Crimson Scythe held mythical status throughout Selindria and Gaeltheon, and Duncan had witnessed Sasha’s lethal skill on more than one occasion. If he’d been inclined, Sasha could have cut Duncan’s throat while Duncan stood watching the boats like a dull-witted child.
Sasha’s training was also responsible for what Duncan saw when he stepped closer to his partner: a face that, while exotically beautiful, betrayed no hint of emotion. Shrewd, black eyes offered no clue of the intentions behind them. Though they hadn’t seen each other in weeks, Duncan looked into the cold face of a killer, not the warm smile of a lover. He tried, unsuccessfully, to staunch the hurt by reminding himself Sasha had been taught almost since birth not to feel love or attachment, let alone show evidence of what he’d been told was weakness.
Duncan reached up and stroked the soft, black hair that fell to Sasha’s slender shoulders. Sasha batted his long, thick lashes and smiled mischievously. He had the most amazing, full, dark lips Duncan had ever seen, and the sight of them curling up and parting slightly sent a tremor of desire down Duncan’s spine. He hoped Sasha showed sincere pleasure at his touch, as much pleasure as he experienced feeling the smooth skin of Sasha’s cheek again after what seemed like forever. Sasha had no reason to perform with Duncan, but Duncan knew old habits held on tenaciously sometimes, like a cough that lingered after the fever had passed.
“I missed you,” he said, pressing a kiss to Sasha’s forehead. “But you could try using the front gate like a normal man. Or are you trying to impress me?”
Sasha curled his body against Duncan and brushed their bellies together. He rubbed his face against Duncan’s whiskers and whispered close to his ear. “Did it work?”
Duncan glanced over the railing at the sheer, four-story drop to the sharp rocks surrounding the fortress. A wide gravel road wound out around those cliffs from the docks to the gate at the southern wall, on the opposite side of the fortress. Aside from that entrance, Windust was virtually impenetrable. “I suppose it did. Did your—” Duncan still felt uncomfortable discussing Sasha’s work. “Were you successful?”
Sasha snorted as if insulted and crossed his arms over his slim chest. His devastating smile widened. “Pym Goodsal and his associates will cause no more trouble for your friend Garith.”
“His Majesty will be pleased,” Duncan said, taking Sasha’s gloved hand, careful of the thin blades hidden at his wrists and the razor-like spikes over his knuckles, and leading him inside.
Sasha shrugged. “So long as he produces the agreed-upon gold.”
Duncan almost asked what Sasha would do if Garith, High King of Selindria and Gaeltheon, the largest and most powerful kingdom in the known world, withheld the payment. He thought better of it, though, and went instead to add logs to the fire and stir up the coals. By now, Duncan knew Sasha regarded a prince and a beggar alike only as men who bled and died for his Cast-Down god.
Sasha removed his gloves, loosening the buckles and then tugging them off one finger at a time, while Duncan poked at the ashes in the hearth. Sasha unbuckled the belts over his hips that held daggers and pouches likely full of poisons, and then he unfastened the strap crossing his chest, along with the weapons it held, and let it drop onto a wooden bench. Sasha effortlessly disarmed himself in absolute silence. Duncan admired Sasha’s grace and fluidity of movement from the corner of his eye as he tended the fire. The room soon glowed warm and bright as the flames flickered and grew. Orange light reflected off the snug, deep red leather wrapping Sasha’s slender limbs and made shadows dance across his face. The fire couldn’t melt the icy mask the assassin wore, but Duncan knew what might. He replaced the iron poker and crossed the room to Sasha, who stood only a few feet from the balcony door, as if waiting to be invited inside, seemingly unsure of his welcome.
Duncan curled his big hands around Sasha’s waist, almost encircling it. He drew Sasha’s chest against his, rubbed his palm up Sasha’s back to his neck, and guided Sasha’s head to his shoulder. Burying his face in the top of Sasha’s hair, he inhaled the spicy fragrance that almost masked the scents of leather, steel, and blood. “Sasha, this is your home as much as mine. I wouldn’t have any of it if it hadn’t been for you. You don’t have to enter it in secret.”
Sasha laughed icily, but his lips and nose felt warm as he nuzzled against Duncan’s neck. The tickle of his breath against Duncan’s dampening skin when he spoke made Duncan shudder. “So, you’d parade me before your nobles and officials? Claim me as part of your household, as your friend?”
Holding Sasha’s cheeks in both hands, Duncan tilted his face upward and made Sasha meet his eyes. He searched for some trace of emotion in those glittering, black orbs but saw only his own conflicted face reflected back at him in distorted miniature. “I would. Why do you make it sound so absurd? I’ll tell them anything you like, anything that will make you happy. Sasha, you know I love you.”
“I know.” The assassin tried to look away as he furrowed his brow and turned down his lips, but Duncan held him, not letting him hide what he felt.
A fake smile replaced Sasha’s concerned expression. “You’d lose your bairny if anyone discovered the nature of our association,” he said with false cheer. “I understand better than most the need for secrecy. It’s of little consequence how I enter the castle, anyway. I’m used to standing in the shadows.”
Duncan hated it when his partner walled himself off, but he didn’t know how to breach barriers that had been in place so long. Battering them down would not do, he’d learned. If he pushed too hard, Sasha would instinctively close him out, so he slid his hands down Sasha’s lithe arms, clasped his hands, and led him to the massive bed canopied in gold and black velvet. They sat facing each other on the edge. Sasha pulled his heel to his crotch.
“Are you hungry?” Duncan asked, stroking up and down Sasha’s thigh, savoring the feel of taut muscles beneath buttery leather. “Shall I have something sent up from the kitchens? My servants, at least, still respect my wishes.”
Sasha edged closer and draped his hand over Duncan’s knee. “Thank you, my friend. But not just now. Is there nothing on your mind besides food?” He moved his hand to Duncan’s groin and cupped his balls as he leaned in and brushed his lips against Duncan’s. When Duncan tried to return the kiss, Sasha pulled away with a grin. He wrapped Duncan’s ponytail around his hand and tugged Duncan’s head back so he could nibble up and down the side of Duncan’s neck. As he dragged his magnificent lips over Duncan’s rapidly heating skin, Sasha squeezed and fondled his balls through his cloth trousers. Duncan caught himself on his palms as Sasha pulled lightly on his hair, urging him to move farther onto the bed. Sasha swung his leg across Duncan and straddled him with his knees on the mattress and his thighs tensed and straight. When he looked down at Duncan with his lips even more swollen from Duncan’s coarse whiskers and a beautiful, red flush across his high cheekbones and the straight, slender bridge of his nose, Duncan sensed a minute crack in the icy sheath Sasha wore like armor. Sasha never looked more desirable to Duncan than when he gave Duncan a glimpse at everything he hid from the rest of the world.
Duncan fell lightly on his back and grasped Sasha’s hips just where the buckles of his armor crossed over the prominent curves of bone. He tried to pull Sasha into his lap so he could feel the contact between them he craved so much, feel Sasha’s heat against him, but Sasha resisted, instead grabbing Duncan’s wrist and bringing it to his mouth, where he ran his tongue over the sensitive skin and bit softly at the mound of flesh below Duncan’s thumb. When Duncan reached for the tantalizing erection obvious beneath Sasha’s skintight armor, Sasha again caught his hand, wove their fingers together, and let them fall next to his hip.
Sasha pressed Duncan’s hand to his heart and just looked down at Duncan, his need and devotion radiating from him like a physical force. He smiled, and Duncan had no doubt he felt everything he showed in his expression, and it was Duncan’s alone.
“I neglected to say I missed you too.” Sasha released Duncan’s wrist and scraped the back of his hand down Duncan’s bearded cheek. “I’m not used to noticing the absence of another, and I was surprised how much it hurt to be without you. Truly, Duncan, I almost didn’t enjoy my work.”
“I’d hate to be the one who put you off murder.” Duncan ran his free hand up Sasha’s leg and over his chest until he could cup his shoulder. “Goddesses, you’re beautiful.” He worked the buckle over Sasha’s throat free, then moved to the one across his collarbones, peeled the leather armor open, and bunched up the snug, hooded tunic beneath it. Duncan touched Sasha’s warm, deep gold skin as he revealed it an inch at a time and watched Sasha’s frozen blockade melt away with his arousal. Finally he pulled the armor open up the center and ran his hand over Sasha’s lean, defined stomach, shaved, as always, and like silk beneath Duncan’s palm. Duncan reached inside the leather to push it off Sasha’s shoulder. “You could give it all up, you know. Never have to leave me.”
Sasha shrugged out of his protective clothing and let it fall across Duncan’s legs behind him. He pulled a small knife in a leather sheath from the waistband of his trousers and tossed it to the floor. “What, never leave your bed? Just be here naked and ready whenever you might want me?”
“All right.” Duncan tugged at the buckle below Sasha’s belly button, all his earlier worries forgotten. Nothing mattered to him but pleasing Sasha, feeling Sasha shiver with bliss and drop all the veneers he wore. Only in these intimate moments did Sasha completely bare himself for Duncan, and it drove Duncan crazy. He also knew Sasha liked to be in control, so when Sasha caught his hands, he allowed it. For the moment.
“So you’d turn me into a whore?” Sasha dropped a few inches, just grazing Duncan’s swollen cock with his leather-encased bottom.
“No whore,” Duncan panted, done with Sasha’s teasing. He seized Sasha’s waist and pulled him down, thrusting against the seam of his leather leggings, precome coating his cockhead and wetting the cloth of his trousers. “No sharing. You’re mine, Sasha. Mine. Come here.” He caught Sasha’s shoulders and neck, bringing their faces and lips together. He nibbled Sasha’s lips before thrusting his tongue between them, past Sasha’s teeth and into the silken heat of his mouth. Sasha resisted, sparring with Duncan’s tongue before submitting to it. Duncan growled and dug his fingers into Sasha’s flesh. He wrapped his thick arms around Sasha’s ribs and rolled so Sasha lay beneath him, and then he kissed him until his tongue ached and his lips felt ready to split, and he still wanted more.
“Tell me you’re mine,” Duncan panted. He stripped his linen tunic off and flung it beside the bed.
“You know I am.” Sasha ruffled the hair on Duncan’s chest and brushed his thumbs over Duncan’s nipples, making them tighten to little pink beads. “I kill to protect you. I ask nothing in return.”
“My love, you don’t have to kill to show me you love me. I have guards—I—”
“I want to,” Sasha said, yanking Duncan’s fancy trousers to his thighs, making his erection smack him in the belly. “I want to show them what happens to anyone who threatens what’s mine. In the order, I spilled blood for Thalil. Now I spill it for you, because I love you. Show me you love me even though I kill, Duncan. Take those silly clothes off.”
Lifting one leg from the bed at a time, never taking his eyes off his beautiful partner, Duncan shed his trousers, boots, and stockings. Though a powerful, muscular man, he still felt a little self-conscious beneath Sasha’s scrutiny. Where Sasha was lithe and graceful with uniform, bronzed skin, Duncan’s body was pale from the neck down and covered in a dusting of dark brown hair and a network of battle scars. They had that in common now, he supposed, as he touched the pallid, raised, satiny strip on the side of Sasha’s neck. He’d earned it when he’d chosen Duncan and their erstwhile companion Yarroway L’Estrella over his brothers in the order. A series of crisscrossing gashes, healed now, marked the inside of Sasha’s forearm, and Duncan closed his eyes as he explored their texture. The scars felt like blades of grass scattered across Sasha’s warm skin. Much about Sasha had horrified Duncan initially, and in those early days, he’d never thought he’d reconcile his code of honor with his love for this assassin and his beautiful, deadly, mad, broken Yarrow….
“You’re thinking about him,” Sasha said in a scratchy voice.
“No. I’m thinking about you, Sasha. About everything you’ve done for me. All you’ve given up. I’m thinking about how much I love it when I get you so aroused you’ll submit to me, relinquish control to me. I love that the most.” Duncan kept working on the buckles of Sasha’s trousers, and Sasha lay contented beneath him, resting his arms on the pillow above his head. He even lifted his hips so Duncan could peel the leather away and remove the two hidden daggers crossed above his tailbone.
“Why?” Sasha asked as Duncan stood to pull his boots off, shaking his head and smiling when he found yet another knife at Sasha’s left calf.
“Because I can see you,” Duncan said, easing Sasha’s legs open and sitting on his heels between them. “You don’t hide from me. When you give yourself to me like that, I know you trust me. Goddesses, Sasha. You don’t know how much that means. I know what your trust is worth.”
Sasha spread his legs farther and arched his back off the bed. “You talk too much, Duncan. Show me.”
“Don’t order me, assassin,” Duncan mumbled even as he found the vial of oil he kept under the bed and drizzled it over his hand and his cock. Funny how the title he’d once used to insult Sasha had evolved into an intimate endearment. Life could be strange, but Duncan didn’t ponder it. Sasha lay looking up at him with trusting eyes, sprawled over the fancy, embroidered bedclothes in absolute complacency.
“Duncan, I’m yours.”
Duncan bent to suckle Sasha’s dark red nipple as he rubbed his slicked fingers over Sasha’s cleft. His opening clenched every time Duncan caressed it, and Sasha pressed against Duncan’s hand, practically begging to be entered. He tossed his head from side to side on Duncan’s pillows as he opened and then closed his mouth without saying anything coherent. Duncan slipped his finger inside Sasha’s open and very eager hole, easily sliding the entire length of it into his slick heat and feeling out the sweet spot within him. As soon as he grazed that clump of nerves, Sasha cried out in a language Duncan couldn’t recognize.
“More,” Sasha groaned.
“What is that language?” Duncan asked as he withdrew his finger and replaced it with his thumb, driving it home and watching Sasha twist his waist with pleasure. “I want to know what you’re saying.”
“I’m—Fuck.” Sasha quivered as Duncan added another finger. “I’m calling out to Thalil. In… oh, that’s good. In a dead language spoken by those who first worshipped him. Does it bother you?”
“No.” It should have; Thalil was a disease: god of murder, seduction, and deceit. Even speaking his name was forbidden to the righteous. But as he pressed a third finger into Sasha’s willing flesh and felt it squeeze him rhythmically, Duncan couldn’t care. He loved this man, assassin or not, disciple of Thalil or not. This was his Sasha writhing beneath him, spreading his legs to accept Duncan’s hand into him and flushing with delight at Duncan’s touch. Duncan knew what it meant for Sasha to leave himself so vulnerable. It went against everything he’d ever been taught. “I love you for trusting me, for sharing your secrets.”
“Thalil, I need you. Need you now.” Sasha rested one calf on Duncan’s shoulder and wrapped his other leg around Duncan’s waist, urging Duncan closer, clear in what he wanted.
Duncan slipped his fingers out of Sasha’s body though Sasha’s flesh clung to them as if unwilling to let them go. The desperation on his face as he looked up at Duncan spoke as loudly as his words, and it vanquished Duncan.
“I’ll do anything for you, Sasha. I love you.”
Sasha rolled his eyes. “Then stop talking.”
Before entering Sasha, Duncan touched the small mark on the inside of Sasha’s thigh: the crescent dripping blood, the sign of his order. That accursed symbol still unnerved Duncan, but it was a part of Sasha, and he’d accept it. “I love everything about you. Goddesses, tell me I can have you.”
“Yes,” Sasha breathed, spread his willowy limbs over the bed, and fluttered his eyelids. “Yes, yours.”
Duncan gripped himself at the base of his erection and thrust into Sasha, burying himself to the hilt in Sasha’s hot, clenching body. He looked down at Sasha’s face, slack with ecstasy, and he couldn’t hold back. Sasha curled his pelvis against Duncan, and Duncan thrust in, hard and deep, with no pretense of gentleness. Neither of them wanted that; they both wanted it hard, urgent, and raw, as if to reclaim each other after their time apart. Sasha dug his nails into Duncan’s lower back to encourage him, and Duncan gave Sasha all he had.
“Bite,” Sasha said, bowing his back and stretching his neck. “Duncan—”
Duncan knew of this peculiarity of Sasha’s, and while he didn’t share it, he enjoyed anything that brought his beautiful assassin pleasure. He pushed deep into Sasha as he sunk his teeth into the muscle between Sasha’s neck and shoulder, tearing the skin with his teeth because he knew Sasha liked it. The coppery tang of blood filled Duncan’s mouth as he came into Sasha, his whole body convulsing and sprays of light erupting behind his eyes. His flesh melted after his release, and he fell across his partner’s body as he rode wave after wave of pleasure.
Sasha made a small, dissatisfied sound that roused Duncan from his torpor. He lifted his forehead from Sasha’s sweaty chest and kissed him before pulling out and flipping him to his belly. He lifted Sasha to his knees, guided his legs apart, and lapped at Sasha’s open hole, tasting his own seed leaking out and mingling with the spicy flavor of Sasha’s heated flesh. Duncan ran his finger along the rim of Sasha’s distended opening before venturing deeper, his fluids easing the way. He gripped Sasha with his other hand and pushed his hood back to expose his moist cockhead. As he worked his hand into him, Duncan stroked Sasha in time with his thrusts.
Sasha’s breath hitched and grew irregular; Duncan knew he was close. “Goddesses, I want to see you come. I want you to come for me.” He curled forward and bit Sasha’s ass cheek, sinking his teeth deep into the dense crescent of muscle until he tasted blood again.
Sasha loosed a raspy scream, dropped his head to the pillows, and came into Duncan’s fist. His whole body seized, and his inner muscles clamped down on Duncan’s hand. Duncan licked the blood from his lips and wrapped his arms around Sasha’s chest, kissing gently across his shoulders as he whimpered and moaned. He’d given Sasha what he needed, so now Duncan could take his pleasure in the soft, slow kisses and caresses he relished.
When Sasha collapsed, Duncan pulled away, gently rolled Sasha to his side and lay down beside him, pressing their foreheads together. He held Sasha close, and Sasha wrapped his arms around Duncan’s head. Neither of them said anything for probably a quarter of an hour as they drifted slowly down from the pinnacles of their bliss.
Finally, Sasha spoke in a low, contented tone tainted with melancholy. “You think of Yarrow too.”
“There is no point in this,” Duncan said, though his heart felt suddenly chilled, pierced by a cold, forgotten dagger.
“No. I’m tired of this unspoken agreement not to talk about him. I miss him. I long for him, and I know you do too. We should look for him. It’s been over a year. He said he’d come back, and he hasn’t. We should find him. Bring him back.”
Duncan drew Sasha closer, enfolding him in his arms. It was true; their bed felt incomplete without their white-haired mage sharing it. “But I swore to him I’d let him go. He has much to work through, Sasha.”
“It hurts,” Sasha admitted in a small voice, like a boy who skinned his knee for the first time.
“I know. But right now, I have to try to bring some sort of order to Windwake.”
Sasha rose to his elbow and propped his face on his hand, looking down at Duncan with those black eyes that cut to the core of him like the sharpest blades. “Windwake is yours. You are bairn. What more?”
Duncan rolled to his back and folded his arms beneath his head. “Bairn. High King Garith says so, but what are words worth?” He waved his hand at his finely furnished chamber, full of elaborate tapestries, posh benches, ornate weapons, statuary and paintings. “This is like a masquerade, Sasha. I wear the trappings of the bairn of Windwake, but it’s a joke. The nobles are still loyal to Taran Edercrest, because he promised them money and lands. They care only about their own treasuries, not Windwake as a whole. Few of my vassals will even acknowledge me.”
“I’ll kill the disloyal ones,” Sasha said, as if it were just that easy.
“No, love,” Duncan said, burrowing his face into Sasha’s neck, tired to his core of thinking about the greedy aristocrats. “It’s not so simple.”
“Why not?” Sasha asked and then yawned.
“Because it isn’t. I’m too worn out to put it into words. I just want to hold you tonight. It’s been too long.”
“It has. Good night, my love.” Sasha nestled against Duncan and fell asleep without another word.
Duncan drew Sasha so close their bones pressed together. He relished Sasha’s slight weight against his chest, the way Sasha’s breath moistened his skin, Sasha’s come drying on his hand. In the world of deceit and illusion he found himself inhabiting, at least Duncan had one real thing, one thing he could trust amidst all the greed and deception. He touched the bite mark he’d left on Sasha’s shoulder and kissed his forehead. Then Duncan let his head sink into the pillows. Tomorrow he’d have to face his vassals again, and he needed rest if he hoped to gain any ground. As he lay listening to his lover’s slow breathing, the distant crash of saltwater against stone, and the evening breeze rattling the shutters of the ancient fortress he now called home, Duncan’s mind conjured images of ice-blue eyes, hair like fresh snow, and a handsome face painted with blue ink. He wondered where Yarrow could be and if Yarrow thought of him and Sasha like this sometimes, just before falling asleep. The recollections ached like an old wound reopened, but Duncan didn’t banish them, and his memories carried over into his dreams.COLLAPSE