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As they walked, Korin took the chance to get a better look at Ádan now they had neither the crowded market nor unnatural darkness between them.

During the war, Korin had cared for enough firstborn to be intimately familiar with all the ways in which they were different from humans, and all the ways they were the same. Their bodies matched, in broad strokes. Two eyes, two ears, the same hands, arms, legs. Even if those eyes tended to be bigger, brighter, and those ears long and tapered. Their bones were slightly longer, making many of them look slightly out of perspective to Korin, who had spent his youth without any firstborn as part of his daily life. They could be beautiful in one blink, alien in the next. And magic worked through them differently.

Ádan was tall enough the elongated firstborn lines became natural on him. At least Korin’s eyes weren’t spending their time trying to transform him into more human proportions. Maybe they were just too busy taking in Ádan's muscular thighs, or his broad shoulders, or the way his fine black hair shone in the sun, or…

Korin dragged his attention away from Ádan, focused on the street right in front of him. No good would come of these thoughts. Not now. Not ever.

Korin shook his head, trying to clear it.

“You okay?” Ádan asked.

“That place—the academy—it was unnerving.”

Ádan’s expression—not that Korin was watching—was at once exasperated and amused. “You didn’t notice that before you went in?”

Korin chose to ignore that question. “How did you even know I was in there?”

Ádan glanced sideways at Korin, that same contemplative look as when he’d asked if Korin really hadn’t known what was going on. “I noticed you in the market, saw you take off after the old man. I thought maybe he was your father or something. I wanted to apologize. But then you went in to the academy, and I thought you might need help. Had no idea you were a wizard.”

“Are you saying you wouldn’t have come in after me if you’d known?”

“Not without my sword out.”

“What were those voices—”

Ádan shook his head sharply. “Not talking about it without a drink in my hand.”

Ádan led them to a bar with a bright sign above the door designating it The Sandy Fox. Despite the early hour, it was full of people talking and drinking and carrying on as though they had no idea their city was home to a haunted memorial to dead men. A number of the patrons called out to Ádan, who waved absently as he led Korin over to a small table towards the very back. The walls in this place were more window than not, and most were open to the breeze. It was certainly a different atmosphere than the dark, smoky taverns Korin was used to back home.

“So you’re not from around here,” Ádan drawled after giving a nod towards the man behind the bar. “You sound to me like a southern boy.”

That Ádan had been listening close enough to Korin’s words—that he’d noticed—it sent a little flutter through Korin. “All my life.”

“Anywhere I’d have heard of?”

“No. The little town I was born, it was so far south I barely knew the color green, and I’ve never seen it on any map since I left. From there, I went to the school of the Crystal. After my father caught me playing with magic.” Under the table, Korin’s fists clenched. “Spent seven years there, earned my sigil.”

Ádan gave a low whistle. “Seven years? Not bad. Most of the wizards I know were lucky to be through school in ten.”

Korin felt a genuine smile spread across his lips. “What you have to understand, the tower of the Crystal is way up in the mountains, on the very southern edge of Torar. It’s cold. All the time. The snow only melts for a couple months, maybe. During the winter, the sun all but disappears. Most of the school is underground, and that helps it stay warm, but that makes things even more claustrophobic.”

Korin waved his hand around at the wide-open windows, the palm trees in the courtyard, the flowers growing along the window frames. “If I’d come to school in a place like this, I might have taken ten years to graduate too.”

Ádan laughed. It was a warm, rich sound that washed over Korin and left his skin tingling. Which was no good at all, because developing an infatuation with local noblemen was not keeping his head down.

A petite blonde firstborn girl brought a bottle and two glasses to their table. She smiled at Ádan and he pulled out a gold coin, kissed it, then dropped it in her hand. She blushed and giggled. Korin felt an intense and unfair burst of jealousy.

Which was a clear sign he still wasn’t okay. That a couple good meals and one night’s sleep hadn’t fixed him. That if, in the utterly unlikely event, Ádan might have brought him here for anything other than simple friendliness, Korin was in no place to even think about being anything other than friends.

Still, he wanted to understand what had happened back at the Academy. He waited until Ádan had filled their glasses with the honey-brown liquor, then said, “There was something in that place, talking to me.”

“What did it say?” Ádan asked in a neutral tone.

The answer to that led in a direction that was way too personal. “Do you know if other people have that experience? Do you know what’s in there?”

Ádan sipped his drink, giving Korin another of those intense, considering looks. “You’re the expert. Why don’t you tell me?”

Korin wasn’t much of an expert on this sort of magic, but he knew the broad strokes. “You said it was haunted. But I don’t think that’s right. Whatever it was, it responded to me. Talked to me. Hauntings don’t work like that. They’re echoes, nothing more.”

Ádan raised his glass. “Well done. They really do teach you things in that school of yours.”

Which meant Ádan also knew things. Interesting. “Could there be some lingering power of the knights? Some power left over from the battles that happened there?”

Ádan drained his glass on one go, then poured himself another. “The knights were driven out a hundred years ago. That would be some incredibly powerful magic if it’s hung around that long since.”

“No worse than…” No, Korin didn’t need to spoil this by talking about the war. “I wouldn’t put it past them.”

A strange little smile danced across Ádan’s lips. “I’ll defer to your superior education. All the same,” he took another long drink, “I’d stay away from the place if I were you.”

Korin wouldn’t need to be told twice. “It’s done.” He lifted his glass and Ádan met it with his own. Korin took his first drink of the foreign substance.

Shepard bless, it was strong. And sweet. Korin blinked against his eyes watering and sipped again.

Whatever his face looked like, it pulled another warm, buttery laugh out of Ádan. “Welcome to Triome, Korin of the Staff.”

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Barbara J Webb

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