The next morning, Marta’s sharp voice caught Korin before he made it out the door. “Korin!”
He dropped his bag in the common room and went obediently to Marta’s office. “You need something?”
“Sit down, boy.”
Korin squeezed himself into the chair in the tiny space across the desk from where Marta sat, considering him. “So. You’ve been in and out and around the city. Verania says you fixed up her ankle. You stopped Lily’s spring cough dead in its tracks. Holli’s back doesn’t ache anymore. Not to mention my hip and Eril’s teeth. And that loudmouth delivery boy’s blister. And all the magic in this house is running smoother than I’ve seen for years.”
Korin couldn’t figure out where she was going. “Yes, ma’am?”
“In all that, you seen any money past the marks I gave you your first day?”
Korin shrugged. “To be honest, I’ve never bothered much with money. When I was with Master Teriad, we simply traded for whatever we needed. There were always offers of food and clothes and a warm place to sleep.”
Marta stabbed a finger at him. “You’re in the city now. It’s different here. You’re going to need coin.”
“I’ve been all right without.”
“Hah! Not five days here and he’s some expert.” Once again, she unlocked the money drawer. Marta pulled out a small pouch and tossed it on the desk in front of him.
“What’s this?” Korin asked.
“It’s what I pay the wizards who come do those chores you took care of already.” She paused, shrugged. “Well, half what I pay. You take it and do what you want with it.” After another thought, she added, “Try not to get rolled soon as you step out the door.”
“Thank you.” Marta’s gesture touched Korin. It was incredibly generous, even if she tried to pretend otherwise.
Marta waved him away. “Go on. I’ve got work to do.”
Korin slipped the money into his pocket, retrieved his bag, and set out into the city.
It was a strange freedom to be able to wander where he liked, with no direction or obligation. His years with Teriad had been satisfying, but hard. And while Korin would give up this brilliant city in a heartbeat to have Teriad and Lia and Jonathan back alive, being here, on his own, was exhilarating in a way he never would have expected.
The idea of a bed that was his, night after night. That he could walk out the door without worrying about whether he’d be able to find the next village or the next shelter before sunset brought killing cold. Teriad had pushed them hard, but with good reason. They had to survive.
Now Korin had food and shelter. Even if Marta unexpectedly evicted him, the weather here was so comfortable, a night on the street wouldn’t be the worst night he’d ever spent. The city might be huge, but it wasn’t the vast wilds of the south and Korin couldn’t wander far enough that he couldn’t make it back home. For the first time in years, Korin was able to look past the questions of survival and think about what he wanted to do.
And then of course there was Ádan.
He’d brought Korin home yesterday, made sure Korin got safe to his room. Korin had simply fallen into bed and gone right to sleep, his body desperate for a chance to recover from the blight that had tried to invade it. When Korin had awoken, refreshed, in the early afternoon, he’d found a note on top of the tiny dresser by the door.
Feel better, Sunshine.
That was all. But it had sent a flutter through Korin, a complicated wave of hope and fear and longing.
Korin knew it was foolish, this crush on Ádan. Maybe even dangerous. But like everything else about his life here, Ádan was so unexpected and so bright, almost magical.
It was all so impossibly complicated. Just thinking about Ádan made Korin smile, but that happiness brought its own upset. What had Korin done to deserve to be happy? Didn’t he owe Teriad and Jon and Lia more of his heart, his devotion? They were gone and Korin was already trying to forget them. What was wrong with him?
He should walk away. He should focus on magic, on helping people. On atonement.
He absolutely shouldn’t be walking towards the Sandy Fox, the bar Ádan had taken him to that first day. That place where they had so clearly known Ádan, where he must be a regular at.
When had Korin gotten so bad at doing what he should?
Barely to lunchtime, and the Sandy Fox was full of patrons. So different from what Korin was used to. He stepped in a little ways—not enough to get a waitress’s attention, but enough he could scan the tables for Ádan.
No. Not here. But as Korin turned to go, a hand fell on his arm. Korin tensed, turned to see a well-dressed man with red hair and freckles and eyes the color of the ocean. Pearl buttons down his shirt and a gold-inlaid scabbard at his side and Korin was pretty sure this was another noble. Possibly a friend of Ádan’s.
A possibility confirmed when the man said, “You’re Ádan’s new wizard friend, right? Korin?”
Korin nodded, relaxed a little, although the man’s grip on his arm didn’t loosen, and a part of Korin’s mind couldn’t help but feel that hold was a threat.
Even more intrusive, the man reached up with his other hand to touch the medallion at Korin’s neck. “You’re easy to spot.”
Warring desires surged through Korin. On one hand, the fact Ádan had been talking about him made a melting pool of warmth in Korin’s stomach. On the other hand, he wanted away from this stranger who was too close, who was touching him uninvited. But if this was one of Ádan’s friends, he didn’t want to be rude.
Korin took a deep breath, trying to sound natural as he asked, “Have you seen him?”
“Oh I’m sure he’ll be around.” The man flashed a conspiratorial smile. “Honestly I was surprised. To hear Ádan say he was slumming around with a wizard.”
Korin’s entire body short-circuited. “Slumming? What?”
“It’s not like him, you know?” The man was still grinning, like they were sharing a joke. “Usually he knows better. Believe me—I’ve can’t tell you how often I’ve heard him and the prince go on and on about wizards and their magic. Filthy stuff. Can’t trust it. But I have to say, you seem to be something special.”
“I…what?” Korin could barely form a coherent thought.
“It makes sense, you know. With the prince gone, everyone’s a little bored. Who can blame Ádan for looking for some entertainment? Some new way to kill time?”
This—this right here was the treatment Korin was used to. This was the prejudice he’d been expecting all along. But Ádan had tricked him. Lured Korin in. Got him to lower his guard. And now…
Now it hurt far more than it would have if Ádan had said these things to him at the start. “I have to go,” Korin said, his voice surprisingly calm to his ears. Like it was coming out of someone else. Someone who wasn’t betrayed and angry and suddenly sorry he’d ever come here. He jerked back, and this man—this friend—let go just as Korin pulled, so Korin stumbled back through the door.
And of course, because the universe hated Korin, Ádan was here, standing in the doorway, blocking Korin’s retreat. “Korin!” Ádan greeted him brightly.
Korin wanted none of it. He pushed past Ádan, or tried to. Ádan was tall and solid and didn’t give way. To Korin’s horror, he reacted with anger-driven reflex and a burst of magic to give extra strength to his shove. Ádan stumbled back, and Korin fled.