The safe house—or was it safe cave?—was huge in comparison to the mansion over their heads, larger and far more luxurious than any house that Korin had ever seen or stayed in back in the south. But it felt immediately comfortable for Korin. The Crystal hadn’t been near this ornate, and most of its space had been cluttered with experiments and piles of books and the occasional napping student, but underground had the echoes of home for Korin. It felt safe.
At least until Ádan led him into the little kitchen area, where Nikki and another firstborn sat across from each other, playing stones. The two looked up. Nikki slammed a hand down on the table, making the little black and white pieces jump and scatter. “What the hell, Ádan?”
His voice utterly calm, Ádan said, “Korin of the Staff, allow me to introduce Cavaliers Nikhil and Varajas, both formerly of the Sunburst. Both fellow Knights.”
Varajas looked a little older than Ádan, not that it was ever easy to guess the age of a firstborn. His copper skin and smooth black hair marked him as probably local. He looked Korin up and down, calmly assessing, then turned his attention to putting the game board back to rights. “I see we’ve already given up on our secret identities?”
“I have my reasons for bringing him here,” Ádan said.
“I should think.”
Nikki glared, first at Ádan, then at Varajas. “Is that all you’re going to say?” he demanded.
Varajas shrugged. “It’s done. I’m sure Ádan thought he was doing the right thing. And with both Kolyn and Derian dead, there’s no one to say he’s wrong.”
“I’ll say it. I already said it. And not half an hour ago, you agreed with me.”
Ádan leveled a cool glare back at Nikki. “The situation’s changed.”
Watching this little drama play out might have been more interesting if Korin hadn’t been at the center of it. “I didn’t ask to be brought here.”
“None of us did,” Nikki snapped.
“Light’s sake, Nikki, could you just calm down?” Varajas leaned back in his chair and studied Korin with all the warmth of a snake considering its next meal. “I’m sure Ádan’s going to enlighten us on why he thought it so important he bring a guest to dinner.”
“Yes. It’s time we all had a talk.” Ádan took a seat at the table. Korin, after a moment’s hesitation, took the remaining empty chair, putting him between Varajas and the still-seething Nikhil.
“So there’s the blight,” Ádan said. “Korin’s name for it is as good as any. You know about the people Korin’s been healing, but tonight we saw something new.
“I don’t even know how to describe them. People, I guess, but huge. It was like…” he trailed off, obviously struggling to find the words.
Despite himself, Korin stepped in to help. “They were out of proportion. Like parts of them had grown faster than others. Their skin—I don’t know if you saw this—but it cracked open in places. Like it had burst. Like they’d grown so fast it couldn’t keep up. And all through them, with my wizard sight, I saw the blight.”
Ádan nodded. “I hurt two of them. Injuries that should have been fatal, and they shrugged it off like it was nothing. Didn’t even bleed.”
“Well this is somewhat alarming,” Varajas said, tapping his chin thoughtfully.
“Why?” Korin’s question got all three knights looking at him. “You’re all acting surprised, but isn’t this your magic? I saw the blight, or its close cousin, long before I got to Triome. I saw it in knights.”
“Well done,” Nikki sneered at Ádan. “What secret are you going to share next?”
“Nikki, would you please shut up?” Varajas asked in a pleasant tone.
Korin was about done. “If someone doesn’t start talking to me—if you don’t start telling me the truth—I’m leaving.”
Varajas leaned his elbows on the table, resting his chin on his fist. “You’re going to tell him, aren’t you?” he asked of Ádan.
“What choice do we have? Seriously, Nikki, V. I have a duty here. And I only see one way forward to fulfill it.”
Nikki shook his head. “We don’t know they’re all dead. If we just wait, there could be others trying to get here. We can’t be the only ones—“ Abruptly he stood, knocking the table back as he did so. “Fuck you, Ádan. And you, too,” he said to Korin. “Do whatever you want. You always have.”
Nikki stormed out—there was no other way to describe it. Varajas sighed. “I’ll go talk to him.” He stood, more relaxed than Nikki had been. “Do you want my opinion?”
“Of course,” Ádan said. “Yours and Nikki’s both.”
“Your instincts have always been good, Ádan. There’s a reason the Grandmaster chose you for this. Just be careful you’re rebuilding for the right reasons.” With that, Varajas left Korin and Ádan alone together.
In the silence that followed, Ádan looked across the table at Korin. Korin looked across the table at Ádan. Not twenty-four hours ago they’d been pressed together, as close as two people could get, and now it felt like a gulf of a thousand miles separated them. Impossible that it was only the width of a table.
“I’m sorry,” Ádan said.
“You’ve said that already.”
“I mean it.”
Another long silence passed between them. Korin wasn’t sure what the worst part about all of this was. That Ádan had lied to him. That Ádan was a knight.
Or that Korin still, despite everything, wanted him.
“Were you planning to just walk away?” The question came unbidden to Korin’s lips. “Sleep with me and then never see me again?”
“Yes.” Ádan didn’t even have the good grace to look ashamed. “If I’d known what you went through—what you went through because of us—and I should have. I should have asked before. I knew you were angry with the knights. I just had no idea…”
He put his hand out, like he was reaching for Korin, then caught himself and pulled back. “The trouble, Korin, is that I like you. I like you a lot. You help people without even thinking about it. You’re kind in ways I’d forgotten people could be. You’re sincere, you’re honest. You’re talented. I don’t think you even know how gifted a wizard you are. And you’re beautiful.”
Korin took a sharp breath and had to look away. Yesterday, he would have given anything to hear these words from Ádan. Today—now—he’d lost all sense of how to deal with this.
And Ádan wasn’t done. “You’re perfect. Everything I could have asked for. Until you told me you were in Naktigan. That because of us, you lost your teacher and your friend and your lover. And I realized I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t ask you to…”
“To what?” Korin prompted when Ádan trailed off.
Ádan sighed. “To help us.” He reached out again, and this time he didn’t stop himself. His hand slid across the table to catch Korin’s, as he caught Korin’s gaze and held it. “To save us.”
Korin jerked his hand away, hating himself for the thrill that still ran through him at Ádan’s touch. “Why should I want to save you?” Did the words sound as false to Ádan as they did to Korin?
Or did he take them at face value? “I understand. I do. It’s a fair answer, and I can’t blame you for it.”
“So what now?” Korin asked.
Ádan looked up, frowning. “I don’t know how safe it is for you to leave. Whatever those monsters were—I’d feel better if we all stayed hidden till morning. There’s plenty of room here. The three of us will leave you alone. I promise.”
Korin didn’t care for the idea of overnighting here, but he recognized the sense of Ádan’s suggestion. It wasn’t worth the risk of running into those creatures again. Especially if he was on his own. “All right. I’ll stay.”
“Excellent.” Ádan leaned back in his chair, flashed Korin a smile. A pose, Korin was almost certain. “Come on, Sunshine. I’ll find you a room.”