Korin woke with a start, disoriented in the absolute darkness until he remembered where he was. Ádan’s room, Ádan’s bed, with Ádan.
What time was it? How long had he slept? In the underground room, there was no way to tell.
“Korin,” came Ádan’s sleepy whisper. His hand slid across Korin’s chest, stilling Korin.
But Korin didn’t go back to sleep. He couldn’t. Too many thoughts whirling through his head. Regrets and fears and second-guesses. Ádan’s fingers moved in light, soothing circles across Korin’s skin, a sign that he, too, was awake.
The disembodying darkness made it easy for Korin to ask the question that was pounding against his mind. “How can you be one of them?”
Ádan’s hand spread flat over Korin’s sternum and Ádan gave a soft sigh. “Do you really want to know?”
“I want to understand.”
A rustling sound and the bed sank under Korin as Ádan moved closer. He pulled Korin back against his chest, wrapping his arms around Korin, and Korin wasn’t sure if this was for Ádan’s reassurance or his own.
“I grew up in Ulek, in the mountains. Not far from the the King’s castle. My father was a hunter. We sold fur and meat. My mother died in childbirth, and my father’s second wife never caught pregnant. I think he blamed me for both these things.
“When I was eleven, he walked in on me in the barn with an older boy from town. He wasn’t amused. He threw me out.” Ádan’s voice sounded detached, like he was reciting a story—one that didn’t particularly interest him. “I hadn’t been raised with a lot of marketable skills. I couldn’t read. I could barely count. I tried stealing; I wasn’t good at that either. I got caught and turned over to the authorities at the castle. As it turns out, that was one of the quickest ways to get recruited by the knights.”
Ádan’s fingers went back to drawing idle patterns on Korin’s chest as his voice softened, grew thoughtful. “I know what you think of us. What everyone thinks of us. And a lot of it’s true. The knights lost their prestige even before we were driven out of Triome. It had been years since we had our pick of recruits. When I joined, most of my brothers and sisters were like me. Outcasts and criminals, driven to the knights because we had no other choice. And if that were the end of it, I’d be first in line to say we deserved what we got.”
Ádan’s other hand found Korin’s, clung to it. “We were fighting for our life. The world had turned against us. The stories people told—well, you know them. That we summoned demons. Butchered children. Engaged in perverted sexual acts.” He paused, and a hint of the more familiar Ádan had crept into his voice when he added, “Well, there may be some truth to that last part.”
But he sobered again as he continued his story. “Grandmaster Derian himself saw to my training. He saw that I had talent, that I could be of particular use to the knights. I was trained as a Knight of the Arrow. We were the order’s spies and sometimes assassins. In that capacity, I spent a lot of time in Triome, made friends with Prince Lysander. I had letters of introduction from a pile of southern lords and a new family name no one questioned. I fit right in.”
Korin shifted, uncomfortable with the talk of deception and possibly murder. “An assassin?”
Ádan squeezed his hand. “Not me personally. Other Arrow Cavaliers. When we had to. I never…I’ve never…”
He sighed agin and sat up, the sudden absence of his body letting cold underground air against Korin’s back. “I’m explaining this badly. And it doesn’t matter. None of it will make sense without…do you really want to know?”
Korin was in this far. He’d already committed to poor decisions, so what was one more? “Yes.”
“Then get dressed. There’s something you need to see.”