Wrapped in shadows, Ádan watched Korin go by. He couldn’t stand to see Korin so unhappy. He deeply regretted that he wasn’t following Korin back to Marta’s, to have a quiet evening together. Add that to the list of things Ádan could wish for but wasn’t likely to get any time soon.
Seeing Loukanos had given Ádan an idea. A terrible idea. A dangerous idea. No one he knew would approve. Not Nikki or V; not Korin, not Lysander.
What Loukanos presented was an opportunity. Someone who understood the magic Ádan needed to understand. Someone who might understand it even better than Korin. Hadn’t V himself said it? That they needed to learn about the magic themselves?
This could even serve double duty. Protect Korin not just by keeping him free of the knife, but by keeping him free of other things.
What choice did he have? As much as Ádan might try to will better options into existence, the fact was he and V and Nikki were lost. The line between their current situation and absolute failure was so thin as to be almost invisible. It was going to take an act of desperation to save them.
Ádan waited long enough to be sure Korin was really gone, then retraced his steps back to the crumbling mansion. The door was still unlocked. Ádan pushed it open, every sense alert for danger.
The smell inside was awful, but also familiar. Ulek had smelled like this in the end. Blood and rot, salt and cloying sweet and stomach-churning sour. It was the scent of death, of decay, of bodies corrupted. It was the scent of wrong.
Loukanos had relocated to a tall chair near the window; a book sat open in his lap. He looked boring, small. An almost perfect camouflage. He looked up at Ádan’s entrance. “Oh how tedious,” he muttered. “The friend.”
“My name is Ádan.”
“Ádan,” Loukanos repeated in a bored tone. “Did you come back for a reason? To toss around threats, perhaps? To tell me to stay away from Korin?”
He sighed, closing the book and setting it aside. “I suppose as long as you’re here, I might as well make use of you. How shall I send you back to Korin? Some broken bones? Something more contagious, perhaps?” He stood, and Ádan felt the magic wrapping around his limbs to hold him still.
Ádan pushed back. One of the first things any Knight learned was how to fight wizards—how to keep yourself safe from their magic. Conviction mattered more than raw power—Ádan’s will demanding that his body was his own, that no one else held power over it. He slid free of Loukanos’s influence and took a step forward.
Loukanos raised an eyebrow. After only the briefest pause, he said, “No sigil and no cross, so you’re either a wizard breaking the law or…”
“Yes,” Ádan confirmed. “The or.”
Loukanos sat perfectly still as he thought. He didn’t fidget, or act at all uncomfortable with the silence. He was a man in perfect control. “And how is it,” he asked after a few very long moments, “that you aren’t as dead as the rest of your compatriots?”
“I ran,” Ádan answered flatly, without hesitation. “I saw what was coming. I saw there wasn’t any hope. So I got out.”
This was the first step of a dangerous dance. Ádan had been trained to lie, and to lie well, but Loukanos was like no one else Ádan had ever tried to mislead. He knew bodies, just like Korin, would be watching for the slightest flutter of pulse or temperature or twitch—the barest sign that Ádan let slip.
Ádan let that thought in, let it break against his mind, then released it. He couldn’t afford the worry. He had to focus on believing his own story.
Loukanos, for now at least, wasn’t calling him a liar. “So you escape the disaster in Ulek and you come to Triome, where you’ve hid in plain sight among the dissolute nobles and made friends with little Korin. And now—behind Korin’s back—you come to me. And I wonder why.”
“I find myself in need of a new occupation.”
“I’m not looking to take on an apprentice.”
“You wanted to teach Korin.”
“Korin is special. And Korin already belongs to me.” Loukanos looked up and down Ádan, gave a dismissive sniff. “You’re too old to learn a brand new discipline with any facility. And that’s assuming you can unlearn whatever broken techniques your masters drilled into you. Which is all presuming I had any interest in you in the first place.”
Ádan had been trained as a spy and a manipulator, and the bread and butter of both those skills was the ability to read people. Loukanos was playing hard to get, but the fact they were still talking at all meant Loukanos wasn’t as disinterested as he claimed.
What did Loukanos want? What could Ádan offer?
Why was Loukanos even here? Was it just about Korin? Or was Loukanos in Triome looking for other things?
Derian had been suspicious of all the wizards who made war against Ulek. The Darkivels had their own vendetta, but everyone else, Derian had wondered how much they sensed the knife. How much they sensed that power lurking. Now Loukanos was in Triome, where the knights had come from. Where the knife had returned. Was that a coincidence? Could it be?
If not, that was Ádan’s bait. And the most dangerous game Ádan could play. “You’re here looking for Derian’s treasure, aren’t you?”
Not a twitch from Loukanos, no sign to betray whether Ádan had hit a nerve. But Ádan believed he had, all the same. “What treasure would that be?” Loukanos asked, his bored tone a little less convincing than before.
“I don’t know. But there was something. Something he kept hidden. Something with power.”
“What sort of power?” Loukanos asked, his tone too careful.
Got you. Ádan shrugged. “Like I said, it was hidden. I never saw it. But everyone in the castle could feel it there. And no one found it after.”
How much could Loukanos see? How much did he know? If Loukanos saw through Ádan, would Ádan have any warning at all?
“If there were a lost treasure, and if I were interested in finding it, wouldn’t I be in Ulek, rather than here?”
“Lots of people were in Ulek.” Ádan picked his words carefully, but made sure to speak them quickly, casually. As though he had nothing to hide. “Seems to me, if that thing were easy to find, someone would have found it. But everyone knows the knights kept secrets in lots of places. If a person were looking to find those secrets, Triome is as good a place to look as any.”
The trick here was to look like he was trying to be shrewd, to make Loukanos think he was seeing through Ádan’s attempt to be clever. “Maybe we’re both here looking for the same thing. Maybe we can help each other.” Ádan stopped there. Important to not offer too much, to not seem too eager.
“What is it you think my help will get you?” Loukanos asked.
Ádan tamped down his relief with the same rigor he’d tamped down his fear. “I want a new life. I want someone new to be so I don’t have to hide anymore.”
“There are hundreds of wizards who could teach you. Including your friend Korin. Why come to me?”
The answer was obvious, but Loukanos was going to make Ádan say it. He wanted it out there between them so there were no misunderstandings of their position. “Most wizards would turn me in the minute they found out what I was. Including Korin.” A risky lie, but a necessary one. “You have a reputation for being…less interested in the rules.”
Loukanos stared at Ádan, his eyes piercing deep to where Ádan feared the man might be seeing his very soul. Just how much could Loukanos see? How much could he read? Ádan had been near the knife. Had its power brushed off on him in some noticeable way? Was there anything giving him away? Some cue he didn’t realize was easily visible to the crafty old wizard?
The silence stretched. Ádan fought the urge to fidget. He called on every bit of his training to keep his mind clear, his posture easy. It was all right for Loukanos to understand this was important to Ádan, but Ádan couldn’t afford for the old man to see that he was desperate.
Finally, Loukanos spoke. Two soft word. “Very well.”
Now Ádan allowed himself a deep breath, a relieved sigh. “You’ll teach me?”
“For now. And we’ll see where this goes.” Loukanos reopened the book in his lap. “Come back tomorrow. I’m done with you for now.”