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It probably said something very wrong about Ádan that the place he went to look for peace was the Academy ruins. But the safehouse would have Varajas and Nikki, full of questions Ádan didn’t want to answer. The ruins were a haunted graveyard, but they were quiet and no one was going to wander in off the street, so they were a refuge of sort.

Even if there was still the tree. And even if there were still the bodies hanging off the tree. Derian and Korin were there, and had been joined by others. Ádan recognized King Kolyn. Two others were strangers—an older man and a young woman. Their skin was charred and blackened. They’d burned to death. But the sigils of the Staff that hung around their necks were clear.

“What do you want from me?” Ádan demanded of the shadowy tree that probably wasn’t even really there.

Now, as before, he received no answer.

A footstep behind him made Ádan jump. He was wound so tight he almost yelped, but he bit back the noise and turned to see Varajas standing there. “Dammit, V, I came here to be alone.”

“Well I guess none of us get what we want these days.”

Varajas didn’t look like he’d been getting enough sleep lately. His dark copper skin had a sallow cast that wasn’t just about the way the Academy twisted the sunlight, and his shoulders slumped down noticeably inside his dark shirt. But his eyes were sharp as they focused on Ádan.

“I talked to Lysander,” he said. “About your idea to send people to the south to look for any more survivors.”

Ádan looked up at the tree, at the bodies swinging in a nonexistent wind. “I’m not sure anymore that’s a good idea.”

V went on like he hadn’t heard. “Lysander has to go. King Kolyn is dead, and it isn’t like Prince Calimar will be allowed to take the throne, so every noble in the world is asking who gets to take over Ulek. It’s going to be complicated. But it’s as good a cover as we’re likely to get. So I’m going to go with him.”

“You shouldn’t go. It’s too dangerous.”

“Is it?” Varajas paused, waited until his silence forced Ádan to look at him again. “What’s dangerous, Ádan? Because I look at you standing there, practically hypnotized by that…thing, and I think the danger isn’t waiting for me in the south.”

This was too much. After constant mental duels with Loukanos, his own sleepless days and nights, the magic…Korin…Ádan had nothing left for this argument.

And Varajas seemed to see that, because his tone softened. “Besides, with Ruan in the city, it’s dangerous for me to be showing my face on the streets. Hoping if I’m gone for a while, by the time I get back, he’ll have moved on.”

Ádan couldn’t find anything to say to that, and after another moment, V went on. “If there are others, we need them. Even a few would make a big difference. The three of us—if we’re all that’s left—it’s not going so well. I know you can see it too.”

“I’m trying my best, V.” Ádan’s voice sounded whinier than he’d meant.

“I know.” Varajas put a hand on Ádan’s shoulder. “I’m not criticizing. You weren’t prepared for this. None of us were. But this is what we have now, and we’re going to need to find a way forward.”

Ádan looked back at the tree. The tree that refused to speak to him. “If we fail…”

Varajas shrugged. “Then we’ll probably be dead, and when the world goes to Hell, it’ll be someone else’s problem.”

If Varajas meant that to be comforting… “You’re no help.”

“You’ve got to get some distance from it, A. Choices made out of desperation aren’t usually the best. You have to find a way to think about this like it isn’t the end of the world and figure out what the good decision would be if you had real options.” He pulled his hand back and also looked over at the shadowy tree. “That’s what Derian said to me once.”

“If I had real options…” Ádan shook his head. “When was the last time we had options? Ten years ago? A hundred?”

Varajas was quiet again for a while. When he spoke, his words were careful. “I know how you felt about Derian. But if you ask me, he wasn’t good at taking his own advice. He didn’t look at the options; he just kept pushing us forward in the same direction the Knights had always gone, hoping something would suddenly change. That the world would treat us differently.

“Options, Ádan. We need them. Which is why Nikki and I have kept our distance from this dangerous game you’re playing with the Archwizard. Which is why I’m going to Ulek. Which is why you’re not going to stop me.”

Ádan nodded, conceding the point. “Be careful.”

“Of course.”

Varajas left as quietly as he’d come. Leaving Ádan alone with the tree, with the bodies.

Ádan approached it, moving in close to stand beneath Derian. For the first time he looked, really looked, facing full-on the rotting, mutilated corpse of the man he’d worshipped. It was hard to think, to talk, around the throbbing, leaden lump in his gut, but Ádan forced the words. “I’m failing you.”

So hard to admit. So hard to stand here, taking in the sight that had been haunting his dreams for weeks. “I’m failing you and I don’t know how to fix it.”

This wasn’t a dream and the bodies on the tree were only shadows. Derian had no response. Would never say anything again.

Something tight and hot loosened within Ádan at that thought, at the thoughts he’d been avoiding for weeks—months. At finally facing it, saying it out loud. “You trusted me with this. You put me in charge. But I have no idea what to do, or how we’re doing anything but postponing the inevitable.”

Options, V had said. What options could there be? The Knights were dead.

But Ádan wasn’t. Varajas and Nikki weren’t. So what could they do?

Ádan was too tired for any brilliant revelations, but in a strange way, he felt better. Facing Derian, admitting that everything was going wrong—it felt like a start, not an end.

And he’d been away long enough Loukanos would probably be wanting him again. Time to go back.

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Barbara J Webb

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