The shadows had come after Varajas. Not all of them. Most were still focused on climbing the far wall, but a number had turned at the sound of the gate falling shut and now made their way towards Varajas.
Except he blinked and suddenly it wasn’t just the shadows. The wizard—Samir was there, staring at Varajas from the other side of the gate. His back was to the shadows, like he had no idea they were there.
As Varajas tried to make sense of that, one of the shadows reached through, touched his hand, sucked him back into the cold…into the sinking darkness…
Varajas fought to breathe. To move. To see.
And he was…
Not in the castle at all. He was with Lysander. He was…
Dinner had been a blur of Lysander and his usual chatter, with Varajas doing what he could to respond in the pauses without actually listening to what Lysander was saying. It wasn’t that he was trying to be a bad companion, but he couldn’t stop thinking about what he and Samir had found, about all the implications, about possible disaster.
Also distracting was Samir standing in the corner of the tent, watching him. Except he wasn’t there. Couldn’t be there. Hadn’t been there.
“And that was when my head exploded. Literally. It was a bloody mess.”
Varajas blinked, looked up from remains of vegetables he’d just been pushing around on his plate. “What?”
“See, I didn’t think I had your attention.”
There were things it was easy to forget about Lysander. People saw the handsome prince, breezing effortlessly through his life. They focused in on his constant stream of light conversation, how he flitted like a little bird from one shiny thought to the next. Unless you were really paying attention—unless you spent real effort to watch and listen—it was easy to miss the sharpness of his eyes, they way he could drop in a gem of brilliant—or cutting—observation and move on so quickly you doubted whether you’d heard it at all.
Ádan would never have grown so close to the vapid, facile creature Lysander so often appeared to be. Derian would never have trusted him. Varajas knew that, but even he lost sight of it from time to time, distracted by the facade Lysander created.
Now he remembered. Lysander was sitting quiet and watchful, studying Varajas with a look of penetrating intelligence that was uncomfortable to be on this side of. In a voice pitched low enough it wouldn’t carry outside the tent, he asked, “What happened today?”
Varajas’s first instinct was to shake his head, deny that anything unusual had occurred. It would be an obvious lie, but he was mostly certain Lysander would accept it out of politeness and return to his patter of inanity.
But Varajas was tired, and feeling the weight of that more every day. Tired of lies. Tired of building walls. Tired of feeling alone.
He did take a moment to reach out and deaden the air around them, not trusting soft voices alone to keep his secrets. Samir was still there, could still hear, but that was all right because he wasn’t really and this was all a dream and…
All the while, Lysander waited.
“We found a…” Varajas wasn’t even sure how to describe it. “A remnant? A contagion? Whatever it was, it was tied to…our guardianship.” Even surrounded by magical silence, Varajas didn’t want to say too much.
“You and Samir found it?” Lysander asked.
“Exactly. He didn’t know what it was, but I couldn’t get close to it, or try to figure out what was happening with him there watching. And then he did…something. A wizard mark. So his light-blasted Archwizard would be able to find it.”
Lysander got straight to the point. “How much of a disaster is that?”
Varajas shrugged. “I wish I knew. I wish I knew…anything.” He said the words without inflection, as though this were no deeper a complaint than not knowing if it were going to rain.
But that word—disaster. It lingered in his mind. Disaster. What about this wasn’t a disaster? When the war had started, when Ulek had fallen. When he and Nikki and Ádan had fled with the knife. When Loukanos…
Lysander was watching him again. Patient.
For the first time in years, Varajas wished he were enough of a hypocrite to pray. “We’re so utterly fucked. Does Ádan even know that?”
“Of course he knows.”
“No of course about it. He’s so…relentless. Always looking ahead, always what can we do next. He won’t have an honest conversation. He won’t even talk about the fact that there are three of us left. Three! Five, if you want to be generous and count you and Korin.
“We had a whole order. Hell, once upon a time, there were thousands of us. And now…”
“Now?” Lysander prompted gently as the silence stretched.
“I don’t know.” That was the long and the short of it. Varajas simply didn’t know.
Lysander leaned back in his chair, picked up the half of a biscuit that still sat on his plate and broke off a piece, chewed thoughtfully. “If you could walk away, would you?” he finally asked.
“No.” The answer came fast enough, reflexive enough, Varajas even believed he was telling the truth. “No, that isn’t what I want.”
“What do you want, then?”
This answer, too, came quickly to mind. But it was a more terrifying, more revealing word to say. “Hope.” The word came out in a whisper, before Varajas found his voice again. “That’s it. Just…hope. I want to believe we have a future. That there’s still something we can do. That we aren’t simply delaying the inevitable.”
Lysander nodded. “Okay then. We’ll work on that.” He took a breath, then said, at a more normal volume, “Baron zhi Tyell is supposed to be at this coming negotiation. Did I ever tell you about the time he and I were twelve and stuck in Ter Luniel on this diplomatic visit our parents were making, and…” and he was off on another story.
Which was, it turned out, exactly what Varajas needed. He felt somewhat better, having had that conversation. And now he felt even better that it was over.
And there were still miles and miles ahead.