After another frustrating day at school, Ajax was going through the folder of techniques that Kwan had given him when there was a knock at his door.
He glowered. Kentigern said, “It’s Natalie.”
“Oh!” Ajax leapt to his feet and swept the folder of techniques under his pillow. Then, opening the door, he said, “Yeah?”
Natalie gave him a bright smile. “I was out for a walk and I thought maybe you’d like to come with me. There’s still a lot of the Tower you haven’t seen, right?” Her hazel eyes betrayed her anxiety, but Ajax found he liked her smile.
“All right.” He stepped out and closed the door behind him. “Lead on.”
They walked down the hall and out onto what Ajax already thought of as a main thoroughfare: a wide, high-ceilinged corridor with many passages leading off, including a door to the garden courtyard outside of his room. Natalie was unexpectedly silent, lost in her own thoughts.
“How’s the ribs?” he finally asked.
“Oh, healing fast. You heal fast once you’ve been here a while.”
Ajax narrowed his eyes. “You said the other day that there wasn’t any magical healing.”
“It’s not magical,” she pointed out, finally looking at him again. “I think it’s something in the air. And it still takes time. I mean— most people use ‘magical’ to mean ‘instant’, don’t they?” She gave him an uncertain look.
He relented. “That’s what I meant, anyhow.” He stretched out his arm, where the marks of the cambion’s bite were still fading. “That’s a nice little perk, I guess.” She only shrugged. After a few more steps, Ajax tried again. “I heard you got into trouble for bringing me back. Sorry about that.”
Natalie stopped walking for a moment, then caught up with Ajax. “Don’t you start. It wasn’t you who got me in trouble, it was me.”
Ajax gave her a sidelong look, but said nothing. She glared at him. “That evaluation you had to go through when we dragged you here usually happens before a lumination. Then the Council approves the lumination.”
“What happens to the kids who aren’t approved?”
She gave him a puzzled look. “Nothing? I think the idea is that sometimes there are kids who won’t be able to cope with being luminated, or it will make their lives worse instead of better, or they’re just a victim of circumstance, without the anima required to make a successful Guardian. But I’ve never been in one of those meetings. Active Nightlights usually aren’t.”
“So it could be me,” he pointed out. “You don’t know.”
“I just got in trouble for breaking the rules.”
“You trapped them with me. It didn’t matter if I’d failed the evaluation because you’d already brought me here.”
She looked away. “I said don’t start. I thought I’d show you Kentigern’s core. It’s just ahead.” Speeding up, she led him through an archway into a large cylindrical chamber, far taller than it was round. In the center of the room was a thick beam of light, full of swirling motes. A waist-high circular bar, complete with stools, encircled the beam of light. There was a tall, glass-doored fridge against one wall, full of drinks, and low tables with cushions scattered around the floor. A cat slept on one of the tables. Gently sloping ramps spiraled up and down the walls, leading to other floors and the walls themselves absolutely churned with the glyphs just under the surface.
Ajax looked askance at Natalie. “It looks like an expensive coffeeshop.”
Natalie laughed. “I saw a hotel atrium once that looked very much like this. Except there was a waterfall where Kentigern is.”
Leaning on the bar, Ajax looked up into the stream of light. “Who are the tables for?”
Kentigern said, “Whoever wants to use them. I like to think I have an open door policy.” The voice was so dry it made Ajax thirsty. Or maybe that was the bar.
Natalie offered, “I do my homework here sometimes.”
Ajax pushed himself away from the bar. “No offense, eye in the sky, but I think you’re kind of creepy, always out there, listening to everything we say.”
“I’m wounded. Tell me, Natalie. Do you share this devastating opinion, that I’m creepy?”
Natalie frowned. “No. He’s always been there, Ajax. He’s not a tattletale and he can’t not listen, so there’s no point in worrying about it. And he’s a good friend.” She paused, and added, “Besides, plenty of people on Earth believe that there’s somebody in the sky watching everything they do. At least Kentigern answers questions.”
Ajax raised his hands in surrender. “All right. I’m already getting used to him, to be honest.” He smiled at her, just to see her smile in return. This time, it touched her eyes. “What’s on the upper floors?”
“The library, Reader offices, and storerooms. Down, way down, is the power plant.”
“Readers. Are those like your father?” He sat down at one of the low tables, leaned back against the wall.
“Dad and Mom are both Seneschals, technically. Seneschals run the Tower and the Guardian community, and manage all the day to day stuff. Readers are the researchers. They study Kentigern and the Tower and technology and stuff.”
“Basically. A lot of them study on Earth for a while. And there’s also the Prowlers. They’re the ones who deal with the land outside.” She pointed at what appeared to be a random wall.
“So, they have a bunch of teenagers and twenty-somethings running around on Earth fighting monsters, and then when they’re all worn out, they retire to being clerks and librarians and park rangers?”
Natalie hesitated. “Sometimes kids go straight from school into one of the divisions. Not everybody…” she trailed off. “Not everybody can summon a Stage 3 weapon, and not everybody is comfortable fighting Awakened.”
Ajax straightened up, looking closely at Natalie as she traced a finger on the table. “Ah.”
Natalie shrugged. “You have to like people to risk your life for strangers. And a lot of kids we resc— recruit don’t. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t.”
A pang went through Ajax, as he realized that he didn’t want to disappoint her. He didn’t want to abandon children to the claws and teeth of the Awakened Darkness, or the broken affections of parents with shredded souls.
He opened his mouth to reassure her, and thought of Meredith, his ex-girlfriend. Did he want to go there with Natalie?
Well. Yes, he very much did. All the places they went before Meredith had told him she loved him, and he’d been forced to dump her for her own good. All those hopes and expectations he’d been unable to fulfill. And here he was again, getting ready to make promises he wouldn’t be able to keep, just because he liked Natalie’s smile. He had to learn to stop being so selfish.
He caught his breath, then said, “Great. Now neither you nor your brother think I have what it takes. I guess I’m glad you saved my life. Thanks. But stop trying to help. You’re just making it worse. I’ll pick up the ruins of my life alone. It’s not like it’s the first time.”
“Oh,” she said in a small, heart-wringing voice. “But you’re not alone—”
He set his jaw and leaned forward. “I know. That’s the problem.” His voice was like ice.
She sprang to her feet. “Right!” The word was an exhalation. “Well, I’ve got homework. I’m sure you can get back to your room on your own. See you around.”
Natalie walked out of the room, and Ajax made himself watch her go. When she was long gone, he relaxed his jaw and put his head in his hands. Then he yanked his head up and glared at Kentigern’s column. “And you shut up.”
But Kentigern said nothing at all.