Illumination 4.7: Coffee Talk

Natalie threw herself at the closed portal where Aya had vanished, checked only by her father grabbing her arm. “No, Natalie!”

The Tanist said, “I’m getting really tired of asking what the hell just happened.”

Elian said, “That was Tower Di, I think. Somebody rode the tail of the portal to re-open it, then pulled Aya away.”

Natalie pulled away from her father and knelt down before Slade’s body, stroking his blood-soaked hair. It wasn’t like the other people murdered by the Echthroi. She’d known Slade. The expression of fear and pain frozen on his face was an alien one, far from his usual expression of sober thoughtfulness. And now they had Aya. Poor, breaking Aya.

“Open it again,” snapped the Tanist. “Get somebody after her! Wait, belay that. Can you make sure that can’t happen again?” When Elian didn’t answer, she raised her voice. “Elian? Can you?”

“Now that I know it’s possible? There are ways, yes,” said Elian, finally.

“Then do that. Forget about Aya. She’s lost to us now. We have to stop letting them surprise us.”

Natalie stared up at the Tanist in shock. “How can you just abandon her to them?”

“You saw her cambion.” The Tanist’s face was grim. “The Aya we knew is gone.”

“They did it to her! Look what they did to Slade!” Natalie realized she was shouting when her father put his hand on her shoulder.

The Tanist shouted back, “I know!” She closed her eyes and dragged in a breath. “I know. We have to—” She shook her head. “Come for a walk with me, Natalie. I need some coffee.”

“Right now? But—”

“I’ll take care of Slade,” said Jake quietly.

The habits of duty were too ingrained in Natalie for her to keep arguing right now. She felt as if she’d been set adrift. “All right.”

She fell into step beside the Tanist. They walked in silence until they arrived at a little coffee room near the Tanist’s office. It was a small room that reminded Natalie of a tiny American coffee shop, with coffee prints on the wall and a small table flanked by two arm chairs. There was an elaborate espresso machine on the counter, above a small fridge, with a music player and speakers attached to the walls.

The Tanist busied herself at the machine, preparing herself a coffee drink with the ease of long experience. “Do you want anything?”

Natalie shook her head, her mouth tight.

“All right. I want to talk to you about Ajax.”

Surprised, Natalie said, “Why Ajax?”

“Tell me about how you found him again.”

Natalie dropped into one of the armchairs. “I noticed his anima, and that he’d attracted a powerful Awakened. I saved him, then I tried to talk to him. Eventually I realized that a cambion was after him. We fought the cambion and brought him home after his father rejected him.”

“The cambion didn’t want to kill him, though, right?”

Natalie shrugged. “I guess not.”

The Tanist leaned her hip against the counter. “All this started when you found him, Natalie. You said before he was attacked twice by the cambion, but it didn’t want to kill him. And he has so much more power than ordinary recruits, and he ended up here so late. I can’t help but wonder if he was set up to get your attention. You rescue him from the big bad monster and bring him home, and now he’s embedded within the Tower.”

It had been a long day already and Natalie had a hard time parsing the Tanist. “You think he’s the traitor.”

The Tanist shrugged. “Is traitor even the right word if they got to him first? Let’s say ‘spy’. And it seems likely, don’t you think?”

Natalie shook her head. “He hasn’t been interested enough. And he’s been heavily restricted privilege-wise since he got here.”

“He spends most of his free time in the Portalry, watching the comings and goings of our people,” countered the Tanist. “If that doesn’t qualify as interested, I don’t know what would. And despite his lack of privilege, he managed to escape our supervision almost immediately to do who knows what? He even started befriending Elian as soon as he arrived here.”

Natalie said, “That’s ridiculous. You say that like he somehow knew Elian was going to merge with the tower control system. And even you didn’t— did you?”

The Tanist waved a hand. “I admit, it’s unsatisfying. But my point is, keep your eyes open, Natalie. I think it’s likely the traitor is somebody you see regularly. Seth was on his own—”

“Ma’am! Please don’t ask me to report on my brother for you. There are limits to my sense of duty. You’re telling me this, so I assume you trust me in general. Trust me there.”

The Tanist didn’t say anything, staring down at her coffee as she swirled it. “Of course. I do believe you’ll do what’s right when the time comes to make a decision, though.”

Natalie drew her legs up into the chair, hugging them like she was a small girl. This was not a world she wanted to be in. She wanted to wake up, realize it was a nightmare.

The Tanist sighed. “It would be convenient if Ajax was the traitor. Spy. I think we’ll have to keep him restricted longer. If this is just an attempt to sow discord, well, casting him as a bad seed isn’t going to cause the same kind of chaos as it would if it’s Seth.”

“If you say so, ma’am. But—”

“The very idea of a traitor!” The words burst out of the Tanist, as if unlocked by the caffeine. “Who can hate us this much, Natalie? All we try to do is help people. We’ve spent centuries helping people, and now somebody’s trying their best to hurt us.”

Natalie stared at her, aghast. She wondered uncomfortably if the Tower leader was about to cry, and what she should do if that unpleasant event occurred.

Seth appeared at the door of the coffee room. “There you are.” He put his hand lightly under the Tanist’s elbow. “You need rest, ma’am. You’ve slept about twelve hours in the last four days.”

“Shut up, Seth,” the Tanist said, but it sounded like an automatic reaction. She put her hand to her forehead. “You’re right. I’m exhausted.”

Seth tilted his head at Natalie, silent encouragement to escape. He said soothingly to the Tanist, “Everything will make more sense after you sleep. Then you’ll be able to figure out which of us is the naughty one.”

Natalie fled the room, before the waking nightmare became even more surreal.

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