Illumination 4.8: You

Natalie wandered the halls for a while, listening to the news about Aya and Slade move through the Tower. Then, decision made, she found Ajax and Kwan in the Tower core, sitting at one of the low tables. Kwan had his face in his hands, although he looked up when Natalie approached. “Good to see you, Natalie,” he said, and the big teacher sounded almost normal. But Ajax was watching him carefully, his face full of compassion.

She dropped down to sit between them, silently. Kwan passed his hand over his face and said, “Well, almost all the patrols came back safely. I was almost right.” He sighed. “I don’t think it was worth it.”

Natalie thought about Slade’s handless corpse, and all she could say was, “I don’t think now is the time to be deciding that. The Tanist has gone to bed. Maybe you should as well, sir?”

Kwan laughed, although Natalie didn’t see what was so funny. “Good idea. Sleep when the baby sleeps. There will be plenty of screaming after.” He shoved himself to his feet and raised a hand as he headed into the hall.

“What do you think?” Natalie asked Ajax, after a moment of staring at the table. “You didn’t know Slade or Aya, did you?”

“I think that we encountered another of the smart monsters out there, along with the power shift that hit you, and that people actually fell asleep in the streets. That seems like useful information, but I can understand why nobody would care right now.”

Elian said, “I’m keeping track of the data. I’m keeping track of everything.”

Ajax looked at the core in interest. “You really see everything that happens everywhere in the Tower at once? How do you deal with that, Elian?”

“The same way Kentigern did. I pretend there’s a unique version of me for each person. Kiley’s Elian isn’t present when talking to Ajax, unless Ajax asks for information to be entered into the general store.”

Natalie gave Elian a narrow-eyed look. “I bet you’re not entirely consistent with that, are you? I know Kentigern wasn’t.”

“It’s hard figuring out where the lines are sometimes, yes. Especially since I’m trying to hold onto me.”

“Do you know if there is a traitor, then?” Natalie asked, hope rising like a flower.

“If there is, he or she hasn’t declared themselves to me since the transition.”

Ajax laughed. “No yelling, ‘Down with the Guardians!’ to the walls, eh?”

“No. I did see somebody dramatically tip-toeing around, but she was six, so I don’t think it was her.”

Natalie put her palms flat on the table and took a deep breath. “I want to talk to Ajax now, and please, Elian, don’t tell Kiley I’m doing it. Even if she asks.”

After a pause, Elian said, “I’ll make myself scarce. There’s always more filing to do.”

Ajax leaned back, the remnants of the laughter fading from his face. He held Natalie’s gaze with his own dark one until she wanted to look away and blush. “I don’t know if it was worth it. I don’t really know what we’re doing out there. Half the monsters I’ve seen have been the big, smart, supposedly nearly unique ones. That doesn’t seem to fit in. So what are we doing? Are we saving people or scouting for a war or what?”

“We’re saving people. It’s always about the people.” She hesitated, then the words tumbled out. “Ajax, the Tanist thinks you’re a spy.”

He seemed neither surprised nor upset by the news. “For who, the people you’re not hunting?”

“For the organization out to engineer the downfall of this Tower, which, given the Tanist’s state of mind lately, could be entirely imaginary.” Natalie realized she couldn’t forgive the Tanist for abandoning Aya.

“What if I am?” Ajax asked, his eyes fixed on her face.

A chill stole over Natalie. “You’re not.”

Ajax leaned forward and suddenly he was much closer. “Maybe they just haven’t made the right offer yet.” There was something inscrutable in his eyes now. Natalie thought she’d liked his face more when he was looking at Kwan, his eyes full of compassion. He always seemed angry when interacting with her.

He brought his hand up to her face, and if he was angry, his touch was shockingly gentle. His fingers threaded through her short hair, his thumb resting on her jaw, and she didn’t pull away.

“I’m my father’s son, after all. Loyalty isn’t part of my makeup,” he said.

Natalie tried to speak and realized her mouth was dry. She licked her lips and tried again. “What about your mother? Didn’t you have a mother?”

Ajax’s fingers curled against the back of her neck, then he pulled his hand away and leaned back again. His mouth twisted, and he said, “Being my mother’s son would be worse. I’d rather be nobody’s son.”

He stared at her a moment longer, then shook his head. A wry little chuckle escaped him. “You look so fierce right now. I’ll tell you the truth, Natalie. Everything you see is what I am. And they’ve got nothing that could possibly lure me away from here. Because this Tower has you.”

He shook his head again, as if amazed by himself. Then he rose to his feet, rapped his knuckles on Elian’s bar, and went into the corridors beyond. He was gone before Natalie could close her mouth and scramble to her feet.

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