Illumination 6.3: The Only Reason

When Dr. Pepperman came to check on Ajax, he removed all of the restraints except the handcuff, muttering under his breath. Ajax caught, “…put these on the wrong person…” before the doctor realized he was listening and his mouth became a thin line.

“What about this?” Ajax rattled the handcuff.

“I don’t have the key,” snapped Dr. Pepperman.

Ajax grinned. “I bet you have a good hacksaw, though.” His smile faded as the doctor failed to return it.

“Don’t be another idiot. The Tanist will be here soon. Convince her you’re a good kid and she’ll let you go.” He prodded Ajax here and there, then sighed. “You’re in better shape than the idiot I sent home yesterday. Here. Relax. Watch a video. Try to stop clenching your fists.”

Ajax ignored the tablet the doctor left with him, laying back again and closing his eyes. He dreaded dreams, but oblivion was very appealing right now.

It wasn’t to be. He thought about Natalie instead, until an unpleasantly familiar voice said, “Is he awake or not?”

Kwan said, “Ajax, wake up. The Tanist is here to see you. Come on, I know you’re awake.”

“God, I hope not.” Ajax opened his eyes anyway.

The Tanist had a bandage on one cheek, but she’d had a chance to shower and dress in clean clothes and sleep without being tied down. It didn’t incline Ajax to make nice, especially when she said, “I’m still pondering the appropriate disciplinary action for you.”

Ajax ignored her, looking at the ceiling. “Where’s Seth, Elian? I’d like to talk to him.”

The Tanist said, “What is he, your lawyer?” He could hear the sneer in her voice, but he breathed gently and let the words pass through him. Her sneer had nothing on the endless disappointment of his father.

Elian said, “He’s indisposed but as soon as he seems sane again, I’ll mention that you asked after him.”

The Tanist added, “Not that it will help you.”

Ajax raised his free hand to rub at his eyes. “Did you just come here to sneer at me? If so, I’m going back to sleep.”

“I came to see if you had any explanation for your behavior, which almost got all of us killed! Kwan insists you aren’t just a traitor, although how he could be certain is a mystery to me.” She gave Kwan a dark look and Ajax realized that the teacher had put his own crumbling stock with the Tower’s leader on the line for him.

That was… kind, but Ajax wished he hadn’t. “Are we really going to do this? Yeah? Okay. So you led your people into a royal asskicking, and now you want to come gloat over my choices because it’s so much more satisfying than facing the consequences of your own.”

If the Tanist’s lips got any tighter, they’d vanish. “Your temerity while a prisoner takes my breath away.” Her hand flexed convulsively, and Ajax remembered the marks on Seth’s cheek. Well, maybe that was a game Seth enjoyed but Ajax wasn’t going to tolerate even the threat.

“Oh, please.” He stood up, straightening to his full height, and flexed his own free hand. “You have me handcuffed to a hospital bed and I can summon a weapon that can trivially slice this bed into chunks. The only reason I haven’t is because the doctor here has worked so hard and other people will need it before this is over, especially if you’re still in charge.”

“Really? The only reason?” The Tanist’s voice was low and dangerous. Her blazing eyes met his own, somehow managing to still look down on him despite the nine inches in height he’d gained on her.

Kwan moved forward quickly, just enough to interpose himself partially between Ajax and the Tanist. “Take it easy, both of you. Kiley, you know he can’t remain handcuffed. There’s no cause for it now that we know he’s… safe. And you, Ajax. Show some respect.”

The Tanist transferred her piercing gaze from Ajax to Kwan, incredulously. “Safe? He ignored orders to follow us. He brought the mundane authorities after us.”

“I chased Tainter out of the Tower— Elian and others will back me up if they haven’t already. Right, Elian?”

“True,” Elian murmured.

“And then the ‘mundane authorities’ caught me. And then I convinced them to help you. And you can’t possibly say you suspected me of this. Because you and I both know you suspected me of being Hatherly, instead of suspecting Hatherly himself.”

To his surprise, the Tanist’s lashes swept down. “He was a good man.”

Harshly, Kwan said, “He murdered Laurel.”

The Tanist’s gaze raised again, fixing this time on Kwan. She stared at him for a long moment and Ajax wondered if she were trying to formulate a way to blame that on him, too.

But all she said was, “Yes, I know.” Then she turned on her heel and headed for the exist.

“Hey! What about me?” Ajax called.

The Tanist waved a hand. “I’ll be back later and we can continue our discussion then. Maybe some evidence in your favor will surface.”

Ajax stared after her in amazement as she vanished out the door. Kwan said, “That’s about as close as she’ll come to saying she’ll let you out later, after she talks to some of the others. Ajax… don’t do anything stupid.”

“You shouldn’t have stood up for me. I can’t promise to be good for your sake, Kwan.”

Kwan snorted. “You’re what, seventeen? I wouldn’t expect it of you. Just do your best. For your own sake.” He squeezed Ajax’s shoulder, then hurried after the Tanist.

Ajax laid back down again, feeling every ache. He’d felt an unexpected burst of sympathy for the Tanist when he saw her reaction to Hatherly’s name, but it didn’t really matter. He was sympathetic to Kwan, too. He was certainly going to do his best. But his best wasn’t going to be what they were hoping for.

 

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