“Dramatic events lately.” Kwan surveyed the silent, attentive class the next morning. Ajax lurked in his usual corner. “There are too many missing faces. Most of them will be showing up late, I imagine. But some of them won’t. You all know this. I know it hurts. I’m glad you’ve all decided to attend today.” A humorless smile flickered across his face. “I’ve long believed that nothing is accomplished by letting people sit around idle. So your projects are all still due the same days as before. Hard work, people!” He clapped his hands together and the spell was broken. Groans rose around the room, and a low murmur of conversation followed.
Kwan headed over to Ajax and dropped a book on his table. “Glad to see you’re here bright and early. This is a history of the founding of the Guardians until around a century ago. Read it.”
Ajax picked up the book. It was old, a couple of decades, at least, and library-bound. It looked indistinguishable from a dusty volume at a normal library. “Where did this come from?”
“Somebody wrote it. If you look there, right there, on the cover? Yeah, that’s what we call the ‘author’s name’.”
“Hah hah. You guys actually write your own books? And bind them? I mean, why? I thought everything was on those tablets. Books seem kind of old-fashioned.”
“It’s amazing what a good tool for passing on knowledge a book turns out to be. We’ve been here a long time, Ajax, and when you read that book you’re not going to see any mention of tablet computers or big screen tvs. You will see a lot of references to other books, though.”
Ajax blew out his breath. “Fine. Read and find out, right?”
Kwan nodded and turned to move on to another student. He paused, looking at the door, and Ajax realized Seth was trudging in beside Jehane.
Kwan hesitated a moment then turned to the student who’d been waiting on him. Ajax dropped the book on the table and moved to intercept the pair.
Jehane’s face was pale and tear-streaked, but she wasn’t currently crying. Ajax narrowed his eyes at Seth, wondering what he’d done to hurt her. The other boy couldn’t be allowed to wander around willfully hurting everybody who cared about him.
Then he reconsidered, looking at Seth’s hunched posture and Jehane’s calm. Whatever had happened, Jehane had dealt with it. He ought to give her more credit for being able to solve her own problems, he supposed. But he’d saved her the other day and it was hard to see her now without remembering the adrenalin rush of dragging her away from Hatherly.
Seth pulled away from Jehane, and when she turned after him, he turned her around and pushed her toward some of the other students. Then he darted away, a horrible smile on his face, to straddle a chair at the edge of the room.
Ajax followed him, placed a chair beside Seth’s and slung himself into it.
Without bothering to look at him, Seth said, “What do you want?”
“Let’s get Natalie back.”
“What, are broken girls your kink now?”
Evenly, Ajax said, “Could be.”
Seth shook his head. “Too bad. I think I’d kill her myself if she’s like Aya.”
“Didn’t Aya’s partner die? Brutally murdered in front of her? You’re still alive.”
“Have you thought about what they might do instead? Because I have.” Seth turned his ghastly smile onto Ajax.
“Do you think she’ll break that easily?”
Seth stared down at the floor. “I should say, oh no, not Natalie. But it depends, doesn’t it? We all have our buttons. Natalie… cares a lot more than I do.”
“Let’s get her back,” Ajax repeated.
“Do you even have a plan? Or is this just a conspiracy to wish her free?”
“Actually, I do. All we need to do is get one of their latchkeys, the ones from their own Tower. Tainter used Aya’s to come here. We could use his, or that other guy’s, to go wherever they’re going.”
Seth looked up, his face strange as the ghastly smile faded. “Would that work?”
“Elian will help us. Natalie will help us, too.” Ajax really hoped he was accurate on both statements. He wasn’t sure how far Elian’s help would or could go.
“If she can, you’re damn right she will.” Seth sat up and stretched his back.
“So are you in?”
“Sure, why not. As soon as you get me cleared to go back to Earth, I’ll head out there and beat some Tainter ass.” Seth smirked.
Ajax narrowed his eyes. “Cleared? What does that mean?”
“Elian’s declared that if I go through a portal before I’m declared ‘stable’, he’s going to have me chained to a bed somewhere. Enticing offer, but it’s probably not going to help you out much.” Seth smacked Ajax on the back. “But hey, big guy. I’m sure you can sort things out. Just trot along and convince my mother and the Council that I’m A-OK to get back to the big scary world.”
It was Ajax’s turn to stare at the floor. “Hmm.” He turned to look at Jehane, sitting awkwardly in a group of other girls, hugging a book to her chest.
Seth said, “What about you? I bet they’re not letting you out either, pretty scythe or not.”
“Oh, I’m just a troublesome student. I have extra homework. Probably book reports or something. But I really wasn’t thinking about going through the adults on this.”
Seth snorted. “Good thing you didn’t raise my hopes much, then.”
“It’s not as bad as that. We really just have to convince Elian, not the adults. He’s the gatekeeper, after all.” Ajax kept watching Jehane.
Seth looked pained. “Please don’t tell me about your plan to trick him. He is listening, you know.”
Surprised, Ajax said, “Trick him? Who said anything about tricking him? I’m thinking about how to prove you’re actually stable.”