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Despite what people might think, Wyldon more or less respects King Jonathan. More on some days, less on others, but aside from the occasional questionable appointment, Jonathan has been a reasonably competent king. Most of the really questionable appointments were made in his first year, anyway, and when Wyldon is feeling charitable he supposes that even kings are entitled to a little youthful nepotism. (And besides, the only really questionable choice, as time marched on, proved to be the belligerent harpy the king made his Champion.)

Today is one of those days on the less-respect side of the scale. Wyldon massages his temple; it is the end of August, the training year is about to start and the girl with it, and Master Declan has abruptly quit. And so of course it is today that the king decides to request an audience.

Wyldon suspects that he knows what the meeting is about. The king cannot seem to entirely resist the urge to meddle with page training, and the girl has piqued his interest. Fighting the urge to grit his teeth, Wyldon marches down to the king's smaller conference room, mustering arguments against whichever damnable progressive twit Jonathan has chosen this time.

When the bowing and the greetings and the "thank you for coming"s are out of the way, King Jonathan looks at Wyldon and says, idly, "I hear the ethics master quit."

Wyldon does grit his teeth, briefly, before replying. "He has."

"Did Master Declan give a reason for his abrupt departure?" Jonathan asks. "Was it over Keladry of Mindelan?"

This is the thing about the whole resignation fiasco that most vexes Wyldon. "He gave no reason, Your Majesty. He simply informed me he was leaving and promptly vacated the premises."

Jonathan looks mildly startled and vaguely amused. "Any luck finding someone to replace him?"

Wyldon's teeth grit again, involuntarily. "No," he forces out.

"Ah. As it so happens, I have a candidate."

Of course he does, Wyldon thinks. "Who, Your Majesty?"

And now the king does look amused. "Thom of Trebond."

Wyldon wonders if this is what a heart attack feels like. "With all due respect, Your Majesty, why?"

"Honestly? Because he is at loose ends, and I think we both know what he gets up to when he has nothing to do."

That … is not the answer Wyldon was expecting. It's a disturbingly good reason, too; Wyldon has seen the mischief bored pages get up to, and Lord Thom is as bad as any page. And Wyldon has also seen firsthand what mischief Thom can truly wreak, if he puts his mind to it.

Wyldon's bad arm twinges at the thought.

Jonathan's next words cut neatly through Wyldon's thoughts. "I won't force him on you," the king says quietly. "He may have stayed neatly out of the conservative-progressive war in my court, but he is … a problematic appointment in other ways."

Yes. And Wyldon, unfortunately, is too smart to not see just why those very problems make the cantankerous priest a good fit for the post. "Does Lord Thom even want the post?" Wyldon asks. "I was not aware he was looking for a teaching position."

Jonathan actually smirks. "I haven't yet asked him, actually. I wanted your answer first."

Wyldon is quiet for a long moment, remembering smoke and fire, hurroks and mad eyes, and children's screams. Finally he sighs. He is, unfortunately, also a pragmatic man. "Very well, Your Majesty. But if there are any problems…"

"If there are any problems," King Jonathan says, eyes glinting, "you will leave him to me."

Wyldon bows and leaves. One headache down, he thinks, and a whole series of them still to come.

***

Thom is not quite what Wyldon expects. For someone with such a nasty reputation, he is a strangely quiet man, though his quiet is one that bristles with thorns.

Wyldon once again recalls mad eyes and screams, and stares down the grouchily solemn border lord on the other side of his desk.

Thom stares back, irritated purple eyes unnervingly direct, and Wyldon grimaces. "Tell me something, Trebond," he asks sharply, "do you even want this post?"

Thom graces Wyldon with a razor-sharp smile, brittle and bright, and says, "Not especially, but we all know what I get up to when I am at loose ends."

Wyldon's eyes narrow. That is the king's reason, almost word for word.

"Besides," Thom says, shifting awkwardly away, "I have an actual understanding of the subject."

That is precisely why Wyldon agreed to this farce, and it is precisely what worries him now.

Hurroks and mad eyes and fire, he thinks, and ruthlessly represses an awkward twitch of his own.

***

Wyldon eavesdrops on Thom's first class. He has legitimate reasons for doing so, of course, but his overriding reason is morbid curiosity.

He, like just about everyone else in Legann, wonders what a twice-traitor who has scraped by both times by the skin of his teeth (and, the cynical part of Wyldon's brain notes, the guilt of kings) has to say about ethics. He wonders if he has, perhaps, just made a massive mistake.

The last time children and Thom were in the same room, Wyldon had had to rescue them from him. He hopes - knows - hopes that such a rescue is not necessary this time.

It is, somewhat predictably, Stone Mountain who asks why they should listen to anything Thom has to say. Thom is a traitor twice over, after all, though he has both times ultimately come through for Tortall, and both times has paid for his treason grievously. And besides, treason aside, Thom hardly has a reputation for being fair, honest, or scrupulous.

"Why should you listen to me?" Thom asks, poisonously slow. "Because you are stuck with me."

Wyldon blinks. Inside the classroom, the pages are dead silent.

"So if you want to learn enough about ethics to satisfy Lord Wyldon and your examiners, the pretty little answers that will be on your exams - well, to be honest, you could actually go make use of our fine library and study on your own." The dull lulling beat of wood on wood - of a stout cane on the leg of a stool - emanates from the classroom. "But if you want to learn why ethics are important, why ethics are as valuable as your sword or your shield, you will want to ask someone who has learned that 'why' the hard way."

A pause.

"You will make mistakes in life," Thom continues after a beat. "Undoubtedly, some will be great ones and costly ones. If you are very lucky, those mistakes won't cost any lives - but you are training to be knights." Thom's voice is low and solemn now, and surprisingly free of barbs. "Your mistakes are more likely to result in lost lives, not less. That is why you need this class, whether you like its current teacher or not - because ethics are at heart about curbing mistakes, and about keeping the mistakes you do make from becoming the kind of disaster that costs lives."

Outside the door, Wyldon thinks again of mad eyes and indigo fire and shrill young screams, and terrifying tight control that gave Wyldon the chance to make a difference at all.

Some days, Wyldon actually respects King Jonathan's judgement, and his cunning. Today is one of those days.