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Shades of Grey

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I must’ve gone mad, she thought, frightened and shocked at the same time. She had done many stupid things in her life, some even dangerous, but none of them had been even remotely as full of potential consequences as the one she did a moment ago.

Why could she not keep her mouth shut? Why did her unhealthy curiosity have to get better of her?

She kept her gaze transfixed on a half-emptied plate, and only heard him putting his fork onto the table. She did not have raise her head to know that he was staring at her, giving her one of those unbearable looks of his. Was he surprised by her courage (or stupidity, as she corrected herself)? Or maybe he was just trying to come up with a convincing lie?

He would not tell her the truth anyway.

“And may I inquire why do you want to know?”

I live with a murderer under one roof and I want to know his intentions, she thought but did not say it aloud. She was not that suicidal. And yet hiding behind simple curiosity was not better. How could she probably express that she spent every single sleepless night on thinking why the person occupying one of nearby rooms decided to practise the most forbidden of all arts? How could she explain that she wanted to know why the leader of the Magicians’ Guild was killing foreign magicians?

The answer was simple: she could not.

If she tried to turn her incoherent thoughts into statements making at least minimal sense, she would fail miserably. He would just stare at her, calm and composed as always, and she would end up babbling like an idiot. Either way, it would be their longest conversation in a year and half.

So she decided to put on a mask of defiance and hid her fear behind it as if he did not scare her. As if she was not thinking about him as someone even worse than Regin.

“I just do,” she said, trying to make her voice sound firmly with confidence she did not feel. “What’s so weird about that?”

The expression of his face did not change, and probably for the first time she wondered how many secrets he managed to bury under his ice-cold demeanour. Was there even one thing about him she knew for sure?

He’s a murderer, she told herself once again. It was so easy to judge him, to see things in black and white. She was used to black and white, but since she had joined the Guild she had to deal also with shades of grey that lay between. She did not like it, for there was no way of knowing what to do with the shades of grey until one encountered them. And she felt lost when it happened.

She feared that Akkarin could be placed directly in the middle of grey, and black and white did not apply to him. That meant she would have to change her opinion and maybe – just maybe – admit that she might have been wrong. She hated admitting that she was wrong.

“'What’s so weird'?” he repeated her words with a slight trace of incredulity. “I know well enough the opinion you have of me. No matter what I say, you will not be willing to change that opinion if it does not confirm your thoughts. So what is the point in telling you anything?”

Did he read her surface thoughts or her attitude was just that obvious? Truth be told, their relations could hardly be described as friendly. She was not sure if even a word ‘civil’ applied here. But what was she supposed to behave like, exactly? Be grateful that he took her hostage? That he stripped her off any chance of normal life in the Guild? That he threatened her and her family?

Was she supposed to like him?

“You owe me this,” she said without thinking and regretted it at the same moment those words left her mouth. That was it – how soon was he going to lose his temper?

“I do not owe you anything, girl,” he said in a tone that could freeze the sun. She made a tremendous mental effort and raised her head to look at him. He had a relatively neutral expression on his face, but in his eyes she could see annoyance mixed with a shade of amusement. That amusement infuriated her like nothing else before.

“I’m not a girl!” she yelled, determined not to let him treat her like a child. She was no child, no matter how juvenile her yell sounded.

Something unusual appeared in his gaze and she had to fight the urge of running away from this room. And from him.

“No,” he said in a strange tone. “You are not.”

There was something unspoken that hung in the air and made his gaze even more impossible to bear than usually. She fixed her eyes on the table again.

“You are a disobedient, rude novice which put her nose into place she was not supposed to,” he continued after a while. She shot him a furious glare. How dared he?!

“And you’re a heartless murderer that stops at nothing to gain what he wants!” she shouted, long past caring about potential consequences.

This time it was not a shadow of emotion reflected in his dark eyes. This time his features twisted into a mask of anger. Or barely contained fury. Anyway, into something really, really bad. She swallowed hardly, astonished that her throat was still working.

“You may not be a child, but you behave like one,” he hissed. “And you have no idea what you are talking about.”

“Then tell me,” she insisted, not wanting to make this sound like a pleading it really was. “Tell me why you do this.”

“If there were a person I would like to explain my actions to, it definitely would not be you. You are my novice, not my friend.”

Had she ever thought that his words would hurt her? Given their relations, it should have been impossible. And yet it happened, and it seemed that the impossibility decided to make this day its show time.

“You owe me an explanation,” she insisted despite her hatred and long-harboured fear towards him. He rubbed his forehead with his hand and probably for the first time she noticed dark bags under his eyes. Did he always look so exhausted? Why did she not notice it before?

“You may be excused, Sonea,” he said in a tired tone, suddenly emptied of all its previous anger. That was his way of telling her to ‘get the hell out of here’ and there was probably nothing she could say or do to make him tell her what she wanted to know.

She would never tell him ‘I’m sorry’.

“As you wish, High Lord,” she gave him a bow in which there was no respect. He should have reacted, but did nothing.

And yet she had a feeling that his eyes followed her to the very threshold of the dining room.

Wine in his glass looked almost like blood in this dim light of the living room, dark and mysterious. Evenings with wine were one of those few moments which could cause an illusion of normal life. What exactly was normal life anyway?

He could not remember.

So many years he spent trying to guard his secrets, so many years that passed hollow and lonely. He had chosen loneliness; truth be told, he had never been much of a social person. He had cut himself from other people out of necessity in order to maintain his image of a distanced and powerful leader focused solely on the Guild’s welfare. No-one had ever tried to look for a person hidden behind this mask. Those few who knew him better were surprisingly easy to lie to.

He was simply acting as if nothing happened.

As if there were no Sachaka in his past.

It had marked him for life – and not only when the black magic was concerned. It had turned him into a bitter caricature of his old self, of that optimistic and far too brave young man. He still could not believe how stupid he had once been.

He supposed that was how it felt to grow up.

There was time when he thought that every possible problem and loophole in his little masquerade could be foreseen and avoided. He would have never included a slum girl in his various plans theoretically covering every situation.

And yet it happened. Now he had to live with the consequences.

Taking her as his novice had been the best possible solution. He could turn a blind eye on her discomfort when safety of the whole Kyralia was at stake. He could live with her thinking about him as ‘a heartless murderer’, or whatever else she called him.

He had to live with many other, worse things.

There were days – not so frequent, but they happened – when he was allowing himself to feel disgust at his actions. It usually took place during those long minutes lost somewhere in the eternity between day and night, when the time stopped and bad memories freed themselves from chains of will. He could not find out how much wine he had to drink to chase those images away. To be honest, he did not want to – most of the time. They had shaped him into the man he was, and he was the sum of his scars, failures and silent successes.

He was no hero.

“Why do you practise black magic?” Sonea asked, but he knew her question from some time now. There was nothing else on her mind when she saw him, talked to him, thought about him. He heard those thoughts as if she wrapped them in words and spoke aloud, he heard them nagging her and begging for attention. No surface reading necessary – they were obvious like the fact that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. He was even surprised that she managed to stay silent so long.

Not that it mattered, though. He did not plan to tell her anything.

He had been considering it briefly after she had seen him killing that slave in his basement. In the end, he had decided against it and kept that decision as firmly as only he could. There were too many possible problems and unfortunate outcomes that could happen if she knew. And, of course, he could not trust her to keep that knowledge to herself.

He did not trust anyone but himself nowadays, and even that was sometimes questionable. Trust was failing among the magicians when the black magic came into sight.

He sighed and reached for the half-emptied bottle of wine, but his hand stopped in the middle of movement when he received a short mental information through his blood gem link. Apparently, the Thieves spotted a slave on the hunt in the city.

Suiting up and leaving the Residence became an unconscious habit – his body was doing it while his mind wandered on the endless plains of his memory. Meeting with his informant took place in a similar way and he went after the Sachakan, hoping that it would not take too long and he would have at least few hours of sleep this night.

His autopilot immediately – and quite violently – shut down when in the person followed by the slave he recognised his novice’s aunt.