"It was a mistake to bring them, Priam," Conner spoke sharply, his voice low, "did you forget who we're going after? Madleh, the butcher of men?"
"Conner," Priam started.
"They're children, Priam. This is their first time out in the big, bad world as assassins. Their first missions should be guarding royalty or gathering information. Oh wait, that's what they're supposed to be doing, but you've insisted that we don't tell Volker, or even communicate with Umbriss at all. Usually, you are the voice of reason here."
"Conner, shut up. I'm tired of this pointless chase. One town after another, blindly stumbling into traps and ambushes. I want to get this over with now."
"You're bringing children, Priam," Conner repeated, "Erynn and Teague aren't ready for this. This mission puts them in danger, and us as well, because now we are responsible for their lives as well as our own. And Arden as well, both ways. For all the progress he has made, he's still more at home in a library than a battlefield."
"If we deliver them to safety, we'll be much too late to catch Madleh," Priam countered, hissing the words, "If we leave them here, along the path, they'll be much worse off. This place will be a battlefield soon, Conner. At least we can keep and eye on them when they are with us."
"Not acceptable. I am willing to risk my life, Priam, but not theirs. This is not their battle."
"As your friend and mentor, I ask you to trust me."
"Don't pull that card."
"They can do it. They may not have the experience, but they are competent people. I feel we will have need of their skills yet."
"Can we at least let Volker know that we have them?" Conner asked.
"Once we tell Volker that, and where we are, he will know we are going after Madleh." Priam reminded him.
"He can't stop us when we're this close. And besides, I'd feel a lot better know that the old man didn't worry about two of the graduates of this most recent class."
"What about Lysander?" Priam asked
Conner grunted, "Alright, so Volker is already losing sleep about someone in the most recent class."
"Well, I meant what are we going to do about him? Erynn and Teague heard a rumor that he has been seen in the area. What should we do if he turns up?"
Conner made an exasperated noise, "I was under the impression that this was your plan, Priam. Why are you asking me to finish it for you?"
"I ask for your advice because he is your student. Your protégé. Don't you feel you should have some say in his regard?"
"He's a grown man. He's older than I am, if you'd believe it. He can take care of himself. We'll look for him after."
"That's a reversal of your first position. Care for the others, but not him?"
"Don't make this about that. Lysander has been out in this world before. He's fought and suffered. Erynn's lived her life in a palace, Teague spent his watching over his brothers and sisters and tending to sheep, and this is the first time in years Arden has been outside a library for more than a week."
"Lysander is still our ward."
"Well, what do you suggest we do then?"
"He is suffering, Conner. I don't have Erynn's link to him through Thesia, but just take a look at her. What is happening to him is happening to her as well. There is corruption in him or his activities. Can't you feel it?"
Conner tossed a look over his shoulder. The other three rode behind them, their horses maintaining the moderate pace. Erynn rode in the front of the group, her horse just abreast of Arden's. Teague rode behind the pair, alternating glares at Arden's back, and furtive glances at Erynn's. The two were talking and laughing about something, Arden gesturing with his hands. Though Erynn's expression was merry, Conner could see shades of regret and pain in her blue eyes.
Conner turned back to Priam, "You don't fight fair, my friend. Pitting her suffering against my suffering? Find Lysander or find Madleh. What a companion you must be to force a choice as that on me."
"It is a choice everyone must make. Do we fight for ourselves, or do we fight for others?"
"You make it then!" Conner shouted, clearly agitated. The conversations behind them stopped.
"I made it a long time ago, Conner. I chose to fight for myself. I left you in the care of Umbriss and threw myself at the world. I fought and fought, and never made any progress. I didn't solve my problem, and I sure didn't solve anyone else's."
Conner hauled on the reins, pulling his mount up close to Priam's.
"Don't do that to me," he grabbed a fistful of the man's tunic. "Don't you dare."
"Conner," Priam's voice grew steely.
"No, Priam. I've decided. We'll find Lysander. But first, we find Madleh."
Priam turned away from the furious assassin; "You'd put yourself above your friends, Conner?"
"No, Priam. I'm putting the world above myself here. I want more than anything to find Lysander. I shouldn't have waited this long to do so. That was the selfish part. However, Madleh has loosed an army upon the world. As much as I care about all of you, I have a duty to this world. I'm an assassin, the same as every one of you, and our first obligation is to this world. Let us not forget that."
He turned in his saddle. The other four were staring at him, Teague in confusion, Arden in understanding, and Priam beamed with pride.
"But we are assassins, and we cherish our friends," Conner finished, "if we come across Lysander or his trail, we will do everything in our power to recover him on our way."
"This is the oddest thing," Erynn said, glancing up and down the deserted corridors of the keep, "We haven't seen more than fifty people since we've gotten in here, and you're positive most of whom we've seen have been travelers. Have you ever seen a town like this before?"
"They're all gone, Erynn. An army is more than just warriors," Conner stalked the halls in front of her, clearly not used to the architecture of the southern coastal palaces, "they need cooks and hunters, runners and message boys. I can't say the feeling of an empty town is unnerving, but I've seen it before."
"How can you be so calm about this?"
"Because, right now, the absence of this town's population means our mission is that much easier. Less people means less guards, less guards means less people to fight, and less people to fight means we can focus on fighting the ones that are here," We'll worry about the army later, after we've accomplished our mission here."
"You've been sounding more and more like Priam these last few days," Erynn tugged on his arm, "are you feeling alright?"
The group had split up, Conner and Erynn searching the administrative center and palace for Madleh, while Priam, Teague and Arden trolled the affluent sections of town for a house or villa he might reside in.
"I'm tired, Erynn," he stopped in the hallway and turned to face her, "I may not be old, but I am tired. I have been working for this world, behind its back, for about half of my life. No thanks, no gratitude, and it never gets better," he spat sharply, lashing out with his foot and splintering an innocent wooden table.
"Conner," she started, but he cut her off.
"I've lost friends, Erynn. Family. I'm starting to lose myself. I need to end this. We're so close I can feel it."
"What are you talking about?"
"Madleh will die by my sword tonight, or I will die by his. There is no other option. Do not stand in my way."
Erynn took a step back from him, "Conner, you're scaring me."
"You should be scared, Erynn. Have they not told you what is going on?"
She nodded, "We're stopping a war."
"There's no stopping this war. Somewhere, it has already begun, I'm sure. Men will die and nations will fall because of us. Because we're dragging them into this war. What we're doing here is keeping it from embroiling the entire world. I'm sorry for frightening you, but you must know."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Because likely, you'll have to kill tonight. The first blood on your hands, Erynn. And believe me, the first blood doesn't come off as easy as the blood that comes after. Do you understand?"
"Conner," her face twisted with emotion, "How can you be so calm about this?"
"I'm not. You don't know how many pieces my heart has been rent into. But people are counting on me to do my job here, and I have to bury it until I have time to mourn."
Erynn slid an arm around his waist, and buried her face in the folds of his cloak. They stood in silence for a moment, and Conner rocked her slowly, "You alright?"
She swallowed audibly, and nodded her head. Conner felt tears roll off of her chin and land on his arm.
"It's not an easy path we've picked, is it?"
She shook her head.
"Let's get this over with so we can find Lysander. I'm sure once we get that off of our chests, we can give this pain some closure."
Nodding again, she pulled away and wiped her sleeve across her face, "I'm ready to do this."
Conner nodded, "I don't want you going into the throne room with me. I want you to stay outside."
"I can fight," she protested.
"I am counting on that. You're going to keep the guards from entering the room while I'm in there. I don't need that sort of distraction. Besides, the hallway will give you an advantage with that stick you insist on fighting with," he wagged a hand in the spear she was carrying.
"It's a much more elegant weapon that most," she argued.
"I'd agree, but—" he stopped suddenly, winking out of sight.
A guard stepped out of a doorway, a puzzled expression on his face.
"Are you lost, girly?" his gaze flicked suspiciously to the spear in her hand.
"No I'm—" she started, trying to stall for time. It didn't take long before his throat was a geyser of blood, cut quickly and neatly by Conner.
"Come on, it won't take them too long to figure out we're here. I want to be as done as possible when that happens," he smiled as he reappeared, wiping his sword clean on the guard's tunic, "If all goes well, our deeds here will save thousands of lives."