“I know why,” one of George’s friends spoke up from his place on the couch.
George whirled, his eyes narrow and dangerous. His friend crossed his arms, tilting his head.
“What? I like you, George, but you’re in the wrong on this one, it sounds like. I know Thorn. He’s a good man, and a talented inventor. Whatever he’s doing with a mage, it’s not your business.”
“It’s everyone’s business when a talentless lies on her back and gives it up to a mage,” George shot back. “Why do you think they disrespect us? Why do they keep putting us down? Because we put up with it.” He shot a glare back to Thorn. “We serve them constantly, in every way, as though we’re happy to be second class citizens, and the blasted mages are content with it. We need to make their lives hard, to punish them, not let them think we can ever be happy this way!”
Thorn blinked, taking a step back. One thing George had said wasn’t sitting right, and then it hit him.
He had said “her,” not “him.”
“What do you mean, her?” Thorn asked. George paled.
“You’re not the only one, George,” his friend said. “But you’re the only one who’s still bitter about it.”
Thorn looked from George to his friend and back, wishing dearly he could remember the other man’s name. “What?” he said.
“Children of prostitutes,” the man said. “Me, and George here.” George threw him a murderous look. “Women who slept with mages too-They had too, especially during the war. They kept us, their kids, safe, and avoided the worst of the war.” It began to make sense in Thorn’s mind. A boy, his mother constantly at the whims of mages, forced to acknowledge his own powerlessness and that of his mother.
He met George’s eyes. The other man stood, back straight and chin jutted, as if daring Thorn to say something.
Part of him wanted to insult him, but the urge died quickly. “At least you remember your mother,” Thorn said, his voice quiet. The memory of flames and toppling buildings filled his mind for a moment. “At least she had the chance to protect you.”
“She couldn’t, in the end.” George practically spat the words. “She died, of some disease some foul mage had given her. Serving them gets you nothing. That’s the last thing she told me. Better dead than a servant to the ones who will use you and throw you away.”
Thorn shivered at the hate in George’s voice, and how his words spoke to the fear deep inside him.
“That’s enough, George,” George’s friend said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “You’ve made your point. Just leave Thorn alone from now on.”
No. George wasn’t right. Thorn couldn’t leave it like this, not without saying his side of things.
“It’s not true,” Thorn said. “I…I’m sorry for what happened to you. And for your mother.” Thorn blinked, buildings burning behind his eyelids, his own memories blinding for a moment. Everyone had their own hardships. “But Kenneth isn’t like that. And I’m not a…” he had to put it delicately, to not insult the memory of his mother. “I’m not doing it for any reason other than I care about him. It is not a business arrangement. I love him.”
“You love him? A mage?” One of George’s friends spoke. “Why?”
Why. As though that could even be answered. Saul had asked the same thing. How can you love a mage? Confusion and uncertainty had whirled in Thorn’s mind since Kenneth had come here, had stayed with him among his people.
“Because he loves me,” Thorn said. “Because he’s the kind of man who will stay with me, here in the slums, even when he’s from a noble’s mansion. Because he cares for me, and wants to help me, and wants so much to understand my life.” He flexed his metal hand, thinking back to Kenneth staring at his new invention, the replacement for his metal hand that would be completed soon. He had come a long way since calling his hand monstrous. “Because what matters to him is me, not our circumstances.”
Thorn had been the one to let the circumstances in, and ruin things. His throat tightened.
“Mages use us, Thorn,” George said. “You’re a fool if you think otherwise. Don’t turn your back on your people.”
Thorn lifted his chin. “No, you’re the fool,” he snapped. “You’re the one limiting the progress we could make.”
George stared at him, eyes narrowed, and Thorn wondered how many people like him in the future there would be. People who were forever scarred by the war, by the memories they had, and would never understand.
It would be something he and Kenneth would face, over and over. But at least they could face it together.
He turned and headed back down the hall. He had to find Kenneth.