Beneath the warm midday sun, Nic pulled up the hood of her cloak as she disembarked the Nonna, a large Sileni trade vessel. Finally, after two weeks at sea, she’d at last made it to her next job—only the biggest of her life.
The Grand Divinus.
The woman was undoubtedly cruel and power hungry, a worthy sacrifice to Nox, but she was also the head of the Divinity of Magic. Handling her would be a walk on eggshells, followed by a leap through a flaming ring, with a final tiptoe through a pit of vipers. Far beyond her usual targets. But the Grand Divinus fit the mold—an enemy of the people.
And the fact that she was a threat to a child made the job tough to turn down. Marcel had been clever to use his infant son to persuade her. Or he’d been lucky. Gods-damned lucky.
But enemies of the people had been her forte for some time now. The Noxian Rebellion had been nearly twenty years ago, yet her sister Osana’s pyre burned just as bright in her mind. Because of cruel and power-hungry targets like Baron Lemancourt. And the Grand Divinus.
Lemancourt met Nox. And so will the Grand Divinus. Now Lemancourt’s plump, skirt-chasing layabout son ruled the barony—he was no hero, but at least he didn’t do his own people harm.
She just needed to stay well hidden until the time was right.
Her bag over her shoulder, Nic descended the gangplank, eyeing the bright coast. A few fishing boats dotted the crystalline coastal waters of Amiata, a small village just north of Magehold. Several people worked on the beach—mostly women searching the shallows for noble pen shells and their threads of sea silk. This was what Amiata was known for, and what made Marchese Taddeo Fiorensi so vastly wealthy. A wealth he invested back into his domain, at least, if the well-maintained cobblestone streets and impeccable orange clay-tiled roofs were any sign.
No one paid her any attention as she wove her way through the dock workers, which was as she desired it. She hadn’t become one of the Black Rose’s highest-paid assassins without acquiring a few items of value—among them Shade, her recondite ring, whose mentalism enchantment gently suggested she didn’t merit attention, as well as black-dyed cloth-of-arcanir attire, whose outer netting hid her anima well from geomancers and spiritualists.
The salty scent of smoked fish wafted from the market, and she resupplied in her easy Sileni. Even with Shade and careful transacting, a stay in town could lead to rumors, an unnecessary risk. In any case, it wasn’t her first arrival in Amiata, and there was a perfect place to stay in the wilds en route to Magehold, right off an old dirt path.
Munching on the local street food—thin, circular flatbread soaked in lamb stock, topped with tomato paste and a semi-coddled egg, then conveniently rolled—she took the forest path to the north. A couple horse-drawn carts passed her by, and she slipped into the back of a semolina cart, smooth and quiet. The ride would reduce half a day’s walk to a couple hours. She’d camp in the woods, then make her way to Magehold tomorrow.
In the early afternoon, the cart passed the old dirt path, and she jumped off with fluid ease. It had been two years since she’d been here, but enough of the locals must have known the spot to maintain the path. Hopefully none would be present tonight, so she could get some peace to think through her plans.
Dusting off her black cloak, she picked her way through the deadfall, listening for the sound of running water. It would be a soothing break before this gods-damned job.
An infiltration could be very simple, and it usually was. A few key details, some observation, and that might be all a job needed. But not in Magehold. The city was teeming with mages, all on high alert since the Magister Trials, both for heretics and Immortals. And the castle itself was a fortress, well guarded by both magic and arms.
A local informant would prove immensely useful, but she’d need to keep her ear to the ground in Magehold for a few days—or longer—to find one she could trust. There was no telling how paranoid the Divinity would be now, perhaps even to the point of setting traps.
The telltale hum of a waterfall finally sounded in the distance, and she hurried her pace through denser and denser forest, then found her footing in the rockier ground near the cliffs. The hum mixed with a trickling, a splashing, and the aura of cloudy steam higher above, puffing into the slate-blue sky. Then the thick smell of sulfur.
She dug into the white cliffside, grabbing for one powdery handhold after another, until she scrambled up to a series of cascading plateaus—and pools. Hot springs.
The white limestone formations, shaped by centuries or millennia of flowing water, looked like ice, like snow-covered glaciers atop a frosty mountain in the arctic north of Skadden. The turquoise waters, however, with their rising tendrils of mist, gave them away. These lower pools were warm, but the higher ones were hotter, and she made her way up to the top.
Above the highest pool, a veil of falling water tumbled over the limestone, flowing with a calming splash into the steaming hot water. With no one around, she threw off her clothes silently, but quickly nonetheless, leaving one of her daggers strapped to her leg.
Two weeks aboard the Nonna had been long enough without a thorough soak, and a minute longer without one wouldn’t do. She tied her things inside her cloak nearby, then tested the water with a careful foot. It was hot, but in three seconds, she wasn’t scalded. It was just right, perfectly right, as she remembered.
Slipping in, she tensed up as the heat climbed her body, but slowly, it soothed into her muscles, melting soreness from the ship’s cramped quarters. At last, she submerged up to her shoulders and leaned her head back against the smooth stone. This would be her one indulgence on this job, and she’d indulge thoroughly.
It helped that the Grand Divinus wouldn’t smell her from ten feet away either.
Tomorrow, she’d have to camp on the outskirts of Magehold and mingle carefully, listening for dissenters. There had to be someone in the city who knew the castle but hated the Grand Divinus. At least enough to let a “thief” in. If all went well, the job would be clean—except that she had no idea where to look for Marcel’s blood.
But he was certainly paying well enough. With that money… With that money, her village wouldn’t just be set for the winter. It would be set for years. A decade, even.
She sighed, closing her eyes. The trees rustled in the wind, and dry leaves fluttered like papers, crisping against one another. She switched Shade from her left hand to her right, giving her finger a reprieve.
An abrupt splash.
Her eyes flew open. She drew her dagger.
Nothing. An animal?
“Where did you come from?” a deeply accented voice demanded in Sileni, from behind the veil of falling water.
No splash. The speaker hadn’t moved. A trap? A spy? Had someone known her movements and plans even in Courdeval? How had she missed another person here?
If she threw the dagger now, she would hit him. “Show yourself,” she snarled.
A long quiet. If he tried anything, this steaming hot pool would run red.
The iridescent veil of water parted. A ghost emerged, pale as the white cliffs behind him, ethereal eyes as cold as the grave.