Nic didn’t move. Didn’t twitch.
The Bagni Bianchi were often abandoned, as far as this place was from Amiata, and everywhere else. And it had seemed so today, its big, hot pools empty. But somehow she’d missed another presence. It was unlike her, and sloppy.
And presence was the right word. Stark white, like bones or some phantom, with long, pale hair hanging down his body in wet tendrils. His face was the quietly observant expression of a winter wolf peering from among the trees, uncertain of some strange thing that had wandered into his domain.
Friend or enemy?
Those ethereal eyes… A clear silver, but bright. She shivered, although she hadn’t meant to move.
He slowly raised his hands palm up and—while she watched him for the faintest sign of aggression—stepped cautiously under the waterfall.
The cascading water streamed down his head and upper body, washing away the white powder the Bagni Bianchi always left on skin. It revealed a warmer, sun-kissed shade in trails and rivulets, a willowy body, but strong. Like a slender pillar of stone with the excess chiseled away.
A living person, then, and not some ghost, Nox be praised. At least living people, if they acted stupidly, could be handled.
His long hair remained pale, but the water’s weight allowed pointed ears to peek through.
One of the light-elves? “I didn’t notice you here.”
To be sure, he would have blended in perfectly among the snow-like limestone, especially tucked behind the waterfall as he had been.
“And I didn’t notice you arrive,” he replied carefully, again in that deeply accented Sileni. He cast a wary eye over her, and she crossed her arms over her chest under the water. With a raise of thick eyebrows, he averted his gaze, if only a little.
Magic affected some Immortals, which meant Shade did—or had affected him, at least. That had to be why he hadn’t noticed her, anyway.
“Are you a witch?” he bit out, casting that wary eye over her again, only this time, his gaze was intense. Evaluative.
Witch. Not a favored term for mages. He was from a different time, sure, but if he spoke modern Sileni, then he knew enough not to call a mage a witch.
Would her answer make her an enemy or a friend? Did his people hate mages? Or humans in general?
And where were his people? Few elves strayed far from their settlements but to scout or trade. Maybe he worked with humans? Maybe even with the Divinity?
Is that why he asked if I’m a witch?
The Divinity of Magic was certainly looking for heretics of any kind, under any name. Hoping to kill them all. And who better to do their dirty work than someone who looked like he’d have nothing to do with the Divinity?
She cleared her throat. “You’re here by yourself?”
He didn’t move and didn’t answer.
Then again… if he said he was alone, he might suspect she’d kill him. But if he said his people were nearby, she might seem threatened.
An inward sigh. No winning answer to this either.
Here they were, standing in a hot spring and staring at each other, both with questions they couldn’t answer. She could have laughed. But she kept her dagger close-by.
“You don’t look like a Sileni.”
This time she let her laugh free. “Neither do you.” A safer topic of conversation, at least.
He flashed a boyish grin before looking away again. “Perceptive.”
“Despite first impressions.”
A lull settled between them once more.
One of them would have to leave first, and whichever of them did would be vulnerable. There was the awkward honor of emerging from the water in all of one’s… natural glory, of course. Then there would be hands full of clothes while dressing, always convenient when being attacked, to be sure. And then, the dubious joy of looking over one’s shoulder on the way to finding a campsite.
And after that, it would only get better—there was the unquestionable fun of sleeping with one eye open.
No, he could have the honor of getting out first. It wasn’t as if waiting him out in the soothing heat of the hot spring would be such a trial anyway.
Very slowly, he crossed to the far end of the pool, as distant from her as possible without passing the waterfall’s curtain, and settled in. “What are you doing here?” he asked, more conversationally. Trying to put her at ease?
“Same as you, I suspect.” She moved too, resting her back against a tall section of smooth stone. It was enough to provide cover, but with full view of the waterfall’s ledge and the nearby chestnut-tree canopies. Their boughs silhouetted against the fading afternoon sunlight, they swayed like dancers.
A beautiful view, but more importantly, it would give her line of sight on any reinforcements, in case his people were nearby.
His face expressionless, he spread his arms over the stone rim he leaned against. “I am alone.”
She huffed a half-laugh. “Not afraid I’ll kill you?”
Those ethereal eyes sparkled a little, a youthful glimmer. “All in all, it wouldn’t be the worst way to die.” He cleared his throat. “For you.”
Oh, he seemed very confident of that. But if he wasn’t familiar with the Black Rose, she wasn’t about to fill him in. “Do you live nearby?”
A shrug. “Everywhere and nowhere.”
A drifter? “Where I’m from, the neighboring light-elf city is a sight to behold. Truly beautiful.”
“Hard to leave, you mean?” He scoffed. “And where you’re from, did the humans lock us up, torture us, experiment on us? Use us for entertainment and study, in ways even animals aren’t treated?”
A pale fire blazed in his eyes, gleaming muscle rigid in stark relief on his shoulders, neck, and chest.
In an instant, her grip closed around her dagger again.
Hatred. Pure, raw hatred. She’d seen it before. She’d lived it. And in the span of a breath, it could kill.
But that pale fire faded, diminished, and so did he, heaving restless breaths that evened out as he settled back into the calm waters, gliding a finger over the surface. “My people want to… forget any of us were ever abducted or abused. They want to rebuild, live quiet lives.” His eyebrows creased together, and his hand broke the water’s surface. “I don’t.”
Which begged the question… what did he want? To take revenge on the abusers? Or on all humans? Or—
A spark shone amid the trees, distant and small. His pointed ears twitched, and he looked in its direction.
So his people had come—
“Are they with you?” he hissed.
“They’re with you,” she snarled back quietly, slipping her dagger from its sheath.
He lowered deeper into the water and shook his head. “My people don’t use fire,” he whispered.
Faint voices filtered in. She grabbed her nearby gear and waded behind the veil of the waterfall, and so did he.
Damn it all, the last thing she wanted was soggy clothes and supplies, but there was no choice. If the strangers ventured near, she could submerge, but that wouldn’t help if her gear was found.
She pushed it into the water, below her feet, and he did the same with his own small stash of possessions. What powder she could gather, she rubbed into her hair and skin as he did, too. If she stayed hidden, with none of her things in view, Shade would conceal her even from geomancers—
“I’m Falken,” he said, barely audible, then submerged to just under his nose.
Shade securely on her finger, she descended into the spring’s hot depths as the voices yelled louder. Closer.