Throwing her hood back on, Nic spun away from Falken in the crowd. “Meet me at the Frozen Cello,” she hissed over her shoulder. His eyes flashed for a moment, then he darted away through the stalls as she did the same.
Four of the Divine Guard took off after him, garbed in their distinctive blue military overcoats. They wouldn’t dare use battle magic among the Contarini, who wouldn’t hesitate to eliminate anyone, Divinity included, most painfully if threatened. But the Divine Guard likely wouldn’t use battle magic near civilians either… but they’d certainly pursue.
She didn’t linger to watch the other four chase after her.
Dashing between two merchant stalls, wool brushed across her skin. Clothes. Disguise.
She yanked a swath of dark-gray wool, stuffing it into her vest until it was secure, and leaped over a display of confections.
No stopping. Not until she lost them.
A quick glance back—
Across Il Mercato Sotterraneo, a stand of apples tumbled onto the ground. One of the guards tripped among them, angrily waving off his comrades and shouting expletives.
With a half-smile, she slipped behind a fireworks stall and grabbed an armful of paper-tube fireworks and bombs. Passing a food stall, she threw its merchant a good few feet before tossing the paper tubes into the cooking fire.
Bang. Bang. Bangbangbang—
Amid screams, she jumped away while a cacophony of sound continued behind her, and approached the crema frita stall. Empty. She snatched a handful of pieces to stuff into her pocket, passed, and then threw the firework bombs back at the fire.
Boom. Boomboom. Boom. The sound thundered through the cavern, flashing orange and setting the nearby stalls aglow with faint traces of golden light. Cries and screaming ensued, with crowds of people pushing toward the exits.
Icy blue light reflected off the cave walls. A shriek, and another. Green light. Violet. More shrieking. Pops of bright color.
Magic. The Divine Guard were using magic.
Bold. The Divinity had to have given up on ruling through love. Fear was a much cheaper currency.
She dove under a wig display. Time to get out of here before someone got hurt.
While the panicked crowd ran past her hiding place, she shoved a long, blond one onto her head, then exchanged her cloak for the gray one she’d swiped.
She pulled Shade from one of her many pockets. With a deep breath, she slipped it on, then darted out among the running masses.
A fire burned in the middle of the market, massive and spreading, while a few of the Divine Guard shouted to one another and people screamed.
The wave of fleeing bodies surged up a staircase and out onto the street—she couldn’t have turned back even if she’d tried.
With Shade’s power and her human looks, she blended in easily, going with the flow of the others around her until the crowd began to thin out, and then she broke away, taking the narrow, dark paths through the city. Things wouldn’t be nearly so simple for Falken, but hopefully he’d make it to the inn regardless. It seemed he’d hassled the Divinity long enough to figure out survival.
Making her way to the Frozen Cello, she stopped in dark alleys and the occasional gangway between buildings, checking for any signs of being followed. None at all.
Eight of the Divine Guard—eight—had somehow followed them into Il Mercato Sotterraneo.
No… had followed him.
Maybe he didn’t have the Divinity’s full attention, but it was damn close. And she—on a covert mission—was milling about the city with a massive target.
With a shake of her head and a grimace, she turned the corner toward the Frozen Cello. Its ivy-wrapped exterior came into view, its green leaves shivering in the wind, with no sign of Falken.
A deal was a deal. She wouldn’t break her word, but they had to come up with something to account for his infamy. Perhaps he’d have to stay behind, and she’d have to figure out a way to free his kin.
Sighing, she glanced through the overgrown windows—nary a soul inside, other than a couple dark-elves from earlier, playing some card game. She threw open the door.
The young serving woman, twirling her sable hair around an anxious finger, shot an inquisitive look past her, one Nic ignored.
No sense in sitting by the window like a cake waiting to be gobbled up by the ravenous Divine Guard. She marched up the creaky stairs to her rented room, then dug out the eyepatch she’d bought from the Contarini.
Once on, she closed her other eye.
Tiny bursts of brilliant light scurried in far corners. Glowing figures sat or lay in nearby rooms. Nothing in hers.
She removed the eyepatch. Earthsight, indeed. If she’d had this on some of her earliest missions, things would have gone a lot more smoothly, and Ben and the other Black Rose assassins would have teased her all the less for it.
Inside her room, she unburdened herself, tapping a toe as she peered out the window from time to time. He’d make it back, of course. He’d seemed clever enough to know how to use the diversions she’d created—and a stampeding crowd.
But if the Divinity caught him, he wouldn’t talk. He didn’t seem the type. No, doubtless he’d pin his hopes on her finishing the job she’d come here to do: cutting the head off the snake.
On the street below, two men in Divine Guard uniforms passed by the inn, their blue coats open, their gait even. Nox’s black breath—
Stepping away, she checked for her weapons. Three daggers, eight throwing knives, two arcanir poison darts. She took cover behind an armoire on a wall perpendicular to the door, with direct line of sight. With Shade on, the Divine Guard who walked in would have a bad day. A very bad day.
The stairs creaked. And again. And again.
One set of footsteps. One guard as a lookout below, and one scouting above?
The floorboards outside her door groaned, ever so slightly. The worn pewter knob clanked, then turned, slowly.
She readied two throwing knives. One to the throat, and one to make sure.
A quiet squeal as the door opened—
In the doorway was…
Her face hardened. Empty?
She didn’t dare move, waiting for any sign. Would putting on the eyepatch again give her away, even with Shade? Had the guard used any spells?
The door closed without a sound.
He hadn’t noticed her yet.
The rug depressed, shaped like a footprint.
She threw her first knife as Falken came into view, and she just managed to correct its aim.
“Nox help me,” she roared through her teeth, her gaze snapping from the knife buried in the wall a few inches wide of him to his surprised face. And the fresh cut in the hair just below his chin. He was lucky it wasn’t his neck. “What in the name of—”
He held up his hands, staring at her with wide silver eyes. One palm faced her, and the other held—a ring.
A ring she had just examined in Il Mercato Sotterraneo.
She marched right up to him. “You stole from the Contarini? Are you insane?”
He narrowed his eyes. “I’m fighting the Mad Coven, aren’t I?”
“The Mad Coven will be the least of your problems if the Contarini find out,” she shot back, her heart hammering in her chest. The Contarini controlled much of Silen’s witches—with a fierce reputation to defend—and were among the deadliest of Covens. “They will hunt you to the ends of the earth, and they won’t wear neat blue coats to make it easy on you!”
He leaned in, his nose a finger’s width from hers. As his even silver gaze held hers, unmoving, calm, her hammering heart slowed. And slowed. Her breath fell in sync with his, and as the room’s quiet huddled around them, a shiver snaked up her spine.
“If the Contarini want to hunt me,” he said, his voice low, “then let them. But let them do it after we rip open the heart of the Mad Coven.”
Swallowing, she nodded, leveled her breathing, then took a step back, crossing her arms. “Glad you feel that way. We got the gear—more than I planned”—she waved a hand toward his ring of invisibility—“and we got the maps. Now we have three days to get ready—”
“Perfect,” he replied with a shrug.
“—while being hunted by the Divine Guard, and perhaps the Contarini.”
Slowly, he reached toward her waist—she gulped, her mouth utterly parched—and he slipped a hand into her pocket, where he pulled out a crema fritta and popped it into his mouth. Completely nonchalant.
Overconfident bastard. She grimaced, then sighed.
Not the smooth job she’d expected, but one way or another, she’d do what she’d come here to do.