Keeping her breaths even, Nic didn’t move. Next to the light-elf stranger Falken, she stood hidden behind the waterfall, securing her possessions with a stable foot underwater.
Voices spread around the base of the Bagni Bianchi, the glow of torchlight cast against the gold and brown autumn leaves and chestnut trunks at sunset. The voices were Sileni, unaccented, human.
“Check the hot springs!” one called, and another—nearer—voice shouted back an acknowledgment.
Falken had claimed they weren’t his people. And no one in Amiata would have noticed her arrival, not while she wore Shade’s protection. That left the Divinity of Magic who might discover she had come, and guess at her whereabouts.
Unless these humans were looking for Falken.
Either way, she couldn’t allow them to find him, or her, because it would mean at least one death, if not more. Any aberration from normal activities would be cause for suspicion. And suspicion made infiltrations riskier.
Just pass us by.
The rasp of fingers in handholds and boots against rock steadily climbed the limestone. A pause. More rasping. Another pause. Some heavy breaths, a man’s by the sound of them, and then continued climbing.
The seeker was checking every level, and after one more, he’d be checking this one.
With any luck, he’d just take a look and leave. At first glance, there would be nothing to give her away, or Falken. And she didn’t blend in as well against the snow-white rock, but she had Shade—no way anyone would notice her.
But if the seeker moved to check behind the waterfall and spotted Falken—
Another pause at the level below. Soft footsteps as the seeker walked around the pool’s rim. The rustle of clothing and the creak of leather folding. He had to be crouching.
He wouldn’t just pass them by.
Booted footsteps and the forceful exhalation of hoisting up a level, and then fabric whisped against stone. Leather scraped—good boots dragged across harsh texture.
A pause, then a footstep.
Falken didn’t have the benefit of Shade. But she did.
Amid the gentle splashing of the waterfall, she angled herself toward the seeker’s path. Placed herself between it and Falken. Very slowly, she moved her arm underwater and pressed Shade’s smooth recondite against Falken’s skin.
Step by step, the seeker moved closer, then the rustle of fabric. The creak of leather folding. A crouch.
A man with shoulder-length black hair and three-bar-chevroned master-mage robes looked directly at her.
Or in her direction, more like.
Her fingers stroked the handle of her dagger, but the man didn’t meet her eyes. Her heart thudded in her chest as he rubbed his chin.
He sighed. Then he rose. And turned away.
“No sign of him!” the seeker called back down. “The bastard must’ve gone to Amiata to lick his wounds!”
Falken stiffened behind her but said nothing while the seeker hopped down to the next level and the next, then climbed down the Bagni Bianchi’s limestone.
Nic raised her head, just enough to glimpse the disappearing golden glow of the torchlight, leaving the amber dimness of the early evening. The volume of the seekers’ voices faded with distance.
The bastard, or so they’d said. They’d come here, and not coincidentally. They’d been searching for Falken.
If they thought he’d gone to Amiata to lick his wounds, then they must have come to blows recently.
The torchlight and the voices were long gone, leaving only the darkening day and the soft babble of water, but Falken still hadn’t moved.
She poked her head up from the water’s surface, rising until her shoulders were out, and twisted to face him. “Why are they looking for you?” she whispered.
With an exasperated sigh, he surfaced. “Because I didn’t kill them?”
“Obviously.” She crossed her arms. “Now the straight answer.”
He loomed over her, as most people did given her short height, but he pulled in close, claiming nearly the whole of the space beneath the falls. Any closer, and he’d recall she was the one with the dagger beneath the water’s surface.
“I want those humans to pay for what they did,” he seethed through a clenched jaw, his voice pulled taut like a rope bearing too much weight. “They collected my people like trinkets, then treated them worse than dirt. They’re monsters, and I won’t rest until they’re slain.”
The mages, or all humans?
She was suddenly very aware of just how hard his shoulders were, the carved musculature of that deceptively lean body—no average person’s, but a fighter’s. “They?” she asked, then cleared her throat.
“Whispers call them the Mad Coven, but you humans call them the Divinity of Magic,” he bit out. “Their cruelty will end by my hand, or I will fight for it until my last breath.”
Keeping her face neutral, she nodded. He’d spent more time than she had fighting the Divinity—that much was certain. But his approach was all passion, not someone she could truly join forces with. Passion was unpredictable. Passion was risky. No, preparation was the proper tool. Always.
However… He had information she could use. An informant, and she’d only just arrived.
“Then you don’t consider every human your enemy?” She looked up, trying to discern the slant of his eyebrows and the truth of his eyes, but the darkness fell like a heavier and heavier cloak.
“No.” A deep breath. “You… You placed yourself between me and the witch. Why?”
She reached into the water for her things, then set them dripping upon the limestone. “You and I share a common enemy.”
It was more that she hadn’t wanted to be revealed in any way, nor upset the normal operations of the Divinity lest that draw suspicion. But the answer was good enough.
“The Mad Coven?”
“I need information about entry to and exit from the castle,” she said, removing things from her pack and singling them out to dry. “Anything I learn, I will share, and you can do with that whatever you wish once my mission is done.”
He dug his belongings from the water too and laid them out opposite hers. “And your mission is?”
“Mine.” She grinned at him, but the darkness, to be sure, ruined the effect.
An amused huff. “Secrecy. The perfect beginning to a partnership.”
She stepped up to him. “I won’t ask you for more than you can give, Falken. And I expect the same. We can help each other.”
“And we both know that unless we have an agreement, one of us isn’t leaving here. You can’t take the chance, and neither can I.” There was no telling how the information they had about each other could be used, but he seemed smart enough and determined enough not to risk it. And neither would she.
“So it’s come to this. Join… or die.” He rubbed his brow, then slicked back his damp hair with a sigh. “You seem like a decent person, especially since you’re an enemy of the Mad Coven.”
He held out an arm, and she stared at it.
“This is how your people do things, isn’t it?” he asked, his voice lowering.
She inhaled sharply, then clasped his arm. “It is.”
Together, they’d get her into the castle and hopefully acquire useful intelligence for him. A mutually beneficial arrangement—far better than someone’s blood reddening the Bagni Bianchi.
The splash of the waterfall seemed to grow louder as he held her forearm clasped, and a breeze blew by, coaxing a ripple of crisping from the autumn leaves.
Someone would have to leave this hot spring first.
With a nod, he drew his hand away, then turned toward the rim. His palms braced on the stone, he emerged from the water. In all of his… natural glory.