Turned away from Falken in the dark, Nic dressed in the least wet of her clothes, dragging on damp trousers that resisted her legs. But at least now that the Divinity scouts had cleared the Bagni Bianchi, she and Falken would be free to camp safely near the hot springs’ warmth.
There was no telling whether his word was genuine, of course, but that pure, raw hatred had been doubtless. If he hated the Divinity that much, then he wouldn’t squander the chance to work with her and deal the Divinity a blow.
At last, she slipped her feet into soggy boots—with a shudder, then gathered her things, and followed her ears to where Falken had already begun building a camp. Even in the dark, the to-and-fro motion of his body and the crumble of soil told her he was digging a pit.
She anchored a hand on her hip. “You said your people don’t use fire.”
“They don’t. I do.”
She knelt in the dirt and helped him. “A rebel?”
“An outcast.” With a grunt, he dug with renewed vigor. “I defied the queen’s orders. They weren’t about to let me walk away with a Gaze crystal, or anything but their disapproval.”
“But you still walked away.”
A quiet scoff. “The dignity of our people is worth more than a shiny rock.”
The dignity of our people. His queen may have allowed him to walk away, but acting against the Divinity risked more than just his own life. If he were discovered, the Grand Divinus would hardly believe he was acting on his own. No, he’d be seen as an agent of Lumia, the light-elf queendom. An assassin.
And there would be reprisals.
There was no telling what the queen of Lumia was like, but would his queen and his people let him rebel and potentially bring the consequences down on them for… revenge?
He’d said he wanted to slay the monsters who’d mistreated his people, but he’d also said, Their cruelty will end by my hand.
She frowned. Will end. “You believe the Divinity is still keeping some of your people prisoner.”
He sat back, and a pensive quiet filled the stillness as a breeze chilled past. “I’ll gather some firewood.” Without another word, he rose and headed for the trees.
Nox’s black breath. His people had abandoned the rest of their fellow prisoners, had chosen life for most rather than fighting for all. It was… It was a choice she could understand, but understandable didn’t mean acceptable. Falken hadn’t accepted it, and was it for the general good of his people? Or did the Divinity have someone he cared about? Either way, he didn’t seem inclined to discuss it further.
His queen had allowed him to risk his life, and potentially consequences for them all, for just the chance of success. That showed utmost faith in his capabilities… and a guilt that had allowed the risk. Perhaps a reckless guilt.
Falken was capable. But what did he know that she could use?
She set out clothes and bedding around the fire pit, laying them out to dry, then took off her boots and arranged them as best she could. The clothes on her back, well, they’d just have to dry where they were.
As she unwrapped her waterlogged provisions, Falken returned and arranged the firewood and tinder, then struck flint against steel, shooting bright sparks. The flashes of light illuminated his face, framed by long, snow-white hair, already half dry. Sparks reflected in his silvery eyes, beneath thick brows drawn in determination, or contemplation maybe.
The fire lit, and a corner of his mouth tugged upward as he coaxed the flames to grow. When he finally sat back and warmed his palms, she offered him some of her smoked cod and damp bread. He pulled out a bag of his own provisions and revealed some very sad-looking partially boiled vegetables and leaves—the Bagni Bianchi sending its regards.
When she laughed, he set them down and laughed too, then slicked his long hair back.
“It’s better than nothing?” he offered, with a boyish smile, then they set about rinsing their combined foods.
“Maybe it’s time we put our pieces together,” Nic said, munching on a bite of fish and wilted spinach. “There’s no building I can’t enter. I can get us in. How about you?”
He finished chewing. “I’ve been watching the castle for months. I know the guards’ habits, the rotations, shift changes. I know every entrance and exit.”
If he knew that much, what did he need her for? “Have you ever gotten in?”
He shook his head, bit into a mushy tomato, and grimaced at it. There was a reason people didn’t cook with the waters of the Bagni Bianchi. “The typical entry points were well-guarded, but lately they’re unimpregnable. The Mad Coven must be preparing for some formidable threat—” He eyed her.
With a shrug, she raised her hands. “Not me. It must be the Veribian Fleet”—or at least that was what Captain Verib’s ships were called by some—“hunting down the Divinity transports at sea. Maybe the Grand Divinus is preparing for an escalation of that threat.” She turned away from the fire, hoping to dry her back a little more. Sleeping on the cold ground was bad enough—at least her clothes could be dry. “If I’ve done my job right so far, she won’t even know I’m coming.”
As the night breeze rustled through the chestnut canopy, he gave her a sidelong glance. “You’re an assassin.”
All her time with the Black Rose, she’d never really hidden who she was. She and her kind, after all, were for hire. Anyone who cared to know knew she was an assassin, and most of the time, that came with perks, especially since she chose her targets. The only time anonymity mattered to her, as an infiltrator, was on missions, and as long as word of her arrival didn’t get to the castle, she’d still have her advantage here.
She nodded her agreement.
“Good riddance.” He grinned, his perfect teeth white, sharp, predatory. “May your blade find its mark.”
So she could get into the castle, and he knew where and how. “What is it you really want in the castle?”
Falken let his gaze descend to the fire, where every trace of his grin faded. His expression hardened. “I want to get to the dungeon.”
Alive and unseen would be a challenge, but not with Shade. “Do you have an exit strategy?”
“If I’m right, my people aren’t the only Immortals imprisoned there. If they have a basilisk, a wyvern, any of the greater beasts, then that could be the diversion we’ll need to escape,” he said, balling his hands into fists on his knees. “But I need to get there first.”
Once she got to the Grand Divinus’s quarters, she could let him borrow Shade, free his people, then they could take their chances escaping. “I have the means. I will lend you what you need once we’re in. Deal?”
Those silvery eyes wandered to hers, and he laughed under his breath. “To think I’ll be working with a human to take down the Mad Coven.”
“I have a much narrower mission, but there are many out there working on just that,” she said with a sigh. Captain Verib, Favrielle Amadour Lothaire, the Covens, probably even the king. “The Divinity will soon have a war on its hands—mark my words.”
He stretched out before the fire, tucking an arm behind his head. “Best news I’ve heard all year.”
Fighting off a shiver, she curled around the fire. She needed his information, and he needed her to get them in and to get him to the dungeon unseen. Despite being strangers, there was a truce between them, at the very least.
If she succeeded, this mission would be her biggest yet. The Grand Divinus’s quarters would be the ideal destination, considering her likelihood of being there. And if the Grand Divinus had controlled Brennan Karandis Marcel herself through sangremancy, then she’d keep his blood close. In her quarters or on her person, lest it be away when she’d most need it—or discovered by some ambitious member of the Magisterium seeking to end her reign.
Nic curled tighter. If she was right, this mission would go smoothly.
It was a stroke of good luck that she and Falken had met, and hopefully that luck would hold out. Once they were in, she’d need his cool head to prevail over his passion… or be prepared to account for its failure.
And in a couple days, she’d find out precisely which would win.