Buried deep in her hood, Nic sat across from Falken by the window of The Frozen Cello. He remained hooded as well, even as he ate the goat-meat stew and drank the mulled wine, his harsh features and wisps of his snow-white hair occasionally visible.
“Have a fondness for certain human things?”
He shrugged. “My people can be overprotective. Stew and wine might not be the mortal threats they were made out to be,” he said with a half-laugh and a grin.
Around the dim tavern, several other hooded figures sat too, their blue-tinged skin or clawed fingers peeking out from time to time while an unassuming couple of young women tended bar and served food. They must not have minded the non-human clientele, at least not as much as most everyone else in this city.
Nic moved her empty cup to the table’s edge—more tea would be nice, if the serving woman ever returned. It was a small, quaint tavern, its outer walls overgrown with ivy and some wild, untended briar hedges. The tables were sticky, and the chairs creaked more than their aging construction accounted for—worn down, ready to be replaced, but overstaying their usefulness. Even for the tavern’s scarce business, it was understaffed, and she wouldn’t have usually stayed here, but for Falken’s recommendation and the surreptitious view of Divinity Castle’s comings and goings.
It had been ages since she’d been in Magehold—although mostly she came for Il Mercato Sotterraneo, where anything could be bought and sold, from recondite items like Shade to pricey information useful for any job in Silen.
Falken tilted his head toward the window, ever so slightly, then took a sip of his mulled wine.
Outside Divinity Castle’s front gate, two brawnier men strolled out, making easy conversation. Off-duty guards.
One of them tipped his head up and grinned, calling out a greeting to two other men, uniformed in blue military overcoats with gold buttons and fringed epaulets. Divine Guard.
They stopped for a moment and talked.
“Two days a week, every week. Garden shift,” Falken murmured.
With a castle that big, only two watching out there? “Bodies in the garden?”
“Six,” he replied. “But those two guard the northeast side, which is obscured some by the pavilion.”
Easy enough. “What’s the problem?”
A quiet huff as he finished the last of his mulled wine and slid the mug to the table’s edge. It might be refilled in an hour… or two. “To begin with, there’s the wall. And the wards. Then after that, there’s crossing the ample manicured lawn to the garden. From there, it’s a third-story window that around this time of year will probably be latched. And I’m not sure where it even opens to.”
There was nothing she couldn’t climb. And the wards—she’d get around them, too, with a little planning. The latched window and the room it opened to would be the biggest risk. The Divinity had more than its fair share of enemies, even in Magehold, and there had to be someone who knew the layout of the castle.
“Il Mercato Sotterraneo,” she mumbled.
Falken’s silvery eyes glinted. “The black market?”
The young serving woman brought him a steaming-hot fresh mug of mulled wine, and when he thanked her, she blushed and took his empty mug before turning away.
Clearing her throat, Nic tapped her empty tea cup, but the woman had already departed. “Really?”
Falken shrugged, but his mouth curved in an amused grin.
“Have a fondness for human things?” she asked again, crossing her arms and raising an eyebrow.
“Me?” He leaned back and laughed quietly. “I’m more like an object of curiosity. At least not all of you use that massive human curiosity of yours to justify nefarious deeds.”
“It’s not about the size of the curiosity, but how you use it?” She held her innocent expression in place until his own cracked, and shaking his head, he looked away and grinned to himself.
Now would have been the perfect time to take a sip of tea and hide her own smile… if anyone had bothered to refill her cup. She coughed into her hand. “So, you said two days a week?”
Taking a deep breath, he sobered and nodded. “Four days from now.”
“Drink your wine,” she said good-naturedly as she rose and dug out a few coins. “We’re going to Il Mercato Sotterraneo tonight.”
Falken drank deeply as he stood, too. If they bought some useful intelligence tonight, four days might be enough time to prepare. She’d have to scout the wall at the garden, get a good lay of the land, and work with Falken on what routines they could map to help mitigate risk.
Besides, Il Mercato Sotterraneo sold a great many fine things… and she had a heavy coin purse.
The ramshackle buildings of Il Serpente lined the path to the black-stone arch leading into Il Mercato Sotterraneo’s entry alley. A glance around, and no one seemed to be watching them. Down the alley’s dark length was a door in the street, and Nic yanked it open to reveal a stone staircase. As long as no one from the Divinity recognized either of them, they’d get what they needed and get out.
“Coming?” she asked Falken, then hopped in before he could reply. Her hand on the dagger at her back, she descended the stairs into the darkness, and quiet footsteps followed before the daylight disappeared—Falken closing the alley’s door.
Her eyes slowly adjusted to the dark as she continued down the tight corridor toward the din of barter and chatting. The smell of grilled fish, sweet crema fritta, and fried rice balls coaxed her nostrils and made her mouth water. Nox’s black breath, it was hard to leave Silen in the same shape she’d arrived in. But then again, there were clothing stalls in the market, too—
Falken sidled up to her, and his warmth was close in the dark. “What are you smiling about?” he whispered.
She straightened. Here to do a job, she shouldn’t be thinking about food, but with four days to kill, she’d have to eat something, right? “This market has some really good crema fritta.”
A scoff. “We just ate.”
“We didn’t have dessert,” she mumbled. “There’s a… a separate stomach compartment for that.”
As he snickered, she pursed her lips. It wasn’t every day she came to Silen, and regardless of what some light-elf hermit thought, she’d at least get to enjoy some of the simple things before laying her life on the line for a job.
Torchlight and music filtered in from the end of the corridor, some cheery tune on a lute. A staircase wound downward from there, where a sea of stalls and tents rolled across an enormous cavern, overflowing with people browsing the underground bazaar.
“It’s an abandoned dark-elf queendom,” Falken whispered. “The Earthmovers claimed it, and although the dark-elves fought to reclaim it, the entire place became nothing more than an empty shell. So they mined it and moved on, but the humans built a city over it.”
“Earthmovers?” There weren’t any dwellings here, or plants, or light sources beyond fire. Whatever had happened to this cavern, it had to have been catastrophic.
“Giant wyrms that make the passages underground the dark-elves use.”
“Make?” She snapped her attention to him as they passed a wine stall. “They’re still around?”
He tilted his head. “They haven’t been seen—that I know of—but everything else has awakened. Why not the Earthmovers?”
She swallowed, staring at the massive tunnels leading out of the cavern, where people freely entered and exited. Did any of them know the massive Immortal beasts might return? That was the last thing they needed.
Falken leaned in. “There’s a certain rhythm that calls them, but I doubt anyone other than the oldest of dark-elf mystics knows the details.”
Call them… No one here would want that, but Immortals who wanted to be rid of humans? If any Earthmovers did come, their movement could probably level a city.
The sweet smell of crema fritta neared, and when she saw the stall, she rushed to it and bought two paper cones full of the dessert. She handed one to Falken, who eyed it before hesitantly tasting a little square.
Crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside, they were everything she’d wanted to make the trip to Silen worthwhile, other than the job.
Falken tipped the paper cone toward his mouth.
“Not snickering now, are we?” She anchored a hand on her hip.
“Dessert compartment,” he murmured between bites.
Well, now they understood each other. Satisfied, she continued strolling between the stalls, glancing about for prying eyes and the wings of the hawk, displayed and elevated—the sign of the Contarini Coven. They were crafters, the lot of them, with a talent for enchanting and forging, and a steady supply of recondite. She’d gotten Shade from the Contarini once upon a time.
Falken eyed the periphery and adjusted his brown hood. “What else do we need?”
“A rabbit,” she replied. “A really big, docile one.”
A boyish grin as he looked her over. “Don’t tell me there’s a third stomach compartment?”
“Not for eating,” she scolded. “For the wards. A decoy.” She could get through the wards easily enough with her arcanir-weave clothes, but when a guard would come to check what had crossed, they’d need to find something.
Falken frowned but didn’t reply. Maybe he didn’t know that guards typically looked to rationalize anomalies rather than believe the unlikeliest and most dangerous of options.
Past him, a banner sported the Contarini hawk, and she made her way there, pulling back her hood as she approached Tomasia Contarini, the elegant daughter of the Coven’s matriarch—and its likely heir to the position.
“Welcome, Signorina. Good to see you again,” Tomasia greeted with a placid smile and a slow wave of her slender hand.
That hand had accepted countless gems and coins from her over the years. Enough to make her face memorable.
“Signora Contarini,” Nic replied, with a respectful nod, which Falken mimicked. They made small talk for a few minutes before Tomasia showed her a few items of interest.
Recondite satchels, a ring of invisibility—far more expensive than she was willing to pay and inconvenient to use—and light-footed boots, which she already had, and… an earthsight eyepatch.
“This.” As good as her reconnaissance could be, earthsight would reduce the job’s risk considerably.
“Three hundred thousand,” Tomasia said pleasantly.
Bellani d’oro. Nic pulled a sachet from her coin purse and upended it into her palm. The diamonds hit her skin with a sparkle, and their worth was about one hundred thousand extra.
Pleasant smile in place, Tomasia narrowed her glimmering eyes.
Nic leaned in. “I need one more thing,” she whispered. When Tomasia bridged the distance, she added, “Maps of the castle.”
One darkest-brown eyebrow lifted, the even darker eyes beneath widening before Tomasia gave the slightest nod. She crooned a command to a young man working behind her, who handed her one of the smaller recondite satchels.
Nic swept the diamonds back into the sachet and held out her hand. The corner of Tomasia’s mouth rose, and she accepted Nic’s offering.
“An eyepatch?” Falken asked with a grimace as Tomasia wrapped it and bagged it, then added it to the recondite satchel.
“Trust me.” Nic accepted it and thanked Tomasia, then tied it to the front of her belt. Although pity the cutpurse who’d try to pickpocket her.
As they continued through the market, Falken eyed the last square of crema fritta in her paper cone, and she popped it into her mouth.
“You said something about a third compartment?” she asked mockingly, casting a wary look about the market’s outer edges.
Two sets of eyes turned from Falken to her.
A barked order. Two sets of Divine Guard—no, four—
Falken grabbed her arm and pulled her back.
They spun, coming face to face with another pair of Divine Guard.