"He's predictable. I forced him into not using magic just by saying he relied on it too much, and that he's an amateur if he uses it constantly."
Rubin, out of respect and fear for his superior, had donned his crimson mask. He felt almost vulnerable without it, as though she would use his identity against him somehow. Of course, that hadn't stopped him showing his face to the other two, but that had been different. He'd needed their trust, not their fear.
"Oh?" His superior glanced at him, then returned to her paperwork as though he was nothing but an insignificant scrap of discarded parchment.
"I'm telling you, we can use him! So, can I bring him here now? C'mon, we've done five assassinations and three thefts already. Please? I think he's going to kill me, soon," Rubin begged, attempting to win the woman's favour over.
"He is? Good. We'll recruit him after he kills you, then," the woman said coldly. For a moment, Rubin wondered if she was being sarcastic or not, but stopped trying to work it out after she stood up. Her serpentine glare was now focused solely on him.
That was not, usually, a good thing.
"Very well," she said. "You may bring him here, but if he or his comrade even seem like they're going to disobey us, we shall kill you all. Am I clear?"
"Crystal!" Rubin grinned.
"Good. Now, scuttle away, will you? I'm trying to do something."
Axel wove his way through the trading stalls, with Skala following him.
"That kid's coming here more, now."
"Have you seen his eyes?"
"Rumour has it, he's taking on the highest class assassinations."
Their words reverberated through his mind, but Axel hardly cared. They didn't know him as Skala did; they had no right to judge him. Besides, they were only humans. They didn't matter.
Judging from his irritating voice, Rubin was more excited than usual. Making their way from the maze of trading stalls, Skala and Axel arrived beside Rubin. His chestnut brown hair caught the light of the brazier's flame, and the rubies that adorned his mask appeared to be glowing.
"What is it today?" Axel sighed. By now, he'd grown slightly more accustomed to Rubin's overbearing personality. Not, of course, that he didn't still want to stab him. The moment they turned against he and Skala, he would have no problem in killing Rubin.
"You're coming to the base today!" he laughed back. "I finally managed to get you in!"
"Does that mean you'll no longer have to come with us?" Axel asked hopefully.
"No idea. It's a shame if I don't get to help you out, amateur. You might get lost or something without me."
Lost? How could he get lost with shadow-voyage?
"Watch your tongue, assassin, else you might end up losing it."
Rubin merely laughed, beckoning for them to follow him.
"Is that a threat, amateur? C'mon, or we'll be late."
It would be so easy to knife him here and now. So, so easy, but Axel wouldn't give in to Rubin's mockery - not yet. He refused to kill him now.
They followed him irritably back through the stalls. Every so often, he would pluck a treasure from one of the tables, but nobody seemed to notice the assassin's swift hand. Axel was tempted to tell one of the traders, if only to irritate Rubin, but he hated them just as much. Besides, he had to admit that the base sounded interesting - even if it was filled with humans.
They left the Shade through the small tunnel that connected the outside of the mountain to the cavern within.
"You'll love the base," Rubin told them. "It's pretty dark, so you should like it, right?"
"Who says I like the dark?" Axel challenged.
"You always stand in the shade rather than the light. Not literally the Shade, I mean, but-"
"I know what you mean," Axel hissed back. Since when had Rubin been observant? He was too foolish to be observant.
"Great! Well, anyway, it's dark and stuff, although you'll have to meet with my boss before you look around, just in case. I'm not really sure why. I guess she just wants to examine you or something. After that, I get to give you the grand tour of the place."
Why did it have to be Rubin giving the tour? Why not some other, more timid human? Rubin would end up missing everything important, merely for his own stupidity. It was already bad enough that they'd have to follow him rather than being allowed simply to know the location and use shadow-voyage to travel there, but for him to be guiding them as well...
They finally left the tunnel, and for a moment, the sunlight burnt at Axel's eyes.
"You ready? I brought another griffin along with me this time, but it's only big enough for one of you. One of you can ride alone, and the other will have to ride with me. Got it?" Rubin said, removing his mask. His dancing eyes seemed mocking, as though they were daring Axel to refuse.
"Very well," Axel replied. "Skala, you may ride alone."
She shot him a look of surprise. Why? her expression seemed to be asking. Later, he mouthed to her, before turning back to look at the amusement written over Rubin's face.
He wouldn't force Skala to fly with him - that would be little but cruel, and taking advantage over her silence. Axel was nothing if not loyal to Skala.
"Are we leaving, or not?" he snarled irritably to Rubin.
"Sure," the assassin grinned, swinging himself into the griffin's saddle and slipping his mask into one of the saddlebags. With one final, worried glance at Axel, Skala mounted her own griffin, soothing the creature with a gentle hand on its shoulder.
"Coming, amateur?" Rubin smirked. Scowling, Axel swung himself up behind Rubin, feeling the griffin shift beneath them with the additional weight. Rubin patted the creature's neck.
"Ready?" he asked Axel, glancing over his shoulder. Axel squirmed in the dual seated saddle - which, luckily, Rubin had apparently exchanged with his usual single seated one. Finally, he made himself as comfortable as possible, holding on to the back of the saddle.
"You might fall off like that," Rubin said, and his voice seemed almost more gentle than usual. "Grip the sides."
Glaring at him, Axel did as he said. "Or," Rubin smirked, "You could hold onto me."
"You wish, assassin," he spat in return, and Rubin simply laughed. "Are you trying to humiliate me?"
"Perhaps," the assassin replied teasingly. "Ready now?"
"Yes," Axel hissed.
"Great! In that case, let's go!"
With a flick of the reins, Rubin willed the griffin upwards, and the creature screeched out, launching itself into the sky with a powerful kick upwards and a beat of its wings.
And in the next moment, they were flying.
"We've got about five minutes left," Rubin announced, shouting over his shoulder. The wind almost snatched away his words, but Axel managed to catch them.
"Good." Being so close to Rubin was uncomfortable, even if they were flying and Rubin had opted not to speak due to the wind. He would have much preferred to fly with Skala. Had Rubin done this just to humiliate him? Just to force him to fly like this?
There was a movement from Rubin, and then the griffin was slowing down slightly.
"What are you doing?" Axel hissed, leaning forwards so that Rubin could hear him.
"No point rushing it," Rubin shrugged in reply. As he spoke, Axel realised that he could hear his voice more easily, now that the wind didn't have such a power to snatch away his words.
Which was definitely not a good thing.
"Yes, there is. I hate this!" Axel growled back. He glanced over his shoulder, and shot Skala a look of confusion, trying to tell her he had no idea why they'd slowed down. She gave him a sharp nod in return.
"Really?" Rubin laughed. "Well, tough luck. You're stuck with me until you land, so get over it. Now, let me ask you something. If there was a war, which side would you join?"
"This is a test, isn't it?"
"Maybe," Rubin grinned, looking over his shoulder. "So, what's your answer?"
Axel didn't have to think. "Whichever side I believed was the right one."
Rubin snorted incredulously. "You're a heartless killer. No side is simply the right one to you. It's either the side that gets you the most money and expensive stuff, or the side that entertains you the most."
Why did these humans think like that? It was shallow. "I'm not completely heartless, assassin."
"Just keep telling yourself that, amateur," Rubin said cheerfully. If he hadn't been gripping on to the saddle, Axel would have been clenching his fists.
"But let's just say that you were stupid enough to actually choose the side you thought was right, but you believed in both of them equally, then would you go for the one that gave you the most money or the side that entertained you the most?"
"This is a stupid test," Axel grumbled. "But I would decide on the one that would entertain me more."
"So the losing side?"
Rubin twisted himself around in the saddle.
"Interesting," he mused. "You're pretty weird, amateur. Oh, and also, do me a favour and don't tell anybody what I look like, will you?"
"Why should I do you a favour?" Axel asked, raising a sceptical eyebrow. Rubin laughed.
"Because I trusted you with my face. Not many get to see its beauty, you know."
"Firstly, you're not beautiful, and-"
"I know, I know," Rubin cut in, his eyes dancing. "I'm drop dead gorgeous."
Axel's scowl darkened. "You're hideous," he corrected him. "And also, why trust a stranger with your face if you want to keep it a secret? Why's your mask even off now?"
"You think I'm stunning really, amateur. You just think that saying so would make you look bad. Don't worry, I won't tell." He was mocking him again - like he was no more than a child to be teased.
"Answer my questions," Axel demanded. "Or I will kill you."
"You'd never be able to kill me, but fine. It's not on now because I like feeling the air against my face, and I showed you what I looked like because you looked pretty much like the perfect recruit and revealing my face made me look more trusting."
"Then you're even more of an idiot than I thought," Axel growled. "I do not do something because I think somebody is trusting. I would have agreed more readily if you'd kept it on."
Rubin raised an eyebrow. "Really?" He considered this for a moment, before grinning again, shrugging.
"Fair enough," he said. And then, turning back around in the saddle, "We're here!"