When he arrived in the meeting room, Tiego was yelling at Aleron, and Lux was sitting, completely separate to the fight, conversing with Rubin. He forced himself to focus on the mercenaries.
"Carsten's revealed the location of Vipera's headquarters, where she increases the magic of the mages and creates everything else," Lux said, the moment they entered.
"Really?" Axel's attention turned instantly to the prince, and for a moment, their eyes met. Axel looked away before he could find the hatred.
"Yes. He told us everything we need to know. You might want to sit down."
Axel and Skala took a seat, and Lux continued to speak.
"Carsten told us that Vipera has her own headquarters located within a mountain range somewhere about an hour's flight to the palace. It's where she keeps her equipment for turning objects - such as the chains - against other mages. It's also where she transforms ordinary mages into ones of far greater power. We told Carsten to describe the process, but I won't go into detail. The important thing is: we know where Vipera is, and we can attack soon. We were just about to discuss tactics."
Axel raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Then what's the assassin doing here?"
Rubin snorted indignantly. "Jealous of my superior intelligence, amateur?"
"That's never going to happen, assassin."
Lux cut through the argument with a singular motion, slamming his fist down upon the table. "Shut up and listen!" he sighed.
Axel fell silent.
"I've come up with one possible option. From what Carsten says, Vipera's headquarters are extremely valuable to the royal army. If they believe that we're attacking that, they should abandon the city. We could use it as bait, to draw Vipera's army away from the city. Our fastest griffins will be there to raise the alarm of attack, and they can flee when the message has been sent. When the royal army leaves, we can go in with the majority and take the city."
Aleron and Rubin were the first to agree; Axel wasn't quite so sure.
"Would that not mean that those attacking Vipera's headquarters would be in extreme danger? You saw the phoenix that took down Snow. She probably experimented with that, too. If we send anybody in, they'll have to be strong enough to take the entire place down. She's probably created something fast enough to catch up with our quickest riders."
Slowly, Lux nodded.
"I suppose so. Are you suggesting that we make Vipera's headquarters our primary goal?"
"No," Axel replied. "I'm suggesting you send in me and Skala."
For a moment, there was silence. Aleron was the first to break it, with a deep, hearty laugh. "Two of you?"
"I wouldn't underestimate us," Axel growled. "I could cut your throat open before you got the chance to speak."
"Yeah, right," Aleron scoffed. There was a challenging glint within his eyes, Axel realised. He stood, rising to accept it.
"I wouldn't pick fights with either of them," Lux advised. "Please, let us return to the topic."
Aleron sniggered one last time before returning to his seat. Stupid, arrogant humans. They were all so repulsing.
"If we were to take down Vipera's base, we could use shadow-voyage to return to the attack on the city," Axel pointed out.
"And if that's the case, I'm going to come," Lux put in. "I've been through the shadows before; I can do it again."
Axel snorted, and finally met his gaze. There was defiance within Lux's eyes, like he had to force himself to repel him.
"Last time, you were-"
"That was before. I went through again."
Just as he opened his lips to speak, Skala set a hand on his shoulder. "He did it when we went back for you," she muttered, her voice barely audible, too quiet for Aleron or Tiego to hear. Axel realised suddenly that his eyes were widening, and narrowed them again.
"It's still too dangerous."
"He can go," Skala said, disregarding him completely. His hands balled into fists. What didn't they understand? Lux didn't belong in the shadows; the light was his domain.
"Thank you, Skala," Lux nodded, shooting a momentary smug glance at Axel before looking back to the rest of them. "So, is that clear?"
"One thing," Tiego put in. "I think we should make them think that the attack on the city is the decoy first. Send in a few people. Get them to attack, run, repeat. They'll then send some of Vipera's mages down from her headquarters, which is when you will strike. Ensure a messenger, or messenger bird, is given time to flee the headquarters when you attack, and soon, it will reach the city. Then, the royal army, believing that the real attack target is the headquarters, will go there. I don't think they'll suspect we'd be tricking them by using decoys twice."
"Good," Lux nodded, his fingers tapping at the table. Another, subtler sign of his nervousness. "Then we'll attack in a week. Ensure every person under your command has been notified, though tell nobody the entire plan. Tell them simply that we will be going into battle in a week, and that they'd better be ready. Understood?"
Together, the mercenary brothers repeated the word, bowing before leaving.
"Thank you for your input," Lux said stiffly to he and Skala. Why? Why did he have to speak so formally to them? Why could he not simply return to his usual self - laughing, smiling, friendly?
Not formality, or briskness. It suited the prince with the cold façade, but it wasn't Lux.
Without answering, he left the room.
"How well did he cope with the shadow-voyage last time?" Axel asked. He still couldn't believe that Lux had been so foolish as to attempt that again. Even a few steps had reduced him to wailing, pleading, begging, tears.
To go from the Golden Flame's castle to the royal city...
"He was better, Axel, and he did it for you."
"He did it because we were friends."
"Are friends," Skala corrected him. "You're just having a fight, which you're going to sort out before we attack the royal family."
He groaned, trying to ignore her. "Clearly, you've been spending too much time with Rubin. You're starting to be annoying, Skala."
She sighed. "If that's what it takes."
"Can we just go home? Everybody here expects something of me. I want to be back in the cottage, just for one night."
"Of course," Skala nodded. "Maybe there, you'll calm down enough to realise your own stupidity."
He sat by the fire, soaking in the warmth of the dying rays of sunlight. It felt like more than a few weeks since he'd been back here, even more time since he'd been relaxing. The last, he'd woken up to realise he'd been drugged and left with nothing but a note.
It was soothingly pleasant to simply sit, fingers digging into the solid ground beneath them as he turned his head to the dancing flames before him. Fire had always captivated him. Perhaps that was one of the reasons he was drawn to Lux's eyes. It was not simply the gold, but the emotion with which they blazed.
So different to his own: cold, uncaring, masking everything he felt but the anger and hatred.
He exhaled, and his breath emerged as a cloud of steam, dissipating into the darkening air of the evening.
The sky was clear as the sun's few remaining glimmers of light submerged slowly into the horizon. Axel could make out a few of the stars, as well as the splash of orange the sun cast onto the edge of the sky.
Lying back, he gazed upwards, and the grass cushioned his head. The gentle trickle of the stream filled his ears as he closed his eyes, the warmth of the fire equal to the warmth of any blanket.
Finally, he subdued to sleep.