At first, the mercenaries had just looked at him like he was insane. Then they'd laughed. Then they'd told him they were leaving.
"Do you know how much pay you're getting for this? Besides, another group is turning up to help. And we have soldiers of our own, too."
The leader of the smaller, less able mercenary group - Aleron, Lux remembered his name to be - scoffed.
"You think I'd send my men into a suicide mission?"
"No. And this won't be. It will be an ambush, swift and easy. Think about it. You're getting paid more than enough, simply to descend upon some untrained soldiers who think they've already won."
"I don't want my men to die." Aleron glared at Lux, who met his gaze with eyes of burning gold.
"And they will not."
"Triple the pay," Aleron demanded. "And then we will fight for you."
Lux sighed, but extended his hand in agreement. He didn't have time to bicker pointlessly; he needed to get the mercenaries back to the headquarters swiftly. Hopefully, Skala would have found news of the time of the attack from the shadows, as loathe as she had been to leave Axel.
He needed to recover, Lux told himself. But that could never stop him from worrying.
Lux swung himself onto the back of the griffin he had borrowed from one of the other men. The mount flew nothing like Snow, but she had to recover, too.
Snow. Another part of him, saved by Axel.
He spurred the griffin into flight, and the animal launched itself into the sky, with Rubin and the other eight members of his escort following closely, swiftly forming a formation around him. The mercenaries joined them in the sky quickly enough, and they started towards the headquarters of the Golden Flame. Everything depended upon these groups cooperating, fighting, believing in their victory. And, of course, upon the gold.
Also, stolen by Axel and Skala. Would Lux never stop owing him?
The second meeting went much the same. Tiego - the second mercenary leader - was just as stubborn, and wanted more than triple. Eventually, that had been what they'd settled upon, but it hadn't been easy.
Nothing ever was, any more.
By the time night came, Skala had finally returned with news. A day. They had tomorrow to prepare, and then their enemies would strike that night, around the third hour of morning. She had heard it from Vipera's own lips, had watched the order run through each rank until the officers all knew of the plans as she hid within the shadows, concealed by darkness. Five hundred. That was how many griffin riders Vipera intended to send. Five hundred, to crush the remaining fifty Knights of the Golden Flame. To say the least, it was terrifying, but they'd hired skilled mercenaries.
Three hundred of them, against five hundred of Vipera's.
At least, Lux had told himself, the numbers were no longer one of them to ten of her soldiers. Besides, they had surprise. That, and Skala.
Lux did not intend to lose.
He pushed himself wearily from the chair, casting the papers he had been studying across his desk. Rubin fell into step behind him. Later, he would call a meeting with the tacticians. Before that, however, he needed to speak with Skala.
They found her standing guard by Axel's room, her blank expression masking the worry that clouded her eyes. Her black hair was matted and unbrushed; her face looked paler than usual.
"Rubin, could you allow us to speak for a moment?"
The assassin raised an eyebrow.
"Are you just trying to get to Axel without my knowledge?"
Lux shot him a glare, and Rubin sighed. "You're no fun," he muttered, shrugging absently and walking away.
"How's Axel?" he asked.
"Better," Skala replied, in her usual manner of briskness.
"Could... Could I ask you about your dragon form?"
Skala nodded, and Lux took a deep breath.
"Why is it that you never showed any of us before?" How would she react? He could hardly blame her, considering the nature of people.
"At first, it was just so that people wouldn't question me as much. I would have turned, if it had been serious enough. When Axel... When Axel was taken," she said slowly, struggling over her words. "I would have changed, if I'd been conscious. I swear it on my life."
Lux shook his head. "There's need to swear it. I believe you, Skala."
"I would have told you sooner," she said. "It just... Never came up."
Waving his hand in dismissal, Lux smiled wearily. "It's not something that's easy to say, Skala. You don't have to worry."
She nodded gratefully, and Lux pushed on with his last question. "How many people can know about this?"
"All of them," she decided instantly. "All of them, if you think it will help. I wouldn't have cared about things like this, once. But you've dragged us in. Both of us. Thank you, for giving us a reason to fight."
For a moment, Lux couldn't reply. "I-I should be apologising to you both. I've dragged you into this."
"We did that ourselves."
He laughed. It was good to be laughing, finally, and he bathed in the bliss of the sweet, melodic sound. "Rather than fighting over whose fault it is, let's just blame Vipera, shall we?"
A faint smile touched her lips, but Lux forced himself to ask her about the last topic.
"Axel's asleep now, isn't he?"
"Then don't tell him we're about to fight. He's still too weak to battle beside us, and he's going to get hurt if we let him join us. This is completely your choice, Skala, but..." Lux paused, struggling to compose his words. "Before we leave for the ambush, I believe that we should drug him, and that you should carry him somewhere safe. I just... I don't want him to get hurt."
"Very well," Skala agreed. "Send somebody to his door with the drug, and I'll slip it into a drink."
"Thanks," Lux smiled. She shrugged.
"He's my friend, too. I'll protect him to the best of my power."
"I'm glad. Thank you for your time, Skala."
As he returned to Rubin, Lux couldn't help but realise that had probably been the longest conversation Skala had shared in a while. Usually, she would try to be as blunt as possible, sharing so little words it was almost impossible to get more than a sentence from her. And yet, when they'd talked, she'd said all of that seemingly willingly. Did that mean that Skala accepted him as a trusted friend? He'd only seen her talk that much to Axel, and the realisation sent a wave of pride through him.
"Have you guys kissed, yet?" Rubin asked curiously.
Lux spun around, his cheeks burning. Why did Rubin have to press him like this? "Shut up!" he demanded. "Could you please just leave this whole thing alone? We're not-" He faltered. "We're just friends." He tried to change the subject. "We have an ambush coming up, and I need to meet with the tacticians."
Rubin snorted. "To my knowledge, friends don't gaze lovingly into one another's eyes, holding each other close, and-"
"Right," he grinned. "Tactician meeting, then?"