Axel stumbled once more in the shadows, and Skala gripped his arm, steadying him.
"Thanks," he muttered, his voice echoing outwards. Without reply, Skala slung his arm over her shoulder, apparently refusing to allow him to try and push through the current of the shadow-voyage. Axel's lips parted in the beginning of protest, but Skala cut him off.
"You're exhausted. Just let me help you."
He was too tired to argue.
"Fine," he sighed eventually, allowing her to guide him through the shadows. She was reassuringly strong as she pulled them both through, effortless and elegant as they went. Darkness washed over them both in rejuvenating waves of refreshing cold, and Axel inhaled. It was tempting to simply collapse, but Skala would have to drag him through, and although she was strong, she was tired, too. Even if she was hiding it.
She mumbled in acknowledgement, and he continued.
"Can we sit by the fire tonight?"
He listened, for a moment, to his voice, tracing the sound as it reverberated outwards, almost ghostly through the ocean of blackness.
Another murmur - this one of consent.
The two of them emerged from the shadows, and the first thing Axel noticed was the rain. It lashed down, each droplet a dagger of water penetrating the dry layers of clothing. He shuddered, pushing himself slowly away from Skala. Out of the darkness, he could stand alone.
As they walked towards the cottage, Skala kept a cautious eye on him, in case he faltered, in case he fell. She was always like that - protecting him whenever she could. Her friendship warmed him.
Skala pushed open the door, and the two of them hurried inside, safe from the knives of rainfall. Coughing weakly, Axel shrugged off his jacket, depositing it in a crumpled heap by the door. He could pick it up later. Right now, he needed fire, and he needed rest.
"Can you start the fire?" he asked Skala. She grinned.
Her fingers stretched outwards, and flames burst from her palms, dancing brightly as she flicked them towards the hearth. Collapsing into his chair, Axel watched as the remains of their last fire lit, the first flames flickering almost elegantly. Among them, he caught a glimpse of gold, and realised suddenly that he was thinking of the golden eyes. Thinking of Lux.
"Skala," he murmured. "What the hell is wrong with me?"
She glanced over to him from her own chair, apparently concerned. "Ignore that," Axel muttered. "I'm just tired."
Clearly, he should guard his words more closely. "Lux."
His friend raised an eyebrow, and the beginnings of a grin had started to creep upon her lips.
"Stop smiling." He'd meant it as a command, but it emerged sounding more like a plea.
"Lux?" Skala echoed. "In that case, I think you know exactly what's wrong with you."
He glared at her. "We're just friends."
Skala laughed, and his scowl deepened. "What's so funny?"
"You've never been good at lying, have you?" she asked.
"I'm not," Axel growled. "You've been spending too much time with the assassin."
"No," Skala replied softly. "I simply know you well enough to tell that you're lying. To both me and yourself."
"Just friends," he repeated half-heartedly. What was the point? Skala wasn't an enemy he wanted in an argument. Even if she was being stupid, because of course she was being stupid, and he definitely wasn't lying to himself.
Definitely not, he told himself again, as Lux smiled warmly at him the next morning.
"Are you feeling better?"
Axel raised a sceptical eyebrow. "Was I ever feeling bad?"
"You seemed irritable last night," Lux ventured carefully. Curiosity filled his features, and Axel couldn't help but surrender.
"I suppose," he shrugged. "But I'm better now."
A relieved smile touched the prince's lips as the door swung open. Rubin strode in, shutting the door behind them and taking a seat.
"Sorry to interrupt your, uh, little couple moment, but Krig's sent me a message," he said, apparently oblivious to the scarlet burning of Lux's cheeks, or the furious blaze within Axel's eyes.
"Shut up, assassin," he growled.
Rubin merely grinned. "Just telling the truth," he shrugged carelessly. "Skala, could you shut him up? We need to discuss this message."
Axel held his tongue, instead glaring at Rubin while he opened the envelope, sliding the parchment within across the table to Lux. Picking up the paper, Lux started to scan over the words, an expression of determination worming its way onto his face as he kept reading. When he finished reading, he set the parchment down on the table.
"Krig thinks we should attack them tomorrow," he said. Axel noticed the steely glint to his golden eyes, and rested his arms upon the table.
"Are we ready to attack tomorrow?"
"We're going to have to be. Krig said that this was a chance we couldn't afford to miss. Tomorrow, the army will be out on a training exercise, while Vipera thinks we won't have the courage to attack. She doesn't know me well enough. I'm going to trust Krig's judgement on this one. If he's right, we might be able to claim the palace."
Silence descended upon them, its fangs sinking into Axel's mind with ruthless venom.
"You could die," he said. "We all could. How do we know we can trust Krig?"
"We can trust him," Rubin interjected confidently. "I'll bet my life on it."
"How?" Axel demanded. "He's emotionless! How can you bet your life on somebody who shows so little emotion? It's impossible to tell which side he's on."
The assassin slammed his hand down upon the table. In his eyes, emerald flames of fury burned defensively. "He's one of us, amateur. I can promise you all that. I know him."
Axel grit his teeth. "We're betting the lives of every person in the Golden Flame on one fool's gamble. If he's not who you think he is, everybody will be killed, and it will be your fault."
For a moment, the two simply glared each other, an intense battle of rage and rivalry.
"We'll trust him, Axel." Lux's voice cut in gently, softly, and Axel spun around. Dead serious.
The prince drew in a deep breath. "Yes. I'm sure."