"You know Vipera's out for your blood, amateur?"
Did the idiot really have to spend the larger part of his time irritating Axel?
"Is she?" Axel hissed back. "Good. Perhaps I'll show her that humans are weaker than monsters."
"When you do, call me. She's annoying."
"No, assassin," Axel corrected him. "That would be you."
Rubin was probably grinning behind the mask. "I'm glad you recognise one of my finest talents. But seriously, how does such an amateur gain the full support of a prince? He hardly sticks up for anybody, but he was defending you and Shadow when Vipera was having one of her meltdowns."
"Oh? I'm still amused, assassin, by how pathetic you seem in the presence of a boy." Axel gave him a sidelong glance as the assassin laughed.
"Would I treat the person who ultimately decides on my pay with anything less than pure respect? If I'm rude, he'll cut my pay. Not that Vipera hasn't already done that, but still..." Rubin trailed off, starting to talk once more about money. Axel rolled his eyes, walking into the mess hall. Lux had already explained that he couldn't eat with them, but the rumours were already spreading that a friendship had sparked between the two of them.
Pushing past the queue of criminals, Axel picked up a plate, scooping up ladles of the soup into a bowl. The place had its upsides - and the soup was one of them.
He sat at one of the more isolated tables, joined by both Skala and Rubin. The assassin never ate with the other men; to do so would be to remove his mask, and he would not do that.
"Why do you wear that mask?" Axel asked.
"Do I need a reason to?"
"No," Axel replied smoothly. "But usually, one would have a good reason to completely hide his face from everybody around him."
Leaning back, Rubin shrugged.
"You're an idiot," Axel informed him, eating another spoonful of soup. The taste of it filled his mouth. "Your face isn't even scarred."
"No, but it's absolutely beautiful. If I didn't have the mask, then everybody would be tearing each other down just to kiss me. You must be incredibly strong not to rip off my mask and kiss me yourself. You've gazed upon the glory that is my face, have you not?" Rubin jested. Axel snarled.
"You're a fool to even think that," he snarled.
"Or is the prince your new obsession? You certainly seem to be his, amateur. Perhaps he should wear a mask, and you wouldn't feel the need to kiss him so much."
Axel stood, throwing back his chair and leaning across the table, grasping Rubin's shirt by the collar.
"Take that back, assassin." His blood was burning with fury. How dare Rubin even propose such an idea?
"You're so easy to provoke, amateur," Rubin laughed, ripping himself free and sitting back at the table. Axel could feel the eyes of the other criminals burning into him, but he didn't care. Such insolent humans were too curious for their own good. And Rubin...
"I'll kill you one day, assassin," he promised menacingly, sitting back down and picking up the bowl again. Finishing the last of it, Axel glanced to Skala, who quickly gulped down the last spoonful of her own food, before standing and following Axel from the room.
Rubin's mocking laughter followed them.
The woman said his name with such irritation that he almost flinched beneath her emerald gaze.
"I am sure you've heard all about our plan."
"Then you will know that they are going to turn against us." Again, Krig nodded. "There is, of course, a slight chance of failure. If we do not manage to kill them, then you must be there, to convince them to join the side of the royals the moment they escape the ambush. Understood?"
"Understood," Krig confirmed, nodding slightly. "I will not fail."
"Excellent," the woman replied. Her dark hair caught the light of the candle at her desk; her emerald eyes gleamed like those of the snake she had been named for. "And do not forget that you must turn them against the prince."
Again, Krig nodded his head. "Of course. You have my word."
"Very well," the woman said. "Dismissed."
Krig bowed his head, turning to leave. For a moment, he thought he could hear something scuttling from behind the door, but decided that he must have been imagining it. Nobody could have been listening - nobody in their right state of mind would be lurking aimlessly outside the woman's door at this time of night. His had been the only meeting around this time.
For spies, it was always better to do everything in secrecy.
Lux ran down the stairs, clearing three with each bound. Panic rose in his throat as he descended, and Vipera's words rang through his mind. Vipera couldn't have been talking about Axel and Skala - could she? Besides, 'the prince'? What secrets was she keeping from him? And how could he get to Axel and Skala? He had to warn them!
But how? He couldn't reach them; they never stayed here, merely wandered sometimes, and accepted the occasional meal between quests. And yes, they were strong, but Vipera had strong warriors and assassins, too. They could at least injure Axel and Skala, especially if they did so by surprise.
Lux stopped running, realising he'd taken himself to Rubin's quarters. Could he trust the assassin? He seemed to care only for money, but he was the only person Lux could possibly go to.
Nervously, he rapped his fist against the door.
After a few long seconds, there was a murmured response, the words too muffled to read. Lux bit his lip before knocking again.
"I'm trying to sleep!" the assassin's voice made it through the door, this time.
"Rubin? Can I speak to you? Please?" Lux called back. Instantly, the door was swung open. Rubin stood in the doorway, eyes half-closed with remnants of sleep, dark brown hair tousled and messy. His skin was bronze in the light of the torches on the wall.
"I apologise, my Prince," Rubin swallowed. Lux shook his head.
"No, you shouldn't apologise. I need to ask you something." He paused. "Are you meeting A- Silver and Shadow tomorrow?" He cursed his loose tongue, desperately praying that Rubin hadn't picked up on the slip of his speech.
"Indeed. Do you wish to speak with them, my prince?" Lux considered it quickly. On one hand, it would be better the more swiftly he could talk to them. On the other, it might look suspicious if Lux were to appear simply to speak with them.
"Please escort them to my chambers at the first opportunity," Lux beseeched him. "A pouch of silver coins if you keep this meeting a secret."
"Very well, my Prince," Rubin nodded, though he'd perked up at the mention of coins. "I shall escort them to you the moment they arrive."
Lux bowed his head, thanking Rubin quickly and turning away. He heard the door close softly behind him, as he padded down the corridor, heading towards his own quarters. Usually, he should have been guarded, but he'd insisted that he didn't need babysitting constantly. Vipera, at first, had been apprehensive towards the idea, but had consented eventually.
And now, he realised that she'd been keeping secrets from him.
Ascending the staircase towards his chambers, Lux chewed nervously on his lip. What if they didn't come? No, they'd come, he told himself, trying to calm his nerves. Until then, he had no way of speaking to them, no way of letting them know.
He reached his room, unlocking the door and stepping inside. The familiar surroundings relieved a little of his nerves, and Lux locked the door behind him, slipping the cloak from his shoulders and the boots from his feet. Leaving the boots in the doorway and the cloak crumpled beside them, he collapsed onto his bed, sinking into the silk sheets of crimson.
Vipera was keeping secrets. Axel and Skala were in danger. Could things get any worse?