Night had descended over us by the time I rejoined my companions. Someone had lit a crackling campfire in a small clearing, and most of the party were huddled around it. Spark was mending a rifle propped across her lap, Weir roasting some unidentifiable hunk of meat over the flames, and Blaise neatening the fletchings on some of his arrows. Caolinn, curled beside the fire, appeared to be asleep; Darr was nowhere to be seen.
Spark glanced up at me, her eyes reflecting the glow of the fire. “You were starting to make me worry, cub.”
For a moment, my mind was blank. I’d wandered off into the trees for a chance to speak to Darr alone, but how long had we been away from the group – and how to explain our absence? Fortunately, I didn’t have to.
“Your patrol,” Spark prompted. “Anything?”
“Nothing,” I said, grateful for a chance to wheedle out of further conversation. Either Darr had told the others we’d been patrolling the area, or Spark had simply assumed it. “Everything’s quiet out there.”
Spark grunted and returned to her task.
I took a seat beside the flames, suddenly grateful for their warmth. I almost didn’t dare ask what had become of Darr, but I had to know. “The Peacemaker’s gone south?” I guessed.
“Wanted to scout further that way,” Spark confirmed. “Says there are centaur camps all around us here.”
That was likely true, but I didn’t think Darr had any more interest in the centaurs than I had. At least Blaise looked content: with his revenge on the centaurs effectively complete, I wasn’t even sure he’d stay with us. Didn’t he have some other life to lead, away from the madness of our endless journey? Or was he like the rest of us? I was beginning to think we’d forgotten how to live any other way.
I lay down beside the flames, and eventually slept. When I dreamed, it was of Rata Sum, but coated in dark and glittering ice, as though it had been colonised by the Sons of Svanir. When I woke again, the fire had burned low and I was shivering.
I sat up, pulling tighter the blanket that had been draped across my shoulders. The two charr were both asleep and snoring, Blaise little more than a shadowed hump next to Spark. That had to mean either Caolinn or – if Spark trusted him enough – Darr were on watch; there was no way she’d let us all sleep without a sentry.
Neither, though, was anywhere to be seen.
I got to my feet, taking a few steps away from the fire and staring out into the night to let my eyes acclimatise. Asura night vision is superb, given the time we had to evolve it underground, and it wasn’t long before I could take in the forest at a glance. Everything was as still and quiet as before – well, almost.
The voices I could hear were almost soft enough that even my sensitive ears couldn’t detect them. Their location, though, was no mystery: off to the south-west, where the view was screened by a stand of shrubs between the trees. Well, that solved the conundrum of where Caolinn and Darr had got to.
I was about to lie down again when my sleep-fuzzed brain clicked into gear. Caolinn… and Darr? What, by the Eternal Alchemy, could they have to talk about?
Abandoning my blanket beside the fire, I crept away from our campsite, until I was nothing but another shadow. Beside the shrubs, I paused, taking in the sweet fragrance of their night-blooming flowers – and listening to the voices beyond.
Darr was speaking. “…to continue your mission as before. None of the parameters have changed.”
“Understood.” Caolinn, her voice low. “What do you make of what we’ve learnt so far?”
A rustling, what might have been a shrug. “Frankly, the data is minimal. If Spark intends anything truly dangerous, she might well accomplish it before we can act.”
“I’ll do everything I can to keep you informed. She won’t do anything without you knowing about it.”
A soft chuckle. “We’ll see. I suspect the charr is far cannier than you give her credit for.”
There was a pause, and then Caolinn cleared her throat. “And Amber?”
I froze, my blood running cold. It took all my effort not to topple right into the bushes.
Darr made a low, contemplative hum. “Amber is on the right path. Keep an eye on her, but there’s no need to report her actions unless she does something truly extraordinary.”
“And you don’t think she will?”
“I think I understand Amber better than she understands herself.”
“I’ll take your word for that.” Caolinn laughed, then added, “You can rest assured I have the situation here under control. Be well, my friend.”
“And you. Remember: wherever you might be, give the signal and I’ll send a clone to meet you. You’re under no obligation to tackle her on your own.”
“I understand. Thank you.”
There came another soft rustle, and though no footsteps receded, I knew Darr had left. It was several minutes before Caolinn moved, finally stepping around the bushes as though she really had been patrolling our campsite.
That was, until she saw me.
I made no effort to conceal myself: I’d had enough of secrecy, of skulking around in the shadows and pretending to be something other than myself. Even thieves have to come into the light sometimes, after all. And whilst Caolinn was clearly an excellent liar – she had to be, to have so perfectly concealed her acquaintance with Darr – I could see the shock in her eyes at the sight of me.
She recovered a moment later. “Amber. Have you come to relieve me from watch duty?”
I folded my arms over my chest. She wasn’t going to get off that easily. “I’d be happy to take the watch… if you’ll answer a few questions, first. Like how you really know Darr.”
Caolinn glanced off into the forest, mustering more lies or perhaps hoping Darr might come back to aid her. When no help was forthcoming, she sighed. “You weren’t supposed to hear that.”
“Obviously. So, are you going to enlighten me, or are we just going to stand here all night?”
Caolinn fidgeted, shifting from foot to foot, before finally flopping down onto a fallen tree, skirts spread around her. “There’s little to tell.”
“Then this won’t take long. How do you know Darr?”
“I’ve been a part of Darr’s organisation for some time – almost since I left the Dream, in fact. He assigned me to Spark long before we met you.”
And what organisation was that? I wondered – not that I really thought Caolinn would answer if I asked. I remembered seeing her trekking through the swamps of Brisban Wildlands with the two charr, all those weeks ago, and the unlikely party they’d made.
“Spark doesn’t know?” I asked.
Caolinn snorted. “Of course not. What would be the use of covert surveillance otherwise?”
Except this wasn’t covert, not in the slightest; this was surveillance in plain sight, right under Spark’s nose. “And she’s never suspected?”
A shrug from the necromancer. “As far as I can tell. Or if she has, she doesn’t care. I’ve always made myself a valuable asset to her team, just as you have.”
“I haven’t been spying on her.”
Another shrug, as though that was a moot point. “You’ve had your doubts about Spark’s motives, just as myself and Darr have. If you had our resources, you’d have done the same.”
“What resources might those be?”
“Don’t you want to know why I’m with her?” Caolinn met my question with one of her own, and a defiant expression. No matter what else she revealed, talking about Darr’s operation seemingly wouldn’t be included.
I nodded. “Go on then.”
“Spark is dangerous – you’ve seen it. She’s spent too long dabbling in arcane matters, things that don’t concern her any more than they concern Zurra.”
I didn’t like comparing the two, but how could I not? I’d met Spark precisely because she’d been researching the same energies that so interested the Inquest – and I knew what Spark wanted to do with them. But did Caolinn?
“Spark’s intentions are very different to Zurra’s,” I said cautiously.
“Are they?” Abruptly, Caolinn got to her feet. “Are they really? I wonder, Amber, if you understand Spark’s motives quite as well as you think.”
Spark wanted to fight dragons… Didn’t she? I found myself suddenly unsure. Whatever Caolinn knew, though, I was certain she didn’t know of the weapon Souleater’s existence, and of the charr’s mission to find an energy source to power it. If Spark still carried the soul-destroying weapon with her, I’d seen no sign of it for weeks; perhaps it remained in her workshop at Varimhold.
Varimhold. I found myself thinking of that twisted, lifeless – or nearly so – place. “Do you know what happened to Spark?” I asked. “At Varim’s Run?”
Caolinn looked suddenly uncertain. “She never talks of it. I… have pieces of the puzzle, that’s all. I think Darr knows more.”
I rolled my eyes at that. Of course Darr knew more – it was just a shame he didn’t see fit to share his findings.
“Amber, listen to me.” Caolinn stepped closer, her voice urgent. “I need you to make me a promise.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What sort of promise?”
She came close enough to grip my arm, fingers tight enough to bruise. “Don’t tell Spark about this conversation. She can’t know I’ve been keeping watching on her.”
“Why?” I shook my arm free. “Because she’ll rip your head off if she finds out?”
There was fear in Caolinn’s eyes, but I didn’t think she was worried for her own safety. “Spark’s planning something, can’t you feel it? That’s exactly why I’m here: if she does something truly dangerous, Darr has the resources to counter it.”
I didn’t really have a rebuttal to that. I’d been worried about Spark’s research ever since I met her, but I hadn’t the slightest chance of actually stopping her if it came to a struggle. Not only would Weir likely defend her to the death, but I suspected Spark was far more ruthless than I was when it came to achieving her goals.
I huffed out a breath. “I won’t tell her. Whatever you and Darr are up to, it’s entirely your business.”
“Thank you.” Caolinn gave a relieved sigh. “I won’t forget this, Amber. Truly.”
I nodded and watched her walk away, back to the dull glow of the campfire. As I hopped onto the fallen tree, ready to take my share of the watch, I wondered about my own choice of words. ‘Your business’, I’d said – but by confiding in Darr, and having Caolinn confide in me, I’d got rather more involved than I cared to admit.