Snow eddied from the swaying trees. Storm clouds blotted out the moons and stars.
Her eyelashes dotted with snowflakes, Siora eyed the shrine, which was half buried in the day’s accumulation. The stone bust of a long-forgotten god glowed eerily—a glow disconnected from light patterns in the mortal plane. Thousands of years of weather had worn away all other details in the sculpture.
Siora’s breath clouded the air, then vanished in the biting wind. Her cloak grew wetter and heavier the longer she stood, but she continued to wait, unmoving. The anticipation didn’t bother her. She knew he would come.
She didn’t know what would happen when he did.
Flames erupted a few meters to the right of the shrine. Fire priests could travel across vast distances instantly, though no one really knew how it worked. Did they tear a hole in the fabric of space, or did the flames somehow carry them at speeds humans couldn’t reach?
Eras emerged from the circular portal, melting snowflakes right out of the air, and immediately ran a hand through his hair to check its tolerance of the journey. The flames around him vanished as if they’d never existed at all. Taking a step closer, Siora lowered the hood of her cloak.
“Why did we have to meet here?” she asked. “Mage shrines creep me out.”
Eras’s gaze swept the snowy clearing, finally landing on the worn statue at his side. The glow emanating from the stone reflected briefly in his bright green eyes.
“It’s a safe location,” Eras said. “No one comes here anymore. The mage religion died millennia ago.”
“There are fresh flowers buried beneath the snow on that altar.”
He glanced back at the shrine, then at her face, though he didn’t seem concerned. “Well, I guess I can still be surprised by mortals. In any case, did you bring what I asked?”
Siora clenched her teeth before she said, “No.”
Anger flashed across his face. “I’m sorry?”
“I didn’t bring it.”
“Siora. Darling.” He exhaled, forcing a smile. “What happened? I thought we came to an agreement.”
“You asked a lot of me.”
Eras sidled closer to her, his expression benign … the tension in his jaw anything but. “It was a simple task.”
“I don’t deny that.”
“Why are you incapable of completing a simple task?”
“You want me to understand that you chose not to.” He shook his head. “I thought you knew the price of failure?”
Siora shifted on her feet, but she didn’t drop her gaze from his face. “It no longer matters. My mother is dead.”
Eras crossed his arms. “I see. And you think there’s nothing else I could do to you that would hurt you.”
“No. So I didn’t bring it.”
“You—” He regained control again. “Siora, darling, this is months of work you’ve wasted. I manipulated the mind of the man who had to give you a job in the palace. I made sure your mother was comfortable as she suffered through her illness. I ensured you rose through the ranks of the palace until you were serving the nobility. But when it comes time to repay me for your comfort this last year, you deny me?”
“It wasn’t comfortable,” Siora said. “I lived in fear that I would be discovered, and you eased my mother’s suffering—you didn’t stop it.”
“She wasn’t curable,” he spat. “And if you’d been discovered, it would have been an easy fix. What were you thinking?”
Siora’s heart began to race. “I don’t want to betray Aeglivar. The highprince’s family, they’re really nice people, and when this started, you said they wouldn’t be harmed, but then every time I told you more—”
“Don’t presume to know my plans.”
“Don’t,” he snapped, “say my name. Do you really think this had anything to do with you and your feelings? That I would care about your qualms? You are a utility, nothing more. And you never had the choice to stop.”
“I thought—” Siora swallowed as he stepped closer, wishing she didn’t need to say what was about to come out of her mouth. “I thought you liked me.”
He loomed over her, looking disgusted. “Liked you? Siora, I’ve been alive for longer than you can imagine. What appeal could some mortal woman possibly have for me?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I was a fool.”
“Yes, you were.” Eras tipped his head, his expression softening, his hand drifting up to touch her cheek.
Siora was torn between flinching away and leaning into the warmth of his palm. The temperature in the clearing had dropped since she’d arrived.
“You silly girl,” Eras said quietly. “Humans are like children to us. Loud, needy, frustrating children. Always in need of guidance, or some push in the right direction. Never capable of succeeding on their own. Fire priests have never cared about you, Siora.”
“You were using me. I get it.”
“Don’t sound so defeated. There was no other way you could mean anything to me.”
“What are you going to do to Aeglivar?”
He smiled. “That, darling, is none of your business.”
Siora turned her cheek from his hand, her eyes drifting to the ground. Snow swirled around her. Trees creaked in the wind.
“I suppose it couldn’t hurt for you to know, though,” Eras said after a long silence. “You won’t see another dawn.”
Sweat began to bead on Siora’s skin, but she refused to shrink from him. Her mother was gone—most of what had scared her, motivated her, mattered to her before … it meant very little to her now.
She met his eyes.
“Fire priests withdrew from the courts because we were sick of serving,” Eras said. “We spent thousands of years imprisoned by mages only to lick the boots of the mortal empires? Please. We’re more powerful than you can conceptualize. We don’t serve anyone.”
Wind wicked away the cold sweat on Siora’s forehead. Snowflakes coated her hair.
“I’m only an operative—none of this was my idea,” Eras said. “But I agree that it’s time for the human courts to learn their place. What are mortals, truly, in the face of magic?” He brushed some of the snow from her hair. “Just pawns.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” Siora said softly. “You don’t have to kill me.”
Eras smiled without an ounce of pity. “Oh, Siora.”
When he flicked his hand, Siora collapsed to the ground. The spell stopped her heart in an instant—her last breath left her as easily as she’d taken it in.
Eras flexed his fingers; they always tingled after a kill.
“Mercy,” he whispered.
The word swirled away in the bitter wind.