Chapter 19: Art of the Con

Though Aiden had protested, we’d accepted Victoria’s invitation to dine with her in the villa’s swanky restaurant. Aiden had come mostly to keep me from being alone with Victoria. Not that I could blame him. Despite my best efforts, I did not seem capable of logic and reason as far as she was concerned. 

We sat at a round table with a white cloth of silky substance. We were on the fourth and main course of the meal. It smelled like heaven, but the meat was orange and tasted like like a sweet curry with light spices. The ciracorn was red corn. It tasted like yellow corn with a bitter aftertaste. 

Ours was the only table on a balcony overlooking the ocean. Aiden was next to me, while Victoria sat across from us. None of us had spoken much sense the oaths were made. 

Aiden glowered at everything. Victoria looked everywhere except at me. And I could not find any words. I know, shocker. I loathe silence and would rather fill the air with syllables, whether they made sense or not.

I know I should be mad at her for what she’d done to us, for what she’d done to me. But I could not help but to feel pity for her. She tried to play it cool after being possessed by Artemis to do the goddess’s biding, but I could tell the experience had rattled her. She mostly pecked at the food, which was not like her at all. One of the things I loved about her was her voracious appetite for everything, food, learning, adventuring. Everything. Instead of enjoying the exotic meal, she cut off delicate bites and chewed slowly. I had only ever seen her like this when she was scared or nervous. 

Putting aside for a moment the possibility that this was all an elaborate ruse to keep me off-guard, she appeared real in a way she had not been since before. 

This gave me hope that part of her was truly in control. Unless Artemis decided to take over directly, I was more confident Vic could make her own choices. Perhaps she would influence Victoria in other ways, but some of my Vic was still in there. That did not mean I could trust her, by any stretch of the imagination. But it also meant there was some hope that if we could break the bond, Vic would come back to the Collective. And me.

“What is an arcanine, anyway?” Aiden asked forking the tender steak.

“A dog-like species,” Victoria said, “of vicious predators which roam the wilds of Atlantis. They hunt fairies and pixies to feed on their innate magic but also have been known to attack other races for their arcane talents. All attempts of domestication have failed, so they are killed in the wild and served as a delicacy to people with more money than sense.” 

“Not bad,” Aiden said, cutting a second bite. 

“How do you feel?” I asked Victoria. 

“What do you mean?” She asked, a fake smile making its way to her lips. “I’m fine.”

Aiden snorted. “Yeah, I’d be just fine after a god stuck it’s hand up my ass an played me like a puppet too.”

In fact, he’d not been fine after Loki had done just that. I gave Aiden my best scowl. And I said in a gentler tone. “We saw. She took you. And it was obvious when she’d left.”

“As is her right,” she said. “I am her Nymph. Her eyes and ears away from her domain.” 

“That was the first time,” I guessed.

She flicked her head as if to flip her hair, but it was up in a bun. Her old tell. She gave it just before deflecting or in cards, bluffing. “It is the price of the Bond.”

I studied her face, which was blank of emotions. At least she’d dropped the façade. I asked, “Do you not want free of it?” 

“I know what you would say, but save it. You will never be able to use the Soul Breaker on me.” Her eyes became sad. “You are so far in over your head, you can’t see the surface of the waters thrashing above you. Nothing you are planning is going to work the way you’ve planned. Soon, you’ll lose your freedom as well.” 

“Won’t happen,” I said.

“It already has. You just haven’t realized it yet. The gods have been playing this game since the dawn of man. We cannot beat them.”

Aiden pushed his plate forward and threw the cloth napkin on top. He stood. “On that cheery note, we have work to do.” 

I sat, staring at Victoria, who still would not meet my gaze. “You said we.”

She looked up. As our eyes met, my heart fluttered. I could see hope in her eyes. Only for a second, but it had been there. She quickly masked the emotion and said. “Just a figure of speech.”

“I might not be able to beat you at chess, but you can’t beat me at cards. I know you. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue. You want out. I knew it.”

“You should go.”

I pushed my chair back from the table. “Aye. Thank you for the meal.”

“Any time,” she said, rising. “Good luck, tomorrow.”

Aiden drew ether and flew off the balcony toward the surf, somehow putting an impatient flourish to his flight. I followed but turned back. Victoria hadn’t moved. She stood, watching me. I paused.

“I need to know something,” I said. “Where have you been this past year?” 

She shook her head. “I cannot tell you.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Does it matter?”

“The other day,” I pressed, “you asked me to join you, saying you were free. But for someone still free, you sure seem to have little control over what happens to you. Or to the people you supposedly care about.”

She closed her eyes. “Please, go.”

“I will. But I need you to know. I forgive you, Victoria. For all of it.”

A tear rolled down her cheek. I wanted to go to her. Hold her. Tell her it would all be all right. But Vic would hate that. She hated people seeing her cry. That tear had cost her. 

Pretending not to see it I said, “I will see you, soon.”

Without another word, I turned and flew after Aiden. We returned to our inn without speaking. Though I could not sense any magic scrying us, I felt eyes upon us. We’d left our balcony unlocked in our suite, so we could return without going through the main lobby. Aiden had tied a red scarf around the doorknob to make it easier to find. 

Once inside, I closed the door and we both constructed wards to prevent scrying and eavesdropping. 

“Gods damn it, Liam,” Aiden said the second the wards closed around us. “She’s playing you. Can’t you see that?”

“She’s not. I know she’s not.” 

“For all you know, that entire act at dinner was Artemis.”

“Why would she do that? We’ve already made the oaths. What else would she have to gain?”

“That is the real question isn’t it? And why do the gods do anything? They are bored from thousands of years of existence, so they fuck with the mortals because what else have they got to do? This isn’t going to end well, you know that, right?”

“If you truly believe that, then why the fuck are we here?” 

“For you, you idiot. I’m here for you. Had I not come, you would have found your way here on your own. And what a mess it would have been. You’d probably already be bonded to Artemis.”

“So you’re my babysitter now? Is that it?”

“Yes, gods damn it. When it comes to her, I am. Just stop for a second. Remember how I was after losing Abigail? You pulled me back from the brink. Let me fucking do the same for you.”

I bit my tongue. I had only half-heard what he’d said over my own anger and frustration. It took a few seconds of listening to my racing heart for his words to register. Gods damn it. He wasn’t wrong. 

“This is getting nowhere,” I said at last. “We need to focus.”

Aiden gave a frustrated sound, somewhere between exasperation and disgust. He grabbed the folder from an inner pocket and dropped it on the bar.

We poured ourselves another drink, and then we made our plans. Both of us worked better with a bit of anger and pressure. Don’t look at me like that, it’s an Irish thing. 

We spent hours poring over the schematics of Theseus’s fortress. And by fortress, I mean Fort Knox is less guarded than this compound. In addition to stationed guards—all battle minotaurs with anti-magic protective gear—patrols were randomly assigned. We never intended to go in spells blazing, but fighting would not be an option. Our plans required subtlety of the highest calibre. 

We both fixed our dimensional pockets to a wall and spent some time gathering the gear we would need for a chance to survive a hasty exit, you know … assuming we could make it inside. 

In our oaths, we gave ourselves one Earth-week to get the arrium to Artemis—not after one week passes on Earth but after a total of 168 hours pass from our perspectives. This is an important detail, because for all we knew a day here was a week on Earth. Rather than take chances on a technicality, we’d stipulated a timeframe in the oath. Of course, we would not need this long. 

By the end of the day tomorrow, we would have the artifacts and be halfway back home, or we’d be caught and killed. 

“Hello?” Aiden asked. “Are you listening?”

“No. Sorry. I can’t focus. I need a break.”

“We don’t have time for a break. Just before dawn tomorrow, we move.”

“I’m still not sold on the timing,” I said, glancing out at the evening sky. It would be dark in a few hours. “I need real sleep. Ether-fog is starting to kick in. We should get some rest and think on it after we rest. Maybe take tonight to do a fly about.”

“Too risky. If someone sees us casing the place, we could be stopped and questioned. And we have everything in these schematics. Seeing it won’t change anything.”

“It will let us know if we can trust any of this. What if Artemis wants us to be caught? Victoria seemed certain we would not get the Soul Breaker. And did you see her face after we made the oath?” 

Aiden frowned. “The document clearly stated that speaking to authorities about the heist would result in an immediate failure to uphold our agreement, and to the best of the signatory’s knowledge, the owner of the artifact is unaware of our desire to claim it. And she swears to the authenticity of our schematics. If she lied about any of it, we would already be free of the obligation.” 

“It is all true to the best of her knowledge. But Victoria gave us the schematics. Artemis made the oath.”

Aiden opened his mouth and closed it. He started pacing, like he did when he was nervous. That act alone made my own nerves fray a bit more. Aiden was not typically one to worry or have self-doubt. If he was stopping to consider the implications of our oath, perhaps it was not as binding as we had assumed. 

“This is a rabbit hole,” he said at last. “We can second guess our decision at every step, but we are on the hook now regardless of who is fully bound to the oath. Remember, we did not have much of a choice in this. Under the circumstances, I think we got the best deal we could with Artemis and an even better one with Loki.”

“Aye,” I said. “We can only move forward, which means we have to trust these schematics.”

“Either that or try to get our own. But this could not have come cheaply, and I doubt we can do it within the week we gave ourselves.”

“Agreed.” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “So we are back to the timing.”

“The wards recycle at twilight,” Aiden said. “So that is the window. We have less than a second to get onto the compound.”

“But we could wait a day and get proper rest.” 

“No. Someone inside Theseus’s influence sold these to Victoria. What if they made copies and sold them to someone else? What if they get cold feet and rat us out? Too many uncontrollable variables. We need to go now.” 

“How many suicidal thieves can there be in Atlantis? I doubt anyone else is foolish enough to attempt something like this.”

“You are thinking like a human. There are far more powerful entities than us who might be interested in the same artifacts. In fact, we should plan on it, so we are not taken off guard.” 

Well, shit, Aiden was right. Rather than admit that, I said. “Fine, but even if that is the case, I need a few hours of sleep. Neither one of us has recovered our burnt ether in days, and I’m fucking exhausted. I want to get home as badly as you do, but if we burn out, we will both die or worse.”

“We haven’t burned that much. Remember the pandemic of 1918? We went weeks without sleep and fought almost daily to push the daimones and keres into Pandora’s jar.”

“The Nosoi are not gods. And we are on Theseus’s domain.”

“No, but it was Artemis and Apollon who loosed them.”

“That had been Artemis,” I said. “I had forgotten that detail. Fuck. What if she is ramping up another plague?” 

“We can’t worry about that right now. Focus. We need to—”

“Gods damn it, Aiden. I told you. I cannot focus. I need a break!”

“Fine. Sleep if you want to, but I’m too wired. We’ve been chugging coffee like water, and I’m too anxious.” He made a shooing gesture. “Go. I’ll keep watch and go over our plans.”

I wanted to argue. He needed rest too, but by the set of his jaw, I would just waste the time I could be sleeping. So, I went into the room and into my dimensional pocket. Sleeping in my own bed would be better than the inn’s. Besides, who knew what kind of crazy bedbugs existed in this realm? And I didn’t want to find out.

Not bothering to undress, I plopped down onto my bed. I’m not sure I was still conscious when my head struck the pillow. 

What felt like seconds later, I startled awake. A figure hovered over me, a hand on my shoulder. I opened my mouth to curse Aiden for waking me but stopped when I smelled lavender. 

It was not Aiden standing over me. 

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