Azroth kicked a rat that scurried in front of his path before it could bite at his toe. Gabe and Ariel walked behind him as they snuck along the sewers beneath Lambswell. Ariel had been furious with him when he told her about his last excursion to the cathedral and barely escaping death at Riddick’s hand again.
“After burning his pretty face like that, you know you’re a dead man to cross the river again, right?” she asked.
He did know.
“And where does that leave me?”
That he didn’t know.
Ariel had become more than his best friend in the past two years. She’d survived her own run-ins with Riddick, coming out of them without a scratch on her at times. But being a street kid wasn’t just dangerous. It was lonely. Any time one of the kids from the Haggis died from wounds or illness, the loss was a profound blow to all of them, especially since none of them got a proper burial. Azroth couldn’t do that to Ariel.
“If those rats get any bigger, they might try to eat us,” Gabe said, his eyes wide.
“I just hope Gil knows his rights from his left,” Ariel said.
Azroth shifted the torch to his left hand. “I still can’t believe that kid used to live down here before he came to us.”
“There’s a reason he stinks,” Ariel replied. “If you’d spend the last year living in a place like this, you’d stink, too.”
Azroth had to agree. Gil had to be one of the cleanest of the Haggis kids, yet he still smelled atrocious most of the time.
“Gil said we should travel along this tunnel until we reached the red ladder. According to him, that will put us one street away from the cathedral,” Gabe said.
“I see it, up ahead.” Azroth pointed it out, and swallowed hard. If Riddick’s crew were loitering in this street, he, Gabe, and Ariel would be dead for sure.
Once they arrived at the ladder, each took hold of a rung, and Azroth whispered to the fire in his torch to sleep. The flames immediately extinguished, leaving only a glowing ember at the tip.
Gabe’s voice shook in the darkness. “It’s unnerving the way you can talk to fire like that. But what eats me is how you two have hidden that ability for the last five years. Don’t you know how useful that would have been on some of our other jobs?”
“I do use it on my jobs. That’s why I can usually get in and out without anyone the wiser. Besides, I’m a Balli, remember?” Azroth said. “Nearly every kid in Ballitus can play with fire to some extent. That’s why if they ever attack Lambswell, the best place to hide would be down here, or in the countryside. There’s too much wood for the fire to eat in this city.”
“But I always thought your nickname ‘Fire Drake’ was just because of that red tattoo on your arm,” Gabe persisted.
Ariel’s hand found his on the ladder and squeezed it.
“Let’s hope you can keep your theory,” Azroth said grimly.
Azroth pulled himself up the rungs and found the grate leading up to the street. Peering out between the metal bars, he couldn’t see anyone nearby. He lifted the grate and slipped out, allowing Ariel to take the metal back into position as he snuck into the shadow of a building.
He held his breath, confident Riddick would have someone in the streets near the cathedral. Yet, the way appeared clear. Maybe the hard part wouldn’t be coming topside but actually getting to the cathedral. The wagon with the gem arrived only a few hours ago, but something with that many armed guards was bound to get Riddick’s attention.
Azroth motioned for the other two to join him. Together, they crept along the street until the cathedral came into view. The night sky was filled with clouds, making the darkness appear deeper than it usually would. Azroth was grateful, as it would make their passing harder to see.
When they neared the Cathedral, all Azroth could see were soldiers hovering around the parked wagon outside the main doors. Four soldiers sat mounted on bored horses that were constantly tossing their heads and stomping the ground. Several soldiers wearing the green livery of the Tellidine king wandered about the perimeter.
Azroth leaned back against the bricks and dragged his hands down his face. This was worse than trying to sneak past Riddick. With that gem inside the cathedral and the soldiers to guard it, this would be next to impossible.
“I’m starting to wonder what you did to incur the wrath of the Vixens,” Gabe said when he’d peeked around the corner as well. “This is suicide. How are we going to get to the door?”
“Get your lock pick ready,” he said. “We’re going to have to be fast. Riddick will know we’re here once I do this.”
“Isn’t there another way?” Ariel asked, glancing up at him. He could see his fear reflected in her eyes.
Gabe looked around the corner again. “What about sneaking around to the other side? There might be fewer guards over there.”
“There might be, but we’re closer to the door we want now. The other doors leave a person too exposed to prying eyes. The one we’re aiming for is a hidden side door that will put us next to the stairwell leading up into the spire,” Azroth explained.
The tip of a knife pressed into the back of Azroth’s neck, and he froze.
“And why are you three trying to get into the spire?” Riddick’s voice purred behind them.
Azroth craned his neck and saw Riddick, angry burns along the left side of his face. A handful of his goons clustered around them. How someone as fat as Phillip, Riddick’s right-hand man, could sneak anywhere was beyond him.
“I thought you didn’t come here to steal? That you just wanted to look at the pretty building?” Riddick mocked softly, pressing his knife to Azroth’s skin. A trickle of blood seeped down the back of his shirt. He balled his fists.
“It’s not by choice, I assure you,” Azroth said, doing his best to keep his voice steady. The fire prickled beneath his skin, ready to be set loose.
“And why should I believe you? You burned my face with your little fire trick, nearly taking my left eye. Perhaps I should take yours as payment.”
“The Vixens ordered us to come, or they’d kill us,” Ariel spoke up.
Riddick narrowed his eyes as he studied Ariel. “The Vixens? Since when do you maggots deal with the Vixens? They live on this side of Lambswell.”
“Then they must have dwellings on both sides of the city. We’ve worked for them for years,” Gabe said with barely controlled anger.
Riddick’s knife point disappeared, and Azroth placed his palm over the small wound to get it to stop bleeding.
“What did they ask you to steal?” Riddick asked, interested.
“The Sapphire Star,” Ariel answered.
“Strange. That’s what they asked us to steal. Maybe they didn’t trust these slobs you live with to get the job done.”
“Or maybe they’d hoped we’d take each other out along the way,” Gabe muttered, eyeing Riddick darkly.
“We’ve got you outmatched. I wouldn’t try anything,” Riddick warned.
“What would you say to a truce for tonight?” Ariel asked.
Riddick cocked his head. A greedy look on his face. “Are you willing to pay for it, Ariel? When I caught you the night this one got the better of me with the medallion, we struck a deal, remember?”
Azroth’s eyes widened. She’d never mentioned to him that Riddick had caught her that night. He thought she’d gotten away safely, but he hadn’t had time to check because he had to get to the market. A string of silent swear words raced through his mind. He should have left her back at the Haggis.
Ariel gave Gabe a look, warning him not to intervene. “What about part of our profits and a kiss?”
Riddick licked his lips in anticipation and smiled. “I want seventy-five percent. This is my turf, and I’m sparing their lives. You owe me more than a simple kiss, Ariel.”
She bristled, giving Azroth a glance that he didn’t quite understand.
Riddick smirked. “I’m waiting.”
“You’ll only get fifty percent,” Ariel said, her hands on her hips. “Without Fen, you won’t get in and out alive. He’s been inside that building before. He knows where they could be hiding that gem. With guards crawling all over the place, you need us.”
Riddick pulled Ariel into his filthy arms showing her a tenderness that seemed at odds with the situation. She didn’t resist, and Azroth’s stomach clenched. If Riddick did anything to hurt her, this farce of a truce was over.
“If I catch you again after tonight, Fire Drake, you’re dead. Ariel’s infatuation with you won’t save your skin a third time. My tolerance is up.”
With that, Riddick pressed his lips to Ariel’s. Azroth expected Ariel to fight back, to resist being treated like this. However, the longer and more passionately Riddick kissed her, the more Ariel leaned into it, wrapping her arms around his neck.
Azroth’s slack jaw and outraged eyes turned to Gabe, who he was confident would be ready to start throwing punches like he did the first time he caught Azroth and Ariel kissing. He was wrong.
Though Gabe appeared disgusted, he didn’t seem overly surprised. This wasn’t the first time Ariel and Riddick had kissed. He swung back to the entwined couple and his stomach lurched. How long had this been going on? How long had Ariel been playing him for a fool? The thought extinguishing the sparks on his hands.
When they finally let go of each other, Riddick kissed her nose. “Mmmh. How I’ve missed that. Missed you. You should have ditched Fen sooner, then I wouldn’t have had to wait so long.”
Ariel’s smile back at Riddick faltered as she caught sight of Azroth’s livid expression.
Every time she’d disappear to this side of the city over the past year and never gave him an explanation as to where she’d been or what she’d been doing now made perfect sense. It was possible she’d even stopped over here after her day with the Vixen’s. Azroth thought he might throw up. If he did, he hoped it was all over Riddick.
Once tonight was over, he was done. The northern thief lord could have Ariel.
“If these two die tonight,” Riddick tossed his head at Gabe and Azroth. “Are you finally ready to come to my side of the city to stay?”
“We’ll discuss it after we get the gem out of there,” Ariel said, casually.
“Fair enough.” Riddick grinned wickedly at Azroth. “So how do we get in?”