“What if we get caught?” asked Mercer. “Isn’t it easy enough for them to overpower us? If even half of what Simona said about this place is true, there’s no way we should expect to just walk in and out with critical information about the beast.”

Alquis raised his mug to his mouth and looked around surreptitiously. Their table was full, and the occupants of nearby tables were noisy, and from all appearances engrossed in their eating and drinking. He lowered the mug and leaned toward Mercer so he wouldn’t have to raise his voice.

“I trust Nicyes knows what he’s doing. We brought more than enough to bribe the contact, and probably half the people here. I do feel bad,” he paused to add weight to the thought, “knowing what Nicyes had to go through to acquire all that gold.”

“He told you?”

“He did.”

“What was it? He didn’t say a word to me, other than he had plenty.”

“I’m honor bound to remain silent, Mercer. You should know that. He’ll tell you when he feels he can trust you again. But I’ll take the knowledge to the shores of Acheron.”

Mercer muttered, and scratched at the cloth wrap on his face. “We used to be closer than that. I regret everything. Everything that happened.”

“Well, regret it a little harder, and maybe something will come of it,” said Alquis. “You let a lot of people down, Mercer. How you managed to let me and Nicyes down the least is beyond me, but now we’re all you have left. Maybe instead of regretting your past actions, you should try making some present ones to make up for it.”

“Haven’t I?” asked Mercer.

Alquis choked on a laugh, and tried not to stare too hard at Mercer’s face. The joke was too obvious and too morbid, he didn’t want to let on that he had even considered it. He concealed his laugh in a cough, and sought refuge in his mug.

“I’m sure the lot of us will be close enough by the time this is over,” said Alquis. “If not through the trials we face, then in an unmarked grave or sacrificial pit.” He leaned back. “Can you feel it?”

“What did you say?” asked Mercer. He leaned closer to hear what Alquis said, “feel what?”

“This place. This mission. It’s changed us. It’s changed me.”

Mercer grunted. “It hasn’t changed me.” He shook his head. “Chaika hasn’t changed me. Maybe brought some things back I thought were gone, but that’s it.”

“That isn’t change?”

“I don’t think so. Isn’t it the opposite?”

Nicyes walked over and interrupted the conversation. “I’ve got what we came for, let’s go. Quickly now.”