Of course the baby would recognize its home. My heart lurched for Bella. Half-breeds were drawn more strongly to one side of their heritage. Cactus was drawn to the Rim and his Terraling side. River was drawn to the Rim too, instead of the Deep.
But if the baby Bella carried reacted here at the Pit, there was a good chance he or she would be drawn to the fire in their blood.
Ahead of us, light trickled in along with the sound of voices. Bella slowed and I caught up to her. The tunnel tightened until it touched my back and belly at the same time. Peta let out a muffled mew and I touched her head. “Shh. Go back to sleep, lazy cat.”
Bella slid out of the tunnel while I was distracted. She stepped around the huge statues that blocked the view of the tunnel.
“Flint,” she whispered.
A gasp and the sound of lips on lips. “Bella, love, how did you get in here? Does my mother know you’re here?” His voice had a lovely deep timbre; even I could see how she’d be seduced by it.
“Please, your mother can’t know I’m here.”
The sound of shuffling cloth, as if he’d pulled her tightly against him. I hoped for her sake he did love her. That he wasn’t using her. Call me cynical, but after dealing with Cactus, I wasn’t so keen on Salamanders and their professed love.
I shimmied close to the edge of the tunnel and slid out. Crouching behind the statue, I waited.
Bella cleared her throat. “My sister helped me get in. We need your help, though.”
“Your sister? Briar is here?”
That was my cue. I stood and stepped around the golden statue of Fiametta. “No, the trouble-making sister.”
Flint’s eyes widened, but he caught himself quickly. “Larkspur. I’d say welcome, but your name is somewhat synonymous with chaos and destruction.”
I smiled, but it wasn’t a nice smile. “Your mother, how is she?”
He shook his head. “Psychotic. But that’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To remove her from the throne?”
Apparently that was what I was remembered for as much as the trouble I caused. Removing unsuitable rulers from their thrones. I didn’t like that association any more than I liked being associated with destroying things.
I cleared my throat. “Something like that. We need to get the ruby off her first.”
I hadn’t even finished speaking when he started to shake his head. “It’ll never happen. She’s worn that ruby from the day you gave it to her and every day she’s become increasingly unstable. And increasingly paranoid.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You know what the ruby is?”
He shrugged. “Doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it holds power. I added things together and it is the only thing that changed after you left. That, and the last person who asked to see the stone was beheaded.”
The three of us stood silent for a moment.
“Does she sleep?” Bella asked.
He wrapped an arm around her shoulder, his deep gold eyes never leaving her face. He brushed a stray curl back from her cheek with his other hand as he smiled at her. Damn, it did look like love. Then again, looks could be deceiving.
“When she does she has the Firewyrms who are left guard her bedchamber. She trusts no one else.”
I waved a hand at the doors. “Maybe standing out front of your mother’s throne room as we discuss her is a bit like tempting fate?” I pointed out. “Is there a better place to talk?”
He shook his head and his eyes flicked away from me. Like he couldn’t hold my gaze. “There is no safe place to talk. Your friend Cactus found that out the hard way.”
A sudden lurch in my gut slowed my response. “What do you mean?”
Flint tightened his hold on Bella. “I can’t protect you both. You understand that? Without Fiametta wearing the ring, I could face my mother. I am strong enough to beat her.”
“That’s not what I’ve heard.” The words popped out of me before I could catch them. Peta snickered softly against me, then burrowed down again.
He didn’t snap at me, though, only smiled. “I let people believe I am weak. Don’t you find it leaves them unsuspecting when you finally show your true colors, Destroyer?”
I tipped my head. “Though that is true, I didn’t plan it that way, and that is the difference between you and me.”
He smiled. “Yet still, it has worked in my favor and yours. I could have trumped her before, but now there is no way. She is too tightly bound to the volcano and has threatened to let it loose on us.”
“You’d survive,” I pointed out.
“For how long?” Both his eyebrows went up. “Even the Firewyrms need to breathe. I’m talking about her filling the mountain with lava and destroying her own people. For no reason other than she chooses to.”
I didn’t want to like Flint, but I could see his mind at least was a match for Bella’s and that softened me a little.
“Then I will face her if I must. You keep Bella safe, we are in agreement on that.” I slipped Peta out of my vest and she blinked one green eye at me.
“No, I will worry about you too much. And you are no good to me in the shape you are in.”
Bella took her and cradled her. Peta didn’t squirm, but her eyes never left mine. “Do not die on me, Lark.”
“I don’t plan on it.”
Flint straightened. “You have a plan?”