The man looked out of place between the tightly packed pillars and allotments. When Ada had last seen him, he had almost been a part of the forest, blending in amongst the foliage and wrapped in the dark shadows of the undergrowth. Now, the leather of his belt and his multiple packs of animal hide stood out against the tattered cotton clothes of passersby.
The strip of fabric that had previously been stretched across his lower face was now loose around his neck, and the wool hung past his collar like a blackened gash against his skin. But even without it, Ada recognised his face from their earlier encounter within the Wystwood. It was less his hollowed cheeks and lean body, and rather the cold eyes that bore holes into her own. They had haunted her within obsidian dreams, and now they seemed almost phantasmal in their vivid reality.
He was watching her silently, mapping her every careful movement and counting each breath. She had imagined that if they were to meet again, his eyes would be seething with hatred for how she had left him. But as they stood within the evening marketplace, he instead gazed at her with a peculiar interest, as though she were the most remarkable curiosity in the city.
"I've been searching for you," he said, his words just barely audible above the shouts of the vendors.
Ada didn't even blink, expecting him to vault towards her at any moment. The caravan stood hard and steadfast against her back, and in front of her wobbled the table. It was the only barrier between Ada and the man, but even then he was a mere few feet away. His long legs would make short work of catching up to her were she to run.
So instead, she drew herself up. The man had left her distraught and terrified as she had fled the Wystwood, but she would give him no such advantage now.
"You have my letter," she said, faintly pleased to find her voice did not quiver.
His eyes darkened, annoyance seeming to seep into his curiosity and slowly turning it sour. Then he hummed, long and low, before finally responding, "We both have things that don't belong to us. Perhaps we could make a deal and get back what we desire."
Ada almost agreed. There was something tempting in his darkness; a fathomless abyss of unknown promise that was deeper than any wishing well. She hadn't expected him to ask for an exchange, as she certainly didn't feel in any position of power over the tall and dangerous stranger. From the moment he had appeared, she had expected him to lunge at her and retrieve his dagger by force. Yet now he stood with a stillness matched to her own. It was as if there was something stopping him, a boundary forged between them within his own mind.
In truth, she had almost forgotten that the dagger still swung within her pocket. She had grown used to it in only a day, finding a strange solace in its steady weight against her chest. A caress of wild power.
But more enticing was the chance to get back Rosamund's letter. Ada had never been more desperate to hear her grandmother's words of comfort and feel her hands run ruffles through her hair. Though in their absence, the gentle curves of her handwriting would make do.
It was Min's warning, echoing in the depths of her mind, that stopped her before she could agree to the man's proposal. The girl had told Ada to never trust the dealings of the fae, and after seeing what the man was capable of within the forest, she didn't doubt he could also spin trickery into his words.
Slowly, Ada shook her head, and every reluctant movement made her muscles strain. The man's eyes narrowed, his jaw jutting out, and then the taut air between them was abruptly punctured by the sound of footsteps on the caravan's steps. The man dragged his eyes from Ada's when Florentin let out a choking sound, and a lazy smile curled across his lips as he brought his fingers down to brush through the barbed bunches of rosemary.
"Just the man I came here for," he said, his voice smoothed into a languid drawl. "To think you'd be returning to the Lyceum so soon..."
Terror cracked Florentin's expression, his chest rising heavily as his hand grasped behind him to try and close the caravan's door.
The man didn't appear to notice, simply picking up a stem of parsley and twirling it around the sharp joints of his fingers. "I've heard rumours that the Stone Circle have moved again. Set up a new hold in the Sourn Quarter. The Hounds are near desperate to find it." His smile had vanished. "Did they catch your scent a little quicker than you would have liked? Maybe the next summons from our Lady will be for your own audience, Florentin."
His threat had hardly any time to hang in the air before Florentin spat back, "You're no better than a Hound yourself, traitor."
The stem of parsley snapped between the man's fingers. "Perhaps we should take this conversation inside. I think we'd all"—his eyes flickered to Ada and lingered—"prefer to be out of the open."
They stood within the hazy market bustle, Florentin's door creaking back and forth. Once again, Ada felt cast into chaos. A cloud passed by overhead and devoured the last slants of sunlight, painting the city grey as dusk took hold of Wysthaven.