Devon started when a hand landed softly on her arm. Liria was getting better at masking her approach. Either that, or the girl's extended presence was making her soft. The heat from the smaller woman's hand soaked through the linen of her shirt to burn her skin. Devon shifted away uncomfortably.
"You've been staring out that window for hours," Liria commented.
Devon's gaze never left the crowd of people on the street below. "You're supposed to be asleep," she replied. "I paid in silver for this room."
"Have you seen any of them?" Liria asked, ignoring her rancor.
Nodding, Devon gestured toward two men just barely visible on the corner of the street. "Just the grunts, though. Rothschild won't show his face here."
"How do you know they're his?"
"I know," Devon answered, sneering. "They've done business in the past, those three."
Liria pulled on her arm, signalling her to back away from the window. "They'll see you," she said.
Devon hesitated, then allowed herself to be lead deeper into the room. She reached for her armor where it was slung across a rickety wooden chair, feeling too exposed without it. Liria had insisted she finally relax and take advantage of the bed. She'd slept a few hours, but had quickly relinquished possession to the softly snoring witch beside her. Dawn had broken long after she began her vigil at the window.
"Why is Rothschild known here?" Liria asked, stepping forward to help her lace up.
"Glenyth is a very prosperous city," Devon said. "It lies along a popular ocean trade route. Ships heading to the southern continent generally port here on the way. That means plenty of travelers, lots of money, and an endless supply of new flesh. That's a winning combination for a man like Rothschild."
Liria glanced up at her curiously. Devon scowled, a multitude of memories making her blood boil. "Rothschild speaks one language, as I've said. He'll wear any mask to achieve that goal--holy man, merchant...nobleman." Her voice grew bitter. "He spent ten years peddling women in this very city before he 'found God.'"
The smaller woman stared at the floor solemnly, hands falling to her sides. "I guess that shouldn't shock me, knowing that murder doesn't seem to faze him. So I'm bait," she added, glancing up again.
Devon looked at her in surprise. "I wouldn't put it in those terms," she said.
Liria chuckled. "You don't have to tiptoe around me," she assured her. "It's the perfect plan. One language, right? After what he saw in Woelfel, I might as well be guilded."
Devon couldn't help but laugh, appreciating the girl's energy. "You won't be in danger. Rothschild wants you for your abilities. As long as you're worth more alive, you'll be safe. And he'll be distracted enough for me to finally reach him properly."
"What about you, though?" Liria asked. "You'll just be an obstacle."
"Don't worry about me," Devon dismissed her fears with a wave of her hand. She knelt to tie her leathers around her legs.
An hour later, Devon stood in the shadow of the inn, watching two men as they lounged against a wall on the opposite side of the street. They hadn't noticed the armor clad woman glaring at them through the passing crowd. These two were local. While Rothschild no doubt had described how different she now appeared, they hadn't seen her in several years. Devon wasn't remotely the person she'd been then.
She glanced up the street. There were three more who looked out of place on this busy street. They'd tracked the two women to this inn, just as Devon had expected. She wanted the bastard to know they were in the city. She strode out into the street.
"So where is the weasel hiding?" Devon called as she approached.
The men reached for their weapons at the sound of her voice. Devon arrived in time to grab the first, wrenching his hand back and forcing him to twist around to face the wall. Pressed against the stone, he laughed painfully.
"Milady," he muttered, obviously amused.
"Keep it there," Devon snapped at the second man as he attempted to draw his sword.
"Well, Averil?" she snarled. "He pay you enough to lose a few fingers of your sword arm?"
The man she held shifted his feet, making her push his hand further up into his back. He groaned lightly. "You wouldn't, little girl," he said.
"Not so little anymore," Devon answered, sneering. "Not so naive."
"You're still out for blood? Rothschild wasn't directly involved, you know that."
Devon scowled. "I don't appreciate people messing with what's mine," she answered.
"Rothschild's interests are...different this time." Averil's voice was garbled as his face was pressed tighter against the stone wall.
"Oh, I'm sure he's completely reformed," Devon said sarcastically. "Tell Rothschild everything you've seen, like the good little toad that you are."
She released him, allowing him to face her once again. The skin of his cheek wore the indentation of stone, under which a flush of red bloomed. He glared at her impotently.
"And I should lead you directly to him?" Averil spat. "Perhaps he anticipated your strategies by hiding his location completely."
Devon shook her head. "No, you know where he is..." she hissed. She watched as he licked his lips nervously. His eyes darted quickly toward the west before landing again on her lips.
Smiling, Devon took a step back. "Thank you, Averil," she said before walking away.
"You fool!" his companion could be heard a moment later. "I told you she could read minds!"
A short time later, Liria watched Devon examine her blade after sharpening it carefully. The smaller woman sat on the bed, tapping her foot impatiently. In the chair across the room, Devon calmly continued her chore, ignoring the girl's irritation.
"How do you know he's at the docks?" Liria finally burst. "It could be a trap."
Devon paused before responding. "Averil isn't smart enough to put on a show like that. He was sent to observe our movements, and nothing more. Rothschild isn't ready for us yet. He must be finalizing some deal."
"Well, I'm going with you this time," Liria decided.
Devon opened her mouth to refuse, but Liria's face assumed an expression of determination that was becoming more and more familiar. "Don't even try to keep me away. You may want to save my appearance until it works best for your plan, but I'm a part of this. I'm not going to sit alone in this room any longer."
Suppressing a smile, Devon nodded. "I suppose I don't see why not, since this is merely a surveillance expedition."
"Then why are you getting ready for a fight?"
Devon flashed a grin. Standing, she sheated her sword at her side. "I'm always ready for a fight."
They paused at the stables to retrieve Talia, at Liria's insistence. Devon knew the girl had felt the separation from her familiar distinctly. When the innkeeper disallowed them from keeping the dog in their room, she had been hard pressed to keep Liria from bunking down with the animals.
Devon easily found a quiet spot for the three of them to watch the activities at the docks and yet remain relatively hidden from view. Liria didn't wait long before complaining, "You had to find the foulest cargo and lead us right to it, didn't you?"
Glancing at the crates before them, Devon sniffed. "You're not from a coastal town," she shrugged. "Chum is a vital tool to fisherman."
Liria frowned. "What is it?"
"Fish guts." At Liria's look of disgust, Devon laughed. "Leaving not a morsel to waste, and producing wealth from the most vile--this is the essence of success."
"Did you just make that up?"
"No, my father used to say it." Devon glanced away when she realized Liria would expect further information, ending the conversation.
She carefully examined the ships currently docked. Several merchant vessels were immediately dismissed once the cleanliness of ship and crew were observed. Honest captains wouldn't deal with Rothschild, not with his history. Then she spotted a familiar face. Devon frowned and elbowed Liria to get her attention.
"That one," she said.
"Are you sure?"
Devon pointed. "See that man directing the crew? Starboard. Over there," she said, placing her hands on either side of the girl's head to turn it in the right direction when her apparent confusion didn't abate. "That's Rothschild's brother. It's not a coincidence that he's shown up here."
"I take it he's not a popular man in Glenyth either?"
"Not unless you count a two hundred gold piece bounty a sign of good relations," Devon murmured. "What the devil brought him out of hiding?"
Liria sighed. "Me."
Devon glanced at her, feeling a prick of conscience at last. "I shouldn't have brought you here," she started to say, but was interrupted when Liria shook her head and gestured.
"Never mind that," she said. "Look, it's your friend."
Averil had made an appearance at last, speaking with Rothschild's brother. The men were facing the opposite direction, and Devon had no inkling of what they were saying. "Damn," she muttered. "Turn around."
She watched them in vain a few moments more until she noticed with a start the large furry body of a dog crossing the deck. Talia had somehow managed to board the ship. The men around her paid her little mind, no doubt accustomed to strange beasts making appearances as cargo. Devon turned toward Liria.
"What is that crazy mongrel doing..." she asked before her voice trailed away.
The blonde woman wasn't paying attention. Her form had grown rigid where she knelt behind the crates, her skin pale. Most worrisome to Devon was the sight of her eyes, which rolled back to such a degree that only the whites were visible. A line of spit trailed out of her slack mouth.
"Liria?" Devon asked, touching her arm. The girl didn't respond. Alarmed, Devon shook her harshly. "Wake up," she urged.
Liria's head jerked back suddenly, her hands clenching the air spasmodically. Devon breathed a sigh of relief when the girl blinked and started coughing. Clapping her on the back, she waited while Liria recovered.
"What was that?" Devon wondered.
Liria's eyes sparkled with excitement, surprising her. "I heard them," she exclaimed.
"What are you talking about?"
"I heard what Averil was saying. But then I heard you, and it brought me back," Liria said, frowning in consternation.
Devon shook her head. She didn't have time for more of the girl's spiritual awakenings. "Speak plainly."
Liria snorted. "I can't explain it any better than that," she said. "You wanted to know what they were saying, and I wished that I had a way of hearing them. And then Talia--" her voice broke off.
They both turned to watch the large animal returning. The dog glanced around herself, winding her way through the crowd a bit before making her way toward their hiding place. The cautious way she held herself made her appear almost human.
"Talia ran to the ship," Liria finished, awestruck. "Do you know what this means?" she cried. "I can sense things through her perspective."
Devon grunted, watching Liria greet her familiar. "Well," she said. "Can we get on with what was sensed?"
"Something about an auction," Liria said, patting her dog on the head. "Rothschild is going to meet them at a place called Hog Head."
"Hog's Head," Devon murmured. "It's a pub on the other side of the city. He probably thinks we'll head out that way as we leave." At Liria's blank look, she continued, "Averil had to have told Rothschild about our skirmish on the street. He'll assume I'm going to sneak you out to safety and then take him on by myself, knowing that I'll find out about his brother and not go by water."
Liria frowned. "Makes sense," she said, her voice raising into a question at the end.
"He's making plans based on the way I treated the other women I rescued," Devon said. "I put them out of harm's way before even trying anything with him. As far as he's concerned, you mean the same to me as they did."
A strange light passed through the girl's eyes. "Do I?" she asked.
Devon gazed at her sternly. "C'mon," she said gruffly. "I'll make sure you're seen in that area, then we can go ahead with the plan."
"I didn't know we had one."
"It's my plan," Devon responded. "Kill Rothschild, no more worries."
Liria's hand slowed on Talia's gray fur. She didn't say anything, but Devon saw the worry in her expression. The girl still had a hard time dealing with the responsibility of taking a life. That didn't matter anymore, however. Devon had no intention of allowing Liria any part in Rothschild's demise. His debt to her was much older, and the dark-haired woman would take it in flesh.
The Hog's Head was a popular drinking establishment for a wide variety of people. Newly arrived travelers stopped here for respite from the road, while the less scrupulous waited for the opportunity to turn out their pockets. This scene was generally played out over a gambling table. Inside, men could lose their earnings honestly. In the alleys outside, they might lose their throats, too.
Devon's hand was itching by the time she finally saw Averil approaching. Although he appeared more cautious than the first time around, he still was unable to notice her presence among the growing shadows. She longed to draw her blade, but what was a sheep when the wolf would soon cross her path?
Liria was safely stowed at a nearby livery, keeping Tyne company in her new quarters and being guarded by Talia. Devon threatened the girl with bodily harm if she dared try following. The men were sure to have noticed their movements through the city, although she was careful to keep their final destination discreet.
She watched Averil enter the pub, then glanced around to search for more of Rothschild's men before taking several steps forward into the street. A small child broke out of the crowd as she did so, darting forward to clumsily grasp at her belt. She caught him by the wrist and held him away from her. He was a filthy thing, clearly starving. His bright dark eyes glared at her angrily, making her think of a rat in a trap.
"You need to polish your skill," she advised him.
"As do you," a deep voice rumbled behind her. Directly after this, a sharp pain thrust into her side. She jerked around to see an unfamiliar man yank a hand away from her. In his grasp, a long knife glittered dully under a thick coating of blood. He smiled at her as she dropped her grip on the boy and clutched her left side.
The weapon had pierced her armor and slid easily between two ribs. Her breath became ragged as a burning sensation made its way through her middle. She reached for her sword with a blood-soaked hand, but was already disarmed. A tall man with graying hair and beard stood before her, her weapon in his hands. He shook his head at her sadly.
"Devon, my child," Rothschild said. "Why must you continue on this path of violence? It can only end in your own undoing."
She was unable to keep the anger from contorting her face. "Still don't have the guts to do your own dirty work," she spat as he passed her sword to the man who'd stabbed her. Her legs trembled, and she fought to keep standing.
Rothschild sighed, reaching up to finger the scar that crossed the left side of his face. "I don't understand why you're still with her," he finally said. "You obviously don't see the profit to be gained. And she's making you careless. She didn't wait two minutes before coming after you."
Surprised, Devon turned her head to gaze down the street. She spotted the sleek blonde head immediately, and was amazed that she hadn't noticed the girl sooner. Liria stood within shouting distance, a man pressed close to either side of her. Unlike the last time, she remained calm. She appeared more concerned for Devon than herself.
"Doesn't matter," Devon muttered, tasting the coppery flavor of blood in her mouth and wincing.
"What did you say?" Rothschild asked, leaning closer.
In a flash, Devon had one arm around his shoulders, pushing him down, and dagger at his throat. He waved his men away when they moved forward, although Devon still pressed the blade even tighter against his neck. "I said I will kill you one way or another, do not doubt it."
A moment later Rothschild was chuckling. "You cannot," he crowed, delighted. "Even after all of this you cannot give the final strike. And I know why."
Lip curling in disgust, Devon watched the dagger pierce his skin slightly. Deep down inside, she feared he was right. Something still held her back. "Do not be so sure," she growled, trying to convince herself as much as him.
"You won't kill me," he disagreed. "Because somewhere in what's left of that heart of yours, you still hope she may be alive somewhere."
Devon hesitated, feeling the sting of his words. She blinked away the meager beginnings of tears, and loosened her grip minutely.
It was enough for his new mercenary to make his move. She was struck on the back of the head. The dagger didn't leave her grasp, but Devon fell easily in her weakened state. Landing on the ground was agony as a raw flame of pain shot up her side. Almost losing consciousness, she thought she heard Liria's voice shouting nearby. Devon forced herself to move, pushing herself up on her hands and knees.
"Don't kill her!" Liria cried again. "I'll go with you. Just don't hurt her."
Devon looked up with some difficulty. "No," she whispered when she saw Liria tossed onto the back of a dark mare. Rothschild was at the blonde woman's side, directing the men around him. He glanced back at her, a grin twisting his features.
"Very noble, isn't she?" he called. "Perhaps this is why you kept her? To replace that certain void left long ago? Elisa is dead, Devon. I heard she didn't last three months."
Groaning, Devon struggled to rise as they rode away. "Liria!" she called. She spotted the boy who'd stopped her nearby, and was gratified by the horror stamped on his features. Panting, she fell back into a heap in the dirt, unable to move.
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