“Natalia, put it down.”
I roll my eyes and Tallima, and go to take another sip from my drink. It never reaches my lips. She snatches it away from me with a scowl. “Natalia, I know your instinct is to listen, learn, and get drunk, but we should find a… different strategy.”
“Nothing is more dangerous than a drunk Devia.”
She raises her eyebrows at me, and I grin and explain.
“You see, we only get drunk on festive occasions. And usually after that, we duel. A drunk Devia is a Devia primed for combat.”
“That’s not how it works. And besides, I don’t want you primed for combat,” Tallima sighs. “I’m going to keep this until you decide to behave yourself.”
I roll my eyes at her. “It’ll look suspicious if I don’t have a drink in my hand. Otherwise, I’ll just look like a weirdo who’s scanning the crowd for…. Oh yeah, let’s see, no apparent reason?”
The drink is pushed back into my hands, and I take a long, grateful sip from it, grinning at her. “Don’t worry. I’m very good at keeping a clear head. I’m not going to have my senses clouded now- especially not after one drink.”
“You’re drinking from a men’s mug, not a women’s, Natalia. The sizes are different. I would advise drinking… how many did you say you were planning on taking?”
“Definitely no. How many do you normally drink?”
“More than that on some days. Lately… I don’t know, none? But that’s because I was thinking about Kane. Now I can think about him and drink as well.”
You don’t think someone is going to notice that you’re drinking large amounts of alcohol and not getting drunk? They’re going to suspect that you have warrior magic. And from there, they could reason out that you’re a Devia.”
“Not everyone here is very fond of the Queen, or her Devias. Even a Devia with her senses dulled can kill a man twice her size with contempt.”
I shrug nonchalantly, but I have to admit that she has a point. I had easily killed several men, all armed, by myself before, with nothing but daggers. Devias are killing machines by reputation- but even we can be outnumbered. We are not invincible. Two Devias might deter someone- but if there were enough of them…
“Then just two.”
“Good girl,” Tallima smiles. “You can have all the drinks you want- once we find Kane, and are free to go where we wish.”
I smile back at her, though with a slight twinge of annoyance. “Yes, of course. Now, remind me. Who are we looking for?”
She rolls her eyes, then reaches down into the bag sitting beside her, pulling out a small, leatherbound book. A journal of her own. She opens it, and reads the descriptions that she wrote down. “Let’s see… a tall, dark haired man, in his fifties. He has a scar across his left cheek, and will most likely have a hunting knife at his side. People will treat him with deference and respect.” She looks up at me. “Speak to him, Natalia, but please, don’t hurt him. He’s my father.”
I nod. “I promise.”
The door opens in a gust of wind, and I look up hopefully. Then I slowly nudge Tallima’s arm. “Something’s off.”
Tallima looks up, and I see her eyes narrow. “You’re right.”
The person coming through the door is not her father. It is a noble. A tall, slender woman. Her hair is long and blond, falling down her back like a lustrous waterfall. She wears a deep purple dress, and her fingers are adorned with many rings.
I’ve met a few nobles in my time, and they all were like this. They carry themselves the same way, have the same arrogant face, the same display of wealth. But… no noble would ever deign to enter a commoner’s tavern. What is this woman doing here?
“Tallima,” I murmur. “I need you to see if she has any symbols on her. I need to know what house she’s from.”
She nods, and slips silently away into the crowd. I go back to my drink, and pay the noble no further heed.
It seems, however, that she has noticed me. I hear her approaching. And then a soft, cold hand is placed on my shoulder.
“Come, commoner,” she murmurs in my ear. “Walk with me.” Slowly, I turn around to glance at the noble woman. She gives me a dark smile. “Don’t cause a scene, love. You’ll just make trouble. Now come on. Let’s walk. I might have some information that could help you.”
I shrug, and stand. She nods to those watching, and they quickly redirect their attention elsewhere. Then she strides towards the door. Hesitant, I follow, knowing that Tallima is probably close behind.
I follow the noble out of the tavern. It is a bright, windy morning, and her hair blows almost delicately around her head as she studies me.
“I know you,” I say suddenly.
She cocks her head slightly, and I keep going.
“It’s not your face,” I decide. “It’s the voice. I’ve heard it before.”
“Maybe you have,” she murmurs. “Tell me, love, what business does a Devia have travelling alone?”
“My business is mine and mine alone,” I reply sharply.
The woman laughs lightly. “Oh child… You are not in the Queen’s palace. Not everyone here will be so quick to bow down to your authority. Especially if you aren’t acting on the Queen’s authority.”
The voice clicks. “Kane,” I whisper abruptly. “You were one of them. You were the woman that I heard. Where is he?!”
The noble raises one eyebrow, her expression amused. “Ah. So you are that little Devia that was in the dungeon with Kane. Imagine that. How did you get free? Ah, but it does not matter. I do not know where Kane is, child. We parted ways once we left the castle.”
“I don’t believe you,” I snarl. “Kane might be fooled, but I’m not. Your pretty words have no effect on me. Now tell me. Where is he, and what did you do to him.”
She sighs. “Child. We nobles are not lawless commoners. Perhaps you have been taught to lie and break promises, but we nobles are not so uncultured and vicious! I would not lie to your Kane, nor would any of my companions. I’m sorry, child. But he is long gone.”
I study her, trying to memorize her features. “Imagine how the Queen will react when I tell this to her,” I say sharply. “Your house will fall, if she learns that you have taken Kane from her. Return him to me, and you will be spared the punishment.”
“You’re wasting my time, child,” the noble replies. “Our house fell out of favor a long time ago. We do not fear the Queen and her punishments. Nor do I fear your empty threats.”
“You’ll regret it,” I reply quietly. “One doesn’t cross a Devia of the Queen so easily. I know you have Kane, and I will take him back from you.”
However, even as I say it, doubts begin to assail me. What if I’m wrong? What if Kane is gone? What if they actually kept their word? He could be anywhere. Going after him could just hurt him. What if I was making a terrible mistake?
“Having second thoughts, child?” the noble asks. “Clever of you. You will get nowhere by threatening me.”
That’s when Tallima appears beside me.
It’s been weeks since I’ve seen the shadow side of her, and when she reveals it, it’s terrifying. All of her becomes dark yet again, and she looks dark, dangerous, and mysterious.
“Lady Aliana Vallerus,” she says, her voice a quiet drawl. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Ah, so you have a friend,” the noble raises her eyebrows.
“She’s an enchantress, Natalia,” Tallima continues, her voice never rising in the slightest. “Her words are poison. She’s influencing your thoughts, making you doubt yourself. She is the consort of Kalleck Vallerus- a noble who had a recent falling out with the Queen. My best guess is that they are going to use Kane to restore some of their former wealth.” She studies the noble- Aliana- with a critical gaze. “Tell me, Lady Vallerus, is that true?”
“Of course not,” she says smoothly. “Vague accusations are all that you go by, young Devia.”
“Tell me,” Tallima replies, “what does Kalleck think he will gain? Kane will not have the means to conduct his work while in your manor. Neither the tools, nor the supplies. You will gain nothing from his service, if he even agrees to serve you in the first place, which he will not. You cannot hope to win this way. However, turn Kane over, and you will receive a considerable reward.”
“You lie, child,” Aliana growls, her eyes narrowing.
Tallima laughs coldly. “What do you think you will gain? The Queen will notice your activities. If you are buying large quantities of metal, she will notice. If you dare try to sell Kane’s inventions, she will notice. You will not be able to keep your activities hidden from her. She will know that you are hiding Kane, and she will send an army to bring him back. Kane is more valuable to her than any treasure in the entire kingdom. You could earn quite the reward for returning him. Or you could face the punishment for concealing him from the Queen.”
“Well spoken,” Aliana murmurs. “You’re a clever girl, Devia. You still believe we have Kane, I see.”
“I do not believe. I know,” she whispers. She turns to look at me. “Natalia. That day, you told me to find a way to fix what I had broken. I planned to free Kane, just as you did. I arrived too late. I heard the group leaving- heard their voices- and followed. And I saw what happened. They tricked Kane. They bound him, threw him in a wagon, and left. He is with them.”
My eyes widen with rage, and I instantly reach for one of my daggers. “You liar,” I snarl. “You promised him freedom. You promised him safety. And you used him!”
“So did you,” she replies softly. “I’d be careful about getting violent, love. I have others watching, waiting in case you get testy. I would hate for you to be shot in the back here and now. You have a lot of potential- if you learn what fights to stay out of. Your Kane will be perfectly fine. Now leave. Before this turns into a conflict.”
I start forwards, and a crossbow bolt zips past my ear. I flinch, backing off quickly.
“That was a warning shot, love,” Aliana laughs darkly. “The next one will be to your heart. Do you understand?”
I grit my teeth, but Tallima pulls me back. “Not now, Natalia. Not this fight. Another time. Another place. But not here. She obviously set this up. You’ll be dead before you take another step.”
Slowly, I step back, lowering the dagger. “Fine,” I mutter. “Too well set up.”
“Smart girl,” Aliana laughs. “You are wise to avoid angering me. But that’s not enough.” She leans forwards slightly. “I can’t have any loose ends. I’m sorry, little Devia.”
Her hand shoot forwards, already glowing. Before I can even move, Tallima lunges forwards, shoving me behind her. Aliana’s hand takes her in the forehead instead of me. Her eyes roll back into her head instantly, and she collapses to the ground with a soft thud.
By now, my daggers are out. I should run- but I am stuck. If I run, I leave Tallima here, stranded, alone. The enchantress could torture or kill her. But if I stay here, then I am in serious danger anyways. What do I do?
It turns out that I am not given enough time to choose. Men drop from the trees around me, all holding loaded crossbows. All of them are pointed straight at me.
I grind my teeth together in frustration, spinning my daggers nervously. I am skilled- a trained Devia- but I will be shot dead before I can fight my way free. If I resist, I will get myself killed. But my pride keeps me from surrendering. I am a Devia. I control situations- situations do not control me. But in this situation, if I fight, I’m dead.
“Lower your weapons, Devia,” the enchantress laughs. “You’ll just make it worse for yourself. Now put them down.”
Slowly, I let the daggers fall from my hands. I walked straight into a trap. And I brought my one friend into it with me.
“Good girl,” Aliana smirks at me, and strides forwards. Her palm glows red, and she reaches out for me. I flinch backwards. “Stay still,” she orders. “Unless you want to be shot.”
I grit my teeth, and force myself to stay still. Then her palm touches my forehead, and I forget all self-control. I scream, jerking away from her. But it is too late. Pain forks through my skull, and for a moment that is all I can feel. Lightning bolts shoot through my mind, and I scream again- but hear nothing. I hit the ground, and taste blood, but feel nothing. I twitch, and reach up to grab my head, curling in on myself. Then the enchantress's hand comes down again, and mercifully, the pain fades as darkness swallows my vision.