Equilibrium

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18: Coins and Drink

Larke, 1182

It wasn’t long until it was time for us to begin our heist. We were all in place, three quiet souls in the midst of merry chaos. Our trio occupied a single table in the loud common area of the inn, The Ruddy Apple. Each of us had ordered an ale to blend in, but Spenser was the only one drinking. I dislike alcohol; it fogs the senses, clogs the body with poison, and overall is a general hindrance to physical performance. Plus, I don’t enjoy the taste. However, Spenser did not seem to share my opinion, and clearly had a high tolerance for the drink. He had downed three mugs by now, with no visible effect.

“When are they supposed to arrive?” Spenser asked Dean, slamming his mug on the table and splashing Dean with the foam.

He didn’t appear to notice; or maybe, he didn’t care. Dean pointedly wiped the foam off of his arm, glaring at Spenser as he did so.

“They’ll be here; I trust in my source.”

“Better be. If they don’t show up soon, I’m just going to get sloshed,” Spenser replied, already raising his cup to his lips again.

Dean and I exchanged annoyed looks. I searched the room, hoping that something would happen soon to save me from this awful conversation. Surely, the banker would show up soon.

And, as luck would have it, my attempt at distraction was rewarded. A loud group of three men waltzed into the inn and sauntered up to the bartender. Two led the group; they were tall, large, and fairly intimidating. The third was the exception; a short, portly, balding man followed behind them. It was immediately obvious that this man was the representative from the bank and the rest were his hired guards. I watched them carefully, observing. They apparently bought the banker a room, as they exchanged a few coins with Retta. The supposed banker immediately huffed his way up the stairs to the sleeping quarters, leaving his bodyguards at the bar.

“There’s only two guards,” I whispered to Dean, who sat closest to me. “This should be easy for us.”

He nodded discreetly, keeping his eyes off of them so as to not be obvious. “Spenser, later, you’re going to help Retta and make this easy for us. You should challenge them to a drinking contest,”
Dean said, raising his eyebrows at Spenser’s empty mugs. “I can see you’re talented in that arena.”

Spenser smiled at this, ignoring Dean’s obvious distaste. “Fine. Later though, we can’t just jump into that,” he said with a grin still on his face. “Maybe we should get Larke to flirt with them and get them to loosen up that way. No way they’ll flirt with Retta, she looks like a mouse!”

Dean and I both narrowed our eyes at Spenser. Just because Retta had plain, light brown hair, a slight build, and small features, it was no excuse to insult her.

“Well that’s rude. Not to mention, I have no idea how to flirt,” I countered, my frustration seeping through into my words. I crossed my arms across my chest.

“Everyone, relax. For now, we’re just observing,” Dean said, expertly resolving the conflict with his calm words.

“Boring,” Spenser muttered under his breath and into his mug he had lifted to his lips.

“Can you see how many weapons they have on them?” Dean asked me, not turning to look in their direction.

My chair faced the bar, so it was easy for me to watch the men without seeming obvious. I watched them sit and order some drinks from Retta, which she served with a pleasant smile. One man swept his cloak out of the way, revealing a dagger secured at his hip. The other guard’s dagger was plainly visible; he hadn’t bothered to conceal it behind a cloak, instead favoring to tuck his cloak behind the scabbard, out of the way.

“Hard to say for sure. I see they both have a dagger each, at the least. I imagine they have more, though,” I speculated.

“I wonder how many are guarding the money right now,” Dean questioned, rubbing his chin in thought, probably thinking what he would do if he were in their shoes.

“We’ll have to confirm before we act,” I said, still watching the guards and the banker at the bar, talking to Retta.

“Yeah. Okay, so here’s the plan,” Dean said, leaning in close into the table to whisper to us discreetly. “Spenser, you’ll distract the two in here however you like and Larke and I will focus on the ones outside.” Dean laid out the plan with an authoritative tone, allowing for no arguments.

“Sure,” said Spenser.

Dean and I relaxed into our chairs. Now, all we had to do was act.

Spenser grabbed his mug, jumped up from from the table, and joined the two guards at the bar. He leaned in close to the man on the right, and drunkenly asked, “Eh, what are you drinking tonight, mate?”

Dean and I were close enough that we could listen to their conversation. We exchanged a look, silently agreeing to make sure that Spenser had these two adequately occupied before we left to deal with our part. We settled in casually, each of us pretending to sip from our still-full mugs.

“None of your business, that’s what,” the guard gruffly responded.

“Pardon me, pardon me, I’m only curious,” Spenser allowed, raising his palms in a placating gesture. “I’m just a fellow looking for a friendly face to drink with. You look like interesting folk. Got any good stories to tell?” He leaned his arm on the bar, and watched the men, waiting.

They stared back, annoyed.

“Humor me, I’m drunk and bored,” Spenser requested in a singsong voice, resting his arm against the bar counter. “We could play a game if you like. I know a great one, in fact.”

“And what is it, drunkard?” Though the men sounded annoyed still, their interest had been visibly piqued when Spenser had mentioned the drinking game.

I stopped watching them to silently catch Dean’s attention with a minuscule nod. It seemed that Spenser had successfully drawn them in. Whenever Dean was ready, we would go.

“Wait until they start actually drinking and let Spenser occupy them for a minute,” he advised. “When they’re good and distracted, then we’ll go outside and reevaluate. Be flexible.” Dean said, eyebrows raised at me, asking questions with his facial expression that he dared not voice.

“Easy enough. If there’s more than two out there, I’ll go for a distraction first,” I replied. I could always rely on them underestimating me – as a woman, it happened to me often. I didn’t look very dangerous, especially not in a common woman’s dress, as I was now.

Dean nodded in agreement to my answer.

And so, we waited some more, feigning drinking, taking our time. Spenser certainly had a knack for social interaction, and despite the cold greeting he had just received, they now appeared to be best friends. He had them laughing, drinking, and telling stories in a matter of minutes. I was impressed; I certainly did not have that talent. He was comfortable in whatever social setting, able to get anyone to like him. That type of talent would serve him well in court, I thought. Assuming we could make it there. Again, I reminded myself of our deal, and it sent my stomach swirling into knots.

After a while, the guards had warmed up to Spenser so much that they were sitting close to him, playing a silly children’s game, daring each other to perform stupid acts, and other such nonsense that drunks do. Spenser had confidently gained their trust. Curious, I began to pay attention to their conversation again.

“So, what do you fine gentlemen do outside of drink?” Spenser asked contentedly, fishing for information, no doubt.

The guards, his newfound best friends, were happy to oblige his request.

“We’re hired bodyguards. Security, and the like.” The guard puffed his chest out and tilted his chin up, obviously proud of his career.

“No! How fascinating. Met anyone famous?”

“Well,” the guard sniffed with an air of importance, “we do have gigs from time to time… in the palace. Supplementing the royal guard, as one does.”

“You don’t say? Do you get to meet the King?”

“Well of course, we’re quality guardsmen!”

“But I bet you don’t get to do anything interesting. You probably have to guard the King while he goes to take a piss, most likely,” Spenser said, laughing.

“You think you’re funny, don’t you? I’ll have you know that we’ve been hired to assist in security at the King’s Formal Ball next month.”

“The what now?”

“The Formal Ball. What, someone as cultured and noble as you haven’t heard of it?” The guard snickered, laughing at Spenser.

“Well, we can’t all be as influential as you lot, now can we. What is this Formal Ball?”

“We’re not supposed to share details, as you can imagine, but let’s just say that the King has graciously invited all of his loyal noble class to celebrate the Kingdom’s prosperity,” the man gloated. “Unofficially, though, the King is trying to get his daughter to meet an eligible bachelor.” The guard waggled his eyebrows at the last comment.

My whole body tensed up; my muscles tight. Dean noticed and rested his warm hand on my bicep to calm me, a confused expression on his face.

“Think you can score me an invite? I’d love to… meet… a princess,” laughed Spenser, who rose his eyebrows at the guard in return.

“Ha! Of course, you would, you vagabond. But no, it’s nobility only. We’ll be guarding the entrances. But everyone who’s anyone will be there.”

I met Dean’s eyes once more, who looked pensive. What was he thinking? He removed his hand from my arm and leaned in close to my ear, not wanting anyone to overhear us.

“That sounds like an event we shouldn’t miss,” whispered Dean, as he leaned into my ear to discreetly share his opinion.

His breath tickled my neck, giving me shivers.

“Why?” I whispered back, making assumptions of my own, but curious what Dean would say.

“We could cause all sorts of mischief, obviously. Get close to some other nobility, perhaps steal their loyalty…. Maybe even venture into the depths of the castle and find out what the King is really up to.”

“We would have to be very careful.”

“Obviously,” he said, settling back into his chair to take another sip from his mug, “but we’re professionals.”

“I think we could sneak in easily enough,” I suggested. With my help, it would be a piece of cake, as I knew the castle like the back of my hand. I would just have to be convincing about how I had this knowledge when explaining it to Dean. I couldn’t blow my cover. As far as he knew, I was a widow, effectively drafted into the Naga gang to relieve my late husband’s debt.

Internally, I scoffed. As if I, Larke Fields, could be duped so easily into marrying someone like that. If I were to marry someone, they would have to be my partner, not somebody that would drag me down as such. They would have to be strong and capable, able to make up for my weaknesses, and I’d be able to complement their strengths.

I looked up at Dean, watching him swirl the ale in his mug. Evidently, he was deep in thought as well, his eyes were far away, his expression contemplative.

Watching Dean, I became lost in my own thoughts again. What kind of person would I deem worthy to spend the rest of my time with? Beauty and youth are fleeting, but… I would like my future spouse to be handsome, too. There has to be some kind of chemistry between your partner and yourself, otherwise, life is all business. All business and no pleasure make for quite a dull affair.

Suddenly, flashes of memories flickered behind my eyes; Dean, kissing me while drunk at that party; Spenser, threatening me to work with him while his eyes spoke of passion; and even my first kiss; clumsy fumbling in the moonlight of the palace garden. The memories left me feeling sad and empty. I had no use for this love thing, anyway. Suryan Mages must remain competent, judgement unclouded. I had a purpose to fulfill, and I must not forget it.

“Forget about all that now, we must remain focused at the task at hand.” Dean spoke quietly, but it jolted me from my reverie.

“You alright, Larke?” He put his hand over top of mine, which had been resting on the table.

I wasn’t used to being touched this often. Rarely do I even allow anyone the chance to do such a thing, but somehow, this felt different. I welcomed it.

“Yeah… fine. We have business to attend to,” I replied, watching his fingers caress my hand curiously, and then raising my gaze to meet his.

He coughed lightly and took his hand away. “Mm, yes. The guards are good and distracted. It’s time for our part.” He stood up, chugged the small amount of ale left in his mug, and made eye contact with Retta behind the bar.

She nodded so slightly that if you hadn’t been looking for it, you wouldn’t have noticed. She redirected her attention towards Spenser and the guards he was entertaining; they would be getting ample alcohol and sources of entertainment for the rest of the night.

I stood to join Dean, and we calmly strode towards the front – and only – door. Right as we reached it, I gave him a look, and he allowed me to exit before him. He understood without me saying that I wished to scout the area before him; we both knew that a woman was much less conspicuous and threatening than his large stature.

I stepped outside into the brisk, night air. Looking around, I saw the stables off to the left. Noticing nobody in the immediate area, I gestured back to Dean, who had casually leaned up against the wall. He and I ventured towards the stables, his steps a few yards behind me. He would stand watch and guard my back while I gathered information. I felt a rush of satisfaction of our nonverbal communications. We made a good team.

I turned around the corner of the Ruddy Apple Inn and found what we were looking for. It was elaborate, yet functional. The cart was closed in, no open windows, but it was elegantly decorated with corners of painstakingly worked metal; a handle of gleaming twisted brass, accompanied with a heavy pad-lock that looked out of place next to the artistic decorations. Leaned against one side of the cart was a single guard, looking bored. I stayed hidden against the corner of the Inn to watch and listen. There had to be more than one.

My patience was rewarded. The guard shifted his stance, and I saw that he carried not only a large sword at his belt – that was obvious when I first saw him – and a deadly sharp dagger tucked into his coat. I waited longer; we couldn’t barge in until we knew for sure what exactly we were dealing with. I doubted there was only one; who would send a single man to guard such an important shipment?
I ducked out of sight and silently beckoned Dean to me. He padded over slowly, taking great pains to make no sound.

When he got close enough, I grabbed his collar and pulled him down to my level.

I whispered as quietly as I knew how, “I only see one, but there must be more. He has at least one sword and a dagger, possibly more.”

He shivered when I finished, my breath tickling him just as he had done to me in the inn. He nodded to acknowledge me, and pointed to the spot again, suggesting I continue. He returned to his post, and I to mine.

A few more minutes passed, and nothing happened.

“When are those bastards coming back in? They said they were getting the representative a room, and then coming back in to switch shifts,” grumbled a guard I couldn’t see. His voice came from the other side of the elaborate cart.

Another voice answered, an additional guard not in line of sight, “They’re probably getting a drink right now, those assholes. I’m of a mind to rush in there and pull their sorry faces out.”

Three guards. It appeared that our time was running short. We needed to act before they banded together, as that was the whole point of having Spenser distract the others inside. I got Dean’s attention by catching his eye, hoping that he knew what I was about to try.

I stumbled into view of our targets.

“What’s a girl gotta do ta get a drink ’round here, eh?” I slurred, shuffling towards the cart in a drunken manner. Hopefully, my false drunken behavior would entice them all to come forward. And, also hopefully, Dean would catch on quick.

The guard I could see started chuckling, and I noted that the second had peeked around the corner to see what was happening. If Dean could dispose of the hidden third one, then I only had two to handle.

“Miss, you’re going the wrong direction from a drink,” the first guard pointed out politely. “The bar is behind you.” He chuckled, edging closer to me.

The second man had stepped out fully from behind the cart, and stood there with his arms crossed, watching with a small smile. I commanded both of their attentions.

I swaggered a bit to approach them, wanting to draw out the third guard, The less unknown variables, the better.

I had to act and assume Dean was ready to act as well. I closed my eyes and gathered some focus to magically bolster my strength. For me, magic was an act of concentration and imagination. I simply pictured in my head what I wanted to do with my magic, and it became so. I visualized energy pulsing through my muscles, reinforcing my bones, strengthening the sinews.

“Looks like you gennnel-men have all the enner-tainment I’m lookin’ for, though,” I spoke drunkenly, walking boldly up to the closest guard and putting my hands on his chest.

My hands roamed, searching for his dagger he concealed inside his jacket under the guise of drunken flirtation. The back of my hand brushed against cold metal. I’d found it, tucked in the inner pocket.

My speed enhanced from my magic, I acted faster than he could even see; I twisted my hand, grabbed the dagger, and in a vicious arc, sliced his throat.

He didn’t even have time for his expression to register surprise; however, the second guard did, his face twisting in shock and anger as he lunged towards me. I didn’t even watch as the first man’s body fell. I turned to the second man now, barely noticing the flash of movement behind them that must be Dean fighting the third guard.

The second man drew his weapon and lunged. Angry swipes of his long, thin sword were directed in a relentless, moderately skillful assault on my person. I easily evaded each attempt, stepping forward and closing the small gap between us. I still held the first guard’s dagger in my hand, keeping it close to my body, defending myself as I swerved around his blade. I amped up the magic strength supporting my arms, feeling the buzzing of energy throughout my entire body.

The man raised his weapon to try to slice at an angle; with my free hand, I caught the blow at the man’s wrist, with the other, I swiped at his throat just as I had with his colleague.

It was just as effective now as it had been then; his throat was cleanly sliced by the well-sharpened blade. I examined the dagger and appreciated the blade’s quality, hearing the thud of another fallen body. The man who’d owned this had taken great care of it; I’d be keeping it.

All of this happened in seconds. I allowed for the magic I’d been using to enhance my fighting abilities to dissipate, feeling warmth throughout my body as the excess energy released as heat. I sighed, satisfied. Examining the aftermath, I saw Dean breathing heavily, standing over his victim.
Dean’s guard appeared to still be alive; he had simply knocked him out after disarming him. The guard had a nasty bump on his head, already growing and turning purple.

“You good?” I asked, gesturing towards the man lying on the ground.

Dean nodded and pointed his eyes towards my victims.

“Looks like you’re fine,” he responded, sounding a little concerned.

Suddenly, I felt a little guilty. Should I not have killed these men? They were a threat. And now, they can’t identify us. Maybe I went too far; perhaps this had been a mistake.

“…Yeah,” I sighed, suddenly tired. The adrenaline and magical exertion must be catching up to me. I was out of practice, and the magic affected me much more than it normally would have. “We should get what we came for,” I continued.

With a large sigh, Dean agreed, and walked around the cart, examining it.

“Probably easiest to just hook up one or two of those horses over there,” Dean said, pointing to the horses that the guards had likely brought with them to pull the caravan. They were tied up conveniently at the stables. “We’re already stealing the money, might as well steal the horses that came with it. No point in trying to unload this – see that massive lock?”

“Yeah. I bet we could easily break that open, though,” I speculated. I knew for a fact that I could, personally, if I felt the inclination.

“Sure,” Dean shrugged. “We have people that can. Let’s hook this up.”

Dean and I each went to collect the workhorses that had brought the cart here and attached them accordingly. They spooked a bit, smelling the blood that I had spilled, but Dean calmed them with gentle pats and whispers. I wondered if his illusions worked on horses as well as they did on people.

“We need to alert the others of our status,” I said, remembering our other team members. “Spenser should be okay to leave him here for the moment; he can take care of himself. Better to make the getaway now.”

“Okay. We should clean up, though.”

“Right. Let’s just… drag them over here, behind the stables.”

We each grabbed an arm and relocated the two bodies behind the stables. I kicked up dirt to cover some of the blood. Hopefully it would rain soon, and my tracks would be fully covered. It didn’t matter – we were already criminals in the eyes of the crown as Naga gang members – what would it matter if we were wanted for murder too?

The third guard who was simply unconscious, we took the time to tie up, gag, and throw inside the stables. He didn’t stir a single bit, even when we threw him in a large pile of horse manure.

“I swear that wasn’t intentional,” I apologized to the guard, giggling a little. He would have a rude awakening, along with a nasty headache.

“Sorry mate,” said Dean cheerfully, wiping his hands on the guard’s shirt.

“No, you’re not,” I corrected.

“I’m offended.”

We were successful; now, all we had to do was bring this back home.

“I’ll sneak back into the kitchen to alert our drivers to come get the cargo.”

Dean turned on his heel and crept around the back of the inn, surely entering the kitchen through the back door to tell Retta that we were done. Spenser would know to keep distracting the remaining guards, and Retta would send us the three other gang members who would help us drive the cart home.

“Be careful,” I warned, “I’ll wait here and get our horses ready.”

We were to act as accompanying guard to the cart, so I went back into the stables to secure our rides. The guard’s horses would do nicely. Dean returned, a determined look on his face.

“Oh, I’ve almost forgot,” he said, shaking his head at himself. He rustled in his pant pockets, looking for something.

A scrap of parchment emerged, and a conveniently small travel quill complete with a tiny bottle of ink. He scribbled something on it and disappeared back into the stables.

“What did you do?” I asked, my curiosity burning.

“Had to leave the Usurper a message, of course,” Dean replied cryptically.

He mounted his horse, watching me stare at him. I got on top of mine, the saddle’s aroma of well-oiled leather wafting up towards my nose. Finally, we were ready. The three other people were situated high on top of the cart in the ample seating area, Spenser still inside doing his part with Retta, and Dean and I were saddled as the cavalry.

Time to return home.

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