He tumbled into the crowd’s midst and, at his arrival, Raven stood up from her pile of cushions, where she had been reclining, listening with interest to her followers’ stories. The crowd parted as she made her way to her messenger and grabbed his hands to help him up.
“Deri,” she said, her voice soft and smooth and melodic. “Was I right in sending you to your cousin’s home? Is he a member of another’s following?”
Breathless, Deri nodded, his own hands clasping hers tightly, if only to keep himself upright. “Mistress, you can’t go to the bath houses tonight. They will be there to kill you!”
At that, the chamber went quiet and all eyes turned towards them. Raven’s gaze didn’t waver from his eyes. Aven made his way over to them and stood protectively by Raven’s shoulder.
“Are you sure?” Aven asked, his voice serious and deep, his brow crinkled in a frown.
Deri nodded, gulping for air, his heart still hammering away. Now, though, it was more from fear and anxiety than physical activity. “I heard them. They’re frustrated with you, Raven, and their failed assassination attempts. They have decided to strike immediately on their own. They didn’t want to let their followings know just in case they have a spy in their midst. They know you go to the bath houses tonight and they have planned to meet you there in order to kill you. You can’t go, Raven, you can’t!”
Raven released his hands and turned him over to one of the matronly women who cared for the younger orphans. She turned to Aven as Deri was led away to a warm meal. She propped her hands on her hips, her dark eyes hard and glinting as she stared into space for a moment.
“I have to do something about this,” Raven finally announced. “Aven, gather ten of my murderers and have them meet us three buildings over from the bath house. Have ten more gather here. And get my decoy ready. We attack.”
Aven nodded and hurried off to do her biding. Laser focused, Raven strode into her private chambers off of the main chamber and prepared herself for a confrontation, dressing in tight black pants and a skin-tight long-sleeved shirt. She pulled on her boots and wrapped a black cloak around her shoulders to finish off her outfit. It was time to set those other Thief Lords right. She was not going to be threatened by another mere assassination attempt.
A grim look on her otherwise flawless face and confidence in her stride, Raven walked back into her main chamber. It had been cleared of just about everyone, most of whom had probably already dispersed on their own to spread word of what the messenger had overheard and what was about to go down at the bath houses. Ten men, all dressed in tight fitting black outfits that bulged slightly here and there to hide knives and other blades, were standing around, waiting on her. Aven was with them, hands clasped behind his back and a face as grim and serious as Raven’s. A girl of sixteen with the same coloring as Raven stood at his side. Onna had been serving as her decoy for the past year; she had been specially selected because of her striking resemblance to Raven, and the girl was proud of this honor. For this outing, she was dressed in a dark brown robe, hood covering her hair, and sandals. She was dressed as Raven would be if she were really on her way to a bath.
Raven ignored the murderers for the moment and instead walked over to Onna to stare deep into the girl’s dark eyes. Onna stared back, a flame of excitement in her eyes. She wasn’t often called to serve as decoy, but delighted in it every time. She loved the excitement of certain death staring her down and being defeated.
“It’s not bumbling following members after me tonight, Onna,” Raven said, her voice firm and clear. The girl needed to know some of the greatest and most successful criminals in Needle City would be trying to kill her. “These are three experienced Thief Lords who have killed before. Corinn himself was a murderer before he became a Thief Lord. He is slippery and sly, Onna. You must be especially vigilant for him.”
Onna nodded. “Of course, Raven. It is my intent to serve as your decoy for as long as I can.”
Raven gave her a tight smile. “Watch yourself, Onna.” She turned her head to Aven. “Are the bath attendants ready?”
Aven inclined his head. “Sasha and Myria await Onna at the front of the building. They have their orders.”
“Good,” Raven said, turning back to Onna. “Now, my dear, watch your step and take care. We will see you after we have faced the Thief Lords.”
Onna bowed her head and then scampered off. Raven paced back to where the murderers waited patiently. Aven fell in behind her. While the murderers were some of Raven’s most loyal followers, he still didn’t put anything past them.
“There are ten other murderers waiting three buildings from the bath house,” Raven said. “You will join them and pair up. Until we meet up with them, your job will be to protect Onna. These Thief Lords are dangerous and now that our peace has been breached, they will be even more zealous to be rid of me, or else face an even more stringent treaty.”
Several of the murderers nodded and others shifted stances. This wasn’t any normal job and it carried far more risks. Going up against just one Thief Lord was almost certain death. Going up against three was just plain crazy.
“We move,” Raven announced.
She turned on her heel and headed out into the tunnels. Aven followed close behind and the murderers shuffled after them, murmuring plans to each other. They knew the other ten that had been sent ahead and knew whom worked best with whom.