All these little peasant towns get to look depressingly similar after you've seen enough of them. Oh, people are quick to make excuses, ready to talk a good game: It's beautiful here when the apple trees are in blossom, the Tribute has just been hard this year, when the sun goes down the fields shine golden. And some of that is fair enough. Paying the Mistress's Tribute isn't easy, and not paying it is worse; there was that one village a few miles back with the box full of Something Too Horrible to Open sitting in the town square, and Amaruq got the hell out of there fast, before some local boy could try to make a name for himself by unleashing whatever was in there and doing not-so-glorious-after-all battle with it.
But most of the year—now, for example—the apple trees aren't in blossom, and even if the rain would stop so the pretty sunset could happen, you still can't spend sun-gilded fields. There's not much making Amaruq's purse jingle as she trudges through the mud toward the village inn, and that's a matter of serious professional concern. This year has been pretty slow for mercenary work, ever since that one really cushy job with the Snow Queen in the spring, and too many of her clients have had a case of the disappearing funds in these last few months. True, the pickings might be better in a castle town than in the countryside, but then you run the risk of getting attention from the castle's overlord, and, well. Within reasonable traveling distance? There's the king who can't keep it in his hose, the Mistress with her unpredictable whims, and the things Amaruq has heard about the Primate of Gar—her personal map ends at the border of his territory, and she'll leave it at that.
She pushes open the door to the inn, expecting the traditional moment of nervous silence, but it doesn't come. That means somebody else already has their attention, and Amaruq scans the room cautiously, in case the other traveler is somebody she owes money. There was that one bard who didn't look like he could even hold his own in a drinking contest, much less—
Oh. No, this won't be any trouble at all. At least, not that sort of trouble and not for Amaruq. It's definitely going to be trouble for somebody.
Over by the fireplace, an auburn-haired woman in a striped kerchief and an excitingly immodest blouse is holding court with a few would-be adventurer types, the sort who haven't really gotten much past the sword-polishing stage yet. They're doomed, the poor boys. Amaruq has met the woman, Cliona, before, and she's about as ruthless as treasure hunters get. The rookies must have something she thinks is interesting, from the way she's playing footsie under the table, and pretty soon now they're going to hand it over to her with no argument, from the way they can't take their eyes off her cleavage. Not that Amaruq can entirely blame them—it is a pretty spectacular view—but she isn't public-spirited enough to go warn them, either.
Especially not after Cliona glances up, sees Amaruq in the doorway, and brightens with the obvious delight of a rogue who's just figured out how to make some appealing mischief. She raises one eyebrow in the universal sign for wanna help me sucker these guys?
Amaruq rolls her eyes in the time-honored adventurers' code for I know better than to trust you, but what the hell. She's already pretty broke, so she doesn't have much to fear from a thief, right? And Cliona's fun, even if she's high-risk. Amaruq nods once.
She could go storming over there right now to break it up on the pretense of defending Cliona's honor; those poor boys probably couldn't take a goblin in a fair fight. But there's always the chance that this opportunity won't work out, and Amaruq would rather leave her options open. She can wait.
Instead of making trouble now, she goes to order herself a meal and a room for the night. It takes a little insisting to get the innkeeper's attention—the adventuring boys aren't the only ones who are impressed with Cliona's assets—but he does at least have an ear for coin that Amaruq can respect if not entirely appreciate. She has a bowl of the inn's house stew, makes a big show of yawning, and heads upstairs with the key to her room.
She waits the doorway to her room, in the dark, listening. Only a few minutes later, she hears three sets of footsteps on the stairs: one light and quick, two more stumbling behind. This isn't even going to take work.
Cliona's murmuring teasing, filthy promises as she reaches the top of the stairs, leading the first of her marks by the waistband of his trousers. It's simple as taking candy from a baby—or treasure from an idiot—for Amaruq to step up behind the other one and smack him once in the back of the head with the pommel of her dagger.
He crumples, and she catches him on the way to the floor; she thinks she hears Cliona curse under her breath, and then the other one is collapsing, too. "What did you have to do that for?" Cliona whispers as she rummages in her boy's belt. "I was looking forward to taking them for all they were worth."
"Didn't feel like waiting around to watch the show," Amaruq says. She drags her mark into the nearest room. It'll be hours before he's ready to get up and face his headache. "What did these morons have that you even wanted, anyway?"
Cliona tugs a roll of parchment out of her victim's trousers, brandishing it triumphantly. "A map!" she says. "A map of the grim forest of Caldor."
Amaruq stares at her for a minute. "You seriously want to go looking for the lost Caldoran temple," she says. "You seriously think these clowns had a map that would get you there." She reaches for the map to take a look at it, but Cliona snatches it away, taking a quick step backward.
"Maybe I just like collecting maps," she says. "Maybe I have a gullible client who'd pay for the map even if it's bogus."
"Maybe I'm wondering what my take is for helping you collect your fake map, then," Amaruq says. She takes another step forward, and Cliona takes another step back. They do the mercenary two-step like that straight into one of the inn's guest rooms.
Cliona smiles when Amaruq kicks the door shut behind them. "I'm sure we can come to some kind of arrangement," she says. She slinks toward Amaruq, all swaying hips and sultry curves.
She kisses like she's storming a castle, which Amaruq means in the most flattering way possible; it's always nice to spend time with a woman who knows exactly what she's after and isn't afraid to wreak a little havoc to get it. Amaruq threads her fingers into Cliona's wild hair and pulls, because she's no fainting damsel herself, and Cliona laughs into her mouth.
Amaruq's armor is boiled leather, lightweight but tough, and makes it pretty difficult for anyone to get at her breasts—which had been an afterthought compared to the lightweight and tough parts, but it's a nice bonus all the same. Cliona doesn't waste time fighting with the laces, just reaches down to slide her fingertips up under the hem of Amaruq's skirt and trace teasing runes along the insides of her thighs. Amaruq bucks her hips, squirming to try to get those light fingers to be a little more forceful, but no dice.
Well, Amaruq has no problems being the forceful one. She tightens her grip a little and pulls downward, dragging Cliona's mouth away from hers, and Cliona's smirking as she sinks to her knees.
"How's this?" she asks, pressing Amaruq's thighs further apart, nuzzling her way up to the junction between them. She breathes out slowly, one hot breath through the thin fabric of Amaruq's panties, and then catches them between her teeth—
And Amaruq grabs Cliona's hand just as it's reaching for her coin purse. "Nice try."
"Sorry," Cliona says insincerely, grinning around the fabric still caught between her teeth. "Habit."
"I bet," Amaruq says. She doesn't let go of her purse, and she does her best to keep her guard up, but it turns out Cliona has the talent to back up her bravado, her tongue as quick and agile as her fingers, her teeth just barely grazing sensitive flesh. Amaruq leans back against the door for support and lets Cliona's clever mouth bring her to a shuddering, gasping climax.
Cliona sits back on her heels, smirking as if she's extremely pleased with herself. "Well?" she says, licking her lips. "How's that?"
"I hope you don't think we're done," Amaruq says. She can manage a pretty good smirk herself, when she tries.
"Hard to satisfy, are you?" Cliona says.
Amaruq pulls her to her feet. "I don't think I'm the only one who needs satisfying here." She kisses Cliona again, hard, tasting her own musk on Cliona's tongue. It's tricky to get a talented thief off-balance, but she thinks she's managed it here. She takes the lead, pushing Cliona back toward the bed, and Cliona gets with the program in time to do a neat tumble instead of an awkward spill onto her back.
She parts her thighs, the front panel of her skirt falling between them, her top in attractive disarray. She still has the map in one hand, on the pillow above her head like she's keeping it out of reach. "See anything you like?"
"You know I do," Amaruq says. "Here, let me show you." She crawls onto the bed, sliding a hand up one of Cliona's thighs. Turns out Cliona doesn't wear anything under that teasing skirt, and her curls are already damp when Amaruq's fingers slip between them. Her first moan sounds practiced and showy. Her second, when Amaruq nuzzles her soft blouse out of the way and takes a nipple carefully between her teeth, sounds pleasantly surprised. Her third, after a few minutes of teasing, when Amaruq sinks two fingers into her to find her slick and hot, sounds like real pleasure.
Amaruq licks and sucks Cliona's nipples, presses the heel of her hand against Cliona's clit and strokes her deep inside. Cliona's moans and whimpers completely lose that showing-off sound before Amaruq gets her off the first time, and she turns out to have no trouble going more than once. Amaruq doesn't stop until Cliona is completely worn out, shaking with exertion and giggling helplessly.
Then, of course, Amaruq disentangles enough so that she can reach up and tug the map out of Cliona's slack grip.
"Hey," Cliona says, trying to frown at her and not making a very convincing show of it.
"Just looking," Amaruq says. She unrolls the map and scans it quickly...and frowns thoughtfully, giving it a bit more attention.
"What?" Cliona says. She rolls over, draping an arm over Amaruq's waist. Her fingers start exploring, but Amaruq has her purse pinned under her other hip, so she doesn't worry about it too much. "Something wrong with my map?"
Amaruq raises an eyebrow. "Yours, is it?" she says. Cliona shrugs. "No, nothing wrong." If it's a fake, it's at least a creative fake. There's a lot of detail, and it doesn't look like it was cribbed off a map of some better-known territory held upside down or anything. It's just possible this one leads somewhere. "So are you selling this thing, or did you plan to go after the temple treasure?"
Cliona gives up on the larcenous cuddling and lies back, smiling up at Amaruq with entirely too much confidence for somebody who probably can't walk as far as the chamber pot right now. "No harm in just going to take a look," she says. "If the treasure is there, I'd be set for a good long time." She looks Amaruq up and down. "I suppose it's probably dangerous, though. These things always are. Maybe I should hire someone to be my bodyguard."
"Is that an offer?" Amaruq says.
"Sounds that way," Cliona says. "Well? For a share in the spoils?"
Amaruq thinks about it for a minute, looking at the winding route the map traces through the forest. Her purse will never be safe around Cliona—so to speak—but it would be an exciting trip. Nothing like cleaning up gangs of two-copper bandits in boring, muddy villages all winter. And the reward, if they could pull it off.... "Sure," Amaruq says. "Count me in."