The next day, the woman arrived on time and, as she looked around and took in the fact that her daughter wasn't there, her face fell. "Didn't you find her?" she asked. "Do you think she's – " and she stopped, apparently unable to finish the sentence.

"We did," Otter said. "She's living in a city not far from here, and she's absolutely fine. She's got two partners, seemed like good people, and she doesn't want to come back. She seems really happy. And she really is too old to still be with you – I mean, it's for your benefit more than hers; surely you don't want to be looking after a child any longer than you have to? Even if she pays her way, it's less space in the house for you, and…"

Otter didn't mention that by 'in a city' she meant outside a city, unprotected by the barrier, or that she honestly had no idea whether the girl's partners were good people, not having actually spoken to them, or that the impression the girl had given was that she was the one looking after her mother rather than the other way about. She wanted the woman to accept this, though she suspected that was unlikely; otherwise she and Kensal would have to get the girl back by force, which might be easy but might just as easily not be. And since the payment would be the same either way…

"They're not good people," the woman said, quietly. A haunted look had come onto her face. "I know those men. They're corrupting her mind with magic. She doesn't know – look, you've got to get her back."

Otter remembered the girl saying, she tells lies. She hadn't sensed any magic in the girl's house, but then, she hadn't been looking for it, and in any case she'd been so worn out that she'd have been unlikely to notice anything anyway. "Are you sure?" she said. "They seemed OK. She seemed OK. I didn't sense any magic –"

"I know them," the woman repeated. "You wouldn't sense it, they're very clever. I'm the one paying you, aren't I?"

"Yes," Otter said. "Of course. OK; we'll get her back. I take it you don't mind if the two men are harmed in the process, so long as we get her out safely?"

"No," the woman said.

"Right then," Otter said. "Back here, same time tomorrow; we should have her by then."

"Can't you just bring her to my house?" the woman demanded.

"We don't go into the cities," Otter told her. "Not unless we absolutely have to. The kind of things we do for our clients…it only takes one person reporting you, and we've certainly been reported more than once. We prefer to stay away from the police lines. You come back here tomorrow, alright?"

The woman nodded. When she'd gone, Kensal asked, "Do you think it's true?"

"It's possible," Otter said, doubtfully. "I don't think so, though, but if it's true they must be pretty powerful magic users, so we'd best go prepared for trouble. Just in case."

She went into the tent and began to sort through her potions, which were kept in a box in the corner, along with the very basic equipment she had. Getting back to alchemy after the land magic yesterday was a relief. She took a wooden box and poured in a gram or so of fine powder made from grinding up insect larvae, a couple of milliliters of giant thistle sap and about twice as much hyrax blood. Then, reaching her hand in, she found a word in her head – in this case, start, which she generally found worked well – and mentally pushed it into the box, stirring the contents with her hand as she did so. When she was sure that the programming had worked, she put the box's lid on, attached it to her belt with a loop of rope, and told Kensal she was ready to go.

She felt slightly weakened, but not even close to how she'd felt after the land magic yesterday. Land magic demanded that you put your whole mind into it; alchemy only asked for a word, and a bit of energy to connect an event to that word, so that you could activate the spell when the time was right. A lot of people still found alchemy difficult, because knowing what to use and how much of it in the initial mixing stage required practice and rote learning, which was unavoidably dull, but Otter had struggled through that to find that she liked it; a lot of it was really just logic and common sense.

Unfortunately the other disadvantage of alchemy was that a lot of the ingredients were expensive. All of the ingredients for the weapon she'd just made Otter had collected herself, but that had been far from easy, and there were some things, like mercury or silver, that Otter had no way of getting hold of without buying them – which she would never be able to afford – or receiving them as payment for a job. So what she could do with alchemy was pretty limited most of the time, which was a shame, because it was by far her favourite kind of magic.

As they walked, they discussed strategy, deciding eventually that they shouldn't burst in but should knock as they had before and hope that the girl trusted them enough, after the dishonest reassurances they'd given her last time, to let them in where they could catch her off-guard.

They knocked; the girl answered, and Otter said, "Let us in, quick; we haven't got much time."

She did, and they ran into the house, shutting the door quickly behind them. "What's going on?" the girl asked. "Is it my mother?"

"She wasn't happy when we wouldn't tell her where you were," Otter said. "She's desperate to get you back. She's got other people on the job now, pretty strong fighters from the glimpse I got of them before we got away, and they'll be here before long. Thought you deserved fair warning, but…" She paused. "Look, there's no way we're getting the payment from your mother, and we've helped you a lot more than we had any cause to…"

"Of course," the girl said. "Of course, I'll…" She looked around. "I've got a knife?" she suggested. "It's pretty sharp. It's worth a fair bit though; for that maybe you'd…would you stay and help? My partners are in the fields and they won't be back for hours; I can fight a bit but I don't know how much I can do by myself…"

"Yeah," Otter said. "That sounds fair. Can you get it now?"

The girl nodded, went to the cupboard in the corner and removed the knife. Then she came back across the kitchen and Kensal took it and, having briefly examined it, put it away in her backpack.

"Right," Otter said. "I appreciate you saying you'll join in, but there's no way you'd be strong enough; you'll just get in the way. You go into the bedroom and we'll stay out here and see these men off when they get here, or do our best to at any rate."

Otter liked lying; it made her feel as though the world were somehow under control, and she felt a rush of satisfaction as the girl smiled weakly, muttered a thank you and turned to go. As she began to walk away Kensal stepped forward and grabbed her neck. The girl let out a choked yelp and began to thrash and kick Kensal hard, but Kensal ignored this and held the girl's throat tight until she collapsed.

"She's definitely unconscious?" Otter said.

In response, Kensal kicked the girl, who didn't react. "Yep, she's out. Could she kick, though…I'm going to have serious bruises." She picked up the girl and slung her over her shoulder. "At least her partners aren't here; I wouldn't have liked to take all three of them on."

"It went pretty much perfectly, didn't it?" said Otter, with a grin. "And we got a pretty decent looking knife out of it as well. Days like this need to come more often."

"They really do," Kensal said, as they headed back. "They make me feel like maybe we'll actually get the money together one day."

The rest of the day was uneventful, except for five alarming minutes when the girl woke up. For a few seconds she just stared at Otter with horrified reproach, and then said, miserably, "I thought you knew, I thought you'd seen what she was like. You took my knife," with tears squeezing out of her eyes. She was, fortunately, still so addled from having been unconscious that she didn't try to escape, and barely fought when Kensal came and knocked her out again, with a blow this time.

When the woman arrived the next day, she was slightly alarmed to find her daughter unconscious, but when assured that she would be up within a few hours was delighted, and handed over the amulet she'd promised. When she'd gone, Kensal said, "The only thing about the men not being there is that we'll never know if the woman was telling the truth about them using magic or not."

"No," Otter said. "But it doesn't matter, anyway. Even if the girl was right and the woman was lying…she was our client. We can't make ourselves responsible for other people's lives. If that girl wasn't so stupid she'd have gone further away than she did. My mother was a bit like that client, and I had enough sense to get out. Either this girl'll sort herself out and learn how to get on and be OK or, well, she won't. It isn't our business. Our business is getting to Guatakin and away from this mess of a place, and making sure we don't die, and that's it."

Kensal nodded, and then, for no reason that Otter could discern, quickly hugged her, then drew back. Otter said, "I'm starving; I'll go and see what we've got in the tent for lunch; can you stay and keep an eye out for clients?"

Kensal looked after her as she hurried inside. Despite what she'd said about needing more days like this, the whole thing left her feeling as tired as if she'd been in a full-on fight. She preferred assignments where she just had to kill people, without having to worry too much about their life stories. She was doing this for the money, of course, but she also loved the satisfaction of just winning – beating someone else to the ground and emerging as clearly the more powerful one. This kind of thing had none of that satisfaction. Still, they'd been paid well, and that was the main thing. Hopefully the next client would be more like the usual kind.