One, two.

He took a deep breath and counted again: one, two. With the guy currently leaning on their table trying to look down Sibba’s shirt, that made three. Yes, definitely three. A total of three.

Sibba and Tulette were looking at him with that expression that awaits a hurricane, except with more amusement and less fear. They would have been able to keep the situation under control if only there had been just two guys, not three. Now all they could do was wait to see how things would play out.

Gent was attempting to control himself, but his hand was gripping his sword-hilt so tightly he thought one of them must break off, and his teeth were grinding.

“Y’nae heard of us, then, hae ye?” Sibba asked the man, her accent thicker than usual as she was rather drunk.

“We have!” said he. “Of course we have! You ladies are famous! And me friends and I would love to treat–”

Maybe Sibba had thought she was making things better, and maybe she was being purposefully exacerbating; of course, she might not be thinking at all. Whatever the case, ‘me friends and I’ (the three of them matching the three at this table) was the last straw. Gent stood up abruptly, sending his chair half-toppling-half-flying, with a growl of, “Why don’t you take a better look at people before you try to get in their pants?!”

The man appeared startled and confused until Tulette added helpfully, “Because he doesn’t wash his very often.”

“‘He?'” The man was backing away now, nervous, eyeing Gent worriedly. “Sorry, there, lad, I thought you were that all-female mercenary group we’d kept hearing about.”

“There is no all-female mercenary group,” Gent roared, procuring the attention of the last of those in the room who weren’t watching, “just us and a lot of stupid small-towners who cannot tell a man when they see one!”

The stranger did not look pleased to be called a stupid small-towner. “Now, see here,” he protested. “You can’t say you don’t look like a girl!”

Drawing his sword and leaping onto the table, scattering everything that Sibba and Tulette weren’t quick enough to catch and save from his wrath, Gent demanded, “Say that again!!”

The man had backed up abruptly at the sight of steel, stumbled, scrambled up again, and was continuing to move away as he said with defiance that was belied by his hasty retreat, “You wouldn’t be so touchy about it if it wasn’t true!”

Gent lunged at him, but only ended up lopping in half a chair that the retreating irritant threw in his way. Around two more tables he chased him, to the sound of the bartender’s “Hey! Take it outside!” It seemed the man intended to, but once Gent realized he was headed that direction, he beat him to the door and took another swipe. This went wide, though, as a mostly-full mug of beer hit him in the head, and he just ended up destroying more furniture. Glancing in the direction from which the missile had come, he was just in time to dodge a second, similar attack. The jerk’s friends had joined the fun.

Of course this was the cue for Sibba and Tulette to get involved as well; before Gent located his fleeing enemy and dove after him, he saw Sibba chug the remainder of her drink, stuff a roll into her mouth, and fling herself at one of the other men who was now preparing to throw somebody’s soup in Gent’s direction. And at this point, as was usually the case when this happened (especially when Gent insulted the locals), things in the room escalated into a large-scale brawl. Gent wasn’t sure whether or not he managed to teach the original instigator a lesson, but the whole experience was marvelously stress-reducing.

It began to break up when some grumpy elementist, irritated at having her meal disturbed, started setting stun formations at anything moving. She seemed not to have been paying attention, however, as she apparently was under the impression that Gent had started it, and aimed a good half of them at him. He dodged most and deflected the rest, and began to think it was about time to vacate. Tulette, who held her liqueur better than Sibba, started encouraging the latter toward the door at Gent’s nod.

The bartender, as the largely-stunned room began to quiet down and it became apparent that they were leaving, shouted, “Hey! You’d better be ready to pay for all this damage, you good-for-nothings!” When they, obviously, did not comply, he started to unlock the little swinging door that separated the room from the area behind the bar. “Stop them!” he was calling out at the same time.

The elementist had no scruples on that score, and cleverly chose to target Sibba, the least mobile of them; Gent was hard-pressed to get to his companions in time to keep her from being stunned. Then they were out the door and running before the bartender or any further formations could get at them.

Both the women were laughing breathlessly as the little group hastily sought the town gates, Sibba leaning on Tulette for balance; even Gent had to admit that the brawl had been more entertaining than most, thanks to that elementist. Still, Tulette’s first remark when she was capable of speech again was, “You know, I was looking forward to sleeping in a bed tonight…”

“Cull, so was I,” Gent protested.

“Once’m sober, I’ma kill y’,” Sibba let him know matter-of-factly.

“What? As if it was my fault!”

Tulette shook her head. “You know, my good friend, you don’t have to get murderously angry at every single person who says you look like a girl.”

“‘Mong other things, y’should be used to it by now,” added Sibba.

“No, I should not!” Gent cried, though unable, as usual, to get very angry at his friends. “Always being mistaken for a girl is not something a guy should have to get used to! And before you start again that I should cut my hair, just don’t! Plenty of guys have long hair, and I like my hair, and there is no reason I should have to cut it just because stupid people in taverns cannot figure out the difference!”

Tulette shrugged. “Go back to the mustache idea, then.”

“As soon as I find someone who can make me a decent-looking one,” Gent grumbled.

“Get a ‘mentist t’do it,” Sibba suggested.

“I am not paying for that!”

“Better pay for it once than start a hundred tavern brawls,” chided Tulette.

“I did not start it!! He did!!”

As this was a typical argument, the women only exchanged a roll of eyes and didn’t bother taking it any further. Instead, Sibba picked up a complaint of her own: “‘M too drunk t’b’walking so faer. La’s find somewhereda stop.”

“We’re still too close to the town,” Tulette told her.

“We need to be close to town if we are going to find work here,” Gent reminded.

“Somehow I think your brawl may have killed our chances at that,” replied the woman a little dryly.

My brawl? Talk to the ugly blind moron, not me!”

Tulette just rolled her eyes again and kept walking.

“Hello!” this time both Sibba and Gent protested at the same moment at Tulette’s continued forward motion.

“Let’s at least get into the trees and off the road,” she insisted.

Gent couldn’t argue with that one, and, seeing that he was keeping silent, Sibba merely made a pouting face.

Once they had reached the little belt of forest through which the road ploughed, it was only a few yards into the trees that Sibba disentangled herself from Tulette and flopped to the ground, propping her feet up high on a rock and crossing her arms beneath her head. “Naptime!” she announced. Looking up at Gent with one eye she added, “No’ that I wou’n’t rather hae a nisoft bed, b’still…” Sibba loved her drunken naps.

“It was not my–” Gent began, but Tulette cut him off:

“I’m going to see if that stream goes through these trees and I can take a bath in it.” And shedding her pack at Gent’s side, she departed.

Gent put down his own pack, stretched, and examined the area for the best way to set up camp. Actually, this clearing was a little small; he wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to fit the tent into this space. Oh, well; he’d been trying for months to convince the ladies that sleeping in the open (except when it was raining) was better anyway. Of course, they probably didn’t like to bed out where he could hear them because the giggly conversations they always had before going to sleep would be hampered by his proximity.

During his assessment, he’d noticed that Sibba, who usually went right to sleep when she was drunk no matter where she lay, seemed oddly restless. “What?” Gent wondered as he began to look around for firewood.

The woman finally sat up. “Th’whole bath idea jussounds too good t’passup,” she answered, climbing very slowly to her feet. Usually if she didn’t rush, she had fairly decent balance. “Don’ get too bored here.”

“Right right,” Gent replied as she half-stumbled off through the trees in the direction Tulette had gone. He might have been tempted to follow and spy on them bathing, but knew from past experience that it wasn’t worth it: the thrill of voyeurism faded when he had the feeling they knew he was there and didn’t care. Beyond that, he had very little sexual interest in either of them.

The fire was nearly ready to go, but he was hesitant to light it as he was still debating whether or not he should find a bigger spot for camp. But just at that moment, a bright object came out of nowhere and struck the kindling that had barely left his hand, setting it abruptly ablaze and sending some of it flying up into his face.

He gave a cry of surprise and anger as he rolled backward, drew his sword as he came up, jumped to his feet, and looked around for his attacker. He assumed it must be the elementist from the inn, and he was ready to show her exactly what he thought of grumpy, grudge-bearing girls from back-water towns.

Her cloaked figure stood a little way off, half hidden by trees. Evidently the first had been a warning shot, as she waited until Gent was fully standing and facing her to release the next one. Granted, it hadn’t taken him more than a second thus to ready himself, but as she’d already had the formation between her hands waiting to fly, it must have been a deliberate gesture. He noted in a little surprised that it wasn’t a standard fireball; it was shaped like a fluttering bird. He’d never seen element like that before.

Gent charged at her, but she held her ground and sent another pseudo-avian missile at him. Gent destroyed this with an easy slash, and took the last few steps to swipe at her. She twisted away and jumped backward, attacking him again and forcing him to use his follow-up strike to defend. Then he moved toward her once more.

After the next few fiery birds he repelled and the elementist continually backing away, Gent started to get annoyed. “If you have something better to hit me with, pull it out now, why not? Let’s not play games anymore, all right?”

His assailant took him seriously, it appeared. The next attack, instead of a single direct shot that could easily be deflected, came in the form of six or seven twisting winged serpents that assaulted him from every angle and proved nearly lethal. Gent was covered in sweat by the time his whirling, ducking and exhausting maneuvering was able to take care of them all. Panting, he turned to regard the elementist, who was watching placidly. That was odd… he’d been totally absorbed with the formation — a circumstance during which Tulette and Sibba would normally be guarding his back — and the formsetter could have taken him down any time she’d wanted to. Which seemed to indicate that she didn’t want to. Why?

“Did I not say we were done playing games?” Gent growled.

The elementist began another form, and the mercenary watched warily the shape that was appearing in the air before her. At first he thought she was planning more wing-snakes, but he didn’t see any wings and there was only one. He realized what it really was barely in time as she let it slip from her hands. The moment the worm hit, a tremor raced toward Gent through the ground, intensifying as it neared.

Dropping to one knee, Gent drove his sword into the earth before him, and watched as the shivering of tree and brush subsided upon approaching him as the earthquake was dissipated by the weapon. By now he thought he had this encounter figured out, and it annoyed him. “I do not mind showing people what I can do,” he protested angrily, “but I like to be informed first that I am being tested!”

“Then how could I try your reaction to a surprise attack?” the elementist wondered, and Gent paused in the act of standing and pulling his sword free of the dirt. The voice was a man’s.

“Who are you?”

“I’ve got work for you,” the stranger replied “Come here and we can discuss it.”

Gent was still angry, but not only did he have no argument against the logic of being tested on surprise attacks, he was also slightly mollified by the prospect of a job. Still, he did not put his sword away just yet as he approached the other. “I thought you were someone I met in town earlier,” he remarked; “an elementist who might have been mad at me.”

“No…” the man said, reaching up to pull his hood aside. “No, I tend to keep out of sight in Shriette towns.”

Stopping short, Gent stared, for the man was Yndikette. This wasn’t really so unusual, though they did tend to keep to their own kind most of the time, but it was startling where Gent had not at all been expecting it. And Yndikette were always more or less dazzling anyway; this one had bronze skin and smooth, bright golden hair that, though long and unbound, probably didn’t get him mistaken for a woman.

“My name is Kenreciel, and this is not ordinary work that I have for you.”

Gent, reaching him and sheathing his sword, held out his hand. “Gent Corrick. And I do all sorts of work that is out of the ordinary, as long as the pay is good.”

Kenreciel took his hand and shook it very gently; Gent wondered if he was just being prudish or whether there was some other reason for it. “What I need,” the dark man explained, “is a companion to take to a party.”

Gent went very still, and he could feel the color of his face changing, darkening with anger. This was twice in one evening!

Kenreciel seemed to detect this ire but not its true cause, as he added, “I had to attack you to make sure you can handle it; it may be a dangerous event.”

“I do not care how dangerous your party is,” Gent growled, and was about to reach for his sword when he had a better idea.

“Good. I–” Kenreciel broke off with a raised eyebrow as he watched the warrior unbuttoning his shirt. When Gent got it open, he said, “Oh.”

“Yes!” Gent pulled the shirt entirely off with an angry gesture, tied the arms around his waist, and stared at Kenreciel defiantly.

“You should cut your–”

“I am not cutting my hair!” Gent roared.

“Then you should wear your shirt open,” the Yndikette said instead, his orange eyes roving across Gent’s muscular arms and chest, “or perhaps find one without sleeves.”

“Why should I have to change the–”

“Well, it doesn’t really concern me,” Kenreciel overrode him with a smile and a shake of his head. “About the–”

It was now Gent’s turn to interrupt, so he did. “Do I look like a good party companion for you?!”

Kenreciel nodded. “I’ve thought of an even better idea than before.”

“I am not going to pretend–”

“Are you going to turn down a job before you even–”

“A whore job, yeah! Who gets a date by attacking someone and then offering to pay–”

“What am I supposed to do, take some unknowing girl into a dangerous place without–”

“So dragging in an unknowing man is better?”

“I’m not dragging, I’m offering — and offering to pay you for it!” Kenreciel seemed to be starting to get a little annoyed. “I understand you’re a mercenary; do you want–”

“I do not want the job!” Gent, in contrast, was still perfectly furious.

“Why not?”

“Because you thought I was a woman!”

“And your reply was eloquent enough to convince me otherwise.”

“But you still want me to go to some party with you as if I was!”

“Are you going to let me explain that, or are you going to keep–”

“Yes, explain away! I already think you are crazy; let’s hear the rest of it!”

Kenreciel, his elegant eyebrows hovering rather low, took a deep breath. “I’ll try to be brief,” he began. “When my father–”

Gent shifted, wondering how anything could be brief that started with family history.

The other, evidently picking up on this, started again. “I’m a member of a society called T’kartay Ytoldeth, and I couldn’t hate it more than I do. The sages know how I feel, and take pleasure in requiring I attend every function. This is an escort gathering, so I’ve decided to bring a Shriette so I can shock and upset them and make them think twice about inviting me to the next. It’s occurred to me that the shock value will also be greater if I bring a man. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.”

With a growling sigh Gent suggested, “Keep to your original plan.” Turning away he added, “You may be able to convince one of my friends to go with you.”

Kenreciel twisted his fine lips. “But I prefer the newer plan,” he objected.

“Not going to happen,” countered the mercenary.

“Well,” the elementist began with a frown, seeming to resign himself, “where are your friends?”

“They are bathing.” Gent struggled not to snap at the other man now that they were off the topic of Gent looking like a girl or going on a date with another guy. “They will be back soon enough, if you would like to wait.”

“All right,” Kenreciel nodded as he followed Gent into the trees to the campsite. There, the Yndikette leaned against a tree and proceded to look dazzling and inscrutable while Gent finished setting things up. When that was done, the mercenary seated himself on his bedroll cross-legged and tried to busy himself in his pack to the extent where he would not have to look at the other man. It didn’t work very well, but he didn’t have to keep it up for long as Sibba and Tulette returned at last.

The cold water seemed to have cleared Sibba’s head a little, for she was walking almost steadily and they were talking cheerfully. Gent still didn’t think she’d be qualified to make intelligent decisions, but at least she wouldn’t have to have the matter explained multiple times.

The women stopped when they saw Kenreciel. “Who’s this, Gent?” Tulette asked.

“He might have a job for one of you,” replied he.

“For one of us?” echoed Tulette, looking back to the Yndikette.

Kenreciel pushed off the tree and bowed. “I would still prefer your friend to do it” — he gestured to Gent, who scowled — “but either of you will be fine.”

“You are not going to attack them?” wondered Gent with some dryness.

“I tested you,” Kenreciel replied; “wasn’t that enough? Why would your partners have very different skill levels?”

Tulette looked from one of them to the other with a brow raised.

“You tested my abilities, not my judgement.” Gent didn’t even bother trying not to sound grouchy at Kenreciel’s lack of logic. “How can you be sure they are close to my level?”

“Are you saying they’re not,” asked the darker man incredulously, “or just that your judgement on the matter isn’t reliable?”

“N’here I thought the man had something to say to us,” Sibba remarked conversationally.

Gent ignored her in favor of his retort to Kenreciel. “They are fine and so is my judgement — but how could you possible know that?”

“Well, if you’re so certain of it, why do you care why or how I’m convinced?”

“You are not concerned enough for my friends, that is why. This party of yours is going to be so dangerous you practically had to burn me alive to make sure I can handle it, but you do not feel like testing my friends the same way, so you will just take one of them into danger without knowing for sure whether she is–”

“Maybe their look is more reassuring than yours,” Kenreciel broke in, now somewhat hotly. Then, seeing that Gent was about to explode, quickly added in a louder tone, “See here — I know it’s not an ordinary job, but I don’t see that there’s any need for your to be so angry. I’m sorry for stepping on your toes, but now–”

This was all Gent heard. Not only was he about to interrupt at a shout, Sibba also suddenly judiciously tackled him.

His attention thus divided between wrestling the one friend and attempting to listen to the other soliciting details, the dark man’s answer was lost to his ears. Wrestling was one of Sibba’s specialties, and even with her half drunk it took Gent some time to break free of her grasp and get far enough away that she couldn’t immediately take him down again.

“And let me guess,” Tulette was saying; “you’d heard about the famous all-female mercenary group and thought one of us would make the perfect companion.”

Kenreciel was nodding; he was also studying the furry Aybold carefully, perhaps (hopefully) thinking that her large round ears, twitching whiskers, and long pink tail would be sufficiently shocking for his purposes. “It was reported that one of you carried a sword that dispelled elemental attacks; I thought that the woman who weilded such a weapon would be safer than most at a gathering of elementists.”

Gent, who was assessing the damage Sibba had done and keeping an eye warily on where she sat on the ground without any seeming desire to get up and attack him again, glowered at this.

“Gent’s sword is rather remarkable,” Tulette agreed, “but as I’m sure he didn’t hesitate to inform you, there is no all-female mercenary group.”

The Yndikette nodded. “But this suggested to me an even better possibility. I realized that, while the elders might recover from the shock of my bringing someone of a different race with me, they would certainly think twice about inviting me to future gatherings if that person were also a man.”

It was with increasing ire that Gent watched Tulette, rather than defend his honor hotly, nod and say, “I see, I see. And Gent is the one with the sword.”

“But I fear he’s not to be convinced,” Kenreciel finished, glancing in Gent’s direction and obviously noting his tight fists.

“So what exactly is so dangerous about this party?”

“T’kartay Ytoldeth, as I mentioned, is a society of elementists, which I think is a fundamentally bad idea, as we don’t do well in groups. A party is even worse, especially with drinking and a lot of non-elemental companions about. No matter how hard they try to keep things civilized, something’s going to go wrong at some point during the night, and somebody’s going to fall cursed or lose their date. And that’s before mentioning rival societies who may try to sneak members in and cause trouble.”

“I see,” Tulette nodded again. “Hence the appreciation for Gent’s sword. Well, if you don’t mind, sir, I’d like to confer with my companions about this.”

Kenreciel nodded. “Keep in mind as you do that I’ll pay fifty dren for either of you, one hundred for the lad there.”

Gent couldn’t even conjure an angry response to this. Sibba, still sitting on the ground, burst out, “A fucking hundred?!” Even Tulette, who had the most composure of any of them and did their negotiating when possible, stiffened. The diversity of the paths and motives that had brought them to this life notwithstanding, they were mercenaries.

Kenreciel was smiling with mild amusement at their reaction as Tulette recovered herself and dragged Gent off by the arm. Sibba staggered up and after them.

When they were a sufficient distance from the camp, Tulette glanced back and then drew them into a huddle. Their conference began with Sibba’s excited hiss, “A hundred dren!!”

“We are not going to get a hundred.” Gent had recovered enough to be angry again. “Fifty is plenty.”

“Actually, ‘t’sa little insulting that you’re worth twice as much as either of us,” Sibba replied with a sniff.

“It is because Yndikette have no sense of propriety,” Gent snorted, not about to argue the point.

“What do you have against him, Gent?”

The latter did not like Tulette’s thoughtful tone. “He thought I was a woman, attacked me out of the blue, and he still wanted me to go out with him even when he knew I was a guy!” He counted these points off on his fingers.

“I’d think you’d be flattered,” Tulette shrugged.

“Flattered?” Gent roared. “Flattered?!

“The point is,” Tulette broke in “– and listen to me before you explode again — you’ve got a specific choice to make here, and I know you can be graceful enough to accept it.”

Gent wasn’t sure he knew where she was going with this, but he was fairly sure he didn’t like it. “A choice?” he asked with grim wariness.

“Sibba and I aren’t going to let a chance at a hundred dren get away,” she replied coolly. “Period.”

Gent opened his mouth.

“So the choice is,” Tulette continued hastily, “whether you want to do so by giving him exactly what he wants, or by trickery worthy of the Famous All-Female Mercenary Group.”

The open-mouthed expression that had originally planned on being a protest now turned to a look of glowering confusion. Gent had a feeling his brain would catch up with Tulette’s if he gave it a moment, and another that he wouldn’t like what he realized when it did; he never liked ideas that led his partners to refer to their team by that much-hated name.

“He wants to shock his friends, or whatever they are, by bringing a man to this party of his…” explained Tulette. “What if he paid for a man but got a woman instead?”

“He is not blind,” Gent protested with a roll of his eyes, “and we are not elementists. As if we could pull that off.”

“We could if he knaw it was a man but the people at his party thought it was a woman,” Sibba grinned, and then Gent understood.

He went very still. He could barely breathe, in fact, as a sort of magma was beginning to bubble up within him, roiling, ascending, crimson at first, then gold, then white-hot and blinding. “I am not,” he roared, “going to–”

Sibba seized him and attempted to silence him or drag him to the ground, or perhaps both, but his wrath had given him strength super-human — or at least somewhere near Sibba’s level — and they grappled pointlessly for a while. His further exclamations, however, were muffled, broken, and generally unintelligible, so perhaps her purpose was achieved.

“Come on, Gent,” Tulette was reasoning, moving aside to avoid being knocked down by them, “why can’t you at least get something out of the fact that you look like a girl? And it isn’t as if you’re ever going to see any of the people there again.”

Gent growled something that, were it not for Sibba’s shoulder between his teeth every other syllable, would have sounded very much like, “But I would know and you would know, forever more, that I pretended to be a woman!”

“Instead of getting us kicked out of inns over it?” Tulette replied drily, sidestepping once again the flailing mass of Sibba-and-Gent. “Be reasonable, Gent; one hundred dren! Take one for the team!”

Sibba had finally managed to get him into a headlock, so, although he was panting and squirming, the argument was able to continue a little more coherently. “No amount of money is worth that!” he gasped out. “And fifty dren is more than we usually make on any job, even the most dangerous!”

“And one hundred is twice that,” she finished brusquely. “Go as a man, if the idea of wearing a dress bothers you so much.”

“And allow a whole gathering of Yndikette to think I am… think that I…”

“Then go as a woman and let them think you completely normal!” Tulette’s stiffening whiskers indicated that she was losing patience with her partner. “Most of them would probably mistake you for a woman in any case… everyone always does… Dress as a woman and make sure they do, win us a hundred dren, and play a trick on Master High-and-Mighty there.” Then she struck the killing blow. “Gent, do I have to bring up Lillicort?”

Gent’s tan face blanched, and, not having anything real to say in response to this that wouldn’t dig him deeper, his only answer was a string of helplessly angry sounds that in no way resembled words.

Tulette nodded sharply. “You’ll do it, then?”

Gent drooped, coughing once at Sibba’s continued tight hold, and, looking sullenly at the ground, grumbled, “I will do it.”

Sibba whooped and released him, and Tulette beamed.

“But I had better never hear you bring up Lillicort.”

“Of course not,” Tulette replied with solicitous cheer.

“And that guy is paying at least seventy-five in advance…”

Chapter Index | Next (Chapter 2)