I tightened up the drawstring on my purse again with a sigh, answered by the growling of my stomach. I’d been in Monserrat for a whole week, trying to find some kind of work with no luck at all. Everyone wanted someone with experience, or were all “you’re too young!” – well, except for that one guy, who said I was too old. No job meant no money, and no money meant I’d gone through all my savings. I had enough for maybe two meals at this point and then if I still didn’t find anything, I’d be begging on the streets. At least the weather was nice this time of year.
It had seemed like such a great idea at the time. Instead of being stuck at home being a useless girl while my parents complained about how useless I was at being a girl, I could go to the nearest big city – Monserrat, where I was now – find a job, and make my own living doing something I was actually good at.
The problem was, it turned out I wasn’t good at anything. All right, that’s not really fair to myself, but it was starting to feel that way. No one else thought I was good at anything, not good enough to hire me at least, and it was starting to get to the point where I believed it. But what could I do? Go back home with my tail between my legs, let my parents roll their eyes and say “I told you so”? No thank you.
I flopped onto a convenient patch of grass and stared up at the stars visible between the buildings. If only someone was hiring for stubbornness and determination. I would be more than qualified for… whatever it was that needed someone stubborn. But no, everyone wanted to hire someone with practical skills, like waiting tables or sewing or I don’t know, smacking pieces of leather with a hammer. I couldn’t even get anyone to hire me for washing dishes – how hard can it be to wash a bunch of dirty dishes all day?
“Uuugh,” I groaned. “Maybe I should’ve just stayed home.”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
I looked up to see a group of four unsavory-looking men (and I use the word ‘men’ charitably here) leering down at me. The one who’d spoken was obviously the ring-leader, standing in the front with a long stick over his shoulder. A bunch of good-for-nothing troublemakers, as my grampa would say. Or, as my grandma, ****** ***** *******. If I knew what was good for me, I’d be polite and tactful and make a hasty exit.
Then again, knowing what was “good for me” wouldn’t have landed me homeless in the city, would it.
The leader laughed, his grin widening unpleasantly. “You hear that, guys? This little girl thinks she can tell us what to do.”
His little gang all chuckled with obedient malice.
I rolled my eyes.
“Why don’t you come with us, we’ll show you a good time.” He was leering at me in a way I thought didn’t exist outside of bad books.
“Shove off,” I repeated, eyeing him in obvious annoyance. “You’re blocking the view.”
“Oh yeah?” He stepped closer, leering down at me. “More like imp—” He broke off abruptly, his face taking on that uniquely pained expression that guys get when kicked in the crotch.
I followed up the kick with a shove from my other foot, pushing him back before I flipped to my feet. And then, like the genius I am, I didn’t take that perfect opening to escape.
“Are you stupid, too? I thought you were just ugly,” I remarked from my grassy vantage point.
The leader snarled at me through his tears and brandished his makeshift club, still hunched over awkwardly. “You little bitch! I’ll teach you not to mess with us!”
With an enthusiastic battlecry, the less incapacitated ones all lunged at me.
Dodging the first fist to fly my way, I ducked under his arm and spun around, deflecting another blow into the surprised face of the third – who, cursing, staggered back a couple steps and considerately gave me another opening.
They aren’t very good, I mused as I elbowed Number Two in the gut and ducked down, sweeping a leg up behind Number Three’s knees as he attempted to recover. He toppled backwards, hitting the ground with a loud oof as I spun around and gave myself some distance from One and Two. Their leader was still off to the side, yelling at his minions to stop messing around.
What they lacked in skill, they tried to make up for in enthusiasm. Tried. I sidestepped as One took another swing at me and grabbed his arm, twisting it and using his momentum to flip him over and onto his back before I kicked Two in the gut again, this time successfully knocking the wind out of him.
“Wow, you guys really showed me.” I casually kicked Three in the face as he started to get up. “But hey, you were right. I did have fun. Maybe we can do it again sometime.”
“You think you’re so tough.” The leader – this would all be so much easier to narrate if they’d introduced themselves first – had recovered and brandished his makeshift club at me. “We’ll see what you think about this.”
“Weapons against an unarmed girl? How manly of you.” I smirked, and determinedly kept the expression on my face as One started up again, pulling a knife from his boot. I could take the four of them unarmed, easy. The four of them armed with sticks, that wouldn’t be too bad. But knives… Well, if it was just him—
Two was struggling up now too with a groan, and Three had pulled a knife as well. Shit.
I decided it was a good time to get out of there.
Unfortunately for me, my new friends disagreed. Two – who at least didn’t seem to have a knife – recovered enough to grab the back of my ankle, slowing me just long enough for his two knife-wielding buddies to block my escape routes.
Shit. I ducked quickly under Three’s arm as he took a swipe at me with the knife – they might be armed, but they were still lousy fighters. The leader joined in, swinging his stick at me, and I blocked it with an arm and a wince at the crack. It wasn’t broken… probably… but at least I managed to sidestep into it and avoid another knife jab.
Focusing as I was on the actually dangerous parts, I felt my legs suddenly grabbed out from under me as the unarmed Two slipped under my notice. Literally; he dove at me from behind and tackled the back of my knees, dragging me to the ground. I rolled over, kicking at his face to get him off my legs, when Leader kicked me hard in the ribs, knocking the wind out of me.
“Now this is more like it.” He smirked down at me, jabbing my stomach with the stick. “First, you’re gonna apologize, then you’re gonna come with us.”
Well, I was screwed. I considered my options, didn’t like any of them, and decided to go out with style. “Make me, you brainless ugly toad.”
He snarled, kicking me again – knocking the wind out of me, again, painfully. I was going to have a nasty bruise. “Say you’re sorry, bitch, or I’ll—”
“This looks fun. Mind if I crash the party?”
I glanced over, looking for the newcomer, to see someone who looked much more competent – but not much more upstanding a citizen – than the miniature gang who I’d been unfairly assaulted by. Kind of grimy, leather armor, a big sword.
Leader looked over as well, taking his attention off of me, and sneered. “Shove off, loser.”
“Hey, that’s my line,” was my incredibly intelligent outburst, completely ruining the brief moment of stealth I’d been using to wriggle away. A foot was promptly shoved down on my shoulders to keep me there.
The new guy laughed. “Don’t sweat it, it’s not a very good line.”
My ability to come up with a witty rejoinder was pretty much shot by the foot grinding down into my collarbone.
“Whyn’t you just scram, she isn’t gonna pay you to rescue her,” said the leader.
“Yeah, nothing for a dirty merc,” one of the others chimed in.
“Even a mercenary’s gotta have fun sometimes.” I couldn’t really see most of him anymore – what with the leg in my face – but he sounded cheerful, and I heard a noise that sounded suspiciously like a sword being pulled from a sheath. “Come on, four against one. Unless you’re just as dumb a bunch of cowards as she said.”
That did it, and I quickly scrambled aside, wincing, as the four of them charged at the swordsman. I sat back on my little patch of grass, starting an intense internal debate about helping out the random stranger who was fighting a bunch of other random strangers, possibly on my behalf. The debate didn’t get very far. Watching the fight, it was obvious in seconds that they were even more outclassed by the newcomer than they had been by me – before they’d drawn knives on me, that is. He was barely trying, smacking them around with the flat of his blade. In maybe a minute, the four of them were on the ground, looking embarrassed, furious and in pain.
The swordsman grinned, resheathing his weapon. “You did pretty good yourself, until the knives came out.”
“Wait, you were watching? The whole time?” I was indignant. “And it took you that long to help out?”
He shrugged, still looking amused, and stepped over the wannabe gang leader. “You looked like you were having fun. But we should get out of here before the guards show up.”
“They don’t like us fighting in the streets,” he said cheerfully and offered me a hand. “Come on. Where’re you staying?”
“Um…” I ignored the hand, gingerly pushing myself back to my feet. “Here, actually.”
He raised his eyebrows. “No way.”
“It’s not my fault no one in this stupid city wants to hire me,” I muttered.
“You need a job, huh? Maybe I can help.”
“Yeah?” I eyed him suspiciously.
“Sure. You fight pretty well, I bet the Company’ll hire you.”
“The Company?” I blinked, then remembered his earlier exchange. “Wait, you’re offering me a job as a mercenary?”
“Sure, why not?”
I took another look at him, now that we’d gotten in a better lit part of the city. He was a few inches taller than me – which wasn’t saying much, I was pretty short – with a red shirt under the leather armor, a black badge pinned to his arm with a red silhouette of a flying bird, yellow-blond hair falling rakishly over a black headband, dark eyes, and of course all the travel dirt. Plus a few dark blotches that looked suspiciously like bloodstains. He also didn’t look much older than me.
“I’m not looking forward to dying young?” I also wasn’t old enough. And I might not be bad at fist-fighting, but my training was all on the hobby level. Not the trying-to-kill-or-be-killed level.
“So that’s why you’re picking fights in the streets, huh?” He smirked.
I rolled my eyes. “They started it.”
“Not from where I was standing. But you can at least stay at HQ for the night, as long as you’re thinking about joining.”
“You don’t even have the right to hire me, do you,” I pointed out.
“Nope.” He was totally unfazed. “My name’s Aleric, by the way; friends call me Al. Member of the Red Crow Company.” He pointed at the badge on his arm.
“Tay. Unemployed.” I eyed the badge; I could buy the bird being a crow. “Okay, I’ll think about it. Where is it?”
“Right there.” He pointed down an alley.
I looked at it, then at him. “You want me to follow you, a strange man wielding a sword, down an alley.”
“Hey, you’re free to sleep outside.” He headed down the alley, waving before disappearing into a side door.
My options were not great, I had to admit. Follow one strange guy into what was probably a mercenary company headquarters but could be some kind of weird trap? Or stay outside and wait for those nice boys with knives to find me?
Okay, maybe it wasn’t so tough a decision. I headed down the alley and opened the door.
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