My first impression of the Red Crow Company headquarters was light, noise, and the general feeling that I’d walked into a low-end pub. Not much in the way of decoration – just some mismatched tables and chairs, with a long bar across the side wall – and at least a dozen people hanging around, talking and drinking and doing whatever it was people did when hanging out in a low-end pub, I guess. Across from the bar were a few people playing darts… well, throwing small weapons at a target. Mostly knives, a few darts, some other things I didn’t recognize.
Aleric was nowhere to be seen.
“Hey kid.” I looked over to the voice; a heavyset man in rough clothing with a short pale-blue ponytail was sitting at table nearish the door, looking at me with an amused expression. “You lost?”
“That depends on where I am,” I answered, closing the door behind me.
“Mercenary company HQ.” He smirked.
“Good, I’m not lost.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You don’t look like a mercenary.”
“Maybe because I’m not a mercenary.” I smiled back. “Yet.”
“Hah!” He shook his head, grinning. “A kid like you?”
“Yeah? Why not?” I put my hands on my hips and gave him my best challenging glare.
“How did you learn about us?” The stern-faced woman sitting at the other side of the table was looking at me with an unreadable expression. “You aren’t a trained soldier.”
I shrugged. “One of you thought I might be a good fit.”
“That’s vague as shit.” The man raised an eyebrow again. “Got a name?”
“I’m Tay.” I intentionally missed the point, looking innocent. “What’s yours?”
“His name is Gethen,” the woman answered while he spluttered. “I’m Rilla. Good luck, Tay.”
“Thanks. So uh, how do—”
“There, I knew you’d come!” A vaguely familiar voice which I placed after a moment as Aleric’s rang out across the room. Eveyone turned to look at him. “Boss, this is the girl I was just telling you about.” Everyone in the entire room turned to look at me.
I eyed them all back, trying not to show my sudden nerves. What was I thinking? I was only fifteen! Wasn’t it illegal to hire people my age for mercenary work? They were just going to kick me out… Well. That was how it’d been going for me everywhere else. No reason to start stressing about that outcome now.
Behind Aleric was an older woman with steely bluegrey hair and vivid green eyes – the ‘Boss’, I assumed. She was looking me over in an attitude best described as “unimpressed”.
“What did you say her name was?”
“Tay,” I answered for him, it being my name and all. “My name’s Tay.”
She just nodded. “You want to work for us?”
“Well, I want a job with someone.”
“Hah!” She smirked. “All right. We’ve got a room free; spend the night and you can do your interview in the morning.”
“I can’t do it now?”
The “Boss” shook her head. “You want to be well rested. Get some sleep.” And with a nod to Aleric, she turned and went back out.
The conversation noise gradually went back to how it was before, but I didn’t get a chance to see who – if anyone – was still eyeing me before Aleric gave me a friendly smack on the back.
“You’ll do great, don’t worry.”
I looked at him askance. “At what?”
“The interview, of course!”
“I’ll take a stab in the dark and say Aleric’s the one who thought you’d be a good fit,” Gethen broke in.
“I ran into her fighting the Kings,” Aleric said brightly.
“They actually have a name?!” If I sounded even half as incredulous as I felt, I was probably setting a record.
“The guy with the stick is named Kingsley,” Aleric replied.
“A rich kid with as much ego as money who likes to pretend he’s a big tough gang leader,” Gethen said. “Totally untrained, but they fight dirty and the guards are well-paid to ignore them.”
“Is that why you wanted out of there before the guards showed up?” I eyed Aleric.
He shrugged. “Sure, yeah.”
I raised my eyebrows at that unenthusiastic agreement. “Uh huh…”
“Aleric doesn’t get on well with the law,” drawled a new voice behind me.
Aleric scowled. I turned to look. A taller man with blue-black hair and blue eyes was leaning against a nearby table, smirking.
“It’s not my fault,” muttered Aleric.
“Uh huh.” The man’s smirk widened. “You should probably show your new friend where she’s gonna sleep before it gets too late.”
“I don’t need you to tell me what to do.”
“Why don’t I just go find the place myself,” I cut in, “while you two keep arguing?”
Gethen snorted, Aleric sulked, the newest addition to the conversation smirked, and Rilla stood up.
“I’ll show you,” she said. “This way.”
The dorms, it turned out, were a large barracks-style room full of bunk beds. Rilla gestured to one of the beds. “That one’s free, if you want it.”
“Thanks!” The beds were one step above being cots – a thin mattress over a basic wooden frame, hardly any padding to speak of – and I was thrilled. It would be the first real bed I’d slept in for days.
“Sleep well.” The woman nodded at me and left.
I flopped down on the mattress and within minutes I was sound asleep.
I was woken by something prodding me in the shoulder the next morning. Squinting blearily, I managed to identify the early morning light coming through a window (it couldn’t be much past sunrise) and the source of the prodding: the ‘Boss’, who I still didn’t have a name for.
“Free rooming is over, kid,” she said cheerfully. “Time for your interview.”
I mumbled something incoherent and pushed myself to sit up, rubbing at my eyes and yawning.
“Head back downstairs when you’re up, the room’s ready.”
I blinked after her, slowly parsing what she’d said. Why did they need to prepare a whole room just for an interview? (Why’d she say I needed sleep before an interview? And nobody had asked my age. It was still kind of suspicious.)
Shaking my head vigorously to clear it, I fingercombed my hair and put it back up in a ponytail before heading downstairs as ordered.
By ‘the room’, I discovered, she’d meant the pub-like room I’d walked into last night. And by ‘ready’, meant ‘everything in the middle pushed to the sides’. It looked like an entirely different set of people hanging out there this morning and it was quieter.
Leaning against the bar and looking like he could use a few more hours of sleep himself was Aleric, who gave me a halfhearted wave as I came in the door. He looked like he’d slept in the same travel-dirty clothes he’d been in last night. (Then again, so had I, so who was I to talk.)
“There you are.” The Boss beamed.
“Here I am.” I attempted a cheerful smile back. “So… interview?”
“Not the kind of interview you’re expecting.” She was definitely a morning person. “It’s more of a practical examination.”
I blinked. “You mean a test?”
“I mean a test.” She gestured at Aleric. “I’ll be referee; he’ll be your opponent.”
“I have to fight?”
“Of course. That’s what we do here.” She looked almost smug. “Beat Aleric and you’re hired.”
“Are we using weapons?”
“Only if you want to. And have one, of course.”
“Great.” Well, I could hope Aleric wouldn’t use a weapon.
“Now go on, get started.” She waved the two of us towards the middle of the room.
Aleric pushed himself up from the bar counter and drew his sword.
I bounced back, giving myself some space to figure out what the hell I was going to do. At least he wasn’t trying to kill me. I hoped?
On the bright side, he didn’t seem too eager to jump straight into combat, either, which gave me some time to review the situation. He had more reach, especially wielding a sword, but I hadn’t actually seen him fight at all without the sword. Maybe my best bet was to get in close, fast, and try to throw or disarm him. Or maybe I should wait for him to move first…
Ugh. I hated duels. Why couldn’t this test just be throwing that stupid miniature gang at me again?
My internal complaining was interrupted by Aleric deciding he was done waiting and lunging at me. I ducked under his swing, then hastily rolled to the side as he followed it up with a leg sweep. (I’d forgotten he saw how I fought, too; so much for having a possible advantage.)
Coming up on my feet behind him, I aimed a shove at the back of his knees, hoping to knock him down while giving myself a boost upwards. He stumbled, but caught himself on a knee before he fell completely. Cursing inwardly, I used the momentum I’d gotten from the shove and turned it into a spin-kick, aiming for the side of his head and pretty sure I wasn’t going to hit.
To my complete lack of surprise, he dropped down under the kick, rolling over, and then a sword hilt was swinging at me. I flung up an arm, partially deflecting it at the last second and wincing at the impact. To my chagrin, it threw me long enough for him to get back to his feet and put some distance between us again.
I didn’t have more than enough time to realize I needed a plan before he was swinging his sword at me – the flat of the blade, I noted in relief – and my attention was once more on the immediate fight. I dodged backwards, flexing my fingers on my bruised arm. Bruised, but not broken. He flipped the sword around with surprising dexterity, darting towards me to hit me again with the hilt.
I moved into his advance, reaching to grab his sword arm and use his own momentum to throw him. To my everlasting surprise, his arm and the sword were suddenly not where I expected them to be and a fist was connecting with my jaw. Completely blindsided by the move, it hit me full force and knocked me back several feet and to the ground.
I don’t know if it was the punch or the floor but I must have lost consciousness for a second, because the next I knew, Aleric was standing nearby with his sword resheathed and the still-nameless Boss was holding out a glass of water to me.
“Good try,” she said cheerfully.
I levered myself up to a sitting position and eyed the water, then her. “So I guess I don’t get a job.”
“Oh, no, you were great.” She beamed.
“You’ll want some weapons training, I bet, and some protective gear, but your reflexes and skills are good enough to start with.”
“But you said I had to win?”
She waved a hand dismissively. “People fight better with real motivation.”
I stared at her open-mouthed.
“I’ll get the paperwork – I’ll need a full name for you. Mine is Melanie, but you’ll call me Captain.”
“Aleric calls you boss,” I pointed out.
“Aleric has bad habits.”
Aleric looked grumpy.
“But never mind that.” Boss Captain Melanie shoved the glass of water into my hands and stood back up. “Stay in here, I’ll be back with the paperwork, then Aleric will show you the ropes.”
“Oh come o—”
“You found her,” the captain said, interrupting him pointedly. “You get the honors.”
“I just got back last night!”
“You heard me, soldier.” She gave him a friendly shove in the shoulder. “Now do what your captain ordered.”
“Ugh.” Aleric sighed deeply. “Yes ma’am.”
I sipped my water, watching the exchange with interest from my seat on the floor. I thought mercenary work was like normal military work, with strict hierarchies and discipline and weapons and killing people. I had thought that. This mercenary company, though, seemed more like… friends? Friends who fight things for money.
Sitting on the floor with a bruised arm and aching jaw, I felt better about my life choices than I had in days.