Jona danced aside to allow a mule-driven cart pass, and her hand tightened on her dagger as she did so. She detested leaving her sword at the inn with Inesh, but swords were expressly forbidden to be worn openly in the great city of Han Ilba and Jona had no wish to be arrested. Still, she would feel a lot better with it at her side.
The man driving the cart passed her with a blank expression on his face as if he noticed her no more than he would a moth resting on a wall. Jona bit back an angry complaint at the way he had allowed the mule to cut her off in the street. It would certainly do no good, and just as certainly make her late.
Han Ilba was the city of the Five Great Races, and a central gathering point for all Races who agreed not to cause trouble. That was one reason for the ban on public weapons. Nobody wanted to tempt fate, particularly where the M'Zanti were concerned. The reptiles had well-deserved reputations not only for being accomplished archers and martial artists, but also for being exceedingly tricky and untrustworthy. It was said that only the Dragons were more dangerous, but at least the Dragons had joined the effort to support the millennia-spanning peace. Jona had faced neither in combat, nor did she have any pressing desire to do so. Han Ilba was the proof of that peace, and it also represented opportunity, if one knew where to look.
In point of fact, Jona did not know where to look, but she knew how to listen and how to ask questions. She and Inesh had come to the city a fortnight ago to offer their services as mercenaries or bodyguards to whomever would have them, and now it appeared that their hard work and patience was about to pay off. You'd better be right about this, she thought irritably, and was rewarded with a soft chuckle in the back of her mind. Her errand was to interview with a particularly rich merchant named Ocelician, well-known for his disagreements and disputes with the public policies of the Council of Five. He was advertising for experienced guards for a caravan bound for the distant lands of Hekal, and the starting bonus was highly impressive. Part of the reason for the high bonus was because the Council of Five had imposed a ban on exports to Hekal after their invasion of Orc lands. Part of the job was not only to defend the caravan from brigands, but to remind the Council that Ocelician was powerful enough to raise a fighting force capable of snubbing their policies. It was, perhaps, not the most politically sound employment they could find, but Jona couldn't deny that the renown it would generate would almost guarantee good work after. All she had to do was convince him that she and Inesh were experienced enough for the job. Sure, that was all she had to do. I still wish you were the one to do the interview.
Stop complaining, usari. He's going to believe an Elf before he believes a Pixie, and you know it. Inesh often had trouble convincing people to take him seriously. When he drew himself up to his full height, he was a centimeter shy of half a meter, and the great sword he bore across his back was no better than a dagger to most of the other Races. The only place he commanded respect was in the magical community, but they didn't talk about themselves with outsiders.
An untested Elf in league with a Pixie is hardly believable, Jona retorted bitterly. She had reason to know. It's going to be hard enough for him to believe that a female half-breed Elf is going to be any good in serious combat.
Do what you did when your ex-fiance called you a camp whore to your face, Inesh suggested mildly. Jona blanched; that was not a memory she cared to dwell on at any length. It had taken four men to restrain her, and even then Alexand was doomed to walk with a limp for the rest of his life. Last she had heard, he was finally healed enough to start courting women again; hopefully with a little more respect than he had showed her. As a mark of the depth of the insult, Inesh would not mention Alexand's name directly.
Alexand had it coming to him; this Ocelician fellow hasn't done anything to earn a knife in his groin. Well, near it, anyway, she amended. She hadn't really been trying to kill Alexand. He had simply trained her too well. I learned what I needed from Alex and I moved on. What I need from Ocelician is a fresh start.
Then I suggest you remember that when you speak with him. We know he'll want to test you. With your skill, it's unlikely that we'll need to pull our little "surprise" to get us hired. Trust in yourself, usari: you're the best bet we've got.
Jona blinked and felt a few muscles relax. She hadn't realized she was quite so tense, but Inesh had a way of pointing out just the right things to bring her around. The passion with which she threw herself into projects also happened to be her greatest flaw when she wasn't actually engaged in one of them. The timing was perfect as well: her destination was only a few steps away.
She paused to allow another one of those infernal mule-driven carts by, and as she did she felt a hand on her purse strings. She drew her dagger and pivoted in one graceful motion, ready to face the scum-wallowing pig of a thief and give him a cut to remind him of his manners. She found not one, but three dark-eyed humans with their own daggers already drawn. One had his right hand out to hold the purse as he cut the straps, while the other two were strategically positioned both to back up the first and to keep the matter private between the four of them. Jona didn't pause long enough to consider the odds; she leaped at the first with the blade of her dagger held low.
He was quick and supple, and managed to twist aside to avoid getting clobbered by her rush. What he failed to appreciate was that Jona had angled her attack assuming that he was left-handed, and when he turned his wrist was scored by the slice of her dagger. He dropped his own weapon with a surprised curse and backed away.
Jona landed gently on the balls of her feet and stepped to the right, bringing herself closer to the larger of the two watchers. He looked startled to be challenged by the tiny woman, but he immediately dropped into a crouch and circled her warily.
Only a few seconds had passed, but people were starting to stop and stare at the commotion. Jona forced herself to ignore them and focus on the present threat before her. She noted the position of his feet and the balance of his crouch; he was far more skilled than the average street thug. As she took in the details of his style, she noted with surprise that his ears were slightly pointed, but not so much as an Elf's. She thought he might be a half-breed, as well.
He tested her defenses with two well-timed strikes, but they only sliced air as she dodged them. She returned the sentiment with a few cuts of her own, and noted with dismay how quick he was. His large size made him seem deceptively bulky and slow. He came at her straight, then twisted to the side in an attempt to anticipate her dodge. It almost worked, except that she dropped to the ground and lashed out with her foot, catching him on the side of the leg. She didn't connect as she hoped, but he winced noticeably and backed away slightly.
The last man rushed her while she was down, and she rolled away. He was good; far better than she'd ever seen before, and she leaped to her feet with three good scratches on her arms. He followed her and re-engaged with a ferocity that threatened to overwhelm her, until she screamed in her mind, NOW! and the world exploded.
It was a simple light spell, more of a flash designed to stun those not prepared for it. Jona had already marked where the three men were when the spell went off, and she knocked them aside with her shoulder when she made a dash to escape. She didn't dare look behind to see if they had recovered long enough to pursue, she leaped up to the threshold of Ocelician's office and reached for the knob.
To her surprise, the door opened before she could touch it. A tall, thin Elf in flowing blue robes regarded her quietly and calmly.
"Pardon me, siyaltan," she began, using the formal address for an Elvish noble. "But there are three men who –"
"Who are in my employ," the Elf replied calmly, interrupting her. "I know, I sent them."
Jona stopped and stared in shock. A pinprick of rage appeared in her belly and began to grow. Half a dozen thoughts raced through her mind all at once, all of them bloody and violent. A slight smirk appeared on his face as he read this in her body language.
"Peace, warrior. Surely you didn't think I would fail to test an applicant to my employ?"
Jona, Inesh said in her mind. It's over. I think you passed.
"You…you dared threaten me on the street before your very eyes, in full view of –" she began, heedless of Inesh's cautioning tone.
"I do," Ocelician said coldly, fixing her with his gaze. She found herself wondering at his silver eyes, which contrasted with his black hair. "If you find my test disagreeable, you may decline my offer of employment and seek your fortune elsewhere."
Jona! Inesh said sharply. Get a hold of yourself!
Jona took a deep breath, then another. She looked back at the men picking themselves up from the ground and noticed that the locals had already lost interest in the fight and were moving on without any call for the Watch. She looked back at the tall Elf in the doorway and struggled to regain control over her emotions. "I apologize for my impertinence, siyaltan. I meant no offense."
The cold look on the Elf's face disappeared, immediately replaced with the smirk he displayed before. "Oh, yes you did, but that's no matter. Come inside and we'll discuss the terms of your service with me." He stepped back to allow her room to enter the building.
With one last deep breath, Jona sheathed her dagger and stepped inside. The hard part was going to be the negotiation.
Three hours and one full bag of gold later, Jona stepped out that same door to make her way back to the inn. She paused briefly to look over her shoulder at the five Towers nestled against the side of the mountain and said a brief thank you to the one for Elves. Then she continued on.
Don't thank them, Inesh said to her. You did all the work.
So she had. Ocelician was not an easy Elf to bargain with, but neither did he have the bias most Races held for half-breeds. Jona was used to being treated as an outcast and embarrassment to both Elf and Human Races, but Ocelician made it a habit to take such misfits into his service. He claimed that not only did they reward him with loyalty for taking them in when no one else would, but he privately believed that the half-breeds were hardier and more reliable than either Race imagined. Besides, he enjoyed snubbing the Council by hiring people they turned away from their own armies. Jona had no comment to this, but gladly accepted the hefty bag of gold he offered as a recruitment bonus.
The hardest part, much to Inesh's amusement, was convincing Ocelician that the spell she had used to escape her "test" had come from a Pixie magician/warrior. Ocelician had heard of Fae warriors and magicians alike, but never one who had the patience and determination to become both. Magician/warriors were rare enough among the Five; they were unknown among the Fae. On the basis of this argument, Ocelician had increased the amount of the bonus, but stated that it would have to be split between her and Inesh, which meant neither would get the full price alone. If she were lying about Inesh, then he would accept it as a clever ruse to get more money and not hold it against her. Jona looked forward to his first meeting with the Pixie. So did Inesh.
Creeper vines in his underclothes? Inesh mused distractedly. Maybe a diluted form of the seven-year itch.
Behave yourself, Jona scolded him affectionately. He's just paid our rent at the inn and made it possible to buy that book you've been wanting so badly.
He's also given you enough money to get the notches out of your sword, I see, the Pixie added wryly. Jona flushed; the notches were too deep for her to work out on her own, thanks to thrice-damned Orc collars. Their last employer had been too stingy to pay for repairs made on equipment damaged in the name of his service. It was at least half the reason she and Inesh had been without work for the past fortnight. She had been relying on promises and her good looks to keep them in the inn when their money ran out two days ago.
I loved the look on his face when he saw what was inside my money pouch, she gloated in an effort to change the subject. That was an excellent idea you had. I think it helped the negotiation. She stepped to the right to avoid a shambling drunk singing quietly to himself. She didn't recognize the tune, and after hearing a few words, decided she was just as well not knowing it.
She got the impression that Inesh was slightly embarrassed by the praise. I only suggested it so people wouldn't think you to be just another mercenary down on your luck and desperate for work. Nobody thinks that your purse is going to be heavy with gravel, are they? They're not likely to lower their wages because they think you're too desperate to turn them down.
For a runt, you're awfully good at this sort of thing, she teased him. She paused long enough to savor the smell of fresh-baked bread before deciding to buy a loaf. The baker gave her directions to a good shop selling cheese as well, and she went in that direction. Inesh liked Dragon cheese.
Yeah, and I love you too, pyalti. Instead of his normal term of affection, Inesh used an Elvish derogatory word generally used in reference to half-breeds. He was the only person she let get away with it, since she knew he was teasing back.
Jona didn't know that much about her partner. He was surprisingly sober and closed-mouthed for a Fae, especially for a Pixie. From his skill with magic she gathered he either once was or could have been an important person among the Pixies (at least so far as they pay attention to such things), but he chose a different path and went to live among the Big Peoples. Inesh didn't like to talk with other Pixies very much. Come to think of it, he always seemed bigger than most Pixies she had ever encountered. That might have something to do with it.
She had met him half a dozen years ago while she was still with Alexand and the mercenary company they had both joined independently. A band of Trolls had cut a swath through the forests bordering the northern desert, and the Fae had been unable to halt their advance. They petitioned the Council of Five for assistance in exchange for magical support for an agreed-upon number of years. The Council of Five decided that the Trolls weren't dangerous enough to warrant the regular army, and hired the Red Vipers to deal with it.
The Trolls really weren't that dangerous, Jona recalled, but they were hungry and annoying. They ate anything nearby, be it wood, leaf or flesh. The Vipers didn't kill them all (or even most of them), but harassed them long enough to convince them to trot back to their own lands. The Vipers did take some losses of their own, and as Jona was desperately trying to stitch Alexand's wounds, Inesh appeared. At first, Jona tried to shoo him away, but the Pixie touched Alexand's forehead and made the ugly gashes disappear. This paved the way for a long-standing friendship hampered only by Jona's emotional and violent separation from her former lover.
In the weeks following Jona's departure from the Red Vipers, the two of them wandered aimlessly until Inesh suggested they visit Han Ilba to look for work. Jona's purse was still heavy with severance pay, and Inesh's optimistic outlook was infectuous, so she took work with a caravan traveling the borders between Elf and Orc lands destined for the City of Five Towers. Jona found the caravan leader to be an obnoxious, obese monster who disdained female warriors, apparently of the opinion that all women (particularly beautiful ones) should be naked and subservient to him. A carefully placed knee aborted two clumsy encounters before he finally learned his lesson. Unfortunately, he became cruel and hostile to her, and refused to compensate her for her work. The other men serving as guards remained neutral; they were outraged that one of their own were treated in such a fashion, but she was a half-breed, which mitigated circumstances in their minds.
Jona was glad to put the experience behind her, but she found Han Ilba to be vast and exceedingly intimidating. At first, she had no idea where to look. Eventually she found places where veteran warriors hung out together, but they snubbed her either because of the not-quite Elven ears or the Pixie sitting on her shoulder. At last, Inesh took to eavesdropping invisibly, and caught word of Ocelician's call for warriors.
Jona found the cheese shop with relative ease and bargained enthusiastically for a quarter stone of Dragon cheese. You have expensive tastes for a tiny person, she said after the bargaining was over. She still felt she had paid too much, but at least now she could afford it.
We can't all be perfect, you know, he replied easily.
Jona had no delusions that the trip into Hekal would be easy. It was extremely likely that she would not make it back. Worse, she could easily lose Inesh to some accident or another. Many warriors were familiar with Pixies, and their experiences were not good. Jona had fought hard and long to get the Vipers to accept Inesh, and she expected to have to do it with the new company. A million and one things could go wrong, and that didn't count the things she couldn't foresee. But if she made it…
First things first, of course. Check in with the landlord and pay for back rent. He had been hinting that other means of payment could be found, but now she had the money she owed him, and would pay him enough to cover her stay until she left for Hekal. Then, she and Inesh would go shopping: he for a book of ancient lore (she would have to lug it around for him, of course) and she for a good weaponsmith to fix the flaws in her blade. After that, they would see how much money was left over, maybe buy something nice and decadent.
But no, no frivolities until they were back from Hekal. Jona refused to believe she would allow either of them to fall along the way. They had come far enough that they weren't going to stop yet. Leave the excess money with a bonded merchant and spend it after they had returned.
Jona turned down the street that led to their inn, and chuckled to herself. She was starting to sound like Inesh. This thought gave her pause; who had ever heard of a practical Pixie? Was he even Fae, or was he something else? She shook her head and decided not to pursue that thought. She knew very little about her tiny partner, but she knew enough to believe he had no malicious intent. If he had, he would have had ample opportunity to act on it in the past, and he had not. He had saved her life as many times as she had saved his; he was like no Fae anyone had ever known, but he was definitely not demonic.
Jona stepped through the threshold of the Golden Mug and called loudly for Peras, the innkeeper. Shadows were lengthening, and there was still much she and Inesh had to do.