“Not like that. Here.” Milka Bronislaw shook back her unbound crimson hair and leaned in to button the top of Freja’s jerkin whilst leaving the middle one undone, revealing a generous stretch of sandy bosom. “Don’t move—hold that pose. Remember you’re selling a fantasy, not reality.”
“Hrm.” Freja Ilyanovka tried not to stare while the machinesmith fiddled with her buttons. She adjusted her fingers around the grip of the pistols she held out wide. She raised her right leg high enough that her skirt slipped, revealing a hint of lace. “You’re the pretty one. I just carry the guns.”
Ignoring that, Milka stepped back to look her over critically. She reached down and pulled Freja’s hat lower over her face, then returned to the crackling apparatus at the edge of her smithy.
“So this does, what?” Freja asked, decidedly uncomfortable. “Makes an instant portrait?”
“Something like that.” Milka turned a dial on the device, making it whir to life. “Hold still.”
“Hrm.” Freja eyed the crackling energies dubiously. “But if this lightnings me, I’m blaming you.”
Milka placed her hand on the device, and the machine uttered a rising hum that built painfully to make Freja wince. She bit her lip, trying not to break her pose. If she didn’t need the coin, she never would have agreed to this, old friendships notwithstanding. Dazzling light made Freja leap aside out of pure instinct. Heart hammering, she danced behind the cover of a massive vat of some viscous liquid.
“Ooh, an action pose!” Milka wound the machine down, and the whining hum died away. She looked at Freja with a nonplussed expression. “Jumpy, are you?”
“Oh, very nice.” The gunslinger slid her weapons back into their holsters. “Did it work?”
“Let’s see.” Steam erupted form the device, and Milka removed her hand daintily. In her palm was a square of metal about the size of a Protectorate crown. “Exceptional.”
“That’s it?” Freja asked. “I hope?”
Milka turned the raised edge of the object, creating an eight-pointed star. Orange light shimmered above her hand, forming into an image of Freja, leaping, her two guns held out wide, her half-buttoned shirt straining. She looked fantastic.
Milka beamed. “Who wouldn’t want to hire that?”
Freja’s eyes widened. “That’s . . . I don’t even know what to say.”
“Say you’ll buy it.” With her too-perfect teeth, the machinesmith’s smile was almost as dazzling as the machine. “Leave one of these at every inn, and you’ll have dozens of commissions in no time.” She cranked the dial once more, and another chit slid out of the machine, identical to the first. “Once the device has captured an image, it can duplicate it as much as I want. Provided the proper materials, of course.” Her eyes lit up. “A few hundred crowns each should suffice.”
“Hrm.” Freja felt at her hollow coin pouch. “I thought you were paying me to test this.”
“Oh.” Milka’s face fell. “Well, coin’s a bit tight at the moment . . .”
“Of course it is.” Freja sighed.
A few drinks later at the Raider’s Bounty, the tension had evaporated, and they were laughing like the old friends they were. “Will you forgive me?” Milka sounded tipsy. “I’ll get the next round?”
“I will,” Freja said. “If you keep ‘em coming.”
The machinesmith levered herself to her feet and staggered toward the bar, leaving Freja shaking her head with a bemused smile on her face. Milka had paid Freja with one of the chits produced, keeping the other for demonstration purposes. She’d laughed off the setback, saying she would rethink some things. The woman moved from project to project, never seeming to worry about the failures. She was a legitimately good person, if given to naiveté and not always thinking things through. Freja envied her that sense of security—she’d known from an early age that her own life would never be so simple.
The two red-haired women looked a bit odd in an Arman Protectorate tavern. With her fair skin, Milka at least looked similar to an Arman at a distance, but the bright green eyes and burning desire for order and structure gave her away as a Nasian émigré. Freja remembered Milka with straw-colored hair, but she’d dyed it crimson to—ironically—make her less distinctive. For Freja’s part, her mother had been quite the traveler, bequeathing a mixed heritage to her firstborn daughter. A Khymerion father had gifted Freja with reddish eyes and sandy skin, and of course her own fiery red hair. Her half-brother Oleg was a full blooded Arman, and their little sister . . . well. Freja was thinking about herself now.
Freja was toying with the chit, turning it over and over on the table, when her neck prickled in warning, the way it did when things were about to go bad. She might have had a few drinks, but she still had her wits, and she knew not to put her back to the door. Thus, she watched as the big, red-skinned Prymidian came in. Naked to the waist, he had a wiry muscular build and a long silver beard, and he boasted a contemptuous smirk to match the reputation of his race. He wore a sword at his waist and a bow strung across his back and he fixed his eyes directly on her. Wonderful.
After surveying it all with a dismissive sniff, the Prymidian made his way to Freja’s table and plopped down in the chair across from her. He spoke in the Common tongue without a hint of an accent. Damn Prymidians and their mastery of language. “You are the gunslinger Freja Ilyanovka, yes?”
“Depends.” Over his shoulder, Milka was looking at her with wide eyes and two tankards in her hands. Freja shook her head slightly. She had this. “Who’s asking?”
“I am Chenoa Gryn,” he said. “I wish to hire you for a job.”
“That was bloody quick.” Freja tapped the machinesmith chit on the table and glanced around.
Gryn’s arrival had not gone unnoticed, as Freja expected he had intended. Prymidians were as likely to hail from the Dominion to the west as the southern parts of the Protectorate, and the two countries were always at war to some extent. Not to mention that more Prymidians had been appearing in recent decades in the south, creating tension. Several of the other patrons in the tavern were tossing him the dirty eye: cultural prejudices never really slept, especially in an out-of-the-way town like Mavra. Freja should have been just as suspicious—and she was—but honestly, she needed coin more.
“What kind of job?” she asked at length.
Gryn narrowed his eyes. “The kind for which my employer thinks you will be suited.”
“Your employer,” Freja said. “Not you.”
“I reserve judgment.” Gryn crossed his arms over his broad chest. “Should you wish to prove yourself, do so now.”
Smoothly, Freja drew her guns and laid them on the table. The first was a simple starter pistol—useful, nothing special—but the second she particularly loved. She’d got it from a machinesmith in Mureath for four hundred crowns and a roll in the hay (though that was for her own satisfaction). The Last Word, she’d had engraved along the barrel, which was always what this pistol gave her.
Gryn nodded in mute approval. “I knew you had those.”
She touched Last Word’s barrel. “Did you know I had this one pointed at your groin from the moment you walked through those doors?”
“I might have advised aiming for my head.” Gryn’s mouth quirked up at the end. “Weapons alone are not enough. Tell me about yourself.”
“Maybe I’d rather talk about you,” Freja said. “For instance, why you came to me unarmored, wearing a sword you obviously rarely draw, and slung with a bow you don’t have the calluses for. You have the hands of a laborer but the skin of a dandy.”
“How perceptive,” he said. “Can you hazard a guess what it all means?”
“You’re certainly not a warrior,” she said. “Perhaps you’re a . . . scholar of some kind?”
That made Gryn smile wide. “Worse,” he said. “I know a little about everything, and I talk about it in great detail. I tell sweeping epics of the vast, forgotten history of Exodus, the conclusion of which leaves my audience weeping tears of joy and sorrow.”
“So you’re a bard. Wonderful.” Freja shook her head. “You’re here alone, so you’re either extremely brave or foolhardy. Both, perhaps.” She nodded at the purse attached to his belt. “You don’t have nearly enough coin to afford me, unless you’re paying in something more valuable than crowns.”
He opened the pouch and poured the contents on the tabletop between them: a collection of small, sparkling gemstones. Rubies, fire agates, pale sapphires—even an amethyst. Freja would hardly call herself an expert, but she estimated their worth as much more than their weight in silver.
“So the coin is there, the job is solid,” Freja said. “Is there something else?”
Gryn adopted a contemplative expression. “But even the greatest, most noble of women and men have been undone by greed and their own desire for showmanship,” he said. “Witness.”
Not philosophical at all, but practical. Other eyes had fallen upon their interaction, and when the gemstones appeared, that scrutiny became action. There were four of them: two rough-and-tumble Arman fellows who looked one empty belly away from becoming vagabonds, an itchy looking, knife-wielding tiefling—or Gevet, as they called themselves—who licked his lips as he slinked toward them, and a wide-eyed killer holding a crossbow in one unsettlingly steady hand.
“Consider this another test!” Gryn said in a loud, boisterous voice, right before he plucked up a tankard and hurled it. Ale and ceramic shards exploded in the face of the woman with the crossbow. It spoiled her aim, but she didn’t loose in surprise. A professional, then. Wonderful.
Freja leaped out of her chair up onto the table, even as one of the lumbering hulks lurched for her from behind. She rolled over the table, scooping up her pistols as she went—too bad she didn’t have a third hand to grab those stones, too—and came up with a full-force whip to the tiefling’s face. The wiry creature managed to twist with the attack, so she only caught him a glancing blow on the cheek, but it was still enough to send him staggering back.
She heard the smack of flesh on flesh and saw Gryn elbowing one of the men in the throat. He was reciting some epic poem in a language she didn’t know, but First Ones be Burned if she didn’t feel oddly inspired. It was all too chaotic to be credible.
The big brute she’d dodged before came lumbering around the table, but Freja danced nimbly out of his grasp, the skirt of her duster fluttering through his fingers as she landed up on the table. She trained her favorite gun on his face, and his dark eyes went wide. She saw glinting metal past his shoulder, however—the crossbow-wielder lining up a shot—and fired even as Freja threw herself to the side. A quarrel slashed past her face, and she heard it rip through the trailing edge of her leather coat. The aim was off, because the woman had flinched behind cover as she loosed.
Unfortunately, in the distraction the big man got hold of Freja’s feet and held her flat on the table. The tiefling loomed over her with some sort of scythe-bladed axe.
It wasn’t just a brawl any more—it was kill or die. Her kind of fight.
Freja trained her starter pistol down along her trapped leg and fired blind, making blood spatter her legs and hand. The man roared in pain and the pressure vanished, letting her roll aside just in time to avoid the axe head that buried itself in the table. If either of her pistols had been loaded, she might have shot the tiefling in his face as he sneered down at her. Instead, she whipped him again, this time splattering his nose across his cheek. He sagged backward, blood trailing, and hit the floor with a groan.
This bought Freja a moment, and she looked past her feet to see Chenoa Gryn pounding the blood from the face of the other big man who had accosted them. The Prymidian wore a dazzling, red smile as he told of a mighty fray, punctuating each punch with the name of a great hero of Exodus legend. Freja caught only bits and pieces of the tale, but it was a stirring one.
Her two opponents dealt with, Freja rolled right and dropped her pistols in favor of another pair in her sleeves, which she fired in quick succession in the direction of the crossbow wielder, who had just peeked out from behind cover. Splinters exploded from the common room pillar, along with a string of curses from the woman behind it. Things had not gone as she planned.
“What’s a matter, lovely?” Crouching, Freja set down those pistols on the table and drew the third pair slung across the small of her back. “Outgunned?”
“Burn you, you—uuuutttt!” The woman’s words cut off in a teeth-chattering shock, and her body went taut as a wire. She fell sideways out from behind the pillar, her crossbow clattering to the floorboards. Freja covered her for a breath, then drew a bead on the pillar she’d used for cover.
Milka Bronislaw stepped out from behind the pillar, energies crackling around the analyzer on her left arm. “By the Blood,” she said. “I didn’t know it’d do that, exactly.”
“Hrm.” Freja glanced around the tavern, but no one else seemed inclined to test them just now. She slid the guns back into their holsters and set to reloading her discarded weapons.
Meanwhile, Gryn had finally finished pummeling the single attacker. He looked around, and saw that she had dispatched two on her own, and a third with help. He smiled—an expression made grotesque considering the gore on his face. “Not bad,” the Prymidian said. “For a human.”
Freja slid a fresh cartridge into The Last Word. “When and where do I meet you?” she asked.
“Dawn tomorrow. Pack for a long journey.” He nodded to her guns. “Bring all of those.”
“Always,” Freja said.
The Prymidian left, and Freja sat down, The Last Word set on the table before her, and waved for another drink. She waved for Milka to join her. The groans of the wounded serenaded them.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Milka said. “You’ll be careful, right?”
Her hand around the reassuring weight of her gun, Freja drew her hat down low over her eyes.