Maybe I looked like I needed help, or maybe someone had been talking. I suppose it doesn't matter now. She sat down opposite me, and of course I smiled--that's what you do--and introduced herself as Iona. She spoke with an accent I couldn't quite place, and so faint I wasn't sure I hadn't imagined it.

"Good to meet you," I told her. Despite the fact that this wasn't true, I tried to make it sound as sincere as possible. Not out of any real desire to deceive, but--well, a friendly smile is a better defense than a sword most of the time.

"I've been watching you," she said. "You're worried about something."

"Why do you say that?"

"At first I thought maybe it was just your face," she said. "You know, the brooding, pensive looks when you're not paying attention. But every time someone comes near you smile like you're afraid they might catch you." She took a drink from my beer. "Like right now."

I glanced around to see if anyone was watching us. They weren't--well, there were some men who'd been leering at one of us all night who were still leering, but nobody seemed to be paying attention to our conversation. "And if I told you I was, in fact, worried?"

"You want to hire me. I'm the best sword you'll find in these parts."

"Is that so? Can I have a demonstration?"

She finished my beer and slid the empty mug back at me. "In a moment."

A man in blue livery entered and, upon looking around, almost immediately recognized me. "You've got a lot of nerve showing your face in these parts again, traitor." He pushed through the crowd to approach. Iona just winked.

I thought she was going to do nothing, but just as he arrived she stood up, "accidentally" elbowing him in the gut. He doubled over, and she'd moved between him and me before he recovered. "The lady's trying to drink in peace, friend. Can it wait?"

"Last time I saw this woman I swore I would end her if I saw her again." He drew his sword--a poorly maintained cavalryman's saber--and pointed it at her. "Stand aside."

"What happens if I don't?" She had settled into a fighting stance, but her own sword remained steadfastly on her belt.

By way of response, he tried to run her through. A dagger appeared in her right hand and she deflected the blow, and drew her own sword in her left. Then she smiled. "Try again?"

He was not, it should be said, a bad swordsman. But with every attack he made, she deflected it with seemingly no effort, moving only as much as was necessary. His strikes would miss by scant inches, but miss they would. And while his form began to degrade the longer she toyed with him, hers did not.

Eventually she grew weary of the game and, with a twirl of her blade, disarmed him. She put her blade to his throat and her boot on his fallen sword. "The lady is trying to drink in peace, friend," she repeated. "Try your revenge some other time."

He scampered from the inn as fast as he could, and Iona sheathed her weapons and sat back down. "Soldiers," she said. "So, let's negotiate payment. What currency do you use in these parts?"

I gave her a smile. "I valued that beer at about ten gold marks. How much will that get me?"

She froze, and at first I worried I'd offended her. Then she laughed, long and loud. "Normally, five weeks. But I'm willing to let you talk my price down."

No comments: