QSFer J.C. Rycroft has a new FF fantasy out: A Hired Blade.
Sellsword Des is travelling alone in a dry and dusty southern land, after a spectacular bust up with her best friend. She’s running low on coin, so when former client Karina offers her a job leading her caravan’s security through brigand country, it feels like a gift.
Des has done the route before, but she isn’t sure about leading solo. She recommends Karina hire Cap, a rugged old mercenary, to head up the crew. Maybe she’ll even learn a thing or two about how to lead, in between the delightful distraction of Karina’s flirtations and keeping the marauders at bay.
As they head off on their long trip across Rescalin, though, the wheels start to come off Des’s plan. The crew is drinking too much, even on duty, and Cap is dismissive of the dangers she identifies. Des worries she’s made the wrong call by putting Cap as the lead, and Karina is in her ear, wanting her to take over.
As brigands close in, will Des back the merc she put in charge? Or will she take over — and risk the caravan’s safety resting on her blade alone?
grin as I bound up the stairs, skipping every second step, and stride across the porch into the Wrestler’s Wrangle. My skirts shift around my legs and my sword juts above my shoulder, drawing a couple of gazes. Few women in Rescalin carry blades so openly, but I’m a traveling sellsword, so my appearance is half how I announce my wares.
The Wrestler’s Wrangle lies in Calor, one of the satellite towns around Pastira, the capital of Rescalin. Much of the less formal parts of the business of the capital takes place here. I wonder if that’s what Karina called me here for.
This pub has gotta be my favorite place to raise a glass in the whole country. It’s clean, the beer is good, and the lanterns hung from the ceiling cast warm light over golden-brown wood. Comfy. And there’s Karina.
I have fond if alcohol-fuzzed memories of Karina and her crew raising sloshing cups with me and Petrus at the conclusion of another long caravan. That was the last run, or maybe the one before. I frown. That one had taken us from a harbor on the northern coast through grassy plains, across hills, and down through scrubby bush that hems in the sands of the Great Red Desert. I hope she’s not proposing that same route in reverse. It’d been a good trip, but I’m not
sure how it’d go without Petrus.
“Des!” Karina’s marketplace-practiced bellow cuts through the roaring burble of chatter and laughter inside. I scan the edge of the room until I spot her, black corkscrew coils bouncing around her face. She leans out one of the short rows of booths—the ones designed for business of one kind or another. In the next one along, a woman in clothing loose enough to be almost falling off her is clambering in to seat herself alongside a brawny man who can’t take his eyes off
I slide myself into Karina’s booth and meet her dark, dancing eyes. Tiny silver mirrors decorate her burgundy blouse and scatter light over her bronze face. As I expect, her bright grin sets me smiling.
“It’s good to see you, my friend.” She grips my arm in greeting, her muscles almost matching mine. I earned my strength through swordplay, while hers was built tossing bolts of cloth and carpets in and out of wagons. Karina and her sister, Shameela, run one of the leading textile merchant companies in Rescalin.
Shameela handles the office and the warehouses in Pastira, while Karina tends to be out gathering up goods or managing market stalls. “I feel like it’s been an age.”
“Not so very long,” I counter. “What was it, only a half a cycle since Petrus and I took you from Tyrasene to Pastira?”
Her smile shifts to a little coquettish, and I almost double-take. “Yes, but I’m talking of how it’s felt.” Gods, is Karina flirting with me? “Anyway, where’s that lad?”
The question is expected. Even so, it makes my smile stutter. “Petrus and I have parted company.”
“For truth?” Her brows rise, shock abrading the scabbed wound of our parting.
“I thought you’d… well, I didn’t expect that, is all.”
I manage a smile, but it’s a bit tight round the edges. I can feel it. Not my best play. “I didn’t neither, really.”
I can see her working through whether to ask about it.
“Well, I won’t pry,” she says, “but I won’t pretend I’m not curious. I’m sorry, though. I know you two were like family.”
The sympathy is more than I’ve had since Petrus stormed out on me four months ago. Granted, I’ve been traveling solo and earning money from folks who hadn’t known the two of us since. Karina’s compassion makes my nose prickle with the threat of tears. It’s true. We’d been family for so long.
At sixteen, I joined the players troupe Petrus traveled with. It hadn’t been him I was following, though. I’d fallen head over heels for Liv—gorgeous, green-eyed, ebony-haired Liv—and my whole little village had turned against me and run me out. The head of the troupe had agreed to keep me on, mostly to satisfy Liv. She usually gets her way.
Petrus and I had been friends almost from the beginning, and it was he who helped me leave the troupe when I could no longer bear Liv’s hot-and-cold; her cruelty and her love. It was he who helped me conceal my sex at Shambullion’s Swordsman’s School, and who practiced with me ’til we left with skills we could put to earning. Then we traveled nigh on three years together, taking mercenary contracts for protection or border skirmishes and occasionally tripping to outlaw territory when work was thin.
But the truth had finally come out. The memory of that night makes me bite the inside of my lip, the physical pain preferable to the emotional. He’d been in a helpless fury I’d never seen on him before. The words are forever etched into my mind, as is the agony carved into his face, the way his eyes were lit with pain and anger. “I’ve been in love with you for five years. Five fucking years, Des! I helped you leave! I helped you build a life after Picton’s. I’ve been at your side, faithful as she could never be. And now, even now, three years since you’ve seen that black-haired bitch, she’s all you talk about!”
He’d flipped a table and stalked out before I could find the words to respond, not that I had much to say. When my heart had eased its racing, I realized that as anger had earned my freedom from Liv, such as it was, Petrus needed his rage in order to let me go. As bad as I felt for not seeing his love had turned romantic, I could never return his feelings. Petrus is handsome—very much so, he’d never lacked for attention—but I couldn’t. I sleep with men when they catch my eye, but it never occurred to me to sleep with Petrus. Better to let him go, as much as it broke my heart.
Karina’s dark hand coils in over the top of my interlaced two, easing my knuckles away from white. I glance up, almost in shock she’s there. The memory of that night is still so intense it’s hard to let it go. I meet her eyes, feeling half-ashamed of the tears I know are gilding my own. “I’m so sorry, Des,” she says, and the compassion in her face makes me gasp in a breath against the sob that wants out.
“I’m alright,” I lie, voice quavering.
“You will be.” Her gaze is warm on mine, and with a little huff of embarrassment, I pull a hand free to dash tears from my face.
“I will be,” I repeat, “but this is hardly why you called me here.”
“No.” Karina sits back and takes a deep breath. “Alright, I can talk at business if you need.” She meets my eyes. “We need a protection crew. The same run as last time. From here to Tyrasene and back again. There’s a cargo coming in from Ascelin, and we’ve bought in on more than half of it. We need to get it back to the capital by the turn to summer. And we’re carrying goods from here, ready to be taken to Aredoma in Ascelin. They like our clothes there, and we like their linens.”
She levels her gaze at me thoughtfully. “You and Petrus were the perfect leads last time. Kept the other hires in line, away from excessive drink or brawling with locals where we had to stop. And you know how we are about keeping good relationships all over. Plus, those two bandit attacks came to nothing but a few bruises in the end, and that’s what we pay for, right?”
I lick my lips. “Yeah. Look, you know you and the rest of the company are a dream to work for, and I’d never want to turn you down when you need us— need me—but without Petrus…”
Karina’s dark gaze glimmers with amusement. “Is this your new sales pitch, Des? It needs some work.”
I laugh, then settle back against the wall of the booth with a sigh. “Blessed heaven, to think I’d thought that Petrus was the brawn and me the brains of the operation! I need a beer.”
I flag down a passing waitress with a basket of dirty glasses braced on her hip and place my order, then turn back to Karina. “Most of the crew we hired last time are elsewhere right now. I heard Pink was down on the border with Kebble, working for the king…”
I rumble through a list of the crew Petrus and I had brought on last time. One lost a leg recently; another was signed up to a mercenary company. There was only one I could think of as possibly free to join up with us. Karina gives me a sardonic look as I trail off. She says nothing for a long moment, but her eyes go from assessing to warm.
“Maybe your sales pitch isn’t so very terrible,” she says with a grin. She leans forward, her blouse falling open to reveal the top of her impressive cleavage.
Curves for days. “We need you, Des. Surely you know other mercenaries you could hire?”
I rest back and take a long draft to settle my nerves. “I know them sure enough. Some I even like. But they’re, well…” I’m a good enough mercenary and can hold my own amongst a team, but I’m not a leader. Gods, I’m a country kid with only a couple years behind me.
“Please, Des.” She sighs. “We’ve pinned too much of our capital to this trip.”
Her coils bounce again as she shakes her head. “That’s Shameela’s talk. Sorry. We’ve spent too much money not to get the payoff. We’ve dealt with the Ascelese before. We must be there on time or we lose our deposit, as well as all the promises we have riding on us getting that fabric. We can’t wait around testing a new merc with minor journeys to see if they’re trustworthy. We have to move.” She’s pleading now.
I turn it over in my head. I can’t do what’s she’s asking. I’m not a strong enough fighter—not yet, anyway—but I could do with some coin. It’s been tougher to find work since Petrus left, and Karina’s easy to work for. It’d be a dream job, except I can’t lead. I’m greener’n grass, as so many mercs have told me. But I can’t just walk away either. I take another draft of beer, pondering.
Best solution would be if someone else who knows me—some other merc who knows his way around leadership—could take this job. Might even learn from him, whoever it winds up being. I narrow my eyes as a thought strikes. “I can think of one possible way,” I admit.
Karina cocks her head, meeting my gaze as a slow smile unfurls on her face, and my breath goes short. When she speaks, her voice is husky with a promise I dare not contemplate.
“I’m all ears.”
JC Rycroft is an emerging author of fantasy novels. Their work draws on high and epic fantasy tropes, mixed with a dollop of queer romance, humour and wit, flawed but fabulous feminist heroes and diverse-in-all-the-ways characters, liberally sprinkled with philosophical concepts brought to life. She loves bringing together the apparent contradictions: high theory and silly humour, profound political concerns with a rollicking good story, and ordinary people with unexpected demands to heroism that somehow only they can answer.