Aiedo's huge indoor marketplace was the greatest center for consumer goods on the planet Motavia. From exotic foodstuffs that came from across the continent to clothes, housewares, medicines, even weapons and armor, it could be found there. Even Alys Brangwin occasionally shopped at the market. She'd had her eye on a new recipe calling for rare jungashka fruit, and thanks to the commercial masterpiece of her hometown, Motavia's most famous hunter now carried a sack with four nice ripe ones, pink and juicy.
Most of the weapon shops didn't interest her--the Hunter's Guild had access to better equipment through its worldwide contacts--but her professional eye was caught by a sword-seller demonstrating how an ornate wooden sheath was made, fitting the pieces together with resin. The craftsmanship was attractive, and she thought such a weapon might make a good graduation present for her apprentice, Chaz Ashley.
"Alys, babe!" a voice boomed out.
Serves me right for wanting to do something nice.
"Hello, Joss," she said through gritted teeth.
When he'd first joined the Hunter's Guild, Joss Howland had thought of Alys as a rival to his impending greatness. When his attempts to show her up spectacularly backfired, though, he'd begun to see her as something else, something much more bothersome from Alys's perspective.
"So what'cha got there in the bag? Something for dinner? How about I come over and give you some dessert?"
"Don't you ever get tired of acting like a stereotype?"
"Hey, babe, the Joss does not get tired."
Serves me right for using words with more than one syllable.
"Then you have plenty of energy to go far away. Now."
Joss's temper suddenly flared.
"What? You don't think I'm good enough for you, 'cause you're the high-and-mighty Eight-Stroke Sword?"
Alys gritted her teeth (again; Joss was always hard on her dental work). He just had to use that ridiculous nickname, didn't he?
"No, I just think you're an idiot."
Tact was not Alys's strong suit.
"Well, I'm gonna show you here and now that I'm just as good a hunter as you!"
Listening wasn't Joss's.
"What are you talking about?"
"We're gonna settle this old-school. A one-on-one duel, sword to sword. Fast-draw and one strike."
"Just like in every wandering-hero story."
"Hey! Are you making fun of me?"
Apparently one-syllable words didn't work either. Alys sighed heavily in frustration.
"All right. Fine. You win. You score off me and you can come to dinner tonight. I hope you like Motavian food."
She snatched the scabbard all but out of the stall clerk's hands, grabbed the matching sword, and rammed it home. Alys flipped the weapon to Joss and picked up a nearly identical one off the sale rack.
"Think of it as an advertisement," she told the sputtering artisan. "You can say all the best hunters use your wares to settle their moronic ego-trips."
She hooked the blade into place, set the fruit bag down on the counter, and turned to face Joss. About five paces separated the two hunters as their eyes met, hands hovering an inch above their blade-hilts. The crowd had drawn back, surrounding the combatants with eager expectation. Someone was probably taking bets; Alys wondered if there was some way she could get a few meseta down on the outcome.
In that moment of distraction, Joss struck! Hand seized hilt, and in one lightning-fast move he--
--Spun himself around in a circle from the force of his efforts as the sword remained firmly stuck in place. He redoubled his efforts, straining mightily. The cursing started not long afterwards.
Alys picked up her sack, returned the sword, and tipped the clerk a few meseta for the loan.
"I guess the resin wasn't quite dry yet," she commented. "Fancy that."