No sexual discrimination in the hero trade

A couple of hours later, with the local divinity's approval in his pocket, Squigs headed for the Green Monkey. He paused nervously at the door. It was still early, but the bar was already full. He heard a bellow from inside. "Talk of the bad penny and you tread on his tail! Come in, boy. What'll you be hanging around for like a lost soul in the doorway?"

There was no mistaking the tectonic voice, never mind the murder of the English tongue. Resolutely, Squigs went in.

To his surprise he got a grin and a nod from several of the stevedore-sized men at the bar. Mungo sprawled on a bench at the far side of the tavern, with Slugger, and a ripely curvaceous ash-blond girl, wearing a bare minimum, or to put it another way, where a minimum wasn't bare. Squigs' eyes bulged slightly. Surely one couldn't get silicone implants here, could one?

"Squigs, me boy, you've already met my old friend Slugger McGee. Let me introduce to you to Vila, who be joining you heroes to roust the bloody dragon murtherin' fiends. She's one tough girl, an ex-sergeant from the Amazons."

She stood up slowly, languorously, giving him the full benefit of her lushness. Her voice was throaty, with an indefinable touch of a Slavonic accent in it. The overall effect, after the view of that cleavage, had Squigs sweating. "So," she said, "this is the man Mungo says has a plan. Who, he says, saved everybody from getting blown apart last time. Who has been for an interview with Ziklevieson . . . about explosives." She held out a hand. The fingernails were bright red.

Squigs stared at it. His Adam's apple bobbed several times. Finally he managed to extend the black hand. Her handshake was powerful, fit for a warrior-woman. Then she slackened her grip, but did not let go. A finger traced across his palm. The slightly angled dark almond eyes set above those high cheek-bones showed an unmistakable invitation to reinforce the tactile one. His "pleased to meet you," came out as an incomprehensible stutter. However the reprehensible black hand responded. After all, it had plenty of spare fingers for that sort of thing. Her hand felt strangely cool, unlike the breast she brushed across his forearm.

Slugger laughed coarsely. "Patsy, yer know, Miss T. Tillation, wanted you to drop in to 'er dressin' room so she could say a very personal'fank you' for removing Crum, but I fink you got enough problems." He stood up. "Well, nice seein' you again, Mungo. And fanks for the offer, but no fanks. I'm gettin' a bit old for that sorta fing. I'll bring you an ale, Squigs. 'Elp you cool orf," he said with a meaningful look at Vila.

Squigs gave a strangled awk-noise which might have been acknowledgement. But it was all the invitation that the spectral polly needed. The parrot clicked its beak like a whip snap, took a long look at Vila, and said, "Awk. Your mother swims after battle-ships!" It looked at Squigs, who was frantically trying to shush it, and said, "Bollocks!" before disappearing.

It was not surprising that, after this, all Squigs could manage, to the repeated enquiries from Vila about what his plans were, and what Ziklevieson had said, were more apologies for the parrot that absolutely wasn't his. But, unlike most girls, she didn't seem to find his foot-in-mouth ailment off-putting. In fact, the more he failed to answer her questions, the more attracted she seemed to be.

"Well, we'd best be getting along then," said Mungo presently. "Kate said she'd see us back at the wagon. She should have finished spending all my money by now."

"Can we, um, spend some more of it at the apothecary?" Squigs asked, coherent now that he wasn't talking to Vila.

Mungo grinned. "The fellow owes me anyway. I can never get my money out of him. Let's see if we can get goods instead. Come on, Vila, let's hit the road."

The ex-Amazon stood up, picked up a kit-bag and a bandolier-sling full of knives. "I'll just pop into the little girl's room," she said easily. "I'll see you at the apothecary's place."

But their business there was brief. The stuff would be waiting when they brought the wagon round to the back of the shop. Squigs marveled how fear for one's life and merchandise, could grease the wheels of commerce. They were already waiting on the board-walk outside when the leggy blond woman came striding up.

She seemed slightly irritated to see them already finished, but denied needing anything. They walked on to the hippodrome where Kate was waiting, still wearing a long face.

"What kept you?" she asked. "Sarah Sithane told me she saw you leaving the temple at least an hour ago, Pa. Did it occur to you that I might get mad and leave you here?" Her voice had a dangerous brittleness to it.

But Mungo was in a prime mood, "Eh, Kate. You know I never meet trouble until I come to its bridge. Anyway, Ziklevieson kicked me out sharply enough, but he went on talking to the boy for ages. And while I was having a jar with Slugger, Vila here came to offer her services to our quest. We can use another hero, seeing as we've lost two already. And at least this one's no half-wit, like that blond idiot you brought back."

"Crummag's not a half-wit, Pa. You've just taken against him."

Mungo shrugged. "Be that as it may. Anyway, Vila more than makes up for what we've lost."

Kate turned to face the newcomer, who was regarding the scene with a half-smile. Whatever comment Kate was going to make was swallowed as she took stock of the pin-up blond. One glance was enough for anyone to see that Miss Kentigern did not like the idea of this kind of competition so close to her earmarked beefcake. Looking at the two women, face-to-face, Squigs had to admit there was good reason. Still, the redheaded girl had, at least to him, an indefinable edge of quality, even though Vila won the sheer quantity stakes hands down. He sighed quietly. It was probably because the blond woman seemed, for no logical reason, to have the hots for him, whereas Kate would have nothing to do with him. Situation normal. At least he was used to that.

Kate extended a hand. "How do you do? What my father hasn't told you is that nobody in their right mind wants to be involved with this quest." Squigs watched the handshake duel with interest. He'd never seen females do that before. By the looks of it both of them would be sitting silently biting a lip, with their right hands pressed between their thighs for a while. He sighed quietly again. He would have preferred it to be his hand. He tried to turn his thoughts to making suitable fuses instead. But his mind did seem to be suffering from lateral and downward drift.

They were the only people sitting in a very popular restaurant . . . which was not surprising. It was one of The Man's legitimate enterprises. Therefore tonight it was apparently fully booked. The regular patron who came faithfully every Wednesday had hammered at the doors a few minutes before. Two large, elegantly-clad gentlemen had taken him for a little consultancy into Lake Michigan. In December.

The waiter hoped it wouldn't prove terminal. The Man had said something about "per capita, forfeiture." Still, he was hopeful. This might be Mr. Carpaccio's place, but Mr. Borden was a better tipper.

From where he hovered between the kitchen and the table the waiter could hear the fellow in the hood, cloak and fancy p-js saying in a precise, dry voice, "I've had word that they'll be waiting for you. So this is what I want you to do . . ." The waiter stepped back. You didn't want to eavesdrop on The Man's conversations, not even by accident. He sighed. It had been a bad evening. Smooth Mario, despite being as Italian as Paddy's pig, always insisted on eating according to the correct tradition. So the chef always did his best to provide authentic Italian dishes for The Man's enforcer. But tonight Mario had thrown the chef's magnificent Seppie e calamari in Zimino at the waiter.

"I don't see why we're wasting all this time and effort on these stupid things." Kate was in a militant mood. She had been, ever since she'd stormed off the boat-wagon and button-holed Crummag, in a serious effort to keep him away from even seeing Vila. Now, as they gathered round the evening meal of burrida and sticky rice, she was trying to do fence him in with her tongue instead. She needn't have worried. The fragrant touches of walnut-and-mushroom scent rising from the tomato-based fish stew were quite enough to distract anyone. But still she continued. "I mean, if the beanpole wants to play with them, let him. It'll keep him out of my hair."

Leggilass agreed with her through a full mouth. "Yeah, waste of time. We just orta bash 'em. Not the way for a hero do it, wiv 'splosives," he said, spraying all of the audience who weren't quick enough to duck.

Korg wiped his forehead, showed irritation in the glitter in his dark eyes. Squigs knew exactly why. Venus had taken off with her swan-ski just after breakfast, apparently to fetch some clothes and night gear. She had only returned late that afternoon. So Korg had had a mopesome time, and now that she'd returned there'd been no opportunity to have any private conversation with his new idol. But the dwarf had understood the strategy, and his clever hands had fashioned at least a third of the pipe-bombs. "No good trying to bash guys that are moving too fast to catch, lovely legs," said Korg, in his best "you want a fight" voice.

"Wot did you call me?" there was a dangerous undertone to Leggilass' voice too.

The dwarf stood up. "Lovely legs. Don't you like them? They look so good on you, I'd hate to take them off," replied Korg casually, fondling his axe.

The lump of ebony got up too. And peered at his legs. Hairy, muscle-knotted tree-trunks. He stuck one out, and looked at it carefully. "Yeah. Thanks, Korg." His normally morose face was transformed, for the worse, by a simpering grin, as he sat down again.

After a few moments of stunned silence, Venus calmly said, "Well, I agree with Korg. But I don't really understand why Ziklevieson is allowing the use of explosives? I mean, it's been punishable by Bris for years." She shuddered delicately, and all around the table men made the sacred protective gesture.

Leggilass stared at her with unconcealed surprise. "You mean you also think I've got lovely legs? Gee, thanks." The lump was undoubtedly happy. "That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me. Normally they tease me about my name, and I have to bash 'em. You know, my name is actually from the song 'When I got legless, as drunk as drunk could be.'"

It says a great deal for the Ashill poise that, other than a smile which nearly eclipsed her ears, she was able to say, without a tremor, "Of course I think they're very shapely, Mr. Leggilass, but actually I was meaning about getting these poachers out of their flying machine. I'm still mystified as to what could have persuaded Ziklevieson to allow this."

"Well, M'lady, I think the tall one persuaded him it was Gair a ootray aines, as Frenchy would have said," the dwarf explained.

Venus blinked. And then translated with a perfectly straight face. "Er . . . the station, to . . . um . . . eccentric . . . er ainesse? I'm afraid I don't remember what the last word means, but I know I have heard it before."

"Well, it doesn't mean what it sounds like," said Korg hastily. "Maybe my pronunciation isn't quite what it should be."

Squigs, whose French was, for an English-speaker magnifique, supplied, "It means 'primogeniture.' You've probably heard of droit d'ainesse, meaning 'birthright.' Maybe the word Korg is looking for is aine?" he suggested fiendishly, wondering how the dwarf was going to get around "the station to eccentric groin."

Korg shook his head. "No, it definitely had an 's' in it. Nothing to do with prime genit . . . you know. Anyway what I was trying to say was 'all out war.'"

"Ah!" Venus smiled. "Guerre a' outrance."

"Yeah. That's just what I said . . . well, more or less. Anyway, Squigs here pointed out to the boss that the poachers are going to kill off so many dragons, that we'll have to leave 'em to breed for years before hunting any. And, as our whole economy is based on dragon-hunting, we'd be up shi . . . er, we'd be in trouble. Without dragons the whole of our society has no future."

"Humph!" snorted Mungo into his tankard. "I can't say that our future was so good in the past. Still, I see what you mean. It'd be back to the old feudal days. Only good news for some of us, eh, Baron?"

Baron Ashill looked vaguely discomforted. "Er . . . well. I can't say I fancy going back to some of the things that we used have to do before Ziklevieson appeared and killed off Kare."

Mungo grinned. "I dunno. The part about sacrificing your eldest daughter, 'tis something I could live with at times." He winked fondly at Kate. She stuck her tongue out at him, the blond hunk temporarily forgotten.

Squigs was sitting next to Vila, (by her design) directly across the table from Kate, who, needless to say, had engineered it so that she should be sitting possessively close to Crummag. Squigs was being slowly edged off the end of the bench, as Vila kept pressing her thigh against his. How much room did the woman need to sit in, for goodness sakes? So, to balance himself, he had his legs rather wide apart.

He made a small startled sound, and nearly jumped off the bench, when something caressed his outstretched foot. It was the blond barbarian trying a bit of footsie-footsie, and hitting the wrong leg, but it was also enough to summons the parrot. Wordlessly, the pale glowing bird surveyed them, and fluttered from the black hand, to perch on Squigs' head.

"What a beautiful bird," said Venus.

The parrot eyed her. Then, with a suggestive wink, it said, "Awk. Your mother wore army boots." Then, true to form, it vanished.

Squigs apologized frantically. "I'm sorry. Really, I'm so sorry! I don't make it say those things. It just does! It insults everybody, ask anyone!" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Korg was stalking closer, his axe in hand, and obviously with murder on his mind. Damn! He'd been getting on quite well with the little hell-raiser, after their mutual stand on the raft.

Venus's laugh was a sort of infectious bray. Her attempts to restrain it made her wide mouth even wider. Finally, she started giggling in little snorts. It stopped Korg in his tracks. He stood trying to decide what to do, until Venus said, "Oh dear. How clever! She did! Tell me, does your parrot always speak the literal truth?"

"Er . . . I thought it always just insulted everybody?" said Squigs uncertainly.

"Not a bit of it!" said Venus, firmly. "I'm not insulted. Daddy's not insulted. And he would challenge anyone who insulted Mummy to a duel, wouldn't you, Daddy?"

The baron twirled a mustachio, thoughtfully. "I have, m'dear, quite a few times. But I'd like to know how that bird of yours knew she used to be in the Amazon Corps?" A startling thought struck him suddenly. "I say . . . you couldn't ask the bird to give her a message from me could you?"

Mungo chuckled. "Time enough for sending messages tomorrow, if the boy with the exploding brain doesn't get us all killed, so we can deliver them in person. Mind you, I wouldn't mind asking my wife what she did with the key to the third pantry cupboard."

"Isn't that the damnedest thing!" The baron looked startled. "Just what I wanted to ask too!" He caught sight of his daughter's face. "Er . . . as well as some other more private things, of course."

Mungo looked at Kate, and hastily agreed, "Er . . . yes, naturally. But now it's time we put our shoulders to the grindstone again. Time and tide are passing, eh?"

Kate shook her head and looked at Venus, who she'd plainly identified as a kindred spirit. "Fathers!" she said disgustedly. "And now they want us to waste more of our time on this smelly rubbish of the tall twit's. After all, he didn't do us any good the last time. If it hadn't been for Crummag's barbarian mystical powers that his grandmother taught him, we might all have been killed!" She gave the smirking blond muscle-man a fatuous, worshipful look.

Into the open mouthed silence, Leggilass inserted, "Do you girls think I should shave my legs? To show them off better, you know. Or what about waxing?"

If Squigs had thought that getting three hundred-pipe bombs made had been a mission impossible, getting the heroes out of bed and mobilized at three the next morning was a feat nothing short of superhuman. Still, by dint of having very long arms and quick reflexes he managed it.

The next congruence point was at least closer than the last. And no one stole breakfast this time. They got to the spot just before six, in the crisp, clear light of a new morning. Then Squigs had to get the heroes and the accompanying draconniers to attach the pipe bombs to tall reeds in a wide circle around where Squigs thought the point of congruence would be. Squigs was amused to note that the dwarf made no bones about recruiting Venus to help him, on account of his height. Huh. Korg admitting he was short! The things a man will do in pursuit of the fair sex, even if that member of the fair sex was a couple of feet taller than he was.

Each pipe bomb had to get a spider-web of thin lines from their detonators to the surrounding reeds. The detonators were small, fiendishly delicate cocktails that would go off if a sparrow farted too close to them. Wet and cold they'd been, well, relatively safe. Now they were drying out . . . Inserting the detonators was a job Squigs had reserved for himself. Mind you, with Leggilass stopping to admire his nether limbs' reflection in every flat bit of water, and Crum goofing off ardently, he'd had to do a fair amount of pipe-bomb attachment too. Still, it was five to eight, and it was all done. Squigs glanced nervously across the reedy swampland. It was still. Thank goodness it was a near windless morning. One hard gust now. . . .

A blue heron rose from the swamp and flew overhead with slow, heavy wing-beats. Squigs watched in horror as it began to drop lower over the target zone. There was a sharp twang. The once graceful bird folded in a falling tangle of feathers. Squigs turned to see Venus standing with another arrow on the string of a short, double-recurved bow.

"I think I'll be more useful here than hiding in the wagon a mile away." She stilled the inevitable rash of protest with a carefully prepared speech. "I stopped by at the temple yesterday, to fill in my hero-permit, Pa. But Ziklevieson told me he'd given 'the young man vot told me about Israel' carte blanche. I notice, Mr. Harkness-Smythe, that you didn't tell Kate or me about it. It's open season on these poacher-fellows. An announcement was going out from the temple that hunting them will be open to all trades, and that the temple is offering a bounty of a hundred Kares for each poacher. Before you say anything, Daddy, just remember that we need the money, and I'm a better wing-shot than you are."

Baron Ashill looked stormy.

Venus put a hand on his fore-arm and smiled winningly at him. "I'll be all right back here, and just think what we could do to the swan-mews with a couple of brace of poachers? We could even buy some new bloodstock. Then there'd be a chance of really making the swannery pay."

"I'm still not happy about it, m'dear. But I suppose, like your mother, you're going to get your own way." He smiled warily. "And she used to beat me three falls out of four, too."

"Well, I'm not happy about it either," said Korg. "Not that I'm denying that you're a fine shot, M'lady. But in the heat of battle a fellow'll maybe forget what he's saying. It's not fitting to sully your ears with some o' the language which is likely to be used. Besides, there's bound to be blood and gurry about. No sight for a delicately bred lady. Also it might not be safe . . ."

She looked imperiously down her nose at him. Lifting her fine-boned nostrils, she said, "I'm not scared of blood. Who do you think does the butchering at Long-Ash these days? And I daresay I've heard worse language at the annual St. Zarul-Humshaw hockey match. You should hear those girls swear." She dropped down to her haunches, and looked the dwarf squarely in the eye. "And my safety is my own business, my preux chevalier."

The dwarf looked down at his feet. Grumbled. Sighed. Took her by the elbow, and raised her up. "It's not kom sick foe that you be down at my height, M'lady. Now, I know what a pro is, and I suppose this is a word what you learned at these hockey games, but what does this shevalley-ear word mean? Sounds like a kind of pig."

Kate was quietly stringing her bow. "It's not much use arguing, Dad. Venus and I talked it over last night, and decided what to do. After all, if it's okay for Vila to be here, you can't say it's a 'men-only' show. And I know that you don't want to leave."

Mungo cast wildly about for any support, even from Crummag. But the barbarian was too busy oiling himself, and eyeing Vila's warm-up exercises. Mungo realized that he had shot himself in the foot by introducing that female into the company of heroes. He'd thought her charms would be bound to attract Crummag, not to provide a reason for his daughter to be in combat. Squigs quietly offered at least some cover. "Best if we move the raft into the thick reeds over there," he said to Mungo.

"Are you suggesting, sirrah, that we should hide away, just because we're women?" Kate proved that it was quite possible to look down your nose while looking up at someone eighteen inches taller than yourself.

"Of course not," Squigs lied. It was fortunate that she was used to him stuttering and blushing whenever he spoke to her, "You should meet my mother sometime. She'd give your dad how-to-be-tough lessons. It's just we'll have a better angle to shoot from over there."

"We go in firing. We know dey'll be waiting. Da mission is to get dis man. Not'in' else matters."

Smooth Mario pointed at the blow-up photograph. He looked at the crew in front of him, and sighed. Those chain-mail coats might stop arrows, but they ruined the set of a well-cut jacket. With the sort of money the boss had now, they'd been able to get the best. Between this lot, they'd done enough "downsizing" to depopulate a small town. But how would they shape away from the city streets?

"Explosives." The other side would be using something that involved explosives. Well, let them try lobbing bombs. The hovercraft were now armored against whatever a bunch of primitive sword-wavers could do with black powder. And you couldn't put mines in the water. Well, floating ones, sure. But using hovercraft they were safe. "Okay. Let's roll it. Remember it's midday here, early morning there. An' remember dere's an extra million bucks completion of service bonus for whoever downsizes this Harkness-Smythe."


Mario sighed. It was all very well The Man saying that the big time was multinational corporate nowadays and not criminal. But these executive officers needed things in non-contractual language. They hadn't moved with the times. "A million bucks for whoever blows him away."

They understood that just fine.

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