Ruda yawned hugely as she descended the rocky incline to the plain below. The chilly gray of predawn lingered in the sheltered area she was headed for, where the rocky outcropping cast a long shadow; everywhere else, the endless expanse of tallgrass blazed red and gold with the sunrise. She’d paused to admire this briefly, but Zaruda Punaji had seen her share of sunrises. What was going on below was far more interesting.
Yawning again, she flopped down on a low, flat lump of stone next to Shaeine and watched Trissiny and Teal exercising on the area of flattened grass they’d already created with their exertions. The paladin was dressed but not armored or armed—her gear sat nearby—and she looked as alert and energetic as if she’d just spent an uninterrupted night in a luxurious feather bed. Ruda didn’t know how the hell that girl always looked in top shape, but it was maddening. Teal was no longer visibly groggy, as they’d been at it for a good ten minutes already, but her movements were stiff and showed weariness.
They weren’t actually sparring, but drilling. Punches, first with one hand then the other; from the shoulder, from the waist, overhand, underhand. Twenty repetitions of each while Trissiny called out a cadence and corrected the other girl’s form.
“I dunno how the hell you can stand that,” Ruda said when the paladin called a rest and Teal flexed her spine, grimacing. “The same damn thing over and over. That’s not fighting, it’s homework.”
“You repeat motions until your body knows them,” Trissiny said, her voice thick with patience that made Ruda want to club her. “Till you don’t have to think about every move you make in a fight, because a real fight won’t give you the luxury. The point of the homework is to get them down perfectly, so that when they’re needed, they will be perfect.”
“Bah. You want to learn to fight, you go out and fucking fight. You can talk about form and stance and technique till you pass out, but when it comes down to it, what matters is that you have the will to fuck somebody up.” She removed her hat, dropping it next to Trissiny’s armor, and grinned. “People who’ve never been in an actual scrap don’t realize just how big a deal that is. A person who’s right in the head doesn’t want to inflict pain. You’re drilling to fight right, when the truth is that fighting well means being just a little bit…wrong.”
“I think it’s interesting that Professor Ezzaniel’s never had us spar with each other,” Trissiny replied coolly. “Don’t you?”
“I always thought that was a pretty good idea,” Teal commented, slightly out of breath.
“Why,” Ruda drawled, “you afraid of learning there’s a pirate-shaped hole in our fancy-ass technique?”
“If you’ll recall,” the paladin replied evenly, “we tested this once. Or rather, you did.”
Ruda was on her feet before she decided to be. “Are you saying you want a rematch?”
“Ladies,” Shaeine said firmly, “let’s please be civil.”
“I agree,” Trissiny said, nodding at her. “We’re just here to practice. If you don’t mind learning some pure technique, Zaruda, you’d be welcome to join us.”
“Do I fucking look like I need your help?”
She bounded off the rock and stomped over to stand inches from Trissiny. Immediately she regretted this decision; the other girl was a head taller, and Ruda had to crane her neck to make eye contact. The hell she was going to back down, though. “Where I come from, that’s a challenge.”
“Yes, it is a challenge,” Trissiny replied, still insufferably calm. “I’m not interested in a real battle with you, Ruda, because that would be unfair even if we were unquestionably equal in skill. I have powers at my command that you just can’t contend with. But again, we are here to practice. If you’re willing, I’d like to see what you can show me.”
Ruda took the excuse of thrusting a finger into her face to step back. “No magic, no weapons.”
She unbuckled her whole belt and threw it to one side, rapier and all, and instantly lunged forward, driving a fist at Trissiny’s midsection.
Trissiny spun to one side, slapping her arm away and sending Ruda stumbling past her. She wheeled around, lashing out again and following up with a flurry of punches; the taller girl ducked and dodged, deflecting blows with precise little motions when evasion wasn’t possible. It took only a scant few moments of this before Ruda could positively taste the rage on the back of her tongue.
“Fucking fight back, you bitch!” she screamed, swinging a wild haymaker at the paladin’s jaw.
Trissiny grabbed her wrist, then her upper arm with the other hand, and flipped her neatly overhead. Ruda slammed into the ground on her back, hard enough that she saw spots and momentarily lost the ability to breathe. When her senses swam back into focus, the first thing she became aware of was Trissiny’s foot on her neck.
It was withdrawn immediately, but as far as Ruda was concerned, the damage was done.
She lay there, gasping, and squeezed her eyes shut, forcing back tears and a sob of pure, undiluted frustration. The hell she was going to show that kind of weakness here.
“You’re sloppy,” Trissiny said inexorably. “You let anger drive your movements, which makes you predictable. You have little fine control or even awareness of your body.”
“Shut the fuck up,” she hissed. All of this she’d heard from Ezzaniel.
Trissiny just sat down in the grass beside her. “And not one of those things is a fault of yours,” she said. Ruda kept her eyes closed, recovering her breath as the paladin continued. “You’ve got bad habits, that’s all. You’re clearly an experienced fighter, Ruda. That ferocity you were talking about is there; if you’d just practice, solidify the technique, you’d be an absolute terror.” She sighed. “And I’d really like to work with you on it, but I feel like you take it as an insult that I know something you don’t.”
“I take it as an insult,” Ruda growled, “that you think you’re better than me.”
“I’m better at something than you, which is a whole different thing. Once when I was fed up with being smacked around by the older girls training me, I asked my instructor how long it would take before I’d be considered a master. She laughed at me, and said a master is whoever’s been working at it long enough to have failed more times than you’ve tried.”
A long silence stretched out, and Ruda eventually opened her eyes. Trissiny was watching her face.
“It seems to me we each know some things the other doesn’t,” she said gently. “We’re students. It’s not a contest. I’m willing to teach you, Ruda, and I don’t think it’d make me weaker to learn from you. If anything, it would make us both stronger.”
Ruda groaned and threw an arm over her eyes. “There you go, doing that paladin thing again. How do you just pull wisdom out of your ass like that?”
“Because a lot of women who know more about the world than I ever will spent a lot of time stuffing it up there. I’ve got quite a backlog at this point.”
“Well, that was a mental image I didn’t fucking need.”
Trissiny laughed lightly. “Well, the offer stands. Teal and I do this every morning before breakfast; we’d both love to have you join. I would really appreciate it, though, if you didn’t call me a bitch.”
Ruda grunted as she sat up, seizing gratefully on the change of topic. “Yeah, what’s your deal with that, anyway? I thought you were just making an issue of it to get under Tellwyrn’s skin.”
“I don’t need a reason to antagonize Tellwyrn,” she said wryly. “I just dislike gendered insults.”
“Gendered? So fucking what? Most of the people I’ve called bitches were men. Hell, that makes it sting harder.” She grinned, but the corners of Trissiny’s mouth turned down.
“Exactly, it’s meant to hit harder. Did you ever pause to think about why?”
“Because no man likes to have it pointed out that he’s being a pussy?”
Trissiny drew in a breath slowly through her nose. “So calling a man weak is one thing, but calling him weak and feminine is even worse? Don’t you see the implication? It’s a statement that womanhood is a disadvantage. Call someone an idiot, a jerk, or whatever else, and you’re making a personal statement about them. Call them a bitch, and you make it about all women.”
Ruda frowned, then stood, dusting off her pants. “Well…shit. I was all ready to just blow you off like I usually do, but…fuck me if that doesn’t actually make some sense.”
“I do my best,” Trissiny said dryly, rising also.
“Fuck. I liked calling people ‘bitch.’ Now I’m gonna have this in the back of my head every time.”
“Or,” she suggested, “you could not do it.”
“Don’t rush me, prissy britches. You can belittle my fighting technique, but if you take away my cussing, I’ll turn to dust and blow away. What’s next, cutting off my booze supply?”
“I wouldn’t dare,” she said, deadpan.
“Damn right, you wouldn’t.” Ruda turned around and scowled. “And what the fuck are you two grinning at?”
“I’m not grinning,” Shaeine said mildly. Sitting beside her on the rock, Teal only grinned more broadly.
“Morning, everybody,” Gabriel said, stumbling sleepily down from the rock and plodding toward them. “I’m almost afraid to even ask how the hell you’re all so chipper at this disgusting hour. Hey, Ruda, how’re—”
He broke off as Ruda slapped him hard across the face.
“That’s Ms. Punaji, asshole. I care about that shit now.” She cackled gleefully as she snatched up her sword belt and hat, and swaggered back toward their camp.
Gabriel, suddenly wide awake, stared after her with a hand held to the side of his face. “What the hell?!” he screeched, turning around, then scowled as his gaze fell on Trissiny. “This is your doing!”
“Well,” she said, hiding a smile while she retrieved her sword and shield, “it’s a start.”
Their heads snapped up in unison at the shout. Juniper was standing on the rim of the crater above, waving to get their attention. Once everyone was looking, she pointed down and to the side, at an area hidden from their view by the rocky slope.
Ruda and Trissiny immediately set off at a run, but they had to navigate around a long arm of the rock formation too steep to climb over with any speed, painfully aware that any four-legged enemy would be long gone by the time they got there. Fortunately, not everyone in the group had the same problem.
Teal erupted upward in a burst of flame, and an instant later Vadrieny was banking over the rocks and diving to the plain beyond, folding her blazing wings around herself as she fell.
Trissiny had longer legs; she pulled ahead despite Ruda taking the inside track around the rocky outcrop. They had to sprint across an open area between that and another long extension of stone; ahead, flashes of orange were just visible over it from Vadrieny’s wings. Juniper bounded down the incline ahead of them, then yelped as she lost her footing and went tumbling the rest of the way. They didn’t slow to help her; she might not be the most agile member of the party, but she was one of the most durable. Behind them, Gabriel and Shaeine (neither of whom were used to running) brought up a distant rear.
Ruda was lagging behind and putting too much breath into running even to curse about it by the time Trissiny rounded the next stone barrier and skidded to a halt, taking stock.
The centaur was exactly as she’d always heard them described: a horse with a man’s torso sprouting from where its neck should be. He had wild, bushy hair and she caught glimpses of a full beard, despite him being faced away from her and trying to escape. Draped over his back was a collection of bags such as a packhorse would carry, with two spears and bristling quivers of arrows visible among his inventory. Geometric designs were tattooed onto his human skin, and appeared to have been branded into his hindquarters.
Vadrieny was blocking his frantic efforts to escape. The demon was far more agile and had the advantage of flight; no matter which way he wheeled, she swiftly placed herself in front of him, snarling and flexing her talons. She didn’t seem to be attacking, for whatever reason, but was effectively holding him in place
It was enough.
Ruda charged past her, and Trissiny burst into motion on her heels; the paladin went right and the pirate left. At their approach, the centaur whirled to face them, throwing all his weight onto his front legs for a moment to lash out with his powerful back hooves at Vadrieny. In one hand, he held the broken half of a bow; those hooves seemed to be his only functional weapons.
The maneuver cost him. Vadrieny hopped nimbly back out of his range, but the rearing kick gave the two humans time to close in. Before he could get his footing firmly back, Trissiny dropped to a crouch mid-run, skidding on the grass, and slashed at one foreleg with her full strength. The crack of breaking bone was clearly audible.
With a cry of agony, the centaur stumbled drunkenly to one side, his left front leg out of commission. He brought up the broken half of his bow to club Trissiny; she raised her shield, but before the blow could fall, Ruda reached him and drove the tip of her rapier into his upraised underarm.
From there, it took only a few more slashes and hits to subdue the centaur; finally, the tip of Ruda’s sword pressed into his throat seemed to convince him to cease struggling. He glared pure hatred at them, chest heaving with exertion, but making no more aggressive moves.
They had matters pretty much under control by the time the others gathered. Fross arrived first, buzzing around the felled centaur in frantic circles. Juniper, Gabe and Shaeine all came staggering up as a group, the former brushing gravel out of her hair and the latter two out of breath. Toby and Professor Rafe were the last to arrive; they had been forced to pick their way down the steeper side of the rock formation to avoid going all the way around.
“What the fuck was that?” Ruda demanded as soon as relative calm had descended, scowling at Vadrieny. “You could’ve finished this fucker off easy.”
“Had we been alone, I would have,” the demon said, meeting her glare. “But as it was, you were on hand to deal with him. Teal does not like it when we hurt people.” Having said her piece, she withdrew, flames fading and claws withdrawing to leave Teal standing in her place, looking pale and shaken.
“This’ll be a scout,” Rafe noted, looking more focused than they’d ever seen him before. “Obviously, we can’t let him take word of us back to his…group.”
“Herd?” Gabriel suggested.
“They’ll be curious if he doesn’t come back at all,” Trissiny warned.
“Yeah,” Rafe said, nodding, “but that buys us some time. And they may not. There’s no shortage of dangerous crap in the Golden Sea; we’ve had a pretty gentle time of it, largely because we haven’t been screwing around with it. You remember what Ansheh said? Centaurs navigate by twisting the Sea to take them where they want to go. It tends to drop the nastiest stuff it has on them in retaliation. I bet they lose scouts all the time.”
“So what do we do with this guy, then?” Juniper asked, stepping up close to the kneeling centaur despite hisses of warning from her classmates. He ran his eyes over her body slowly, then smirked. The dryad didn’t seem to notice this, peering intently at his face. “Should we…I dunno, interrogate him for information?”
“What information?” Gabriel asked. “The Sea shifts around, and we can’t make it take us anyplace useful. Knowing where his herd are doesn’t do us much good when we can’t even know where we are.”
“So he’s not really good for anything, then?” she asked, turning her back to the centaur to face them.
“Gabe’s got the right of it,” said Rafe. “Even if we could make him cooperate… Well, there’s just not much of any use we could learn from him.”
“This is a problem!” Fross cried, buzzing around in a tizzy. “Cos we can’t really take him with us and we can’t afford to leave him here, and Imperial law governing the treatment of prisoners—”
“Meh,” Juniper said dismissively, then turned around and smacked the centaur hard in the face. With a sickening crunch of pulverized vertebrae, his head was wrenched backward to hang over his spine. He spasmed violently, toppling to one side, legs twitching.
“What the fuck?!” Ruda bellowed, barely leaping back out of the way in time. Other voices of shock and protest joined her.
“What?” Juniper looked around at them, apparently baffled. “What’s the problem? What else were we gonna do with him?”
“You don’t just kill a prisoner!” Ruda snarled.
“Why not? He’s only a prisoner if we want to keep him one, right? And we didn’t! He was an enemy combatant.” The dryad shrugged, frowning around at them. “I don’t know what you’re all so upset about.”
“That is what we’re upset about,” Toby said quietly. “It’s important to treat beaten foes with mercy, Juniper. That’s what separates us from the animals.”
“No,” she shot back, scowling, “what separates you from the animals is that you burn up resources you don’t need doing things that don’t contribute to your survival. I’ve gotta say, this sounds like more of that. Mercy, indeed. The poor thing couldn’t even walk anymore.”
“That’s not the point!” Ruda shouted. “Yeah, mercy indeed! If someone weaker than you is under your power, you don’t fucking abuse it!”
“That doesn’t make any sense!” the dryad retorted, growing increasingly irate. “None of you are making any sense! If something wants to kill you, you kill it back, first, otherwise you die! I don’t get why this is so hard for you all to understand! How has your species survived this long if you don’t grasp the most basic—”
“All right, enough,” said Rafe.
“Enough!” They all reared back from the unfamiliar crack of command in his voice. Rafe moderated his tone somewhat, but his expression was still much more resolute than they were used to seeing on him. “Kids…don’t argue moral philosophy with fae. Okay? Juniper simply doesn’t think the same way the rest of us do. You wanna have this talk, that’s great, but do it later, when you have time to go around in circles and everybody’s not riding an adrenaline high. And Juno, hon, I love you, but don’t do shit like that, all right? There are rules we have to respect. If you don’t know them, let the people who do take the lead. Kay?”
“All right,” she said in a small voice.
Gabriel cleared his throat. “Well. I was kinda hoping to have another dip in the springs before we left, since we’ll probably never see this place again, but… I’ve suddenly got a feeling it would be in our best interests to get the hell out of here.”
“No shit,” Ruda grunted, wiping blood from her sword with a handful of tallgrass stalks.
“Right,” said Rafe, rubbing his hands together and looking a bit more like himself. “Time to break up camp, my little cabbages. I’ll get all our crap packed away. Gabe, Ruda, I’m putting you in charge of cleaning up this guy.”
“Wait! Are we allowed to do that?” Fross asked shrilly. “We don’t know their burial customs! We could be messing up his spirit or something! Isn’t it bad enough we killed him?”
“’Scuze me, but we didn’t kill him,” Ruda said.
“Fross, if he’d been here with more of his group, he would have raped and murdered us and looted our corpses,” Trissiny said firmly. “In fact, his goal was probably to go get more of his friends so they could do just that.”
“But what does that have to do with their funerary rites!?”
“What Trissiny means to say,” Gabriel said, “if she’ll pardon me for presuming, is that we don’t give a fuck about their funerary rites. There are enemies who are treated with respect, and then there’s these guys. Let him rot.” Trissiny nodded grudgingly at him.
“O-okay,” the pixie said uncertainly. By her continued darting back and forth and soft undercurrent of jangling chimes, she wasn’t much reassured.
“Great!” said Rafe cheerfully. “Since we’ve got that cleared up, I’m gonna give you guys some protective gloves and vials of solution to dispose of him.”
“What, some kind of potion that’ll make him invisible or something, so the other centaurs can’t track him?”
“Yes, Gabriel, just so, in the sense that it’s basically a virulent acid which will reduce him to biodegradable goo. Also, don’t get any on your skin. Even with two paladins, a cleric and a dryad on hand, I’m not sure we’re packing enough healing to straighten that out.”
“Have I mentioned yet today how much I hate your class, Professor?”
“That’s the spirit, Punaji! Ten points!”
“Seriously, fuck you.”
“Right, while they’re doing that, I’ve got a subtler solution for the rest of you to apply to the bottoms of your feet. Also, the hems of any robes, skirts, or anything else that’ll be trailing along the ground. It will prevent us from leaving any tracks. I’m not sure it’s possible for us to be tracked in the Golden Sea, but I’m not taking any risks with something like this. Here, Toby, pass these out. Now if I could just get a hand breaking down the tents, I’ll go stuff the rest of our campsite down my pants and we can get movin’. Oh, Fross,” he added more somberly. “I’m afraid I don’t have anything to conceal pixie tracks. For the good of the group, you’ll have to be left behind.”
“What?!” she squealed. “But that—how?! I don’t—it doesn’t—what does that—”
“Don’t make fun of her, you addled degenerate!” Trissiny snapped. “Fross, ignore him. He’s trying, at the most inappropriate possible time, to make a joke. We’re not leaving anybody behind.”
“Okay. Okay. All right.” Muttering softly to herself, the pixie darted over to flutter around behind Trissiny.
As they all split up, heading off to their various tasks, Juniper stayed put for a minute, looking down at the fallen centaur, then back after the departing members of the group. She sighed heavily. “I just don’t understand.”