Don't Get Bent Out of Shape
The Hunter's Guild tavern was humming with activity as Alys Brangwin walked through the main door. Behind the bar, Garn was dealing out drinks with his customary efficiency, and waiters moved to and from the kitchen to bring out plates from the grill. Spotting a familiar face, Alys dropped onto a stool next to a short, slender woman with a curly fall of crimson hair and sighed, unslinging the haversack from her shoulder.
"Alys!" the redhead chirped up at the sight of the tall brunette. "Sands, you look wiped."
"I just got back from Molcum. You would not imagine how long it takes to root nineteen sand newts out of a native Motavian metallurgist's workshop. They'd dug tunnels down there, and I was chasing them up and down...not to mention those blasted animated toadstools that had already started to grow in some of those hot, damp corners. It's almost impossible to get fungoid slime off your boots."
"Nasty. What're you doing here, anyway?"
"I picked up my commission at the front desk, and it hit me that I'm too hungry to go to sleep and too tired to cook. So, I'm here. Anything I should watch out for, Fenris?"
Fen shook her head.
"Nah, it's all good since Garn replaced his cook two days ago."
"Well, looks like some things changed for the better while I was gone. Hey, Garn!"
The bartender turned at once; Alys didn't have a particularly piercing voice, but she knew how to make herself heard.
"Alys! Good to see you. Will it be the usual?"
"Not the way I feel right now. Get me a bowl of noodles, and something non-alcoholic."
Garn served the food quickly and Alys dug right in while Fenris regaled her with tales of what she'd missed while she'd been out of Aiedo. Alys had just begun to feel more like she was at home again when the convivial mood was shattered.
This voice could also make itself be heard. In fact, Alys thought, they'd probably heard it in Uzo.
"Of all the things that changed while I was away, Fen, why did he have to stay the same?"
Joss Howland was a walking cliche, the man who proved that the big, handsome, athletic, and painfully dumb guy wasn't just a stereotype. He'd thought of himself as a rival to Alys's professional reputation at first, but even his limited brain capacity had figured out the hopelessness of that goal in a relatively short time. Then, he'd switched gears and decided that any woman who was a better hunter than he could dream of being was the perfect choice of girlfriend. Shaking that idea had proven to be a bit trickier.
"Heck if I know."
Joss strutted up to the two women and reached out to sling an arm around Alys's shoulders. He somehow missed and nearly overbalanced into the bar, but did not let this cramp his style.
"Aw, Alys, don't be shy. Just giving you a friendly squeeze, is all."
"Squeeze pretty hard, can you, Joss?"
Joss, wearing a sleeveless vest, flexed an arm. He had that tie-iron-pokers-into-knots kind of build. He grinned, impressed by his own bulging muscles.
"Well, it's your lucky day. You show me you're enough of a man for me, and I'll let you take me out."
"Bring it on! Anything you say!"
"Okay. Hold on a second; I've got a souvenir of my trip for you."
She bent down and opened her pack, fished around for a second, and took out a metal bar.
"Here you go, Joss. Give it a bend."
"That's all? Easy as shortcake, Alys." He grabbed each end in one hamlike fist and flexed.
Meanwhile, the bar ignored his efforts, stubbornly remaining perfectly straight.
Beads of sweat were starting to stand out on his forehead as he staggered off across the tavern, more as a result of his unceasing effort than any willful act.
Alys tossed a few coins down to pay for her dinner.
"Keep an eye on Joss, will you, Fen?"
"I won't let him pop a blood vessel," Fenris said. "Got to say, though, those native Motavians are really on to something with that titanium."