Strictly Business

"Well, well, well. Long time, no see." The man who sat down heavily next to her was over forty, about ten years older than herself. When he leaned his elbows on the scratched and abused surface of the table, she saw that only the right one had a whole arm attached to it. His face was leathery, tanned, and scarred. Her black eyes flickered.

"Carrion Hunter," she said coolly, her voice not surprised.

"Black Iris," retorted he. "How long ago was it, that you stole that bounty from me? Ten years?"

"More like fifteen," she said. "And that was just business. You know how it goes."

"You've been doing well," he remarked, his glance moving with trained and practiced smoothness from the costly sword buckled on her left hip to the empty mugs and plate on the wooden inn table.

"I suppose," she agreed reluctantly. "Still hunting amazons?"

"Just business as usual," answered Carrion Hunter sardonically.

"Still haven't figured out why they run from their husbands and fathers?" she asked dryly. "You should be noticing the scars and bruises before you bring them back. You know, when you rape them."

Carrion Hunter raised his dark, bushy eyebrows at her.

"Did you think I didn't know?" asked Iris.

"I don't rape my bounties, you know that. Probably the only one that doesn't, present company excluded," he added with a bitter hunter's smile.

"You still name your crossbows?" asked Iris, drinking from her mug of ale, then replacing it on the beaten, dark tabletop.

"Meet Dragon's Bite," he introduced, slinging the heavy bow off his back, where it hung by a wide leather strap.

"So, how DOES one load a crossbow with only one arm?" she asked.

Carrion Hunter grimaced. "Practice," he said roughly. "Where've you been at, al this time?" he changed the subject.

"Down south. The empire's crumbling, there's a lot of assassination and corruption going on. Bounties all over the place," replied Iris.

As they spoke, the room emptied around them. Noise decreased dramatically. Torches burned low, and some guttered out. Then inn's already dim light turned into twilight, filled with pockets of shadow. Only one barmaid remained, her clothes creased and dark circles under her eyes as she wiped the dark wood of the tabletops dry. "Business was good, but it was getting tiresome," Iris was telling, "so I came back north. Got a sweet deal, too. I didn't know how long it might take, but now I'm thinking I might be on my way again as early as tomorrow." She set down her mug, having just drained it. Carrion Hunter whistled his appreciation.

"Not bad. Mind if I look at that sword?"

Iris shrugged lightly, drew the impressive steel blade and laid it across the table. The shallow light from a nearby torch glittered on the sword and on the bounty hunter's black eyes as she watched Carrion Hunter examine the weapon expertly. Snapping her fingers, she asked the barmaid for another drink. The girl abandoned her towel with a sigh and scooped up Iris's mug and the coins she left her.

Once the barmaid had descended the steps to the cellar, Iris got up and stretched her muscles, cramped from sitting for so many hours. Her eyes, clothes and short, straight hair were black. Despite the heat wave, she worse knee-high boots lined with fur. Carrion Hunter was still inspecting her sword.

"This sweetheart got a name?" he asked.

"Naw," replied Iris, stretching her arms behind her back. She pulled out a long dagger that was sheathed in the small of her back and stabbed him firmly in the throat, then pulled the blade out as he slithered off his bench, clutching at the bloody wound.

"Sorry, Car," she said coolly. "It's strictly business." While he was dying, Iris grabbed the dishrag from the next table and used it to clean her dagger. That done, she grabbed Carrion Hunter by the hair and neatly sliced off his head with her sword. Now the sword, too, needed cleaning. By the time she left, the only things left in the room were his headless, armless body on the floor, his crossbow on the cracked wooden bench and his half-empty mug on the table. When the last barmaid came up to the empty room with Iris's ale, she saw no one there. When she finally located the bounty hunter's decapitated body, she cursed and went to get the innkeeper. Black Iris left with his head.