Read me the story:
Mohv Quiddik was accustomed to being able to assess a situation quickly, sum up people with considerable accuracy, and create a reasonably reliable mental map of any given situation. But here at Headwaters, his talent kept eluding him.
They’d debriefed the target, gotten the permissions they needed to establish a perimeter for Anisala m’Anhadon and her— team? staff? family?— for the journey to Farn-Amli and the duration of the Small Cluster conference. As he’d assumed, he was Team Lead for target protection, with Declan Rawl in charge of threat assessment. The deal had been that they’d work alongside Anisala’s people, who, she explained, normally provided a perfectly adequate level of security.
Mohv took no one’s word about “adequate security,” but he’d been reasonably impressed, so far, with the arrangements at Headwaters. Among the rambling structures was a very well-equipped, well-designed saljo, and everyone worked out daily, including the children. Even Anisala did shadowflows from the Parsi tradition of hzajlit.
Mohv had wangled himself an invitation to work out with Chun and Stav, first using competition Tenso rules, and then freestyle. They were pretty good, and Stav was as fast a gun hand as Mohv himself. They’d urged him to work out with what they’d called, smirking, “the girls,” Pek and Tularik, whom everyone called Tuli.
“The girls” were regular sleep-shift bodyguards for Anisala. A little toning up would probably be helpful for them, at that.
Mohv showed up in the saljo to find them in mid warm-up. Pek was holding her right heel at full vertical extension, balanced on the ball of her left foot, left arm extended to balance—a moment arm as she tumbled forward, a blur of motion, the right leg slashing in full arc, right knee pulling in, bringing the left leg around in the same arc, landing with three-point balance, right hand and balls of her feet. Tuli, apparently paying no attention, was practicing lunges, but as Pek hit the three-point balance, Tuli changed the direction of her lunge, and one arm swept out to knock her off balance.
There was a flurry of limbs, some grunts, and the two women were locked together on the mat, Pek atop, her forearm jammed against the other woman’s neck, knee in the solar plexus. Tuli was hampered by having one arm beneath her, but her other hand was wrapped in Pek’s hair; she pulled, hard, but lacked leverage. Pek leaned in deliberately, and bit Tuli’s earlobe, eliciting a little gasp.
Mohv was glad his workout pants were loose.
“See what you get when you try to show off?” Pek eased up on her forearm. Her Translingue had a noticeable Mesrami accent.
Tuli grimaced. “Oh, I was the one showing off?” She looked significantly over the other woman’s shoulder.
Pek chuckled. “We have company, yes.” She rolled off her lover and to her feet in one smooth motion. Tuli bounced to her feet, stood beside her. Both tall women, not so tall as Mohv. Both dark-haired and slender, but there the resemblance ended. Pek was brown-skinned, dark-eyed, six or seven years older, with an aquiline nose and high, sharp cheekbones. Tuli’s fairer skin offset startlingly blue eyes, an unusual dark shade of blue, deep-set under straight, thick brows.
“Welcome Mister Quiddik, so you have decided to join us for a spar today?” Pek’s Mesrami accent had become more strongly marked, and Mohv wondered if she was putting it on for him.
“If you don’t mind, ladies,” Mohv was genial.
They both seemed amused. “Not at all. We like having new sparring partners,” Tuli assured him. “Will you warm up?”
Mohv nodded thanks, and began some stretches, a few shadowflows, loosening up. He felt self-conscious, although both women had turned away to do stretches of their own, alternating between solo and duo.
“Duo stretches, Mister Quiddik?” Tuli offered.
“Please, call me Mohv. And thanks, yes.” He positioned himself for isotonic deltoid stretches, offered an arm.
“I will help you warm up for Pek. She will take you on first.” She put her palm against his, locked her wrist, and leaned. Not much weight, compared to Mohv’s usual spar. He was careful to adjust tension. But as they moved through the six point stretch, she proved surprisingly strong.
They switched sides, and then swapped out direction, moving slowly through the standard variations. Once Tuli grunted disapproval and jabbed him lightly with an elbow when he was pushing too lightly, then grunted approval when he added pressure.
“All right, thanks.” She stood back, and nodded, and a grin flickered over her face. “Mohv… A word of advice?”
“Yes?” He lifted an eyebrow.
The flicker steadied into a smirk. “Don’t pull your strikes. If you try and take it easy on Pek, she’s likely to hurt you.”
Mohv nodded, gravely. “Thanks. I’ll be careful.”
Tuli’s smirk widened to a grin. “Your funeral.”
Twenty minutes later, Mohv understood. He stood back, massaging a very painful hip, and eying the older of the two women with considerable respect. He’d fought better opponents to a standoff, but none of them had been women. And he had an uneasy feeling that she’d been pulling her strikes a bit. He’d like to think it was a biomod alteration, but there were none of the signs. She wasn’t that strong, but she was unbelievably fast. And mean.
For her part, Pek was also massaging a shoulder, and there was a slight deepening at the corners of her mouth that might have been the ghost of a smile. “Not bad, Mister Quiddik. Not bad at all. Now would you like to take on Tuli with the blades?” She nodded to the practice blades on the wall.
“Let him fix that hip, first, Pek.” Tuli had gone over to an equipment locker and was rummaging in it. She turned, and tossed an ultraheal wand in Mohv’s direction. He caught it easily, nodded to her.
“I would, yes.” He bowed to Pek, a Tenso bow, which she returned, politely. “And please, it’s Mohv.”
“Alright, then, Mohv.” Pek’s Mesrami accent had almost vanished. She was stretching her shoulder, grimaced. “I’ll take the wand when you’re done, please.”
He applied it to his hip, feeling the warmth spread through, sharpen, and dissipate. He lunged once or twice, balanced a bit, then handed it to her, and walked over to inspect the practice blades.
Another twenty minutes later, he had no doubts at all of this particular bodyguard team’s ability to deal with ordinary close-order protection of the target. Tuli wasn’t Pek’s equal at hand-to-hand, but with the blades she was, if anything, faster. And uncannily accurate.
Sparring completed, the two women had exchanged glances, again, and then invited him, politely, to share a soak in the saljo’s radiant tub. By that time he was quite sure they were lovers, so it didn’t mean anything other than friendly courtesy, which was how he treated it. “Thanks, I’d like that.”
He went around the corner from the tub, where there were hooks and cubbies for the accommodation of guests, and stripped off his loose shirt and pants. He was half-hard, but what the hell, that happened occasionally during workouts. If they were single-sex oriented, it wouldn’t bother them, if they weren’t, well… again, what the hell.
Tuli was in the radiant tub already, and it was filling, the thick fluid glugging merrily out of the taps. Pek had a towel around her neck, and was bending over the tub control board. Mohv nodded to the women, and climbed into the tub without bothering to use the steps, hoisting himself over the side without apparent effort, and settling on the bench. It was designed to accommodate four, but he was a big man, so when Pek slung her towel on a rack and joined them, the tub was almost full. Tuli waved at the tap sensor and it shut off.
The three of them sat in silence for a few minutes, letting the heated radiant fluid swirl the tension out of them.
Finally, Tuli sighed, and stretched her arms along the tub rim. Pek scooted over just a little, to lay back against Tuli’s arm. She half-closed her eyes, but Mohv could feel her scrutinizing him. A lazy smile stretched her mouth; now, she looked more than a little beautiful. He was glad the radiant fluid was only translucent, not clear.
Tuli grinned, watching Mohv with a kind of bright interest. He swallowed, suddenly feeling much less relaxed. The grin broadened. “Stop it, Pek. We’re making Mohv nervous.”
“You’re making him nervous, maybe. I’m not the one with a taste for polemeat.” Pek chuckled and sat up, opening her eyes. “Don’t worry, Mohv. We won’t, um… eat you.”
Mohv considered several responses, settled on bland amiability. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“We like you, Mohv,” Tuli explained.
Mohv wondered why that didn’t make him feel all warm and happy, having two attractive women sharing a radiant tub naked tell him they liked him. He suspected he knew.
“Uh-huh,” Pek concurred. “We do. So, we thought we should tell you some stuff.”
“That’s right.” It was almost like a cross-talk routine. “We think you’re mostly honest.”
Mohv blinked, started to say something. But they’d moved on already.
“And we’ve done a fair bit of backwork on Kyth,” Pek informed him.
“Well, Nelauk has.” Tuli amended.
“Uh-huh. And we think as mercenary outfits go, it’s not the worst.” Pek continued.
Mohv was abruptly hyper-alert, as if in the presence of a threat. But what could it be?
“And Anisala wants to go along with this extra security deal. For now, anyway,” Tuli said.
Pek smiled, a warm, melting smile. “So we’re going along with it. For now.”
“But we wanted you to know something about that,” the friendly sincerity in Tuli’s voice could have sold used drone tugs to asteroid miners.
“Yup. Just a little thing.” Pek’s dark eyes suddenly pierced like lasers. “If there’s anything hinky planned, and you… or Kyth… is any part of it?”
She paused, but Mohv prudently chose to remain silent.
“I’ll kill you.”
Mohv looked into her eyes and believed her, absolutely.