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“I’m not sure how much we can trust you.” I tired to explain to the strange leader of the Dragon’s Claw. “It wasn’t too long ago that you attacked Ascension yourselves and were sent running.”

She leaned forward, showing a healthy amount of her tattooed chest. “That’s why this works. You attacked them shortly after and then killed them. You can’t possibly blame a girl for attempting the same thing you succeeded at. Our failure should only help you be more confident in our relationship since you succeeded where we were insufficient.”

I licked my lips. “That’s not exactly the point. I don’t know how big your forces are, but you lost a big chunk of them. I’m not even certain you can still call yourself one of the big clans after a loss like that. How many of you are even left?”

I had worried that asking such questions would offend her, but she leaned back, pursing her lips. “Why must you bear all of our wounds so shamelessly? Obviously, our earlier loss is exactly why I feel the need to ally with you in the first place. If we weren’t already pushed into a difficult situation, I wouldn’t be at this table.”

“Why did you attempt to attack them in the first place?”

She smirked slightly. “Retribution.”

“Retribution?” I raised an eyebrow.

One of the men in Ascension raped one of our women.

I blinked. “That’s it?”

I didn’t mean to come off as callous but based on what I knew about raider culture, rape was almost standard. The guys told me that it wasn’t even the first time for Feather, and after a week or two, she’d be back to her old self. I felt that was kind of sad, but it still felt surprising that they would go against a group more powerful than themselves and lose a ton of their forces just to gain… retribution.

“I thought you might be someone who understands. The Dragon’s Claw is family. This is what our name means.” She held up her hand, showing five fingers. “Together, we are powerful. If someone injures us…”

She made a fist and shook it.

I couldn’t help but glance at Raven. It was interesting how much that theme seemed to keep popping up. I was only here in this wasteland because I wanted to give my mother and sister a better life. Raven and his group acted like a family unit. Now, even this big clan acted like a family, one big, tattooed, skin-headed family. At the end the world, it seemed like there was only family and everyone else.

“How big is your family?” I asked.

I didn’t expect an answer, so I was surprised when she spoke. “There are only thirty of us left.”

“Thirty!” I coughed, trying to cover up my surprise.

She could still be lying about that. In fact, wasn’t she lying? The clans had over a hundred members. Chief’s slaughter wasn’t so big as that. Surely that should still have at least a hundred around.

“I’m telling you something I absolutely shouldn’t.” She shrugged. “I desperately need us to come to a compromise. If I’m being honest, everyone else thought it was a bad idea.”

I glanced at the men next to her, and by their stony expressions, it seemed like she might be right.

“What exactly happened?” I tried to keep my voice as stable as possible.

“Remember…” She lifted her hand, and then reached down and touched her cleavage, or more specifically the talon in her cleavage. “Our clan wasn’t run by a single chief. There were five of us original. Five claws. My claw, in particular, took care of the women.

“The attack on ascension wiped two of the claws out. We managed to flee, but the fist had been broken. The two other… men… realizing it was their chance to rule the entire clan, turned on each other. On the way back to our base, they started killing each other. I didn’t wait for the victor, because I knew whoever it was, the person they’d come for next would be me.

“Not just me, but the women. Many of us already had men, many of those men are now dead. We used to call out claw the dewclaw because we didn’t have the strength ourselves, but because we were the women who supported the men, we helped the whole clan move smoother. We worked because wives from all 4 clans were in one clan. One could call us the unifier. Yet, with three clans gone, the wives of the surviving clan tried a hostile takeover in support of their husbands.”

“All I see are men…” I glanced at them a second time to make sure I wasn’t mistaken.

“These nine men are all that are left. Friends and surviving husbands. Nine men, and twenty women, plus myself. That’s all that is left of the Dragon’s Claw. I hope by showing you honesty, you can understand why I’m here.”

“You’re only one faction of the Dragon’s Claw,” I said, feeling both less worried and less enthused about this conversation now that I understood all of the facts. “There is likely another claw… and they’d contain the majority of the remaining Dragon’s Claw might. You’re not asking for a deal; you’re asking for asylum! “That’s rich, after threatening me earlier.”  

“I could have continued to put on a strong front, but misleading you would only cost us both in the long run.” She gave a slightly helpless expression. “You’re not wrong though. There may be trouble by accepting us, but there would also be advantages as well.”

“What kind of advantages?”

Her cheeks colored slightly, and her eyes fell to either side of me. “If I’m being frank, this seemed better before. I didn’t expect you to be so young, or to be surrounded by such beauties.”

I frowned. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I already said my intentions once.” She responded, poutily. “I planned to give myself to you. I’m unmarried, and a virgin. You could have me however you wanted.”

“What?” I sat up.

“Outrageous!” Katarina yelled, standing up.

“Back off, slut!” Raven stood up as well.

I didn’t know what Raven was getting so angry about. At least I understood Katarina’s reaction. Neither of them needed to worry though. This Red wasn’t my type at all. She wasn’t a bad negotiator though. She came on originally acting touch, but flirtatious, and then she slowly revealed her vulnerabilities. It was all calculated to get me to feel for her and ultimately succumb to her desires.

Red looked at the two standing up with flushed faces and then leaned forward, her eyes locked on me. “Look, you said you needed people. These are nine skilled men. They can hold a gun and if you want someone to stand around and look intimidating there is no one better.”

The nine men all fidgeted slightly at that. They didn’t like themselves being described in such a shallow light.

“Nine bodyguards…. For an additional twenty helpless?”

“You said you needed shopkeepers, right? You needed people that could clean and build your mercantile business. The women in our clan were the ones who negotiated and traded. As far as women go, you won’t find tougher or stronger. All we want is food and protection. The men here will protect the women with their lives, and you won’t have to worry about things like a guard getting frisky. You get your workforce, and we get protection.”

“I’m not sure how welcoming a bald, tattooed workforce of women would be.”

Red smiled slightly. “I can’t say our women are all beautiful like yours, but they mostly keep their hair and have only a few tattoes. It’s the fighters who dress this way. There are a few women, but not the ones I brought. As for me, I felt it was necessary to be seen as one of them. So, is that acceptable?”

I thought about it a moment. “You know the requirement I demanded. If you intended to fulfill my requirement, then there would have been no need to have a meeting.  Since you still wanted to go the extent of negotiating, that tells me that you have no intention of putting on slave collars?”

The men’s expressions turned angry for a moment at the mention of slave collars. Red took a deep breath.

“We’re already at a dead end. However, raiders are free. It’s our freedom that defines us. We won’t become slaves to anyone.”

“You could steal supplies, sabotage weapons, tamper with the merchandise. What if one of your girls needs to serve one of those men that killed their husband? Can you promise they wouldn’t slip poison into his drink? Even with the best intentions, I cannot trust you. This project will only be as strong as the trust and reliability I garner. Without being slaves, you’re no good to me.” I leaned back, committing to my decision in my mind.

“Then, can just some of us be slaves?”

“I won’t hire anyone who isn’t a slave.”

“You won’t have to. Ten! If I can get you ten who will accept the collar, can you allow the rest of us to remain in one of the axillary buildings? You must have planned them for your workers anyway, right? You had to expect that some would have families. This is no different. We’ll work for our families.”

With my hands folded in front of my face, a thought about it for a bit. I whispered into Raven’s ear, and he went back to ask the guys before returning to me. The question I wanted to know is if anyone had taken up the offer yet for slave collars. That answer had been a resounding no. Even amongst all of those raiders, no one was willing to become a slave. She had been right when she said raiders defined themselves by their freedom.

This seemed like this might be the only possibility. I gained ten slaves, and the cost was almost nothing.

“Very well.” I agreed, causing her to let out a breath of relief. “Then, let’s seal the deal.”

Her back turned rigid, and then she looked at the men around her. “H-here? Shouldn’t we… use a bedroom?”

“Absolutely not!” I wasn’t sure who said it louder, Katarina or Raven.

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