Riss had not seen Tarn Gullardson in some time. She sat there in one of his many sitting rooms and wondered exactly how it would feel to set eyes on him again. Perhaps more accurately, she wondered what he would feel when he first set eyes on her. Would it be pity? The line of her mouth hardened.
A servant scuttled near-silently into the chamber and executed a curtsy Riss only saw from the corner of her eye. The woman poured a cup of tea and set it upon the side table.
It took much of Riss’ self control—not a small reservoir by any means—to bite back a piss off. She wanted to be alone. But Tarn’s servants didn’t deserve her wrath. If their boss had called her all this way for the mercenary equivalent of a pity fuck, he was the deserving target. And he’d get it all right. She took the teacup by its stem and cradled it in both hands.
The sitting room was a handsome one, she had to admit, focusing on the decor to take her mind off less pleasant things. Shelves of some dark-veined wood she didn’t recognize lined the walls. The windows had fine, un-bubbled glass that offered a clear view to the courtyard below. She couldn’t tell if the glass was original or a particularly clever refurbishment. The furnishings—brass-bound leather, gleaming candlesticks that could have been silver or pewter, a geometrically-patterned rug that was undoubtedly Some Sort of Foreign—were certainly not what came to mind when she thought of Tarn.
Of course, when one is gifted a castle as a spoil of war, it probably comes with whatever’s inside it, she wagered.
Riss sipped her tea and moved her mouth around. She tried on a few expressions: mild smile, flat line, something she hoped looked contemplative and serious. Should she greet Tarn as a friend? As a former superior officer? She wasn’t going to let his newfound title push her around. At least not inside her own head. She’d pay the proper respects if his hangers-on demanded them. More than anything, she needed to feel the man and his offer out. She needed to gauge whether this job had been given to a competent mercenary or an old friend fallen on hard times or a poor brokenhearted dear who needed a pick-me-up.
Bluntly, it bothered her that she wasn’t sure how angry she was supposed to be.
She was stewing on that when the heavy wooden door swung open and the man himself stepped in. The Baron of Adelheim, no longer some hypothetical she could debate the pros and cons of. He was a flesh-and-blood thing she just had to suck it up and deal with.
The sight of him still inspired a reflex to salute. Riss clenched her teacup a little tighter for a beat.
Leaving the army had shaved ten years off Tarn’s face. The eyes that settled on her—dark, narrow, hooded beneath a heavy brow like a turtle peeking out of its shell—were lively. Like a man much younger than his five and some odd decades.
“Captain,” she said. Her mouth found that mild smile she’d tried on earlier. It came naturally. She found that, all her concerns about the job aside, it felt damn good to see him.
“That’s Baron to you.” Tarn’s voice was a rich boom; his laugh ricocheted off the walls.
“Oh, yes.” Riss placed her teacup carefully aside, then unfolded from her armchair. When she rose to her full height, she was still a few inches shorter than Tarn. Stooping forward, she swept a curtsy of her own in the southern style: cloak to the left, toe dipped.
“My apologies, Baron of Adelheim,” she said, lowering her voice a shade to really yuk it up.
Tarn groaned like she’d kicked him in the family jewels.
“If you never call me that again it will still be too soon,” he said. Riss straightened. Amused, she gathered her tea once more, then gave Tarn her full attention.
“Civilian life treating you that grandly, sir?”
Tarn brushed past her, stepping through the small sitting room and toward the door opposite the one he’d entered through. He gestured for Riss to follow, a brisk little officer’s swish of his hand. She fell in behind him and he led her into a larger chamber. It probably had a proper name, but Riss didn’t know it. More bookshelves lined the walls. A fire crackled in an impressive stone hearth. Beside it sat a spindly wooden liquor cabinet, the Baron’s target. He marched himself up and pulled the door open, taking inventory of the bottles within.
“You know half these books are in Sunnish?” He snatched a bottle from the cabinet and a pair of glass tumblers. “Civilian life means living in a castle with forty rooms full of books you can’t fucking read.”
Riss snorted. Tarn sloshed a measure of dark amber liquid into the tumblers and passed one to her. She took it, now holding a cup in either hand. He certainly didn’t seem to have changed much.
Still nursing the tea for the time being, she followed Tarn to the fireplace. There was only one chair, but he pulled the ottoman aside and offered it to her. Sinking into the high-backed leather seat, Tarn sipped his drink and let his eyes fall momentarily closed.
In that moment, he looked much the same as he had in his Inland Army days: a well-groomed officer of the stereotypical barrel-chested, broad-shouldered build that officers always seemed to have. But his mustache was no longer trimmed to military precision; he’d grown it out in the long and drooping style that was common to his new home.
She settled herself onto the ottoman and placed the liquor down beside her boot. Riss considered herself lucky in that moment to have a subordinate’s quiet to fall back on. Tarn was in control here; she didn’t have to break the ice. Which was fortunate for her, because she had no idea how to pursue this conversation.
“It’s good to see you,” Tarn said after some time. Something had shifted in his voice, a subtle turn away from conversational and toward… Riss couldn’t quite pinpoint it. Were he a stranger in a bar on ale three or four, she’d have anticipated he was coming on to her. But this was Tarn, so no.
“I don’t want to say I was worried because I know damn well you’re capable of taking care of yourself.” Ah. So the word she’d been searching for earlier was paternal.
“And here I am, fully taken care of,” said Riss for lack of a better response. Humor was a crutch in these situations. She wondered if he’d dare voice why he’d been worried.
How long are we going to dance around it? She sipped her tea, watching her old Captain, waiting with a crocodile’s patience.
There was a gulf between them that wasn’t there before. This gulf existed between Riss and everyone she’d served with. So more accurately: a gulf existed around Riss. She felt as though she stood on a narrow ledge, a plunging canyon to either side. Everyone from her old unit, and everyone she knew before the war too, they all resided beyond the canyon’s drop. On stable ground that was no longer familiar to her boots.
It hurt a little, seeing Tarn through the lens of that distance. She could tell it hurt him too. Tarn could talk to anyone under any circumstance. Yet now he regarded her like he had no idea what to say.
Gaspard had died almost two full seasons ago. Two seasons since Riss had taken over the company. Since she’d tried to gather up the pieces and build a functional whole with what was left over.
If he tells me it wasn’t my fault, I’ll slap him. The thought leapt into her mind like that reflex to salute: unbidden and undeniable.
Fortunately for the future of their relationship, he didn’t.
“Regardless,” said Tarn. “I’d be up the creek without your help, so I appreciate that you came.”
That caused her to sit up some. “It’s just wood, Cap. Thanks for thinking of me, but a lot of crews could do this job.” She downplayed things reflexively and wasn’t quite sure why.
“If it was just a logging trip and a case of a missing person, why do you think I called you here?”
Riss blinked. “Because it’s a particularly dangerous area? I’ve talked to the locals. I know most won’t venture into the marshes.”
Tarn took a deep breath then exhaled, a lengthy wheeze of a sigh that seemed to deflate the broad boulder of his frame.
“I mean called you here to this meeting, Riss.” The words had a sarcastic edge to them, though he blunted it some as he continued. “If I’d called you here to chop wood, we wouldn’t need a briefing beforehand, would we?”
For the first time since she’d unfolded the letter addressed to her and marveled at the seal of Adelheim upon the envelope, Riss wondered if there might be more to Tarn’s errand than he’d let on. She had never considered it before. Tarn was… Tarn. He had about as much artifice to him as a hammer. Or at least Captain Tarn had. Perhaps his Baron days had changed him.
“I assumed you wanted to, ehm. Catch up.” When she said it aloud, it sounded rather lame.
Tarn breathed out a quiet laugh, then downed the remnants of his drink. Riss still hadn’t even tasted hers. She didn’t even know what it was.
“That is true,” he said. “But I intended to save the catching-up for after you’ve returned. Better to do it when we have something to celebrate, no?”
Riss merely nodded to concede the point. She was interested now.
“The essentials of the job as described in the letter are correct,” said Tarn. “But there were some details I didn’t put to paper. And for good reason. These are the sorts of things one has to keep in mind in my new… hah, I hesitate to even call it a profession.” They shared a smirk.
“So yes: my eldest son Lukra did indeed disappear while leading a logging trip in the southern marshes. But things are a bit more complicated than that.” Tarn paused. Riss saw his eyes dart toward the liquor cabinet again, but instead she just nudged her cup toward him with the toe of her boot. She wasn’t in a drinking mood.
“Cheers.” Tarn collected the drink then lifted it to her. “I’ll get to the point. Lukra’s disappearance alarms me not only because he is my heir, but because I can’t be certain it wasn’t an act of man rather than an act of marshbeast, so to speak.”
He had Riss’ undivided attention now. The faint tang of black tea on her tongue suddenly tasted far away and uninteresting.
“So rather than a rescue mission, you think we’ll be searching for a body?” Riss wasn’t sure how diplomatic to be. She knew Tarn had a whole litter of children. She didn’t know how emotionally attached he was to any of them. He told her all the stories on their long marches, of course, but every soldier waxed poetic about his kids. Kids were an ideal. Kids were a sign. They meant peacetime and retirement.
“I have no idea.” Tarn lifted a burly shoulder. “All I know is that when I was preparing to put this expedition together, I kept finding reason after reason not to trust any of the local talent.”
Riss took that unspoken compliment to heart.
“Do you have any enemies?” She knew little of Tarn’s life since the war. Only that he’d received this great parcel of land and crumbling castle as thanks for his services to the Inland.
Tarn lifted his tumbler and gestured all about the book-lined room. “Riss,” he said, as though he were speaking to a child. “I am living fat on the backs of thousands of peasants. I live on occupied land which we took by force.”
“A lot of people saw the seizing of the Deel as a liberation,” she said. That was how she remembered it, at least. Two years? Was that all it took for her to view wartime with nostalgia?
“Many did, but many did not.” Tarn tossed back a little of his liquor, swirling it in the glass. “My point is that anyone in the valley could see me as an enemy, were they the right stripe of fanatic.”
“So anyone could, but nobody personal springs to mind?” That was a good thing.
Tarn shook his head. Riss raked her teeth along her bottom lip. “Huh.”
They sat in silence for a while, the crackling fire a backdrop to their private thoughts. Riss considered promising him directly: we’ll find him. And if we find him dead we’ll find who killed him. But she worried such a direct appeal to emotion would invite one in return. She did not want him holding her hand about Gaspard. Not now, not ever.
“Is there anything further I could help you with?” Tarn asked after a while. “Equipment? Men?”
“I don’t believe so.” Riss made a quick mental inventory. Tarn’s writ had paid for it all anyway. “I’ve got some of—” Fuck, she almost said Gaspard’s name. She dodged the other way. “—a couple of the old team with me. Hired a couple here in Adelheim. A medic called Calay and some muscle called Gaz, in case you know them.”
“I’m not familiar, no.” Tarn regarded her curiously. “Who from the old team?”
“Well, it probably comes as no surprise that Adal never left.” She smiled, faint but fond. “And Torcha Lupart, the sharpshooter. If you ever met her. I can’t remember.”
Tarn bellowed out a laugh. “Adalgis.” The crows’ feet at the corners of his eyes deepened with amusement. “Thank Loth he grew up into something useful when you fed and watered him properly.”
That he had. Riss could still remember the first time she set eyes on her Second, back when he was introduced to her as Lieutenant Altave. She’d never served under anyone less competent in the field and swore she never would again.
“You two are odd friends,” said Tarn non-judgmentally.
“We complement each other.” Riss pressed a thin smile. “I’m not taking any dead weight on this trip. I respect you too much to bleed you dry.”
Tarn focused on her, fully sober despite the two measures of liquor he’d sipped thus far.
“And I respect you too much to ask anyone else to do this.”
Riss tilted her teacup toward the man. “I’ll drink to that,” she said. She was offering a cheers, but instead he retrieved the bottle from the liquor cabinet and spiked her tea. Riss let it happen. The bottle turned out to be some sort of almond liqueur, sweet and a little nutty. It softened the bite of her tea in a rather pleasant way.
For the duration of that bottle, they were no longer Baron of Adelheim and Mostly Failed Mercenary. They were simply two old friends looking back on better days. At one point Riss did promise him that they’d find his son, no matter what. And to Tarn’s credit, he never mentioned Gaspard’s name once.
Riss didn’t start the long, slightly stumbled walk back to the inn until long after night had settled over the village. Tarn left her with the promise that he’d arranged for a guide to meet them, as well as one of his officers.
She took the path slowly, hands buried in the deep pockets of her cloak. Candles guttered in the windows of the squat buildings she passed. Torches and lanterns lined the road, as if lighting the way, a special procession just for her.
The southern marshes were a bit of a mystery to Riss. Her unit never had reason to scout that far south. Few roads circled close enough to the region to even offer a glimpse of them. Torcha, the closest thing their team had to a local, said they were a place of mystery and bad luck. The locals left offerings at the nearby shrines and hurried in the opposite direction.
But of course, as she always did, Fortune had a sense of humor. Valuable things grew in these dark and wild places. Lukra Gullardson had gone off in search of such specimens. Fine-grained exotic woods, valuable medicinal herbs, that sort of crap. Riss wondered what he’d found. If anything.
For a moment, on that lonely torchlit path, doubt skipped through Riss like a stone. What was she thinking, promising Tarn I’ll find your boy like that. Like he was some lost little lamb. Like she was some brave shepherd.
Yet framing it that way helped her. He wasn’t a lost lamb, no. But he was a lost person. And they’d tracked down plenty of those in the war. Fugitives, prisoners, the movements of enemy scouts—everything left tracks. She would follow Lukra’s into the mud. And even if she couldn’t find him—which she would—they’d fell the trees Lukra died for. Marshwood fetched prices high enough that Tarn’s fees would be but a pleasant bonus by comparison.
Riss slowed some on her walk back to the inn. She savored the light. Where they were going, the trees grew so tall one couldn’t even count on stars.