Book 2, Chapter 3

Tucked back in the recessed rear-end of a rickety triangular building, the former headquarters of Vittoso Mercantile was not much to look at from the outside. Its exterior resembled a gap-toothed mouth, much of its facade missing. The holes had been plastered over by a hand more skilled with structural than decorative work, the sort of maintenance that served as a bare minimum to avoid having one’s holdings condemned by the city as unsafe.

Not that Calay cared much about that. Wasn’t as though he owned the place. Or even paid rent.

This awkward, three-sided building that teetered like an old man in hard wind was just what he needed, location-wise. He’d have paid for it had that been necessary. But instead, one of his runners had pointed it out as a real gold nugget of a squat. The owner, who he presumed was some guy called Vittoso, had fled town on account of a flock of creditors. And none of those many creditors had cared to foreclose upon this particular shit-heap, given how expensive it would be to restore.

Once Calay had settled in and made it his own, it was positively homey. He’d stacked a few crates to form a bar and seating, then rolled a big round card table in through the back door. The eight chairs were scavenged from eight completely different locations. He’d bought the decks of cards new, at least.

Presently, he sat at the card table, lounging back with four midlisters of the Meduese black market. All he really cared about was getting on good terms with Hadjo, the big fellow to his left. His three friends? Good people to know, Calay supposed. Just less immediately vital. 

Torcha sat to his left, dressed down in a chambray vest and straight-legged trousers. She made a wonderful dealer, sweet and impassive by turns depending on how handsomely the players tipped. 

Lastly, there was Gaz. There was always Gaz. For now, he stood over by the front door, arms loosely folded. He kept an eye out through the peephole, though his presence was more for show than anything. Medao had legalized gambling some ten years back; old-timers just liked the theater of the illicit. By advertising his game as taking place in a password-protected squat, Calay brought a little of their boyhood magic back to them. Ah, memories. 

“Flip ’em,” said Torcha, tapping the tip of one finger to the splintered tabletop.

All five men at the table complied. Calay’s hand was shit that round, a collection of unusable rubbish that wouldn’t even win him back his ante. Hadjo’s skinny friend, the one with the pierced eyebrow, took the round with a pair of beggars and a pair of roads.

“Well played,” Calay said. He’d attempted to engage that one in a bit of conversation before the game had begun. In exchange for his friendly overtures he’d received only blank stares and silence. He got the same now.

“Your friends are cleaning me out,” Calay said, narrowing a playful eye at Hadjo. The man, ruddy-complected and broad as a doorway, grinned and showed Calay the shiny gold caps of his teeth. 

“It’s been some time since I played with seercards,” he said. “I think you go easy on me.”

Calay laughed, light and carefree. He sure wasn’t. He was just riding out a bad luck dump of coastal storm proportions. Hadjo and his buddies were taking him to the cleaners. But that was all right. He could lose a sack or two of australs and not feel the sting. Coin came easy these days. Nowhere near as easy as information, which was his real quarry.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Gaz lean into motion. A moment later, a knock came at the door. Torcha kept up her dealing, though he could tell by the slight shift in her shoulders that she’d noticed, too.

“I appreciate you taking the time to come down,” he said across the table to Hadjo. “It’s dreary, everybody always wanting to talk business.” From day one of this card game, after he’d put out feelers to the figures in Medao’s black market that he thought might bite, Calay had played it off as a social-only affair. Like there was nothing in the world that he loathed more than mingling business with leisure. 

Give them a safe place and hopefully they’d see him as a friend rather than an intruder. Then, later, when the time came to talk business, they’d come to him if certain interruptions happened to their supply lines, if certain items became difficult to find in the city—

Gaz raised his voice at the doorway. He folded his arms across his chest, speaking sternly to someone on the other side. Then, one of his folded hands gave a quick signal to Calay, a sweep of two fingers in a scissorlike motion.

Calay glanced back to the table. Chatter and shuffling had died down; all eyes were now on the door. They’d seen the signal. He looked aside to Torcha.

“If you could all begin a calm evacuation out the rear doors,” he said, standing up and tapping his cards on the table. “It appears the law’s here.”

Hadjo bolted up and his friends did likewise. Torcha made a show of sweeping up the cards, then Calay gestured to her to get the others out.

“Go,” he whispered, clapping a hand to Hadjo’s back. “She’ll see you out to a clear exit.”

The gamblers scrambled through the dusty, sagging interior of the building until they rounded a corner out of sight. At which point Calay crept over to the doorway, peeking outside. He leaned his shoulder against the jamb, then pulled the door open, greeting the man on the other side from an insouciant slouch. Gaz loomed behind him.

“What was all that, exactly?” Adalgis stood there, thumb hooked through his sash, wearing that clueless slapped-ass face he got sometimes.

“Theatre, mostly.” Calay gave him a grin.

“… Right.” Adal shook his head, the matter dropped. “Torcha with you? We’ve had a change in plans for tonight. I’m going to need you three on the Symphonia job.”

Surprised, Calay looked him over. Odd that he’d duck out on a job where the client had asked for him and Riss personally. Perhaps Riss had the flu? Adal certainly looked none worse for wear. 

Adal noticed his scrutiny. “Everything’s fine,” he said. “We had a big opportunity crop up. Going to take some logistical wrangling. Been a while since we all had a big job in the countryside together, eh?”

At the word countryside, Gaz made a noise like choking on a fishbone.

“A drier climate this time,” Adal said. “I don’t know much in the way of details yet. The client approached Riss directly. We’re going to sequester ourselves in the office for a couple days, go over the calendar, see what work we can shift or subcontract…”

Adal kept talking, but Calay stopped listening. A big job with travel involved, eh. That would disrupt some of the plans he’d been making in the city. But that wasn’t the end of the world. As always, the groundwork Calay laid in Medao was meant to serve him in the long term. It was inevitable, being a mercenary, that he’d have time away. Interruptions were a part of the game.

“When do you need us at the Symphonic Hall?” he cut in. 

Adal course-corrected his blathering. “Six-bell,” he said. “And I don’t need to tell you to dress to the circumstances. The things we had tailored for the fisheries summit ought to suit.”

“Ercun’s kid is a bit of a shit-lick, isn’t he?” Calay scratched at his cheek with his good hand, the other gloved up tight and dangling behind his back.

Adal dazzled him with a smile, then peered over his shoulder to share the smile with Gaz, like the two of them were in on some joke at Calay’s expense.

“He is. But I have no doubt you can win him over with your cheery personality.”

###

The Medao Symphonic Hall lorded over the city’s harbor bridge, an imposing building of yellowish-white soapstone. Calay tried not to look impressed by it, hated to find himself impressed by such things at all times. Yet when it was all lit up at night for a performance, he couldn’t deny it was a pleasant sight. He’d grown up so far removed from institutions of art and artistry in Vasile that he wasn’t sure he even had opinions on them, but often in Medao he found himself noticing all the colors and rounded edges and wiggly lines in their art and architecture and thinking that looks nice. 

So he allowed himself a that looks nice before stepping inside, attached at the hip to Sal Ercun and his date. Torcha flanked the couple on the other side. Gaz brought up the rear. 

After mingling a while in the lobby—which had a high ceiling decorated with faceted glass, the whole of it shimmering dangerously in a way Calay couldn’t take his eyes off—it was time to attend their box. Ercun’s little entourage swept up the velvet runners on the staircase, deep burgundy contrasting against light stone, and Calay refused to be taken in and seduced by the spectacle of it all. He kept his eyes on the crowd and his mouth in a businesslike scowl.

Their private box was home to ten seats. A friend of the Ambassador’s, older than Ercun and his woman by a few decades, arrived to join the party. But apart from that, no changes. They sat, Calay keeping a hand to his hip. He tried not to be dazzled by the massive chandelier overhead, nor the drape of the massive curtains, nor the array of instruments on display down in the pit. 

Remember the last time you let yourself get all entangled in culture, he thought. Lady Rovelenne and her dog shows. Lord Viernon and intellectual pursuits. All this fancy shit was just another card the landholders of the world kept up their sleeve, a play they could make to entice naive idiots into doing their bidding.

He’d been that idiot once. Never again.

He idly observed the crowd, staring at the backs of many dark-haired and hat-wearing heads. The music began. Sal Ercun talked over it, the little punk. Calay paid no mind to his conversation or really anything about the boy. If any threat materialized, his quickened reflexes and superior instincts would give him an edge over almost any would-be assassin. And with Torcha and Gaz on his side? Ercun was the best-protected brat in the city.

The music, though. It was… pretty good. It tickled and wormed its way into Calay’s chest with all its rises and falls, its high-flying notes and raucous crescendos. He hated to admit it, but the symphony was damned impressive. And it was a thing that hadn’t been directly poisoned by his time with House Talvace, so the concertos (or were they symphonies? Or… movements? He wasn’t up on the terminology) conjured no bad memories.

Sitting there in his fine-spun wool suit, a patterned green scarf around his neck for local flavor, he let himself be a man enjoying the symphony. And the ceiling didn’t cave in. And assassins didn’t leap from the dark and shiv him. And when he glanced over toward the door, Gaz was leaning against it with his eyes closed, foot tapping along with the music.

It was only in the street afterward that all three hells broke loose. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 2 | To Be Continued >>

Enjoying Book 2? Click here to give us your vote on TopWebFiction!

Book 2, Chapter 2

For a man born so far away from it, Adal was developing a deep fondness for the sea. He paced the tidy wooden deck of the schooner, passing between the shadows of its twin masts. Docked as it was, sails tucked away, it looked like a tree at wintertime, booms and raked masts like leafless twigs. But the ship was far from winter dormant—it was a hive of activity, crawling all over with carpenters and riggers and fellows who all had specific nautical job titles that he didn’t yet know. 

“Was she damaged on the voyage, then?” Adal asked the man who led him along the deck. The ship’s owner was rather short, with a crown of wispy silver hair that didn’t make it all the way over his head. So Adal found himself more addressing his bald spot than his face.

“Nah, nah.” The man shook his head. “Preventative maintenance is the name of the game.”

Which made sense. What little Adal knew of riverboat maintenance was similarly inclined.

They arrived at the top of the gangway. Adal turned back, surveying the craft one last time before bidding it farewell. With its v-shaped hull and its big square topsails, it had looked fast when putting in to harbor. Fast was what he wanted. 

“She’s a real beauty.” And her owner could wax poetic about the vessel’s exploits at length. “Gives me great pains, it does, to relinquish her.” Adal always found it odd, how sailors had all collectively decided at some point in the past that boats were female. Women were soft, curvy, pleasant to touch. Boats were hard and straight and made of wood and gave you splinters. And that was coming from someone who liked boats.

“Well,” he said. “I’ll confer with my company and I’ll be in touch. Perhaps we can ensure she goes to a caring home.” He ticked up a smile, then began to disembark.

At the base of the gangway, a half-dozen loiterers waited. A woman in a tall hat dressed in deep blue stood out—mourning colors in these parts. Beside her was an older couple who appeared to be together, then a handful of interchangeable well-off men in local dress: silken shirts and many layers, scarves and surcoats in patterns that caught the eye as deftly as their drape caught the sea breeze. 

All the other prospective suitors, so to speak. Adal put on a smile as he walked on by, keeping his shoulders straight and his saunter purposeful. He projected a confidence he did not feel, knowing as he did that his inspection of the vessel amounted to glorified window shopping.

For a moment, he allowed his imagination to carry him away. Dreaming—real dreaming, not mere snippets of intermittent revenge fantasies and what-ifs—was a thing he was still growing accustomed to. From his first birthday his life had been planned, a charted course designed to optimize his contributions to the family. When he’d deviated, it hadn’t been on account of any grand dreams. He’d simply strode down whatever paths life presented that could simultaneously enrage his parents while lending him enough respect to provide a veneer of plausible deniability.

Now, though? Dreams came easier. In the year since they’d settled in Medao, he and Riss had established themselves. They had a reputation. They had regular clients. They had a townhome on a shady street. The kind that had a courtyard.

So as he descended the gangway to the docks, he allowed himself the daydream. He pictured himself in a naval officer’s coat, a quick mental edit of the Carbec River Navy blues into something lighter, something kinder to his complexion. Although—hm, scratch that. Not an officer’s coat, because why would he ever put himself in a military again? No, just something handsome and befitting a ship’s captain. Wool over silk. Stiff with the Meduese sun and carrying the tang of the sea.

Of course, the clipper with the raked masks wouldn’t be his only ship. Why stop at one? He’d hire men and women he trusted to actually captain the things. But he’d come aboard for trade voyages, leaving the archipelago behind in search of trade at distant ports. Perhaps at one such port he’d find a woman with suitably deep, sad eyes to pine for him while he was at sea. And they’d have children. At least two children. Children who inherited their mother’s soulful stare and missed him very much when he was away.

It was only natural that business, at some point, would take him to Carbec. He’d return home with his family in tow and his fleet abroad making money, and his sister would adore the children, who would be very well behaved, and—

“Hello? Are you even listening to me?”

Peculiar. That sounded like Riss.

He blinked. Riss was indeed standing in the rear of the crowd, her hands on her hips and her head tilted to one side. She was staring at him with an expression equal parts expectant and skeptical.

Where had she come from?

He’d missed something, hadn’t he.

Putting on a pleasant smile, Adal strolled a few paces further down the dock, drawing her aside with him.

“I wasn’t expecting you here,” he said, not that he wasn’t pleased to see her. “I thought you were at the Corals.”

Riss reached up and scratched the shaved patch of scalp on her right side, where a still-healing scar stood out against the grey-black stubble. She often scratched at it when she was thinking.

“Are we going to just… not discuss the part where you completely ignored me?” She laughed, baffled.

“I was…” Adal’s cheeks grew warm. “Thinking.”

Riss stared at him for a beat longer then—mercifully—dropped it. 

“Let’s head for home,” she said. “We’ve got a contract. A clear-the-calendar sort of contract.”

As they left the dockyard behind, Riss pacing along with her usual wide, businesslike strides, Adal couldn’t resist one last look back. Sunlight skipped and glittered off the sea, ships both near and distant looming large as Medao’s tallest buildings. He imagined the sight of them fully-adorned with sails and busily-scurrying crew. There was something so noble about tallships, something that set them apart from their squat, flat counterparts in the river.

“We’ll need to get Calay and Torcha on the concert hall job.” Riss said it absently, like it was a thing that barely mattered.

“The one tonight?” Adal blinked. He hoped his tone came across as more do you think that’s wise and less Loth damn it, I was looking forward to hearing the symphony. 

“Trust me,” Riss smacked a hearty palm between his shoulder blades. “We’ve got logistics to see to. Shit to reschedule. Once I tell you about this contract, you won’t be able to sit still long enough to enjoy the Symphonia.”

Adal huffed in annoyance, then immediately regretted how pissy it sounded. “It’s not the music,” he started, but Riss cut in.

“It’s all right if it’s the music, you know. It’s good to enjoy things. You need not wave your professional compartmentalization flag in my face as a virtue. When work’s fun, own it.”

“So says the woman dragging me away from the Symphonia,” Adal muttered.

###

Chou and Associates did not have a storefront of its own. Their “office” consisted of a single study on the middle floor of their townhome, and this was where Riss insisted on talking business when the time for talking business arose. She led Adal along the docks, through the fishmarket, out the other side, up into the spindlier buildings and narrower streets of the banking district, and then into one of Medao’s little pockets of residential housing. 

The route toward home was a pleasing zig-zag. Medao was a jumble of short streets and buildings sharp and angular and varied as shards of glass. Anywhere a structure could feasibly occupy? Someone had built a narrow apartment atop it. Anywhere too narrow? That became a road. Anything narrower than that? A footpath, beautied up with pots of tufted grass and old, drooping trees that served to break up the monotony of all the brick and plaster.

Riss had once joked that she’d chosen the neighborhood for a reason: it was the urban equivalent of setting up camp in a thicket so deep nobody could ever find you. The ache in Adal’s feet by the time they stepped through the front gate agreed with that sentiment.

A slight smile lifted his mouth whenever he set eyes on the modest triple-decker they’d made their own. It was built in the mid-century Meduese style: narrow with skinny windows to let in light, composed of dark red and maroon bricks with the occasional navy or turquoise one to catch the eye. Planters lined each window, spilling vines down toward the ground. Interior shades kept the afternoon sun at bay, drawn down like sleepy eyelids.

The house was a far cry from the mansions of his childhood, but Adalgis prized it above anything in the entire world.

“You eaten?” Riss asked as they stepped inside.

“Thought I might have that leftover pie.”

“Yeah, go on.” She cut through the foyer and toward the lustrous wooden staircase, each step creaking as she plodded her way up. “Bring it up here.”

“What if I wasn’t planning on sharing it?” he called up the stairs after her.

He didn’t bother to wait for her reply, ducking into the pantry and retrieving the pie in question—leek and goose—from the breadbox. He snapped a bit of the flaky, buttery crust off as he walked, popping it into his mouth. As he chewed, his mind churned: what could possibly be so urgent that it required dragging him away from the Symphonia job? The young Master Ercun would not be pleased with a last-minute change in plans. 

###

Sal Ercun, son of Ambassador Havasi Ercun, was not pleased with the last-minute change in plans. As soon as Riss had explained the Continental Post situation, Adal sent a caller for the young man, who presently glowered in the foyer like a boy who’d just bitten into a rotten fruit.

“Father won’t be happy with this,” he said. “He paid for you and Miss Chou, not hired lackeys.” His tiny, pinched mouth tightened further still, a pouty dot upon his freckle-flecked face.

Riss blessed him with a wide, friendly smile and touched a hand to her chest.

“And I’m sincerely sorry about that,” she said. “We’re happy to reduce the rate to an appropriate level.” Her hand stilled, though. And her eyes tightened. “However, I won’t have you calling my lieutenants lackeys. They’ve been chewing iron and spitting out nails since you were a student. They’re ranking professionals, not thugs grabbed off the street.”

It was fascinating, the way Sal bristled, straightened, took a deep breath as though he intended to yell at her, and then shrank back. Adal watched the bad idea occur to him, then the better one. He opted to keep his mouth shut. Wise move.

“Nothing matters more to us than our clients’ security.” Adal spoke up, turning the rudder back toward business. “Which is why we hire the people we do. They’re hand-picked for their talents and their ability to get the job done.”

Ercun the Younger made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat, then snapped a hand through the air, dismissive. “Fine,” he said. “You don’t need to butter me up. If your people can do the job, Chou, they’ll do the job.”

They showed the Ambassador’s son out in a congenial hurry designed to look like it wasn’t a hurry. Adal all but slammed the door on the man’s back, then looked to Riss with widened eyes and an elevated heart rate.

“Right,” he said. “Now that we’ve promised him the world… have you managed to actually locate Torcha and Calay?”

Riss, cool as a stone at the bottom of a deep dark river, smoothed a hand over her hair. “Working on it,” she promised.

Well, they had about four hours.

<< Book 2, Chapter 1 | Book 2, Chapter 3 >>

Enjoying Book 2? Click here to give us your vote on TopWebFiction!

Book 2, Chapter 1

One year later…

Facedown on the bed, Riss Chou breathed in deep, inhaling a lungful of the humid, perfume-heavy fug that stuffed the air so thick it may as well have been a mattress. She struggled to keep her eyes open, then realized she didn’t have to do that and let them close. 

Faint, far-away, barely felt, a pinprick jabbed up her neck. Then another. This new girl they had, Vattja or Vajaya or something, she had masterful hands. Riss barely felt the needles going in. The final one registered as a little twinge through her palms, a pleasant tingle afterward. She exhaled into the perfumed air. 

She’d thought acupuncture sounded like a bunch of hocus when she’d first heard of it. People shoving needles up your neck was supposed to be relaxing? But Gaspard had sworn by it. And one night when they were off on entitlement, roaming the port city with nothing else to do, he’d invited her into a brightly-painted turquoise building, where they’d climbed seven flights of stairs and arrived at the very salon Riss relaxed in now. Acupuncture, massage, hot baths, strangely scented candles–hocus or not, she’d grown addicted to the whole package.

“No pain, miss?” asked the acupuncturist, apparently finished.

Riss bit back a wisecrack at the miss, instead simply let out a quiet hum of affirmation.

“Fantastic.” The needler gave her a pat on the naked calf. Riss wore nothing at the moment, not even a towel, just a tidy line of needles marching up and down her spine. She listened to quiet footsteps as the girl walked off.

“A fresh oil in the burner, miss?” she asked.

Riss couldn’t stand it a second time. “Easy with the ‘miss’,” she said. “We’re both adults.” Meduese society was big on honorifics if you were even a smidge older than the person you addressed. It was baked into the foundation of their language. Constant honorifics weren’t an issue in the army, but it felt damned weird on the tongues of civilians. Riss had done nothing to earn these people’s respect. Being slightly old wasn’t an accomplishment.

“My apologies,” said the needler, and Riss just huffed. She thought back through the library of oils, most of which she’d sampled over the years.

“The Temple,” she murmured. “Lightning on stone. The weather turning just before the rain.”

She had no idea what manner of alchemy they used, what kind of strange compounds made up their mixtures, but their oils somehow managed to conjure the advertised images to mind. When the acupuncturist poured a measure of the requested oil into the burner, the thick air took on a cooler, thinner quality somehow. Riss smelled hot stone and ozone, a whiff of petrichor that was distant enough it seemed to be carried on the wind.

Fuck, this place was worth every austral.

The door clicked shut and Riss relaxed yet further into the bed, her mind blissfully blank.

When Gaspard had first treated her to an afternoon at the Coral Rooms, he’d paused outside the door and explained to her the only rule: once you stepped over the threshold, absolutely no thoughts of work or duty. That mindset had taken some getting used to. Riss was an overthinker, rarely inclined to quiet her mind on purpose. But after a few sessions, she’d succumbed to the meditative allure of it, to the freeing sensation of having a mental blank slate.

Which is why, when the door cracked open again, she said nothing. She listened to the soft footsteps that skirted the room and assumed the light, unobtrusive footfalls belonged to one of the staff. But they didn’t depart out the other door. Or creep nearer to her bed, as one of the attendants might.

Just when Riss was about to ask what was the matter, a woman’s voice spoke up from behind her.

“My apologies, miss.” Not the same girl–this one was older, though she kept her voice subserviently low. “Just dropping off fresh flowers.”

Riss cracked an eye open. She couldn’t turn her head, not with the needles up and down her neck, but she watched what she could with absent curiosity. 

A short, aged woman with dusky tan skin–tanner even than Riss’ own–flitted about the room. Heaped in her arm was a cloth-wrapped bundle of snapdragon stalks, the blooms colored crimson and yellow and orange. She wore a loose blue robe with wide, fluttery sleeves and a pair of wide-legged culottes below it. With muted, shuffling footsteps, the old woman made a circuit of the room’s many vases, tucking the stalks of flowers in. She paid no attention to their arrangement, or at least didn’t seem to, but the varied warm-toned colors all worked together, taking on the reddish cast of the room’s tiled walls. All was cheery and bright. The woman shuffled out of Riss’ field of vision, humming quietly to herself.

“Oh,” she said, sounding surprised. “You’ve got a touch of blood, miss.”

Riss grunted. It happened, what with needles being jabbed into the body and all.

“Here,” said the elderly woman. “Let me dab that off.”

Footsteps at Riss’ back. The sensation of someone leaning into her personal space. She felt something soft brush against the nape of her neck, the gentle press of fabric.

Some subconscious sixth sense warned her before her conscious mind could. Alarm slammed into Riss from some buried instinctual place, a half-second flash of danger, danger, something isn’t as it seems.

But unfortunately it wasn’t quick enough. Riss’ fingers twitched against her palm at the same moment she felt fingers press against the back of her neck.

“Easy, now.” The old woman’s voice wasn’t far from her ear. “You oughtn’t move with all these pins up your back.” 

Riss worked her jaw in silence, knowing that was correct and absolutely hating it. She anticipated the press of a blade to her lumbar, or the sound of a pistol cocking. Nothing came. Just a weird old woman leaning over her, grabbing her by the nape.

“Well,” she said through her teeth. “You certainly aren’t here for the flowers, so what do you want?”

Riss took a mental inventory of her last few jobs. Escorts, mostly. Medao was a rich city, but deprivation from the war had turned the roads dangerous. There was the Hantel job. The time they’d stood guard on that ship bound for the southern islands. Nothing came to mind that might have generated any enemies. And though her people were building comfortable lives for themselves, they were by no means wealthy enough to be worth ransoming. So what, then?

The woman patted the back of Riss’ neck as if to reassure her, as though she’d read her thoughts.

“Relax,” she said. “I mean you no harm. I want a few minutes of your time, nothing more.”

Riss’ apprehension was melting, recasting itself as skeptical annoyance. “So why not make an appointment like anybody else? I’m not a hard woman to get ahold of.” 

Already her mind was leaping to wild conclusions. This mystery woman had known where to find her, so clearly if she’d needed a consult like a garden variety client, she could have had one. Instead, this clandestine crap. Was she some sort of criminal, here to offer Riss terms to avoid her bounty? Riss couldn’t recall any elderly most-wanteds. Come to parlay on behalf of a child, perhaps?

“No offense meant, but I can’t be seen talking to the likes of you.” The woman clucked her tongue, as if that fact caused her regret.

“You’re making a hell of an impression,” Riss grumbled. Interrupting her recreational time, swanning in like some sort of overbearing grandmother, now insulting her as well?

“Hm. That didn’t quite come out right. Mercenaries, Miss Chou. I meant mercenaries.”

“Well you aren’t some high-bred afraid to mingle with the commonborn.” Riss could tell that much from the gentle roll of the woman’s South-Continental accent, the way she clipped her r’s and lingered on her vowels. Not quite so severe as Torcha’s, but similar. You couldn’t bury that salt-of-the-earth accent.

“No, nothing like that.” The hand eased off Riss’ neck. “I’m a professional from whom complete neutrality is expected. And while you and your company may be neutral now, it wasn’t long ago you were fighting under a particular banner. Were I to consult you, my organization would worry over how that appeared to our clients.”

Provided all that was true, it made sense. Neutrality in the professional guilds and unions had been a major sticking point during the war. Sometimes it only went surface-deep. Other unions, such as the cartographers, had risked their very existence to avoid allowing one side or the other to press them.

When Riss said nothing, her visitor took that as an opportunity to finally introduce herself.

“My name is Leonór Sarine,” she said. And that was a name Riss wasn’t unfamiliar with.

“The letter carrier.” Riss wished she could turn her head up to have a look, to take the woman’s face in. She wished she’d studied it closer. “Well now this all makes sense.”

A scraping sound behind her. Leonór dragged out a chair from the small table at the back, settling in.

The Continental Post billed itself as not only the most neutral courier in the land, but also the most secure. Some of their letter carriers were legends in the field in their own right, ghosts the likes of which could rival Gaspard at his best. Their ranks possessed the traits of the best spies, the best assassins, and the best reconnaissance men, all combining toward an aim of efficient, secure communication in a world that was often neither of those things.

Leonór Sarine was one of their best, to those who were aware of her. She and her company had come through for Tarn more than once when receiving communications from Carbec and he couldn’t spare runners from his own platoons.  

Riss was officially curious. Someone of the Post seeking out the likes of her was intriguing enough on its own, but if Leonór was being honest with her, she was doing so under her employers’ noses.

“Tell me,” Riss said. “What can I help you with?” She paired it with a cautiously game smile, as if they’d just sat down for tea in her parlor. As if she’d orchestrated this meeting all along.

“The job itself is pretty straightforward,” said Leonór. “And I know this goes without saying, but before I speak on it, I need your assurance you ain’t about to breathe a word of this to anyone.”

“Consider yourself assured,” said Riss. 

“Once upon a time, I was informed Gaspard Marcinen was the best game in town for clandestine recon work. And if I couldn’t get hold of him, his daughter was almost as good.”

Riss coughed, then immediately regretted it, one of her needles twinging. She longed for the space and mobility to gesticulate exactly how that sentence made her feel–gobsmacked, on the verge of hysterical laughter. 

“I hesitate to turn away a referral,” she said. “But your source got one of those things wrong.”

Leonór tut-tutted her tongue. “I see.”

“But I’m interested.” Riss pressed in, didn’t want to leave the woman thinking too long in silence. “Do go on.”

The old woman didn’t hesitate. She launched into a terse story that had the ring of a prepared statement to it. She spoke slowly, as if reciting from memory or perhaps dwelling a little long on each word.

“Some time ago, I was set upon in the field. The assailant wounded me badly, left me bleeding in the dirt, and made off with a bag of my letters.”

A rare event, especially to a letter carrier of her reputation. Continental Post were usually left to do their thing, even in the most fraught territories. It was a service all sides depended on, so there was an informal agreement not to hassle them. Of course, that didn’t stop garden variety highwaymen and scofflaws from trying to rob them like any other traveler. 

“It’s a hazardous job,” Leonór said. “But we usually come out better off than the other guy. This is the only instance in my thirty-year career that someone got one over on me.”

The Post also had a reputation for training its carriers well and arming them to the teeth. Those garden variety highwaymen ended up in shallow graves by the roadside more often than not.

“So you want me to kill ‘em?” Riss ventured.

“Not kill. Merely locate. I intend to recover my stolen property and deliver it to its rightful destinations.”

Riss wished again that she could move. She wanted to take a measure of this woman, to look her in the eye. Because that sounded like a tall order for someone of such advanced years. 

Of course, if she took the job, the aftermath wouldn’t be Riss’ problem. Locating was easy. Leaving the postwoman to her fate, well, if that’s what the client wanted. 

“I have reason to believe the man who robbed me has made camp up north of the alkali flats, in the foothills. Transport for your crew to the region would be covered. Lodging as well. The Post has connections all over the map; we’d provide everything save for your consumables.”

Well, this evening of acupuncture hadn’t turned out as relaxing as Riss had hoped. And she wasn’t so much violating Gaspard’s no duty in the Corals rule as brutally curbstomping it and kicking it down a flight of stairs. But there was money to be made here. Good money. And beyond that, influence. Access. The Continental Post was an entity that opened doors. An especially valuable connection for a mercenary looking to distance herself from her old Army affiliations. 

“I’ll get you a copy of our standard offer sheet,” Riss said. “And I’m sure you’ll understand that I have to discuss this with my team. The Flats are a ways away and we’d be away from home base for some time. But for the right price I could clear my schedule.” She hoped the true extent of her interest didn’t quite make it into her voice.

“Understandable.” Chair legs scraped along the ground as Leonór rose up. “And believe me, the Post can meet the right price. Speaking of, your bill here at the Corals has been settled. There’s a credit on your account for your next visit, as I can’t be seen stopping by your parlor for tea.”

That sent a twitch through Riss’ eye. She didn’t want to feel indebted to this woman, not for a simple conversation. But she supposed what’s done was done. 

“I found this method a little disruptive, I must say. But if this is how you prefer it…” She couldn’t let the letter carrier leave without voicing at least some displeasure at the method. Fanciful high-paying jobs or not, you couldn’t put a price on the soothing, nerve-repairing qualities of a good acupuncture session.

As footsteps receded into the rear of the room, one more question occurred to Riss.

“You didn’t uh… hurt any of the girls to get in, did you?” Postworkers had a reputation. They got high marks for competence and neutrality, but were said to be lacking in other traits. Empathy. Restraint. 

A dusty chuckle echoed through the quiet chamber.

“Scared ‘em a little, maybe,” said Leonór on her way out. The door clicked softly closed behind her. 

<< Wishes 2 | Book 2, Chapter 2 >>

 

Interlude: Wishes 2

Gaz couldn’t quite decide between the Edendunne mint and the silverstem. He wasn’t quite so picky about his tea as Calay was, but he enjoyed both a great deal. Mint was refreshing, a good early morning pick-me-up. Silverstem was herbier, less sharp, more of a bedtime beverage. As much as he enjoyed a cup while preparing for slumber, he couldn’t remember the last time his life’s circumstances had allowed a quiet cup of tea before bed. Half the time expecting a bed to sleep in at all was asking for too much.

Before he could make his selection, shouting drew him out of the teaseller’s tent and back into the market yard. Torcha’s sharp, rough-edged voice, volume cranked up in agitation. She was calling someone a… 

“Did she just say vulture?” Calay asked at his side. The two of them peeked around the corners of a few tents, searching for the source of the clamor.

They found Torcha in a junk shop on the fringes of the market, a low-ceilinged tent with a hangdog look about it. Both the outside and the inside looked like they’d seen better days. Calay stifled a sneeze as they ducked inside.

At the counter, Torcha stood with her hands on her hips. She was squaring off against a short, pale-faced man with wisps of brassy hair. He lounged against the counter, posture slack with indifference, his expression that of a man untroubled by his circumstances. Whatever fuss she was kicking up, it was water off a duck’s back to him. 

“Why don’t you fetch me a bucket,” Torcha muttered, one eye narrowed at the shopkeep. “I’ll flay my arm open and pay you in a pint of blood while I’m at it.”

Gaz coughed into his palm, then tried to peek around Torcha to see what exactly they were haggling over. A dusty guitar sat on the counter, half-polished and looking about as shabby as the tent and its owner. 

“Something the matter?” Calay shined an easygoing smile toward the pair. 

“This ingrate jacked up the price on this guitar the second I expressed the faintest interest in buying it,” Torcha grumbled. “How much you reckon a piece like this is worth?”

Calay glanced down at the guitar, then twitched a shrug. “Haven’t the foggiest. I don’t play guitar. Couple hundred? It’s beat to shit.”

“Hey!” The shopkeeper interjected. “I’ll not have my merchandise insulted. The guitar is an antique, made by a renowned luthier. It isn’t in pristine condition, no. But that’s why it costs six hundred instead of three or four thousand.”

Six hundred australs. Gaz blew out a low whistle. For much of his life, six hundred australs outnumbered what he made in a year. He was no musician, but he didn’t think guitars usually cost that much. He took a step closer, gazing down at the instrument. It was glossy, expensive-looking in a way he couldn’t pinpoint. Its strings were a little frayed, but beneath the dust it looked nice. 

Calay reached over and gave Torcha a pat on the shoulder. “You know how it is in stopovers like this, gal. Everyone here is selling Meduese relics and historied antiques with no proof and no providence. They’re just hoping a traveler will wander by who’s bored or stupid or loaded enough to pay the price.”

The merchant slammed an open palm against the counter. The resulting impact was strong enough that a stand of painted water gourds jiggled and swayed on its display. Dust motes twinkled in the air.

“All three of you,” the merchant growled. “Out. If you’re offended by my prices, no one’s holding a knife to your throats.”

Gaz ducked out first. Wary of his size and unpolished appearance, he found that those who didn’t know him frequently took his very presence at an altercation as a show of hostility or an escalation of force. The last thing he wanted was to cause trouble. He exhaled in relief when Calay dragged Torcha out. She was still scowling.

“The fuck’s your problem?” she asked him. “We could take him.”

“Yes,” said Calay. “If we were brigands.”

“He’s a profiteering prick.”

That was sort of the entire purpose a man became a merchant, wasn’t it? Gaz didn’t think that would add anything constructive to the discussion. Then his thoughts drifted sidelong toward a brief observation of his friends. It sure was something, the way Calay and Torcha had recognized one another in their rage. The Indefinite-Collective had built a bridge between them. A very angry bridge. He seemed to come to her when she was angry now. Or maybe it was the other way around.

Maybe they’d use it to help one another. Hopefully they wouldn’t use it to feed one another. Otherwise, Gaz worried, the poor guitar-selling asshole was a dead man.

Instead of saying all that, Gaz cast a curious glance Torcha’s way.

“I didn’t even know you played guitar,” he said.

“I don’t.” She laughed, anger shaken off as easy as it had mounted. “But it might be a nice way to pass time when we’re cooped up all day. Gives me something to do.”

“Can’t argue with that,” he said.

“Ah, piss on him.” Calay dismissed it all with a wave of his hand. “Come on. Maybe there’s a tent in here that sells something fun to smoke.”

###

Sleeping in the wagon was a complicated balancing act. It wasn’t meant for five fully-grown humans to stretch out comfortably. But they managed, to the small extent that it was manageable. Almost everyone slept in the spots they’d initially staked out upon leaving Adelheim: Gaz and Calay in the rear cargo hold, Torcha up top in the luggage loft. Riss and Adal slept on the benches in the passenger’s chamber. It was likely a more comfortable arrangement than the spot Gaz had chosen, but the cargo hold had a door that granted at least the illusion of privacy.

Cramped as the cargo hold was, Gaz knew the moment he awoke that he was alone. There was no telltale knees or elbows prodding against his lower back. No snoring in his ear.

He hauled on his boots and slipped out for a piss. Too much silverstem tea before bedtime. Once that matter was attended to, he took a moment to consider the dirty, moonlit silhouette of Wishes. 

There was something quaint about it. Something that might have been charming with a second coat of paint. Or… okay, even a first. 

Hooking his thumbs through his belt, Gaz leaned against the exterior wagon wall. Inside, he could hear the others breathing. No sound whatsoever emanated from inside the rickety buildings. He listened for the caws of distant birds, the sound of wolves on the hunt, anything. Instead, only silence greeted him. 

Silence was an odd, disquieting thing. He was too city-born for it. Too used to noise to ever grow comfortable in a place like this.

By the time he heard Calay’s familiar footsteps crunching up toward him, he was grateful for the sound.

“Thought I’d find you here,” he said, squinting into the dark. Calay had likely augmented his eyes, but Gaz could barely see shit. There was barely a scrap of moon and the stars were veiled by thin, dust-streaked clouds.

“Did I wake you on my way out?” Calay matched the low pitch of Gaz’s voice, sounding chagrined.

“Nah.” Gaz peered toward the drape of Calay’s coat, trying to see beneath it in the gloom. “You nicked it, then?”

Calay pivoted on a heel, leaning against the wagon with a soft thud. Gaz caught a brief glimpse of the guitar cradled against his side, wood and lacquer flashing telltale in the moonlight. Gaz exhaled the ghost of a laugh through his nose. As soon as he’d realized Calay was gone, he’d guessed.

He couldn’t resist the temptation to rub it in a little. “Careful. Once she figures out you’ve gone soft, it’s all over. She’ll be ordering you around by month’s end.”

As they crept toward the cargo hold’s door, Calay gently clotheslined him, thwacking a forearm across his neck.

“I haven’t.” He hmphed. “I just miss it sometimes. Getting in people’s way. Being a regular, trouble-causing Jackass of the Road. Doing one over on pricks who think they’re better than us.”

Careful with the guitar, he levered himself up into the wagon hold, then scooted back on his ass, making way for Gaz to climb in after him. Though Gaz did his best, it was not a quiet or subtle embarkation. He banged his elbow on a crate, then nearly fell over on his elbows when his boot snagged in a cargo net.

“Founders’ tears,” Calay hissed. “You trying to wake that pasty bastard up? Get the whole town after us?”

Gaz muttered a half-formed obscenity and felt about for his blanket and pillow, determined to get comfortable again. Instead, he felt something repeatedly prod him in the ribs. Something blunt and leathery and–

“Is that your foot?” A sigh. “Why?”

“You’re on the trapdoor,” Calay whispered. “Scoot.”

Picking himself up and shoving himself against the wall, Gaz began a complicated half-crawl half-scoot over their cargo, until he found a hard-edged crate and was able to climb atop it. Couldn’t Calay at least light a match or something? He didn’t bother voicing a complaint, but he made his displeasure known in the dramatic sighs and slow dragging motions that composed his climbing.

Something creaked and squeaked. Calay unhinged the trapdoor, then secured the guitar down belowdecks. 

While Tarn’s wagon wasn’t quite a smuggler’s jobby, the floor of the cargo hold was shallow enough that belowdecks storage had proved to be impressively discreet. Discreet enough that Gaz and Calay had slept atop the trapdoor for two nights before they’d noticed it. Even if the pasty pawn shopper came looking, Gaz was confident their transport would stand up to scrutiny. The trapdoor clicked quietly shut as Calay lowered it down.

“Well?” he asked a couple moments later.

“Well what?”

“Aren’t you going to climb down?”

Gaz leaned down off the crate and felt along the wall in the dark until his hands encountered a pillow. He grabbed it and dragged it over regardless of whose it might be. He stretched, orienting himself. If he rested his head near the passengers’ door and his feet near the loading bay, he had enough room to stretch out entirely. 

As he did so, he felt Calay nestle up comfortably against his back. He draped a blanket over the both of them, though it wasn’t quite long enough to cover Gaz’s feet.

“There we go.” Calay sounded pleased with himself. “You can’t tell me you didn’t miss it at least a little. Thieving.”

“If that’s what you’re telling yourself.” Gaz smiled into the dark. 

He couldn’t begin to explain how it felt, the strange way that being in the swamp had touched them, had connected them. Calay had been wrestling with it ever since, unwilling to talk about it then raging against it then giving in to it in equal, unpredictable measure. He threw fists in a tavern then dragged Gaz to bed with him. He’d kissed him one night, then pushed him away the next morning, then apologized by noon. He’d sat up with Torcha long into the night, laughing and reminiscing about the gang back in Blackbricks. Then today he still insisted that the favor he did her wasn’t a favor. He’d just missed thieving.

Gaz rolled onto his back, getting comfortable. He eased an arm behind Calay’s neck, curling it around his shoulders and drawing him in a little closer.

“You know,” he started to say. “It’s okay to–”

A sudden shriek of fright cut him off. The single yell, a woman’s voice muffled by planks of pine, came from the passengers’ compartment. A moment later, soft voices followed, too low to be understood through the door. A man, the cadence of his words low and soothing.

Riss again.

Gaz’s words died in his throat. Calay too went silent. They listened through the door as Adal roused her from her nightmare, then quietly talked her down. Not that either man strained to hear the words. Gaz felt a perverse sense of voyeurism, like he was witnessing something he should not. He tried to avoid making out anything said.

None of them talked about the nightmares. It wasn’t always Riss. They carried on, blazing their trail away from Adelheim. Distance eased the strange psychic tug on Gaz’s mind, the way he swore he could sometimes feel that connection again, like someone breathing on the back of his neck. They didn’t ask Riss what she dreamed of. She didn’t ask them what it felt like to have their hearts flayed open and peeked into by innumerable nameless beings. 

It’s okay to give a shit, he’d wanted to tell Calay.

But he knew why Calay persisted.

They were all just trying to pretend they were the same. That the swamp hadn’t changed them.

<< Wishes 1 | To Be Continued >>

Next week we swing into Book 2! If you’re enjoying the story, feel free to give us a vote on TopWebFiction. Thanks!