Once his crew had napped and bathed and whatever else they needed, Adal saw to his own errands, including catching up on correspondence. A sole scroll waited in their postbox, penned in tidy block letters. It informed he and Riss that they were cleared to brief their crew on the Continental Post job. The postwoman would not be attending. She said she was organizing their transport, and that “deliveries” would arrive over the course of the week. This was all written in vague euphemism, and the letter itself went unsigned.
This was all a little cloak and dagger for Adal. They’d taken fewer precautions during the actual war. But for the prize and access she promised, he figured Riss was happy to jump through her silly hoops.
Riss gathered them all in the courtyard to lay out the specifics. She and Adal took a seat on the brick bench that ringed around the fountain. He watched water spew from the mouth of one of those ghastly little lion statues. Money never could buy taste. Hopefully they’d be able to afford a full do-over soon.
“We really ought to do something about all these,” he said. “This fountain just looks like it’s…”
The lion stonework lion continued to spew water into the cistern.
Calay and Gaz arrived together, the former wearing the latter’s too-large jacket slung around his shoulders like a shawl. Gaz leaned against one of the half-walls, Calay taking a seat down in the grass near his feet. He stretched out, yawning, and crossed his legs at the ankle. The sight of them so slouchily comfortable, so relaxed considering last evening’s unexpected turn, lit a little flicker of jealousy in Adal’s gut. But then he was waving Torcha over to join them and it was gone.
“Feeling better?” Adal asked her. No longer wearing her jailhouse smock or her ruined gown, she’d scrubbed up and dressed in a loose, billowy caftan. Her hair was pinned up around her crown in curlers, still drying.
“Much,” she said. She took a seat on a stone near the unlit firepit.
All eyes rose to Riss.
“Well.” She rubbed her hands together. “No sense beating around the bush. Adal received a letter this afternoon confirming that long-term job I mentioned is on. Provided all the preparations stay on schedule, we’ll be leaving first of the new month.”
Torcha immediately cut in. “So we’ll be missing the jubilee?”
“The what?” Riss, as usual, was not clued in when it came to Medao’s bustling party schedule.
“There’s a jubilee honoring the King at month’s beginning,” Adal explained. “Twenty-five years on the throne.” Not that Medao ever needed a reason to have a festival. The year only had three months in it and somehow they found a special occasion at the beginning and end of every single one.
“You’ll just have to pay your respects to the King from the road,” said Riss.
“They bake special cakes, though.” Torcha sighed theatrically, leaning back on her palms.
“Anyway.” Riss scoffed at her. “A letter-carrier from the Continental Post was robbed some time ago.” She paused to allow that to sink in. There were wide eyes all around the courtyard. Everyone knew how rare an event that was. “She’s hired us to locate the individual who stole her papers. She has intel on his location to a regional level. Apparently he often camps out in the foothills north of the Alkali Flats.”
Calay lifted a finger, waited for Riss to glance his way. “Question,” he said. “You say locate. That’s all we have to do? Just… find this guy and tell the letter-carrier where he’s at?” He sounded skeptical.
“Mhm.” Riss shrugged. “I guess in her eyes it’s personal. She strikes me as the sort to do her own dirty work.”
Pointedly, nobody asked what the postwoman planned to do once she caught him. Once the job was done, none of them were being paid to fret over the man’s fate.
“Never been to the Flats before,” said Torcha. “We cutting across ‘em or along the western border?”
“Across.” Riss nodded down at her. “We’ll stick as close to the borderland as we can. Weather’s less treacherous. But the hill country would slow us down a lot. Easier to travel over flatter ground.”
“It’ll be a first for all of us,” Gaz said, giving Torcha a little smile. Adal got the impression that neither he nor Calay had traveled much prior to fleeing Vasile.
“Once I have the final details nailed down, I’ll pass it all on,” Riss said. “This is a big job for us. The Continental Post, they’re pretty insular folks. It isn’t often they let outside contractors work alongside them. Reputation-wise, they’re the best there is. This could open a lot of doors for us.”
“Speaking of impressing clients…” Gaz again. “The Ambassador and kid were both, uh, fine, right?”
Riss blinked. “Oh, yeah. I don’t think Sal even cared. Havasi sent a nice thank-you note.”
“Great to hear my charming evening with Renato wasn’t for nothing,” Torcha muttered. And… wait, what? Adal must have misheard her.
“Renato?” he asked, butting in. “Our Renato?”
Slowly, every head in the courtyard turned toward him. The distinct feeling of last to know settled on Adal like a fool’s cap. Not a pleasant sensation. He crossed his arms over his chest, looking sideways to Riss and awaiting an explanation.
“Yes,” she said, voice as clipped as would be expected. “Renato Cassi. He’s still in town and working as a prison warden. Apparently he was interrogating Torcha about me all night while she was in the cells.”
Adal was unprepared for the hot, combative rage that rose in him like steam.
“The fuck?” He shot a look to Torcha. Renato could be cruel when he wanted. Always had that streak in him. And now that he had a lifelong grudge to nurse against Riss, that was a potent elixir. But Torcha looked unharmed.
“I’m fine,” Torcha promised. “But it was pretty weird. He doesn’t hate Riss any less than he used to, no matter how nice he tries to dress up his words.”
“I feel like we’re missing something,” Calay said. “That guy seemed like a right prick, but some context would be nice.”
“Renato blames Riss for a bunch of bullshit that wasn’t her fault,” Adal snapped. “He worked with us for years, and under Gaspard Marcinen before that.”
“An old war buddy?”
“Sort of.” Adal twitched a half-shrug. “He was in another recon unit. But after the Inland dissolved us and Gaspard founded the company, Renato joined up. He’s a talented sawbones.” And now he was putting those skills to work in a prison. The implication made Adal’s skin crawl.
Riss took over then. “It’s a bit more complicated than that. Renato blames me for—” Only the briefest hesitation. “—the dissolution of the first version of this mercenary company.”
Adal watched the physical transformation occur in her. She took a deep breath, straightening up and facing Calay and Gaz head on. She crossed her legs at the knee, resting her fingers on her calf, and told them Gaspard’s story in full for the first time.
“We were running a wagon escort in some rough territory,” she said. “Gaspard had been training me up as his Second for some time, and he let me take point on this particular job. I was a lot greener then, and I ran us right into an ambush. The bandits blew the door off the back of the wagon. He didn’t make it out.”
Gaz’s features furrowed hard as he watched Riss speak. Everyone remained silent.
“Renato didn’t take it well,” Riss continued. “Well, not that any of us did. But he blamed me. Perhaps rightfully. After Gaspard fell, he rounded up everyone and insisted we take a confidence vote in my leadership. When everyone but him voted to keep me, he sort of…”
That part she didn’t quite know how to explain. Adal did it for her.
“He flew off the handle and I beat him within an inch of his life.”
Calay and Gaz looked mildly surprised by that revelation. Adal himself was still surprised it had happened. But when he looked back on that night, when he recalled the feeling of Renato’s cheekbone caving in beneath his knuckles, it wasn’t with anything remotely resembling regret.
Sitting up more attentively in the grass, Calay absently ran his hand through the short, still-growing strands. He twirled one around his finger.
“Torcha.” He spoke slowly, thoughtfully. “When you say Renato interrogated you, what sort of questions was he asking?”
Torcha glowered up at the sky for a moment. “Mostly how long we’d been in town. What Riss was up to. Where we’d been the last few years. I said ‘interrogate’ mostly as a joke. He played it off like a friendly conversation at first. Then he started asking about jobs and stuff. I gave him nice, friendly, vague-as-hell answers.”
Calay worked his jaw for a moment. “I see.”
Renato sniffing around Riss’ business meant he might eventually sniff around Calay’s. It was an uncomfortable thorn-in-the-side development. But Adal had no doubt that Calay had contingency plans in place. He was a clever operator. If any of his side projects weren’t above-water in the eyes of Meduese law, he’d be careful.
“Not a great feeling knowing there’s a jailer out there with a hate hard-on for us,” he said. “You think he’s going to become a problem?”
Adal almost hoped Renato tried something. He was perfectly ready to hit him again.
“I doubt it,” said Riss. “I think I got a pretty decent read on him at the jail. He set himself up as an old pal helping us out, kept talking to me like I was a poor downtrodden dear. I think he’s enjoying rubbing it in.”
The last time Renato had seen Riss, she’d been shattered. Those first few weeks after Gaspard’s death had left her a shaking, sleepless shell. Perhaps Renato thought she hadn’t recovered. Then again, until recently, she hadn’t. At least not all the way.
“He’s manageable,” Riss promised Calay. “I’ll manage him.”
Calay seemed satisfied with that. Gaz steered the conversation back toward their original mission.
“So this mystery thief,” he said. “We know much about how they got one over on the mail-lady?”
“Apart from the fact that the letter-carrier called the thief a him we don’t have anything to go on yet,” said Riss. “The client says she’ll inform us as soon as she can meet in person. She’s big on privacy.”
The conversation petered out, none of the others voicing anymore questions for Riss. Calay and Gaz said their farewells for the day and wandered off home. Riss retreated upstairs.
“Torcha,” Adal said before she could disappear off to… wherever she frequently disappeared to. “Can I ask you something?”
Torcha adjusted one of her hair-rollers and looked up at him expectantly. “Sure.”
For a moment he considered asking whether Renato had mentioned him. He’d called the man a friend for some time. Fought alongside him, camped out with him, shared meals around the fire with him. A part of Adal still regretted that it ended the way it had, even if he felt no shame for ensuring that end was final.
“You think she’s making the correct call about Renato?” he asked instead. “You were there. I’d just like your read on it.”
“Riss downplays uncomfortable stuff sometimes,” Torcha answered. “But… I dunno. I don’t think he’s out for blood, if that’s what you mean.”
Swishy, striped kaftan swirling about her ankles, she stepped past Adal and into the house.
“I reckon he could make our lives difficult,” she said as she passed. “If he wanted.”
That’s more what Adal was afraid of.