In the year since they’d escaped from the hellish swamp at Adelheim, Riss and Calay had developed a working relationship unlike any other she’d ever known. She supposed it made a certain type of sense. Working with a sorcerer wasn’t exactly SOP. She doubted even Adal’s fancy officer academy had courses on that.
But Calay was unique beyond his magickal talents. Just like there was more to Riss than her recon skills, so too was Calay more than his bag of sinister magick tricks. She’d had to learn her way around him as a person, had to overcome her discomfort that he’d joined her company under false pretenses. That latter one had been the big hurdle.
Riss was willing to forgive a lot in exchange for honesty and hard work. Calay worked as hard as any soldier she’d ever commanded, but honesty was a trickier rabbit to snare. He had a tendency to withhold things, even things that an average person would see no issue with sharing. He’d answer questions if directly asked, but he rarely volunteered details unsolicited. Likewise, if she asked his opinion on things, he was often happy to share, but unless queried he’d often keep his feelings to himself, regarding her with those pale eyes of his and an expression that was somehow a perfect equal blend of passive and attentive.
I see what you’re doing, his eyes seemed to say. I’m just choosing not to comment.
She did not regret trusting her life to him in the swamp. Nor did she regret inviting he and Gaz into her company for good, bounty hunters be damned. Trust was a funny thing. It came instantly between some people. With others, it was like plaque building up on metal. You never really noticed a buckle was rusting. You never saw silver take on tarnish in real time. Yet at some point, you’d glance down and find the trinket in your hand no longer shone like it was supposed to.
Riss and Calay weren’t quite there yet. The trust between them was businesslike and practical.
Yet when she woke in the predawn hours to discover Calay waiting patiently in her sitting room, she had to acknowledge that trust was building into something beyond the transactional. Not because he’d come in the first place, but because her initial response was one of relief rather than suspicion.
Adal had roused her, stealing into her bedchamber and shaking her awake when a knock at the door failed to do the trick. He’d then mumbled an apology and quickly excused himself, informing Riss that Calay was downstairs and needed to speak to her.
“He says it’s urgent,” Adal muttered on his way out, slippers scuffing along the wooden floor.
Riss rolled out of bed still half-asleep, yanked rudely from a dream whose ghostly notes still played in the back of her mind. Of course Calay’s business was urgent. Otherwise he wouldn’t be waking them in the middle of the damned night, would he.
She stuffed her feet into her own slippers, then threw a heavier dressing gown on over her nightshirt. On her way out the door, she caught a glimpse of herself in the hallway mirror: a frazzle-haired ghost with pale robes and sunken eyes, haunting the corridors of her own home. She rubbed at her face as she descended the stairs, lightly slapping herself across the cheek in the hopes of waking up that tiny bit more.
Adal and Calay sat in the small, wood-panelled sitting room adjacent to the entryway. Adal had lit a couple lamps, but beyond that the house was dark and quiet. They made no small talk, sitting in silence as she arrived. She sank into the armchair closest to the doorway.
As usual, Calay was tough to read. He was dressed in a fine, close-cut wool suit, the charcoal grey getup that they’d had tailored for a diplomatic assignment the previous winter. His mutated arm was politely gloved and out of sight. He looked for all appearances like a visiting businessman interrupted on the road to City Hall. Only the stiff posture with which he sat on the long, low silken lounge hinted that anything was amiss.
“Riss.” He greeted her with a solemn nod. “Sorry to wake you.”
“Think nothing of it.” She gave him a quick smile. “I’m sure you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important.”
Sal Ercun’s family hadn’t battered her door down, so she assumed the escort job had gone off well. Something had happened afterward, then? More bounty hunters? The thing with Calay that kept her wary was that she felt like she never quite knew his business. It appeared, though, that she was about to learn some.
“It’s Torcha,” he said.
Riss temporarily forgot how to breathe. She cleared her throat. Some emotional muscle deep inside her tensed, waiting for the worst. Torcha never could get a handle on her anger. Torcha always was prone to picking fights she couldn’t finish. And gods knew authority didn’t sit well with her, a point of contention in a town as governmentally top-heavy as Medao. So there was—
Calay interrupted her panic before it could fully blossom.
“She’s fine,” he said. “Or at least mostly-fine. She picked a fight with a dockhand on our way back toward the Ambassador’s estate. Ercun the Little walked us through a brawl, so it’s on him more than her. I kept on the client to ensure his safe return. Gaz hung around to make sure she was all right, but the garda scooped her up before they could get lost.”
“And Gaz?” Riss assumed if anything had befallen Gaz that Calay would have mentioned it first. Or… her mind took a darker turn: if something serious ever happened to Gaz, she’d be surprised if Calay ever turned up on her doorstep again.
Calay sniffed and ticked a finger off toward the front door. “He’s at the jailhouse talking to the authorities. We thought it best one of us stuck around.”
Riss nodded a few times as he spoke. “Good work,” she said. “That’s exactly what I would have done.”
Calay’s upper lip lifted, his expression twisting in a grimace. He fidgeted, discomfort evident in the way he held himself.
“I want you to know I feel terrible,” he said. “Normally I’d have never left her like that, but—”
This time, Riss interrupted him. “But you were escorting a client. And the client’s safety takes top priority in those situations.”
The words didn’t wash any relief over Calay’s features. He rolled his knuckles, the thin leather of his glove flexing with the motion.
“She’s an adult,” Riss said. “Tougher than most people twice her age and twice her size. This isn’t the first night she’s spent sleeping off a rage spiral behind a locked door.”
That got a weak laugh out of Calay, shook him out of his nerves a bit.
“Gaz sloshed some booze on her and told her to act drunk,” he said. “Which in hindsight is… very funny. And probably a genuinely solid strategy.”
Riss laughed a quiet, disbelieving laugh of her own. “Better they think she’s a drunk than a menace. Either way, I suppose that leaves us with a couple options. Either we head over now or…”
“The fellows at the door told us that the warden wouldn’t be by ’til after dawn,” Calay said. “Supposedly he’s the only one who has the authority to release her.”
Slouching back in her seat, Riss covered a yawn with her hand. “Dawn it is then.”
She didn’t bother trying to get back to sleep, retiring upstairs to ready herself for the day.
Riss stared out to sea for the duration of the cab ride. They’d agreed to take a carriage at dawn for the sake of appearing both civilized and organized. Adal had volunteered to stay behind and sort out the morning’s business, which made Calay Riss’ sole companion for the journey. He sat opposite her while they wound along Peninsula Road, toward the heart of the city’s administrative district.
She never knew what to say to Calay when they were alone and there was no business at hand. He rarely initiated conversation himself, either. So they sat alone with their thoughts, neither of them volunteering which mental preoccupations kept them steeped in silence.
Calay directed their driver to the City Hall complex, a sprawlingly ornate building with gilt detail along its facade and big stained-glass windows that portrayed a series of seafaring scenes.
“We go in through the archway here.” Calay pointed. “Then in through the courtyard, then that interior building there.” Riss followed his gestures, nodding along.
“Nice place for a jail,” she said. The courtyards were immaculate, with neatly-trimmed grass and bright beds of flowers. The courtyard was fenced in by decoratively-trimmed hedges, their dense foliage thick with thorns.
A pair of King’s Garda ushered them through a heavy wooden door. The bright white stone of the building’s exterior gave way to a drab basalt grey that was more traditionally jail-like. A high wooden desk lorded over the narrow foyer, home to a bored-looking clerk who twirled a ringlet around his finger. Hallways branched off to either side of him, and when Riss peered down one, she was relieved to spy Gaz slouching on a bench. As soon as he spotted her, he stood and made his way over.
The clerk noticed, making the connection, and addressed Riss with a prompt nod, suddenly attentive.
“Warden!” he called. “The girl’s keepers are here!”
Calay greeted Gaz with a wordless laugh. Gaz rubbed at his lower back and rolled his shoulders.
“Just about asked them for a cell so I had somewhere to sleep,” he said.
“Just wait until you’re in your thirties,” Riss said. “You’ll start waking up with aches you can’t explain even when you sleep on a perfectly good mattress.” She gave him a smile. “Thanks for putting yourself through that.”
“Least I could do.” Gaz said. “Sure you woulda done the same for us.”
Riss considered it for a beat. Yes, she thought. At this point she would.
Before she could dwell on that knowledge overlong, a familiar voice called her name.
“Riss? I can hardly believe it.”
She blinked and straightened up, turning around. A vision from her past strode out of the corridor in a crisp charcoal uniform, the front gleaming with a big brass badge that bore Medao’s city crest.
He’d put on some weight and cleaned up a little since they’d parted ways, but apart from that not much had changed. He barely even looked any older. It was like he’d stepped right out of her memory and into real life.
“Renato.” Riss made herself smile even though she had yet to figure out whether she meant it. “I am… very surprised to see you here.”
The last time she’d set eyes on Renato Cassi, he’d spat in her face. Tears streaming down his cheeks, he’d cursed her to the end of her days. He’d told her she deserved to rot in the deepest pit the gods could dig.
Now he regarded her with a calm smile, his eyes giving nothing away. Riss recalled her last stroll down the fishmongers’ lane, the gape of shark jaws nailed to a wall. Dark, flat eyes and big white teeth.
He offered her a hand. She shook it. Then he looked past her.
“And who are your friends? I admit I thought it would be Adalgis nipping at your heels.”
Calay tensed up for a half-second, focused on Renato with renewed interest.
“Calay Maunet,” he introduced himself. “And my mate here is Gaz. Adal’s still kicking around, don’t you worry.”
Renato folded his arms across his chest. “Pleasure to meet you. Well, I won’t delay you all any longer.” He turned and yelled some instructions at the clerk, asked them to bring ‘the girl’ back around. Riss’ fingers twitched at her side. Hurry it up, she thought.
“It’s good to see you,” Renato said, regarding Riss for a time. She got the impression he didn’t mean it. “I kept meaning to write.”
She lifted her shoulders. “There’s a hundred letters a year I keep meaning to write. Life’s busy. Think nothing of it.”
Riss felt like she was walking across a thinly-frozen lake, ice cracking threateningly beneath her every step. All the awkwardness, all the hesitation she’d feared she’d feel upon her reunion with Tarn appeared to be manifesting here instead.
Renato stepped in closer to her personal space, leaning his head in toward hers. He didn’t quite whisper, but he spoke quietly enough that the words were meant for her, Calay, and Gaz alone.
“I’ve taken care of everything,” he said. “She won’t face any legal repercussions. Sometimes our emotions get the best of us. I can only imagine how hard it’s been for you and her both.”
“Grief’s funny,” was all Riss had to say to that. “It comes and goes.”
Renato scrunched his eyebrows up, his expression almost cartoonishly sympathetic.
“And you?” he asked. “How have you been coping?”
“Just fine,” said Riss.
“Well let me know if there’s anything I can do for you,” he said. “Anything at all. It must be so hard, building your business back up after something so devastating. Building yourself back up. It absolutely shattered you.”
Riss didn’t let herself rise to the bait. She listened, nodded a couple times, and sighed out a wordless thanks when two stocky guards marched Torcha up the hallway, cutting the conversation off.
Torcha certainly looked like a woman who’d been in a brawl and then spent a night in the cells. She wore a drab, formless ankle-length canvas dress, carrying a bundle of cloth beneath her elbow. Her knuckles were split and scabbed and a fresh scrape adorned her chin. She winced when they walked beneath a window, letting her head hang down and scrubbing hard at her face.
“Ugh,” she announced, flinching back from the sunlight. “Thanks for coming to get me, boss.”
“Always,” Riss said.
“You need this rucksack back?” Torcha gestured to her dress, squinting up at Renato through sunken, bleary eyes.
Renato looked her over for a moment, then loosed a good-natured chuckle.
“No, no,” he said. “I think you’ve been through enough. Don’t say I never gave you anything, hm?”
A look passed between them that Riss couldn’t quite read. She didn’t like it. Putting a hand to Torcha’s arm, she gave a guiding tug toward herself.
“Are there any forms we need to sign?” Riss asked, looking across toward Renato for hopefully the last time. “Any fines?”
Renato shook his head. “Not for you,” he said. “It’s not often I get to use my position here to help out a friend who’s fallen on hard times. I just hope you’ll get her the help she needs. It’s not easy, going through that at her age.” He cast a look down at Torcha, regarded her like a toddler who’d stubbed her toe.
Riss mumbled her goodbyes and they all made to leave. Renato escorted them to the courtyard, waving off the guards with a casual flick of his wrist.
“I’m sure I don’t have to say this,” he murmured lowly to Riss. “But please be careful. I only have so many favors, eh? Can’t appear too preferential.”
“Don’t you worry,” Riss told him, smiling politely. “It’s a big, rowdy city. You won’t even know we’re here.”
Walking quickly, they left the high walls and clean white stone of the administrative center behind, making way for the nearest rank of carriages.
“Gods,” Torcha grumbled. “Can someone turn the sun down?”
Gaz unknotted his scarf and draped it over her head. They were still standing like that when a cab finally collected them for the ride home.
“Okay,” Calay said as soon as they were ensconced in the privacy of their cab. “Who the fuck was that?”