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 >>