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.