After the show, Ercun wanted to hang around the intermission chambers for a booze-and-schmooze. Calay had no issue with this. He kept himself busy by watching faces as they passed, occasionally slanting an eye toward the elaborate mosaics that decorated the walls.
“Famous musicians and conductors of Symphonias past,” a woman in a wispy gown informed him. He blinked, glancing aside to her, and let out a huh of appreciation.
Medao was just so… different to Vasile. Which felt like a stupid, no-shit observation. But it being obvious didn’t change how truly striking it was. Growing up the way he had, kicked around in the rough borderlands of the Sunken Quarter and Blackbricks, Calay had experienced a side of Vasile different to its middle-class residents and its landowners. He knew that cities had many faces, as many personalities as there were neighborhoods. But even Medao’s poorer neighborhoods seemed somehow less dreary, less cluttered, less frantic than Vasile’s.
Or perhaps he’d just missed the color and noise of being in a city at all.
Finally, his charge signalled that he was ready to depart. Calay and the rest of his retinue descended the grand stairs once more and stepped out into the street, where a warm breeze was blowing and Symphonia Plaza was in full nightlife mode.
Giant silk lanterns decorated the statues and facades that ringed Symphonia Plaza, lighting the whole thing up a pleasant goldish-crimson. When they’d first arrived in Medao, Calay had wondered what sort of festival was on. He’d been astounded to learn they did the big squares up like this every night. So balmy and well-behaved was their weather that flimsy lanterns and nighttime street performers and outdoor seating that sprawled beyond the walls of the bars and cafes was all just normal.
Again, contrasting it to Vasile left him a little whiplashed. Calay’s home was a damp, foggy place where storms often chased ships in from the sea, battering the coast as if in retribution for men daring to fish there.
“You lot hungry?” Their client glanced between the three mercenaries with an enquiring lift of his brows. Before Calay could comment, Torcha answered on behalf of all three of them. Soon, Sal Ercun had bought each of them a paper-wrapped cone of fried roots. They tasted similar to manioc and came drizzled in a smoky, spicy sauce.
Okay, fine. This city wasn’t bad. The Symphonia wasn’t bad. Perhaps even the Ambassador’s son was not bad, once he got some drink in him. Calay felt like Fortune was trying to tell him something.
Crunching down on their root fries, they ambled as a group toward the rank of carriages lined up along the plaza’s landward edge. A few bore crests and insignias of ownership, but most were for-hire. Ercun paced along their length, inspecting each from a distance, his mouth puckering in thought.
“Hm,” he said. “Not that one.” Then no to the next. Then no to the next. The colours were wrong. The horses looked mangy. The drivers looked untrustworthy. Calay observed with secret amusement that the young man’s drunken thought process was going to see him shit out of luck rather soon. Symphony-goers flocked to the carriages, one vehicle at a time peeling off and toward the plaza’s arched exits. The bigger horse and lizard-drawn ones first, then the more fragile, bell-shaped carriages drawn only by a pair or two of moa.
Calay didn’t mind making the journey back to his charge’s estate on foot, but he felt it right to point out that their options were dwindling.
“I hate to break it to you,” he said. “But the rank’s thinning out. See any carriages you’d give a second chance?”
Ercun spun back around, rubbing at his hairless chin and squinting in Calay’s general direction. He then looked to the remaining cabs, giving each a lengthy study.
“Let’s walk,” he finally said. “It’s a lovely night out. And I’ve got my trusty sellswords with me. What could go wrong?”
“It is a lovely night,” Gaz agreed.
Nobody commented on the rest of that statement. Torcha and Calay shared a skeptical glance while Gaz made a good-luck sign behind his back. Ercun selected a carriage for his date, kissed her on either cheek, and sent her away.
The crowds thinned rather abruptly as they left the square behind. Medao had many districts famous for its nightlife, but the route to the Ambassador’s estate carved through areas more residential than not. The leafy streets were sleepy, a few candles guttering in windows, a few old men and women sitting on porches and toking pipes.
They turned a sweeping corner up onto Riviera Street, one of the main thoroughfares that cleaved the city in two. Its blocks were wide, its buildings squarish, one of the more spacious areas in Medao. The sidewalk took them up a low roll of hill, the river to their right, and after a couple blocks Ercun squinted down a lantern-lit alleyway.
“Hmph,” he said. “I always forget how long this walk takes. C’mon, let’s cut through here.”
Calay took a wary step closer. He wasn’t familiar with this part of town. But a glance down the alley’s mouth proved it was well lit and populated, nothing too sinister about it. He ticked a quick look back to his teammates, and both Gaz and Torcha shrugged. They turned down the alley, then. Immediately, Calay was hit by the stink of spilt ale and piss. Many of the doorways that flanked them lead to hole-in-the-wall taverns. Patrons laughed from windows. A woman in an upper window flashed lacy lingerie at those below, beckoning passers-by upward.
Cripes, was Ercun leading them to a red light district? Calay hoped Riss was billing by the hour.
Fortunately the red light district didn’t materialize. The alley tightened. The nature of the businesses changed. Open taverns became open cigar shops became shuttered goldsmiths and bric-a-brac shops. They passed a shop whose storefront was painted all with cartoon cats, and try as he might, Calay could not decipher the Meduese on the signage to clue him in as to what the fuck that sold—
Movement in front of him.
He took a reflexive step ahead, shielding Ercun from the blur of motion up ahead. Just around a slight bend in the alleyway, men were pouring out of a tavern that had a decidedly rougher look to it than the ones they’d passed two blocks back. A loose circle of darkly-tanned, brawny figures crowded around a pair that were already in the midst of exchanging blows.
Calay relaxed a little, at least internally. A fight that wasn’t directed at his client? That was a fight he didn’t much care about. He was happy to slink past and let it slide.
But that wasn’t to be.
As they attempted to shove their way through the crowd, one of the two combatants knocked his opponent to the ground. Skull cracked stone, and before the victor could even celebrate, the downed man’s buddies pounced on him from the sidelines. Calay nudged Ercun along, worried now. The air carried that tense, powder-keg whiff of violence on the verge of exploding. Sailors weren’t predictable company even in his hometown, let alone sailors whose native tongue he didn’t speak.
The brawl erupted before they’d cleared the mob. Lamplit figures on either side of Calay leapt into moton: Torcha whirling to guard Ercun’s flank and Gaz stepping back as some guy took a swing at him. Pissants in these situations always picked on Gaz. Everyone wanted to be the one to haul down the biggest guy in the room.
They all teetered up the alley, carried on the momentum of the crowd. Calay ducked a punch and threw out an elbow. It hit a squishy stomach, his target letting out a pained wheeze. Ducking low, he watched as a man swung a bottle at Torcha, missed entirely, and staggered into the wall of a nearby furrier.
Stepping clear of the brawl’s perimeter, Calay drew a bootknife just in case. He turned to face the carnage, just in time to see Ercun stumbling, arms over his face. He yelped as someone took a swing at him, a tattooed man who’d managed to work his way past Gaz and Torcha both. Thrones, it was only by luck that the blow didn’t connect. Calay leapt in and grabbed a handful of Ercun’s shirt, hauling him back bodily.
“Don’t let yourself go down,” he hissed. “You don’t want to be at boot-level in a fight like this—”
The sailor swung for Ercun again. Calay hauled his client back with all his might, catching the young man against his chest. Gaz stepped in and smashed a big, painful ham-hock of a fist straight into the assailant’s gut. The man fell backward, groaning, and before he could begin to right himself, Torcha had leapt atop him.
Calay watched with wide eyes—and admittedly an amused grin—as Torcha straddled the downed sailor’s torso, pinning him to the ground. She balled her fists and pummeled him in the face, one-two-three, the skirts of her gown hiked up to her thighs. Someone in the crowd whistled and she took that out on the poor bloke on the ground, too, slugging him one last time in the mouth.
Behind them, a bottle crashed down on someone’s head. A different someone retched, coating the gutter with fresh puke.
Calay realised he was just about holding Ercun in a choke-hold. He eased off, though he continued to walk backwards away from the fray.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get you out of here before the whistles start blowing.”
The first rule of bodyguard work, as stoically conveyed to him by Riss, was to protect the client at all costs. So he did just that, guiding Ercun out of the alley and around the corner and two blocks in the correct direction before they stopped to wait. Gaz and Torcha didn’t seem to be following them. Though concern itched in Calay’s gut, he didn’t let himself look back. He did stop to ‘catch his breath,’ though, exhaling hard and checking over his client with a critical eye.
“Unscathed?” he asked.
Ercun, pale-faced and a little out of breath, nodded several times. He let out a nervous little laugh after patting himself down.
“Suppose Miss Chou was right,” he said. “You three were worth the coin back there.”
Calay clicked his tongue and winked. “We’re trained professionals,” he said. “And you only get training for those sorts of scraps by taking your licks and coming out the other side.”
When situations arose that called for formal attire, Calay wore a fine suede glove over his mangled arm. He flexed his fingers inside it now, rolling his knuckles with suppressed concern. He’d expected Gaz and Torcha would be right behind them. No longer caring about whether he looked too worried, he turned back and gazed down the road, eyebrows furrowing.
“Looking for your mates?” Ercun puffed out his cheeks. “I didn’t see what happened to them. Sure they’re both fine. Looked as though they could handle themselves perfectly well.”
Calay glanced back, made pointed eye contact.
“Shall we continue to your destination, then?” he asked. He wanted to be rid of the brat as soon as possible so he could investigate. Although to his credit, he hadn’t reacted too brattishly during the fight. He’d listened to orders. Calay hoped he’d listen to implied orders now.
“Very well,” Ercun said. “Let us. We wouldn’t want my parents to wonder.”
“No,” Calay said, “we would not.”
Back at the Ambassador’s estate, Ercun invited Calay in for a nightcap. Calay, unsure whether he was being flirted with or just politely thanked, refused.
“Your friends, though.” Ercun gave a little gesture. “They know this is the destination, no? It’s sensible to await them here.”
Calay ground his heel against the manor’s front step and put on an expression that he hoped looked thoughtful. Because he was not thinking or considering anything. He had no interest in sitting around sipping liquor while Gaz and Torcha might be in trouble.
“It is sensible,” he sad. “But it’s equally sensible to backtrack and ensure they don’t need assistance. Drunken sailors are a nasty lot.”
“You’re worried about them, then?”
Calay fought to keep a flare of irritation from showing on his face. He had the distinct sensation of being sized up. Like this little master with his politician parents was prodding at his weaknesses. Whyever the fuck for?
“Hardly.” Calay laughed. “More like worried I’ll have to write some regretful letters to some widows.”
Ercun answered that with a polite little laugh in kind, but it had an edge to it. An edge of I see through you. Calay squared his shoulders and bid him goodnight, then asked him to pass on Riss’ regards to his parents.
He did not run back the way he’d come, ever mindful of appearances. But he did hurry. And once he crossed the river bridge back into the rowdy side of town, he immediately spotted Gaz’s silhouette among the late-night crowd. He walked with his hands in his suit jacket’s pockets, shoulders bunched up a little, eyes furtive.
Gaz was alone.
Calay jogged up to him, looked him over.
“I’m fine,” he said, shaking his head. “We uh, got a little tangled up. Was just on my way to catch up with you.”
“With the garda.” Gaz pulled a face, grimacing. “Bartender called the law in to break up the fight.”
Calay didn’t ask further questions, urging Gaz on instead with silence and a pointed look.
“Uh, anyway. Something something about disproportionate response. I told her to pretend to be drunk. They’re hauling her off to spend a night in the tank.”
Calay palmed his face with both hands. He groaned into his fingers, cursing the day he was born. Riss was going to love this.