Riss was not looking forward to the task of explaining Renato to Calay and Gaz. On the ride home, she left it with a terse placeholder explanation:
“Renato’s our former you.”
She’d expected some smart remark in reply, perhaps a question about which aspects of Calay’s person Renato so embodied, but he said nothing. Torcha was also silent on the ride back to the townhouse, slouched against the padded seat of the cab with mostly-closed eyes. She vanished upstairs before Riss had even paid the driver.
Thankfully, Adal was at home, ready to sweep in and help her wrangle all the morning’s divergent pains in the ass into a manageable to-do list. He was just seeing a client out when they arrived, a polite smile curved at his mouth.
“Well that looks like it could have gone worse,” he said.
Adal hooked a thumb back over his shoulder. “Our resident lawbreaker is already home safe and sound.”
Riss ghosted out a laugh, then slipped out the back door into the courtyard. She needed some sun. Between the periodical nightmares and being frequently roused at ridiculous hours of the morning, she was running low on sleep. She hoped the sun might recharge her a little, shake her into a reasonable forgery of consciousness.
The tall brick house’s courtyard was still a work in progress. Ringed by half-height brick walls, the yard featured a small fountain with a shallow reflecting pool. Whoever had owned the place before Riss and Adal had really had a thing for lions. The big, shaggy-maned things that once roamed the high plains and plateaus between Carbec and Lower Vasile. Every so often, rumor surfaced out of the bush. Some wayward hunter or guide or priest tripping balls on some vision walk always claimed to have seen a lion recently. People liked to keep the stories alive, Riss supposed. Didn’t want to let go of the past so long as the past was more adventurous and mysterious than it was painful.
Either way, her yard was home to approximately a dozen sculpted lion heads and she was not feeling that architectural choice.
Green vines had begun to creep up the walls of the house itself. Soon they’d bud with little purple flowers, or at least that’s what Gaz had promised her when he’d planted them. Full of surprises, Gaz. She’d had no idea he was a gardener.
“All right,” Adal announced when he stepped out into the sunshine. “Torcha’s running a bath upstairs. All the morning meetings are accounted for. Gaz needs a nap, I’m gonna pack him in the guest room if you don’t object.”
An unwitting smile leapt up onto Riss’ face as she listened to all this. “I do not object,” she said. Adal had things well and truly in hand. Like he always—
A gentle bell chimed, a high and unobtrusive little ding that they heard even from the yard. The doorbell. Adal turned, but Riss took a step in front of him, cutting him off.
“I’ve got this one,” she said.
And it was fortunate she made that decision, given the delivery that was waiting for her.
A rail-thin, darkly-complected man wearing a courier’s uniform stood on her doorstep, a paper-wrapped bundle held to his chest. He straightened when Riss opened the door, bowing his head to her politely in greeting.
“Some books you ordered, miss?” he asked.
Riss nodded calmly even as her heart jumped. She fished a couple australs from her pocket, tipping the courier and offering an arm. The bundle in question looked at least five or six books high. Ambassador Havasi had been successful, then. And not only that, but willing to share the fruits of those successes.
“Appreciate it,” Riss said as the courier departed. She turned back in through the doorway and nearly elbowed Calay in the face.
“Whoa!” He stepped back, putting up his hands. “Sorry. I heard the bell, wasn’t sure what was going on.”
Riss clutched the heavy bundle of books to her chest. She looked at Calay over the top of them, hoping that the bundle adequately concealed her facial expression. Hoping she didn’t look nervous.
“Just a courier,” she said. And her voice came out perfectly neutral. And that was good. She started walking toward the staircase, though to her dismay Calay followed along at her side. He slouched his jacket half off his shoulders, hands in his pockets.
“Need a hand with that?” he asked. Suspicion snapped its fingers in the rear of her mind, trying to get her attention. Was he normally this helpful? Was he going out of his way to interfere with her solely because he suspected what the contents of the parcel might be?
“No, that’s all right.” Riss ticked her chin up toward the apex of the staircase. “Just running these up to the office.”
Calay nodded and peeled off in the direction of the kitchen, ambling through her house as though he had all the permission in the world to be there. Which, if she thought about it for a moment, she supposed he did.
One hell of an awkward moment averted, Riss carried the books upstairs to her office and swung the door shut. Then, for good measure, she fished her keyring out of her pocket and locked it. With a hard sigh of relief, she carried the books to the desk and sat them down, where they thumped in a weighty, pleasant way. She untied the twine that bound the bundle up, then unfolded the paper, eager to see what the Ambassador had uncovered.
A few of the books were thin things, bound in soft leather and yellowed with age. Likely journals. The bottom four though, their titles shining enticingly in gilt, they were enough of an eyebrow-raiser that Riss was very glad she didn’t have to explain them to Calay. Librida Sorcieri was some sort of old hocus almanac, likely equal parts history and bullshit. Sorcery and the State was a Selyek treatise about the threat of magick to stable government. A real cozy bedroom read. The other two were more what Riss was interested in: In Search of Answers and Fragments Remain: A Chronicle of the Vasa Purge.
Yes, there would have been some questions if Calay had caught a glimpse of those.
It wasn’t that Riss wasn’t planning on sharing her findings. It wasn’t even that Riss suspected she’d flip the books open and discover anything that led her to distrust Calay himself. She knew enough about him to know he’d been a thoroughly untrustworthy individual in his former life. The big bounty and the allusions to his litany of past crimes had been enough to clue her in on that.
She supposed she was simply unnerved by the power imbalance. She’d never worked so closely alongside someone who could end her in the blink of an eye. She wanted to… understand where he was coming from. Although when she thought about it in those terms, it felt sort of like treating him as though he were a temperamental dog prone to biting. Which wasn’t the case.
Riss just hated going in dark. She’d worked in recon for a reason. From the earliest memories of her youth, she’d preferred a solid foundation of knowledge to blind ambition. If her father hadn’t steered her harshly off that path, she might have ended up in a library similar to Ambassador Havasi’s, wiling away the hours as a clerk or some such.
Ah, what might have been.
She resisted the urge to flip one of the books open immediately. She knew it’d only suck her in, and then she’d have to tear herself away. No, these were books to be consumed on a quiet evening behind a locked door. When life stopped throwing interruptions at her every thirty seconds. As much as the powerful, curious compulsion tingled in her hands, she forced herself to be good. She stacked the books into the bottom cupboard of her desk, where she kept a few other things too precious for everyday use: Gaspard’s pistol, her old letters from Adal.
On her way downstairs, she passed by Torcha’s room and hesitated a moment. Ought to check on her, she thought. Yet another entry in the long line of oughts and shoulds, the never-ending march of duty. This responsibility, at least, was one she was glad to shoulder.
Knocking quietly on the door, she called out. “Torch? You feeling better now that you’ve scrubbed the cells off you?”
“Yeah. Come in if you want,” came the reply through the door.
Riss let herself inside.
Torcha’s room was, like the courtyard, a work in progress. Or rather it existed in a state of permanent work-in-progressness, given that Riss wasn’t sure she’d tidied it or furnished it any more in the last year than she had their first week moving in. Weaves of wool and silk dangled from the walls, mostly in abstract geometrical patterns. Their colors clashed; as far as Riss could tell there was no coordination or theme to it all. The skinny single bed had an ornate head and footboard but was almost laughably narrow. The shelves were all empty. On the far wall, a glass-fronted display cabinet was home to the more ornate selections of Torcha’s one-man arsenal. Long-barreled pistols with mother-of-pearl grips, an absurdly long rifle midway through the reconstruction process, half of it still corroded with rust, powder horns and accessories and such.
A fine layer of dust coated both the bedposts and the top of the narrow table that flanked the wall. Torcha only spent a few nights a week at home. Riss had stopped asking where she went when it became clear that all she did was lounge around Calay and Gaz’s, up to who-knows-what and unwilling to talk about it. Oh well. She was an adult.
Torcha sat in a copper bathing tub, relaxed in front of the hearth. The fire wasn’t lit, though, so she seemed to be staring at the fire screen more than anything. The screen was typical Meduese work, a hammered brass depiction of big ships with big sails engaged in some sort of artillery battle against a sea serpent.
“They sure do love their boat art here,” Riss said, hooking a little grin. She dragged a dusty chair over and sank into it beside the bathtub.
In the bath, Torcha sulked so far down that the water reached her chin. Her hair had grown preposterously long in the last few years, and when it wasn’t bound up as per usual, Riss was always stunned by just how much room it took up. Deep burgundy when wet, it floated on the surface of the bathtub like a sea of kelp. It made her look all of twelve years old.
“Art’s art,” Torcha said, not explaining what she meant by that. She sounded unimpressed.
“So.” Riss glanced down, regarding Torcha’s sole hand visible above the waterline. She gave a pointed look toward the cuts on her knuckles. “Fun night?”
“Was a perfectly consensual scrap,” Torcha said. “Nobody had a problem ‘til the barman pissed his pants and called the law.”
“City people, eh.” Riss just let her vent.
“The Ambassador was pretty tickled by it, at least.” Torcha grinned. Riss considered whether it was worth correcting her, that she’d been guarding the Ambassador’s kid. Had she even been paying attention?
“Sorry we couldn’t come get you sooner,” Riss said instead. Professional corrections could come in a day or two. No sense berating someone on the details of a long-finished job when they were fresh out of jail and likely nursing an eye-splitting hangover.
Something changed in Torcha’s demeanor. Her eyes narrowed. Water sloshed against the wall of the tub as she turned to face Riss.
“Renato wouldn’t have let me go earlier,” she said, cool and curt.
“What?” A funny little fear began to unwind itself in Riss’ stomach.
“Yeah. He said they were gonna hold me overnight. He had a bunch of questions. I don’t think it was like their policy, y’know? He let a couple other guys out. But not me.”
“Questions?” Riss didn’t want to push too hard. Renato had been a real prick back there with his over-the-top concern, but it hadn’t occurred to her that he’d purposefully mistreated Torcha. Why would he? They’d gotten on so well before. And Torcha hadn’t given any indication at the jail that he’d…
“Did he hurt you?” Riss asked, interrupting her own earlier question. She suddenly had to know.
Torcha narrowed a quizzical eye at her. “Shit, boss, no. It wasn’t like that. He’s a royal asshole these days, don’t get me wrong.” She rubbed some droplets of water off her face. “He just kept me up all night. Had all these questions. Wanted to know everything. Honestly, I don’t think he cares about me at all. Mostly, he wanted to know all about you.”
Riss slouched back in her chair, cursing softly. Fucking Renato. She’d suspected his is that you shit was an act. This confirmed it.
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Riss said. “Wish I’d slugged him in the face instead of greeting him like a friend, if I’m being honest.”
One of Torcha’s cheeks dimpled as she shook her head, laughing. “No you don’t. Not in the jail where he’s the warden. Leave that kind of boneheaded move to me.”
“So you admit it was boneheaded? Thank you.” Riss grinned now. She couldn’t let herself get wrapped up in seething about Renato. Not while juggling so many other tasks. She didn’t voice it, but she felt a moment of private gratitude toward Torcha then. She knew what a touchy subject it was. Knew Riss’ tendency to stew on things.
Relaxing back, Riss asked Torcha to give her a play-by-play of the fistfight. She could take a few minutes, shut the door on sorcery and Renato and their coming journey across the Flats. This might be one of the last opportunities she had to do so.
Then they’d be abandoning their work-in-progress home for another far-flung journey across the Continent. Riss rubbed at her wrist with a thumb, listening as Torcha regaled her with her recollection of the night’s blows.
There was a wariness in Riss now, lying in wait just below the surface. Soon, that postwoman would be briefing them on the finer details of the job. Until she knew the whole story, that wary anticipation would take up space inside her.
At least there was no possible way their destination could be as horrible as the last one.