The postwoman didn’t look like Calay expected. She was weathered, face scoured by decades of exposure to the elements. She wore a heavy green canvas overcoat and a wide-brimmed hat of woven flax. Sunspots dotted her long, strong-looking hands, and when he let his eyes travel down from her face to her fingertips, he noticed there was still grit under her nails.
He stared at those callused, dirty-nailed hands and recalled the first time he’d ever heard of letters. Alfend Linten had received one at the clinic, delivered by a courier in a tidy uniform with a little bow-tied scarf. Calay, then just a boy of nine or so, had asked what was the point of sending a courier with nothing more than a scrap of paper. Deliveries for the Indigents’ Clinic, sure. Personal deliveries for Mr. Linten, less frequently but still plausible. But who would send a man all the way across the city for a single sheet of paper?
Alfend had explained that this was no ordinary paper. It was a letter from an old friend of his, he said. A friend who lived all the way across the Continent, on the shore of a whole separate ocean.
He’d been too young then to understand the power a man could wield with the written word. Old enough to understand that Alfend was doing a gravely important thing, teaching him the beginnings of those scribbles. An illegal thing, until he acquired his permit.
Calay had never given letter-carriers themselves much thought, but he’d always assumed they were upper-crusty in some way. Because literacy in Vasile was reserved for those with either a title to their name or a particularly useful, regulated profession, it made sense that those who delivered them would be as well.
Fascinating, then, that this one looked like she’d rolled right off some nomad caravan.
She’d gathered them all to her wagon, parked in Medao’s northernmost wagonyard. A wide-bodied wooden structure, the thing was two stories tall, home to a comfortable pillow-strewn living quarters in which Calay currently sat, along with Gaz and Riss and the entire crew. And the postwoman, Leonór, who was laying down the final details of the job.
Slouching back a little on his pillow, Calay watched across the rounded table as the letter-carrier and Riss spoke. Leonór regretted the secrecy, she said, but it was a necessity: she’d planted whispers along the Continental Post routes of a wagon-jacking. Their target was an individual who fancied himself a fence.
“He won’t be able to resist it,” she said. “Turning over a wagon, that’s a big-ticket score. I’ve half a mind to believe he only robbed me to add it to his list of accolades.”
Calay breathed out the beginnings of a laugh. So they were chasing after some glory hound. That would make it easier.
“So we rendezvous with the fence if he’s still camped in the location your scouts advised,” said Riss. “But… what of the wagon?”
Leonór tapped a single, ragged-nailed fingertip to the table.
“Let him keep it for all I care,” she said. “Provided he compensates you fairly.”
“And how exactly will we get home?” Torcha cut in. “If we sell him our wagon?”
Riss shot her a look, begged her with silent eyes to just stay quiet. But Leonór took the question with a smile, crows’ feet tightening at the corners of her eyes.
“With the price this wagon will fetch on the backchannels, you’ll certainly be able to afford a horse home.”
Calay swept his eyes around the meeting chamber, took in the solid wooden frame and the narrow bunks nailed to the far wall. He’d heard tales of the war-wagons that roamed the Continent’s flatter terrain. Like great landborne ships, carrying enough cannons that they could take Medao’s navy gun-for-gun. Wagons were serious business down south.
“It’s part of our compensation package,” Riss explained to the crew at large. “In addition to our retainer and other, as-yet-specified favors.”
That’s a whole mountain of compensation, he thought. Unsure as he was on southern or central-Continential geography, he wondered what aspect of this job justified the sky high price tag. Salt flats and desert was treacherous terrain, he supposed. But nobody had gasped in horror or expressed shock that they’d be going there. They’d have to buy extra water, all right, but the destination elicited no surprise or despair.
He shot a look across the table toward Riss. Her expression was typically pensive; it gave away nothing. Riss always looked like she was thinking hard at the negotiation table. If only she were a little more ethically flexible, he might have invited her to his card games. She could bluf along with the best of them, he reckoned.
It occurred to him that he’d been with Riss for a year now. She’d never treated the company like a dictatorship. They sat at a round table, nobody lording over the head of it. If he had questions, he could bloody well ask them, couldn’t he?
Calay cleared his throat. “I can’t help but notice that’s a fine price for what sounds like straightforward work,” he said.
Leonór’s eyebrows crept up a little. She regarded him from the shade of her hat.
“So you’re wondering what I’m not telling you, eh?” she asked.
“We’re aware there were some highly sensitive details about this contract,” Riss chimed in. “Hence meeting you in person. Hence all the cloak and dagger. I admit I’ve been wondering too, but I respect that it’s a sensitive situation.”
Leonór graced Riss with a weather-beaten smile. “That’s why I always prefer to work with recon,” she said. “Recon types understand discretion.”
If only you knew, Calay thought. Working in Medao, burying himself in mercenary jobs, settling into an apartment with a balcony and a morning routine—Calay was so discreet whole days passed where he never thought about his magick at all. Some days it felt like he was domesticating himself right out of being a sorcerer.
“This job is going to require wits, conviction, and caution because the individual who stole my deliveries is a highly wanted man.” She said it calmly, not bothering to imbue the words with any theatrics. “His name is Nuso Rill. And if you haven’t heard of him, I’m sure someone on your team can fill you in.”
The air seemed to leak from the room in one great, collective breath. Calay watched Riss and Adal for their reactions. Riss’ eyes tightened. Adal’s went wide. That twitched a hint of a smile onto his mouth, though he buried it quickly.
“I’m more familiar with his brother,” Calay volunteered. Anvey Rill and his riots. The crazy bastard had stirred dissent in Vasile since Calay was a boy, sometimes with success and sometimes with periods of extended jail time. Last Calay knew, he was rotting in the cells for plotting to blow up the Leycenate.
“He’s a highwayman,” Adal said. Calay knew that much. Fortunately, Adal continued. “Though that’s simplifying things a great deal. He’s a highwayman with a terrifically efficient gang, and he has a finger in every black market there is. Down here they hate him because he desecrates tombs. Up north they hate him because his men made the roads unlivable unless you paid their taxes.”
Calay tilted a look toward Adal, curious. “And do they hate him in your hometown, too?”
Surprisingly, Adal laughed. He scratched at the back of his neck, awkwardly averting his eyes off toward Riss. “Well,” he said. “My family runs riverboats. So in all honesty, he’s made us a great deal of money.”
Calay coughed a snicker into a curled fist, then let it trail off and politely set his eyes upon their client.
“So that’s the big reveal, huh?” he asked. “You expect us to knock over the Continent’s most wanted man?”
Leonór gave him another of those thin smiles that seemed to rise more in her eyes than on her mouth. “No,” she said. “I’ll do the knocking-over myself. All you have to do is find him.”
The meeting dissolved into logistics prattle. Calay was less interested in that. Were he in charge of the outing himself, he’d have paid closer mind. But Riss hadn’t failed them yet when organizing all that crap herself, so he left her to it.
After a while, Gaz posed a question to their client that did capture Calay’s interest.
“What were you carrying that was so interesting Nuso Rill would risk his life to steal it, anyhow?”
Leonór paused mid-sentence, glancing over to Gaz and staying quiet a beat. She looked him over, seemed to be considering whether to even answer. Calay leaned forward on his elbows, expressing nonverbal interest. Riss leaned in, too.
“Privacy is important to the Post,” Leonór said. “People wouldn’t trust us with their correspondence if they knew there was a chance it would be inventoried or peeped at.”
“So you’re saying…”
She nodded at Gaz, confirming. “I have no idea. I don’t know whether he was after a single parcel, a single letter, or the entire bag just to say he’d done it.”
And that? Boy, that sent Calay’s mind reeling with possibilities. What could be contained in a small parcel or letter that was so valuable the most wanted man in the land would risk tangling with this crazy, hard-bitten old bitch? Information, of course, could be priceless. But he’d understood via Hadjo at cards that the war winding down meant the espionage market had really dried up down here.
So what could it be, then? Smuggling routes? Veins of priceless ore? Dirt on someone important?
They concluded the meeting, his thoughts still racing. He promised Riss that he and Gaz would arrive at the appropriate time, but they’d be taking the next couple days to pack their bags and prepare for time abroad.
From the time Alfend had scooped him up off the street, Calay had lived in his places of work. He’d slept in the surgical chamber of Alfend’s clinic at first, on a spare cot set aside. Later, Alfend had let him move into the upstairs loft. And later still, Calay had moved Gaz in. He liked it, sleeping above the clinic. The constant bustle of patients, orderlies, and visitors. The Vasile of his youth was packed tightly with people, too many of them for his neighborhood to ever truly fall quiet. He’d never be a farm boy, never long for the silence of the wilderness.
So his current lodgings suited him just fine.
He and Gaz rented a warm, airy flat above a cobbler’s. The walls were thick, the windows let in plenty of light, and the polished brick floor was a cool, pleasant thing to stroll upon in the mornings. It had a narrow salon that overlooked the river, even. Though by no means luxurious, it was warm and secure and bright and high up, all descriptors which Calay had never thought in a hundred years would apply to a place he lived.
So what if there was a shrivelled old woman downstairs determinedly pounding tacks into bootsoles all the live-long day. Calay’s mind filtered the noise out.
They’d already packed most of their things for the upcoming expedition, neither of them being particularly fussy travellers. He’d wound down his card game for the time being, promised the regulars tales of excitement and adventure when he returned.
For the moment, he sat on a scuffed armchair in the salon, watching thin curls of cloud move across the sky and trying to look dispassionate while Gaz made a big, stupid fuss over him. He had his mangled, mutated arm stretched out atop a small side table. Gaz held it by the wrist. In his other hand, he gripped a pair of small gardening shears that looked just comically tiny.
“Is this really necessary?” Calay asked, watching as Gaz trimmed tiny, budding purple flowers off a vine that sprouted up between his knuckles. “I’m fairly certain if I leave the glove on they’ll just die and save us all this trouble.”
Snip, snip went the shears. “Seems a waste,” Gaz said.
Calay glanced past him to the bank of thin windows that lined the salon’s southern wall. Small trellises leaned against the bottom of each window, creepers and vines slowly taking them over, crawling up and around the wooden stakes like leafy snakes. It had started as a joke, Gaz harvesting the plants that sometimes sprouted off his arm. Now, though, the joke appeared to have grown into a fully fledged hobby.
“Who’s going to look after those while we’re away, anyhow?” Calay asked. “I don’t want someone rummaging around up here.”
Gaz snipped the base of the vine, a little flick of the shears that Calay didn’t actually feel. He had a small glass of water ready, dangling the vine down into it. Some of them sprouted roots when harvested this way, others did not and died. Fortunately, the supply seemed to be limitless.
“Gonna move ‘em over to Riss’ place,” Gaz explained. “She’s got that big courtyard. And they’re going to have a housekeeper ‘round while we’re all away.”
Calay’s bark and bone fingers twitched. He suppressed a laugh. “Right.”
“You’ve been quiet since we got back,” Gaz said, carrying the glass over to a window sill. “What’s on your mind?”
“The mailbag.” Calay saw no point in beating around the bush. “I’m dying to know what was in that woman’s mailbag. My mind won’t shut up about it.”
Gaz spent a couple minutes fussing over his window-boxes, checking the soil and dashing a bit of water into some of the plants. Calay watched him do this often but he never quite seemed to pick up on all the patterns, what needed watering when and how much. It seemed a very inexact science.
“Been wondering that, too,” Gaz said. “You have any feelings about going toe to toe with Rill?”
“Not really.” Calay scratched at his jaw. “Be interesting to meet him, I suppose. See if the legend aligns with the man. Somehow, he’s almost turned out to be the least interesting part of this job.”
“What’s the most interesting part?” Gaz walked past him as he asked this, headed for the hallway. Before he could disappear, Calay leaned forward and grabbed him by the wrist.
“The most interesting part by far…” Calay tapped his fingertip to Gaz’s palm for emphasis. “Is devising how I’m going to read everything in that mailbag without anyone else finding out.”
Gaz’s face crinkled up doubtfully. He didn’t retract his hand, but he gave Calay one of those long dubious stares of his.
“Think about it,” Calay insisted. “Whatever was in there, Nuso Rill risked exposing himself to get it. This letter-carrier has reached out to us, given us a wagon, promised us untold riches if we can recover it. This can’t just be for her pride, Gaz. Old gal is keeping some sort of juicy secret, mark my words.”
It was either something valuable or something forbidden. And either of those could be of great use to Calay.
“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you to be careful.”
Calay gave Gaz’s hand a fractional squeeze before relinquishing his grip.
“When am I ever not?”
He’d made a career out of being careful. His very existence was one of perpetual risk. And fortunately, he’d have long hours on the road to devise a failproof strategy.