When Riss Chou first came upon the procession by the river, she thought it was an execution. A small crowd had gathered by the riverside, clad in the functional linens and leathers common to workers in the southern marshlands. Two women stood out by virtue of their brightly-woven kaftans. They looked taller than the others in their lengthy robes, outer layers patterned in vivid slashes of red and yellow and blue.
Between them knelt a boy. Or at least Riss thought it was a boy. She barely caught a glimpse of the small figure in the women’s arms before they plunged his head beneath the dark, slate-grey surface of the water, white froth churning around their forearms as they held him under.
A decade in the Fourth Recce and three years on the front had all but beaten the emotion of surprise out of her, so Riss didn’t call out when they dunked the child. But she did accelerate into a hard sprint, grit crunching under her boots. Kicking up dust, she descended the low, scrubby hill down toward the riverbank, knocking clumps of reeds and cattails from her path as she went.
Why wasn’t anyone helping him? Or at least expressing shock? Even on the horrible chance this was some state-sanctioned violence, executions of the innocent were never without their protests. Didn’t this boy have a mother?
She reached the dingy clot of onlookers just as they hauled the boy up for air.
Riss stopped in her tracks. She stared, gobsmacked, as the robed women knelt in the chilly waters of the Deel, embracing the child even as he coughed and sputtered and spat.
He was laughing, unmistakable childish peals of it. And he embraced them in kind.
At some point during her run, Riss’ hand had strayed to the hilt of the machete she wore at her hip. She crept it deliberately back now, though her heart still beat at twice its normal tempo.
Murmurs of relief transmitted on down the crowd in a chain. They eventually reached Riss as coherent words, or at least snippets: so glad to have him back safe, Caro will be so relieved, and then, tellingly, bet he won’t stray from the road now.
They brought the boy safely to shore, where a man met him with open arms and a warm towel, swaddling him and patting dry his hair. Was this some sort of baptism, then?
It was only then that the gathered onlookers took notice of Riss.
“Can I help you with something?”
The speaker was a squat, tow-headed man with rosy cheeks and a low, serious brow. He had to tilt his head back to look the much-taller Riss in the eye, though he did so with an easy, unbothered bluntness that conveyed more exasperation than wariness. Which, in hindsight, was relieving. Riss hadn’t thought before she leapt, hadn’t realized what she might look like, trudging up on these people with her spike-studded leather and her machete. She looked like a thug for hire come to crack some skulls.
Which she sort of was, but not these people’s specific skulls, so long as they weren’t harming anyone.
Best make nice, then.
Riss coughed shallowly. “I saw you from the road,” she explained. “Thought the kid might be hurt. But I see you have things under control.”
The man smiled in a closed-off way, as if he weren’t sure whether to believe her.
“We do,” he said eventually. “Have things under control, that is.”
Gods below, Riss had been out of work for some time, but she hadn’t realized her social skills had atrophied so severely in the meantime. Or was this gaggle of townsfolk just… odd? The awkward silences, the anticipation in their eyes as they stared at her. She felt a fleeting impulse to apologize but didn’t, unsure exactly what she’d be apologizing for.
“You’re with the caravan out of Carbec, aren’t you?” He’d pegged her accent.
“Yes.” She had no reason to lie. “We settled down in town this morning. Just out stretching my legs.” No reason to lie, but also that last bit wasn’t entirely the truth.
“Well.” The man’s laugh whistled through his front teeth. “Don’t stretch them too far. Lot of land that doesn’t touch the river here. Isn’t consecrated, you know.”
Riss did not know, but she nodded to show she was listening.
“Of course, you look like you can handle yourself.”
That got a smile out of her. “Riss Chou,” she said. “Baron Tarn’s called me in for some search and recovery.”
The crowd around them began to disperse, wet-headed little boy included. His shoes left squelchy wet footprints as he walked off, ushered away by his parents.
“Search and recovery. Huh.” The man before her did not return the introduction. Instead he took a step back, waving. “Well, all the best with that, Miss Chou.”
The textile districts and their southern swamplands were home to innumerable cults and orders, everything from ancestor shrines to small-time traveling religious revues and the usual assortment of harvest and weaver gods. Riss had no idea what flavor of consecration this band of riverfolk favored, but she made a note to ask Torcha, on the off chance it was widespread. She was here as Tarn’s guest, after all. No need to put her foot in it with the locals.
The man who’d been speaking to her was already disentangling himself from the conversation, hurrying to catch up to his fellows. He seemed eager to escape her company.
Soon, Riss was alone save for the blank faces of the skeletal trees that crowded in atop the hills. In the low, early light, the ripples in their bark could be faces. Their twiggy limbs could be hands. They looked in a way like their own worshipful procession, an endless march along the path of the river most from Carbec to Adelheim considered holy.
She took the riverside rather than the road back to town, enjoying the change in scenery. And enjoying that she could add a few more loitering minutes onto her morning walk, precious time before she stepped over the bridge and into the red dust and obligations of Adelheim and the present.
There was only so long she could put this unpleasantness off.
She had supplies to sort. Had to go meet Tarn. Had a job to do. Had some ghosts to lay to rest. Perhaps not in that order. Or… actually… perhaps all at once.
Wind clattered through the treetops, buffeting her cloak on the slow walk back toward town. Every so often, branches clicked and clacked against one another in a way that mimicked footsteps at her back. She glanced behind her, kept her own steps light, recon habits too deeply-ingrained to ignore. But there was never anyone behind her. Only the trees in their swaying, restless wait for spring.
Later that day…
The moa tracked Riss across the hardpack with dark, too-intelligent eyes. She was not a short woman, yet the big bipedal bird still towered over her, a quarter-ton of muscle and talon. She could feel it watching her even when she turned her head away.
Beside her, the stockman continued on with a sales pitch that she hadn’t really been listening to. He was a short, soft-bodied man with a blond bowl-cut and slightly pink cheeks. The sort of man who clearly didn’t work with his own animals. The sort of man you’d find in any general store, prone to giving sales pitches that weren’t worth the breath it took to pitch them.
“And they can feed themselves in just about any terrain.”
Riss looked the bird up and down, her thick eyebrows arching. “I bet.”
The stockman laughed. “They’re herbivores,” he reassured her. “Forage on leaves and berries mostly.”
She knew that. There were moa native to the mountains of her homeland, too. Bigger ones. But herbivore or not, she got the feeling those talons meant business. Besides, horses weren’t carnivorous and they killed plenty of people. The birds looked mean.
Wary as it made her, Riss kind of liked that.
“She’ll get you anywhere a horse can’t,” said the stockman. He’d followed Riss step by step into the yard, leaning just close enough into her personal space that the urge to give him an elbow lingered like an itch.
For a moment, Riss considered the logistics of whether the moa would be worth it to ride. She hadn’t ever done so, but she knew plenty of people who had and none of them said it was any tougher than riding a horse. But they’d be what, seven or eight riders? Hiring eight moa meant paying for eight moa. Hiring two as packbeasts and taking the journey on foot meant a much larger cut for Riss and her crew, and this job wasn’t exactly taking her cross-country.
Eight birds also meant eight times the opportunity for something to go wrong. If one broke a leg or fell sick, they’d all be at walking pace anyway.
“I’ll only be taking a couple as packbeasts,” Riss decided. In the fenced-in yard, the moa continued to pace, its eyes never leaving her. It churred softly, a sound that could have been equal parts beckoning or warning. Who knew.
“Males or females?” asked the stockman.
“Pair of females,” she said. The males were about half the size—and only two-thirds the price. Which was tempting, but there was no way they could fit eight people’s worth of logging kit on only a pair of them.
Far up the hill, in the church nestled up against the breast of a crumbling castle, a bell chimed the hour. Nearly ten, then. Time to get a move on.
“If you can ready the birds by first light tomorrow, I’ll send my Second to make the necessary arrangements.”
She gave the man fleeting smile, just a brief upward hook of the mouth, and fished a thrice-folded document from the inner pocket of her coat. Unfolding it, she displayed the writ in all its glory: hand-painted stationery, the masterful calligraphy of whichever scribe had drawn it up, then the blunt strokes of Baron Tarn’s signature below.
“We’ll add it to the garrison’s account, then,” said the stockman, pleased. He’d likely bill the Baron higher rates than he would a customer who had the option of going elsewhere. Riss had factored that in when sorting out the pay scale of this endeavor.
“Been a pleasure,” she lied.
She wasn’t able to shake the sensation of sharp, smart avian eyes on her back until she was halfway up the hill toward her next destination.
From the stockyards, Riss took the dusty road that climbed the gentle hillside toward Adelheim. The castle itself had seen better days, recovering still from the damage it had sustained in the war, but the little village clustered within its outer walls teemed with fresh construction and commerce.
Her destination was at the halfway point between the wagonyard and the castle doors, a hole-in-the-wall tavern the locals called the Pub. Riss had been in and out of town for just under a year and she’d yet to hear its formal name. If it even had one.
Like much in the Deel Valley, the tavern was built from red claybricks and a motley assortment of wood. It had a fenced yard with a few hitching posts, none of which were presently occupied. Which meant that anyone turning up for Riss’ job offer was likely to be a local. Interesting.
Riss tried not to hold the locals’ present situation against them. Really, she tried. It wasn’t their fault that the war had robbed them of too many of their able-bodied men and women. It wasn’t their fault that the Deel wasn’t quite so fertile as the land upriver in the textile regions. They were making the best of the shit hand they’d been dealt. That the so-called best they coughed up tended to be knock-kneed teenagers and deserters was to be expected, really.
Expected, yet still somehow disappointing.
Her second in command, Adalgis Altave, stood beside those hitching posts and mingled with a rather mixed crowd.
Not counting Adal, there were five in total. Four men and a woman. Frankly, Riss couldn’t tell them from any other sack of five random assholes from the Deel. They all looked healthy enough. Nobody was missing any limbs. She didn’t spy any coded army affiliations nor did any of their faces ring a bell. All were dressed in a similar enough assortment of leathers, suedes, and linens. The homemade kind. Poor town kind. Riss had been hoping that some feature or another would provide her enough to approve or reject candidates at a glance, but this lot looked frustratingly average all around. The one exception was a big fellow with a stubbled head and a trio of small tattoos beside an eye. He stood out by virtue of being a good six inches taller than the rest.
“I suppose I’d better get to interviewing,” she called to Adal across the yard. He ticked two fingers off his brow in an informal salute.
“I suppose you’d best,” he said. “They’re called Zelindo, Toger, Linta, Gaz, and Calay.”
She couldn’t begin to guess at their heritage with simple commonfolk names like that. Not that heritage mattered much since the war got won and all. Two years was long enough for most mercenaries to forget they’d ever favored one side over another—if they had.
Not everyone could be Adalgis Altave, of the House Altave. Which said enough about her Second’s pedigree.
“Wait,” one of the potentials said to Adal, reaching up to scratch through his beard. “You’re telling us you ain’t the boss? After all that?”
“A common misconception,” Riss replied, answering on Adal’s behalf to really drive the point home.
“So I gotta tell you everything I just told him?” The man’s sun-dark face crinkled in annoyance. Riss shrugged.
“You don’t have to. You can always leave.”
He stayed put. She figured he would.
Riss cleared her throat. It was easy enough to lift her voice, to force that backbone of command back into it. In some regards, two years wasn’t long at all.
“Right,” she said, sweeping a look over the hopefuls. “Soon as the Baron’s back in town I’ve got a meeting, so I don’t have all day.”
Tonguing at her teeth in thought, she considered the easiest way to weed through the crop until she had two or three left with the skills she required. She supposed she could start with the easy questions.
“First thing’s first: any of you have warrants out for your arrest?” A couple hands went up. Riss clarified: “For anything other than desertion?” And all the hands went back down again.
Loth’s watery grave, this was a law-abiding bunch.
“Baron Tarn Gullardson is sponsoring this expedition,” she explained. That hadn’t been on the notice board. “Is there any reason, professional or personal, why the Baron would be displeased by your presence on this expedition?”
Of the five, the lone woman shuffled her feet. Though she didn’t say anything, a certain thread of tension tugged at her body language and she pointedly looked away from Riss.
“All right, out with it,” Riss said toward her. The woman snapped back to attention.
“Please don’t keep us here all day,” Adal chimed in.
Sniffing inward once, the woman squared her shoulders and hefted a diffident shrug. “I was in his House Guard,” she admitted.
“And he let you go?”
“Aye, ma’am. Well, not him. His Lieutenant.”
Riss watched the woman steadily, the sort of critical dead-eye she’d mastered in the ranks. The woman fidgeted. Riss really hoped she didn’t have to ask for an explanation. Perhaps Tarn had her sacked because she was daft.
“It was an… insubordination… thing,” the woman concluded, delicately.
“… Right.” Riss mentally crossed that one off the list.
Normally ‘insubordination’ was a concept Riss held right up there with desertion. She didn’t give two wags of a mermaid’s tail about insubordination or desertion so long as the mercs she hired were loyal to her. And even then, that loyalty was only required on a per-job basis. She was an easy enough woman to get along with.
But Tarn was a friend. And a former respected senior. No sense pissing in his porridge. She sent the woman on her way.
“Next question.” Riss glanced over at Adal. “Did my Second ask any of you about your proficiency with firearms?”
Adal shook his head a single, curt time.
In the end, it was the guns that winnowed them down. Which wasn’t much of a surprise. In a province this poor, firearms were a luxury of title-holders or the rich, of which there were few.
Two remained: Calay and Gaz, a pair from the northern coast who’d traveled down together. Sellswords who knew their way around both flintlocks and the newer cartridge models. Calay had experience as a medic—and the kit to prove it—and Gaz… well, Gaz was the gigantic one. Riss was unsure exactly what she’d encounter in the marsh, so a muscle-packed schooner of a man seemed a wise option.
“Congratulations,” she said to the pair, addressing them as a single entity to save time. “The job is essentially just as described on the notice. We’ll be attempting to recover the load and the remains of the Baron’s old logging party. And we’ll have a sniff around for any survivors as well. Adal will prepare your contracts.”
Calay, the much-shorter one, chimed in: “I’ll be signing for both of us.”
Riss tilted a look up—way, way up—to Gaz, as if awaiting confirmation of this fact. The big man nodded and smoothed a hand along his buzz-cut head.
“I can’t read,” he admitted. He didn’t look particularly broken up about it.
“These things happen,” said Adal. His tone took a turn for the less reassuring when he addressed Calay, who watched him avidly from beneath the slouch of a flat-brimmed hat. “You’d best not try to fuck him over,” said Adal.
“We’re mates, Gaz and I,” Calay promised.
Riss caught the hint of a bristle up Adal’s back. Great, she thought. Too many swinging dicks in the barracks already. But she wouldn’t intervene unless she had to. Adal didn’t have to like the guy.
They didn’t have much time to get acquainted. A distant horn bellowed from the drawbridge, signaling the Baron’s imminent return. Riss peered down the hill. Past the scrub and leafless, twiggy trees, she could spy a cloud of dust fluffing up the far-off horizon. Many horses. The Baron’s carriage and its escort.
“That’s my cue,” she said sidelong to Adal. “I trust you can finish the contracts and skip down to the general store? What’s-his-face at the yard is getting the birds ready.”
“Consider it done,” he said, his quick smile a promise. She couldn’t have asked for a more competent Second. Horrible as he’d been at giving orders back in the day, he could follow them like a champ.
“Riss?” he asked as she started up the hill.
“Give Cap my regards, eh? It’ll be good to sit down when all this mess is over.”
“Of course.” Riss’ smile was a little softer for him now. “He’ll need it, I think.”
If their mission was a success, the Baron would need to host either a celebration or a wake of record-breaking proportion. There would be time for drinks and sitting then.
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