Book 2, Chapter 10

Well. They were back on the road again.

Riss directed the wagon northeast out of Medao, choosing not to head straight north. The further away from Adelheim the better, she decided. Though she’d had no worrying correspondence from Tarn, wary superstition reared its head whenever she thought about returning to that place or anywhere remotely near it.

Besides, they were traveling in downright luxurious conditions. She’d figured the crew wouldn’t mind a few extra days in their cushiony nests inside the big behemoth of a wagon. And she’d been right.

The rhythm of the road came easily to them. They devised a watch and chore schedule without much conscious discussion, everyone simply falling into doing the tasks that suited them. Torcha kept lookout on the roof; Riss tended the galania and minded their stores. Adal drove in the mornings and manned the charts. Calay and Gaz kept busy either in the galley or on guard at the cargo doors. A wagon the size of the one Leonór had gifted them was meant to sleep two dozen people, so their lodgings were positively spacious.

The road they followed was an undulating path of hard-packed dirt, no ancient stones to guide them. Like a lazy sloshing wave, it rolled over shallow, dry hills of nondescript scrub and a few little fleck-on-the-map hamlets they didn’t bother to stop in.

Then, one evening, the horizon before them just… opened up.

Riss was perched on the pilot’s bench, legs crossed lazily at the ankle. The lizard’s steady, scraping footsteps and the crush of grit under wheels had soothed her into a meditative state, her grip on the reins relaxed. The sun was on its downward journey, just beginning to tinge the clouds apricot.

The wagon crested a hill and suddenly there they were. The Alkali Flats. Stretching off as far as Riss’ eye could see, a flat expanse of crusty salt dominated the horizon. Pinky off-white in color due to the sunset, the salt flats lay at the foot of the hill her wagon was currently descending. And there, nestled into the foothills at a crook in the road, was the final settlement of note before vast, salty emptiness.

“Anyone awake back there?” Riss called over her shoulder. “Quite a view to admire. And I’d like someone to take a peek at the map.”

A male voice made a muffled sound from somewhere inside. But the problem with traveling on a wagon this large was that half the time, Riss had no clue what people inside were yelling at her. She waited, scratching at her cheek, until Calay emerged from inside.

“Adal’s regaling Gaz with tales of the river,” he informed her. “I left them to it.”

He was dressed like he’d halfway put himself to bed, wearing a long linen shirt and an open-fronted woolen cardigan that dangled almost to his ankles. Looks comfortable, she thought, admittedly a little envious. Her tendency toward preparedness and practicality left her in armor more often than not; Calay and Gaz had gone positively rural.

Riss scooched along the bench, offering him a seat. She pointed toward the map compartment, and he unhinged it and sorted through their various charts until he found the right one.

Only once he’d settled down onto the bench beside her did Calay comment on the view. He looked from side to side, sniffed a little, and dubbed it “pretty nice.” Funny man.

“All right,” he said. “What are we looking for?” He spread the map out along his lap, angling it to catch the sunlight.

“Just the name of this village,” Riss said. “L-something? It’s on the tip of my tongue.”

Calay traced a finger over something on the map, then tapped it twice.

“Esilio,” he said. “Close. There’s an L in it. Map says it has the usuals: food, water, and… ah, I’m assuming that symbol means brothel.”

“Not much else to do out here.” Riss chuckled, then slouched back a little on the bench. It had padded leather seats, the type that molded pleasantly to one’s ass on long travels. She’d be sad to see this wagon go. “So Adal’s back there spinning stories about the river, huh?”

“He’s had some wine.” A brief smile edged up the sharp panes of Calay’s face. “They aren’t bad stories. Though I have to admit the more I hear about that man’s childhood, the more it scrambles my brain to think that he ended up here of all places, doing this.”

“We’re all better off for his life choices in that regard,” said Riss.

Calay made a noise like he was considering that statement. He hummed, then smirked at her. “Yeah, all right.” Then, after a moment, he shifted so that he watched Riss more closely than the map.

“What about you?” he finally asked.

“What about me?”

“It just occurred to me I know a lot about Adal’s upbringing. Even more about Torcha’s. But everything I know about you begins and ends with the war.”

Suspicion curled through Riss the way paper curled when burnt: a slow singe. She shook it off though. If Calay wanted to snoop on her or learn private details of her life for some nefarious purpose, he’d have taken a more oblique approach. He wouldn’t ask her to her face. She leaned over a little on the bench and gave him a sniff.

“I see you too have had some wine.” She said it kindly though, not quite an accusation.

“What, is that the only time I’m allowed to indulge in friendly conversation?” He grinned at her then. “Guilty, though. But… if it’s a sore subject, I’ll drop it. I have a few of those myself. I was just… curious.”

“Well, what are you curious about?”

She could always decide not to answer questions if he asked him. That thing he’d said about how everything he knew of her began and ended at the war, that plucked an upsetting string somewhere inside. He knew those things about her because they’d met on professional terms. Because Riss’ history with the Fourth was the backbone of her current occupation and her current lot in life. But… she didn’t want the war to define her. She didn’t like the idea that Calay saw her that way.

“Just… if it’s like Adal. Is this the path you always figured you’d end up on?”

Twisting the reins around her hand, Riss watched muscles ripple along the galania’s back as it trudged slow and determined down the winding road.

“I never really got a chance to consider my own path.” She answered slowly. “I was conscripted pretty young.”

“Tch, that’s a cop-out answer.” Calay’s reprimand was playful. “You grew up in… over where Adal did? Carbec, isn’t it? Never been.”

“Near Carbec, but…” She took a moment to consider her phrasing. “Adal and I grew up in the same place the way a starfish and a whale occupy the same place. Sure they’re both in the sea, but…”

Calay’s low chuckle blended in with the rumble of the wheels. “I get you.”

“His family’s estate is on the outskirts of Carbec proper. I grew up even further outside of town, out in the steppes.”

“And your father was a hunting guide, wasn’t he?”

“Mhm.” Riss grunted out that answer, hoping he’d take the hint and avoid further questioning along those lines. “And what about you?”

All along, they’d picked up bits and pieces of one another’s stories, but she’d always avoided asking Calay direct questions given his reluctance to ever answer them. She liked how they respected one another’s privacy; a solid working relationship—perhaps even a friendship—didn’t always have to be built on knowing one another’s childhood crushes and favorite pie fillings and all that crap.

“Neighborhood in Vasile called Blackbricks,” Calay said, surprising in his directness. “I may have mentioned it. May have not. Gaz grew up just down the road.”

“I do recall that it was a rough neighborhood, whatever the name was.”

Calay sucked in a breath, his cheeks hollowing. “Yep.”

“Carbec’s small enough that it doesn’t really have any bad neighborhoods.” Riss slanted him a sidelong look. “Much as it pains me to say so, it’s good to have a couple city boys on the roster. I think you and Gaz have really helped us settle in down south.”

“Well Medao sure is… different.” He said it with relish. A good difference, then, in his estimation. “It’s nothing like Vasile. Not in any way. Other than how crowded the crowded bits are.”

“Do you miss it?”

“Vasile?” Calay blinked. “I miss…”

He lapsed into silence. Riss did too. Side by side, they considered the sunset, which had blossomed into a many-ribboned orange and gold and pink affair, the haze of some distant dust storm swirling like a far-off crimson blur below it.

“I miss certain people,” Calay said, finally. “I miss the way things were. Miss the simplicity. Don’t figure I’ll ever be able to go back.” She thought he’d finished, but to her surprise, he kept going. “I had a physik’s practice. Two, actually, at one point. Had a hand in a massage parlor, a tavern, and a thriving black market operation as well.”

That caught her by surprise. Calay was certainly educated—he knew medicine, if not the finer points of history and geography and the sorts of formal schooling offered at Medao’s Universitat. But she’d never pegged him for former wealth. He was so comfortable on the road and in the dirt. He didn’t carry himself like a wounded bankrupt.

“Got to admit, I didn’t have you pegged as a fallen emperor of business.”

Calay scoffed, disdainful. “Well, I’d have had to rise up proper in order to fall. And I ballsed that right up.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

Calay leaned into the corner of the bench seat, propping himself up against the arm of it. “Gaz saw it all coming. Because of course he did. And he tried to warn me. But I didn’t listen, because of course I didn’t.”

It was a brief, there-and-gone notion, but Riss felt the glimpse of an urge to comfort him. To give him an elbow or laugh off his evident regrets.

“Well he seems to think you’re worth a second shot,” she said.

“Some-fucking-how.” Calay reached up and smoothed a hand through his hair, the blond of it tinged strawberry by the sunset. “But hey, I like to think there are some benefits to having me around.”

“I promise I’d have fired you if there weren’t.”

She wondered if she’d ever feel comfortable asking him about those benefits. The benefits that had nothing to do with mercenary work. The benefits that had stitched her broken, mangled body back together and hauled her back from the threshold of death. He alluded to his sorcery in such a casual way that it gobsmacked her at times. Escorting clients, bodyguard duty, wagon maintenance, their lives had been so calmly mundane since Adelheim that she almost forgot about his abilities at times.

“Go on,” Calay said. Riss blinked.

“Go on what?”

“You’re looking at me like you want to ask me something.”

She hadn’t realized she’d been staring. And damn, she was tempted. The circumstances were perfect if she wanted to really learn more about just what made Calay tick. Relaxed as he was by wagon life and booze, this was as prime an opportunity as she was going to get. She wished she’d had a chance to read that stack of books back in her office.

Gracelessly, she blurted the first question that came to mind.

“Have you ever met another… person like you?”

“What, you mean a bisexual?” He smiled a close-mouthed smile, daring her to say it. Forcing her to, really.

“No,” Riss deadpanned. “Heaps of those about. A sorcerer, asshole.”

Calay skimmed his tongue over his teeth. He considered her in silence.

“Only the man who taught me,” he finally said. “And he’s long gone.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” The words came out a bit more tender, more heartfelt than she expected. “I lost the man who taught me everything I know, too. It’s…”

“… It’s pretty shit, yeah.” Calay paused. “Mine… disappeared. He’d told me that was a thing sorcerers did. How they had to be so careful, after the Leycenate purged them all. How forethought and elaborate escape plans were part of the package. Then one day I woke up and he was gone.”

Riss winced. She let herself imagine for a moment how horrifying that would have been if Gaspard had pulled it on her.

“You think he’s still alive?”

Calay huffed. “Doubt it. He’s had years to find me again. And for someone with his talents, locating me wouldn’t be tough. No one ever came after him. He just walked off into the dark one night and left the clinic in my hands.” His eyes tightened at the corners. “And you know what? If he is alive, fuck him. I don’t know if I’d buy any excuse for that disappearing act bullshit.”

And for not reaching out, not even once. If that man were still alive, he’d done something unfathomably cruel. Riss knew that both Gaz and Calay had grown up as orphans. He’d never mentioned exactly how close he and this mentor figure were, but she’d never heard Calay mention another. To be abandoned like that by the closest thing he’d ever had to a parent…

Well, that went some way toward explaining Calay’s cruel streak, didn’t it. People tended to reflect back what the world gave them.

They reached the bottom of the hill before Riss could think of anything else to say. She pointed the wagon toward Esilio, their last bastion of human society before the arid, salty desert.

“I doubt you’ll need a navigator for this bit,” Calay said.

Riss shook her head with a hint of a laugh and let him on his way.

<< Book 2, Chapter 9 | To Be Continued >>

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Book 2, Chapter 9

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. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 8 | Book 2, Chapter 10 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 8

Once his crew had napped and bathed and whatever else they needed, Adal saw to his own errands, including catching up on correspondence. A sole scroll waited in their postbox, penned in tidy block letters. It informed he and Riss that they were cleared to brief their crew on the Continental Post job. The postwoman would not be attending. She said she was organizing their transport, and that “deliveries” would arrive over the course of the week. This was all written in vague euphemism, and the letter itself went unsigned. 

This was all a little cloak and dagger for Adal. They’d taken fewer precautions during the actual war. But for the prize and access she promised, he figured Riss was happy to jump through her silly hoops. 

Riss gathered them all in the courtyard to lay out the specifics. She and Adal took a seat on the brick bench that ringed around the fountain. He watched water spew from the mouth of one of those ghastly little lion statues. Money never could buy taste. Hopefully they’d be able to afford a full do-over soon.

“We really ought to do something about all these,” he said. “This fountain just looks like it’s…”

“Puking? Yeah.” 

The lion stonework lion continued to spew water into the cistern.

Calay and Gaz arrived together, the former wearing the latter’s too-large jacket slung around his shoulders like a shawl. Gaz leaned against one of the half-walls, Calay taking a seat down in the grass near his feet. He stretched out, yawning, and crossed his legs at the ankle. The sight of them so slouchily comfortable, so relaxed considering last evening’s unexpected turn, lit a little flicker of jealousy in Adal’s gut. But then he was waving Torcha over to join them and it was gone.

“Feeling better?” Adal asked her. No longer wearing her jailhouse smock or her ruined gown, she’d scrubbed up and dressed in a loose, billowy caftan. Her hair was pinned up around her crown in curlers, still drying.

“Much,” she said. She took a seat on a stone near the unlit firepit.

All eyes rose to Riss.

“Well.” She rubbed her hands together. “No sense beating around the bush. Adal received a letter this afternoon confirming that long-term job I mentioned is on. Provided all the preparations stay on schedule, we’ll be leaving first of the new month.”

Torcha immediately cut in. “So we’ll be missing the jubilee?”

“The what?” Riss, as usual, was not clued in when it came to Medao’s bustling party schedule.

“There’s a jubilee honoring the King at month’s beginning,” Adal explained. “Twenty-five years on the throne.” Not that Medao ever needed a reason to have a festival. The year only had three months in it and somehow they found a special occasion at the beginning and end of every single one. 

“You’ll just have to pay your respects to the King from the road,” said Riss.

“They bake special cakes, though.” Torcha sighed theatrically, leaning back on her palms.

“Anyway.” Riss scoffed at her. “A letter-carrier from the Continental Post was robbed some time ago.” She paused to allow that to sink in. There were wide eyes all around the courtyard. Everyone knew how rare an event that was. “She’s hired us to locate the individual who stole her papers. She has intel on his location to a regional level. Apparently he often camps out in the foothills north of the Alkali Flats.”

Calay lifted a finger, waited for Riss to glance his way. “Question,” he said. “You say locate. That’s all we have to do? Just… find this guy and tell the letter-carrier where he’s at?” He sounded skeptical.

“Mhm.” Riss shrugged. “I guess in her eyes it’s personal. She strikes me as the sort to do her own dirty work.” 

Pointedly, nobody asked what the postwoman planned to do once she caught him. Once the job was done, none of them were being paid to fret over the man’s fate.

“Never been to the Flats before,” said Torcha. “We cutting across ‘em or along the western border?”

“Across.” Riss nodded down at her. “We’ll stick as close to the borderland as we can. Weather’s less treacherous. But the hill country would slow us down a lot. Easier to travel over flatter ground.”

“It’ll be a first for all of us,” Gaz said, giving Torcha a little smile. Adal got the impression that neither he nor Calay had traveled much prior to fleeing Vasile.

“Once I have the final details nailed down, I’ll pass it all on,” Riss said. “This is a big job for us. The Continental Post, they’re pretty insular folks. It isn’t often they let outside contractors work alongside them. Reputation-wise, they’re the best there is. This could open a lot of doors for us.”

“Speaking of impressing clients…” Gaz again. “The Ambassador and kid were both, uh, fine, right?”

Riss blinked. “Oh, yeah. I don’t think Sal even cared. Havasi sent a nice thank-you note.”

“Great to hear my charming evening with Renato wasn’t for nothing,” Torcha muttered. And… wait, what? Adal must have misheard her.

“Renato?” he asked, butting in. “Our Renato?”

Slowly, every head in the courtyard turned toward him. The distinct feeling of last to know settled on Adal like a fool’s cap. Not a pleasant sensation. He crossed his arms over his chest, looking sideways to Riss and awaiting an explanation.

“Yes,” she said, voice as clipped as would be expected. “Renato Cassi. He’s still in town and working as a prison warden. Apparently he was interrogating Torcha about me all night while she was in the cells.”

Adal was unprepared for the hot, combative rage that rose in him like steam. 

“The fuck?” He shot a look to Torcha. Renato could be cruel when he wanted. Always had that streak in him. And now that he had a lifelong grudge to nurse against Riss, that was a potent elixir. But Torcha looked unharmed.

“I’m fine,” Torcha promised. “But it was pretty weird. He doesn’t hate Riss any less than he used to, no matter how nice he tries to dress up his words.”

“I feel like we’re missing something,” Calay said. “That guy seemed like a right prick, but some context would be nice.”

“Renato blames Riss for a bunch of bullshit that wasn’t her fault,” Adal snapped. “He worked with us for years, and under Gaspard Marcinen before that.”

“An old war buddy?”

“Sort of.” Adal twitched a half-shrug. “He was in another recon unit. But after the Inland dissolved us and Gaspard founded the company, Renato joined up. He’s a talented sawbones.” And now he was putting those skills to work in a prison. The implication made Adal’s skin crawl.

Riss took over then. “It’s a bit more complicated than that. Renato blames me for—” Only the briefest hesitation. “—the dissolution of the first version of this mercenary company.”

Adal watched the physical transformation occur in her. She took a deep breath, straightening up and facing Calay and Gaz head on. She crossed her legs at the knee, resting her fingers on her calf, and told them Gaspard’s story in full for the first time.

“We were running a wagon escort in some rough territory,” she said. “Gaspard had been training me up as his Second for some time, and he let me take point on this particular job. I was a lot greener then, and I ran us right into an ambush. The bandits blew the door off the back of the wagon. He didn’t make it out.” 

Gaz’s features furrowed hard as he watched Riss speak. Everyone remained silent.

“Renato didn’t take it well,” Riss continued. “Well, not that any of us did. But he blamed me. Perhaps rightfully. After Gaspard fell, he rounded up everyone and insisted we take a confidence vote in my leadership. When everyone but him voted to keep me, he sort of…”

That part she didn’t quite know how to explain. Adal did it for her.

“He flew off the handle and I beat him within an inch of his life.” 

Calay and Gaz looked mildly surprised by that revelation. Adal himself was still surprised it had happened. But when he looked back on that night, when he recalled the feeling of Renato’s cheekbone caving in beneath his knuckles, it wasn’t with anything remotely resembling regret. 

Sitting up more attentively in the grass, Calay absently ran his hand through the short, still-growing strands. He twirled one around his finger.

“Torcha.” He spoke slowly, thoughtfully. “When you say Renato interrogated you, what sort of questions was he asking?”

Torcha glowered up at the sky for a moment. “Mostly how long we’d been in town. What Riss was up to. Where we’d been the last few years. I said ‘interrogate’ mostly as a joke. He played it off like a friendly conversation at first. Then he started asking about jobs and stuff. I gave him nice, friendly, vague-as-hell answers.”

Calay worked his jaw for a moment. “I see.”

Renato sniffing around Riss’ business meant he might eventually sniff around Calay’s. It was an uncomfortable thorn-in-the-side development. But Adal had no doubt that Calay had contingency plans in place. He was a clever operator. If any of his side projects weren’t above-water in the eyes of Meduese law, he’d be careful.

“Not a great feeling knowing there’s a jailer out there with a hate hard-on for us,” he said. “You think he’s going to become a problem?”

Adal almost hoped Renato tried something. He was perfectly ready to hit him again.

“I doubt it,” said Riss. “I think I got a pretty decent read on him at the jail. He set himself up as an old pal helping us out, kept talking to me like I was a poor downtrodden dear. I think he’s enjoying rubbing it in.”

The last time Renato had seen Riss, she’d been shattered. Those first few weeks after Gaspard’s death had left her a shaking, sleepless shell. Perhaps Renato thought she hadn’t recovered. Then again, until recently, she hadn’t. At least not all the way. 

“He’s manageable,” Riss promised Calay. “I’ll manage him.”

Calay seemed satisfied with that. Gaz steered the conversation back toward their original mission.

“So this mystery thief,” he said. “We know much about how they got one over on the mail-lady?”

“Apart from the fact that the letter-carrier called the thief a him we don’t have anything to go on yet,” said Riss. “The client says she’ll inform us as soon as she can meet in person. She’s big on privacy.”

The conversation petered out, none of the others voicing anymore questions for Riss. Calay and Gaz said their farewells for the day and wandered off home. Riss retreated upstairs.

“Torcha,” Adal said before she could disappear off to… wherever she frequently disappeared to. “Can I ask you something?”

Torcha adjusted one of her hair-rollers and looked up at him expectantly. “Sure.”

For a moment he considered asking whether Renato had mentioned him. He’d called the man a friend for some time. Fought alongside him, camped out with him, shared meals around the fire with him. A part of Adal still regretted that it ended the way it had, even if he felt no shame for ensuring that end was final.

“You think she’s making the correct call about Renato?” he asked instead. “You were there. I’d just like your read on it.”

“Riss downplays uncomfortable stuff sometimes,” Torcha answered. “But… I dunno. I don’t think he’s out for blood, if that’s what you mean.”

Swishy, striped kaftan swirling about her ankles, she stepped past Adal and into the house.

“I reckon he could make our lives difficult,” she said as she passed. “If he wanted.”

That’s more what Adal was afraid of. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 7 | Book 2, Chapter 9 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 7

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.

“Pardon?”

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.

<< Book 2, Chapter 6 | Book 2, Chapter 8 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 6

In the year since they’d escaped from the hellish swamp at Adelheim, Riss and Calay had developed a working relationship unlike any other she’d ever known. She supposed it made a certain type of sense. Working with a sorcerer wasn’t exactly SOP. She doubted even Adal’s fancy officer academy had courses on that.

But Calay was unique beyond his magickal talents. Just like there was more to Riss than her recon skills, so too was Calay more than his bag of sinister magick tricks. She’d had to learn her way around him as a person, had to overcome her discomfort that he’d joined her company under false pretenses. That latter one had been the big hurdle. 

Riss was willing to forgive a lot in exchange for honesty and hard work. Calay worked as hard as any soldier she’d ever commanded, but honesty was a trickier rabbit to snare. He had a tendency to withhold things, even things that an average person would see no issue with sharing. He’d answer questions if directly asked, but he rarely volunteered details unsolicited. Likewise, if she asked his opinion on things, he was often happy to share, but unless queried he’d often keep his feelings to himself, regarding her with those pale eyes of his and an expression that was somehow a perfect equal blend of passive and attentive.

I see what you’re doing, his eyes seemed to say. I’m just choosing not to comment.

She did not regret trusting her life to him in the swamp. Nor did she regret inviting he and Gaz into her company for good, bounty hunters be damned. Trust was a funny thing. It came instantly between some people. With others, it was like plaque building up on metal. You never really noticed a buckle was rusting. You never saw silver take on tarnish in real time. Yet at some point, you’d glance down and find the trinket in your hand no longer shone like it was supposed to.

Riss and Calay weren’t quite there yet. The trust between them was businesslike and practical.

Yet when she woke in the predawn hours to discover Calay waiting patiently in her sitting room, she had to acknowledge that trust was building into something beyond the transactional. Not because he’d come in the first place, but because her initial response was one of relief rather than suspicion.

Adal had roused her, stealing into her bedchamber and shaking her awake when a knock at the door failed to do the trick. He’d then mumbled an apology and quickly excused himself, informing Riss that Calay was downstairs and needed to speak to her.

“He says it’s urgent,” Adal muttered on his way out, slippers scuffing along the wooden floor.

Riss rolled out of bed still half-asleep, yanked rudely from a dream whose ghostly notes still played in the back of her mind. Of course Calay’s business was urgent. Otherwise he wouldn’t be waking them in the middle of the damned night, would he. 

She stuffed her feet into her own slippers, then threw a heavier dressing gown on over her nightshirt. On her way out the door, she caught a glimpse of herself in the hallway mirror: a frazzle-haired ghost with pale robes and sunken eyes, haunting the corridors of her own home. She rubbed at her face as she descended the stairs, lightly slapping herself across the cheek in the hopes of waking up that tiny bit more.

Adal and Calay sat in the small, wood-panelled sitting room adjacent to the entryway. Adal had lit a couple lamps, but beyond that the house was dark and quiet. They made no small talk, sitting in silence as she arrived. She sank into the armchair closest to the doorway.

As usual, Calay was tough to read. He was dressed in a fine, close-cut wool suit, the charcoal grey getup that they’d had tailored for a diplomatic assignment the previous winter. His mutated arm was politely gloved and out of sight. He looked for all appearances like a visiting businessman interrupted on the road to City Hall. Only the stiff posture with which he sat on the long, low silken lounge hinted that anything was amiss.

“Riss.” He greeted her with a solemn nod. “Sorry to wake you.”

“Think nothing of it.” She gave him a quick smile. “I’m sure you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important.”

Sal Ercun’s family hadn’t battered her door down, so she assumed the escort job had gone off well. Something had happened afterward, then? More bounty hunters? The thing with Calay that kept her wary was that she felt like she never quite knew his business. It appeared, though, that she was about to learn some.

“It’s Torcha,” he said.

Riss temporarily forgot how to breathe. She cleared her throat. Some emotional muscle deep inside her tensed, waiting for the worst. Torcha never could get a handle on her anger. Torcha always was prone to picking fights she couldn’t finish. And gods knew authority didn’t sit well with her, a point of contention in a town as governmentally top-heavy as Medao. So there was—

Calay interrupted her panic before it could fully blossom.

“She’s fine,” he said. “Or at least mostly-fine. She picked a fight with a dockhand on our way back toward the Ambassador’s estate. Ercun the Little walked us through a brawl, so it’s on him more than her. I kept on the client to ensure his safe return. Gaz hung around to make sure she was all right, but the garda scooped her up before they could get lost.”

“And Gaz?” Riss assumed if anything had befallen Gaz that Calay would have mentioned it first. Or… her mind took a darker turn: if something serious ever happened to Gaz, she’d be surprised if Calay ever turned up on her doorstep again.

Calay sniffed and ticked a finger off toward the front door. “He’s at the jailhouse talking to the authorities. We thought it best one of us stuck around.”

Riss nodded a few times as he spoke. “Good work,” she said. “That’s exactly what I would have done.”

Calay’s upper lip lifted, his expression twisting in a grimace. He fidgeted, discomfort evident in the way he held himself.

“I want you to know I feel terrible,” he said. “Normally I’d have never left her like that, but—”

This time, Riss interrupted him. “But you were escorting a client. And the client’s safety takes top priority in those situations.”

The words didn’t wash any relief over Calay’s features. He rolled his knuckles, the thin leather of his glove flexing with the motion.

“She’s an adult,” Riss said. “Tougher than most people twice her age and twice her size. This isn’t the first night she’s spent sleeping off a rage spiral behind a locked door.”

That got a weak laugh out of Calay, shook him out of his nerves a bit.

“Gaz sloshed some booze on her and told her to act drunk,” he said. “Which in hindsight is… very funny. And probably a genuinely solid strategy.”

Riss laughed a quiet, disbelieving laugh of her own. “Better they think she’s a drunk than a menace. Either way, I suppose that leaves us with a couple options. Either we head over now or…”

“The fellows at the door told us that the warden wouldn’t be by ’til after dawn,” Calay said. “Supposedly he’s the only one who has the authority to release her.”

Slouching back in her seat, Riss covered a yawn with her hand. “Dawn it is then.” 

She didn’t bother trying to get back to sleep, retiring upstairs to ready herself for the day.

###

Riss stared out to sea for the duration of the cab ride. They’d agreed to take a carriage at dawn for the sake of appearing both civilized and organized. Adal had volunteered to stay behind and sort out the morning’s business, which made Calay Riss’ sole companion for the journey. He sat opposite her while they wound along Peninsula Road, toward the heart of the city’s administrative district.

She never knew what to say to Calay when they were alone and there was no business at hand. He rarely initiated conversation himself, either. So they sat alone with their thoughts, neither of them volunteering which mental preoccupations kept them steeped in silence.

Calay directed their driver to the City Hall complex, a sprawlingly ornate building with gilt detail along its facade and big stained-glass windows that portrayed a series of seafaring scenes.

“We go in through the archway here.” Calay pointed. “Then in through the courtyard, then that interior building there.” Riss followed his gestures, nodding along.

“Nice place for a jail,” she said. The courtyards were immaculate, with neatly-trimmed grass and bright beds of flowers. The courtyard was fenced in by decoratively-trimmed hedges, their dense foliage thick with thorns.

A pair of King’s Garda ushered them through a heavy wooden door. The bright white stone of the building’s exterior gave way to a drab basalt grey that was more traditionally jail-like. A high wooden desk lorded over the narrow foyer, home to a bored-looking clerk who twirled a ringlet around his finger. Hallways branched off to either side of him, and when Riss peered down one, she was relieved to spy Gaz slouching on a bench. As soon as he spotted her, he stood and made his way over.

The clerk noticed, making the connection, and addressed Riss with a prompt nod, suddenly attentive.

“Warden!” he called. “The girl’s keepers are here!”

Calay greeted Gaz with a wordless laugh. Gaz rubbed at his lower back and rolled his shoulders.

“Just about asked them for a cell so I had somewhere to sleep,” he said.

“Just wait until you’re in your thirties,” Riss said. “You’ll start waking up with aches you can’t explain even when you sleep on a perfectly good mattress.” She gave him a smile. “Thanks for putting yourself through that.”

“Least I could do.” Gaz said. “Sure you woulda done the same for us.”

Riss considered it for a beat. Yes, she thought. At this point she would. 

Before she could dwell on that knowledge overlong, a familiar voice called her name.

“Riss? I can hardly believe it.”

She blinked and straightened up, turning around. A vision from her past strode out of the corridor in a crisp charcoal uniform, the front gleaming with a big brass badge that bore Medao’s city crest.

He’d put on some weight and cleaned up a little since they’d parted ways, but apart from that not much had changed. He barely even looked any older. It was like he’d stepped right out of her memory and into real life.

“Renato.” Riss made herself smile even though she had yet to figure out whether she meant it. “I am… very surprised to see you here.”

The last time she’d set eyes on Renato Cassi, he’d spat in her face. Tears streaming down his cheeks, he’d cursed her to the end of her days. He’d told her she deserved to rot in the deepest pit the gods could dig. 

Now he regarded her with a calm smile, his eyes giving nothing away. Riss recalled her last stroll down the fishmongers’ lane, the gape of shark jaws nailed to a wall. Dark, flat eyes and big white teeth.

He offered her a hand. She shook it. Then he looked past her.

“And who are your friends? I admit I thought it would be Adalgis nipping at your heels.”

Calay tensed up for a half-second, focused on Renato with renewed interest.

“Calay Maunet,” he introduced himself. “And my mate here is Gaz. Adal’s still kicking around, don’t you worry.”

Renato folded his arms across his chest. “Pleasure to meet you. Well, I won’t delay you all any longer.” He turned and yelled some instructions at the clerk, asked them to bring ‘the girl’ back around. Riss’ fingers twitched at her side. Hurry it up, she thought.

“It’s good to see you,” Renato said, regarding Riss for a time. She got the impression he didn’t mean it. “I kept meaning to write.”

She lifted her shoulders. “There’s a hundred letters a year I keep meaning to write. Life’s busy. Think nothing of it.”

Riss felt like she was walking across a thinly-frozen lake, ice cracking threateningly beneath her every step. All the awkwardness, all the hesitation she’d feared she’d feel upon her reunion with Tarn appeared to be manifesting here instead.

Renato stepped in closer to her personal space, leaning his head in toward hers. He didn’t quite whisper, but he spoke quietly enough that the words were meant for her, Calay, and Gaz alone.

“I’ve taken care of everything,” he said. “She won’t face any legal repercussions. Sometimes our emotions get the best of us. I can only imagine how hard it’s been for you and her both.”

“Grief’s funny,” was all Riss had to say to that. “It comes and goes.”

Renato scrunched his eyebrows up, his expression almost cartoonishly sympathetic.

“And you?” he asked. “How have you been coping?”

“Just fine,” said Riss.

“Well let me know if there’s anything I can do for you,” he said. “Anything at all. It must be so hard, building your business back up after something so devastating. Building yourself back up. It absolutely shattered you.”

Riss didn’t let herself rise to the bait. She listened, nodded a couple times, and sighed out a wordless thanks when two stocky guards marched Torcha up the hallway, cutting the conversation off.

Torcha certainly looked like a woman who’d been in a brawl and then spent a night in the cells. She wore a drab, formless ankle-length canvas dress, carrying a bundle of cloth beneath her elbow. Her knuckles were split and scabbed and a fresh scrape adorned her chin. She winced when they walked beneath a window, letting her head hang down and scrubbing hard at her face. 

“Ugh,” she announced, flinching back from the sunlight. “Thanks for coming to get me, boss.”

“Always,” Riss said.

“You need this rucksack back?” Torcha gestured to her dress, squinting up at Renato through sunken, bleary eyes.

Renato looked her over for a moment, then loosed a good-natured chuckle.

“No, no,” he said. “I think you’ve been through enough. Don’t say I never gave you anything, hm?”

A look passed between them that Riss couldn’t quite read. She didn’t like it. Putting a hand to Torcha’s arm, she gave a guiding tug toward herself.

“Are there any forms we need to sign?” Riss asked, looking across toward Renato for hopefully the last time. “Any fines?”

Renato shook his head. “Not for you,” he said. “It’s not often I get to use my position here to help out a friend who’s fallen on hard times. I just hope you’ll get her the help she needs. It’s not easy, going through that at her age.” He cast a look down at Torcha, regarded her like a toddler who’d stubbed her toe.

Riss mumbled her goodbyes and they all made to leave. Renato escorted them to the courtyard, waving off the guards with a casual flick of his wrist.

“I’m sure I don’t have to say this,” he murmured lowly to Riss. “But please be careful. I only have so many favors, eh? Can’t appear too preferential.” 

“Don’t you worry,” Riss told him, smiling politely. “It’s a big, rowdy city. You won’t even know we’re here.”

Walking quickly, they left the high walls and clean white stone of the administrative center behind, making way for the nearest rank of carriages.

“Gods,” Torcha grumbled. “Can someone turn the sun down?”

Gaz unknotted his scarf and draped it over her head. They were still standing like that when a cab finally collected them for the ride home.

“Okay,” Calay said as soon as they were ensconced in the privacy of their cab. “Who the fuck was that?”

<< Book 2, Chapter 5 | Book 2, Chapter 7 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 5

“You look pretty gloomy for a guy who’s about to sleep in a real bed for the first time in a month.” Mafalda cradled her chin in her hands as she peered up from the floor.

Slouched in his hammock, flipping through a book and glaring at it like it had done him a grievous personal injustice, the Continent’s most wanted man sighed. He snapped the book shut and tapped a restless finger to its spine, looking down at her.

“It’s just bad timing, Maf.” Nuso slouched back into his heap of sheepskins and pillows, the motion swaying the hammock gently. “A break’ll be nice, but any other time would have been preferable.”

“Funny man.” Mafalda yawned, stretching out on the lasma hide she lounged upon. The thick brown fur had a weirdly comforting musky aroma now that she’d slept on it so many times. She’d grown used to it. The smell made her tired by association. 

“I’m funny because I’m annoyed we can’t keep working?” Nuso sounded more amused than affronted.

“Funny man to assume Fortune gives a fart what’s convenient for us.” 

Nuso of course didn’t believe in Fortune, or any of the other quasi-gods or goddesses honored the whole island over. That was a debate he and Mafalda had wrestled through many a time over their years together. So she wasn’t surprised when he just grunted at her and let the subject drop. 

On the subject of timing he was, of course, correct. The timing was terrible. 

For most of the past month, they’d been exploring a series of burial sites in and around the Teag Range, a series of low, treeless brown mountains heaped like dung on the northern edge of the Flats. The mountains themselves were terribly uninteresting, but they possessed the most important quality mountains could have in Nuso and Maf’s eyes: they were riddled with holes and caverns. 

Following yet another of Nuso’s mysteriously-acquired ancient maps, they sought a rumored back entrance into a sprawling Meduese tomb complex. Rumors of secret passageways and air shafts and concealed doors were a dime a dozen at any tomb excavation—in the decade or so Mafalda had done this work, she’d heard dozens of stories but only ever found one such chamber—but this particular hillside bore some intriguing signs.

Just six days prior, they’d broken into their most promising chamber yet, a lichen-dappled limestone atrium replete with carvings and signs of human occupation. Their team had documented everything as-was, then come upon an old cave-in that looked like it might conceal a passageway. Considering the atrium was home to no remains, Maf could only guess where that passage might lead. They’d labored intensively to clear it, but nature had chosen to chase them from their campsite prematurely.

Riders had arrived at camp that morning, informing them that the annual scorpion migration had begun across the Flats. Hundreds of thousands of scorpions would arrive in less than two days’ time, a great teeming blanket of them. Maf had never attempted to work during scorpion or tarantula season before, but she’d heard the stories of those who tried—scooping arachnids from boots by the handful and losing laborers by the dozen to bites didn’t sound like a winning strategy. 

“I hoped we’d have a little more time, is all.” Nuso stared up at the rocky, torch-lit ceiling, his expression morose. 

“We will.” Mafalda pushed herself up off the rug, knowing if she stayed much longer she’d doze off. “We’ll have all the time in the world once the scorpions have passed by.”

White-yellow like the salt flats where they laid their eggs, the scorpions in question were about the size of a thumb and venomous as all hell. Mafalda did not plan on sticking around long enough to see a single one. She wasn’t an arachnophobe—such a thing was more or less impossible for a tomb crawler—but there was a particularly sickly quality to the Flats Scorpion that made her stomach churn. They were gross.

Which is why she’d ordered her crew to construct a big wooden gate for their dig site. Hopefully the little bastards would all skitter right over the top without considering making a home of their cavern. 

“Gonna go check on the construction,” she announced. “You want anything from downstairs?”

Nuso stayed relaxed where he was. He swished a hand toward her, a gesture that could have meant anything. 

“Nah,” he finally said. “Unless you spy any wine down there.”

Mafalda chuckled and left him to his sulking. Their loft was a flat patch of rock with hammocks for sleeping and a listing desk all ringed in by assorted warped wooden furnishings that functioned almost entirely as book storage. They’d boxed up everything worth taking home and carried it down to the doors already, so when Mafalda climbed the ladder down into base camp proper, all looked pretty bare. The wagons outside bulged with cargo, but if she knew Nuso he’d manage to fit another half-ton in somehow. 

Ambling through a narrow, greyish-white tunnel that glittered with veins of quartz, Maf strolled up a gentle slope and followed the distorted echoes of saws and hammers. Every member of their fourteen-man team who wasn’t securing artifacts in the wagons was working on the gates, and as Mafalda stepped through to the worksite the scent of freshly-sawed evergreen brushed her nose like a cool wind. She enjoyed a couple pleasant sniffs, then sought out her foreman.

“How goes it, Blitt?” she asked, leaning over a hefty figure who lashed skinny tree trunks to a frame of wooden planks.

Blitt rose up and dabbed at his sweaty brow with a sleeve. The man had a face like a dropped pie, ravaged by burn scars. That long-ago trauma had melted his features to one side, though his unmarred right eye observed Mafalda with a weary, competent intelligence. 

“Ahead of schedule, if you’ll believe it.” Blitt grinned, only half his mouth moving. 

“Fuck off.” Maf squinted at him, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it didn’t. He clunked a boot against the wooden frame, pointing downward.

“These larch ain’t much to work with, but if we saw ‘em in half we reckon the gaps are narrow enough to only let a few scorpys through. And we’ll lash blankets to the backside too.”

The harsh winds and lack of adequate topsoil in the Teags meant that trees were hard to come by. The crew had scavenged a day’s ride off and found a few groves of scraggly larch, evergreens with trunks that were barely as thick as Blitt’s forearms. Proper planks would have left a much more airtight campsite, but in the field, you took what you could get.

Maf puckered her lips at Blitt. “I could kiss you,” she said.

“Aye, and then who would build your next gate when my wife puts me in an early grave?”

She wondered all the time if Blitt’s wife was really as hardcore as he liked to joke. Must be some woman. But that sort of banter could wait for the long wagon ride back to civilization. Maf told the crew to keep up the good work, then skulked off toward the wagons to steal a bottle of wine for their pouty crew leader. 

###

Hour by hour, they packed up the last month of their lives and stowed it all away. Everything nonessential was left behind. Camp now reminded her of the ghost towns she’d passed through in her studies, traces of old civilizations left behind. Except their buckets were new and their latrine still stank and hopefully they’d all be back to work in a few weeks.

Nuso dallied far off in the darkness, snuffing out the last of their torches and lanterns. She watched his distant silhouette, the way he moved through camp with slow, soft steps. He got this way when he didn’t want to go, a sort of whole-body reluctance to his every action. Eventually, he satisfied himself with the state of things and turned back her way.

She considered him as he neared her. He was still the same old Nuso, albeit a few inches taller and a little leaner than when they’d first met all those years ago. He still wore his hair long, still dressed like a man worth a fraction of the illicit wealth he held claim to. 

Maf had never thought he’d looked like an outlaw. His eyes were too soft. He smiled too much. Maybe that’s why she found it so easy to work with him, to run the digs and turn a blind eye to his other enterprises.

“Come home with me,” she said once he was at her side. “It’ll do you good.”

Nuso reached back over his shoulder, untying and then re-tying his ponytail. His face always scrunched up when he did it, like securing his hair took the entirety of his mental energies.

“No can do,” he said. “They’re a bit hot for me down south.”

“We could smuggle you through like last time.” Mafalda knew it was a losing battle but kept at it anyways. “You know my mother would love to see you. She asks about you every time.”

“Your mother is a lovely woman,” Nuso said dutifully. “But I’ve got business in the opposite direction. And I’ve already organized transport up the river.”

Blitt had told him once that back in the day, in the early formation stages of their smugglers’ gang, Nuso’s nickname had been Asnoto. The older hands still called him that sometimes. It took months for Maf to gain their trust, and only then did someone let it slip that the moniker meant donkey in Sunnish. Due to the boss’ stubbornness, of course, Blitt had informed her with a polite cough. 

Maf knew she couldn’t force Nuso to do anything he didn’t want to do. But it was a shame, how he couldn’t appreciate time off for what it was. 

“You’ll regret it if you don’t take an honest-to-gods break soon,” she said, heaving her knapsack up onto her back. 

They stepped through the gate, which stood complete and reinforced with woolen blankets and tarps up the back. Maf curled a fist and knocked a pattern on it for luck, grinning at the doors as they stepped through. Her team had done her proud. The gate itself was built far enough back into the cavern that it wasn’t visible from the outside. If they had to clear some scorpions out of the tunnel before it, fair enough. A small price to pay for protecting the majority of the dig. 

The desert sky was the hue of fresh spring lavender as they stepped outside, a powder-purple twilight. Crossing the Flats during the day was brutally hot, so they planned to caravan by night.

“Such a shame,” said Nuso, turning back to regard the cave’s opening for a moment.

From where they stood, it looked like an innocent crack in the stone, no signs modern or ancient of what waited within.

“We’ll be back,” Maf promised. “And then it’ll only be a few days before we crack that passage wide open.”

They ambled toward their wagon, Nuso shoving his hands in his pockets.

“What do you think is down there?” he asked.

“Haven’t a clue.” Maf grinned excitably. “But I’m certain there’s a tunnel of some sort. I can feel it in my bones.”

The weird thing was that she wasn’t even joking. Standing down near that heap of collapsed rock, Maf had felt the strangest sensation. A flicker of intuition, the way your scruff rose up when you walked past an unfriendly dog. Only instead of warning her off, it felt almost like it was beckoning her in. 

Nuso feels it too, she thought. That’s why he doesn’t want to leave. He’s paranoid someone else will find this place before we can make it back. 

Yet Maf was oddly certain that wouldn’t happen. She had her share of pragmatic worries about any excavation, but she hadn’t fretted over that in the slightest when they’d packed down camp. 

As they hauled up into their wagon and got comfortable, sharing flasks around with the gang and settling in for a long ride, Maf felt it in her gut like she’d already swallowed the truth. They’d be back. They’d crack that passageway open like an oyster and see if anything glittered.

Whatever waited inside would be theirs. And Nuso wouldn’t have to fight his way through a hundred thousand scorpions to get to it. The best of both worlds. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 4 | Book 2, Chapter 6 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 4

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.”

“Tangled up?”

“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. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 3 | Book 2, Chapter 5 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 3

Tucked back in the recessed rear-end of a rickety triangular building, the former headquarters of Vittoso Mercantile was not much to look at from the outside. Its exterior resembled a gap-toothed mouth, much of its facade missing. The holes had been plastered over by a hand more skilled with structural than decorative work, the sort of maintenance that served as a bare minimum to avoid having one’s holdings condemned by the city as unsafe.

Not that Calay cared much about that. Wasn’t as though he owned the place. Or even paid rent.

This awkward, three-sided building that teetered like an old man in hard wind was just what he needed, location-wise. He’d have paid for it had that been necessary. But instead, one of his runners had pointed it out as a real gold nugget of a squat. The owner, who he presumed was some guy called Vittoso, had fled town on account of a flock of creditors. And none of those many creditors had cared to foreclose upon this particular shit-heap, given how expensive it would be to restore.

Once Calay had settled in and made it his own, it was positively homey. He’d stacked a few crates to form a bar and seating, then rolled a big round card table in through the back door. The eight chairs were scavenged from eight completely different locations. He’d bought the decks of cards new, at least.

Presently, he sat at the card table, lounging back with four midlisters of the Meduese black market. All he really cared about was getting on good terms with Hadjo, the big fellow to his left. His three friends? Good people to know, Calay supposed. Just less immediately vital. 

Torcha sat to his left, dressed down in a chambray vest and straight-legged trousers. She made a wonderful dealer, sweet and impassive by turns depending on how handsomely the players tipped. 

Lastly, there was Gaz. There was always Gaz. For now, he stood over by the front door, arms loosely folded. He kept an eye out through the peephole, though his presence was more for show than anything. Medao had legalized gambling some ten years back; old-timers just liked the theater of the illicit. By advertising his game as taking place in a password-protected squat, Calay brought a little of their boyhood magic back to them. Ah, memories. 

“Flip ’em,” said Torcha, tapping the tip of one finger to the splintered tabletop.

All five men at the table complied. Calay’s hand was shit that round, a collection of unusable rubbish that wouldn’t even win him back his ante. Hadjo’s skinny friend, the one with the pierced eyebrow, took the round with a pair of beggars and a pair of roads.

“Well played,” Calay said. He’d attempted to engage that one in a bit of conversation before the game had begun. In exchange for his friendly overtures he’d received only blank stares and silence. He got the same now.

“Your friends are cleaning me out,” Calay said, narrowing a playful eye at Hadjo. The man, ruddy-complected and broad as a doorway, grinned and showed Calay the shiny gold caps of his teeth. 

“It’s been some time since I played with seercards,” he said. “I think you go easy on me.”

Calay laughed, light and carefree. He sure wasn’t. He was just riding out a bad luck dump of coastal storm proportions. Hadjo and his buddies were taking him to the cleaners. But that was all right. He could lose a sack or two of australs and not feel the sting. Coin came easy these days. Nowhere near as easy as information, which was his real quarry.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Gaz lean into motion. A moment later, a knock came at the door. Torcha kept up her dealing, though he could tell by the slight shift in her shoulders that she’d noticed, too.

“I appreciate you taking the time to come down,” he said across the table to Hadjo. “It’s dreary, everybody always wanting to talk business.” From day one of this card game, after he’d put out feelers to the figures in Medao’s black market that he thought might bite, Calay had played it off as a social-only affair. Like there was nothing in the world that he loathed more than mingling business with leisure. 

Give them a safe place and hopefully they’d see him as a friend rather than an intruder. Then, later, when the time came to talk business, they’d come to him if certain interruptions happened to their supply lines, if certain items became difficult to find in the city—

Gaz raised his voice at the doorway. He folded his arms across his chest, speaking sternly to someone on the other side. Then, one of his folded hands gave a quick signal to Calay, a sweep of two fingers in a scissorlike motion.

Calay glanced back to the table. Chatter and shuffling had died down; all eyes were now on the door. They’d seen the signal. He looked aside to Torcha.

“If you could all begin a calm evacuation out the rear doors,” he said, standing up and tapping his cards on the table. “It appears the law’s here.”

Hadjo bolted up and his friends did likewise. Torcha made a show of sweeping up the cards, then Calay gestured to her to get the others out.

“Go,” he whispered, clapping a hand to Hadjo’s back. “She’ll see you out to a clear exit.”

The gamblers scrambled through the dusty, sagging interior of the building until they rounded a corner out of sight. At which point Calay crept over to the doorway, peeking outside. He leaned his shoulder against the jamb, then pulled the door open, greeting the man on the other side from an insouciant slouch. Gaz loomed behind him.

“What was all that, exactly?” Adalgis stood there, thumb hooked through his sash, wearing that clueless slapped-ass face he got sometimes.

“Theatre, mostly.” Calay gave him a grin.

“… Right.” Adal shook his head, the matter dropped. “Torcha with you? We’ve had a change in plans for tonight. I’m going to need you three on the Symphonia job.”

Surprised, Calay looked him over. Odd that he’d duck out on a job where the client had asked for him and Riss personally. Perhaps Riss had the flu? Adal certainly looked none worse for wear. 

Adal noticed his scrutiny. “Everything’s fine,” he said. “We had a big opportunity crop up. Going to take some logistical wrangling. Been a while since we all had a big job in the countryside together, eh?”

At the word countryside, Gaz made a noise like choking on a fishbone.

“A drier climate this time,” Adal said. “I don’t know much in the way of details yet. The client approached Riss directly. We’re going to sequester ourselves in the office for a couple days, go over the calendar, see what work we can shift or subcontract…”

Adal kept talking, but Calay stopped listening. A big job with travel involved, eh. That would disrupt some of the plans he’d been making in the city. But that wasn’t the end of the world. As always, the groundwork Calay laid in Medao was meant to serve him in the long term. It was inevitable, being a mercenary, that he’d have time away. Interruptions were a part of the game.

“When do you need us at the Symphonic Hall?” he cut in. 

Adal course-corrected his blathering. “Six-bell,” he said. “And I don’t need to tell you to dress to the circumstances. The things we had tailored for the fisheries summit ought to suit.”

“Ercun’s kid is a bit of a shit-lick, isn’t he?” Calay scratched at his cheek with his good hand, the other gloved up tight and dangling behind his back.

Adal dazzled him with a smile, then peered over his shoulder to share the smile with Gaz, like the two of them were in on some joke at Calay’s expense.

“He is. But I have no doubt you can win him over with your cheery personality.”

###

The Medao Symphonic Hall lorded over the city’s harbor bridge, an imposing building of yellowish-white soapstone. Calay tried not to look impressed by it, hated to find himself impressed by such things at all times. Yet when it was all lit up at night for a performance, he couldn’t deny it was a pleasant sight. He’d grown up so far removed from institutions of art and artistry in Vasile that he wasn’t sure he even had opinions on them, but often in Medao he found himself noticing all the colors and rounded edges and wiggly lines in their art and architecture and thinking that looks nice. 

So he allowed himself a that looks nice before stepping inside, attached at the hip to Sal Ercun and his date. Torcha flanked the couple on the other side. Gaz brought up the rear. 

After mingling a while in the lobby—which had a high ceiling decorated with faceted glass, the whole of it shimmering dangerously in a way Calay couldn’t take his eyes off—it was time to attend their box. Ercun’s little entourage swept up the velvet runners on the staircase, deep burgundy contrasting against light stone, and Calay refused to be taken in and seduced by the spectacle of it all. He kept his eyes on the crowd and his mouth in a businesslike scowl.

Their private box was home to ten seats. A friend of the Ambassador’s, older than Ercun and his woman by a few decades, arrived to join the party. But apart from that, no changes. They sat, Calay keeping a hand to his hip. He tried not to be dazzled by the massive chandelier overhead, nor the drape of the massive curtains, nor the array of instruments on display down in the pit. 

Remember the last time you let yourself get all entangled in culture, he thought. Lady Rovelenne and her dog shows. Lord Viernon and intellectual pursuits. All this fancy shit was just another card the landholders of the world kept up their sleeve, a play they could make to entice naive idiots into doing their bidding.

He’d been that idiot once. Never again.

He idly observed the crowd, staring at the backs of many dark-haired and hat-wearing heads. The music began. Sal Ercun talked over it, the little punk. Calay paid no mind to his conversation or really anything about the boy. If any threat materialized, his quickened reflexes and superior instincts would give him an edge over almost any would-be assassin. And with Torcha and Gaz on his side? Ercun was the best-protected brat in the city.

The music, though. It was… pretty good. It tickled and wormed its way into Calay’s chest with all its rises and falls, its high-flying notes and raucous crescendos. He hated to admit it, but the symphony was damned impressive. And it was a thing that hadn’t been directly poisoned by his time with House Talvace, so the concertos (or were they symphonies? Or… movements? He wasn’t up on the terminology) conjured no bad memories.

Sitting there in his fine-spun wool suit, a patterned green scarf around his neck for local flavor, he let himself be a man enjoying the symphony. And the ceiling didn’t cave in. And assassins didn’t leap from the dark and shiv him. And when he glanced over toward the door, Gaz was leaning against it with his eyes closed, foot tapping along with the music.

It was only in the street afterward that all three hells broke loose. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 2 | Book 2, Chapter 4 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 2

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.

<< Book 2, Chapter 1 | Book 2, Chapter 3 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 1

One year later…

Facedown on the bed, Riss Chou breathed in deep, inhaling a lungful of the humid, perfume-heavy fug that stuffed the air so thick it may as well have been a mattress. She struggled to keep her eyes open, then realized she didn’t have to do that and let them close. 

Faint, far-away, barely felt, a pinprick jabbed up her neck. Then another. This new girl they had, Vattja or Vajaya or something, she had masterful hands. Riss barely felt the needles going in. The final one registered as a little twinge through her palms, a pleasant tingle afterward. She exhaled into the perfumed air. 

She’d thought acupuncture sounded like a bunch of hocus when she’d first heard of it. People shoving needles up your neck was supposed to be relaxing? But Gaspard had sworn by it. And one night when they were off on entitlement, roaming the port city with nothing else to do, he’d invited her into a brightly-painted turquoise building, where they’d climbed seven flights of stairs and arrived at the very salon Riss relaxed in now. Acupuncture, massage, hot baths, strangely scented candles–hocus or not, she’d grown addicted to the whole package.

“No pain, miss?” asked the acupuncturist, apparently finished.

Riss bit back a wisecrack at the miss, instead simply let out a quiet hum of affirmation.

“Fantastic.” The needler gave her a pat on the naked calf. Riss wore nothing at the moment, not even a towel, just a tidy line of needles marching up and down her spine. She listened to quiet footsteps as the girl walked off.

“A fresh oil in the burner, miss?” she asked.

Riss couldn’t stand it a second time. “Easy with the ‘miss’,” she said. “We’re both adults.” Meduese society was big on honorifics if you were even a smidge older than the person you addressed. It was baked into the foundation of their language. Constant honorifics weren’t an issue in the army, but it felt damned weird on the tongues of civilians. Riss had done nothing to earn these people’s respect. Being slightly old wasn’t an accomplishment.

“My apologies,” said the needler, and Riss just huffed. She thought back through the library of oils, most of which she’d sampled over the years.

“The Temple,” she murmured. “Lightning on stone. The weather turning just before the rain.”

She had no idea what manner of alchemy they used, what kind of strange compounds made up their mixtures, but their oils somehow managed to conjure the advertised images to mind. When the acupuncturist poured a measure of the requested oil into the burner, the thick air took on a cooler, thinner quality somehow. Riss smelled hot stone and ozone, a whiff of petrichor that was distant enough it seemed to be carried on the wind.

Fuck, this place was worth every austral.

The door clicked shut and Riss relaxed yet further into the bed, her mind blissfully blank.

When Gaspard had first treated her to an afternoon at the Coral Rooms, he’d paused outside the door and explained to her the only rule: once you stepped over the threshold, absolutely no thoughts of work or duty. That mindset had taken some getting used to. Riss was an overthinker, rarely inclined to quiet her mind on purpose. But after a few sessions, she’d succumbed to the meditative allure of it, to the freeing sensation of having a mental blank slate.

Which is why, when the door cracked open again, she said nothing. She listened to the soft footsteps that skirted the room and assumed the light, unobtrusive footfalls belonged to one of the staff. But they didn’t depart out the other door. Or creep nearer to her bed, as one of the attendants might.

Just when Riss was about to ask what was the matter, a woman’s voice spoke up from behind her.

“My apologies, miss.” Not the same girl–this one was older, though she kept her voice subserviently low. “Just dropping off fresh flowers.”

Riss cracked an eye open. She couldn’t turn her head, not with the needles up and down her neck, but she watched what she could with absent curiosity. 

A short, aged woman with dusky tan skin–tanner even than Riss’ own–flitted about the room. Heaped in her arm was a cloth-wrapped bundle of snapdragon stalks, the blooms colored crimson and yellow and orange. She wore a loose blue robe with wide, fluttery sleeves and a pair of wide-legged culottes below it. With muted, shuffling footsteps, the old woman made a circuit of the room’s many vases, tucking the stalks of flowers in. She paid no attention to their arrangement, or at least didn’t seem to, but the varied warm-toned colors all worked together, taking on the reddish cast of the room’s tiled walls. All was cheery and bright. The woman shuffled out of Riss’ field of vision, humming quietly to herself.

“Oh,” she said, sounding surprised. “You’ve got a touch of blood, miss.”

Riss grunted. It happened, what with needles being jabbed into the body and all.

“Here,” said the elderly woman. “Let me dab that off.”

Footsteps at Riss’ back. The sensation of someone leaning into her personal space. She felt something soft brush against the nape of her neck, the gentle press of fabric.

Some subconscious sixth sense warned her before her conscious mind could. Alarm slammed into Riss from some buried instinctual place, a half-second flash of danger, danger, something isn’t as it seems.

But unfortunately it wasn’t quick enough. Riss’ fingers twitched against her palm at the same moment she felt fingers press against the back of her neck.

“Easy, now.” The old woman’s voice wasn’t far from her ear. “You oughtn’t move with all these pins up your back.” 

Riss worked her jaw in silence, knowing that was correct and absolutely hating it. She anticipated the press of a blade to her lumbar, or the sound of a pistol cocking. Nothing came. Just a weird old woman leaning over her, grabbing her by the nape.

“Well,” she said through her teeth. “You certainly aren’t here for the flowers, so what do you want?”

Riss took a mental inventory of her last few jobs. Escorts, mostly. Medao was a rich city, but deprivation from the war had turned the roads dangerous. There was the Hantel job. The time they’d stood guard on that ship bound for the southern islands. Nothing came to mind that might have generated any enemies. And though her people were building comfortable lives for themselves, they were by no means wealthy enough to be worth ransoming. So what, then?

The woman patted the back of Riss’ neck as if to reassure her, as though she’d read her thoughts.

“Relax,” she said. “I mean you no harm. I want a few minutes of your time, nothing more.”

Riss’ apprehension was melting, recasting itself as skeptical annoyance. “So why not make an appointment like anybody else? I’m not a hard woman to get ahold of.” 

Already her mind was leaping to wild conclusions. This mystery woman had known where to find her, so clearly if she’d needed a consult like a garden variety client, she could have had one. Instead, this clandestine crap. Was she some sort of criminal, here to offer Riss terms to avoid her bounty? Riss couldn’t recall any elderly most-wanteds. Come to parlay on behalf of a child, perhaps?

“No offense meant, but I can’t be seen talking to the likes of you.” The woman clucked her tongue, as if that fact caused her regret.

“You’re making a hell of an impression,” Riss grumbled. Interrupting her recreational time, swanning in like some sort of overbearing grandmother, now insulting her as well?

“Hm. That didn’t quite come out right. Mercenaries, Miss Chou. I meant mercenaries.”

“Well you aren’t some high-bred afraid to mingle with the commonborn.” Riss could tell that much from the gentle roll of the woman’s South-Continental accent, the way she clipped her r’s and lingered on her vowels. Not quite so severe as Torcha’s, but similar. You couldn’t bury that salt-of-the-earth accent.

“No, nothing like that.” The hand eased off Riss’ neck. “I’m a professional from whom complete neutrality is expected. And while you and your company may be neutral now, it wasn’t long ago you were fighting under a particular banner. Were I to consult you, my organization would worry over how that appeared to our clients.”

Provided all that was true, it made sense. Neutrality in the professional guilds and unions had been a major sticking point during the war. Sometimes it only went surface-deep. Other unions, such as the cartographers, had risked their very existence to avoid allowing one side or the other to press them.

When Riss said nothing, her visitor took that as an opportunity to finally introduce herself.

“My name is Leonór Sarine,” she said. And that was a name Riss wasn’t unfamiliar with.

“The letter carrier.” Riss wished she could turn her head up to have a look, to take the woman’s face in. She wished she’d studied it closer. “Well now this all makes sense.”

A scraping sound behind her. Leonór dragged out a chair from the small table at the back, settling in.

The Continental Post billed itself as not only the most neutral courier in the land, but also the most secure. Some of their letter carriers were legends in the field in their own right, ghosts the likes of which could rival Gaspard at his best. Their ranks possessed the traits of the best spies, the best assassins, and the best reconnaissance men, all combining toward an aim of efficient, secure communication in a world that was often neither of those things.

Leonór Sarine was one of their best, to those who were aware of her. She and her company had come through for Tarn more than once when receiving communications from Carbec and he couldn’t spare runners from his own platoons.  

Riss was officially curious. Someone of the Post seeking out the likes of her was intriguing enough on its own, but if Leonór was being honest with her, she was doing so under her employers’ noses.

“Tell me,” Riss said. “What can I help you with?” She paired it with a cautiously game smile, as if they’d just sat down for tea in her parlor. As if she’d orchestrated this meeting all along.

“The job itself is pretty straightforward,” said Leonór. “And I know this goes without saying, but before I speak on it, I need your assurance you ain’t about to breathe a word of this to anyone.”

“Consider yourself assured,” said Riss. 

“Once upon a time, I was informed Gaspard Marcinen was the best game in town for clandestine recon work. And if I couldn’t get hold of him, his daughter was almost as good.”

Riss coughed, then immediately regretted it, one of her needles twinging. She longed for the space and mobility to gesticulate exactly how that sentence made her feel–gobsmacked, on the verge of hysterical laughter. 

“I hesitate to turn away a referral,” she said. “But your source got one of those things wrong.”

Leonór tut-tutted her tongue. “I see.”

“But I’m interested.” Riss pressed in, didn’t want to leave the woman thinking too long in silence. “Do go on.”

The old woman didn’t hesitate. She launched into a terse story that had the ring of a prepared statement to it. She spoke slowly, as if reciting from memory or perhaps dwelling a little long on each word.

“Some time ago, I was set upon in the field. The assailant wounded me badly, left me bleeding in the dirt, and made off with a bag of my letters.”

A rare event, especially to a letter carrier of her reputation. Continental Post were usually left to do their thing, even in the most fraught territories. It was a service all sides depended on, so there was an informal agreement not to hassle them. Of course, that didn’t stop garden variety highwaymen and scofflaws from trying to rob them like any other traveler. 

“It’s a hazardous job,” Leonór said. “But we usually come out better off than the other guy. This is the only instance in my thirty-year career that someone got one over on me.”

The Post also had a reputation for training its carriers well and arming them to the teeth. Those garden variety highwaymen ended up in shallow graves by the roadside more often than not.

“So you want me to kill ‘em?” Riss ventured.

“Not kill. Merely locate. I intend to recover my stolen property and deliver it to its rightful destinations.”

Riss wished again that she could move. She wanted to take a measure of this woman, to look her in the eye. Because that sounded like a tall order for someone of such advanced years. 

Of course, if she took the job, the aftermath wouldn’t be Riss’ problem. Locating was easy. Leaving the postwoman to her fate, well, if that’s what the client wanted. 

“I have reason to believe the man who robbed me has made camp up north of the alkali flats, in the foothills. Transport for your crew to the region would be covered. Lodging as well. The Post has connections all over the map; we’d provide everything save for your consumables.”

Well, this evening of acupuncture hadn’t turned out as relaxing as Riss had hoped. And she wasn’t so much violating Gaspard’s no duty in the Corals rule as brutally curbstomping it and kicking it down a flight of stairs. But there was money to be made here. Good money. And beyond that, influence. Access. The Continental Post was an entity that opened doors. An especially valuable connection for a mercenary looking to distance herself from her old Army affiliations. 

“I’ll get you a copy of our standard offer sheet,” Riss said. “And I’m sure you’ll understand that I have to discuss this with my team. The Flats are a ways away and we’d be away from home base for some time. But for the right price I could clear my schedule.” She hoped the true extent of her interest didn’t quite make it into her voice.

“Understandable.” Chair legs scraped along the ground as Leonór rose up. “And believe me, the Post can meet the right price. Speaking of, your bill here at the Corals has been settled. There’s a credit on your account for your next visit, as I can’t be seen stopping by your parlor for tea.”

That sent a twitch through Riss’ eye. She didn’t want to feel indebted to this woman, not for a simple conversation. But she supposed what’s done was done. 

“I found this method a little disruptive, I must say. But if this is how you prefer it…” She couldn’t let the letter carrier leave without voicing at least some displeasure at the method. Fanciful high-paying jobs or not, you couldn’t put a price on the soothing, nerve-repairing qualities of a good acupuncture session.

As footsteps receded into the rear of the room, one more question occurred to Riss.

“You didn’t uh… hurt any of the girls to get in, did you?” Postworkers had a reputation. They got high marks for competence and neutrality, but were said to be lacking in other traits. Empathy. Restraint. 

A dusty chuckle echoed through the quiet chamber.

“Scared ‘em a little, maybe,” said Leonór on her way out. The door clicked softly closed behind her. 

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