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.