Solstice Day Gifts
by Lindsay Buroker
Sicarius crouched on the hull of the submarine, the open hatch at his back. He and Amaranthe had already observed the port through the periscope, but he wanted a panoramic view before guiding the craft into the harbor. Ferncrest Isle was a Turgonian holding and trouble should be unlikely here, but he did not know if news of the dissolution of the empire and the creation of the republic had made it to this remote, equatorial outpost yet. Sicarius and Amaranthe had left the day after the inauguration and had stopped only once along the way. They had traveled at a leisurely pace, but still made good time to this island. For all he knew, one of the would-be emperors who had sought to replace Sespian on the throne had mercenaries stationed here, waiting for word to invade the mainland.
His mind lingered on the thought of his and Amaranthe’s “leisure” rather than the thought of mercenaries. It still made him smile on the inside. On the outside… Amaranthe informed him that his faint softening of his lips didn’t count. Apparently his conscious attempts to stretch his mouth into a smile lacked an authenticity or, as she said, contained all the joy of someone gritting his teeth as he rode a steam hammer down a cobblestone street.
“How’s it looking from up there?” Amaranthe called up from the navigation area at the front of the small submarine.
“A small military outpost sits atop an escarpment to the south, and a village stretches along the harbor, the homes made from mud and thatch.” A poor choice to withstand invading fleets or pirate attacks, Sicarius thought, though history proclaimed that the village, full of its simple residents, had been here long before Turgonia had taken charge. “Some of the newer buildings are from brick. A few fishing vessels are plying the waters beyond the reef, a mixture of ironclad Turgonian craft and native canoes and catamarans. None have cannons or other obvious weapons. There is nothing else sharing the shallow waters inside the lagoon with us. There are a handful of vessels in port, and if there is a dock master on the look out for new arrivals, he hasn’t come out to greet us yet.” Sicarius lifted his spyglass to his eye again. “I do not see any enforcers patrolling the streets.”
“Thank you… Security Sergeant Sicarius. What I was really wondering is if you saw any lush tropical forests, idyllic palm trees, or sandy beaches with fun little bungalows perched along the water that might be for rent.”
Sicarius did not know what to make of this cavalier response to his straightforward description of the harbor. Surely Amaranthe would not believe they could ignore their pasts completely and trust the locals not to trouble them? And that last comment. He found it perplexing. “For what purpose would we need a bungalow rental? The sleeping cabin in the submarine has proven suitable for our needs for the last three weeks.”
Very suitable. One might expect a naval vessel to have cramped accommodations, but President Starcrest had clearly designed the submarine with his six and a half feet of height in mind.
Amaranthe’s head popped out of the hatchway. She wore her hair in a loose braid, several wisps waving freely about her face in the warm salty breeze. She smiled with pleasure at the bucolic setting, though her gaze seemed to linger on the pale sandy beaches and coconut trees, rather than the military fortification and more practical infrastructure and personnel. She turned the smile upon Sicarius, her brown eyes crinkling at the corners.
“Tomorrow is Solstice Day,” she said.
Sicarius tilted his head, failing to see how this provided an answer to his question.
“You don’t know the significance of Solstice Day?” Amaranthe asked.
Sicarius sensed they had different definitions of the event, but he provided the first response that came to mind anyway, for he was distracted trying to figure out why she might require a bungalow. “In the northern hemisphere, it represents the shortest day of the year. At noon, the sun is at its southernmost point in the sky. At our current location, approximately three degrees in latitude, it is unlikely we will notice a difference because the days remain close to the same length throughout the entire year.”
“All true,” Amaranthe said, “but I was referring to the cultural significance of Solstice Day, a time when friends and lovers gather about the hearth, toss sparkers into the fire, sing, and give thanks for the year that has been and to welcome the longer days that will return in the months ahead. Drinking and merriment are required.”
Sicarius had already been planning to object to the notion of singing when Amaranthe said this last part, narrowing her eyes in his direction.
“I do not imbibe alcoholic beverages,” he said. “Also, I do not know how one could enforce merriment or other emotional state of being that relies upon numerous external and internal circumstances.” Though what he had seen from people who drank copiously was that a false sense of cheer could certainly be obtained via the way alcohol acted on the human brain and nervous system.
“One can try to be merry by letting go of one’s inhibitions for a time.” Amaranthe ducked back into the submarine. Sicarius was trying to decide if he had offended her with his statements, when she returned to sight, this time with a dark brown bottle in hand. “As for the drinking, did you not notice that President Starcrest stocked the submarine with a couple of ciders and brandies from his family’s estate?” She held the bottle aloft, displaying the label, which did indeed proclaim the beverage a product of Starcrest Cellars.
“I did notice those bottles,” Sicarius said. “I assumed they were to be used for trade purposes if we visited islands where the ranmya would not be accepted.”
Amaranthe rolled her eyes. “Then you obviously didn’t see the note.”
“Note?” Before they left, Sicarius had taken a thorough inventory of the contents of the submarine, so that he could return the craft in the same condition and with the same supplies as it had been loaned to them. He began to suspect Amaranthe was teasing him.
She turned the bottle and untied a ribbon fastened around the neck, then handed him the small card that dangled from the end. Perhaps it was possible that in quickly dismissing the bottles of alcohol, he had failed to notice it. He read it now:
Drink, enjoy your trip, and be merry. ~ Rias
Merry. The root of merriment. Sicarius tried not to feel ganged up against, but the twinkle had returned to Amaranthe’s eyes.
“Sounds like an order to me,” she said. “I don’t know about you, but I chose this destination because I knew we could get here on time, and I had no intention of spending Solstice Eve cooped up in a tiny boat. A bungalow, Sicarius, a romantic bungalow. Instead of watching the snow fall outside and cuddling beside the fireplace, we’ll listen to the waves breaking on the shore, gaze up at the stars, and cuddle beside a campfire on the beach.”
“None of those activities require a dwelling,” Sicarius felt compelled to point out. They could simply take a blanket and go ashore for the evening.
Amaranthe squinted suspiciously at him. “Now, I think you’re just being deliberately obtuse. We brought enough money to afford a few luxuries, especially since we’ve been living off the ocean of late.” Her voice lowered to a murmur, and he barely caught her aside of, “Dear ancestors, I hope they have something more than seaweed and fish for sale in that town. Spices at the least.” Before he could respond, she raised her voice again and rested a hand on his thigh. “Besides, post-cuddling activities are more comfortable when done in a plush bed rather than on a sandy beach. Sand gets everywhere, and I do mean everywhere.”
Sicarius had never engaged in coitus on a beach, but he allowed that the gritty sand might be uncomfortable. “A bungalow,” he said, trying to find the idea appealing.
What he appreciated about the submarine was that when they were submerged, there were few places more secure, and one could utterly relax, knowing an enemy ship would not chance upon them. If it did—it would float past overhead without ever knowing. Some cottage on the beach with windows and doors open to the warm breezes… would be a security nightmare.
“A bungalow,” Amaranthe said firmly, then gazed toward the main street, which was gradually drawing near as they coasted toward the docks. “And shopping.”
“Yes, our supplies are running low.”
“That can be remedied before we leave. I was thinking more of finding a present for you. You are aware of the tradition of exchanging gifts on Solstice Day, certainly? Though I do recall that last year, you disappeared for the days around the event.” She lifted her eyebrows.
“I had no interest in exchanging gifts with Akstyr and Maldynado,” Sicarius said. In truth, he had taken a mission during that time, as he recalled. The group had been together a mere two weeks then, and he hadn’t yet been certain whether he would stay, nor had he particularly cared for their company. He might have stayed if it had been only Amaranthe, but it had taken him many months to consider the others as anything other than pests.
“Yes… thus leaving me to shop for a gift for Akstyr and to receive a gift from Maldynado in our group gift exchange.” Amaranthe grimaced. “Given that Maldynado got me nothing but an eye patch for my birthday present—as if I’m the sort to wander around the Pirate’s Plunder wearing nothing but that—I suppose I shouldn’t complain about the Solstice Day gift, but let’s just say that undergarments are an item a lady likes to pick out for herself. Or perhaps receive from a particularly attentive lover.” She gave Sicarius another eyebrow wiggle. “One certainly doesn’t expect to receive them from a man she’s commanding, one she’s known only a few weeks, and one who is nosy enough to ask later on if she’s modeled them for anyone yet.”
Sicarius had been unaware of Maldynado’s Solstice Day gift. It would have meant little to him at the time, but now he felt the urge to punch the man when next they met.
“We’re getting close.” Amaranthe waved toward the shoreline. “I’ll guide us in if you direct me and let me know if anyone runs out with guns. This probably isn’t indicative of the crafts they usually see docking.”
“Agreed.” Sicarius shifted his position to monitor their approach and search for the dock master, or the island’s equivalent. As he did so, a realization came to him, one he wasn’t sure whether to approach with dread or with the mien of someone who likes a challenge. If Amaranthe intended to shop for a gift for him, he would be expected to provide a gift for her.
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, Sicarius found himself strolling down the town’s main street with Amaranthe’s arm linked in his. Docking had not been as precipitous as he had anticipated. The dock master had been drunk—though the surprise of seeing his first submarine might have tipped him into the water even sober—so Sicarius and Amaranthe had simply claimed an empty berth, tied up, and locked the hatch, ensuring nobody would snoop inside, then paid the public mooring fee. The overnight charge.
Amaranthe, smiling all the while, seemed delighted to be walking on solid ground again, and she greeted every vendor’s hello with a cheerful greeting of her own, stopping more than once to admire the wares on display and ask after the local gossip. Some of this might be considered intelligence gathering, but Sicarius suspected she had missed the presence of other human beings during their sea voyage. He, on the other hand, had found the isolation peaceful. Though he had struggled to come up with training exercises and calisthenics that could be performed in such a small space, he had never felt so safe and able to relax, knowing any enemies couldn’t be closer than the surface of the ocean. But Amaranthe was far more a pack creature than he.
As they moved away from a salt vendor—Sicarius failed to see how Amaranthe could have found those wares as fascinating as she had seemed to—he asked, “Have I failed to entertain you suitably on a social level?”
“Pardon?” She blinked up at him, the gesture having nothing to do with the bright sun overhead. She seemed genuinely surprised.
“You are chattering copiously with these strangers.” On their trip, he had spoken whenever she asked questions, allowing himself to be drawn into conversations, and he had even told a few stories from his past, but he did not require chitchat every hour, or even every day.
“I have missed people, I’ll admit that,” Amaranthe said, “but it’s not a reflection of your ability to entertain. At all.” She patted his abdomen. “I found our interactions quite stimulating.”
Sicarius snorted softly and was on the verge of asking if some sort of sexual encounter might be considered an appropriate Solstice Day gift when a poster pinned to a stout roadside palm tree drew his eye. Across the top, it read: WANTED, though it was the pictures below that captured his attention. The paper had yellowed with age, the ink fading to gray, but the four portraits, each in separate quarters, were still prominent. Three of the squares featured pirate captains, two male and one female. The last… held his own picture, an identical version to the one that had graced Stumps for so long. The rewards, along with descriptions of the criminals and warnings of their dangerousness, accompanied the portraits. Across the bottom, a short message stated that the sign was posted by imperial decree and removing it would result in punishment.
Sicarius pulled down the poster, folded it, and tucked it in a pocket.
“I hope you’re not planning on autographing that and giving it to me as my gift,” Amaranthe murmured, watching the street with new wariness.
“There could be fifty of those posters all over the town. And they doubtlessly have a press somewhere and are capable of replacing those removed.”
“I am aware of that,” Sicarius said. “Given this revelation, I suggest we shop for our supplies and return to the submarine as quickly as possible.”
“I suppose that’s wisest.” Amaranthe’s expression grew wistful as she gazed toward the beach at the north end of town, where numerous cozy cottages overlooked the placid aquamarine lagoon.
Though he could not understand why this notion of a night in a bungalow appealed to her, Sicarius did feel a twinge of discomfort—guilt—from knowing she wished it and his past would keep them from sharing it together.
“It is an old picture,” Sicarius said, “drawn of me many years ago. The paper it’s printed on is almost as old. Perhaps few people pay attention to it. There cannot be many enforcers in a town this small. If we are careful and nobody alerts the garrison, we may be undisturbed.” He nodded to the fortress atop the escarpment.
Amaranthe’s lips twisted into an expression he had trouble reading. “It’s my job to suggest things like that and your job to point out all the reasons why they’re ludicrous, or at least unnecessarily dangerous. As much as I appreciate your willingness to entertain such notions for me, please don’t give up your logical and practical ways. Though I doubt anyone here could threaten you in an attack, we don’t want one of those situations where you’re forced to defend yourself… to the detriment of others, right? You should go back to the sub and stay out of sight.”
“I believe you have grown wiser,” Sicarius said.
“I don’t know about that. The stakes just aren’t worth any risk this time.” She stood on her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek.
Though Sicarius was keeping an eye on the street and his surroundings—doubly so now—he allowed himself a few heartbeats to appreciate this gesture. The warm softness of her lips on his cheeks was most acceptable.
“Of course,” Amaranthe said, “if you choose to defy me, I’m sure we could dress you in a nice costume.” She nodded up the street toward an open-fronted hut offering saris and oversized shirts in obnoxious floral colors. “I bet you could still manage to look intimidating in a bright yellow shirt.”
“Unlikely.” Sicarius did admit that his customary black attire was warm and out-of-place in the tropics, but he had solved this by simply going shirtless when he had been out fishing. A number of men on the streets—and some of the women—walked by without shirts or with little more than open vests that left their arms bare.
“So you wouldn’t like to receive that pink-and-lime-green shirt for your Solstice gift?” Amaranthe winked.
A girl of ten or eleven walked past, glancing at them and also at the tree. An observant native might notice the missing poster. She continued on without stopping, but children could relay messages to enforcers as easily as adults, so Sicarius did not dismiss the youth, or any of the other people nearby, browsing the produce, clothing, and dried fish stalls.
“Any other shopping requests?” Amaranthe asked. “I’ve seen coconut candies, taro chips, and decorative bells you can hang on your ship to warn you when the wind is coming—albeit that would be less useful for us.”
“A new net for fishing.”
“There’s my practical former assassin. Always thinking about survival matters.” She smiled and pointed a finger at his chest before backing away. “Just because I’m relieving you of shopping duties—and being seen in public—doesn’t mean I don’t expect a gift. While you’re waiting for me to return, perhaps you can fold that poster into some interesting origami shape. The Nurians have made an art form of that, I hear. I’ll take a nice swan or orchid.”
Sicarius did not quite know whether this was a joke or not, so he didn’t respond.
Amaranthe didn’t seem to mind. She said, “Be careful,” and ambled up the street toward the next vendor.
Sicarius headed back toward the dock, walking in the alley behind the buildings instead of chancing the street. He soon grew aware of someone following him. He added a few twists to his route, slipping down a passage between two buildings, then skimming up a drainpipe to a thatched roof. Despite the slant and the slippery nature of the material, he perched on the edge without trouble, observing the route he had left.
A girl walked down the alley—the same girl who had passed before. This time, she carried a long, narrow cane blowpipe and gripped darts in her free hand. Was she after him with such a feeble weapon? To chase him at all… what was she thinking? The sign had not offered the full list of his crimes, but it had made it clear he was a dangerous assassin.
The girl walked past the passage he had taken, but he waited a few moments before dropping down. The rooftop offered a good view of the surrounding streets, and he had no reason to hurry back to the submarine. He certainly didn’t want to risk being followed.
Having realized she had lost him, the girl returned to the passage. She peered down it thoughtfully, and Sicarius leaned away from the edge so he wouldn’t be visible if she looked up. Clad in a threadbare sari and a vest that left her scrawny arms free, she crept down the alley on tiptoes, as if she were sneaking up on a sibling to play a prank. But a smudge of dark green goo laced the tip of the blowgun. Had she smeared poison on the dart inside? She couldn’t be more than ten or eleven. Did she truly think hunting him wasn’t suicidal?
Sicarius waited for her to pass beneath his spot, then dropped down behind her. He tore the blowgun from her grip before his feet touched the ground. Holding a knife to her throat seemed unnecessary given her immaturity, but he grabbed an arm so she couldn’t flee and was prepared to clasp a hand over her mouth if she screamed. Child or not, she could call the enforcers down upon him.
She struggled, trying to twist away from him, but she didn’t scream. He waited for the ineffective flailing to end, dodging or blocking her wild kicks and punches without harming her.
“Have you completed your attempts to escape?” Sicarius asked when the flailing stilled. Shoulders slumped, arms limp, sweat bathing her forehead, she alternated glowering at him and glancing at the blowgun he had leaned against the wall, as if she still thought she could attack him with it, if only she could figure out a way to reach it.
“Maybe,” she said in a sullen tone that reminded him of Akstyr, though the natives had a lyrical accent that made it sound more exotic.
“Why were you following me?” Sicarius asked, though it seemed obvious she had identified him from the poster. One couldn’t make assumptions or give the enemy unasked for information.
For a minute, she looked like she would mulishly refuse to answer him, but when she peered up at his face to meet his eyes—to perhaps gauge whether she was in danger if she didn’t speak—the equation didn’t add up to defiance. Sicarius never thought he was intentionally making his face fierce, but the emotionless mask that had been drilled into him as a child always disturbed people more than sneers and snarls might. Even when he had tried to soften his features on those times he had encountered young Sespian in the Imperial Barracks, it had failed to reassure him. As a boy, he had run away in terror and even when he had grown older and more tactful, he had made hasty excuses to depart.
“The bounty,” the girl mumbled.
“You believed you could best an assassin?”
“Not really, but…” She stared down at her dirty hands, the nails peeling and split, and each tendon visible due to an unhealthy leanness. “Haven’t got much to lose. I’m hungry. Tired of being hungry. That much money… it could feed us forever.” She shrugged. “Besides, people come here to relax mostly. Lie on the beach and play in the water. Thought you wouldn’t be paying much attention here and maybe I’d get lucky.”
Sicarius released her, trusting that he could catch her again if she tried to escape, and lifted the blowgun to examine. She didn’t try to flee. She stood there, eyes downcast, shoulders hunched, head scrunched in as if she were a turtle, and watched him through her lashes. Expecting a beating? Was that the worst she thought could happen when attempting to slay someone who made a living killing people?
Careful not to touch the tip, Sicarius dumped out the dart loaded in the blowgun. “Poison has been applied.”
“Deadly poison?” He sniffed the dart but wasn’t familiar with the substance. Doubtlessly some homemade tropical concoction.
“Nah, it’s for hunting. Knocks you out.”
“You’ve tried it on humans?” Sicarius suddenly had an image of this girl stalking every dubious sort who landed, hoping one might turn out to be a criminal with a bounty on his head. But she wouldn’t still be alive if that were the case. Some people would throw a knife into a street urchin’s chest for daring to be so presumptuous. Sicarius did not believe he would have to consider such a drastic solution—without the blowgun, she did not represent a physical threat to him—but admitted he could not simply let her go when she might run to the enforcers or to those soldiers in the fort on the hill. He wondered what Amaranthe would say if she found out he had tied up a girl on the way back to the docks, leaving her in some hole where she wouldn’t be discovered until the submarine left port. Most likely… she wouldn’t approve.
“It’s extremely effective,” the girl said, then mumbled, “on wild boars.”
Sicarius gazed at her, tempted to tell her to run along with a promise he would do more than take her weapon if she told anyone about him. He didn’t care to threaten children though. Even adults, he rarely threatened verbally, letting his reputation do the job for him.
She shifted from foot to foot under his long scrutiny. “What’re you going to do with me?” she whispered, glancing toward the street. The few passersby ambling down the thoroughfare weren’t peering into the alleys.
“What were you going to do with me?” Sicarius asked. “If you’d succeeded with the dart.”
“Bring the enforcers and try to collect the reward.” She shrugged.
At least she was honest. If he offered her some coin in exchange for her silence, she might agree—and keep her word. Paying someone to leave him alone would be a first. It didn’t seem right, but maybe she would use the money to buy food. Amaranthe would approve of that.
It occurred to him that he could catch up with Amaranthe and simply ask what she would approve most of in this situation. Or he could foist the girl off onto her. It might not be the gift she had in mind, but she would surely find a more appropriate solution than he would. Yes, that was the more acceptable choice.
“Come,” he told the girl. “You will speak with my comrade.”
The fresh fear that entered her dark eyes made him doubt his decision. Still, she couldn’t be allowed to roam free and tell others about him. This would have to do. Amaranthe would find a way to alleviate the girl’s fears.
* * *
Sicarius wondered what it said about him that he was more alarmed to find Amaranthe browsing a clothes rack of those obnoxious colored shirts than he had been to spot someone stalking him with a blowgun. He had been sticking to the alleys since he had the reluctant girl in tow, and since she had tried to cry for help several times. Clasping his hand across her mouth had made him feel like a kidnapper rather than the victim of her bounty-hunting whims. He would hand her off to Amaranthe with relish.
He tossed a pebble from behind a palm tree to the side of the clothing hut. It landed on Amaranthe’s toe, and she lifted her head, noticing him immediately. She raised a hand and said something to the vendor, then picked up a canvas tote and wandered casually into the greenery. Though Sicarius was busy keeping an eye on his surroundings and on his prisoner, he found a moment to consider that bulging bag with wariness. She hadn’t already purchased some jarring clothing item, had she? Surely not. A gift was supposed to be something that would please the recipient, wasn’t it? Although he was aware of some people’s predilection for choosing gag gifts. Whenever Maldynado gave a present, the recipients always wore expressions somewhere between fake gratitude and utter puzzlement.
“Hello,” Amaranthe said to the girl, then arched her eyebrows at Sicarius.
“Bounty hunter,” he said.
“Uhm.” Amaranthe took in the girl’s dirty bare feet, grimy hands, threadbare clothing, and scowling face. “I don’t think a terse answer is going to be sufficient this time.”
“She wishes to collect my bounty,” Sicarius said. “I wish you to convince her to turn her attention elsewhere.”
“Ah.” Amaranthe smiled at his prisoner. “I’m Amaranthe. What’s your name?”
“Bashka,” came the mumbled response.
Sicarius wondered if he should have asked the girl her name. It might have helped to establish a rapport—or reduce the number of times she tried to kick him anyway.
“Want to get some lunch?” Amaranthe asked.
“Not with him,” the girl—Bashka muttered.
“Oh, we won’t invite him. You’d be alarmed at the things he considers food, and he’s happier playing with his weapons anyway.” Amaranthe extended an arm toward the girl.
Sicarius stepped back, making it clear she could go, though he had no intention of straying from eyesight or earshot. A merchant ship was docking, and there would be more people on the streets soon. Already he spotted someone in a white-and-gray version of the enforcer uniforms employed in the capital; the man carried a baton and short sword at his belt, the same as the law officers on the mainland. He also had a smaller version of the girl’s blowgun. A favorite island weapon, apparently.
“I tried to collect his bounty once too,” Amaranthe was saying as she strolled toward the street, her arm linked with the girl’s arm.
Bashka’s shoulders were still hunched, but she gazed up at her with curiosity. “You did? What happened?”
“He almost killed me. I got lucky, and he saw past my enforcer uniform to the fact that I’m a delightful soul and he desperately needed me in his life.”
Since Sicarius was in silent stalker mode, he kept his snort inward.
“Other people haven’t been so fortunate,” Amaranthe went on. “I suggest you abandon this interest in hunting him. Why did you need the bounty anyway?”
“We haven’t had any money since Da took up with that other woman and left Ma, Bria, and me alone. Then Ma got sick and lost her job, and we haven’t eaten a real meal in weeks. Ma hates taking charity, but if I got bounty money, that wouldn’t be charity. That’d be us taking care of ourselves without his help.” Bashka sniffed.
“Ah, I know what it’s like to lose a parent and struggle.” Amaranthe pointed at picnic tables next to a vendor serving battered fish chunks impaled on a stick. “How does that place look for lunch?”
Sicarius knew that asking questions and sharing information was part of the way Amaranthe made people feel more comfortable with her, so he tried to adopt a stoic patience to see him through the next hour. This is no different from perching in the eaves of a roof until one’s prey walks by, he told himself.
Amaranthe waited until the girl had six fish sticks and a dubious side dish called Taro Strings piled in front of them before asking her further questions. Sicarius had never eaten food from a vendor or restaurant—being poisoned was an easy way to die, and when one couldn’t monitor the cooking, one never knew what might sneak into the sauce—and the smell of the oily fried food did nothing to convince him he was missing out. However, the girl dug in with gusto.
Sicarius chose a position between two trees, where he could observe them as well as the street and the harbor. He didn’t think the girl was aware of his presence. Amaranthe was deliberately not looking in his direction.
“Is your father still on the island?” Amaranthe asked between bites of their meal. She licked her fingers and tore the battered fish off the stick with gusto that almost matched the girl’s. People had odd tastes when it came to food.
“Everyone’s on the island,” Bashka said. “Nobody can afford to leave and go somewhere more interesting, unless you stowaway or hire on with a merchant ship, but you hardly ever see the same one twice, so you figure if you leave, it’s forever. That’d be all right, but my ma and sister need me. Da works at the post office. His new girl brings him lunch every day.” Bashka managed a sneer despite the enormous wad of taro gyrating around in her mouth.
“Where’s the post office?” For the first time, Amaranthe met Sicarius’s eyes and used Basilard’s hand code to sign. That might be where the bounty posters are printed.
Sicarius wondered what scheme was percolating through her mind.
“In the gray building by the docks,” Bashka said.
“Ah. I thought that was the enforcer headquarters.”
It was. They had slipped into the vendor alley to avoid drawing close to it on their way into town.
Bashka nodded. “Enforcer headquarters, the post office, and the newspaper building. Da oversees all three. There are only two full-time enforcers here.”
Sicarius wondered at the girl’s willingness to share information that revealed the paucity of the law’s presence here. Had she forgotten all about him? That there was a known criminal lurking in the shadows? Granted, Starcrest had pardoned him, but as he had suspected when they were gliding into the harbor, news of recent events hadn’t yet reached this remote outpost.
“Small town, eh?” Amaranthe’s smile might have had to do with more than sharing camaraderie with the girl.
“Real small,” Bashka said. “And boring. And Ma can’t find any work, because almost all the businesses are run by one person, and they don’t sell enough to afford to hire more because it’s all based on the tourists, and some days, nobody comes.”
Sicarius continued to listen to the girl’s rambling, but he was trying to figure out what Amaranthe had in mind. That enigmatic smile remained on her lips, and she perched on the edge of her bench, waiting—he sensed—for the opening she sought. Something to do with the bounty posters, it must be. Maybe she thought they could sneak in and remove his template from the post office’s inventory.
“We did all right until Da left. He has a government job, so he always gets paid. But he’s… It doesn’t matter. We’re better off without him. He used to yell at Ma all the time, and sometimes…” Bashka must have sated her hunger, for she was picking at the food now. She flicked a taro tidbit to a seagull stalking about the table.
“Do you celebrate Solstice Day down here?” Amaranthe asked.
The girl’s face crinkled up. “Yes, of course.”
“Maybe you’d like to give your da a gift this year.”
“A gift? He’s not going to give us anything.”
“I was thinking of the sort of gift that… might cause trouble for him. Nothing too detrimental, but we could ensure he doesn’t have a pleasant evening with his new lady.”
Sicarius didn’t shake his head, not in the physical sense anyway, but he did wonder how Amaranthe could come up with schemes even while she was vacationing on a tropical island. But if this had to do with his bounty posters and their ability to spend a restful night together, he wouldn’t object. So long as it didn’t turn into something that grew out of hand… There might only be two enforcers, but soldiers surely occupied that outpost on the promontory.
“That might be all right,” Bashka said. She wasn’t yet mirroring Amaranthe’s mischievous smile, but she wore a thoughtful expression. Even better, she seemed to have forgotten all about Sicarius.
“My comrade, the one you wished to kill—” Amaranthe frowned at the girl, who in turn dropped her head and appeared almost embarrassed, “—is a talented artist.”
If Sicarius had been sitting at the table instead of spying from a distance, he might have objected to that statement; his ability to reproduce what he saw could hardly be considered art. He merely listened from behind the trees though, curious as to where this scheme was going.
“Artist?” the girl asked, her face screwed up in confusion again.
“Will you trust me to put together this prank, Bashka?” Amaranthe asked, her brown eyes warm and friendly. And innocent. Who wouldn’t trust them? Sicarius certainly had come to over time. Judging by the slight nod Bashka gave, it wouldn’t take her long to develop trust either. “You can come with me and approve everything of course. The first things we’ll need are pens and paper. Can you show me where to find them?”
“Madam Goushia’s Shop will have them.” Bashka stood up. “I can show you.”
They walked back toward the street, arm-in-arm again. This time, the girl’s shoulders weren’t hunched.
* * *
“He should add horns.” Bashka snickered. “And more belly hair. Ma always said Da should have lived in the Northern Frontier where all his body hair would keep him warm.”
Sicarius knelt before a flat rock at the end of the beach, a stack of papers resting before him, and a pen in his hand. He felt ridiculous drawing the picture and taking suggestions from the girl—though some of Amaranthe’s suggestions had been even worse. The two of them stood at his side, observing his progressing—and commenting often. He glanced up from time to time, aware of the military outpost perched on the cliff above their heads. He doubted anyone leaned over the precipice to check the beach directly below very often, but he could not imagine the expression a soldier might have when realizing that a notorious assassin was drawing a caricature of the postmaster under his nose. Better here, without anyone else around, than at a picnic table in town, he supposed. Even with Amaranthe standing guard, he wouldn’t have been comfortable focusing on the work—if one could call it that—with people milling about at his back.
“Why don’t you add some garlands down below?” Amaranthe suggested. “So we can keep with the nudity theme, but you don’t have to draw anything… inappropriate for younger passersby.”
“Garlands,” Sicarius said, letting his tone be as flat as his humor. He was ready to return to the submarine and forget the island and this mischief. Only the amusement glinting in Amaranthe’s eyes kept him from suggesting this course of action. Part of this was humoring the girl, but part of this was clearly humoring her as well. In the aftermath of the battles in the capital—and all of the people who had died, some as a result of her actions—amusement had been a rare visitor for her of late.
“Yes, popcorn and cranberry garlands,” Amaranthe said. “The traditional Turgonian decoration. Normally one wears a wreath on the head, but in this case, a… lower positioning might be wise.”
“Popcorn and cranberry may be inappropriate at this latitude,” Sicarius said, then immediately wondered why he had bothered. What did he care? Artistic accuracy hardly mattered for a caricature.
“We’ve read about those,” Bashka said, “and we do grow some corn and string popcorn, but it’s usually kumquats or starfruit as an accent.”
“Starfruit,” Sicarius said, “would be a more appropriate size for covering his—”
“Nether regions,” Amaranthe blurted before he could give a more anatomically correct term. She tilted her head toward the girl. “You can draw whatever you like down there. Just don’t get too detailed. We’re going to need, what, eight of these posters?” This last question she directed toward Bashka.
The girl nodded. “There’s a bounty poster every two blocks along the main street, I think, and it’s sixteen blocks long.”
“They’re not located anywhere else?” Amaranthe asked. “We’ll want to replace all of them. To ensure maximum embarrassment for your father.”
She hadn’t yet revealed her plan to Sicarius, since the girl had been with them the whole time, but he could see that this was an excuse and that she had an ulterior motive. That relieved him. Drawing eight of these ridiculous caricatures…
“That’s all of them, plus one in the post office,” Bashka said.
“Good.” Amaranthe patted Sicarius on the shoulder. “Let me know when you’ve finished the first batch. We’ll go place them while you’re working on the second.”
“As you wish.”
“Thank you for going along with this.” She bent and kissed him on the cheek.
Sicarius appreciated the kiss but managed only a grunt to demonstrate his enthusiasm for the rest. He finished four copies of the caricature as quickly as possible, then handed them to Amaranthe. She and Bashka took off with their prizes, and he focused on finishing the rest of the stack, though, without her standing guard, at a slower pace. It was hard to keep an eye on one’s surroundings while drawing. Still, when Amaranthe returned for the rest of the posters, he was ready.
“You are magnificent and efficient,” she declared with a smile.
Interesting how flattery that he would ignore from anyone else softened his heart when it came from her. He was aware of the phenomenon, yet at the same time was reluctant to resist it.
“Where’s the girl?” he asked.
“I’m going to finish hanging these around town, and then she’s going to pop into her father’s office and warn him about the dastardly crime.”
“To what end?”
“With the holidays coming, he’s the only one working in there today,” Amaranthe said. “While he’s distracted collecting these odious posters, you’ll have time to slip into the combination newspaper press, enforcer headquarters, and post office. You can find the template that’s used to print the bounty posters and alter it.”
“If I can find it, it will take time to alter. It’s not a drawing; it will be an engraving. It will require that a new plate be made.”
“Much as we did with the counterfeit money scheme. I know you can do it.”
“I had Akstyr’s assistance with that.”
Amaranthe waved a dismissive hand. “This is much less sophisticated. All you have to do is make it so it looks like someone else. Then you won’t be identified while we’re here, and we can both enjoy our evening in the bungalow I’ve picked out.”
“This seems an extreme measure to avoid detection. We could simply gather our supplies and leave the island.”
“Yes, but this also insures that your face won’t be plastered all over town the next time we come.”
Sicarius gazed down the beach, wondering what appeal this simple island might have that Amaranthe would wish to return.
She might have guessed his thoughts for she gave him a playful swat. “Come on, it’s fun. Consider it a prank, if you can’t consider it a logical survival choice.”
“You’ve never pranked anyone? Well, you’ve learned to tease me sufficiently. I’m certain you have the skills within you. If not, we can work on developing them.”
Sicarius stared at her. He could not imagine why one would wish to do such a thing.
“It’ll be fun,” Amaranthe promised again. “It might even cause you to feel merry.”
Without waiting for agreement, she took the last set of posters and trotted up the beach. Sicarius did not follow at first. He had to find a paradigm in which this foolishness made sense to him. Training exercise? Even with light holiday staffing, it should prove moderately difficult to sneak into an enforcer building. And engraving a printing press plate in such a short time? Nearly impossible. But perhaps someday, President Starcrest would see fit to send him on a spy mission where artistic, or even engraving skills would be helpful. Though he struggled to imagine what exactly that mission might be, he bolstered himself with this notion that he wasn’t wasting his time; he was participating in a training exercise. Yes, very well.
Sicarius jogged up the beach, hugging the cliff walls. No one would see him entering town.
* * *
Though Sicarius had taken a circuitous route to the enforcer building, he still arrived before Amaranthe and the girl. He spotted them at one point, strolling innocently along until no one was looking and then tearing down a bounty poster and replacing it with a caricature. At another place, near the docks, he spotted a group of teenage girls tittering around one of the posters that had already been replaced. The enforcers marching along the waterfront hadn’t noticed yet.
Sicarius climbed a palm tree in an alley behind the two-story stone enforcer building—its blocky design and whitewashed walls did not match the colorful straw-and-thatch decor of the rest of the town, so he assumed it had been an imperial addition. The palm lacked branches, so he had to push off the side to leap onto the slanted red tile roof several feet away. Training exercise, he reminded himself, landing lightly above the gutter.
Several of the second-story windows were open to let in the tropical breezes. He chose a corner one and lowered himself from the roof, hanging upside down so he could peer inside before committing himself to entry. An open loft stretched before him. The bamboo floorboards supported tables and desks, some stacked high with papers. Along the longest wall stood metal cabinets, one with doors open to reveal swords, crossbows, muskets, and padded armor and caps. If the enforcer headquarters occupied the top floor, the printing press and postal area must be downstairs.
Since Sicarius didn’t see anyone wandering about—though a liquid-filled mug on one of those desks, as well as a half-eaten meal, suggested people had been in the loft recently—he swung through the window, twisting to land on his feet. He crouched for a moment, listening, smelling, and watching. A door creaked downstairs, and faint footsteps drifted up from the wood porch out front. The girl’s father leaving? Or a post office customer?
Sicarius advanced toward the edge of the loft, pausing beside the weapons cabinet. It smelled oddly of coconut oil. Perhaps true weapons cleaning oil was in short supply down here, and the locals had to improvise. He couldn’t imagine slathering coconut goo on his knives.
The door downstairs slammed open. “Da? Are you in here?” came Bashka’s voice.
“Yes, girl, what do you want? I’m working.”
“Did you hear about the posters?”
“The ones of you. Well, they’re sort of you. They’re not very flattering. Someone tore down the bounty posters and stuck yours up all over town.” The girl sounded too excited—maybe even delighted—at making this announcement, and Sicarius thought the father would suspect her of being a part of this “prank” right away.
“What?” he growled. The stomps of irritated feet allowed Sicarius to follow his progress from the back of the room to the front door. “Show me.”
The door creaked open, then banged shut. As soon as their footsteps faded, Sicarius glided to the stairs. He hadn’t heard any other signs of people below, but he stuck his head down first again, making sure. There were doors to offices on the bottom floor, but most of it was open, with the post office counter up front and the printing press in a back area crowded with boxes of paper and jugs of ink. The numerous windows, unblocked to let light stream inside, would let anyone walking by outside see into the interior. It couldn’t be helped.
Sicarius trotted down the stairs, flipping a sign in the window by the door to display that the workers were “out to lunch.” He jogged to the press side of the room, noting that it was operated by hand rather than by a steam engine, and poked into cabinets and drawers, searching for the bounty poster plates. A few storage areas had labels, but most did not. He hunted for the dustiest cabinets, assuming those particular engraving plates were not used often. There were all sorts of number and lettering sets for the newspaper, but bounty posters… Time bled past as he searched.
In a corner, he found a narrow cabinet with locked drawers. He hadn’t brought his lock-picking kit onto the island—who would have thought he would have a need for it when shopping for gifts and supplies for the ship?—and thought about simply cutting through the fastening mechanism with his black dagger, but he shouldn’t leave a sign if he wanted his sleight-of-engraving-hand to go unnoticed. The locks appeared simple, so he grabbed a few paperclips from a desk drawer and set to work. The top one opened shortly, and he lucked onto the plates in the first try. There were eight blocks, each with different criminals’ faces. He picked out his own and the other three he remembered from the poster. The four remaining people must have been caught or had their plates retired for some other reason. He left those in the drawer. In the back, there was a pile of blank plates. Perfect, so long as nobody bothered taking inventory and noticed one missing.
Sicarius risked taking the time to open the other drawers, hoping for engraving equipment. In a middle one, he came across a well cared for art set, including pens and ink jars, charcoal sticks, and rulers. In the bottom drawer, he found a set of ivory-handled engraving tools that would be deemed antique back on the mainland. He didn’t know how long he had until the postmaster returned, so he grabbed them.
Sicarius set up in a corner of the room, choosing to work on the floor so he wouldn’t be visible to anyone walking by on the street. The old tools weren’t as sharp as he would have desired, but he reminded himself that the engraving didn’t have to be perfect. The other etchings weren’t particularly well done, though they were accurate enough to have allowed Bashka to identify him…
For a moment, he thought about etching Deret Mancrest’s face on the plate, a warrior-caste dandy who had displayed an interest in Amaranthe of which Sicarius had not approved. Would she consider that suitable as part of a prank? It seemed unlikely the newspaper man would ever sail to this location and run into trouble. Ultimately, he decided the man’s face, the thick shoulder-length locks in particular, would be too much of a departure from Sicarius’s own angular features. He should make the face different enough that it couldn’t be used to identify him, but not so different that people noticed a new person had been placed on the posters.
Voices drifted through the windows from people passing by on the streets, but thus far, they had all belonged to women, so he kept working. It was the irate heavy tread of the father that he was listening for, though he remained aware of all of his surroundings as he worked. When light footfalls sounded on the front porch, he rose to a crouch, the plate and tools in hand, suspecting he might have to dart out one of the open windows in the back.
A tapping came at the window beside the door. The left half of a woman in a cotton dress and sunhat was visible. Sicarius waited, expecting her to notice the sign and leave.
“Filuston,” the woman called, “it’s an hour until your lunch break, so you better not have gone off, or I’ll let your superiors know.” She leaned to the side, shadowing her eyes with her hands and peering in the window. Gray hair and a weathered face with puckered, disapproving lips lay beneath that sunhat.
Sicarius didn’t move. The front counter and the bars and wheels of the press stood between him and the front window. Though there weren’t as many shadows in the corner as he would have preferred—tropical equatorial islands with their bright sunlight were surely not as amenable to the assassin’s trade as the wintery depths of Turgonia—he doubted she would be able to pick him out. She would move on soon.
Except she didn’t. She rapped at the window again. “Filuston, are you truly gone? Marcest? Ligg? If nobody comes out here this instant to post my letter, I’ll pull an enforcer off the street to do it for me, and then you’ll be in trouble for shirking your duty.”
Sicarius eyed his half-engraved plate. He only needed ten more minutes, but the woman might return with the law in that time.
“Last warning,” she called, unaware of Sicarius setting down his work and gliding out of the shadows. He plucked a green postal workers’ cap off a hat rack, dropped it on his head, and opened the door. The woman had her fist raised, about to knock again.
“Oh.” She blinked and stepped back when she saw him.
Sicarius stepped aside so she could enter, casting his gaze up and down the street at the same time, making sure her caterwauling wasn’t bringing anyone to investigate. Most of the people wandering about appeared to be tourists who had disembarked from the ship. He didn’t spot any enforcer uniforms, though a pair of soldiers was walking down the hill from the escarpment.
“Your letter,” Sicarius said, stepping behind the counter.
“You’re not one of the usual postal workers,” the woman observed.
“You’re dressed oddly too. All in black. Where does one find clothing like that here? Did you just arrive?”
It seemed she was a nosey gossip in addition to being a nag. He shouldn’t have answered the door.
“Your letter,” Sicarius said.
The woman sniffed at this refusal to answer questions, but dug in her purse. She laid a brown envelope on the desk. Fortunately, rates and instructions were posted on a faded sign behind the counter.
“A quarter ranmya,” Sicarius stated, pulling out a stamp pad.
“Filuston always gives me a discount.” The woman smiled at him.
If Filuston was the name of the man who had left his wife and daughter to the streets, Sicarius deemed that unlikely. “A quarter ranmya,” he stated again.
The pair of soldiers had drawn even with the postal building.
“Fine, fine,” the woman said, digging in her purse again. And digging. Apparently the coin she sought lay in a crevice beneath a book, sewing kit, hairbrush, shawl, and what was clearly more items than Sicarius and Amaranthe had packed in the entire submarine.
At first, the soldiers looked like they would continue past, whatever errand they were on having nothing to do with newspaper presses, enforcer buildings, or post offices, but one halted abruptly and patted his pockets. His comrade asked something, but he lifted a hand to point at the two-story building. The other waved and pointed up the street. They parted ways, and the first soldier trotting toward the post office, a letter now clutched in his hand.
Sicarius never let his expression change, though he leveled his eyes at the woman’s forehead, as if they could bore a hole into her skull. He definitely shouldn’t have answered the door. He might yet end up with the fight this whole scheme had been intended to avoid. And what would he do with this soldier once he subdued him? And the woman who would doubtlessly be a witness? Tie them both up in the loft? When Bashka’s father returned, he would find them.
“Ah,” the woman said, “there we go.”
Sicarius expected her to pull out the coin, though it was already too late to lock the door and hide in the corner again. Two more steps would bring the soldier to the porch. He must have seen someone being helped at the counter already.
The woman pulled out some sort of baked item in a paper wrapper. “Would you care for a coconut pineapple cookie?”
“No,” Sicarius said. He should have offered to post the letter for free when she had first asked after a discount.
“Are you sure? You’re so lean. Doesn’t your lady feed you? A man should have some padding, the better to grab onto when—”
The door opened, and the soldier walked in. He stepped into line behind the woman, giving her a polite nod when she glanced back.
“Ah,” she said, “Corporal Fandor. Would you like a cookie? I made a batch this morning and took most of them to the schoolyard where my daughter works, but I have one left, and this humorless fellow here isn’t interested. Have you ever seen him before? I understand he’s new.”
Both faces turned toward him. Sicarius gazed back impassively, though he was thinking that the green cap made a poor disguise. If the girl had recognized him…
“Must be seasonal help,” the soldier said.
“Yes,” Sicarius said. “A quarter ranmya.”
The woman waved at him and delved into her purse again. “Yes, yes, I know. One moment.”
The soldier stepped forward, considering Sicarius uncertainly. Should his eyes widen in recognition, Sicarius planned the course of action he would take to keep the man from escaping. As always, these encounters grew more complicated when the plan became to capture and subdue rather than to kill. Though even in his old days as an assassin—and as a man defending against soldiers who were constantly trying to kill him—he would have found it inappropriate to kill someone who had simply come to post his mail.
The soldier took another step until he was even with the counter. Still watching Sicarius, he lifted his hand. It was an empty hand, his sword still hanging from his belt. If it hadn’t been, Sicarius already would have reacted.
The soldier reached across the counter ever so slowly… then smiled and took the cookie. When Sicarius didn’t object, he returned to his spot in line and munched on it. Huh. Hadn’t Amaranthe once swayed soldiers to leave her alone with sweets? Odd what sugar could do to a man’s mind.
“Here we go.” This time the lady laid a coin on the counter.
Sicarius took it, dropped it in a cash box below the counter, stamped her letter, and tossed it in a bin labeled “outgoing mail.”
“Thank you,” the woman said. “Tell Filuston I’ll be back tomorrow.”
She strolled outside. The soldier laid his letter on the counter with the appropriate coin. Wordlessly, Sicarius took the money, stamped his envelope, and tossed it into the bin. The soldier thanked him and jogged off to catch up with his comrade.
Sicarius was about to lock the door—and reaffix the “out to lunch” sign in a higher and more noticeable position—when he spotted Amaranthe strolling toward the building. She gave the soldiers a cheeky smile as she passed them. They tipped their hats and continued on without glancing back. Sicarius let her in, then shut and locked the door behind her.
“Bashka’s father is going around collecting all the signs,” she announced. “I think you may have five minutes until he heads back.”
“I have been delayed,” Sicarius said. “I require ten minutes.”
Her gaze drifted upward to the green cap. “I see that. When I mentioned the idea of a costume, that isn’t what I had in mind.”
Sicarius removed the hat, tossed it so that it landed on the rack again, and hopped over the counter. Once in the corner, he knelt again and returned to etching the hairline of the imaginary man that was replacing him. “You must delay the father further.”
“Not interested in hearing about what I did have in mind, eh?”
Sicarius hoped it had nothing to do with that garish rack of banana-yellow and lime-green shirts.
“Eight minutes,” he announced.
“Sicarius, pranks are supposed to be fun. You’re taking this far too seriously.”
If more soldiers wandered in, including one who actually recognized him, their “prank” would come to a bloody end. He kept the thought to himself, reluctant to speak words that would steal her smile. “I am considering this a training exercise.”
“All right, I’ll go pester the man about a package that should have come in weeks ago and give you your eight minutes, but I must warn you that costumes might play a role in our gift exchange tonight.”
Intent on his work, Sicarius didn’t look up as she left. He did groan inwardly, certain he was going to get one of those shirts. This thought motivated him—or perhaps terrified him—into finishing the engraving more quickly than he had anticipated. The final image had little more in common with him than a short hairstyle, but their differences shouldn’t stand out to those familiar with the first poster.
He returned the tools and plates to the drawer, careful to place them as he had found them, and to throw the locks afterward. The plate with his own face on it he stuck in a pocket to toss into an ocean trench. He checked a window, expecting to see Amaranthe on the road, planted in the path of Bashka’s father, but she had either intercepted him farther away, or the man was taking longer than expected to remove the final posters. Another ship had come in, spewing visitors into the streets, many of them Nurian. Perhaps Bashka’s father, if he was an enforcer as well as post master, would be delayed further, keeping an eye on the suspicious foreigners. And if Amaranthe was keeping an eye on him, Sicarius might have more time than he had requested.
On a whim, he opened the drawer containing the art supplies. He grabbed an oversized piece of paper from a box near the press and laid it out on the counter. In between listening for foot traffic and keeping an eye on the street, he drew.
* * *
The sun had dropped below the horizon, casting shadows along the beach as Sicarius strung trip wire for the last of his alarms. Palm leaves rustled in the evening breeze, and torches burned farther up the shore, near the docks. The air remained warm and pleasant even as dusk gathered. Sicarius doubted there would be a need for blankets in the bed tonight, a bed that looked out over the ocean and up at the sky through a glass window in the thatched roof.
The bungalow Amaranthe had rented hung out over the lagoon in a private cove. The lights of town might be visible, but the people cooking and enjoying campfires on the beach were too distant to hear, especially over the waves lapping at the shore and the distant roar of the ocean beyond the breakwater. Their bungalow rested on the opposite side of the lagoon from the soldiers’ fort, a placement Sicarius approved of—almost as much as he would have approved of simply leaving the island and spending the night in the submarine.
Finished setting his alarms, Sicarius hopped onto the dock leading to the bungalow. The door stood open, waiting for him, and the smell of shrimp roasting on a fireplace grill filled the air. Amaranthe had purchased local vegetables for the grill as well, along with a pineapple. The sweet fruit did not appeal to Sicarius’s palate, but he had listened to numerous longing-filled comments about the destruction of Curi’s Bakery over the last few weeks, so he would not begrudge Amaranthe this dessert.
Amaranthe had been swinging in a hammock on the balcony, reading a book by the fading light, but she hopped up when she saw him. Aboard the submarine, she usually donned practical work wear, a long-sleeve shirt and trousers. Tonight, she wore a white satiny garment that stretched only to her knees and left her arms bare. The hem rose and fell in the breeze, accenting curves and revealing tanned flesh. His gaze arrested, Sicarius barely heard her question.
“Are we suitably secured against all intruders, friendly and unfriendly?”
He cocked his head. “My alarms will alert us if someone attempts to encroach during the night. We will be required to provide our own defenses.”
“Ah, I see.” She clasped his hands, kissed him, and pulled him to the large comfortable bed that dominated the single-room bungalow. “I imagine we can handle that.”
He settled beside her, their thighs touching, hers alluringly bare with the hem of that dress having been pushed up as she sat. He linked his fingers with hers. He had expected that they would eat dinner first, but he need not fuel himself to engage in amorous acts. Maybe if he distracted her suitably, she might forget about whatever gift she had purchased from that loathsome clothing store.
“Thank you for humoring me today,” Amaranthe said. “I believe Bashka was pleased with the prank we played on her father. We can check tomorrow and see if there are new bounty posters out there. Even if the man realizes his Sicarius engraving doesn’t look quite like it used to, you have the original, don’t you? He won’t be able to put up a new poster until he gets a new version, and I don’t think President Starcrest is likely to supply that.”
As Starcrest had promised, he had figured out how to have Sicarius’s bounty removed. It had involved little more than a stern look at the new head of the judicial branch along with a reminder that he had once rescued said judicial head from the clutches of a female Nurian spy who had wheedled intelligence data out of him under the guise of being an earnest lover.
“I see you’re going to be talkative tonight,” Amaranthe said.
Sicarius twitched an eyebrow.
“Yes, like that.”
“I am trying to ascertain whether you wish to engage in sexual congress at this time.”
“That was the reason I wanted to get out of the sub for the night.” She grinned at him. “We’ve managed to, ah, congress nicely in limited confines, but here we can enjoy a large private bed.” Her gaze shifted toward one of the open-air windows. “Not to mention the warm surf… and a private beach.”
“Are you no longer concerned about sand in orifices?” Sicarius shifted to face her, resting a hand on a warm bare thigh.
“Well, we can experiment.” She leaned forward for a kiss, and he returned it, letting his fingers trail across her smooth skin. “Although,” Amaranthe said, pulling her mouth back a few inches, “we do have all evening for congressing. We should perhaps enjoy dinner first, along with Starcrest’s brandy. Oh, and why don’t you let me give you your gift?”
There was a Nurian phrase about training all of one’s life only to become a stunned assassin caught in the lamplight outside the enemy bastion. Sicarius imagined that was the expression on his face at that moment. The gift. There was no escaping it.
Amaranthe seemed to enjoy whatever emotion made it onto his face, for her grin widened. She kissed him again, then wriggled out of his grip—perhaps he should have tried harder to keep her on the bed—and sashayed across the room to the shopping bags sitting in a corner.
“Wait,” he said, though he knew he could only delay her, not stop her. “I have a gift for you.”
“Oh?” She paused. “Did you want to share yours first?”
Sicarius had set his overnight gear by the wall beside the bed, so he only needed to bend over to withdraw the scroll of paper he had worked on that afternoon.
“Is that one of the new bounty posters?” Amaranthe asked. “Signed by the artist?”
“No.” He held it out, inviting her to come see.
Amaranthe stopped in front of him, and he was tempted to let his hands stray as she untied the twine, but he would wait to see if his drawing pleased her first. He hadn’t realized how poor he was at anticipating the needs and desires of another person until he came to, for the first time in his life, care enough to wish to do so.
Amaranthe stretched out the rolled-up paper, revealing a group portrait of the original team she had put together a year ago, Maldynado, Books, Akstyr, Basilard, her, and himself. Sicarius watched her face, wondering whether seeing Books would sadden her or if she would appreciate having this keepsake. He had drawn them all from memory, not embellishing or adding artistic flair—he had no sense of such things, regardless—but he believed he had created an accurate representation of everyone.
Moisture formed in her eyes, and he knew he had made a mistake. He lifted a hand, not certain whether to apologize or offer to take the picture away.
She touched Books’s face on the page, then brushed at her eyes with the back of her fingers. “Thank you, Sicarius. This is… perfect.”
He watched her face for cues, trying to decide if she was sincere or merely being polite. She laid the paper down and sat in his lap, wrapping her arms around him, then kissing him firmly, and burying her face in his neck. Sicarius returned the embrace, appreciating her closeness, though it disturbed him that he had stolen her earlier mirth. He should have let her dig into her bag and accepted whatever gift she withdrew.
“Perhaps you should sell your knives and go to art school with Sespian,” Amaranthe murmured.
“Sespian is studying architecture, a more practical field than art.”
“You couldn’t imagine yourself going to school for something impractical?”
Sicarius could not imagine himself going to school at all. Perhaps as a child, he might have found it interesting, but sitting in a room surrounded by dozens of strangers held no appeal. He preferred library research for learning. Alternatively, an apprenticeship might be tolerable, though he did not know what he would wish to study. Certainly nothing so frivolous as art.
“No,” he said.
Amaranthe wiped her eyes and leaned back, smiling a little sadly. “Well, we’ll keep looking for a new career for you. We’ve ruled out artist, and at another time, I believe we ruled out professionally pleasuring women, but that leaves many other options.”
Sicarius remembered the conversation in a coal car where that second item had come up as an attempt at humor he had tried. He had startled Amaranthe rather than eliciting a laugh. It was easier when he left the jokes for those with more aptitude for them. “Perhaps President Starcrest will have use for my current skills when we return.”
He thought about admitting that he hoped that would be the case. To serve Starcrest would be an honor. Though Starcrest might not have a need for an assassin, surely there would be jobs that required stealth and combat skills that Sicarius could perform suitably.
“Just so long as he makes sure to get all these wayward bounty posters cleaned up first.” Amaranthe waved a hand toward the island. “Now, shall I give you my gifts?”
Since she was still in his lap, Sicarius thought about tightening his grip and enticing her to remain there instead of squirming free. “Are you certain you wouldn’t prefer to engage in more vigorous activities now?”
“Hm, I believe my gifts might actually provide inspiration for such activities.”
Intrigued, Sicarius let her squirm free, though he wasn’t positive whether to believe her, since that mischievous glint had returned to her eyes.
Amaranthe returned to the bag and, humming to herself, poked through it. “That? No, not that. That? Hm, ah, this.”
She gazed thoughtfully at Sicarius for a moment, then nodded to herself. With great panache, she pulled out a shirt, a shirt more ghastly than any he had noticed on the rack. Even on a dark night, the banana yellow, lime green, and fuchsia pink could have blinded a man. Not to mention the… were those parrots? Yes, those were definitely parrots integrated into the floral print. Very colorful parrots.
“What do you think?” Amaranthe held it up so he could see it even better, as if that were necessary.
“It is… I do not believe it is my size.” There, that was tactful. And true as well. It appeared too large for him. Perhaps she would have to take it back and there wouldn’t be a similar style in his size. Maybe there wouldn’t be shirts in his size at all. Yes, this would please him.
“You are perceptive. And correct.” Amaranthe folded it neatly and set it on the table. Her smile had grown quite wide at this point. “That’s because that’s Maldynado’s gift.”
Though he had been taught from childhood to hide his emotions, Sicarius suspected some of his relief showed on his face nonetheless.
“I got gifts for all the men back home, and even something to ship to Akstyr on Kyatt.” Amaranthe pointed at him. “Maybe you can help me with that now that you’ve worked as a postal employee and have all that experience.”
Sicarius decided not to comment and delay the reveal of further items. Now that he knew the shirt was not for him, he admitted a mild curiosity as to what she had purchased. He could not recall ever receiving a gift, and though he had always considered such exchanges a part of human cultural and social activities for which he had no need, he found himself wondering nonetheless.
“I have two gifts for you,” Amaranthe announced, reminding him of the woman from the post office in the time she took poking through the bag. He began to suspect her of trying to create dramatic tension. He refused to walk across the room and peer over her shoulder into the bag. “One is serious and one is for… play.”
Play? “You still seek to make me merry?”
“Oh, I always seek that. Let me know when I succeed.” Amaranthe pulled out a small wooden box with whales and fish carved along the sides. “Here we go. You’re a hard man to shop for, because you have nothing and seem to prefer it that way, but I believe I’ve found something you’re certain to use and will perhaps even appreciate.” She cocked an eyebrow, and Sicarius summoned his patience to wait in attentive silence until she handed it to him. “I got this at our first stop up north, those little islands with the frigid water around them. A wizened fisherman who told me he was over a hundred years old sold it to me.” Amaranthe walked over and handed the box to Sicarius. “Maybe I should let you open it before explaining further. Anyone else would think I was a nut for making a gift of such a thing.” Her expression suggested she might believe herself a nut for it too.
More curious than ever, Sicarius opened the box. It contained a brownish fat with a fishy smell. “Oolichan grease?” he guessed.
“Yes, have you had it before? The fisherman said it’s nature’s perfect fuel.” She wriggled her eyebrows at him. “It’s supposed to be the closest dietary equivalent to human fat out there. He said that in his youth, he won an endurance canoeing race across the ocean with nothing except the grease and some dried fish to keep him going. I would rather have Curi’s pastries along on a canoe, but I’m not a hundred-year-old fisherman, so you’ll have to forgive my wayward thinking.”
“I’ve had it, but it’s rare to find inland, and you are correct in that it is a superior energy source. I will be pleased to use this in our meal preparations.”
“Our? Uhm.” Amaranthe pointed at the box. “Since it’s so precious and since there’s not that much there, I wouldn’t be upset if you kept it for yourself.”
“It makes a fine condiment.”
“Finer than fish eyeballs?”
“I believe so.”
Amaranthe didn’t look convinced, but she dipped a hand into her bag again. “Moving on to your second gift. Technically, this one is for both of us.” She tossed him a small, lightweight package wrapped in brown paper.
Sicarius unwrapped it and lifted up two black eye patches to examine. “Are these from the Pirates’ Plunder?” he asked, naming the dubious brothel where Maldynado had arranged to have Amaranthe’s birthday party the year before. Eye patches were common costumes there. Just eye patches. And not always worn over the eye. Though Maldynado had given Amaranthe one for a gift—something that had made Sicarius consider tossing him from a rooftop and onto some nice spikes—she had opted not to wear it. A wise choice given the lecherous clientele and the need to appear professional in front of one’s team, though he wouldn’t have minded seeing the costume. In private.
You have privacy now, came a whisper from the back of his mind. Yes.
“Sicarius, that almost looks like a smile on your face,” Amaranthe said. “Are you, by chance, feeling merry?”
“I… can show you what I am feeling.” Sicarius rose and stalked toward her.
“You don’t want dinner first?”
“Oh, good. I was hoping Gift Number Two would distract you from basting our meal with Gift Number One.”
He pulled Amaranthe into his arms. “You shouldn’t buy a man a gift if you don’t want him to use it.”