In the cool spring drizzle, Riverside was as grey as the surface of the river itself. Kaab made her way through the damp tangle of cobblestoned streets, where the buildings seemed to lean toward one another in an alarmingly casual manner, in search of the home of the red-haired forger named Tess.
Kaab remembered exactly where she had last seen her, almost two weeks ago, on the day of her arrival in the City. It felt like much more time had passed, but Kaab would not soon forget the site of her first Riverside duel. As the building came into view, Kaab noticed that the windows were all shuttered and the street was particularly quiet. Even the washerwoman’s shop on the ground floor was dark. Perhaps the rain was keeping people inside, or perhaps it was still too early in the day for Riverside to be awake, but Kaab suspected that Tess was not at home. She approached the door that led up to Tess’s apartment, where a boy covered in a ragged, patchwork cloak of faded green and russet brown huddled beneath the eaves. He emitted a faint snore, and Kaab reached out with a booted foot to gently nudge his ankle.
He started awake and mumbled, “Tess is out.”
Kaab asked, “When will she return?”
The boy sat up and shot her a suspicious glance. “Who’re you?”
Kaab pushed back the hood of her cloak and wondered what the boy would make of her. She found the Locals’ reactions to be quite telling. They often stared, as this boy was doing, but she didn’t mind, exactly. She understood his curiosity. Not only did she look different, with her coloring and hair twisted into unfamiliar braids, but this morning she had chosen to wear breeches she had tailored to fit herself and high boots she had acquired from a cobbler in the Middle City. She couldn’t fathom how anyone could wear a sword while also wearing a dress—not to mention those stays, which were about as comfortable as donning a cactus—and she wasn’t about to venture into Riverside unarmed. Luckily, she had managed to sneak out of the house without encountering Aunt Saabim. Kaab was supposed to be lying low here and deferring to her elders, not taking matters into her own hands the way she had done in Tultenco. But surely, Kaab had told herself that morning as she pulled on the unfamiliar and slightly stiff boots, she was perfectly capable of handling this small bit of intrigue on her own. There was no need to involve her aunt and uncle in such a simple little thing, even if it did require arming herself beforehand.
Kaab said to the boy, “My name is Ixkaab Balam. Can you tell me where she is?”
“She’s not here,” he said, still studying her face. “Do you want to leave a message? She pays me to take messages for her. I’ll give it to her when she comes back.”
Kaab ignored the light rain spattering on her head and asked, “Do you know when she will return? I must deliver my message in person.”
The boy shook his head. “She didn’t say, but if you ask me,” he said slyly, “I think she’ll be gone awhile.”
Kaab recognized the boy’s desire to spill a secret, and she obliged him by asking, “Really? Why?”
He leaned back casually against the door. “Well, she left after Tiny Pete came by with the news of that body that washed up on the riverbank.” He looked off into the distance and said nonchalantly, “I bet she’s gone to check it out.”
Of all the reasons for Tess to be absent, this was certainly not one Kaab had anticipated. “A body?” she said, only slightly exaggerating her shock. “Who died?”
The boy shrugged. “Dunno. This kind of thing happens all the time, and someone has to go identify the body. Maybe Tess thought she knew him.” He got a crafty look on his face. “Riverside’s not a place for strangers, you know. You better be careful around here.”
If the boy had been a couple of years older, his words might have come off as a threat, but he couldn’t have been more than eleven, so Kaab found his warning rather sweet. She slipped a hand into the pocket of her cloak and pulled out a small package wrapped in brown paper. “You seem to be a smart boy—know your way around these parts.”
The boy preened at the flattery. “I do. I was born not two blocks from here, raised on these streets. I know my way about. That’s why Tess hires me to take messages for her. She knows I’ll do it right.”
“Then you must know where Tess went, in case you have to give her an urgent message.” Kaab unwrapped the package to show him a good-sized chunk of chocolate. It was of middling quality, but much better than anything he would be likely to taste. “I’ll give you some of this if you tell me where she went,” she said.
He gave the chocolate a glance that went rapidly from puzzlement to disgust. “What is that? Looks like a chunk of dried shit.”
She was taken aback. “It’s chocolate,” she began indignantly. “Surely you—” She stopped at the expression on his face. He had never seen anything like it before and clearly did not know what he was missing. Interesting, she thought. “Never...