"…and we'd just dropped the priest off when you found us," Mijinji said. Taking a long swig of ale to rewet his throat, he smiled at Halna. "So what's been going on since we saw you last? Sick of being stuck in one place with a permanent job yet?"
Halna's laugh was like the bark of an elephant seal, staccato and almost metallic sounding. "Unlike you, I've never had any intention of spending my whole life as a nomad. I've got a good place here. The Domina is a generous employer to people she deems competent. I'm currently Vice-Captain of her personal guard. Which means I get paid well, have the freedom to set some of my own hours, and no one expects me to do more than follow the Domina's and Captain Alera's orders. Except of course if the Captain's away. Then I'm in charge, but that's only ever happened once."
Mijinji whistled. "You certainly didn't take your time moving up."
Her grin was savage, almost more like the drawing of steel rather than an expression of amusement. "You know I'm good at what I do. And unlike a lot of other female mercs, I have experience in political maneuvering. The only good thing that came out of dealing with the clan feuding."
"Clan feuding?" Clessa asked, frowning and cradling her glass of wine with both hands, the crack of thunder overhead making her gladder than ever that they were inside.
Halna laughed again. "I'm out of the north-east. From Isenjord. Up there, it's a bunch of clans, always warring with one another. If they're not out raiding other people. Well, not all the clans are like that. All of my clan's neighbours were like that. Zegah knows my clan was like that. When my dear father decided to marry off to one of his enemies, part of a plan to kill that entire clan, I took my dower gifts and my horse and left. The only thing I'd ever learned was how to be a clan chief's wife and how to fight, and since I wasn't interested in settling down at that point, I became a mercenary. Two years later and I met this one," she said, jerking her chin at Mijinji. "And we partnered up."
"What she's leaving out is how her family tracked her down at one point. We disabused them of any idea about bringing her home by force," Mijnji said, grinning.
"They were very not nice people," Vergon added, tilting his chair back, eyes on the kitchen door.
"Yes, yes. You two helped me. Which is why I'm helping you find a job."
Mijinji snorted. "No, you're giving us a job because you know we'll get it done. Don't pretend like we're a charity case."
"Can't blame a woman for trying to pay her debts."
"I can if she's not actually paying them. Besides, you saved both of us enough times that debts are moot at this point. It's part of being partners. If it really bothers you, you can always buy me a drink. I'll consider us even then."
Halna shrugged. "My honour works differently. I owe you. Both of you. And more than a drink. But that's not why I dragged you out for a drink."
"Right. So what's the job? Please tell me it doesn't involve priests. We've had too many jobs involving them in the last little while."
Vergon turned to face them and nodded so emphatically that Clessa had to chuckle a little.
Halna reached out and patted his arm. "Still not one for priests, I see." Then she sat up straighter and swept all three of them with her gaze, all traces of smiles gone from her face. "There have been deaths. Four so far, but the number will likely rise if we don't do something. All four were people who were fiercely loyal to the Domina, and who held positions within Riverport. Two worked in the castle itself. We're fairly certain all of them have been killed by the same person. We think by magic, given the only injury on each of them was a small burn mark on their chests. We haven't been able to figure out how whoever it is, is killing them, but we have some suspicions."
"So," Mijinji said, drumming his fingers on the counter. "You want us to find the individual responsible and capture them if possible. If not, you want us to deal with them so they're no longer a problem."
"That's it. We'd have done it ourselves, but with this kind of threat, our first priority is the Domina's safety. We can't afford to be sending groups of us chasing down this phantom killer."
"What do you know about them?"
"They're strong, one of the men they killed was a squad leader with the regular troops and a mean hand with a blade by all accounts, they use some kind of magic to kill without leaving much of a mark, and they're targeting people who are loyal to the Domina. That last bit's the one that worries me most. If the king and queen wouldn't send the army out to deal with them, I'd suspect one of our neighbours trying to expand their feus by taking a chunk or more out of us."
"Has no one seen this person?" Clessa asked.
Halna shook her head. "Not that we know of. However, they might not be talking. We also haven't found much of a connection between the dead ones. But then again, I was never much good at figuring that kind of stuff out. That's Mijinji's area of expertise. So, what do you say? Will you put that devious mind of yours to work for us and take care of the problem? I'll see that you're well paid for the trouble."
Mijinji took in the faint dark circles under Halna's eyes, as well as the eagerness and hope in her face. He smiled, knowing even if he hadn't liked the job, he'd still have taken it, for her sake. But as it was, this job sounded like the right fit for them. "When should we start?"