THE bounty hunteress knelt beside the man she’d just killed. A blueblood, probably Brisian-born. Alongside him sat a blood-stained folder containing parchments filled to the margins with schematics and notes, all scrawled in High Brisian. Unfortunately, she had not been sent to retrieve drawings annotated in foreign tongues.

She’d made a mess of the hovel looking for the real bounty—emptied all the shelves, boxes, barrels, and bins, and overturned each sack onto the floor. No dice.

No item, no bounty. This time, it wasn’t the man her clients were paying her to find. It was some kind of weapon, a new one no one had seen before. According to the client, it was just the thing the Blue Army needed to win the war.

For a moment, she regretted taking this bounty. She was no bloodhound, nor a detective, nor a scout. Finding targets was one thing. They were alive and easily traceable if they weren’t smart and one knew how to track them. Objects, however…

She sat on the floor with one leg out and the other folded in, picking at a loose seam on her skirt hem. Maybe all that was required was a change in perspective. Perhaps he’d hidden it in the thatching. That was just about the only place she hadn’t searched. She rested her head against the plaster.

It sank in.

Startled, she twisted around and pressed her hand against it. Thin as paper. Quickly, she unsheathed her dagger and put the tip to the soft spot. It slid through. She sliced upward. The wall split, revealing a deep window well. A pile of wet, mouldy leaves rested at the bottom. Hope and fear on her breath, she reached through, feeling around in the muck until her fingertips grazed something wooden and metal. Trembling, she pulled the object onto her lap. A broad grin spread across her lips.

There might be hope for this civil war yet.

TWO members of the Blue Guard silently led her down a stone corridor. Boughs of cornflowers and mallow ran the length of the walls.

Admittedly, she was curious as to what the Blue Queen looked like. Rumours said she had survived the plague. No one else had. Those afflicted were doomed to rot alive, horribly disfigured until they drew their last breath. Many more rumours told of her beauty—skin kissed by starlight and silvery hair that caught light like opals in the sun. She couldn’t help but wonder which was right.

The guards halted just before a wooden door bound by pitted iron. A curtain of ivy cascaded down the walls aside it, meeting two potted plants like summer rain. The tallest guard rapped thrice on the door and opened it.

To her puzzlement, the room was empty. She set down her back-basket, which carried all she had found in the hovel, atop a low table. Her eyes wandered about the lavish setup. More low tables and potted plants, marble vases, mahogany bookcases, carefully placed statuettes. A large desk waited at the back of the room, framed by dark green curtains shrouding the stained glass window.

The door opened. A scarred woman with the clearest blue eyes the bounty hunteress had ever seen stepped inside. She let the door close itself.

“Show me,” the woman said in a melodic Rendroxjan accent.

The bounty hunteress took a step back. This woman had pitch black hair and skin like the deep blue-grey of the ocean. Part of her left ear seemed to be missing. The bounty hunteress crossed her arms. “You ain’t the client.”

“No, but I am here on her behalf.”

“No client, no bounty.”

The woman produced a sealed note from the folds of her cloak. “Can you read?”

“Of course.”

The woman held out the note.

The bounty hunteress broke the seal—three cornflowers in blue wax—and read the perfectly-formed script. “A sum of…” Her chin shot up. “Six hundred tenpieces?”

“The Rirah rewards loyalty. If I determine that you brought the correct item, you will see every piece of it. Don’t worry about the amount. The Rirah deals only in clean money.”

The bounty hunteress gaped. “What even is this thing? It’s worth that much? What did I just—”

The woman turned to face her. As their eyes met, the air seemed to chill her very bones. Melancholy gripped her innards and twisted. She sucked air through her teeth. Her vision wavered. When the woman broke their gaze, the feelings vanished.

“I—” The bounty hunteress looked to the letter, the floor, and the woman, searching for an answer she doubted she’d ever find. “Take it, then. Here.” She fumbled with the basket straps, undoing them as fast as her fingers allowed. She pulled it out, shoving the parchments into the woman’s hands as she heaved the thing up.

It was short, coming up to no more than the middle of her thigh. A long wooden block plated with iron made up its handle, and at the head was mounted a two-stringed bow. Some sort of firing mechanism made up the tail end. If it was meant to shoot arrows, they would have to be short.

The woman paled. “The Rirah sends her thanks,” she said, taking the strange machine from the bounty hunteress’ arms. “You’ve done Kandrisev a service it will not forget.”

“But what is it?” the bounty hunteress asked.

The woman opened the door and said something to unseen faces. The two guards who had brought her here appeared at the door.

“Take her to the treasury. Let them know property has been purchased and a household cobbled together. Take her to the address they give.”

The bounty hunteress’ eyes widened. “What? Wait, I already have a—”

“I trust you will find your new life comfortable.” The woman put the machine and its papers inside the back-basket and hoisted it onto her shoulders.

“Wait, that’s my—”

The guards each grabbed one of her arms and led her from the room.

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