The Messenger

I

The man shouldn’t have been running.

He shouldn’t have seen the girl in the black cloak standing atop the crumbling building. He shouldn’t have realized what she was up to, and he certainly shouldn’t have reacted as quickly as he had. He should have been dead.

Instead, he was tearing across the crumbling pavement of an abandoned city.

The girl in the black cloak had done everything right. She’d tracked her target for miles without attracting attention. She’d chosen the perfect place for the kill. She’d lined up the perfect shot, and had been moments away from squeezing the trigger.

Then a gust of wind had caught her cloak.

She had to give the man credit. His eyes must have been good to catch the brief flutter before she dropped out of sight. He’d moved fast, too. It was obvious he knew what was at stake.

This wasn’t the first time someone had tried to kill him.

It would, however, be the last.

He whipped his head from side to side, searching for a place to hide. There was none, of course, and they both knew it. All the other buildings were insubstantial piles of rubble. The best he could do was run in a frenzied zigzag and pray she’d miss.

She watched him, finger on the trigger. If she fired now, she’d waste a bullet. The wind was still gusting, and at this distance, it made a difference. That was all right. She had time.

Her father’s voice echoed across years of memory: People say you can’t make long-range shots with a gun like this, but they’re wrong. You just have to know your weapon.

The girl in the black cloak knew her weapon, all right. She’d been firing this particular rifle for what felt like her whole life.

The wind died down.

Her heart beat once, twice.

Between the third and fourth beat, she exhaled and pulled the trigger. The gun roared, punching against her shoulder.

The man staggered two more steps before dropping. He didn’t writhe or moan in agony before he went. His was a quick death.

The girl in the black cloak set the rifle down and closed her eyes. She hadn’t seen this one’s face. He would be easy to forget. That was good.

“Nice shot,” said a voice behind her.

She turned, but not in surprise. She’d felt eyes on her since before the wind caught her cloak.

A smiling bald man stood behind her. A pair of goggles with silver frames had been shoved on top of his gleaming scalp. He crossed his arms over his barrel chest, casually resting his right hand on the butt of a musket holstered at his left armpit. One eye pointed uselessly to the side, and the other focused on her with sharp, cool intelligence.

The Mark had been branded into his throat. He was a Messenger.

“What do you want?”

The Messenger smiled, oozing condescension. “We both know I’m not here for something I want.” He absently traced the carvings on the grip of his musket. “My concern—and yours too, I would hope—is what he wants.”

“Don’t you have someone else to bother?” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder, toward the corpse in the otherwise empty street. “In case you couldn’t tell, I’ve got this under control.”

“That’s not why I’m here.” The Messenger grinned. A gold-capped tooth flashed in the fading sunlight. “Although, if he had thought this was a job for a Marksman, he would have sent a Marksman.”

The Messenger walked up to her with the air of a man approaching an old friend at a party. He lifted the hood from her head and ran his thumb over the Mark on her brow. The six puckered dots there matched the ones on his throat. They were arranged in a pyramid—one on top, two in the middle, and three at the bottom.

“You, my dear, are a Tinkerer.”

She remembered the day she’d been marked. It had taken two men to hold her down while the hot brand went into her forehead. She hadn’t felt anything at first, but her system caught up soon enough. It had felt like her entire head was on fire, but the worst part hadn’t been the pain. It had been the smell of her own skin, cooking under the red-hot iron.

She hadn’t cried, though. Years later, she was still proud of that. She’d only been twelve, but she hadn’t cried.

She swatted the Messenger’s hand away. “I did the job, didn’t I? Does he really care if I did it with a gun instead of a cheap gadget?”

The Messenger folded his arms, again resting his right hand on the butt of the musket. He grinned. It made her flesh crawl.

“Your target is certainly dead.” The Messenger chortled. “And that’s good for you. Just remember this in the future: when he sends a Tinkerer, he expects her to do the job like a Tinkerer.”

They stared at each other in silence. The wind gusted again, scattering loose gravel across the streets.

“When did mercenaries become glorified bounty hunters, anyway?” she asked. “People like us used to get hired to fight in wars. We used to fight for causes, not…not whatever this was.” She gestured at the body in the street.

“We fight for the same thing we’ve always fought for.” The Messenger lifted a hand, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together. “It’s always been about the money, and right now the money’s in bounties. Nobody fights actual wars these days. They’re too busy trying to keep from drying out.” He tittered. “Funny how it was a bomb that finally brought us world peace. All those people who dreamed of beating their swords into plowshares…if they’d known they just had to drop a bomb, I wonder if they’d have done it.”

“Why are you here?”

The Messenger made a tsk, tsk sound. “Oh, my dear Scarlet. You have the manners of a Bruiser and the patience of a Berserker.” He smiled that obnoxious smile. “Whatever happened to having a nice, leisurely—”

“Why. Are. You. Here?”

He raised his hands and dipped his head amiably. “Fine, fine. Message received. After you collect your reward for this…” He jerked his chin at the man in the alley. “There’s another one for you. A big one.”

“How big?”

“Double your usual.”

Scarlet looked at the Messenger. “Why?”

The Messenger’s good eye glittered. “That part isn’t important to you. Not when you’re getting double commission.” He handed her a scrap of paper with some basic information. Scrawled across the top in big, bold letters was a short phrase:

THE MARIAN AND HER CREW

Scarlet read over the information. “Water smugglers?” she said. “Since when did water smugglers bring such a high bounty?”

The Messenger shrugged. “You’re a mercenary, sweetie. I would think you could handle a kill without asking questions.” He turned and began walking away.

“Call me sweetie again, and I’ll kill you.”

Without turning, the Messenger waved over his shoulder. “I don’t doubt it.” He was about to climb down the rusty fire escape when he turned back. “Oh, Scarlet?”

She didn’t respond. Only kept staring at him.

He smiled. “Others will be on this job, too, and there’s no splitting the reward. First come, first served. You understand.” He licked his lips. “You should know I came to you first. He likes you, you know.”

“I don’t believe that for a second.”

“That he likes you, or that I came to you first?”

“Both.”

He smiled one last obnoxious smile. Scarlet’s ears burned. “Now you sound like a Tinkerer. You always were the smart ones. Guess you’d better get to work.”

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