Calay Maunet sat upon a heavy wooden fence, puffing a stick of sliproot and gazing at the stars. Gaz loomed beside him, a bearlike silhouette backlit by distant torches. After an uninspired supper of stew and root vegetables they’d retired out to the yard, ostensibly to discuss the upcoming job. There hadn’t been much discussing though. Just a lot of smoking and wary silence.
“You still feeling good about this gig?” he asked Gaz with a tilt of his head. Gaz shrugged a single, quiet time.
“Suppose it’s too late to back out now.” Calay answered his own question and took another puff off his smoke. He’d cut the root with a bit of clove, both for flavor and to take the edge off the sedative effect. What it produced instead of sedation was now a mild, comforting drowsiness that calmed the scramble of his thoughts and made the stars twinkle just a little brighter. For the third time that evening, he offered the little cigarette to Gaz.
“I told you,” said Gaz, his voice a deep, amused rumble. “I don’t have trouble falling asleep.”
“Would that we could all be so lucky.” Calay rolled his eyes, though the dim lighting likely made it all for naught.
“You won’t have trouble falling asleep either, as of tomorrow.”
Calay grunted at that. “Yes, marching oneself through a marsh on foot tends to have the happy side effect of exhaustion.”
Gaz shifted in his lean against the fencepost. He peered sideways to Calay, the craggy blocks of his face visible in profile.
“If this contract is giving you so much grief, why take it?”
Of course he’d ask that. Like taking any work in their particular situation was a bad idea. Calay slouched over some. Fleeting desire swept through him to lean over so far that his head ker-plunked onto Gaz’s shoulder. The fur trim on his jacket looked so cozy.
All right, perhaps he’d double the cut of clove the next time he rolled smokes.
“It’s a calculated risk,” he said, trying to sound less stoned than he felt.
“So’s everything.” Gaz could be a man of few words at times, but those few he did speak had a way of getting under Calay’s skin like fishhooks.
“I know so is everything,” he snapped. “But this is a calculated risk I think we should take on purpose.” He took a moment to gather his thoughts, reeling them in.
“This particular company run by Riss Chou. It’s a good risk. She has a reputation. Or well, the company does. It isn’t all hers. But it’s a known name and she’s running it now. Captain of the Baron’s garrison says the Baron rode home specially to meet her. Soon as I heard that, I figured it was our ticket.”
Their ticket to what, exactly, Calay still hadn’t worked out. What they needed a ticket to was less important than what they needed a ticket away from. Though this was a one-contract job, Calay hoped to finagle a way onto the woman’s roster of mercenaries in a more lasting capacity. It was the cover he and Gaz needed for a while, until things blew over at home.
If things blew over at home.
“It’s a good plan,” said Gaz.
“It was your plan,” Calay reminded him.
“The basics were mine.” Gaz lifted a hint of a smile, barely visible in the half-light. “You filled in the details.”
They made a good pair. That was, Calay supposed, why they still drew breath. Who knew how many Guard back home were looking for them. And who cared, anyway. Home was a long way off. Home was a couple hundred miles and a whole war zone away.
“You think she picked up on our accents?” he asked, absently curious. He wasn’t sure exactly how the war had affected the mercenary types this far south. He’d stayed out of the whole thing.
“Undoubtedly.” Gaz shrugged again. “But she didn’t say anything.”
This far into the marshlands, anyone from Vasile–Calay and Gaz’s hometown–was considered a northerner. And northerners were the ones who started the war, you see. Peasants were stupid. They didn’t understand nuance. Calay could have sat them down and told them that he was no more a Narlish invader than they were South Coast fisher tribes, but it was a lost cause. The fact that Vasile hadn’t contributed a single soldier to the war didn’t matter.
Fortunately for Calay–if unfortunately for the locals–the region appeared to still be in a state of turmoil. His and Gaz’s weren’t the only Vasa accents he’d heard since arriving in town. And Riss and her people certainly weren’t locals. Hellpits, even the Baron was a mountain man.
The Deel Valley seemed like a good place to disappear for a while. Until Calay got word somehow that it was safe to slither back home.
“You hungry?” Gaz asked, absently fishing an apple from his satchel.
“Not particularly.” Calay tapped ash off his smoke on the fence post. “Sliproot is also an appetite suppressant.”
Gaz smoothed a hand over his bald head with a snort. “Suppose that’s why you look the way you do.”
Lurching more upright, Calay squinted at his childhood friend in the murk. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
But he knew what it meant. The pair of them could not have looked less alike if it had been deliberate. Gaz was a rock-hard beef tower; Calay liked to think of himself as having a swimmer’s build. That sounded better than lean and approximately three-quarters Gaz’s height. Gaz kept his head shaved to stubble; Calay wore his silver-blond hair in a tidy ear-length cut, parted to the side as was fashionable back home. Gaz had that hideous face tattoo. Calay’s features were as yet unsullied. Gaz’s face had also been sullied by fists, boots, and a brick or two over the years, treatment that Calay had mercifully been spared despite running wild in the same slums.
“It means you should eat an apple,” said Gaz.
Calay swept a couple fingers up and flipped him a lewd gesture. He toked the last worthwhile bit off his cigarette, then ground the paper out on the fencepost. He held the smoke in for a moment, then exhaled in a vaporous billow. Gazing up at the stars through his smoke, he took a moment to marvel at just how many there were.
“You don’t see stars like this in Vasile.” Gaz’s voice was a low, pensive murmur.
“Please stop reading my mind. You’ll run into something horrible.” Calay hopped down off the fence post and shrugged his duster higher up his shoulders, burrowing into the collar of it.
“Something horrible or just something crude?”
Gaz lumbering along at his side, Calay set off across the grass to the beckoning warmth and light of the inn’s interior.
The quantity, the concentration, and the combination of substances Calay imbibed before bed never seemed to make a difference. Despite the comfortable woolen cloud he’d smoked up around himself, sleep remained elusive.
Snores rumbled from many of the bunkroom’s occupied beds, Gaz’s among them. Never let it be said that man has a guilty conscience, Calay mused. Gaz could sleep through anything. Not that his own conscience was the thing that prodded him awake at night. He suspected his insomnia was hereditary, as much as he understood such things could be. It had been a constant companion since his childhood, an ally on the mean streets where an ill-timed nap could be the difference between life and death.
Well it was an ally no longer. Like many childhood friends, it had turned against him when the right opportunity came along. That’s how kids in gangs were, though, weren’t they. Insomnia was just another initiate among the ranks who’d sell its closest friend to the Guard for a chance at being the boss.
You’ll want to be well-rested in the morning, a little voice in the back of his head reminded him. As if he’d forgotten the looming prospect of a day of marsh trekking.
Temptation, like insomnia, was a constant companion of Calay’s. Presently that temptation reminded him that a sound night’s sleep was only a glyph away. A quickly-sketched sign in the right admixture could put him down for as many hours as he required, were it not for the fact that using blood magick on something as minor as sleeplessness was insane. Even if blood magick weren’t illegal in these parts–he wasn’t sure on the finer points of Sunnish law–all it would take was the wrong superstitious prick spotting dried blood on his pillow. Then he and Gaz would be fleeing another district. Presuming he got away with all the necessary body parts to run.
Somewhere in the middle of imagining all that, sleep grabbed him and pulled him under. Working his way through what-if nightmare scenarios had become such a routine part of everyday existence that the exercise soothed his mind into slumber. Maybe this is what it feels like when normal people talk about meditating, he wondered before drifting off.
Calay is unsure how many days he has spent in the dark.
The cell is five paces long and just under three wide. Apart from the door and a few high slots for ventilation, the old stone walls are featureless. They are ancient and cold, old as Vasile’s foundations. The palace jails are a new experience for him, and frankly he thought there would be something to differentiate them from the others. But no. A cell is a cell is a cell when one is hungry and sore.
He wants to say it’s been two days because they’ve fed him twice, but he knows the guards at St. Loyorda’s like to fuck with the prisoners by staggering meal times. The palace fellows could be cut of a similar cloth.
Little do they know their treatment of him will be their undoing. The wounds they inflicted aren’t much in terms of jailhouse beatdowns: a few bruised ribs, a knock to the jaw that was already tenderly swollen, a split lip. But the split lip is enough.
They don’t know what they were dealing with, and in opening his skin they have opened the door.
Gritting his teeth, Calay tongues at the wound upon his mouth. He flexes his jaw and grinds his thumbnail into the cut, squeezing his lip with his fingers so a thin trickle of blood finds its way into his palm. He spits to assist the flow.
Pain itches through his mouth, but it is no worse than the pain throbbing through his jaw and ribcage. It is a sharper pain. A more welcome pain. The pain of progress.
The gathered smear of blood in his palm is pathetic. There was a time in his life when he’d have derided it as barely enough to practice with. But times are a little more dire than that presently. He spits into his palm to thin the blood yet further. It will dilute the effect as well, but he doesn’t need much. Far more important to get the glyph correct.
He stirs the blood and spit together in his palm, then dips his index finger in. Working from memory and praying he doesn’t fuck it up, he sketches the glyph upon his forehead. Then he holds his breath and waits.
The sensation that tingles through his eyes isn’t quite pain. It resembles the pins-and-needles blood bubbling of a limb fallen asleep. Except in the eyeballs. Calay flutters a series of hard blinks in the dark, and in stutter-stop motion the details of the room become clear. His vision sharpens and intensifies, every line of grout in the stone walls now apparent. The night vision spell has worked. It’s fainter than he would have liked, but more than enough to work with.
Flexing and curling his fingers, he wipes blood and spittle from his palm. His stomach growls, and by reflex his eyes are drawn to the bowl of stew and mushy bread which sits uneaten on the floor.
Unfortunately, he needs that for more important ventures than feeding himself. Even as the weak, nauseating aftereffects of the magick stir unpleasantly in his gut, he is hungry. Hunger cannot be a priority now.
With dirty fingers, he scoops a few bits of meat and gristle from the bowl. Then he climbs atop his cot, edging toward the cell’s sole window. He plops the meat chunks there between the bars. Mouth a tight line, he resists the urge to lick his fingers. Tasting anything will only grant his hunger an audience.
He bides his time there in the dark.
He doesn’t know if he’s quick enough to catch a rat bare-handed. But now that he can see, he’s got more of a chance than before. And if he manages to get his hands on one, well…
There’s enough blood in a rat for him to sketch all kinds of things. Things not even a hundred guards and a hundred walls of stone a hundred feet thick can contain.
Calay snapped awake just before dawn, as usual. He felt sluggish and thick-headed, as if his every movement were hampered by cobwebs. The dreams—the racing, chasing dreams where he was constantly pursued—hadn’t helped.
By breakfast, though, he’d steeped himself the right herbal blend for tea and was sharpening up.
By the time he and Gaz met the others outside the inn, he was a finely-honed blade.
Riss Chou led a small procession down the hill. A loosely-gathered pack of riders on horseback followed her, with a couple darkly-feathered moa bringing up the rear, their harnesses laden. Calay tugged on the brim of his hat as they neared, tipping it in greeting.
Atop a horse, Riss looked like she meant business even more than usual. And Calay got the impression by the cast of her face that she looked that way pretty much all the time. She had the tall, fit construction of a born-and-raised soldier coupled with the high-boned face of a family much better bred than his own. Only her deep tan and the piecemeal kit she wore ruined the illusion that she was some Inland Empire Praetorian Guard, here escorting one of the Emperor’s personal boot-lickers. Or perhaps licking those boots herself. The second in command she toted around looked much the same, except with snappier hair and leathers that matched.
With them this time was a woman Calay had never seen before. A pale, freckle-dotted ginger whose mop of curls was desperately trying to escape her headscarf. Calay pursed his lips. She looked younger than Riss and Mr. Altave, although part of that could have been simply how short she was.
She noticed him looking and narrowed her eyes just a little. Calay hiked up a grin to show he meant no harm.
“Calay,” said Riss, ticking a hand between him and the redhead. “This is Torcha Lupart, our long arms specialist. Torcha, this is Calay. He’s our sawbones for this expedition.”
That tiny scrap of introduction was all it took for the woman—Torcha, Calay committed to memory—to flash him an easy smile rather than that wary squint.
Just like that, he was part of the squad.
Gaz chose that exact moment to burst forth from the inn’s doors, carrying both their bags. Glass rattled in Calay’s satchel and he grabbed at it eagerly. They’d have a lot of explaining to do if Gaz cracked open two dozen vials of human blood right there in front of the gods and everybody.
“And this is my lovely assistant Gaz,” he said to the riders. “In case anyone hasn’t yet had the pleasure.”
“It is a pleasure,” said Gaz, grinning wide. “Ignore him.”
Riss expelled a little air through her nose, a restrained laugh. She whistled to a porter, who emerged from the rear of the small crowd leading a pair of horses.
“We’ll be riding up ‘til where the road ends.” Riss lifted her voice to explain to the entirety of the small group. “From there, we’ll make camp at the crossroads. The Baron’s sent for a guide to meet us and take us deeper into the marshes. He’s also graciously donated an envoy from his personal guard who made it back from the original expedition. Between the two of them we should have more than half a clue about which direction to walk.”
She did have traces of a sense of humor, then. That was a mark in her favor.
Calay packed his things to his horse’s saddle. There was something disconcerting about traveling so light. Their contracts included all provisions, so he imagined most of that was packed on the pair of moa. But instinct twitched in his fingers, a wary dislike of traveling separate from his own food and water. He always had a couple days’ emergency rations packed away in his satchel in case events necessitated a quick escape. That would be harder to do atop someone else’s horse in unfamiliar marshland.
But Gaz was right. He’d said the magick words when he and Calay had been poring over the notice board for job opportunities: if we’re going to lie low, at some point we have to stop actively running away and establish some sort of cover. Mercenary work was an ideal way to do that.
And mercenary work that assisted the Baron in charge of these parts was a thing that could buy them necessary time if the time came to flee in some other direction.
So Calay swallowed his anxieties and saddled his horse. Nothing about their present situation was inescapable.
“You think one horse is gonna be big enough?” Torcha called over to Gaz as he slipped a boot through the stirrup and mounted.
Oh, Calay liked her.