It was over.
It was finished.
Riss was running out of synonyms.
Freshly bathed and clad in a borrowed tunic and soft leggings, Riss perched on the edge of her big, stupid bed. She ran her fingers through the soft wool of one of the sheepskins piled upon it, combing idly. The mattress would have taken up half the floor space in her childhood cottage. It was just stupid big. She laughed as she petted it.
Harlan Vosk was sequestered, grey and silent, in the castle dungeons. Adal and Torcha were safe, warming by the hearths in their respective rooms, all three of them returned to a place where walls were secure and mattresses were stupid-big and blankets were soft and food was plentiful.
Tarn would return shortly. She’d brief him on their expedition. She’d pass on her sincere apologies that the news about his son wasn’t good. And then they’d watch the man responsible hang by the neck until he died.
Other spectres crowded in the rear of her mind, of course: what of the sorcerer and his friend? What of the magick that corrupted her body? And what exactly came after all this?
But she found that even when she tried, she simply could not force herself to give a shit about all of that now. For now, peace settled on her like freshly-fallen snow. When she breathed in deep, she swore she could almost smell it: a clean, fresh scent. Sunlight baking fresh rain off stone. Drying laundry.
A knock at the door jarred her out of her thoughts.
“Come in,” she hollered.
When Adal stepped in, she wasn’t surprised. An easy smile lifted her mouth. Any lingering anger she’d felt toward him simply wasn’t worth clinging to, not anymore.
He too had bathed, and now he wore a set of his own civilian clothes: an open-chested linen shirt and fine black trousers. Riss was dressed like a stablehand by comparison. She barked a laugh when that thought came to mind, and Adal laughed too, whether he understood why or not.
“I had one of Tarn’s men fetch our things from the inn,” he said. “In case you were missing your own woollies.”
Riss stretched her arms overhead, the billowy sleeves swooping with the motion, and then fell back onto her back on the mattress with a soft fwump.
“I could not care less,” she said. “I’m reveling in being clean even if I’m dressed like I should be offering to brush your horses.”
Adal grabbed the chair from the desk and dragged it over, spinning it to face her. He sank down into it with a relaxed sigh, then lifted his left hand to reveal what it carried: a long-necked bottle crafted of glimmering, translucent brown glass.
“I don’t know about you,” he said. “But I think a toast is in order.”
Outside the watchful eyes of their company, relieved of the burden of command and all the reputation that implied, Riss did not sit up. Instead, she oozed over to the side of the bed, dangling her head over the edge of the mattress. She stared at Adal upside-down, her hair a dark curtain that dangled nearly to the floor. When she let her arms drape down, her knuckles brushed the rug.
“Toasts can wait for the wake,” she said.
Adal tilted his chin to one side, observing her.
She expected him to make some crack about how ridiculous she looked. To chide her for her immaturity or at least get in a dig about how it was good to see her let her hair down, literally.
Instead, he merely watched her for a moment, and the edges of his eyes tightened in that funnily identical way that sometimes foretold a smile and sometimes foretold tears.
“What?” She flicked her knuckles at him, impetuous.
“I missed this you,” he said, his voice muted with gratitude.
That surprised her. Shoulders twitching a little, she sat up just enough to stall the flow of blood to her face.
“I’m the same me I’ve always been,” she said, but even as she said it, that felt like a load of crap.
“You’re relaxed,” he said. “Really relaxed.”
He didn’t say the rest of it, but she heard it in her mind anyhow. He meant she was relaxed in a way she hadn’t been since Gaspard died. And it was the truth. At some point, when Riss wasn’t looking, the heavy shackles of her grief had fallen off her ankles. Or perhaps she’d simply stepped out of them.
She could still conjure the old hurt when she consciously thought his name, of course. She imagined she always would. But that quiet fresh-snow feeling, the cool calming peace like sips of minty tea, that was a sensation she hadn’t felt since losing him. Somehow, she smelled pine trees. The scent of needles in frosty air.
The snow had fallen. And when it melted, she’d discovered something. He was still dead. Nothing was ever going to fix that. But the parts of herself she’d thought she’d buried with him, they weren’t gone.
She put out a hand toward Adal, sitting up some.
“Actually,” she said. “Fuck it. How about that toast, Second.”
He twisted the stopper free of the bottle and gave the contents a sniff.
“Hum.” He swirled the dark liquid inside the bottle, then looked back to Riss. “I swear I had something quite poetic and profound for this. But it’s slipped through my mind and out my ear.”
Riss smirked and tapped a finger to her chin, waiting.
“To getting through,” he finally said. “And getting out.”
He passed the bottle to her first, those six words apparently enough.
There wasn’t much else to say beyond that. The bottle’s contents turned out to be a rich, complexly-flavored Talvace brandy. They passed it back and forth. Soon they were laughing, snorting, recounting old anecdotes from years that had previously been too painful to revisit.
Torcha found them like that, laughing uncontrollably, a half-hour later. She trudged into the room without knocking, wearing a night-shift that fell to her skinny ankles.
“You two fixing to raise the dead in the family crypt?” she groused, palming at her face. Her hair was unbound now, a crazy bird’s nest of tangles around her cheeks.
Adal cleared his throat. He’d been in the process of relating to Riss a story about some moron lieutenant who’d crashed a war-wagon down a ravine.
“Hey.” Riss objected with a wave of her hand. “Hold up. He wasn’t done yet.”
Torcha marched up to Riss’ bed, her flat feet thumping, and then sat down at the foot of it.
“Yeah, Adal,” she drawled. “By all means.”
So Adal started over from the beginning. He passed the brandy down so Torcha could have a swig, and she in turn passed it back up to Riss. They traded wartime escapades, wry observations, and increasingly giddy laughter.
Riss wasn’t even that drunk. Sure, a pleasant warmth buzzed through her veins, but it was more the cathartic act of cutting loose that had her laughing like a child.
The conversation did one of those funny things: everyone’s laughter all sort of petered out at once, like all three of them were responding to some subtle cue. Riss glanced toward the door, used the moment of silence to listen for any sounds down the hall. The thick walls kept their secrets. The silence revealed nothing.
“Hey.” Adal cleared his throat.
“‘Hey?’” she echoed. “You are drunk.”
Adal let that roll off his back. He stretched out his arms, slouching further forward, his chest to the back of the chair.
“At any rate. I was going to say… just leave it. Leave it for one night. We’ll figure out what to do with them in the morning.”
“Them?” Riss knew who he meant the second she said it.
“I thought you were considering checking in on our guests from the north,” said Adal.
Riss hadn’t consciously planned to be. But perhaps if she’d heard something. Or perhaps she’d done it out of habit, used to her headcount. Whether that had been some subconscious intent or not, Adal was right. She could leave it for a night.
Torcha spoke up before Riss could reply. “They don’t mean us any harm.”
Adal and Riss both glanced at her sidelong. She currently had the bottle in-hand. She gestured with it, hand visibly wobbly.
“I felt it. Y’know. When Geetsha’s people tinkered with our brains. Couldn’t really describe it at the time. Or now. Not in a way that makes sense. But either way. Calay and Gaz, they ain’t gonna fuck us over unless we fuck them first.”
Tinkered with our brains. Riss slid her tongue over her teeth. She was either far too drunk for this or nowhere near drunk enough.
“You reckon you know this for sure?” Riss entertained her for now.
“I do.” Torcha’s expression changed subtly: her mouth and eyes drew further closed, like her features themselves were withdrawing under scrutiny. Her voice grew quieter. “The Collective, Geetsha’s folk. When they touch you, you see things. I saw things, but not like shit-that-wasn’t-real things. I saw… it was like I dreamed some dreams through their eyes.”
“And their dreams told you that they’re… what, good fellows deep down?” Adal sounded skeptical. Riss couldn’t blame him.
“Nah, nah.” Torcha shook her head and brushed a sloppy red curl from her eyes. “Not their dreams. It felt like a dream to me, but I’m pretty sure what I saw was just their lives. Shit they’d been through.”
She took another swig from the bottle, then passed it back to Riss.
Summarily, as if she were stating a fact about the weather, or informing Riss that dirt was brown, she said, “All those two care about is gettin’ through the next day and makin’ sure the other one doesn’t die. If we let ‘em be, we’ll probably never see ‘em again.”
Torcha made it sound so simple. Riss took the bottle and swigged deeply. The way she’d phrased it–all they care about is getting through the next day–struck a familiar place in Riss’ heart. Gods knew she’d felt that way more than she cared to admit. All the crazy bullshit about feeling their feelings and living their memories aside, Torcha seemed serious. The girl didn’t always have the calmest head or the most sensible judgment, but Riss trusted Torcha to never lie to her. Whatever weird shit she was saying, she believed it to be true.
“Well,” said Riss, passing the bottle to Adal. “I promised not to betray them.” Like every single person in the room wasn’t aware she’d been considering doing it anyway, promise or not.
Adal had fallen strangely quiet. Drunk Adal normally spoke even more than sober Adal, but he’d lapsed into thoughtful silence, sipping and watching them.
“What’s your read on all this, Second?” Riss asked.
Again, Adal’s silence was pointed. He tapped his finger against the neck of the bottle, a quiet little rhythm, then finally answered. “The more I think on it, the more I think Torcha’s right.”
He seemed nervous, but Riss wasn’t going to chase him for the reason. They were all coming down off their various nerves; perhaps he just needed to smoke something potent and sleep for a week.
It was so strange, the idea of doing what Torcha suggested: just going about her business like she’d never learned the truth of Calay’s nature. Was it possible to simply step back into everyday life once you’d met a sorcerer? Once your body had been knit back together, dragged back from the brink? Was it possible to return to her old routines knowing such beings still existed, that history wasn’t quite so far in the past as she’d believed?
Tarn had Vosk to blame. He’d have the truth of what had happened to Lukra. Would keeping a teensy card or two to her chest really count as betraying his trust?
“Suppose we can see what they plan on doing,” she said. “If they plan on moving on… no reason we can’t just let them move on.”
To say nothing of the new, tangible awareness that bit in like a pebble in the bottom of her boot: now that she’d seen the whole of what Calay was capable of, who the hells was she to fuck with him? They all saw what he’d done to Vosk.
“Tarn would gut us. If he knew we knowingly let a sorcerer sleep in his home, he’d hang us by our own entrails.” She had to say it. Had to have some token objection on the record.
Incongruously, Adal cracked up laughing. He laughed hard, resting his forehead to the back of the chair, and then wheezed out a snicker as he tried to contain himself.
“Oh for Loth’s sake,” he laughed. “You say that like we didn’t spend an entire war sneaking around doing shit our commanders would have gutted us for. Like ‘Tarn would kill us for this!’ isn’t the second most common combination of words to ever fall out of your mouth.”
Riss couldn’t help but catch his laughter. She lurched forward and grabbed for the brandy bottle, swinging her arm out. He let her catch it.
“Fuck off,” she said quickly, around a grin. She yanked the bottle from Adal’s hand. “Wait, what was the first?”
In the same instant, Adal and Torcha both put a finger to their mouths and went shhh. Riss glanced between them, squinting.
“Forgive me for wanting our recon unit to be quiet in the field,” she muttered.
She took a deep swig from the brandy. It had a note of dried apricot in it, somewhere deep down, and the drunker she got the more she liked it.
“Tell you what,” Torcha said. “It’s almost like Gaspard never left us. You transformed into an old man before our very eyes.”
And wouldn’t you know it, Riss laughed. It still stung a little, in a far-off way, but she laughed.