Chapter 62

Adal woke at some point in the night, fuzzy-headed and warm all over. He, Riss, and Torcha had all fallen asleep, the latter two atop the bed and him upon a folded sheepskin on the floor, his back to the frame. He knew by the vague tilt to the floor and the way his thoughts were slow to catch up that he was still nice and drunk, but even in that state he decided to be kind to his back and retreat to his own bed. After all, he was on the wrong side of thirty now. Aches and pains didn’t always vanish on their own anymore. The occasional twinge of pain still shot up his calf from where the rock creature had grabbed his leg–he’d tried not to think about it. Tried not to think about it still even as it flared up again.

He left the girls to their rest and slipped out into the hallway, making the short walk to his own chambers in silence. Days-old muscle bruises throbbed when he moved certain body parts, even through the drink, aches that wouldn’t quite go away. But as he settled in beneath the quilts and sheepskins upon his own bed, he found he didn’t mind the pain.

Rolling his foot, he felt the little twinges through his leg. Remembered how sharp it had felt, that wrench up his hip. Remembered even earlier in the mission that sensation of needlelike fangs piercing his skin.

All the little aches and pains of a body that had survived another campaign.

He rolled over onto his side and let his eyes fall closed. Loth, it was good to see Riss smile again. At her lowest, she hadn’t believed she could come out of this on the other side. But he’d had faith. And she’d proven his faith correctly placed once again.

He let the gentle rocking of the floor lull him back to sleep.

###

Breakfast on the grounds of House Gullardson was nowhere near as organized an affair as it was in the structured halls of House Altave. Tarn’s senior staff–who he could spot by their livery–and a gaggle of assorted guests all threaded in and out through the dining chambers, none lingering too long.

When people passed by his table, they slowed. He felt their gazes on his back, though no one commented. Were they simply wondering who these strangers were? Or had word of their expedition attained some dubious mythology in the hamlet?

Gossip around the castle said the Baron was due back around midday. Adal listened but did not care to speak, happy to find a chair at a side table and munch down fruit tarts with great, heaped spoonfuls of thick eggy custard. He ate ravenously, like his body had forgotten what bread was and immediately decided it was experiencing a dire shortage. Torcha and Riss sat catty-corner to him, their table otherwise empty. None of the passers-by who stopped to ogle the three of them were brave enough to stop and strike up a conversation.

A half-hour into their meal, Adal spotted a familiar lumbering silhouette skirting the very edges of the dining hall. Gaz walked like a man hurrying through a room full of sleeping babies. When Veslin, the housemaster, cornered him, he said few words and nodded a lot. Veslin directed him toward Adal and Riss’ table, and Adal lifted a hand to guide him over.

Interestingly, Gaz was alone. Adal swept a look all around the dining chamber and didn’t see his partner in crime.

Gaz seemed moderately flustered by all the activity around the tables, the servers swooping in and asking did he take tea and if so how. He sat too-straight in his chair, eyes a little wide, and looked relieved when the interrogation was over.

“All well?” Riss asked, teacup in hand.

Gaz scrubbed a palm over his freshly-cut hair. His answer took a moment. “Yeah. Think so.” When Riss glanced pointedly to the empty seat beside him, he followed the look and then went ah. “… He’s sleeping.”

“Can’t blame him,” said Torcha. The two of them shared a look between them, then a subtle nod. Adal was a little lost.

“I think we all needed a bit of rest,” said Riss, doing her best to be diplomatic.

Gaz located a bowl of boiled eggs atop the table, then dragged it a little closer to himself. He plucked up a couple, then set about attempting to peel them with fingers that were far too large for the task. He fixed the egg in his hands with an intense stare while he worked, to the exclusion of all other subjects at the table.

Something was definitely up. He didn’t seem as relaxed as a man who’d just survived a death march through that hell-swamp should have been. But if Riss wasn’t going to pursue that line of questioning, Adal sure wasn’t going to bother either.

Adal took another cup of tea when Veslin offered it. Down this way, the tea of choice was a blood-red root of some kind, shaved thin and dried and boiled. It had a pleasantly earthy flavor with a hint of sweetness to it. Little by little, the tiny pleasures of civilized life were revealing themselves once more, chipping away at the layers of tiredness and desolation and anxiety that had gripped him for days. Rather like Gaz determinedly chipped away at that eggshell.

It felt like coming back from the war all over again. Only this time, he’d come back to the people he chose rather than the family he happened to be born with.

He watched as Gaz stuffed an entire egg into his mouth.

Well, he’d chosen some of the people.

The next time Veslin drifted by, he and Riss shared a few quiet words. Riss downed the last of her tea, snatched up an apricot for the road, and gestured off down the hallway.

“I’m going to prep for our briefing with the Baron,” she said. “When the horn sounds, consider yourselves wanted back here, but until then you’re off-duty. Take advantage of it. That’s an order.”

When she rose up, she plucked the napkin off her lap and folded it. Then she adjusted the drape of her jacket–a threadbare green linen thing with golden embroidery that Adal hadn’t seen on her in some time. It was a little odd, seeing everyone out of their arms and armor. Their bodies looked strangely small and vulnerable.

“You’ll make sure Calay makes it down for the briefing?” Riss glanced down to Gaz, who was busy picking the crust off a roll without eating it. His hands paused when she addressed him.

“Will do,” he said. “And I’ll make sure he’s…” He gestured to his right arm. “Y’know.”

Riss made an agreeable sound and headed off, housemaster in tow.

Torcha speared a sausage off a platter and chewed on it, watching the crowd as it began to thin. “I still can’t believe these people all work for Tarn,” she said, sounding vaguely mystified.

Adal, who’d grown up in a household full of his own maids and servants and hangers-on, didn’t comment on that. Yawning, he too folded his napkin and set it upon his plate. He’d forced himself to curb his appetite–too much bread after living on field rations for days tended to have a soporific effect. The last thing he wanted was to nod off mid-briefing on account of a bread nap.

“I’ve got to return our bird to the stockyards,” he said. Glancing to Torcha, then to Gaz, he lifted a palm. “If either of you felt like tagging along.”

“Why not,” said Torcha.

Gaz rubbed the back of his neck, then glanced off in the direction of the staircase. “Suppose,” he said. “You know if there’s a decent leatherworker in this town?”

Adal rose up and shrugged his coat back on. “I can show you one. Can’t promise he’s decent.”

“Good enough.”

They thanked Tarn’s staff for their hospitality, then hit the streets of Adelheim.

###

The man who ran the stockyard was not impressed that Adal was only returning one bird. He prattled on about how expensive it was to rear them into adulthood, how he could have worked a good ten thousand australs out of the lost one over the course of her life.

“Well, you can take that up with the Baron,” Adal said, not in the mood to argue. “Simply bill it to the garrison. It was a hazardous expedition.”

He couldn’t bring himself to pay full attention to the vitriol being thrown his way. A new acquisition in the yard had stolen his eye, a beast that hadn’t been there when they’d first embarked.

Lurking in a large pen all to itself, across the dusty yard and segregated away from the rest of the stables, a massive galania sat immobile as a spider. The quadrupedal, low-bellied lizard was the size of a carriage, its tail twice as long. Its scales were the same dusty deep red as Adelheim’s claybricks; its hide looked as thick as the castle walls, too. As he watched it, the thing flickered its tongue in and out of its mouth, tasting the air.

He hadn’t seen one up close since the war. And now that he had, he found he didn’t dislike them any less. Big reptiles unnerved him on some sort of childhood-instinct level. You couldn’t gauge them by their body language like you could a horse or a dog. He’d been given the opportunity to attend Cavalry Academy in training, but he’d have sooner licked wet paint. Cavalry wasn’t just horses anymore, not since the war-wagons took over.

Beside him, Gaz let out a low, amused heh.

“What?” Adal glanced over at him, tilted his head.

“Oh, nothing. Got in a scrap with one of those, back in the day.”

Adal waited to see if he’d continue, eyeballing the man with blatant curiosity.

“Just weird.” Gaz shrugged, his voice quiet with contemplation. “After the last couple weeks, a big bastard lizard doesn’t really strike fear into the heart anymore, does it.”

Speak for yourself, Adal thought. But Gaz had a point. They’d faced down worse. If you shot a galania in the face, it would probably die. Still, he preferred not to find that out the hard way.

“You want to buy it or are you just gawking?” asked the stockman, butting in.

“Look, I’m sorry about the bird–” Adal tried to be diplomatic, but Torcha cut him off. She stepped between he and the stockman and flipped up a rude two-fingered hand gesture.

It was about time they got going anyhow. Adal dragged Torcha out of the yard by her shoulder. Gaz followed along behind them. The stockman yelled something at their backs, but Adal didn’t catch it and he didn’t particularly care. For lack of a better option, he steered Torcha across the road and up the hill toward the pub.

Only the pub didn’t prove a more peaceful alternative.

Outside, the usual assortment of loiterers and smokers were relaxing, a loosely-gathered handful of them. It was the middle of the workday and there they stood, pointedly not seeking gainful employment. They relaxed in the shade of the building’s sagging porch, and all their conversation dried up to a trickle and then silence as soon as Adal neared them.

At first he wondered if Gaz or Torcha had antagonized these gentlemen prior to today, but the group didn’t seem to be singling either of them out. The trio all drew the same level of wariness, a sort of edgy, tight-lipped quiet like the kind that gripped Privates when a notoriously hard-nosed Sergeant was on the prowl for a whipping boy in the drill yards.

Gaz didn’t approach the building any closer. Behind Adal, he cleared his throat.

“Gonna go find that leatherworker,” he mumbled, avoiding the crowd. One of the men on the steps must have heard his accent, though, because he spat in the direction Gaz walked off.

“That’s hardly necessary,” said Adal. He felt a little spark of defensiveness, which surprised him. Gaz wasn’t even around to see Adal defend his honour, but by Loth he felt compelled to.

“Speak for yourself.” The spitter in question was a tall, too-thin man with ruddy cheeks and loose-hanging clothes. He squinted at Adal from beneath a straw hat that was on the verge of fragmenting to pieces, loose-woven grass jutting brokenly from the brim. “We’ve had enough trouble with these narlanders kickin’ around. Then you lot roll in.”

“We’re not here to cause any disturbances,” said Adal, polite but also not retreating. Torcha took a step closer.

The man threw his head back and laughed, cradling a hand to his head to keep his hat in place. “A man pokes his nose in every cursed schowe and weald he comes across, but he doesn’t want to cause any disturbances.

Adal straightened. He hadn’t left the castle with the intent to deck a man in broad daylight, but he wasn’t about to let himself be used as a pincushion for a peasant who’d had a bad week.

Torcha jutted up her chin and murmured a few low words at the men in a language Adal barely recognized. He forgot she spoke Sunnish sometimes, as little as they’d ever had to use it in the field. Hideous language, with all those strung-together vowels. No crisp diction in it.

Whatever she said, the words hadn’t had an ameliorating effect. The man in the hat flung a hand up, making a warding gesture at her. Adal couldn’t understand the words he spoke back, but he knew what beat it looked like in any language. Torcha did not step back.

“Torcha,” he warned her. She gave him a stiff little shrug, unapologetic as ever.

Before Adal could get another word in, the bellow of a distant horn cut through the tense quiet in the yard. All heads turned toward the drawbridge at the base of the hill. The Baron’s party was returning, then.

The horn kept bellowing, though. It was a different pattern to the one Adal had heard before, the single drone to announce the incoming entourage. He shot a quick look toward the locals, whose faces all bunched up with concern and confusion at the sound. Some sort of emergency signal, if he interpreted their expressions correctly.

All business, he looked back to the man in the hat, hoping recent events were enough to put the past five minutes behind them. “Shall we arm ourselves?”

“Do whatever the fuck you like,” the man said, shoving past.

Adal let him go. The street didn’t quite empty entirely, a few curious onlookers remaining in doorways. But mothers shooed their kids inside. The guards up on the ramparts stiffened and more guards arrived behind them. Adal and Torcha made for the fence that ringed the pub, the best available cover.

“You packing?” he asked, aware that all he had on him was a bootknife.

“Is the sky blue?” Torcha grumbled and reached for her belt, though she didn’t draw yet.

They watched in tense, breath-held silence as a plume of dust rose up from the road beyond the bridge. Adal noted that the soldiers at the guard tower hadn’t raised the drawbridge yet, which meant whatever was approaching wasn’t an enemy army or some monster crawled out of the swamp to drag them back. He checked a glance up toward the castle. Even if he and Torcha legged it, they wouldn’t make the gates in time.

He hoped Gaz had the good sense to put himself somewhere secure. Riss and the others, at least they had the keep to retreat to.

Whatever was happening, he and Torcha would have to face it as they were.

<< Chapter 61 | To Be Continued >>

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Chapter 61

Calay felt cleansed. The bath had helped scour the last of the swamp away, sure, but this–this felt like an exorcism. Sighing and relaxing back on his side, he luxuriated in the sensation of clean bedding beneath him and sweat cooling on his skin.

Gaz’s fingers brushed one of his hipbones, a light touch at first and then more confident, his whole palm settling there in a loose, comfortable drape.

“Don’t you get shy on me after,” Calay teased.

He felt more than heard the laugh in response, a warm gust of air on the back of his neck.

“It’s not that.” Gaz dragged a thumb along the crest of his hip, pensive. “Just… this is a bit new.”

“Mm.” Calay liked that when he thought about it. “Yeah.”

His mind was quieter than it had been in months. And though he remained tired and rather sore from his run-in in the pub, the ache in his jaw was now coupled with that pleasant, whole-body ache of muscles well-used in the pursuit of far more enjoyable activities.

Gaz’s fingers traced up the lines of his ribcage. They found the pale path of an old, time-faded scar and followed it.

Back in the mire, there had been so much Calay felt they needed to talk about but couldn’t. So many plans to consider, contingencies to secure, suspicions to share. And they’d been able to speak of next to none of it due to the ever-present ears of Riss and her company.

None of that had changed now that they were alone. The same concerns still hung in his mind like jagged stalactites: whether Riss would keep his secret, whether anyone from Vasile had cottoned onto their trail, whether the thing growing inside his arm would need to be excised. Good concerns. Practical concerns.

Yet now that they were alone, he found he didn’t care to voice any of it. He couldn’t control Riss, nor the bounty hunters. The arm perhaps, in that he could always cut it off again, but who knew whether that would fix things or make them aggressively worse.

The subject of the Bridging loomed, too. How best to address it. If he wanted to address it. Addressing it would open up a line of questioning for what Gaz might have seen when he’d peeked beneath the veil of Calay’s thoughts.

The thought calcified inside him: He can’t pity me. I’ll lose it. I’ll fucking lose it.

“How you feeling?” Gaz asked, prescient as ever when it came to shifts in Calay’s mood.

“Better.” He meant it.

Now Gaz’s hand wandered across his chest. He exhaled another amused whuff of air as his fingertips brushed a hickey that darkened Calay’s collarbone, then he ghosted his fingers up and over his shoulder. He trailed light, affectionate touches down Calay’s bicep, then paused where flesh terminated and bark began.

“Can I?” he asked.

“Mhm.”

He’d been surprised earlier when Gaz had grabbed him by the wrist. Surprised that he’d felt it through all the strange shit growing there. How his arm felt like both a part of him and not. Both a thing that belonged to him and not.

Gaz continued his idle explorations, fingers traversing the cracks and veins in the bark, carefully gliding over the sharp bones beneath. He touched gently at the slim blade of a claw; that sent a pleasurable shiver through Calay’s gut.

Something in that shiver transitioned to something else, something a little chillier, by the time it reached his chest.

“Hey,” he murmured, voice low. “I…” Rumbling wagon. Gulls wheeling through the sky. The scent of beetles boiling to their deaths by the dozen. “I don’t think I ever thanked you. For doing what you had to do back there.”

Gaz’s fingers stilled. He cradled Calay’s talons against his much-larger hand.

His reply was typically blunt. “It’s the worst thing I ever did.”

Calay knew. He’d felt that too. When they’d Bridged, he’d glimpsed inside Gaz and Torcha’s minds, seized on moments when they’d felt their lowest and most blazingly enraged. Torcha’s helplessness as outsiders wrenched away her way of life a piece at a time. The fury and triumph of her revenge.

Gaz, though.

Everything he’d glimpsed through Gaz’s eyes was familiar.

Knots of worry in his stomach when a black-lacquered carriage pulled out of sight. Terror and disbelief at watching Calay dragged from the Clinic by watchmen, his frantic begging to Rovelenne Talvace to spare the facility. Shards of glass pried from palms already riddled with scars.

He’d felt Gaz’s cold dread when he’d awoken to find Calay gone that morning, equal parts fearing seeing him again or not. How he sank further still, then near fully broke when Calay staggered home, saturated with blood and unable to speak of what he’d done.

He’d felt now–both inside himself and outside himself–Gaz’s seemingly infinite capacity for forgiveness.

Swallowing hard, his throat tightening up again, Calay tried not to dwell on it. He tried not to remember the hollow resignation, the grief which lapped past sorrow and all the way to numbness again. When they’d strung Calay up from the gallows tree, Gaz had thought of ransacked buildings, shells of things once tall and proud that had since been emptied of anything of value, never again to feel the warmth of life within them.

Every horrible thing that dwelled in Gaz’s head had been Calay’s fault.

They’d been through some shit together prior to that, of course. Before House Talvace, before the gang wars, before the gallows tree, when they were just two kids sleeping on cots in the surgery room, they already shared an unspoken understanding. There’d never been any question that they had each other’s backs. But Calay hadn’t until that moment grasped the scope of how much Gaz had gone through to keep that promise.

And when he racked his brain for any possible explanation, any reason behind why a person would endure so much for another–for the person who had caused it all in the fucking first place–the answer came as easy as a slap to the cheek.

It’s what you do when you love someone.

Breathing was suddenly difficult. His chest felt tight. His talons twitched, though he was mindful not to clench a fist around Gaz’s fingers. That old urge rose in him again, a sneering phantom, the urge to ball up his fists and just hit something. To pummel the world until it all made sense again.

“Hey, hey…” Gaz leaned in against his back, scooping his other arm up and under Calay from beneath. “Relax. You’re shaking like a leaf.”

He’d felt the hot tears that stung at Gaz’s eyes when he wrenched the knife into Calay’s arm. The disgust, the fear, the determination–it was all a part of him now, like two shades of ink splashed together in the same vial.

“I felt how hard it was for you,” Calay whispered into the crook of Gaz’s arm. “How hard… all of it has been. I put you through the fucking wringer, didn’t I? Shit. Then everything else.”

Again, Gaz’s fingers idly descended on Calay’s claws. He squinted one eye, expression pensive as he carefully examined the sharpened blades that now grew where fingers once were.

“Don’t really think it’s fair to blame yourself for this,” he said, tapping a fingertip to one of Calay’s knuckles.

“I wasn’t talking about the arm. More… everything that led up to this.”

“What, you mean the part where you murdered a shitload of people in cold blood and had to be smuggled out of the city?” Despite the words, Gaz’s tone was casual, far from biting. He lifted Calay’s clawed hand in his own, then brought it to his face. “Yeah, all that was on you. But not this.”

Calay hiked up an eyebrow. “Thanks, I think.”

Gaz kissed his knuckle, the same spot where the tiny purple flowers had bloomed.

“I’ve been thinking.” Calay cleared his throat, able to rein in his emotions once more. “About what you said. You remember back when we first took this contract? You said sooner or later, we’d have to stop running and actually establish cover.”

“Sounds like something smart I’d say,” Gaz’s tone was glib. He had yet to relinquish Calay’s hand. Calay found he didn’t mind.

“Well… what if we stopped running? What if we… stayed here.” When he said it aloud, it sounded like an utterly foreign concept. Like a combination of words spoken by someone who wasn’t fluent in common. Like nonsense.

Staying in Adelheim was a stupid idea. Not because it was dangerous–Calay reasoned it was likely rather safe. They were far from the Leycenate’s reach and Adelheim itself was such a spit-fleck on the map that any would-be prizehunters would have to travel far off the beaten tracks to even sniff it out.

No, staying in Adelheim was a stupid idea because of Riss. Because of what her company knew of them. Instinct, conventional wisdom, common sense, everything Calay knew told him that staying put in a place where someone knew his secret was bad news. They’d parted ways in the castle atrium on good enough terms, he’d thought. Riss understood that he’d given her Vosk as a favor. Adalgis had his own reasons for behaving. Torcha… well, Torcha was an odd case. All he could say for certain was that he knew she had no designs to kill him anymore.

But… Calay looked around the room, studying the heavy stone walls and the patterned tapestries that dampened their chill. One of them depicted a row of farmers bent over yam hills, digging out yams and looking far too thrilled about it. He admired the gleam of the copper bathtub, the shine of the oil lamps. He sagged back against the warm, solid weight of Gaz against him in a real, timber-framed bed with a feather-stuffed mattress. They had clean sheets. Warm food. Solid walls between them and the outside world.

If he allowed himself a moment of vulnerability to reflect on why, he knew the answer: this was the safest he’d felt since they’d fled.

“We could stay, sure,” Gaz said, his answer simple and offhand. Like Calay hadn’t just proposed something momentous. Like he hadn’t just suggested a betrayal of their entire strategy. He said it like the choice meant nothing to him, like he was happy to go along with whatever Calay decided.

“It’s a bad idea.” Calay never could help arguing with himself.

“Maybe.” Gaz’s tone of voice didn’t change.

“What would we even do?” They’d have australs to last a while after Riss paid them out. But there was no work here. Riss and Adal and Torcha, they at least had the option of joining the Baron’s garrison. Calay was not a soldier. He never would be. Hated the very idea.

“I’m sure a physik could find work anywhere.”

“A physik with one hand who has to hide his bone arm from his patients?”

In response to that, Gaz lifted Calay’s ruined hand to his mouth again and calmly kissed his palm. The sensation was damnably pleasant. Calay had wondered how much feeling he’d ever regain there, but he’d only considered it in terms of pain or temperature or pressure.

“We could get you a glove.” Gaz hitched a one-shouldered shrug.

“You seem so unbothered by any of this.” Calay brushed his hair out of his eyes, gazing up at Gaz in the waning lamplight. His broad, heavy-featured face was lax with calm. A hint of a smile curved his mouth in the most unconscious way. It had been a long time since Calay had felt as free as Gaz looked.

“I can let it bother me in the morning.” Gaz’s answer had a relaxed finality to it. “Right now I feel… pretty good. I’d rather just enjoy that.”

He made it sound so easy. Calay tucked himself more fully into the loose embrace that held him, sighing and attempting to banish every last scheme from his head.

“I think I said I want to stay because I feel good too,” he mumbled into Gaz’s forearm. “And… maybe if we don’t leave, we can just… keep feeling good.”

Perhaps they could disappear into the belly of this castle and see it as a sanctuary, not a dungeon. Perhaps he could train himself to be the kind of person who could be happy in a place where yams were a noteworthy enough event to be celebrated in tapestry.

Gaz yawned, stretching his legs and arching his back. He slouched deeper into the soft nest of their bedding, pulling Calay in against his chest. Calay let himself be affectionately manhandled, happy to fall wherever Gaz dropped him.

In all their speculating on the future, they hadn’t addressed what had happened between them. The sudden, explosive nature of it had left Calay reeling a little, though reeling in a satisfied and comfortable way, somehow. He recognized the impulse for what it was–born from the same compulsion that drove him to the bar fight. Some combination of frustration, momentum, pent-up aggression, and let’s face it, standard-issue human horniness. Just like back home, when he hadn’t been able to get it out of his system one way, he’d found another. In Vasile it had been nights at the Gilded Hand. Here in Adelheim, it was apparently… this.

Hellpits, he had some messes to clean up and he couldn’t stop making new ones.

Soft snoring reached his ears as Gaz drifted off. Calay considered blowing out the lamp, but that would mean moving. So instead he just turned his face away from the light, eyes closing.

Gaz was right. They’d discuss the repercussions of whatever this was in the morning.

The world was soft and warm and slow. Perhaps, for a time, there could be peace.

###

What a feeling it is to simply let go.

Since the day Alfend Linten disappeared, since the day he inherited the mantle of sorcerer and doctor at once, forced yet again to grow up too soon, this thing has been building in him. It’s pressure, it’s steam, it’s a kettle nestled in a fire’s coals. The pressure built in him through the riots in the Vasa streets, when he did his best to tend to those the Leycenate had set their dogs upon. Mauled in life by the jaws of the city, then mauled in death by teeth that were less metaphorical.

It built in him further as they picked his empire apart bone by bone, dismantling the things he’d built and all the good they’d set out to do. Yes, he’d overreached. Yes, he’d caused harm. He wasn’t innocent. But none of them were either.

From the day he was born, he’d never been as free as the moment he stepped out of that cell.

They lead him out of the twisting, turning guts of Leycenate House’s dungeons. He’s in the square now, and it’s packed with people. Some sprawl up onto the monument’s stairs, sitting at the feet of the Founders for a better view. The Founders’ brassy, blank stares are turned toward the sea, as if even in statue form they won’t stoop to pay him any attention.

Get on with it, he wants to say. But they’ve stuffed a gag in his mouth. They’ve also bound his hands behind his back, unaware of the futility of such precautions. Watchmen march him through the crowd, which is packed elbow-to-elbow. Toward the rear of the teeming mass, someone’s erected seating for the Landed Lords and Ladies. He doesn’t dignify the stands with a glance, wondering instead how exactly to best mime the face of a man condemned.

He only has to pretend a little longer.

They drag him beneath the sprawl of the Gallows Tree, the old gnarled presence that has lurked in the Square since history can remember. It’s ancient. It’s dead. Its twisted boughs throw writhing, tentacular shadows on the aged stone, but Calay isn’t scared of it. He grits his teeth into the rag that gags him, biding his time.

As they haul him up onto a stool, some dignitary whose name he can’t remember bellows out his crimes. It’s a satisfyingly lengthy list. The crier imbues the words with appropriate menace. He flits the tiniest glance off toward the Landed in their marquee. Shame Lady Rovelenne couldn’t join you, he wishes he could say.

He does not search the crowd for his friends. Doesn’t want the memory of their haunted eyes to wake him at night. Gaz is out there somewhere. Syl, too. And he imagines Loy might be there, if only because watching him die would be of scientific curiosity.

Turn away, he wishes he could tell them. You don’t need to watch this part. It’ll all be over in a minute. Right now, they’re holding their breaths and awaiting something awful. They don’t know they’re watching a magic trick. Don’t know the coin’s about to reappear in their palm, safe and sound.

The dignitary doesn’t offer him the chance to say any last words. He loops the noose around Calay’s throat like a man helping a child learn to tie a scarf–gentle, careful.

He curls his hands into fists, testing the binds at his back. They’d be enough for most men, but he’s no mere man. All the long nights in darkness and captivity, they were mitigated by the knowledge that the fuckers upstairs had no idea what they were dealing with.

They read out his sentence and kick the stool out from under his feet without further ceremony. A roar rises up from the crowd. He likes to think some of them sound upset.

He falls. He flexes his arms. With a hard twist and a sudden snap, the ropes at his back fray and burst apart. The noose bites in. His head whips back. It hurts, but only for a minute. It should have broken his neck, but it doesn’t. He reaches up for the rope around his throat and summons the strength he was hiding, the blood-fortified power and potency–

When he pulls on the rope, the whole bough shudders. It cracks at the base, drooping down from the tree. Hollow, old, unstable, it snaps off from the trunk and falls into Calay’s waiting hand. A gasp rises from the crowd. Bodies warily retreat. Watchmen scramble for their rifles.

Calay snaps off a smaller branch and whips it through the air, smashing it into the temple of the man who hanged him. When he falls, Calay is on him in an instant, scooping his fingers into the wound that gushes from his scalp.

He paints his face. Light sizzles through the air. There was enough blood in a rat, but there’s a lot more in a man.

###

Calay’s heart was still pounding when he woke. That particular dream hadn’t accosted him in a while. Breathing out hard, he tried to wipe at his face but found that Gaz was slumbering on his good arm, snoringly oblivious.

Sighing, he counted heartbeats in his mind, slowed his breath deliberately until everything settled down. When he closed his eyes, he could already feel the stirrings of paranoia and agitation, the doubt creeping in to erode at the calm he’d felt when he and Gaz discussed their future.

He tried to recapture that hopefulness, that restful feeling. It slipped through his fingers like the details of his dream, which receded until all they left him with was a vague throb of adrenaline in his chest and a sneaking suspicion that they had to keep moving. Or else.

<< Chapter 60 | Chapter 62 >>

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Chapter 60

Thrones, Calay’s knuckles ached. And so did his face. When the servants arrived and filled his bath, his first order of business once they’d gone was to snuff every last light and climb into the tub in utter blackness.

He sank into silent, meditative dark, water lapping at his shoulders. The bandages unwound themselves from around his arm; he left them floating there, not giving a shit. Time passed. Who knew how much. His heart gradually slowed. He slouched back into the bath until the waterline neared his nose. As a child, he’d sustained a break to the jaw once. That old pain throbbed to the surface now, causing him to grit his teeth.

Footsteps approached his room. The latch creaked, then the door swung inward ever so slightly, a crack of orange light beyond. He might have reached for his pistol, but he knew those footsteps anywhere.

“Thought I might find you here.” A pause. “Didn’t expect the bathtub in complete darkness, though.”

Gaz stepped in without asking permission, his big silhouette blocking out most of the light he let in.

Calay wasn’t sure quite what to say to that. He knew it must look odd. But he didn’t much care what it looked like.

“I stopped by the pub.” Gaz’s expression was only just visible, a furrow to his thoughtful brow. “Heard you caused a scene.”

“And what?” Calay rolled the knuckles of his good hand. “You expect me to be penitent?”

“Nah.” The sound of something scraping. A match flickered, then a lantern glowed to life. Gaz lit the small bedside lamp but left all the others untouched, allowing Calay to retain some measure of his darkness.

He walked over to where the bathtub sat in the middle of the floor, then sagged down beside it, resting his back against the copper. Calay took a moment to look him over. He’d bathed and changed clothes, wearing a loosely-draped shirt with loose sleeves that must have been on loan from the Baron’s estate. He’d shaved both his face and the sides of his head.

“Well aren’t you looking fresh,” Calay said, not disapproving.

“Had to occupy myself somehow while you were off picking fights.”

Irritation scorched through him like a rash. He shifted in the warm water, slouching against the opposite side of the tub with a scowl.

“Yes,” he deadpanned, “how unreasonable of me to feel angry after losing my arm. Poor form, I know.”

Gaz clunked two knuckles to the tub. Calay couldn’t see his face from his newfound slouch, and maybe that was for the best. He could somehow hear the eyeroll, though.

Grabbing up one of his little cakes of soap, Calay started to scrub it through his hair, lathering up one-handed.

“Why are you even here?”

“Wanted to make sure you hadn’t had your face bashed in.”

He had to fight the urge to keep his right arm submerged, twenty-eight years of muscle memory informing him that washing one’s hair took two hands.

“You and I both know there isn’t a single peasant in this rat-spit town who could get one over on me.”

“I’m aware.” There was an undercurrent of something to Gaz’s voice, something he couldn’t quite pinpoint.

“So what then?” Some dim corner of his mind was aware that needling like this was cruel, unnecessary. But spite was a tempting vice.

“I’m not worried some yam-digger is going to whoop your ass. I’m worried about how you stormed outta here, got blasted drunk, picked a fight with one arm, and are now taking a bath in the dark. After how careful we’ve been to keep our heads down…”

Below the water’s surface, his bladed hand clenched. He felt a shift, a crack beneath the surface of the bark. Felt claws tickling at their sheaths for any excuse, any reason whatsoever. Thrones, he was tired. He didn’t have it in him for anger. Not anymore.

Stiffly, he cupped water over his hair, washing away the soap.

“Well I won’t do it again, if that’s what you’re so concerned about,” he spat. “Your cover is safe.”

“You make it hard to look out for you sometimes.”

“I don’t recall asking you to.”

Every time he spoke, Gaz was getting quieter. “You’re doing a hell of a job of minding yourself if that shiner is any indication.”

Finally, a little spark of that fury seized him so hard he couldn’t stand it. He smashed his taloned hand against the copper and it rang like a gong, the strength behind the blow unearthly. Gaz flinched and sat up, glancing over his shoulder like he trusted the structural integrity of the bathtub no longer.

“What would you have me do?” Calay hissed. “What the fuck expectation of yours am I failing to meet? I lost an arm, Gaz. I got sucked into that tree and I felt every person who’d ever died in it. I felt it when Torcha blew the grove to shit. I felt–I felt–”

A wrench and twist and pop of ligaments and joints, roiling nausea, terror so profound it whited out the rest of the world–

I felt you do it, Gaz. I felt you rip my arm off. I felt it through you. How bad it fucked you up. I’ve been outside myself and inside myself and I don’t know whose horror is whose anymore.

Swallowing, he picked up the pieces of that sentence before it could careen down a deep, maudlin hole.

“I can’t even shave,” he laughed instead. “Can’t hold the razor right all cuddywift. Tore the button-holes on my trousers after taking a piss.”

Gaz tactfully sidestepped everything that came before that.

“So let me,” he said. “How hard can it be to shave someone else’s face? Ain’t cut off my own nose yet.” A pause. “You’re on your own with the pissing, though.”

Gaz dragged the lantern along the floor, then rose up. He returned a moment later with Calay’s satchel, dropping it onto the floor and digging through it. Calay watched him, brows knit.

“Hey,” he said. “I got private stuff in there.”

Eventually locating it, Gaz withdrew a leather-wrapped toiletries kit and unfurled it. He sorted through it and extracted the razor, touching at the blade and letting out an appreciative grunt.

Calay sat up slowly in the tub, draping his good arm over the rounded lip of it. He rested his chin atop his knuckles.

“You’re actually going to do this,” he said.

“I have this theory that if you look less like shit you’ll behave like less of a shit.”

He wasn’t about to sass a man with a straight-razor in his hand, so he merely flicked a few disdainful drops of water in Gaz’s direction.

“Either lather up your face or pass me the soap, would you?”

Calay wrinkled his face in annoyance. “I’m not an infant,” he said. “I can lather my own damn face.”

He reached down and snatched the brush from the shaving kit, then sought his forgotten bar of soap. Cupping it in the palm of his ruined hand, he was able to work up a frothy lather just the same as if he’d had a human palm. He lathered up his cheeks, then his jaw, sniffing. The soap had an evergreen tickle to it.

“How should I sit?” he asked. I guess I’m fully committed to this idiocy.

“Beats me.” Gaz searched a look around the room. “I told you I’ve never done it before.”

Gaz shoved up again, then returned a moment later with a short footstool. He plopped himself down upon it and stretched out the leather strop over his knee. He certainly looked like he knew what he was doing.

“Chin up,” he said, and Calay scooted forward as best he could, angling his face upward. Looking at the ceiling in the murky lampglow had an oddly soothing effect. He let his eyes relax into the woodgrain.

Fingers grabbed him by the chin. Calay flinched back, his momentary relaxation evaporated in an instant.

“Whoa there.” Gaz gave him a look.

Sniffing again, Calay cleared his throat. “You could have warned me.” He felt childishly defensive. Hadn’t been aware his reflexes were so twitchy. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m not used to being grabbed by the face.”

“Yeah, well,” Gaz leaned forward, gesturing for him to sit back up again. “Comes with the territory. Sorry.”

Squinting his eyes closed, Calay gestured. On with it.

This time, when Gaz took him by the chin, he stayed still. He felt rough-textured fingers prodding at his cheek a moment, then retracting. Gaz thumbed near his right eye-socket, then rested the blade against his skin. That sensation sent all kinds of horrible itches through Calay’s fingertips. Never in his entire life had he let someone hold a blade to his face. It felt like trying to breathe underwater, wholly wrong on every possibly level. He’d have had better luck telling his body to swim open-mouthed through Vasile’s Grand Canal.

“I know this’ll be tough for you,” Gaz said as he started to rasp the razor down, “but try not to talk.”

Calay didn’t dignify that with a response. He sat immobile as instructed, trying to will away the alarms ringing at the base of his skull. It’s Gaz, he told his nerves. But regardless of who the hand belonged to, it was still a hand holding him by the head while someone scraped a razor down his face. He tried to divert his thoughts off toward something calming, something pleasant. He ran through the preparations of an herbal poultice in his mind, reciting ingredients.

Gilea sap. Dartweed leaves. Blackgrass boiled in water and reduced to paste. A spread of honey over the wound before application. He pictured the preparations in his mind’s eye: the mortar, the pestle, the honey dipper.

Soon, he’d relaxed however much he could. Gaz dragged the blade down his cheek, shaving with the grain, hands commendably gentle. He steered Calay’s chin side to side with his fingers; Calay let him.

Gradually, at some point he couldn’t determine, the sensations themselves became the source of his relaxation rather than his medicinal meditations. His shoulders loosened. He puffed out a long-held sigh. Gaz’s fingertips were point of cool contrast against his bath-flushed face.

“See, there we are.” Gaz sounded like he approved of this turn of events. “Isn’t going to kill you.”

Squinting his eyes open, Calay peered obliquely toward the razor that hovered near his lip and hmphed.

“Chin up,” Gaz instructed. “Let me get your neck.”

That reluctance crept back in. “I’m sure it’s fine,” he said. But Gaz had a way about him. He could persuade with a look where Calay took hours to argue the same point. He did as instructed and further lifted his chin.

Like a sawbones seeking a pulse, Gaz put a hand to the side of his neck. That sent a twitch through the fingers of his good hand. Gaz dug his thumb in a little, drawing the skin of his throat taut, and his fingers curled around against his nape and wait, wow, wait–

“Shit, sorry, you okay?”

Calay swallowed dryly. “Uhm?”

“You flinched. I thought I nicked you.”

Blinking hard, Calay opened his mouth and gulped in air like a fish on land. He hadn’t noticed, but Gaz was right–he’d tensed up. He was clutching the lip of the bathtub so hard the pads of his fingers hurt.

“Nah,” he said.

“Well settle down, then. Almost done.” Gaz slid the razor over the strop, then reached for him again.

This time, when Calay felt a hand at the back of his neck, he tried to take a mental step back. Tried to obtain some distance from himself. But he found he couldn’t. Every little scrape of razor and brush of fingertips shushed his thinking brain into submission.

This feels nice, he thought. Nice like laying on a road: all warm and strangely appealing, but a terrible idea and not a habit to grow accustomed to. But Gaz had nice hands. Big hands. Warm hands. He found himself struggling to string together words any longer than four letters. Everything was big and nice and warm and now.

Then the hands were gone, and Calay was extremely disappointed. Gaz dipped a cloth into the lukewarm water, then dabbed the rest of the lather off his cheeks. Calay watched him with wide, owlish eyes, tracking his hands with interest.

“How’s it feel? Miss anything?” he asked, shamelessly angling for a little bit more of that… whatever it was.

Gaz hiked up an eyebrow but then relented, dragging the back of a knuckle along Calay’s cheek to check for rough spots. But it wasn’t quite the same. It wasn’t quite good enough. Calay turned his head sideways and nuzzled his whole face into Gaz’s palm the way a hound might greet its keeper.

“You’re in a mood,” Gaz said, his voice unreadable. But he didn’t draw his hand away.

Calay reached up, grabbed him by the wrist. He moved like a man in a knife fight, on blind instinct and proprioception. With a demanding jerk of his arm, he pulled Gaz forward over the bathtub, splashing water all up the front of his clean new shirt. Calay’s brain had approximately half the time necessary to formulate a thought of I want this, yes, okay before the rest of him was acting more or less without his brain’s permission. He surged up and crushed his mouth to Gaz’s, steadying himself on his claws to prop them both up.

Gaz faltered but didn’t quite fall in. He stuttered out a halting grunt of surprise against Calay’s lips. But then he slid a hand around the back of Calay’s head, fingers threading through his damp hair.

Calay heard the razor clatter to the floor. It sounded a thousand miles away.

Strictly physically, kissing Gaz felt just about how one would expect kissing Gaz to feel. His mouth was broad, his lips were chapped. But there was a certain cozy familiarity to it somehow, despite the fact that they’d never kissed before. It felt like walking down a long road to a familiar destination. Gods, he hadn’t kissed anyone in a while. He’d forgotten all the little ways in which it was pleasant.

Gaz kept his fingers wound through Calay’s hair, then snaked his other arm around behind, half-holding Calay upright. Calay relinquished his wrist and relaxed into his grip. Might as well let the one with two fully functional arms do all the heavy lifting.

When their mouths finally parted, Gaz exhaled hard. His basso grumble came out a little breathless.

“Are you…” he started to say. But Calay shushed him, putting a finger to his mouth.

“Unless you’re speaking up because you absolutely don’t wanna do this, can we…. not?”

“Not what?”

He dragged his thumb along the seam of Gaz’s lips. “Talk.”

This time it was Gaz who swallowed dryly. Calay heard his throat click.

“There is one thing we’ve got to work out.” Gaz grazed a knuckle over the ridges of his lumbar spine. He shivered. “Am I climbing in there with you or are you climbing out?”

Calay looped his arm around Gaz’s neck by way of an answer, standing only half under his own power. Their feet tangled as Gaz half-walked half-carried him across the chamber, leaving a trail of sodden footprints on the cool stone floor toward the bed. Deprived now of the warmth of the water, Calay was quick to burrow into the bedcovers. He pulled Gaz down atop him, unwilling and unable to stop now, trailing kisses up the underside of his jaw. He bunched handfuls of Gaz’s shirt, enjoying the way his shoulders moved beneath it, then–

A hiss of pain in his ear.

In his excitement, Calay had grabbed Gaz’s back with both hands. He’d raked Gaz’s shoulder with the bone-shard tips of his bad hand’s fingers, each sharp as a filleting knife. Chastened, he released his grip and let the claws fall to the mattress.

“Shit, shit shit shit, I didn’t mean to–”

Gaz wrapped one big hand around his right hand’s wrist, leaning down against him with a calming, claiming pressure that Calay found particularly enjoyable.

“Shh. You said no talking, remember?”

Calay shut up.

<< Chapter 59 | Chapter 61 >>

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