Apart from the circumstances being less than ideal, Riss’ briefing went about as she thought it would. Tarn sat and listened, sipping from his flask as she explained the findings of their expedition: the decision that Vosk and Lukra made to betray the clothiers, the massacre, the trees setting upon them. It didn’t paint Lukra in the kindest light, but Tarn deserved better than a bullshit narrative that plastered over his son’s cracks.
“Vosk turned on us before we had him pegged,” Riss explained. “He killed Geetsha, the woman sent to guide us through the swamp. And he shot Calay here as well. Under duress, he confessed to the whole thing.”
Tarn’s shoulders slumped. He released a weary sigh. Calay had stitched and bandaged him up, one more scar to add to the many that lurked in the thickets of dark hair that shaded his arms. He’d complained fiercely when the physik had rigged his arm in a sling, but he was behaving for the time being.
“I’m pleased to see you got through it,” he said to Calay, who leaned against a table now, hand in his pocket.
Riss had to ask about one thing, now that she had the opportunity. It had been burning a hole in her pocket like an unspent coin.
“A few of our mercs met with Geetsha’s people,” she said, slow and thoughtful. “They spoke of an agreement you’d brokered?” Really, all she needed to know was that Tarn hadn’t sent them in there as fodder. Her gut told her that wasn’t the case, but that did little to assuage the worry of her brain, which was burdened by no such intuitions.
Tarn tilted his chin down, a slow nod. “Yes,” he said. “The Indefinite-Collective, they call themselves. Some sort of tribal presence deep in the marshes. Their territory butts up against mine. When I put out word about Lukra’s disappearance, they sent a representative. They said they’d assist in exchange for my men staying the hells out of their swamp.”
“That was all?” It sounded tidy enough. Believable enough.
“Mhm.” Tarn yawned and smothered it with the back of a hand. “Half my duty as chaperone over these lands is signing papers to agree to stay out of other people’s territory. The locals hate the place anyway. As far as I’m concerned, I lose nothing avoiding it.”
If he had any opinion–or any knowledge whatsoever–of the strange magicks the Collective used, whatever witchery they’d wrangled to locate Vosk in the woods, he didn’t voice it. Riss decided against pursuing it further. If the end goal was to avoid the place, perhaps they could avoid it in conversation as well.
As she related the last few days of their expedition, she felt Calay’s eyes on her, a hard stare that simmered at her back like hot coals. Gaz too watched her speak, though his own expression was considerably less severe.
She got to the part with the sheep. She said nothing of what she’d uncovered about Calay’s true nature.
Somewhere along the way, she’d simply decided not to.
While a distantly loyal part of her twinged in discomfort at hiding such a thing from Tarn, loyalty was a complex creature. She didn’t feel loyalty to Calay on the same level she felt it to say, Adal. But he’d saved Torcha. He’d brought Vosk back alive. He’d done the job she’d hired him to do. That he’d performed it all under false pretenses was not a thing she’d be quick to forget, but it was something she could understand, given what she’d learned of the man.
“Suppose that settles it,” Tarn grumbled from his bed. “You all leave me to an afternoon of rest, will you? We’ve got a party to throw and a bastard to execute, but I believe I need a nap.”
Calay rubbed a hand down his face across the room and mumbled something she didn’t quite catch.
“We’ll see you at supper,” Gaz explained.
She let them go. She saw no reason to keep anyone.
“Anything need doing?” she asked Veslin as they all filed out into the hallway. But no, he had no duties for her. As was to be expected. Tarn had a whole castle full of guards and bootlickers, no need for a hired hand.
Which meant she could spend some quality time in the library. Riss excused herself and wandered off to do just that. As she walked, she wondered whether it might be worthwhile to ask the house staff if they had any books that detailed the region’s history, anything about the swamp’s origins. But with each progressive footstep, that desire waned. As curious as she was, delving into the swamp even as an intellectual pursuit felt like inviting it back into her life.
The talk all throughout the Estate was of Tarn’s resilience, how impressive a man he was to put together a feast at such short notice. And after being set upon by highwaymen, no less! Riss kept her amusement to herself; clearly none of these hangers-on had served with him. Otherwise they’d have known this was a more or less expected Tarn reaction rather than some feat of bravery and constitution.
Still, the feast was an impressive one. Riss wasn’t sure what an evening meal typically consisted of at Adelheim’s castle, but tonight Tarn’s staff had rounded up a dozen suckling pigs and roast them until their flesh was blackened and split. Great wheels of soft white cheese and slivered slices of harder, sharper yellow stuff were heaped around the perimeter of the formal dining table. She had a whole bowl of bread dumplings in cream sauce. The only dish Riss didn’t sample was the platter of roasted mushrooms. When that was passed around, she politely abstained. So did everyone else who’d journeyed with her into the swamp, save for Torcha who chowed them down indifferently.
Riss and her company shared the head of the table with the Baron himself, honored guests. It was a tad less structured than other formal meals Riss had been forced to sit through at the hands of various nobility, which suited her just fine. Adal got to spend the night schmoozing, she and Torcha got to relax, and Tarn enjoyed telling the story of how he fought off the bandits on the road. It grew more heroic with every retelling.
After supper, people dispersed to the courtyards, which were strung with faceted-glass lanterns. A woman fingerpicked a guitar in a shaded corner and nimble servers flitted to and fro with flutes of wine. Servants set up smaller side tables in the shade, heaped with cheese tarts and roasted fruits.
Riss was far from an expert on plants, but she liked the landscaping in the courtyard. Big, red-leafed bushes left to grow a little wild partitioned the courtyard off, decidedly different to the regimented shrubbery common in the Inland. Of course, where Riss had grown up, nobody’s homes were close enough together to need shrubs to delineate property boundaries. She found intentional landscaping a curious, intriguing thing regardless of what plants were used.
Gaz found her like that, wineglass in hand, watching the crowd.
It was funny, seeing a person completely removed from their usual context. When the accords had been signed and the war was well and truly over, Riss and several others in the Fourth hadn’t been so quick to shed their uniforms as others. She wondered if on some level they were worried they wouldn’t be able to recognize one another without them. That the sense of kinship they’d developed would evaporate the second they lost their trappings and accessories.
Seeing Gaz at a party holding a wine flute was kind of like that. Were it not for the fact that he still towered, she might not have recognized him.
Mindful of his glass, Gaz eased down onto a long stone bench, his back to the wild red-brown shrubs. He looked up at her, making pointed eye contact.
“Thanks for what you did back there.” He didn’t have to specify.
Riss lifted a shoulder, casual. “It’s nothing,” she said. “You two were invaluable out there.”
Gaz turned the wineglass, the little crystal thing dwarfed by his too-large hand. “We’ve been invaluable before. You should have seen how they repaid us.”
Riss tilted her own glass down towards his, offering a cheers.
“Well I’m not them.”
An expression of half amusement half disbelief flickered over Gaz’s face. She’d never noticed it before, but he was younger than she’d initially thought. The scars, the crooked nose, the rough texture of his skin–they were all signs of life’s little hardships built up, but years weren’t among them. He and Calay both couldn’t have been thirty yet. Younger than her, at any rate.
Gaz clinked his glass to hers, smiling. Removed from the context of muck and blood, she could see now that he had a kind smile. Kind eyes, too.
“You two are an odd pair, if you don’t mind my saying.” She spoke candidly, sipping her wine after. It was a tangy, citrusy white, the kind that danced along the tongue.
When Gaz sipped, he sputtered a little. An odd, abashed look crossed his face and he looked back up at her with a shallow cough.
“Pardon me,” Riss said with round eyes.
“Oh, wasn’t you.” Gaz cleared his throat. “Just… uh, funny way of phrasing. What makes you say that?”
Riss levelled a wordless look at him.
“Fine, fine.” He huffed out a single breath of laughter. “Suppose we’re pretty different, yeah. But I could say the same for you and Torcha.”
Riss searched the courtyard for Torcha and didn’t see her. She did however spy Tarn sitting at a small table, chatting Calay’s ear off. Calay slouched in a seat catty-corner to him, watching Tarn over the brim of his wineglass, his expression inscrutable. She hadn’t warned him about how long-winded her old Captain could be when he got on the sauce. His loss.
“Torcha’s an interesting case,” she said, ever opting for the understatement. “Adal and I kind of look out for her, I suppose. The world’s hard for kids like her.”
Gaz didn’t say anything, but the slight tilt of his head and the way he kept his interested eyes on hers bade her to continue talking.
“I’m sure you know what I mean.” She sipped her wine. “Tough for folks my age too, but tougher on the young ones. They grow up in the midst of all this conflict, fight or flee at a moment’s notice. That becomes normal for them, so when they encounter real-normal they just don’t know what to do.” And she hadn’t even touched on the things Torcha had done before Riss and Gaspard had encountered her on that strange first night. Nor the people the girl had trained with.
Gaz’s fingers twitched a little on the stem of the glass he held. “I get that,” he said. “Better than most who ducked the war, I think. Vasile didn’t even dip its toes in, but…”
The way he and Calay fought, they’d gone through something. Riss didn’t know the details, but there were skills one simply didn’t acquire unless one lived a certain type of life.
“Conflict is conflict,” she said. “I get the sense you’ve seen your share.”
“So yeah.” Gaz fiddled with his glass again, then sipped the last of it down. His hands seemed more fidgety than usual. “It’s a little odd, stepping out of that and into a whole other life.”
Riss recalled Discharge Week and all the bittersweet feelings that had come with it. Gaspard pacing like a caged beast or eating sweet rolls by the dozen at his desk. The rambling, pages-long letters she’d penned to Adal while he recuperated. The vague sense of guilt she’d felt that she wasn’t happier. The war was over; peace was an objectively good thing. But Riss had felt like an outcast among her own men, an odd duck in the barracks who had no wife at home, no kids who’d missed her, not even a job to return to. She had only a father who’d willingly given her up for conscription and written not a single letter.
The Fourth, in its own disjointed and irregular way, had given her structure and purpose.
“My mentor,” she said to Gaz, a little foggy-eyed. “He put it best, I think. After they signed the accords, we mostly just kicked around stress-eating sticky buns and spinning our wheels.”
“Half of that doesn’t sound too bad,” said Gaz.
Riss chuckled and stretched out her arms, lifting her shoulders. After a moment’s consideration, she sank down onto the bench at Gaz’s side. “He likened it to being a horse. Said with these old warhorses, they often cause a ruckus and aren’t good for fuck-all during peacetime. They get so used to how crazy it is, to the constant noise, that you take ‘em home and they’re too wild for the plow. He said that’s what happens–you get home and you just can’t work the plow anymore.”
Gaz absorbed that in silence for a time. When he finally spoke again, he looked down at the glass in his hands.
“Yeah. You get it.” A pause. “We had a good thing going back home. I’m just trying to get us to a place where we can find that again. Do the thing we’re good at.”
Questions tingled on the tip of her tongue. Despite the candid moment they were sharing, Riss wasn’t sure he’d answer if she asked them.
“You have to know how hard that’s going to be.” She said it without judgment, kept her voice low and her wording vague. “With what he is. No matter where you end up…”
“We’re always going to be running, yeah.” Gaz said it matter-of-factly. He knew. He was under no illusions.
When Riss said the two of them were different, what she’d really meant was that the more she learned about Gaz, the stranger it was that he’d hitched his wagon to someone like Calay. He lacked the cutthroat instincts, the viciousness. Not that she doubted he was capable of vicious things–she’d fought alongside him, after all–but capability did not equal inclination.
A narrow figure scurried past her, moving quickly through the yard. Riss glanced up, spotting Veslin making a beeline for Tarn’s table. He dipped his head, interrupted Tarn and Calay, and said something that caused both to turn their heads toward him, smiles faltering on their faces.
Tarn exhaled wearily, then heaved up out of his seat. He encouraged Calay to stay put with a wave, then allowed Veslin to lead him back toward the castle. As he passed Riss’ bench, he gestured to her, ticking his chin up.
“Riss,” he said. “I hate to interrupt your hard-earned time off, but Veslin informs me the prisoner is causing a ruckus in the cells.”
Riss shot up to her feet immediately. How in the fuck was Vosk still capable of causing problems? As she followed Tarn inside, she tried to make a quick mental inventory of everything she’d left out of her briefing.
Namely the bits about Calay. And exactly how Vosk had lost his tongue.