Digging his hand into the interior pocket of his duster, Calay gripped his vial. But he did something uncharacteristic then: he hesitated.
A second shot shattered the warm midday air and the bounty hunter behind Gaz dropped, his neck a spray of red mist. Bystanders screamed. Gaz, quick on his feet, leapt aside from the bleeding body and swung an arm at the third bounty hunter, the woman. While she’d had the presence of mind to draw her sidearm, she wasn’t quick enough. Gaz clotheslined her viciously, sending her toppling backwards, boots in the air. Then he joined Calay and together the two of them rushed for cover.
Calay was glad for that moment’s hesitation. He couldn’t even let himself breathe as he and Gaz scrambled on their hands and knees, knuckles in the dirt.
If his ears were right–and his ears were pretty good–those shots had come from two separate guns. He had no idea where to seek cover because he had no idea where the gunfire was coming from.
He heard Tarn’s voice, a fierce bellow of orders to his men. The crowd seethed around them, bodies tumbling and flying every which way in disorganized panic. They had one thing on their side: this crowd was much much smaller than any riot Calay had ever been caught in before.
Bent low and holding their hands over their necks, they scurried for the nearest building. Their posture would afford them no protection whatsoever from long arms fire. Calay just had to have faith in the fact that thus far, the only heads that had been blown off belonged to the bounty hunters.
As if in answer to his own thoughts, a pistol shot pierced through the crowd. But it either missed its target or didn’t down them, because nobody fell.
Gaz dragged Calay down behind the corner of a building. No gunfire followed them. In fact, no further shots rang out at all.
Blood smell clogged Calay’s nostrils, the splash of it up his back nauseatingly strong. And it wasn’t even blood he could fucking use.
“Who in the hell–?” Gaz sounded like he intended to continue his question, but instead he just waved a hand. His face was a touch pale, the whites of his eyes visible as he scoured the rapidly-dissipating crowd.
“There’s no way they were Leycenate.” Calay was confident of that. “Bounty hunters. Had to be. Not particularly skilled ones.”
And now that he was no longer scrambling, now that his brain had time to catch up to his bone-deep instinct to run and hide, he was pretty sure he knew the identities of the shooters as well. Provided it wasn’t some rival bounty hunting crew swooping in to defend a prize they saw as theirs.
Beyond the wall they hid behind, the village green was silent as a crypt. Calay took a deep breath in through his mouth. That quiet wasn’t promising.
“Should we make a run for it?” Gaz gestured off down the road in front of them, which led down the hill toward the wagonyard. “We could wait at the bridge or the wagons until the Baron sorts this out.”
Calay shook his head. “No need,” he said. “If the Baron can’t sort this out from where he was standing, it’s the sort of trouble that’ll catch up to us before we make the bridge.”
Someone called his name. A male voice, accented wholly unlike that of the bounty hunters. A clean, crisp accent that Calay in his travels was starting to associate with the middle territories. Gaz’s shoulders slumped immediately with relief.
“Adalgis!” Calay cupped a hand to his mouth. “So tell me–were they trying to kill us or you?”
“I’m endeavoring to find that out!” came the reply. “Come on out and assist me!”
To his surprise, Calay levered up to his feet and stepped out from behind his cover without hesitation. He apparently trusted Adal’s word more than he’d put conscious thought to. He waited until Gaz too was up, then together they returned to the green, walking light-footed over the trampled grass.
The population of Adelheim had retreated to their dwellings. Two bodies–just the two bounty hunters–were facedown in the dust. Adal stood over one, his expression a narrow sneer of thought. Further afield, Tarn’s men stood with guns in a bristling semicircle, warding back curious onlookers. Riss crouched near a sobbing woman and child who sat in the shade of a gnarled tree.
And there, still swinging from his rope, was Harlan Vosk, dead for minutes now. Calay flipped a vulgar dockyard hand-sign toward the body but didn’t allow himself time to think any spiteful thoughts. He joined Adal in a hurry, his suspicions about the source of the gunfire thus confirmed.
“You and Torcha,” he said. “You parked her somewhere. Why?”
But Gaz had already figured it out. “Those fellas from the pub yesterday,” he said.
“Fellows from the pub?” Calay eyeballed him.
“Yes.” Adal crouched over the corpse, hands rooting through the pockets of its coat. The body was dressed in drably unremarkable clothes, but beneath the sack coat his armor was nicer than first glance implied–soft, flexible boiled leather with plenty of padding. Discreet and professional. Calay saw no Vasa insignias, but that didn’t surprise him. Specialists in covert work rarely tended to advertise.
But… fellows from the pub?
“So are you going to explain?” Calay asked nobody in particular.
“We swung by the hovel that passes for a bar here. Yesterday morning,” Gaz said. “While you were sleeping. Had a confrontation with some locals who said they were sick of northerners hanging about. I thought they just meant me, but…”
“Torcha and I decided to scout around town a little after someone took those pot-shots at Tarn,” said Adal. “The innkeeper said he’d had a lot of narlie traffic through lately, and it didn’t take long to suss out that they meant more than just you two.”
Calay took a moment to scan the low thatched rooftops. He didn’t see Torcha anywhere, but it was possible she’d already abandoned her nest once the shooting tapered off.
Adal saw him looking. “Second floor of the inn,” he said. “Through the window. We rented a room.”
Calay grunted. “Clever.”
“Yes, well, we didn’t know it was you they were here for. We assumed they were here to cause trouble for Tarn. Right place right time, I figure.” At that moment, he let out a soft aha and withdrew something from an inside pocket of the corpse’s waistcoat. A rolled-up tube of parchment tied with ribbon. Calay and Gaz both fell silent at the sight of it. The ribbon was pale blue woven through with bands of indigo. Copper threads fringed the bottom.
“I take it this means something where you’re from,” said Adal.
“Signatory ribbon of House Talvace,” Calay said. He saw no point in attempting to conceal the truth from Adal–he was about to learn a lot from the contents of that scroll. Internally, Calay braced himself. He reminded himself that Adal already knew the worst secret. The rest would land as a soft blow by comparison. He hoped. An expectant lump caught in his throat at the realization that Adal of all people might take more personal offense to his crimes than some, being a member of a Landed Family and all. But–
Adal untied the ribbon, unfurled the scroll, and read it.
“Mm,” he said. “You’re in some elite company. Your name’s here on the bottom. Higher up than Liolinde but lower than Nuso and Anvey Rill.”
A rough, surprised laugh eked out of Calay’s mouth. The scroll wasn’t a personal dossier on him, then–it was just a copy of Vasile’s most wanted list. Liolinde was a famous thief who hadn’t been heard from in years, widely presumed dead. The Rill Brothers were perhaps the most notorious outlaws on the Continent–one ran a band of highwaymen and the other had attempted to overthrow the Vasa Leycenate years back. Anvey Rill had caused the riots that nearly burnt Calay’s clinic to the ground.
“They say anything juicy about me?” Calay asked.
Adal flipped the scroll around to show him. The paragraph bearing Calay’s name and a hastily-sketched likeness said only that he travelled “with a large companion”–ha–and that he was wanted for the deaths of sixteen persons of both noble blood and employ. Most interestingly, it said not a word about his sorcerous inclinations.
“I wonder how they arrived at twenty-eight thousand as the bounty,” Adal said. “Honestly, that’s a tad lower than I’d have expected.”
Calay cocked his head sideways. “Should I take offense to that?”
“What about the woman?” Gaz asked, suddenly interjecting. “There was a third bounty hunter. A woman. I don’t see her among the dead or injured.”
Adal’s expression flattened. “I saw her,” he said. “Couldn’t give chase in the crowd. I tried once and missed.” He breathed out and looked toward Riss for a moment. “I hope you understand, in a crowd like this it was–“
Gaz cut that off with a curt shake of his head. “Relax. I get it. You don’t need to apologize for not wanting to blow a hole through a bystander.”
Calay wondered for a moment if he would have shown the same reluctance. For a long time, the answer would have been no. But he’d hesitated to use his blood, hadn’t he? Was this the fabled restraint Gaz had been trying to teach him all this time? Had it finally become his first resort?
“It was inevitable sellswords of some stripe would catch up to us,” Calay said. “I’d have liked to interrogate her, but the reality of it is that if one company knew where we were, others won’t be far behind. One of them getting away isn’t going to be a difference-maker. They had to learn our location from someone, and that someone will send more.” There were so many possibilities. He hadn’t bothered to even commit the names of all his enemies to memory.
Beside all that, though, he noted Adal’s apology. Whatever bonds their time in the mire had forged, a few days of recuperating did not appear to have put the mercenary back into Riss’ mercenaries. Or perhaps he was just playing nice because Calay still had a flagon of his blood. He considered using his particular brand of verbal alchemy to transmute that into a favor–if he played it right, he imagined he could get Adal to ask Tarn to overturn every stone in town in search of that bounty hunter woman. Send a message back to her people, whomever they might be, that he wasn’t to be fucked with.
But the more he thought about that, the more pointless it felt. As much as he wanted to open up the throats of anyone who’d dare hold a gun on him and Gaz, the moment had a certain weighty inevitability to it. Rather like the moment they’d kissed. Odd as it was to do so while thoughts of kissing crossed his mind, he looked to the gallows. He watched the limp body of Harlan Vosk dangle there, removed of all animation, a husk that had once been a thing he loathed.
Life reduced itself to a series of if-thens in his mind, a series of computations like the basic mathematics Alfend had patiently taught him as a boy.
If they made it out of the swamp, then Vosk must die to preserve their secret in Adelheim.
If Vosk died, they were free to do as they wished in Adelheim.
If someone discovered them, they had to leave Adelheim immediately.
That those last two had happened simultaneously was just bad luck.
“I hope you weren’t too betrothed to the idea of staying here a while,” he said, eyes on Gaz.
Gaz heaved a big shoulder and turned his eyes toward the corpse as well. Just past where Vosk dangled, Riss and Tarn were engaged in an animated discussion. Tarn raised his voice. Calay heard the word ruckus. He’d always liked that word.
“I knew what I was signing on for,” said Gaz.
The words felt like they applied to more than just the latest leg in their run from the law. But now wasn’t really the time or place for that.
Riss finished her discussion with Tarn and spun in a circle, pausing when she caught sight of them. She approached with a heavy-footed, stomping gait and–much to Calay’s amusement–actually shoved the freshly-hanged corpse out of her path rather than divert around it.
She planted her hands on her hips when she arrived. “Well that was a shitshow.” A half-beat pause, during which she zeroed in on Adal. “You and Torcha have some explaining to do.”
Adal whiffed out a ghost of a laugh, as if he’d been expecting that. He lifted a glove, gesturing. “I know we–“
Riss cut him off, tut-tutting.
“Not to me. To Tarn. He’s shitting mad.”
Calay glanced between the mercenaries, keeping his mouth shut. He thought he had the power dynamics of this little unit all figured out, but throwing Tarn into the mix appeared to upset the balance. He took a step closer to Gaz. Together, they watched as Adal walked off toward Tarn with his proverbial tail between his legs.
Had they not told Tarn of their plan to stake out the hanging? That seemed unwise.
Riss muttered something about scoping out the wagonyard. Calay considered offering his assistance, but a better idea occurred to him.
“You go on ahead,” he said to Riss. “I’ll get these cleaned up and out of the way.”
He gestured down to the bodies congealing in the dirt. Perhaps they had some secrets yet to give up.