Interlude: Wishes

“Doesn’t this guy ever have to eat?”

Riss glanced up at the sound of Torcha’s voice. The younger woman stared down at the galania’s back, watching as it dragged itself–and their wagon–step after ponderous step. Presently they sat upon the pilot’s bench, Adal taking a much-needed rest. 

He’d shown Riss the ropes when it came to manipulating the harness and controlling the lizard. The task had turned out to be far, far easier than she imagined. Compared to a horse, the galania was practically an automat. It walked in a straight line as directed, responded well to the yank of the reins when necessary. And when the harness was eased off its shoulders and further down its back, its central buckles undone, the thing just went to sleep.

It was honestly kind of eerie, like the water-powered automats in some nobles’ palaces. Shut off the water and they just died. Pull back the harness and hood its eyes and the lizard just stopped

Then again, in this heat she couldn’t blame it. The further south they drove, the hotter and drier the climate turned. The swampy lowlands had dried away to repetitive, rolling hills, their yellowed grass crying out for rain. The tree cover thinned too. The last time they’d stopped to fill up on water, Riss had hit the sad excuse of a trading post beside the well and bought herself a broad-brimmed straw hat. The next time they’d passed through a village, she’d bought a loosely-woven cotton robe and boy she was longing for it now. But whomever sat on the pilot’s bench and the guard’s perch had to stay armored, just in case. The last thing they wanted to do was truss themselves up like a pretty, easy meal for highwaymen.

They could handle any trouble the road threw at them. Riss was certain of that. But there was wisdom in not inviting trouble to be handled.

She recalled Adal’s little lecture about the galania, choosing to pass on only a small sliver of that wisdom to Torcha.

“If you feed them something properly large, they only have to eat every five or six days,” Riss explained. “If we don’t stable him up before then, we’ll have to hope we get lucky and find a big enough deer.” She glanced down at the lizard, pensive. “Or two.”

Torcha didn’t seem comforted by this. She regarded the galania with fresh suspicion.

“Trust me,” Riss promised. “It’ll become evident when he gets hungry.”

“Remind me not to walk in front of him,” Torcha said. “We’re close enough to five days that I don’t trust the fucker.”

They were four days out of Adelheim now. All the horrors and dredged-up emotions of that strange, discomfiting mission felt further away with geographic distance. It all felt like some nightmare, the real intense kind that stuck with you but mercifully began to blur with time, its details melting away. 

Now Riss and her crew were just another pack of assholes on a wagon. The ordinariness of it pleased her. Freed of all that strangeness and its complicated solutions and its murky moralities and deals-with-devils, she could get back to doing what she did best. 

“Huh.” Torcha again, this time sounding interested in something. “Wishes.”

Riss blinked and tipped up the brim of her hat, peering past the frayed straw edges toward a sun-bleached wooden sign nailed at eyeball-height to a nearby tree trunk.

WISHES, it read.

A smaller sign below it was painted with an arrow, pointing rightwards off the main road.

Riss peered further into the distance, noting a T-intersection up ahead. The mysterious path toward WISHES looked well-worn, intentionally widened for wagon passage. Originally gravel, grass had begun to overtake it, sprouting in withered little yellow-orange clumps up through the rocks.

As they neared the crossroads, a second sign promised WISHES but also VITTLES, along with another imploring painted arrow. 

With the immediacy of a mother who could predict her child’s tantrums, Riss knew what Torcha was about to say.

“No,” she said preemptively.

“Oh come on.” Torcha stuck out her tongue. “We’re down to half a barrel of water and it’s too hot to go hunting.”

“Yes,” said Riss. “But I’m not thrilled about the wishes. Some roadside scam artist set this place up to skim australs off idiot travelers, you know.”

“So?” 

“So if we stop here, we’re the idiots.”

But a quick survey of the wagon’s occupants overruled her caution. Fine, Riss thought. Let them buy overpriced crap or get their fortunes told or whatever crud this place is peddling. Perhaps they were blowing off steam, still venting pressure valves that the swamp had twisted too tight. Who was she to argue with that?

###

Wagon ride? Boring.

Shit-pit watering holes by the roadside? Boring.

Nothing to look at but the inside of the wagon and a bunch of grass? Boring.

If nothing else, the word wishes promised something unique. Even if it turned out to be stupid. This was the entirety of Torcha’s justification. That was all she needed.

So when she hopped free of the wagon and sized up the raggedy lean-tos and squat little shacks before her, she couldn’t help but be disappointed. A sign welcomed them to Wishes in both common and Sunnish.

“Fucksake,” Torcha muttered, shoving her hands in her pockets. “Wishes is just the name of the town.” She felt hoodwinked. The urge to kick something passed fleetingly through her foot, but she held off because the only things in kicking range were their wagon and Adalgis.

The town of Wishes–if it even deserved the title–was backed up into a dry yellow hillside. It looked scavenged from spare parts. Every structure was so brittle, dry, and washed-out that it sort of blended into the background. It made Torcha feel like she was squinting through her eyelashes when she looked at it. She’d hoped there might have at least been a hokey fortune-teller or some nomad caravan selling trinkets for good luck, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

“Well,” said Riss, trying to console her, “we still need food. Maybe they’ll have something tasty.”

“That’s a good point,” Torcha said. She sighed, looking back over her shoulder to where Calay and Gaz were clambering down out of the wagon. They both looked half-asleep. 

“Gonna see if they’ve got a mirror,” Gaz said. “My hair’s getting all bushy.” Torcha squinted at him, giving him a once-over. His hair was maybe half an inch long on the sides. Maybe

“I’ll tag along,” she said, stepping up into the giant man’s personal space. “Maybe there’ll be a junk shop worth nosing through.”

“Sounds good.” Gaz strode off toward the only human in sight, an old woman stooped over a washboard, laboring hard with her hands submerged in her bucket.

“Well aren’t you two thick as thieves,” Calay said, stalking along on Torcha’s other side.

Torcha shrugged her pocket-bound hands at him, flapping out the sides of her coat. “What, you jealous or something?”

Something was up with those two. She hadn’t putted in because it wasn’t her business, but something had upset Calay’s apple cart. Free from the pressing danger of the swamp and their reliance on his otherworldly talents, Torcha saw the man for what he was: kind of moody and weirdly sensitive. 

But all the same, she didn’t want him miserable. So when his response to her was a tiny scowl, she gave him a smile and freed up a hand, grabbing at his sleeve.

“Come on,” she said, yanking at his good arm. “You’ll regret it if you don’t come with us.”

Calay, looking confused, pulled his hat down and allowed himself to be led along. “Is that supposed to be a threat?”

Torcha laughed, waving to the old woman as Gaz began to chat her up. 

“Not a threat,” she said. “I mean we’ll probably find something fantastic and you’ll spend the rest of the day sulking ‘cause you missed out.”

Calay didn’t like missing out on things, or feeling like anything was happening that escaped his notice. Torcha had felt that, felt it hard, a yank through her guts like she’d been harpooned with it back when… back when the… when the thing she had trouble putting into words had happened. For all the calm he tried to wear, it was a put-on. An act. He was a turbulent, volatile soul.

“Mhm,” was all he said back at her.

The old woman pointed out the town’s various fixtures to Gaz: the general store, which was a dilapidated single-room building with a chicken coop built into the side. The “inn,” which was in fact a single room in the back of her own home. And then there was the thing that sparked Torcha’s interest: the bazaar. She used that word specifically. A hardpack yard stuffed with tents where various wandering sorts plied their trade.

“What’s the difference between a bazaar and a market again?” Gaz asked as they walked across the crunchy grass toward the collection of patchwork tents. 

“How far west you are,” said Calay. “Far as I can tell that’s it.”

The bazaar wasn’t crowded. There were only a half-dozen tents, but each one had distinct, interesting fabric that caught Torcha’s eye. One was a soft-tanned leather that felt like deer velvet when she touched it. Gaz and Calay discovered one sold medicinal tinctures and that swallowed their attention whole. Torcha kept wandering, poking her head into a tent packed with crates of wine and then one that was stuffed to the brim with assorted knick-knacks.

The knick-knack tent hadn’t been packed down in some time. It had sat in this place long enough that dust had gathered on its struts and many of its wares. It reminded her of the Rummage Shop of her childhood, the free-for-all trading post on the outskirts of town where you could barter just about anything provided you could prove it had even vague material value. 

The tent appeared to be unmanned, so Torcha let herself explore. The first thing to catch her eye was a collection of small potted plants. Each little pot of red-orange clay was home to a single stem, tall and graceful. A few were blossoming, their flowers pale pink and purple. She liked them, but carrying one around on a wagon was impractical. So she then turned to the wall-hangings, leafing through a few and dislodging great mushroom clouds of dust. 

Technically-speaking, they were well woven. But all they had on them was pictures of guys on horseback stabbing boars and shooting deer and that kind of shit. Snooze. Torcha flipped through them like the pages of a book she couldn’t be bothered reading all the way, then let them hang limp.

Finally, she spotted something interesting–really interesting–all the way down on a bottom shelf. It was so dull with dust that her eye might have passed right over it if not for random chance. Sidestepping the sunken ceiling of the tent, she crouched down and lifted the wooden thing off its sad, bottom shelf home: a small three-quarter size guitar, the type for children who were just learning or travelers.

Rubbing her sleeve over its lightweight wooden body, she swept away the dust until its grey-brown became a brown-gold. The wood was old and unpolished, but it shone when she stepped into the light. Further dusting revealed a subtle sunburst pattern lacquered onto the back and around the sound-hole. The neck had simple but eye-catching mother of pearl inlays, little shiny triangles that marked the frets.

Torcha plucked one of the withered gut strings. The note that twanged out was sad, dry, and out of tune. 

That didn’t matter. She wanted it immediately.

She didn’t know how to play guitar and up until that moment had never felt the inclination. That didn’t matter either.

<< Second-Year Field Work 2 | Wishes 2 >>

If you enjoyed the first volume of Into the Mire, please consider giving us your vote on TopWebFiction!

Interlude: Second-Year Field Work at Moetta Cave 2

One hundred and forty-nine. Including chambers, passageways, and antechambers, that was the grand total of how many “rooms” Mafalda’s expedition had mapped at Moetta Cave. And each was somehow more boring and empty than the last. 

After five weeks, Maf’s notebook was an encyclopedia of failure. 

She tried not to think of it that way, of course. She was still learning. Though her maps portrayed nothing more than empty caverns, they were still improving in the sense of technical skill–tighter lines, clearer pictures. And Professor Banno’s geomorphology lessons unveiled a lot about how Moetta Cave and other big whitestone caverns were formed. 

There was no glory to be had, but she told herself she was still getting her tuition’s worth.

And at least she still had one thing to entertain herself between lengthy sessions of depressing boredom spent sketching in an empty cave: Celio’s regularly scheduled interruptions. He didn’t get a lot of free time with the work he did, but every few days he’d manage to sneak off into the bowels of the cave to sit beside her and talk. He’d taken I don’t know you as a challenge to be conquered, a peak to ascend and plant a flag upon. 

He had yet to mention the silver buckle since that very first day.

Mafalda was privately glad of that. Knowing it existed, knowing it was just sitting there burning a hole in his pocket while they toiled away in banality… that was rough.

She tried not to think about it at all.

“So do you have any siblings?” Celio asked, munching on a sweet roll. They sat beside a murky, shallow pool in one of the lower caverns, snacking and tossing bits of bread to the pale, eyeless guppies that flitted and curled in loose-knit schools throughout the puddles. 

“Nah.” Maf flicked breadcrumbs into the water. The pink-white fish made little ripples across the surface with their seeking mouths. “You?”

A small, fond smile appeared on Celio’s face and disappeared just as quickly, a match for the short-lived ripples. “Yeah,” he said. “I’ve got a brother. I don’t get to see him often.”

“He back up north?” She had yet to ask where he came from. She assumed he’d tell her when he felt comfortable.

“Mhm.” The corners of his mouth twitched downward. “He’s… in prison, actually.”

Mafalda hadn’t been expecting that. She sat up a little straighter, her eyes widening. “Oh.” She’d never known anyone who’d been in jail before. Or had a family member there. Her hometown didn’t even have a jail. She couldn’t remember anyone committing serious enough crimes to need it. “I’m sorry,” she finally said. “That… must be hard.”

“It’s tough not knowing how he’s doing.” Celio’s eyes went distant, his mind on someone hundreds of miles away. “I write to him sometimes, but he’s never answered.”

“Maybe they don’t let him?”

“That could certainly be it.”

She wanted to ask what for, but that felt like an impolite question. Instead, she offered a bit of empathy. Someone wouldn’t mention an incarcerated family member unless empathy was what they were looking for, right? Just someone to talk to. Someone to relate to. Someone to bounce words off of in a dark, lonely cave.

“You’re right about how it’s tough,” she said. “My parents live in Tantuela. It’s a village on the coast. Takes about seven or eight hours on horseback from Medao.”

“That doesn’t sound so far away,” he said, only a little judgemental.

“If you own a horse, maybe.” Maf turned her head sideways and gave him a look. “Plus my father’s a fisherman. So unless we set a date weeks in advance, I don’t know whether he’ll even be ashore when I make a trip home.”

“What kind of fisherman?” He seemed interested now, his lunch forgotten.

“Crabs during crab season, whatever else the rest of the year.”

“On a big ship? Or…?”

Mafalda snorted. “There aren’t any big ships in Tantuela.”

“Yeah, I suppose not.” Celio’s teeth flashed in a grin. “My father was a fisherman when I was growing up. Then he got promoted, started working for the fishmonger’s union. I saw him more often back when he still had to go to sea.”

“Fishmonger’s union?” Maf had never heard of such a thing. Medao had unions, she knew the concept. But who on earth needed one to sell fish?

“It’s a Vasa thing,” Celio explained. “There’s a union for everything. And there’s all this disputed water. Captains squabbled for territory and fishing rights all the time. It was only once the Leycenate established the unions that people stopped shooting each other up with cannons over it.”

So he was from Vasile, then. That explained the accent. That was impressively far north. She’d always imagined Vasa folks as paler, more… well… she glanced down toward the murky pool. She’d expected people from the far north to be the color of those cave fish, so pale it hurt to look at them in bright light. 

“Everything I’ve heard about Vasile makes it sound painfully complicated,” she said, grinning. “You glad to be down here?”

Celio stretched out his hands, reclining back on the sandy ground. “Well we get more sun down here…”

The personal questions lapsed away into talk of field work and gossip-swapping. Gossip was a hot commodity at Moetta, for lack of anything else for the students to get up to. Maf wondered if anyone gossiped about her and Celio. If people assumed they were knocking boots instead of relaxedly bullshitting.

She stole a glance at him, took a moment to appreciate how the cavern’s shadows danced across his jaw. He had intelligent eyes. A kind laugh.

Hells. He was pretty cute. If people were gossiping about the two of them, it would help Mafalda’s reputation. 

###

With the cave as uninteresting as it had been, Professor Banno had grown lax with his schedule. Most mornings, Mafalda slept in until she woke naturally, no need for an alarm. They were only working to a schedule in the barest sense of the word, so even the Professor indulged in sleep-ins. 

Normally, she woke to the sounds of a camp coming to life: crackling fire, clinking cups and kettles, the yawning of her fellow archaeologists, birdsong scattered through the trees. It was slow, pleasant, luxurious. 

So when she awoke the following morning to distressed yelps and authoritative shouting, it was disorienting. For a half-second she considered whether it might be a dream, but a sudden shudder through her tent’s walls dispelled that notion.

“Get up!” Professor Banno hollered. “And get dressed. The Port Authority are here.”

The Port Authority? As in… customs? Blinking blurrily, Mafalda wriggled into some trousers and pulled on a shirt, buttoning it with sloppy, slow, half-asleep hands. She twisted her hair back, clipped it, and groped around the cluttered tent floor for a pair of clean socks, the only part of her wardrobe that she even bothered to sniff-check. Such was field life. Stepping into her boots without lacing them, she ducked out of the tent and into the campsite, which was chaotic with scrambling bodies, everyone’s early morning routines disrupted.

Brown-uniformed soldiers of the Medao Port Authority crowded along the side of the camp closest to the road, a little formation who spoke among themselves. One of them, an officer Maf presumed, was speaking to Professor Banno by the fire. Students and porters gradually stumbled out of their tents, congregating by the stove. At least one kind soul had had the presence of mind to put a percolator on, and Mafalda tightly folded her arms while shuffling into the queue for coffee and tea. 

“What’s all this about?” someone asked, saving her the trouble. It was unusual. They were pretty far inland for the Port Authority to care about their business. 

The officer, a dark-complected man with an unreadably stony face, stepped aside from Professor Banno and addressed the crowd.

“Good morning,” he said, his voice the scratch of a lifelong smoker. “We apologize for the intrusion. The last thing we want is to upset the Universitat’s work, so we will be as brief as possible.”

Mafalda noticed that in the background, the soldiers had spread out. They were searching the tents, although not particularly thoroughly. They merely flipped entry flaps open and poked their heads inside. Not looking for stolen goods, then.

“We have reason to believe a dangerous fugitive has passed through this way,” he said, reaching into the satchel that hung at his side. Unfurling a sheet of paper, he showed off a wanted poster to the gathered crowd. A few quiet gasps rose from the students closest, then a murmur of recognition raced through the camp.

Her breath tight and stifled, Mafalda knew whose face would be on that poster before she got a good look at it. The sketch didn’t do him any favors. His features were kinder in real life, the line of his brows less harsh. His hair was longer, too. But there was no mistaking that the sketch was Celio.

The litany of reasons she’d given him for staying at Moetta replayed through her mind like a song. I don’t know you. I don’t know your employer. I can’t just leave. We’re almost done here anyhow. Even if I’m bored, I’m still learning. I can’t just run off the first time someone waves a job offer in my face–sometimes you have to put in the shit-work to get the glory. 

And, most importantly, the reason closest to her heart:

You have no idea how hard my parents worked to send me here. I won’t throw that gift in their faces. 

A cold chill grabbed Mafalda by the shoulders and wouldn’t let her go. She stood silent and immobile as the Port Authority men inspected her tent, then moved on. They searched the entire camp, overturning sleeping bags and peeking into every nook and cranny.

Maf swallowed. She dared not look at the faces of her classmates. Had any of them seen her and Celio together? Did anyone wonder about them? Were they now wondering about her?

She’d known something was off with him. From the moment he’d pulled that silver from his pocket, she’d been unsure. That it was something illegal, some smuggled artifact he hadn’t actually dug up on his own, hadn’t occurred to her. But in hindsight it was obvious. It made more sense than strange employers and mysterious private land deeds.

The Port Authority searched the camp for a while longer, but soon it was evident that Celio was nowhere to be seen. His tent, a small one at the very edge of the encampment, sat empty. The Port Authority confiscated its contents, then packed up to leave. They left a copy of the poster with the Professor, who promised he’d share it along. Mafalda paid it barely a glance, only long enough to discover that the man she knew as Celio went by at least a dozen other names. That lie somehow hurt more than the rest. 

Professor Banno couldn’t find it in his heart to make them work that afternoon. They sat around showing off maps and writings, quizzing one another on excavation techniques and trying not to wonder too hard about the criminal that had slept in their midst. The lawmen had called him a dangerous fugitive but not elaborated on his crimes.

Though he was long gone, Celio’s presence hung like a dark shroud over their camp for the rest of the excavation. In the end, Professor Banno called the whole thing off early. They’d mapped all they needed to, he said. Better to get back to the Universitat and get a head start on second-season’s classwork.

Gradually, as she worked out the remainder of her second year, Mafalda ceased to think about the awkward, bright-eyed young man and his warm smile and his secret silver. She thought about Celio less and less, pouring herself into her studies with determination. She hadn’t lied when she told him that her primary motivation for staying in school was doing right by her parents. 

She was not going to graduate with anything less than the highest honors, not after all they’d gone through to get her there. She was proud of herself for avoiding that temptation, for not derailing her life.

###

Graduation came and went. It was, you know, nice. A big dinner. A final presentation on her third-year research concerning tissue preservation in differing burial methods. Professor Ines invited her to do a secondary research certificate with a focus on mummies. Professor Banno gifted her a bottle of wine.

At the ceremony, they bestowed upon her with great ceremony a practitioner’s license and a deep blue cloak with ermine trim, embroidered with the Universitat’s colors. She shrugged it on, enjoyed the way it made her feel, then found it dreadfully sweaty by the end of the evening.

It was, without a doubt, the best night of her life. But of course, like all best nights of people’s lives, by the morning she barely remembered half of it. The whole day was a charming blur, familiar smiling faces and words of encouragement and warm fuzzy feelings of accomplishment that all bled together like watercolors on too-wet paper. She remembered hugging her parents outside their hotel room, the warm glow of pride.

She woke in the morning with a smile on her face. Indistinct as the memories might be, she glanced to the coat-rack and saw her cloak hanging by the door and knew it was all real.

Despite graduating, Mafalda retained her room in the boarding house where she’d spent her student years. There was no sense moving somewhere more expensive when she was likely to be sent away on a dig within weeks. So when she rolled out of bed to make herself a morning cup of tea, she had to walk down the hallway to the kitchen to do so.

And when she arrived in the kitchen–a cramped but brightly-tiled space stuffed with drying herbs and big glass jars of pickled vegetables–she was in for a hell of a fright.

Celio sat at the kitchen counter, flipping through a book while casually sipping cream tea. 

There was no mistaking him. If she hadn’t recognized him on sight, the way he looked up at her and immediately smiled confirmed it. He closed the book, its pages snapping together audibly, and spread his arms as if to hug her.

“I hear congratulations are in order,” he said.

To which Mafalda answered, “Why the fuck are you in my house?”

Celio laughed a little. “Well, I wanted to talk to you. Your landlady knocked on the door, but you were out cold. Which makes sense, now that I think about it. Big night you must have had. I ought to have called later in the day.”

Mafalda ran a hand through her hair–which was unbrushed, a crazy tangled mess. She wondered if she might be dreaming. 

“Tea?” asked Celio, rising and moving to the stovetop. He checked the fire, then checked the kettle boiling atop the iron potbelly. He moved like he was familiar with this place, like he was so at home in her personal space. And yes, even though she shared it with eight other people, she still felt territorially defensive of the house. He wasn’t supposed to be in it.

“You have some explaining to do,” she said. “The Port Authority ransacked our camp the day after you disappeared.” 

Celio fixed a cup of tea without looking at it, spooning leaves into the strainer, his eyes on Mafalda.

“If I’d warned you, you would have had something to hide,” he said. “Better to not put you in that position.”

Mafalda narrowed her eyes. She drummed her fingers on the countertop. “Dunno if that should be your choice to make.”

“It was all a misunderstanding anyhow.” Celio passed her a teacup, one of the brown-glazed things the landlady provided to her charges by the dozen. Stiff with shock, Mafalda took the cup and stared at it.

“So you stalked me all the way here and now… what exactly? You want to apologize?” 

Celio’s lip twitched in a pout. “Stalked is a harsh word. I wanted to check in on a friend after her graduation.”

How was she supposed to react to that? Had they really been friends? Friendship was built on foundations of trust and mutual understanding. Based on what the Port Authority had shared, much of what he’d told her at camp had been a lie. If not all of it.

“I promise I wasn’t up to anything unseemly.” Celio skirted around the counter and re-took his seat. “I merely remembered what you said.”

“What I said?”

His bright, curious eyes found hers. As he spoke, his mouth lifted in an irrepressible grin, like a street magician about to pluck a coin from her hair.

“Two years ago you told me that you had to stay in Medao. That you owed it to your parents because of the sacrifices they’d made so you could graduate.”

Mafalda’s eyes widened. She laughed a single time, a hard bark. The volume surprised her.

“Are you serious?” she asked. “I’d sooner shit in my hands and clap.”

The turn of phrase seemed to catch him off guard. Instead of reacting to her rejection, he threw back his head and let out a startled laugh of his own. It took him a moment to get himself under control. Throughout the entirety of said moment, Mafalda glared at him.

“You lied to me,” she said before he could get a word in. “You lied about everything. This job of yours, it probably doesn’t even exist.”

Celio, looking wounded, grabbed his book off the countertop. He held it out to her, a small leather-bound peace offering.

“I wouldn’t say ‘lied.’ Everything I told you was true. I just left some details out. There really is a dig, Mafalda. And I really did find that silver there. And–this is the part where I admit something a little embarrassing–I held off on excavating further. Because I want you there.”

Were it not for the silver, Mafalda would have thrown him out on his ass. But that buckle, it had haunted her dreams. In all her third-year field work, in all her studies, in all her visits to the city’s museums and caches, she’d yet to see anything like it. 

She snatched the book forcefully from Celio’s hand, flipping it open.

The book wasn’t a book at all. It was a leather folio with a pocket on either side and a collection of documents housed within. She recognized the documents immediately: several maps, a shipping manifest, an order from an outfitter’s shop, and a contract detailing excavation rights. The second half of the folio was home to a few sloppy sketches of rock outcrops, more maps and trails and–

She reached the back of the folder, drawing out a thin square of parchment. It was a rubbing taken in charcoal, detailing some engravings on a circular pattern. It was far, far larger than the buckle, taken from perhaps a shield or a plate or some other round metallic object. The individual characters were clear and crisp, a sign of quality workmanship given their age. Just like the buckle, they were Low Sunnish, the ancestral root language of the tongue Mafalda had grown up speaking.

“There’s more,” Celio said, quiet. “So much more.”

Again, Mafalda felt that pull. Like gravity itself were drawing her along this path, toward these ancient objects and their buried, untold stories.

“There’s nothing to guarantee this is even real,” she said. “You lied about everything. Even your name. I’d be an idiot to trust you now.”

But already she was making excuses to herself. Telling herself that she’d worked for untrustworthy bosses in the past. That her second dig in third-year had been a borderline criminal enterprise. And most importantly, reminding her that in the interest of uncovering something big, she hadn’t given a shit about that part.

Mafalda was all too aware that her hunger for discovery overruled a lot of the ethical concerns that tied her peers down. Somehow, Celio had spotted it way back when. And she’d known he’d spotted it, too. Otherwise, why had she let herself befriend him? Why hadn’t she reported him to Professor Banno? Why hadn’t she voluntarily come forward to the Port Authority to tell them what he’d shared with her?

She hadn’t exactly protected him. But she hadn’t sold him out either.

Because that would mean selling out the silver.

“You’re thinking it over,” he said, grinning cheekily. “I can see you’re thinking it over.”

Mafalda closed the folder, then ran her fingertips across its cracked, aged leather surface. Her gut was telling her to go. Her gut was a silly, girlish thing given to whims and daydreams. But slowly, it was convincing her brain.

She’d learned a lot in the last two years. She could protect herself.

“If I was even to consider going with you,” she said. “I’d need to choose my own team. You’ve proven you can’t be trusted. And this site’s a long way from civilization.”

Celio’s smile shone like the first sun after a long rain. “Choose your assistants,” he said. “Your security. You know better than I do about that sort of thing anyway.”

There’s got to be something he’s getting out of this, she warned herself. Something more than an archaeologist. 

But she was young and freshly-graduated and full of piss and vinegar. Turning the folio over in her hands, Mafalda regarded her guest with a skeptical expression.

“And most importantly,” she said. “You come clean. I want the real story–why were you at Moetta? How did you know to run? And what’s your actual name?”

That last bit was a test. The Port Authority poster had listed it, among his many aliases. If he told her anything other than the truth now, she’d walk.

“Well the first one’s easy,” Celio said. He clambered down off his chair, then stretched. Taking a single languid step toward her, he started to hold out a hand…

… then retracted it, remembering his faux-pas in the cavern.

Choosing instead to comb the hand through his long, well-kept hair, he smiled at her. It was a shy smile, but beneath it was a certain confidence. She wondered how she hadn’t seen it before, that sly edge to his mouth and eyes.

“My name’s Nuso,” he said. “Nuso Celio Rill.”

And didn’t that just beat all. He was telling the truth. 

<< Interlude: Second-Year Field Work at Moetta Cave | To Be Continued >>

Interlude: Second-Year Field Work at Moetta Cave

Mafalda Latch sat ramrod-straight at her desk, forearms resting flat in front of her. She didn’t turn her head to look, but she watched from the corner of her eye as a few pupils hustled into the lecture hall, borderline late. First-years, probably. Mutters of dismay reached her ears from somewhere in the back–the latecomers were learning the hard way that showing up on time wasn’t enough. If you wanted a desk to yourself, you had to show up early. Otherwise, you ended up sitting on the last raised stair of the hall, crammed thigh-to-thigh with the other idiots. 

Welcome to the Universitat, kids, she thought. She was only twenty-two, at most three years older than them, but that didn’t stop her.

The lecture hall’s wide double-doors slammed shut as Professor Ines dragged them closed. She stomped up to the podium, a squat potato of a woman in a formless linen smock, her expression characteristically humorless. 

As the professor walked past her desk, Mafalda felt her hands twitch. She hadn’t noticed, but she’d curled them into defensive little fists, and her scarred knuckles flexed in some sort of sympathetic response, as if they remembered the pain Professor Ines had caused them last year without help from Mafalda’s brain.

Despite all that, despite the bowel-deep wariness she felt whenever sitting in the professor’s line of sight, Mafalda was glad to be back in Medao for her second year of lectures. The hot-season break had been merciful, though it began just a week or two too late by her reckoning. Home, though, was a different kind of stifling. The fishing village where her parents lived, a half-day’s ride from the city, was a far cry from the bustle she’d grown used to. She’d blown through all the books she’d packed in less than a week, and while she enjoyed the fishing trips with her father, she’d had enough after four or five.

The Universitat, for all its flaws and all its horrible goblin employees, was her conduit to the city. Her excuse to be there. 

And finally, in year two of her studies, she’d be moving on to practical courses. Which meant that the Universitat experience itself would be more pleasant this go-around. More interesting. 

Caught up in her thoughts, she zoned out while Professor Ines went over schedules and syllabuses and all that crap, only half of which was applicable to second-years. Mafalda twisted a curl of dark hair around her finger, only perking up when the professor uttered the magic words: first-season field work. 

Mafalda held her breath and mentally recited a chant for luck. Any of the first-season field assignments would impart valuable archaeological knowledge, but some assignments were juicier than others. She had a classmate who’d spent two seasons of her first year digging up bog bodies, and ew. Mafalda appreciated the valuable contributions of bog bodies to the academic canon, but if given the choice, she preferred working in drier climes. 

Professor Ines read out the title of each dig, then the students assigned to the project. First up was the Symphonic Hall construction, where the Universitat team was required to excavate the site where the concert hall was to be built, ensuring no caches of artefacts or relics of previous construction lurked beneath. Next was the Faultline team, who were assigned to explore the length of the great, jutting fault line that broke a shelf in the rolling hills north of the city. The earthquake had been a generation ago, before Maf’s time, but each year rain and erosion unearthed new treasures where the earth was broken–and the fault was a hundred miles long. That list too sailed on past with no mention of her name. A spark of hope lit in her chest.

Perhaps she’d be assigned to a tomb? Or an abandoned village? Those were the two pie-in-the-sky assignments second-years sometimes had to wait for. But Mafalda’s marks had been excellent. She’d managed a whole extra language course last year on top of her usual class load. Was it too much to hope that perhaps she’d earned a spot on something exciting?

The Cullomardo Tomb list came and went without her. As did all the villages she was aware of. The lecture hall held a couple hundred and Mafalda could have sworn that every single ass in a seat got called before her name did. 

But finally, it came. Mafalda Latch, on the list to attend first-season field work at a place called Moetta Caves.

Caves? That sounded more geological than archaeological. And she’d never heard of Moetta. Like a lot of Meduese names, it was probably just the surname of whatever explorer had tripped and fell into it back during the Great Migration. It told her nothing. The complete lack of context was both annoying and thrilling–she’d have liked to have had an immediate grasp on what she was in for. But the part of her who enjoyed research was itching to whisk away to the library, to question every professor she had on what precisely was so special about these caves. 

Caves of course could be a valuable resource when studying Meduese history. In the time before the Migration, before the city was built, the early families buried their dead in caves north of the alkali flats. In areas known to be former First Families land, every cave uncovered was excavated and mapped on the off-chance it needed to be walled up and consecrated. Doors were built when necessary, the caves’ contents were inventoried, the lineage and history of the individuals within were documented, and guards were assigned if anything valuable was found inside.

But sometimes, of course, the dig teams found nothing. 

Unless this Moetta Cave was a known dig site, Mafalda was potentially staring down the barrel of a whole season of exploring and mapping a big, empty hole in the ground. The thought caused her throat to seize up, her breath leaking out in a tight, anguished sigh. 

Her eyes flicked toward the door. She needed to get to the library post-haste. A part of her was even willing to risk Professor Ines’ wrath to try for an early exit. But what would she say? She considered straight up complaining of intestinal distress. 

Then she weighed the social consequences of being known as the person who shit her pants on the first day of school, and as eager as she was to get to researching, she held her horses.

###

One could be forgiven for walking right past the entrance to Moetta Cave. It was low to the ground, choked with twisted red-barked bushes, their leaves waxy stiff and their bark sharp with thorns. Mafalda and her crew did, in fact, hike past it three times, noting the small fissure at the base of an outcrop but assuming their surveyors must have meant some other entrance. How had the survey team even wriggled inside?

Further exploration yielded nothing, however, so machetes and elbow grease it was. Working in shifts, they hacked at the bushes and carted trunks and boughs out in pieces, carving a path through the thorny scrub to the dark crack in the white-yellow stone. The thorns fought back, slicing and biting and menacing the knuckles of each and every laborer on site.

Once they’d cut a clear path, the cave entrance still didn’t promise anything grand. Mafalda, soaked through with sweat and toweling at the back of her neck, puffed out a humid sigh. 

The butte of white-yellow rock stretched roughly north to south, providing shade as the day wore on but promising brutal sun in the mornings. There wasn’t much tree cover, but the flat ground made a good campsite, and slowly they cobbled together their base camp atop patches of loamy soil and beds of orange-red grass. 

Almost every aspect of that first afternoon set the pace for the weeks to come: the grueling physical work, the heat, the soaked-through sticky shirts, the bleeding knuckles, the thorns jabbing into her soft and uncallused hands despite the gloves she wore. But Mafalda persevered, as she always had. Like she’d conquered the road-blocks in her first year of Universitat, where she’d come up against gulfs in her education, having not grown up in the city. Like she’d conquered the soul-crushing disappointment and year-long doldrums of not even passing the admissions exams the first year she’d arrived in Medao. 

She wasn’t the smartest in her class. She wasn’t even street smart like her peers raised in the city. She wasn’t tough, as evidenced by how hard that first day in the field so thoroughly kicked her ass. Hells, she didn’t even make up for it socially–short, awkward, kind of chubby, unable to tame her hair and clueless about how to dress herself. Field work and its endless parade of white silk shirts and khaki shorts was sort of a blessing in disguise there. 

So why go through it all? Why stick it out? Apart from how deeply she owed it to her parents to succeed, the promise she’d made them, her zeal for her work walked the knife’s-edge balance between passion and obsession. She was willing to risk far, far more than the wrath of Professor Ines to make a discovery. To contribute something. To stumble across a lost civilization, or at least lost books, or failing all that at least some lost important dead people.

If there was anything worth finding in this stupid, scratchy, sticky, low-ceilinged cave, she’d find it. 

###

For all her determination, for all her willingness to risk it all, Mafalda couldn’t change reality. Magick might have been real two hundred years ago, but all the sorcerers were dead now. And even if there were any left, it would take far more than a sorcerous miracle to salvage the expedition to Moetta Cave.

You know what she’d found–after weeks of mapping every tiny passage, after crawling on her belly and tearing even her sturdy workwear and scraping her elbows and knees and eating camp food and sleeping on a campsite that had a tilt that made the blood rush to her feet?

She’d found mosquitos. A seemingly infinite number of mosquitos, all breeding within the puddles of stagnant water that dampened the cave’s interior. 

Apart from the mosquitos? Fuck-all. 

Mafalda tried to stay focused. She tried to remain upbeat. It was hard work, but she was under no illusions that graduating from the School of Archaeology wouldn’t be hard work. She clung to her academic’s mantra, a line she recalled from one of the first lectures she’d ever attended: in science, it was just as important to prove a negative as a positive. Proving an absence was just as valid a contribution to the body of knowledge the Universitat was trying to build.

Boy, it just… sucked, though. Every new passage filled with nothing but dirt and larvae eroded her enthusiasm just a tiny bit more. 

And compared to the others on the expedition, Mafalda was a ray of hells-drowned sunshine! Professor Banno, the expedition leader, handed out assignments these days like a bored noble listlessly watching his farmers toil. While the students had formed their little cliques and bonds, while there was some semblance of camaraderie, Mafalda didn’t have the energy nor the enthusiasm to make friends. Everyone sort of stuck to themselves or their little pairs, doing as they were told, hoping that they’d reach the end of the cavern soon. 

Nobody knew how deep or far Moetta’s tendrils stretched. While that had first felt like a big, juicy challenge worth sinking her teeth into, now Mafalda dreaded the discovery of new branches and chambers. Half weren’t even tall enough for a person to stand inside. She was tired of crawling around like a slug and inadvertently breathing mosquitos straight up her nose. 

It was in the middle of one such chamber–a low-ceilinged thing she had to sit to investigate–that the man first approached her.

Professor Banno had brought along more than just his stable of students. They had a camp cook, a quartet of security guards, and some porters who’d helped hoof all their gear in and now served as general laborers, hauling out debris and shoring up passages and chopping firewood and the like. They didn’t spend much time in the caverns, as they generally had other jobs to do. So when Mafalda heard scraping and scuffing down the passage she was presently mapping, she was surprised to discover that the source of it was one of the laborer men, crawling forward on his stomach and shielding his face against the lanternlight. 

She’d been sitting cross-legged in the cave’s highest point, jotting notes in her notebook while sucking marrow out of the remnants of her lunch. 

“Oh!” She waved at the man with the rib bone she’d been nibbling on. “Hi.”

With a grunt of exertion, the man hauled himself free of the narrow passage and pushed up onto his haunches. As he crept into the glow of her lantern, Mafalda caught a better look at him. He was older than her, maybe in his late twenties, with strong features and thick black hair that fell all the way to his shoulders. Muttering and patting himself down, he seemed preoccupied with said hair, gathering it up at the nape of his neck. Finally, Mafalda spotted what he was looking for: a leather cord that had fallen onto the cavern floor. He snatched it up and secured his hair, tying it off.

“There we go,” he said. And then, belatedly, “Hello! My, you were a bit further down than they told me you’d be.”

Mafalda turned to face this newcomer so she could examine him more closely. He’d come looking for her specifically? Whyever for? 

He was familiar in the sense that she knew she’d seen him around camp before, but only as part of the backdrop. He wore an outfit much the same as hers–sturdy linen work shirt rolled up to the elbows, thick canvas trousers for crawling about in, suspenders to keep it all from sliding down off the ass when engaging in said crawling. When he smiled, it was the sort of abashed grin that put an observer at ease. He had an open, approachable face. 

“Sorry if I startled you down here,” he said. “I couldn’t tell exactly where you were until I spotted your lantern. I should have called.”

It was custom in the cave, as much as there was any real established etiquette, to cooee if you were coming up on someone else’s light. Saved people getting startled and kicking lanterns over.

“You didn’t startle me.” Mafalda shrugged, finally setting the rib back on the scrap of crumpled paper she’d used as a plate. “But I have to admit I’m wondering why you’re here.”

Again with the smile. The man folded his legs and sat down opposite her, having to hunch his larger frame more than she did in the cavern. If it weren’t for the fact that he was so… so… disarmingly goofy, she might have been a little put off by how close he sat.

“My name is Celio,” he said. “And I’d like to talk to you about a job.”

He stuck his arm out, holding a hand toward her. She tilted her head, staring at his empty palm. He didn’t have anything for her, so why…?

Belatedly, she recalled that in the north, people still shook hands. And now that she gave it conscious thought, he did have a northern accent of some kind. While the Universitat itself was based in Medao, their dig site was home to a varied cast of characters. She’d grown used to hearing the clashing, unfamiliar lilts of her fellow students and workers.

He’d retracted his hand before she could belatedly indulge the custom.

“Sorry,” he said. “I haven’t been down here long. I forget.”

Hand-shaking was a thing like sorcery, a relic of the past. When the ghost ships had brought the ague to Medao, the physiks said touch spread disease. Even after the city recovered, some customs never bounced back–shaking hands and kissing cheeks for greetings.

“Going to be tough to recruit down this way for your job if you keep trying to rub your hands on people!” Mafalda gave him a gap-toothed grin.

“Jokes aside,” he said. “I’m serious.”

Mafalda brushed dust from her cheek, listening.

“We’re all getting sick of this.” He swept a big, callused hand around to indicate the cavern’s interior. “It isn’t what we signed up for. And I’m not even from the university like you. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to be stuck down here instead of working on… well… anything else.”

Mafalda squinted at him, the words igniting a defensive spark. She felt obligated to defend the Universitat and its ideals. “It isn’t perfect,” she said. “But it’s my first dig. I’m just glad to be here, learning techniques that will help me out on all the future jobs where I do get to uncover something interesting.”

“I get that,” said Celio. “That’s a good attitude to have. In a student.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? I am a student.” Now he was just getting on her nerves. Who tried to poach someone for a job by belittling their course of study?

Celio steepled his fingers, leaning forward over his own legs. He propped his elbows on his knees, eyes reflecting the lanternlight. 

“What if I told you I had a lead on a dig that actually mattered? A tomb, discovered on a slice of private property. And an owner eager to get it all mapped and surveyed so he can get on with his plans. So eager he’s willing to pay in cash as well as first excavation rights.”

Mafalda’s scam senses started tingling. That sales pitch reminded her of the time a travelling salesman had sold her mother a set of iron-bottomed saucepots, claiming they enriched the blood if you prepared food in them. What a load of nonsense.

“I’d say if you had a lead like that, why waste your time here? I’d be gone already.”

He smiled, unoffended. “Because I can’t do it alone.” 

People didn’t sit on valuable finds like that, not for weeks. Yet here he was, toiling away in this cavern as a common laborer. He wasn’t old enough or cutthroat-looking enough to be a crew leader. Whatever this guy’s game was, Mafalda doubted it would add up to anything more than disappointment and empty pockets.

“Well you don’t know me,” she said, letting her eyes wander up toward the heavily-shadowed ceiling of the cavern, the little bumps and ridges and striations in the stone. “And I haven’t even graduated yet.”

“I don’t know you personally,” said Celio, “but I’ve been watching you.”

Yikes! Mafalda squinted at him sideways.

“I’ve seen how hard you work. How you keep putting in the hours and following procedure even though everyone here knows this cave’s spent, knows there’s nothing to find. You don’t half-ass it like the others do. My employer would appreciate that a hell of a lot more than a degree.”

He had her there. She did work hard. She’d always worked hard. She’d had to. She’d failed to gain entrance to the Universitat the first year she applied, falling short in chemistry and literacy. So she’d studied both, put in a solid year of hard work where her rural childhood education had failed her. And then she’d had to keep it up, being a year older than all her classmates. And she had to work hard to look like she wasn’t working, because there was nothing more embarrassing than an over-ager who still struggled.

“I’ll give you some free advice,” she said. “Don’t ever approach a girl alone in a cave and say you’ve been watching her. That’ll get you shot.”

Yet for all his many social stumbles over the course of this conversation, she didn’t feel threatened. Honestly, he seemed a little too inept to successfully stalk a woman for nefarious purposes. Or maybe that’s just what a real scoundrel would want you to think, she thought.

“I appreciate the tip,” Celio said earnestly.

Stretching out her arms, Mafalda began to pack up her things. She’d mapped this cavern to its borders, hadn’t seen any passageways along the perimeter. It was time to get back to base camp and sort out her next assignment from Banno.

“Hey!” Celio spoke up, a little more urgent than before. He reached out a hand, as though to grab at her arm and prevent her from leaving. But he didn’t grab her. Instead, he clutched something in his fist, a leather-wrapped bundle.

“Just have a look at this,” he said. “Would you at least do that?”

Mafalda held out her palm. “Sure.” She wasn’t angry with him or anything. If she was being honest, weird as the conversation had been, it was more entertaining than endlessly sketching the same contours of rock over and over and over. 

Celio dropped a weighty object into her palm, a heavy thing concealed by a scrap of suede. Mafalda unwrapped it, tugging the drawstrings open on the little pouch and revealing what it hid: a piece of hammered silver, tarnished with age. It was a pendant or buckle of some sort, its shape a spined half-sunburst of primitive metalwork. A series of small parallel holes had been bored through the center. While all that was interesting, what seized Mafalda’s heart and wrenched her eyes open wider were the tiny characters etched into the metal, along the curve of the sun. She couldn’t read them, but…

“This is Low Sunnish,” she whispered, voice dry and soft with awe. Not the language spoken by the First Familes, but that of their ancestors. Older than most of what the Universitat worked on. Water dripped somewhere off in the bowels of the cave, and in her stunned silence, every sound felt amplified, hammering on her eardrums.

Could it be a clever forgery? Possibly. But it was solid silver. And the carved characters had a convincing depth and age to them. 

Even as her heart skipped and fluttered in her chest, even as excitement threatened to bubble away the last of her ennui, Mafalda cast a suspicious squint at the man beside her.

“If this is real, it’s even weirder that your employer is sitting on this find,” she murmured. “Do you know what this is?”

“It’s old,” said Celio. “But I’m not trained like you. So I don’t know exactly what, no.”

Mafalda opened her mouth, ready to share with him all her many and instant speculations about the piece of silver. But caution stalled her. Too much about this situation didn’t add up.

Though it harmed her, physically harmed her like stubbing her toe, she wrapped the thin suede back around the silver buckle and drew the drawstring shut. She passed it back to Celio, noting the thick calluses and short, dirty nails upon his hands. Could he sense her reluctance? Could he tell he’d hooked her, that passing the pouch back took so much effort?

“I don’t know you,” she said. “And I don’t know your employer. But I do know that if all this was on the up-and-up, you wouldn’t be hoofing crates for Professor Banno in the middle of nowhere.”

She expected him to argue. To protest. To insist that she had it all wrong, that both he and his mysterious employer were completely trustworthy. To at least be offended on behalf of his honor.

He did none of those things. Celio stuffed the pouch away into a pocket and looked at her for a moment, then inclined his head in a stout, understanding nod.

“You know what? That’s totally fair.” 

Mafalda’s squint deepened. Somehow, that only made her more suspicious.

“I’ll leave you to your mapping, Mafalda Latch,” Celio said. He dropped down onto his hands and knees again, then grabbed up his toolbag. He waved at her, then made way for the passage, tucking his shoulders in and preparing to crawl.

“You’re right,” he said as he started to shimmy down the passageway, his voice distorted by the much lower ceiling. “We don’t know each other. You have every reason not to trust me. But hey, you’ve got weeks left. Whole weeks of this. That is–oof–plenty of time for me to change your mind.”

And just like that, squeezing himself into the darkness of the cave, he was gone. And on such an arrogant note! Mafalda gathered her things, taking care to cart out her ribs and rubbish with her, and headed out along the same passageway, shoving her bag in front of her as she inched through the tunnel.

In the dark, visions of gleaming silver–of unfathomable, unknown languages and the secret history they concealed–danced before her eyes.

|| Interlude: Second-Year Field Work at Moetta Cave 2 >>

If you’re enjoying the story, please consider voting for us over on TopWebFiction! Thanks!

Chapter 69

Despite the rhythmic grind and rumble of the wagon’s wheels, a cottony, quilted quiet wrapped its interior. Like Calay’s mind was already filtering out the background noise and focusing instead of the lack of any other sound. They’d been on the road for an indeterminate handful of hours, Adal still driving while Riss kept watch up front. Torcha had clambered up into the overhead luggage loft with her rifle.

The cargo hold was rather bare, their meager possessions heaped onto the floor and lashed into place. Tarn had been kind enough to provide them with a hefty water barrel before turfing them out on their asses, and a couple of old crates rattled half-emptily around. The whole contraption smelled of sawdust and a particularly dry, musty smell that he decided must be “lizard.”

Overall he wasn’t sure how he felt about wagon travel. He’d done it rarely, always found it a little claustrophobic and off-putting. As much as he was unsettled by vast, big-sky wilderness, he disliked being unable to see his own surroundings even more. And the windows on this thing, like all enclosed coaches, were pitiful.

Gaz shared none of his concerns. He’d nipped a blanket from their offered quarters at Adelheim and as soon as they were underway he’d unfurled it, propped his pack under his chin, and curled against a cargo net. In their time on the road down the Janel coast, he’d conked off to sleep every time they set foot in a wagon. Something about the motion, he said. Rocked him to sleep like a baby.

Well wasn’t that great for one of them.

Eventually his restlessness got the better of him. Calay left Gaz to his awkwardly-curled nap in the hold and clambered up through the hatch into the passenger compartment. Which was, in a stroke of absurd hilarity, empty despite its more comfortable seating. Adal had left the pilot’s door open, so Calay had retreated further back into the hold for want of privacy. Now, though, he crawled up toward the aperture and settled down on one of the padded bench seats, cocking his head so he could peer up toward the driver.

Sunlight shone through the window, striking Adal’s blond hair, a glittering corona. He had a distant, dreamy smile on his face for who knew what private reason.

Everyone looked different in the sun. 

He’d noticed it at the castle. Riss dressed differently when she wasn’t in the field. Adal lost that pinch of annoyance that perched near-permanently around his eyes. It was an odd thing to be struck by, this passing thought that the people you spent time with were people in their own right with their own lives and their own histories and you only knew a single facet of them. Calay didn’t like that one bit. It made people unpredictable.

Something on Adal’s face changed. His expression faltered, eyes going serious and head turning to glance at something off the road. 

Well, Calay couldn’t let that rest without an investigation. He hadn’t crawled up front for a conversation per se, just a distraction. Looked as though he’d found it. Creaking the door open to announce himself, he pulled himself up through the small hatch that separated the passenger cabin from the pilot’s bench and the great outdoors.

Adal glanced down and greeted him with a quiet nod. Nothing on his face betrayed upset or alarm. Curious, Calay glanced around as he settled onto the narrow seat, peering at the vista that greeted them over the galania’s broad reptilian back.

Seeing forest on either side of the wagon was an uncomfortable, startling thing–and this particular forest was a cratered, damaged hellscape. Calay blinked hard, needed a moment to take it all in. 

They were passing through an area that had sustained heavy artillery shelling. Craters like huge pockmarks littered the field on either side of the road. Heaps of mossed-over refuse still littered the roadside. As opposed to the clear-cut remains left by loggers, the trees here looked to have been blown apart, the occasional half-splintered trunk still standing. Though the forest was fast reclaiming all it touched, what rocks remained bore scorch marks. Despite the signs that man had passed through here, there was nothing manmade in sight.

On their journey south from Vasile, Calay and Gaz had passed through some areas that had sustained artillery damage. They’d spied from a distance the occasional fortification blown through with cannon holes. But this, this was wholesale destruction down to the soil.

Adal noted his quiet, met it with sober eyes. 

“It got bad down here,” he said. “Wherever the war-wagons passed through.”

Calay had heard of the war-wagons. He’d never seen one save from a great distance. Massive constructions the size of ships, broadsides of cannons all up and down their lengths, hauled by whole teams of massive lizards like the single one that hauled their coach with ease.

“Fuck me,” he said. 

“In some of these villages, the destruction was absolute.”

Calay blinked hard. “This was a village?” There was literally no sign of it. Not a scrap of evidence.

Adal’s shoulders twitched up. He shrugged while loosely holding the reins. 

“I’m not certain,” he said. “But there must have been something here worth bombing into the dirt.”

He found himself wanting to ask about the war. It annoyed Calay when he didn’t know things. And at the time the war had broken out, back in Vasile, he’d had other matters to attend. Even though the war had, in a roundabout way, shaped his future. If the Inland Empire hadn’t blockaded the river, he never would have accepted work from House Talvace. And if he’d never accepted work from Talvace, he’d have never… well, he’d likely still be running a clinic for the underprivileged, pulling teeth and delivering babies.

“So what kicked it all off, anyhow?” He tried to sound conversational, hoped he wasn’t prying painful nails out of Adal’s past.

“Kicked off…?”

“The war.”

Adal blinked and loosed a single breath of laughter. “Oh. Well, every war starts the same way, doesn’t it? Someone wants something someone else has.”

Calay dredged up what he could remember. He lifted his eyes skyward, where clouds were rolling in, choking away the selective sparkle of the sunshine. “That northern leader, he invaded down this way to get access to the river. That’s why your people clogged up the river supply lines.”

“Correct enough. There were other things they were after–silk production, encircling their old enemy in favorable territory–but more or less. The Selyeks–”

“The who?”

“… The northeners.” For a moment, Adal looked oddly embarrassed. “I thought you might have tired of hearing us all curse northerners and narlies, so I used their proper name.”

A weird little smile crept up Calay’s mouth. He hadn’t anticipated that. And he appreciated it in a way that was difficult to vocalize.

“Selyeks,” he said, to spare Adal having to linger in that awkward moment. 

“Yes. Of the United Principalities of New Selyekaskim.”

Calay’s eyes inched open a little wider with every successive word of that. “I can see why you just say ‘narlies.’” He tried to repeat that last word in his mind and couldn’t manage it. Sel-ye-kas-kim.

Adal took his few questions as an opportunity to launch into a full-blown civics lesson. He explained that the Selyeks, under their new leadership, wanted to acquire a land buffer around the Inland Empire due to a history of tensions and skirmishes between the two nations. Under their General Zeyinade, they’d swept in south and toppled the local governments in the textile districts who were a part of the Inland Empire but somehow not fully a part of it, a stewardship of some kind derived through  a series of agreements between the local and Empirical rulers and–

Calay regretted asking. He nodded along, absorbing about half the details, and reserved some amusement for how animated the subject seemed to make Adal. Everyone has something they enjoy being asked about, Gaz had told him once. People like to feel like they know things. 

“I’m surprised none of this penetrated the papers in Vasile,” Adal finally said. “Your people have a reputation as being well-read and civically minded.”

Calay’s face crinkled up. “Sure,” he said. “The type of people who read papers.”

Adal seemed to get it then, seemed to suddenly visualize the vast gulf in life experience between the two of them. His mouth snapped shut. 

Calay hated feeling ignorant. He hated not being able to anticipate things, and willful ignorance was like intentionally robbing yourself of the tools to anticipate outcomes and make good decisions. So he hovered on an awkward precipice for a moment–here was Adal, lofty and well-bred and well-connected, a source of good information it would benefit him to mine. Adal knew the geography of where they were headed. Knew the politics. Knew a great many things that Calay, in his isolated inner-city existence, had simply never been exposed to.

Yet in order to access that information, he’d have to admit he knew fuck-all about all that. To Adalgis. Calay bit the inside of his cheek, scowling. 

Life was a rotten bitch who struck rotten bargains sometimes.

Just as he was about to broach the subject of their destination, Gaz squeezed up through the hatch, just his head and shoulders, and peered up at them.

“Huh,” he said. “Okay.” When Calay answered with a questioning look, he explained, “Oh, just wondering where everyone got to.”

Riss leaned up from the guard’s perch along the wagon’s flank, drawn by the sound of extra voices. “Something the matter?”

Adal looked to either side of him, squeezing his shoulders a little narrower. The bench accommodated he and Calay with little room to spare, and Riss leaning up on one side and Gaz on the other was a little much. He grumbled something under his breath.

“What’s that?” asked Riss.

“I said this wagon seats eight people, but in order for it to accomplish this at least some of said people have to sit on the bloody seats.”

Torcha’s voice echoed from the luggage loft, muffled and sleepy:

“Are mams and paps fighting again?”

Adal rubbed the heel of his hand against his face.

The clouds chose that moment to disgorge a single drop of rain, which hurtled down out of the sky and struck Calay square on the nose. 

More rain followed. Within moments it was splashing down steadily. It was warm rain, not altogether unpleasant. Calay ran a finger up his face, enjoyed the droplets tickling down his skin. Riss grumbled and hauled herself up off the guard’s perch, squeezing past him and Adal both as she headed for the hatch. Gaz retreated fully back inside to let her through.

“What?” she asked as Adal made a sound of protest. “Nobody’s going to shoot at us in a downpour. Besides, I’ve kept watch long enough.”

Calay snickered and gave Adal a pat across the shoulders, also clambering backwards into the dry warmth of the wagon’s passenger cabin.

“Be seeing you,” he said, leaving Adal to yank the awning further down across the bench. It reached almost the entire way, but the knees of his trousers would soak through unless he had a sealskin.

Sliding down the bench seat, Calay stretched out his legs. He laid out almost entirely horizontal, crossing his legs at the ankle and propping his back against Gaz’s side. Rain knocked the drumbeat of its knuckles against the coach, blending with the grind of the wheels. The music of the road. Calay flicked his damp hair out of his face and settled in for the ride, resting his head back against Gaz’s shoulder. 

Cracking one eye open, he watched as Riss also reclined, unpacking a book from a trunk beneath the bench seat. She propped it on her knee.

They were heading south. Calay didn’t know much about south. He knew Medao was down there somewhere. And past that, the islands where the fisher tribes made their living. Plenty of country to get himself lost in. They’d entertained their notions of settling down, of no longer running, but as nice as it had sounded, it wasn’t ever realistically on the table. The best they could hope for was to disappear for a while at a time. To take their quiet moments if and when they could, like they’d managed in the swamp.

“This ain’t so bad,” Gaz declared after a moment of quiet. Calay murmured a wordless noise of agreement.

There were, he supposed, worse people to be disappearing with. He didn’t fully trust Riss yet, but he trusted her to do the honorable thing by her own code. He could predict that. And Torcha, well, she was Torcha. Unpredictable, but now bound to him in that strange and disarming way. 

“I suppose I’ll just stay out here, then.” Adal’s voice came through the hatch. “With the lizard.”

Well, four of the five of them were comfortable. And four out of five wasn’t bad. 

End of Book One.

<< Chapter 68 | Second-Year Field Work >>

Or click here to move directly to Wishes, the next chapter with Riss & Co.

If you enjoyed the first volume of Into the Mire, please consider giving us your vote on TopWebFiction!