Book 2, Chapter 7

Riss was not looking forward to the task of explaining Renato to Calay and Gaz. On the ride home, she left it with a terse placeholder explanation:

“Renato’s our former you.”

She’d expected some smart remark in reply, perhaps a question about which aspects of Calay’s person Renato so embodied, but he said nothing. Torcha was also silent on the ride back to the townhouse, slouched against the padded seat of the cab with mostly-closed eyes. She vanished upstairs before Riss had even paid the driver. 

Thankfully, Adal was at home, ready to sweep in and help her wrangle all the morning’s divergent pains in the ass into a manageable to-do list. He was just seeing a client out when they arrived, a polite smile curved at his mouth.

“Well that looks like it could have gone worse,” he said.

“Pardon?”

Adal hooked a thumb back over his shoulder. “Our resident lawbreaker is already home safe and sound.”

Riss ghosted out a laugh, then slipped out the back door into the courtyard. She needed some sun. Between the periodical nightmares and being frequently roused at ridiculous hours of the morning, she was running low on sleep. She hoped the sun might recharge her a little, shake her into a reasonable forgery of consciousness.

The tall brick house’s courtyard was still a work in progress. Ringed by half-height brick walls, the yard featured a small fountain with a shallow reflecting pool. Whoever had owned the place before Riss and Adal had really had a thing for lions. The big, shaggy-maned things that once roamed the high plains and plateaus between Carbec and Lower Vasile. Every so often, rumor surfaced out of the bush. Some wayward hunter or guide or priest tripping balls on some vision walk always claimed to have seen a lion recently. People liked to keep the stories alive, Riss supposed. Didn’t want to let go of the past so long as the past was more adventurous and mysterious than it was painful.

Either way, her yard was home to approximately a dozen sculpted lion heads and she was not feeling that architectural choice. 

Green vines had begun to creep up the walls of the house itself. Soon they’d bud with little purple flowers, or at least that’s what Gaz had promised her when he’d planted them. Full of surprises, Gaz. She’d had no idea he was a gardener.

“All right,” Adal announced when he stepped out into the sunshine. “Torcha’s running a bath upstairs. All the morning meetings are accounted for. Gaz needs a nap, I’m gonna pack him in the guest room if you don’t object.”

An unwitting smile leapt up onto Riss’ face as she listened to all this. “I do not object,” she said. Adal had things well and truly in hand. Like he always—

A gentle bell chimed, a high and unobtrusive little ding that they heard even from the yard. The doorbell. Adal turned, but Riss took a step in front of him, cutting him off.

“I’ve got this one,” she said. 

And it was fortunate she made that decision, given the delivery that was waiting for her.

A rail-thin, darkly-complected man wearing a courier’s uniform stood on her doorstep, a paper-wrapped bundle held to his chest. He straightened when Riss opened the door, bowing his head to her politely in greeting.

“Some books you ordered, miss?” he asked.

Riss nodded calmly even as her heart jumped. She fished a couple australs from her pocket, tipping the courier and offering an arm. The bundle in question looked at least five or six books high. Ambassador Havasi had been successful, then. And not only that, but willing to share the fruits of those successes.

“Appreciate it,” Riss said as the courier departed. She turned back in through the doorway and nearly elbowed Calay in the face.

“Whoa!” He stepped back, putting up his hands. “Sorry. I heard the bell, wasn’t sure what was going on.”

Riss clutched the heavy bundle of books to her chest. She looked at Calay over the top of them, hoping that the bundle adequately concealed her facial expression. Hoping she didn’t look nervous.

“Just a courier,” she said. And her voice came out perfectly neutral. And that was good. She started walking toward the staircase, though to her dismay Calay followed along at her side. He slouched his jacket half off his shoulders, hands in his pockets.

“Need a hand with that?” he asked. Suspicion snapped its fingers in the rear of her mind, trying to get her attention. Was he normally this helpful? Was he going out of his way to interfere with her solely because he suspected what the contents of the parcel might be?

“No, that’s all right.” Riss ticked her chin up toward the apex of the staircase. “Just running these up to the office.”

Calay nodded and peeled off in the direction of the kitchen, ambling through her house as though he had all the permission in the world to be there. Which, if she thought about it for a moment, she supposed he did. 

One hell of an awkward moment averted, Riss carried the books upstairs to her office and swung the door shut. Then, for good measure, she fished her keyring out of her pocket and locked it. With a hard sigh of relief, she carried the books to the desk and sat them down, where they thumped in a weighty, pleasant way. She untied the twine that bound the bundle up, then unfolded the paper, eager to see what the Ambassador had uncovered.

A few of the books were thin things, bound in soft leather and yellowed with age. Likely journals. The bottom four though, their titles shining enticingly in gilt, they were enough of an eyebrow-raiser that Riss was very glad she didn’t have to explain them to Calay. Librida Sorcieri was some sort of old hocus almanac, likely equal parts history and bullshit. Sorcery and the State was a Selyek treatise about the threat of magick to stable government. A real cozy bedroom read. The other two were more what Riss was interested in: In Search of Answers and Fragments Remain: A Chronicle of the Vasa Purge

Yes, there would have been some questions if Calay had caught a glimpse of those. 

It wasn’t that Riss wasn’t planning on sharing her findings. It wasn’t even that Riss suspected she’d flip the books open and discover anything that led her to distrust Calay himself. She knew enough about him to know he’d been a thoroughly untrustworthy individual in his former life. The big bounty and the allusions to his litany of past crimes had been enough to clue her in on that.

She supposed she was simply unnerved by the power imbalance. She’d never worked so closely alongside someone who could end her in the blink of an eye. She wanted to… understand where he was coming from. Although when she thought about it in those terms, it felt sort of like treating him as though he were a temperamental dog prone to biting. Which wasn’t the case.

Riss just hated going in dark. She’d worked in recon for a reason. From the earliest memories of her youth, she’d preferred a solid foundation of knowledge to blind ambition. If her father hadn’t steered her harshly off that path, she might have ended up in a library similar to Ambassador Havasi’s, wiling away the hours as a clerk or some such.

Ah, what might have been. 

She resisted the urge to flip one of the books open immediately. She knew it’d only suck her in, and then she’d have to tear herself away. No, these were books to be consumed on a quiet evening behind a locked door. When life stopped throwing interruptions at her every thirty seconds. As much as the powerful, curious compulsion tingled in her hands, she forced herself to be good. She stacked the books into the bottom cupboard of her desk, where she kept a few other things too precious for everyday use: Gaspard’s pistol, her old letters from Adal.

On her way downstairs, she passed by Torcha’s room and hesitated a moment. Ought to check on her, she thought. Yet another entry in the long line of oughts and shoulds, the never-ending march of duty. This responsibility, at least, was one she was glad to shoulder.

Knocking quietly on the door, she called out. “Torch? You feeling better now that you’ve scrubbed the cells off you?”

“Yeah. Come in if you want,” came the reply through the door.

Riss let herself inside.

Torcha’s room was, like the courtyard, a work in progress. Or rather it existed in a state of permanent work-in-progressness, given that Riss wasn’t sure she’d tidied it or furnished it any more in the last year than she had their first week moving in. Weaves of wool and silk dangled from the walls, mostly in abstract geometrical patterns. Their colors clashed; as far as Riss could tell there was no coordination or theme to it all. The skinny single bed had an ornate head and footboard but was almost laughably narrow. The shelves were all empty. On the far wall, a glass-fronted display cabinet was home to the more ornate selections of Torcha’s one-man arsenal. Long-barreled pistols with mother-of-pearl grips, an absurdly long rifle midway through the reconstruction process, half of it still corroded with rust, powder horns and accessories and such.

A fine layer of dust coated both the bedposts and the top of the narrow table that flanked the wall. Torcha only spent a few nights a week at home. Riss had stopped asking where she went when it became clear that all she did was lounge around Calay and Gaz’s, up to who-knows-what and unwilling to talk about it. Oh well. She was an adult.

Torcha sat in a copper bathing tub, relaxed in front of the hearth. The fire wasn’t lit, though, so she seemed to be staring at the fire screen more than anything. The screen was typical Meduese work, a hammered brass depiction of big ships with big sails engaged in some sort of artillery battle against a sea serpent.

“They sure do love their boat art here,” Riss said, hooking a little grin. She dragged a dusty chair over and sank into it beside the bathtub.

In the bath, Torcha sulked so far down that the water reached her chin. Her hair had grown preposterously long in the last few years, and when it wasn’t bound up as per usual, Riss was always stunned by just how much room it took up. Deep burgundy when wet, it floated on the surface of the bathtub like a sea of kelp. It made her look all of twelve years old.

“Art’s art,” Torcha said, not explaining what she meant by that. She sounded unimpressed.

“So.” Riss glanced down, regarding Torcha’s sole hand visible above the waterline. She gave a pointed look toward the cuts on her knuckles. “Fun night?”

“Was a perfectly consensual scrap,” Torcha said. “Nobody had a problem ‘til the barman pissed his pants and called the law.”

“City people, eh.” Riss just let her vent. 

“The Ambassador was pretty tickled by it, at least.” Torcha grinned. Riss considered whether it was worth correcting her, that she’d been guarding the Ambassador’s kid. Had she even been paying attention? 

“Sorry we couldn’t come get you sooner,” Riss said instead. Professional corrections could come in a day or two. No sense berating someone on the details of a long-finished job when they were fresh out of jail and likely nursing an eye-splitting hangover.

Something changed in Torcha’s demeanor. Her eyes narrowed. Water sloshed against the wall of the tub as she turned to face Riss.

“Renato wouldn’t have let me go earlier,” she said, cool and curt.

“What?” A funny little fear began to unwind itself in Riss’ stomach.

“Yeah. He said they were gonna hold me overnight. He had a bunch of questions. I don’t think it was like their policy, y’know? He let a couple other guys out. But not me.”

“Questions?” Riss didn’t want to push too hard. Renato had been a real prick back there with his over-the-top concern, but it hadn’t occurred to her that he’d purposefully mistreated Torcha. Why would he? They’d gotten on so well before. And Torcha hadn’t given any indication at the jail that he’d…

“Did he hurt you?” Riss asked, interrupting her own earlier question. She suddenly had to know. 

Torcha narrowed a quizzical eye at her. “Shit, boss, no. It wasn’t like that. He’s a royal asshole these days, don’t get me wrong.” She rubbed some droplets of water off her face. “He just kept me up all night. Had all these questions. Wanted to know everything. Honestly, I don’t think he cares about me at all. Mostly, he wanted to know all about you.”

Riss slouched back in her chair, cursing softly. Fucking Renato. She’d suspected his is that you shit was an act. This confirmed it.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Riss said. “Wish I’d slugged him in the face instead of greeting him like a friend, if I’m being honest.”

One of Torcha’s cheeks dimpled as she shook her head, laughing. “No you don’t. Not in the jail where he’s the warden. Leave that kind of boneheaded move to me.”

“So you admit it was boneheaded? Thank you.” Riss grinned now. She couldn’t let herself get wrapped up in seething about Renato. Not while juggling so many other tasks. She didn’t voice it, but she felt a moment of private gratitude toward Torcha then. She knew what a touchy subject it was. Knew Riss’ tendency to stew on things. 

Relaxing back, Riss asked Torcha to give her a play-by-play of the fistfight. She could take a few minutes, shut the door on sorcery and Renato and their coming journey across the Flats. This might be one of the last opportunities she had to do so. 

Then they’d be abandoning their work-in-progress home for another far-flung journey across the Continent. Riss rubbed at her wrist with a thumb, listening as Torcha regaled her with her recollection of the night’s blows.

There was a wariness in Riss now, lying in wait just below the surface. Soon, that postwoman would be briefing them on the finer details of the job. Until she knew the whole story, that wary anticipation would take up space inside her.

At least there was no possible way their destination could be as horrible as the last one.

<< Book 2, Chapter 6 | To Be Continued >>

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Book 2, Chapter 6

In the year since they’d escaped from the hellish swamp at Adelheim, Riss and Calay had developed a working relationship unlike any other she’d ever known. She supposed it made a certain type of sense. Working with a sorcerer wasn’t exactly SOP. She doubted even Adal’s fancy officer academy had courses on that.

But Calay was unique beyond his magickal talents. Just like there was more to Riss than her recon skills, so too was Calay more than his bag of sinister magick tricks. She’d had to learn her way around him as a person, had to overcome her discomfort that he’d joined her company under false pretenses. That latter one had been the big hurdle. 

Riss was willing to forgive a lot in exchange for honesty and hard work. Calay worked as hard as any soldier she’d ever commanded, but honesty was a trickier rabbit to snare. He had a tendency to withhold things, even things that an average person would see no issue with sharing. He’d answer questions if directly asked, but he rarely volunteered details unsolicited. Likewise, if she asked his opinion on things, he was often happy to share, but unless queried he’d often keep his feelings to himself, regarding her with those pale eyes of his and an expression that was somehow a perfect equal blend of passive and attentive.

I see what you’re doing, his eyes seemed to say. I’m just choosing not to comment.

She did not regret trusting her life to him in the swamp. Nor did she regret inviting he and Gaz into her company for good, bounty hunters be damned. Trust was a funny thing. It came instantly between some people. With others, it was like plaque building up on metal. You never really noticed a buckle was rusting. You never saw silver take on tarnish in real time. Yet at some point, you’d glance down and find the trinket in your hand no longer shone like it was supposed to.

Riss and Calay weren’t quite there yet. The trust between them was businesslike and practical.

Yet when she woke in the predawn hours to discover Calay waiting patiently in her sitting room, she had to acknowledge that trust was building into something beyond the transactional. Not because he’d come in the first place, but because her initial response was one of relief rather than suspicion.

Adal had roused her, stealing into her bedchamber and shaking her awake when a knock at the door failed to do the trick. He’d then mumbled an apology and quickly excused himself, informing Riss that Calay was downstairs and needed to speak to her.

“He says it’s urgent,” Adal muttered on his way out, slippers scuffing along the wooden floor.

Riss rolled out of bed still half-asleep, yanked rudely from a dream whose ghostly notes still played in the back of her mind. Of course Calay’s business was urgent. Otherwise he wouldn’t be waking them in the middle of the damned night, would he. 

She stuffed her feet into her own slippers, then threw a heavier dressing gown on over her nightshirt. On her way out the door, she caught a glimpse of herself in the hallway mirror: a frazzle-haired ghost with pale robes and sunken eyes, haunting the corridors of her own home. She rubbed at her face as she descended the stairs, lightly slapping herself across the cheek in the hopes of waking up that tiny bit more.

Adal and Calay sat in the small, wood-panelled sitting room adjacent to the entryway. Adal had lit a couple lamps, but beyond that the house was dark and quiet. They made no small talk, sitting in silence as she arrived. She sank into the armchair closest to the doorway.

As usual, Calay was tough to read. He was dressed in a fine, close-cut wool suit, the charcoal grey getup that they’d had tailored for a diplomatic assignment the previous winter. His mutated arm was politely gloved and out of sight. He looked for all appearances like a visiting businessman interrupted on the road to City Hall. Only the stiff posture with which he sat on the long, low silken lounge hinted that anything was amiss.

“Riss.” He greeted her with a solemn nod. “Sorry to wake you.”

“Think nothing of it.” She gave him a quick smile. “I’m sure you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important.”

Sal Ercun’s family hadn’t battered her door down, so she assumed the escort job had gone off well. Something had happened afterward, then? More bounty hunters? The thing with Calay that kept her wary was that she felt like she never quite knew his business. It appeared, though, that she was about to learn some.

“It’s Torcha,” he said.

Riss temporarily forgot how to breathe. She cleared her throat. Some emotional muscle deep inside her tensed, waiting for the worst. Torcha never could get a handle on her anger. Torcha always was prone to picking fights she couldn’t finish. And gods knew authority didn’t sit well with her, a point of contention in a town as governmentally top-heavy as Medao. So there was—

Calay interrupted her panic before it could fully blossom.

“She’s fine,” he said. “Or at least mostly-fine. She picked a fight with a dockhand on our way back toward the Ambassador’s estate. Ercun the Little walked us through a brawl, so it’s on him more than her. I kept on the client to ensure his safe return. Gaz hung around to make sure she was all right, but the garda scooped her up before they could get lost.”

“And Gaz?” Riss assumed if anything had befallen Gaz that Calay would have mentioned it first. Or… her mind took a darker turn: if something serious ever happened to Gaz, she’d be surprised if Calay ever turned up on her doorstep again.

Calay sniffed and ticked a finger off toward the front door. “He’s at the jailhouse talking to the authorities. We thought it best one of us stuck around.”

Riss nodded a few times as he spoke. “Good work,” she said. “That’s exactly what I would have done.”

Calay’s upper lip lifted, his expression twisting in a grimace. He fidgeted, discomfort evident in the way he held himself.

“I want you to know I feel terrible,” he said. “Normally I’d have never left her like that, but—”

This time, Riss interrupted him. “But you were escorting a client. And the client’s safety takes top priority in those situations.”

The words didn’t wash any relief over Calay’s features. He rolled his knuckles, the thin leather of his glove flexing with the motion.

“She’s an adult,” Riss said. “Tougher than most people twice her age and twice her size. This isn’t the first night she’s spent sleeping off a rage spiral behind a locked door.”

That got a weak laugh out of Calay, shook him out of his nerves a bit.

“Gaz sloshed some booze on her and told her to act drunk,” he said. “Which in hindsight is… very funny. And probably a genuinely solid strategy.”

Riss laughed a quiet, disbelieving laugh of her own. “Better they think she’s a drunk than a menace. Either way, I suppose that leaves us with a couple options. Either we head over now or…”

“The fellows at the door told us that the warden wouldn’t be by ’til after dawn,” Calay said. “Supposedly he’s the only one who has the authority to release her.”

Slouching back in her seat, Riss covered a yawn with her hand. “Dawn it is then.” 

She didn’t bother trying to get back to sleep, retiring upstairs to ready herself for the day.

###

Riss stared out to sea for the duration of the cab ride. They’d agreed to take a carriage at dawn for the sake of appearing both civilized and organized. Adal had volunteered to stay behind and sort out the morning’s business, which made Calay Riss’ sole companion for the journey. He sat opposite her while they wound along Peninsula Road, toward the heart of the city’s administrative district.

She never knew what to say to Calay when they were alone and there was no business at hand. He rarely initiated conversation himself, either. So they sat alone with their thoughts, neither of them volunteering which mental preoccupations kept them steeped in silence.

Calay directed their driver to the City Hall complex, a sprawlingly ornate building with gilt detail along its facade and big stained-glass windows that portrayed a series of seafaring scenes.

“We go in through the archway here.” Calay pointed. “Then in through the courtyard, then that interior building there.” Riss followed his gestures, nodding along.

“Nice place for a jail,” she said. The courtyards were immaculate, with neatly-trimmed grass and bright beds of flowers. The courtyard was fenced in by decoratively-trimmed hedges, their dense foliage thick with thorns.

A pair of King’s Garda ushered them through a heavy wooden door. The bright white stone of the building’s exterior gave way to a drab basalt grey that was more traditionally jail-like. A high wooden desk lorded over the narrow foyer, home to a bored-looking clerk who twirled a ringlet around his finger. Hallways branched off to either side of him, and when Riss peered down one, she was relieved to spy Gaz slouching on a bench. As soon as he spotted her, he stood and made his way over.

The clerk noticed, making the connection, and addressed Riss with a prompt nod, suddenly attentive.

“Warden!” he called. “The girl’s keepers are here!”

Calay greeted Gaz with a wordless laugh. Gaz rubbed at his lower back and rolled his shoulders.

“Just about asked them for a cell so I had somewhere to sleep,” he said.

“Just wait until you’re in your thirties,” Riss said. “You’ll start waking up with aches you can’t explain even when you sleep on a perfectly good mattress.” She gave him a smile. “Thanks for putting yourself through that.”

“Least I could do.” Gaz said. “Sure you woulda done the same for us.”

Riss considered it for a beat. Yes, she thought. At this point she would. 

Before she could dwell on that knowledge overlong, a familiar voice called her name.

“Riss? I can hardly believe it.”

She blinked and straightened up, turning around. A vision from her past strode out of the corridor in a crisp charcoal uniform, the front gleaming with a big brass badge that bore Medao’s city crest.

He’d put on some weight and cleaned up a little since they’d parted ways, but apart from that not much had changed. He barely even looked any older. It was like he’d stepped right out of her memory and into real life.

“Renato.” Riss made herself smile even though she had yet to figure out whether she meant it. “I am… very surprised to see you here.”

The last time she’d set eyes on Renato Cassi, he’d spat in her face. Tears streaming down his cheeks, he’d cursed her to the end of her days. He’d told her she deserved to rot in the deepest pit the gods could dig. 

Now he regarded her with a calm smile, his eyes giving nothing away. Riss recalled her last stroll down the fishmongers’ lane, the gape of shark jaws nailed to a wall. Dark, flat eyes and big white teeth.

He offered her a hand. She shook it. Then he looked past her.

“And who are your friends? I admit I thought it would be Adalgis nipping at your heels.”

Calay tensed up for a half-second, focused on Renato with renewed interest.

“Calay Maunet,” he introduced himself. “And my mate here is Gaz. Adal’s still kicking around, don’t you worry.”

Renato folded his arms across his chest. “Pleasure to meet you. Well, I won’t delay you all any longer.” He turned and yelled some instructions at the clerk, asked them to bring ‘the girl’ back around. Riss’ fingers twitched at her side. Hurry it up, she thought.

“It’s good to see you,” Renato said, regarding Riss for a time. She got the impression he didn’t mean it. “I kept meaning to write.”

She lifted her shoulders. “There’s a hundred letters a year I keep meaning to write. Life’s busy. Think nothing of it.”

Riss felt like she was walking across a thinly-frozen lake, ice cracking threateningly beneath her every step. All the awkwardness, all the hesitation she’d feared she’d feel upon her reunion with Tarn appeared to be manifesting here instead.

Renato stepped in closer to her personal space, leaning his head in toward hers. He didn’t quite whisper, but he spoke quietly enough that the words were meant for her, Calay, and Gaz alone.

“I’ve taken care of everything,” he said. “She won’t face any legal repercussions. Sometimes our emotions get the best of us. I can only imagine how hard it’s been for you and her both.”

“Grief’s funny,” was all Riss had to say to that. “It comes and goes.”

Renato scrunched his eyebrows up, his expression almost cartoonishly sympathetic.

“And you?” he asked. “How have you been coping?”

“Just fine,” said Riss.

“Well let me know if there’s anything I can do for you,” he said. “Anything at all. It must be so hard, building your business back up after something so devastating. Building yourself back up. It absolutely shattered you.”

Riss didn’t let herself rise to the bait. She listened, nodded a couple times, and sighed out a wordless thanks when two stocky guards marched Torcha up the hallway, cutting the conversation off.

Torcha certainly looked like a woman who’d been in a brawl and then spent a night in the cells. She wore a drab, formless ankle-length canvas dress, carrying a bundle of cloth beneath her elbow. Her knuckles were split and scabbed and a fresh scrape adorned her chin. She winced when they walked beneath a window, letting her head hang down and scrubbing hard at her face. 

“Ugh,” she announced, flinching back from the sunlight. “Thanks for coming to get me, boss.”

“Always,” Riss said.

“You need this rucksack back?” Torcha gestured to her dress, squinting up at Renato through sunken, bleary eyes.

Renato looked her over for a moment, then loosed a good-natured chuckle.

“No, no,” he said. “I think you’ve been through enough. Don’t say I never gave you anything, hm?”

A look passed between them that Riss couldn’t quite read. She didn’t like it. Putting a hand to Torcha’s arm, she gave a guiding tug toward herself.

“Are there any forms we need to sign?” Riss asked, looking across toward Renato for hopefully the last time. “Any fines?”

Renato shook his head. “Not for you,” he said. “It’s not often I get to use my position here to help out a friend who’s fallen on hard times. I just hope you’ll get her the help she needs. It’s not easy, going through that at her age.” He cast a look down at Torcha, regarded her like a toddler who’d stubbed her toe.

Riss mumbled her goodbyes and they all made to leave. Renato escorted them to the courtyard, waving off the guards with a casual flick of his wrist.

“I’m sure I don’t have to say this,” he murmured lowly to Riss. “But please be careful. I only have so many favors, eh? Can’t appear too preferential.” 

“Don’t you worry,” Riss told him, smiling politely. “It’s a big, rowdy city. You won’t even know we’re here.”

Walking quickly, they left the high walls and clean white stone of the administrative center behind, making way for the nearest rank of carriages.

“Gods,” Torcha grumbled. “Can someone turn the sun down?”

Gaz unknotted his scarf and draped it over her head. They were still standing like that when a cab finally collected them for the ride home.

“Okay,” Calay said as soon as they were ensconced in the privacy of their cab. “Who the fuck was that?”

<< Book 2, Chapter 5 | Book 2, Chapter 7 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 5

“You look pretty gloomy for a guy who’s about to sleep in a real bed for the first time in a month.” Mafalda cradled her chin in her hands as she peered up from the floor.

Slouched in his hammock, flipping through a book and glaring at it like it had done him a grievous personal injustice, the Continent’s most wanted man sighed. He snapped the book shut and tapped a restless finger to its spine, looking down at her.

“It’s just bad timing, Maf.” Nuso slouched back into his heap of sheepskins and pillows, the motion swaying the hammock gently. “A break’ll be nice, but any other time would have been preferable.”

“Funny man.” Mafalda yawned, stretching out on the lasma hide she lounged upon. The thick brown fur had a weirdly comforting musky aroma now that she’d slept on it so many times. She’d grown used to it. The smell made her tired by association. 

“I’m funny because I’m annoyed we can’t keep working?” Nuso sounded more amused than affronted.

“Funny man to assume Fortune gives a fart what’s convenient for us.” 

Nuso of course didn’t believe in Fortune, or any of the other quasi-gods or goddesses honored the whole island over. That was a debate he and Mafalda had wrestled through many a time over their years together. So she wasn’t surprised when he just grunted at her and let the subject drop. 

On the subject of timing he was, of course, correct. The timing was terrible. 

For most of the past month, they’d been exploring a series of burial sites in and around the Teag Range, a series of low, treeless brown mountains heaped like dung on the northern edge of the Flats. The mountains themselves were terribly uninteresting, but they possessed the most important quality mountains could have in Nuso and Maf’s eyes: they were riddled with holes and caverns. 

Following yet another of Nuso’s mysteriously-acquired ancient maps, they sought a rumored back entrance into a sprawling Meduese tomb complex. Rumors of secret passageways and air shafts and concealed doors were a dime a dozen at any tomb excavation—in the decade or so Mafalda had done this work, she’d heard dozens of stories but only ever found one such chamber—but this particular hillside bore some intriguing signs.

Just six days prior, they’d broken into their most promising chamber yet, a lichen-dappled limestone atrium replete with carvings and signs of human occupation. Their team had documented everything as-was, then come upon an old cave-in that looked like it might conceal a passageway. Considering the atrium was home to no remains, Maf could only guess where that passage might lead. They’d labored intensively to clear it, but nature had chosen to chase them from their campsite prematurely.

Riders had arrived at camp that morning, informing them that the annual scorpion migration had begun across the Flats. Hundreds of thousands of scorpions would arrive in less than two days’ time, a great teeming blanket of them. Maf had never attempted to work during scorpion or tarantula season before, but she’d heard the stories of those who tried—scooping arachnids from boots by the handful and losing laborers by the dozen to bites didn’t sound like a winning strategy. 

“I hoped we’d have a little more time, is all.” Nuso stared up at the rocky, torch-lit ceiling, his expression morose. 

“We will.” Mafalda pushed herself up off the rug, knowing if she stayed much longer she’d doze off. “We’ll have all the time in the world once the scorpions have passed by.”

White-yellow like the salt flats where they laid their eggs, the scorpions in question were about the size of a thumb and venomous as all hell. Mafalda did not plan on sticking around long enough to see a single one. She wasn’t an arachnophobe—such a thing was more or less impossible for a tomb crawler—but there was a particularly sickly quality to the Flats Scorpion that made her stomach churn. They were gross.

Which is why she’d ordered her crew to construct a big wooden gate for their dig site. Hopefully the little bastards would all skitter right over the top without considering making a home of their cavern. 

“Gonna go check on the construction,” she announced. “You want anything from downstairs?”

Nuso stayed relaxed where he was. He swished a hand toward her, a gesture that could have meant anything. 

“Nah,” he finally said. “Unless you spy any wine down there.”

Mafalda chuckled and left him to his sulking. Their loft was a flat patch of rock with hammocks for sleeping and a listing desk all ringed in by assorted warped wooden furnishings that functioned almost entirely as book storage. They’d boxed up everything worth taking home and carried it down to the doors already, so when Mafalda climbed the ladder down into base camp proper, all looked pretty bare. The wagons outside bulged with cargo, but if she knew Nuso he’d manage to fit another half-ton in somehow. 

Ambling through a narrow, greyish-white tunnel that glittered with veins of quartz, Maf strolled up a gentle slope and followed the distorted echoes of saws and hammers. Every member of their fourteen-man team who wasn’t securing artifacts in the wagons was working on the gates, and as Mafalda stepped through to the worksite the scent of freshly-sawed evergreen brushed her nose like a cool wind. She enjoyed a couple pleasant sniffs, then sought out her foreman.

“How goes it, Blitt?” she asked, leaning over a hefty figure who lashed skinny tree trunks to a frame of wooden planks.

Blitt rose up and dabbed at his sweaty brow with a sleeve. The man had a face like a dropped pie, ravaged by burn scars. That long-ago trauma had melted his features to one side, though his unmarred right eye observed Mafalda with a weary, competent intelligence. 

“Ahead of schedule, if you’ll believe it.” Blitt grinned, only half his mouth moving. 

“Fuck off.” Maf squinted at him, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it didn’t. He clunked a boot against the wooden frame, pointing downward.

“These larch ain’t much to work with, but if we saw ‘em in half we reckon the gaps are narrow enough to only let a few scorpys through. And we’ll lash blankets to the backside too.”

The harsh winds and lack of adequate topsoil in the Teags meant that trees were hard to come by. The crew had scavenged a day’s ride off and found a few groves of scraggly larch, evergreens with trunks that were barely as thick as Blitt’s forearms. Proper planks would have left a much more airtight campsite, but in the field, you took what you could get.

Maf puckered her lips at Blitt. “I could kiss you,” she said.

“Aye, and then who would build your next gate when my wife puts me in an early grave?”

She wondered all the time if Blitt’s wife was really as hardcore as he liked to joke. Must be some woman. But that sort of banter could wait for the long wagon ride back to civilization. Maf told the crew to keep up the good work, then skulked off toward the wagons to steal a bottle of wine for their pouty crew leader. 

###

Hour by hour, they packed up the last month of their lives and stowed it all away. Everything nonessential was left behind. Camp now reminded her of the ghost towns she’d passed through in her studies, traces of old civilizations left behind. Except their buckets were new and their latrine still stank and hopefully they’d all be back to work in a few weeks.

Nuso dallied far off in the darkness, snuffing out the last of their torches and lanterns. She watched his distant silhouette, the way he moved through camp with slow, soft steps. He got this way when he didn’t want to go, a sort of whole-body reluctance to his every action. Eventually, he satisfied himself with the state of things and turned back her way.

She considered him as he neared her. He was still the same old Nuso, albeit a few inches taller and a little leaner than when they’d first met all those years ago. He still wore his hair long, still dressed like a man worth a fraction of the illicit wealth he held claim to. 

Maf had never thought he’d looked like an outlaw. His eyes were too soft. He smiled too much. Maybe that’s why she found it so easy to work with him, to run the digs and turn a blind eye to his other enterprises.

“Come home with me,” she said once he was at her side. “It’ll do you good.”

Nuso reached back over his shoulder, untying and then re-tying his ponytail. His face always scrunched up when he did it, like securing his hair took the entirety of his mental energies.

“No can do,” he said. “They’re a bit hot for me down south.”

“We could smuggle you through like last time.” Mafalda knew it was a losing battle but kept at it anyways. “You know my mother would love to see you. She asks about you every time.”

“Your mother is a lovely woman,” Nuso said dutifully. “But I’ve got business in the opposite direction. And I’ve already organized transport up the river.”

Blitt had told him once that back in the day, in the early formation stages of their smugglers’ gang, Nuso’s nickname had been Asnoto. The older hands still called him that sometimes. It took months for Maf to gain their trust, and only then did someone let it slip that the moniker meant donkey in Sunnish. Due to the boss’ stubbornness, of course, Blitt had informed her with a polite cough. 

Maf knew she couldn’t force Nuso to do anything he didn’t want to do. But it was a shame, how he couldn’t appreciate time off for what it was. 

“You’ll regret it if you don’t take an honest-to-gods break soon,” she said, heaving her knapsack up onto her back. 

They stepped through the gate, which stood complete and reinforced with woolen blankets and tarps up the back. Maf curled a fist and knocked a pattern on it for luck, grinning at the doors as they stepped through. Her team had done her proud. The gate itself was built far enough back into the cavern that it wasn’t visible from the outside. If they had to clear some scorpions out of the tunnel before it, fair enough. A small price to pay for protecting the majority of the dig. 

The desert sky was the hue of fresh spring lavender as they stepped outside, a powder-purple twilight. Crossing the Flats during the day was brutally hot, so they planned to caravan by night.

“Such a shame,” said Nuso, turning back to regard the cave’s opening for a moment.

From where they stood, it looked like an innocent crack in the stone, no signs modern or ancient of what waited within.

“We’ll be back,” Maf promised. “And then it’ll only be a few days before we crack that passage wide open.”

They ambled toward their wagon, Nuso shoving his hands in his pockets.

“What do you think is down there?” he asked.

“Haven’t a clue.” Maf grinned excitably. “But I’m certain there’s a tunnel of some sort. I can feel it in my bones.”

The weird thing was that she wasn’t even joking. Standing down near that heap of collapsed rock, Maf had felt the strangest sensation. A flicker of intuition, the way your scruff rose up when you walked past an unfriendly dog. Only instead of warning her off, it felt almost like it was beckoning her in. 

Nuso feels it too, she thought. That’s why he doesn’t want to leave. He’s paranoid someone else will find this place before we can make it back. 

Yet Maf was oddly certain that wouldn’t happen. She had her share of pragmatic worries about any excavation, but she hadn’t fretted over that in the slightest when they’d packed down camp. 

As they hauled up into their wagon and got comfortable, sharing flasks around with the gang and settling in for a long ride, Maf felt it in her gut like she’d already swallowed the truth. They’d be back. They’d crack that passageway open like an oyster and see if anything glittered.

Whatever waited inside would be theirs. And Nuso wouldn’t have to fight his way through a hundred thousand scorpions to get to it. The best of both worlds. 

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