Book 2, Chapter 12

(Author’s note – Sorry this update came late! I’ve experienced a time zone change when transiting from NZ to Portugal and I lost a day!)

Riss’ suspicions about the ravine route proved correct. When they roused themselves in the morning and drifted into the closest pub for a hot breakfast, she found that there were around two dozen travelers just like herself who were preparing to make the same journey.

They took bowls of savory rice porridge at the end of a long communal table. Riss took a bite of the thick, glutinous stuff and tried to pick out all the fillings by flavor: two types of onion, some sort of nutty tasting root, and of course the sticky yolk of the soft-fried egg on top. After days of road food, the meal was a welcome luxury.

Adal found a stumpy, scar-faced woman further down their table and introduced her to Riss as a caravan master.

“Her folk are heading the same way as us,” he said to Riss. Then to his new friend, he said, “I thought I’d see how you felt about caravaning together.”

“Safety in numbers,” the woman said through a thick Plateau accent. They flattened all their vowels in the plateau up past Carbec, pronouncing every sound like an ‘e.’

Riss scratched at an eye, digging sleep grit out with her thumb. “I thought if those scorpions caught up to us numbers wouldn’t matter.”

The woman cocked a look up at her, unimpressed. “More dangers in the Flats than scorpions, Carbecer.”

Riss smiled a little. The Plateau region where this caravan boss hailed from, it wasn’t far from the steppes where she’d grown up. Just that tiny thread of familiarity was enough to put Riss at ease regarding the prospect of traveling together. Besides, the more practical and paranoid part of her reasoned, if they try to jump us, it’s their funeral.

“How many tagging along with you?” Riss relaxed her speech a little, let her hometown roughen up her syllables.

“Six,” said the woman. “Two outriders on horseback, the rest of us in our wagon. All family. Big, fast horses. But we’ll pace them so we don’t outrun you.” A wink flashed in the depths of her squinty, pox-scarred face.

They spat and shook on it, then Riss turned her focus toward finishing her porridge before it cooled. Nobody liked a cold fried egg.

###

Everyone who set off from Esilio that morning took slightly different routes. The Beddo clan, whose names Riss was struggling to keep straight due to the hurried nature of their introduction, were the only ones who stuck close by. Every mile or so, more riders peeled off on their own routes. After a few hours’ travel, the Beddos’ small trader wagon before them was their only company. 

Riss, currently playing navigator while Adal steered the lizard, took a sip from her canteen.

“I still feel weird about this,” she admitted. “But if all these other travelers are chancing it, we aren’t risking ourselves unnecessarily.” Not that large groups of people couldn’t make stupid decisions. Far from it, in Riss’ experience. But these were locals, people who knew the route. The elder Beddo woman, Mosz, had placated her worries with a dismissive grunt. In a rig like that? With lizard that size? You’ll get to the ravine a full day before any danger. 

Riss found that if she listened to her gut, she felt quietly confident. And unlike their last excursion far from home, self-doubt no longer plagued her every thought. In the year since Adelheim, she’d cultivated a wary, callused sort of confidence. 

“Feeling weird is natural,” Adal said, echoing her thoughts even as she thought them. “You’re in unfamiliar territory traveling with strangers. Frankly I’d be concerned if you felt indifferent.”

It was nice hearing horses again. The clop of their hooves on salt rose up from the compact, gaudy wagon ahead of them. As the sun cleared up over the ever-present haze of horizon dust, it glinted off the metallic paint splashed in curlicues along the wagon’s trim. Riss noted it had a fold-out panel up one side. Traveling merchant families like the Beddos, operating a family store out of the same wagon they lived in, had been a staple of Riss’ childhood. Over the years, the popularity of the profession had waned. As firearms grew cheaper and easier to use, their proliferation had caused a staggering rise in general banditry. Far, far easier to be a highwayman if you could just blast a hole in anyone who didn’t comply with you.

Anyone that old still running a trade wagon had seen some shit. Riss smiled a little to herself.

“They mention what they’re hauling?” she asked.

“Spirits, apparently. They’re distillers. Just made a delivery to Esilio.”

Wood creaked behind them. Riss heard a series of light, thumping footsteps wandering around on the roof, then the murmur of idle conversation.

“Say,” came Calay’s voice from above. “How will we actually know what to look for when keeping an eye out for scorpions? Can you even see scorpions from that far away?”

“That’s why I’ve got a spyglass,” Torcha answered. “I might even let you use it.”

“Might?”

“Well you’ll owe me a favor…”

Riss relaxed, pulling the sun-shade down so that it fully shielded her. High sun in the Flats was going to be brutal. But for now, the morning was shaping up to be a damn nice one.

###

Tempting as it was to push on through the night, the Beddos’ horses didn’t have the stamina. Riss wondered for a moment if it was at all feasible to park the smaller wagon and its team inside her war-wagon–she was fairly certain it would fit in the cargo hold–but in the end, that sounded like a lot of work. When she suggested the idea to Mosz, the elderly woman just laughed. She promised Riss they had plenty of time.

“Besides,” she said. “Surely your eyes are getting tired. You deserve rest as much as any horse.”

Riss had to concede that.

So they circled their wagons, as best as two wagons could form a circle. One of the younger Beddos built a bonfire; Gaz and Adal sorted out contributions to a group meal: boiled sweet potatoes and venison shanks with gravy. Afterward, they got a bread pudding cooking. Adal was certain they had just enough milk left over for a caramel sauce, but he wasn’t entirely sure he remembered how to make it. Riss chuckled as she listened to him recite the recipe, mumbling under his breath while sorting through tins and boxes.

“Surprised you can cook anything at all,” Calay teased him. “Wasn’t that a job for your servants?”

Adal rolled his eyes. “I’ll have you know I’ve been living on my own for over a third of my life, thank you.”

Riss relaxed back, looking up at the stars. There were fewer visible than she thought there would be, given the lack of city light. That ever-present haze of salty dust made visibility difficult the further off one looked. Sure didn’t seem like a rainy season was coming or going. Everything was dry as a bone. From where she lounged in her sling-chair, she reached down with two fingers and felt at the salty ground.

“Pretty wild, ain’t it.” Torcha noticed what she was doing. She tapped the heel of a boot against the salty earth. 

“Especially when you consider how expensive salt is up-Continent,” said Riss. “We’d make millions in Vasile if we hacked a bunch of this up and carted it northward.”

Someone made a quiet noise of disagreement. Mosz stomped up behind them, sorting through the contents of a carrying sling she wore over her shoulder.

“Not quite,” she said. “This isn’t good eating salt. Eating salt comes from mines to the north.”

“What’s the difference?” asked Riss. She’d never given salt a second thought beyond using it to cure meats back home when she and her father had killed more than two people could eat or trade.

“Colour,” said Mosz. “And… the salt from the Flats here, sometimes kills you if you eat it.”

Riss blinked hard. “Huh.” Well, that was good to know.

“How?” asked Torcha, turning so that she could give the old woman her full attention.

“You figure that out,” Mosz said, “that’s when you make millions in Vasile. Nobody knows. Years and years ago, stories said it was a curse. But if a curse, it’s a sloppy one. A curse who targets people at random? Lazy curse.”

Riss had to admit she was interested, too. Her childhood had been so isolated, just she and her father off in the plains and later the woods. She’d missed out on all the folklore that lingered in the hills outside Carbec. Apart from people saying his name in passing profanity, she’d never even heard of Adal’s river god until she was in her twenties.

“What kind of stories?” She flashed Mosz a little grin. “Even if you don’t believe them, there’s always a skeleton of truth in those old tales, isn’t there?”

Mosz dragged her chair closer to the fire. She shrugged off her outer two layers, shaking out the baggy dress she wore beneath. Despite the sunspots upon her skin and her evident age, her arms were still wiry with muscle when she rolled up her sleeves. She checked the heavy iron oven within the coals, a sweet custard-and-caramel smell wafting out when she opened it.

“Was a time when I charged hard coin for storytelling,” she said.

Riss patted the coinpurse at her hip. “If you have any bottles of your wares left over after the drop at Esilio,” she said. “We’d take them off your hands. Perhaps you could throw a story or two in as an extra?”

“Cheeky,” said Mosz.

But that must have done the trick, because a moment later she beckoned everyone around the fire. 

And oh, it had been a while since Riss had sat around a fire and heard a real, salt-and-blood elder tell a story. Growing up out where she had, so far removed from both her father and her mother’s families, she’d missed out on such experiences. Later, when she made passing friends in the closest village to her homestead, she’d heard their second and thirdhand accounts, the stories and legends and traditions their families had passed on. It had always left her wanting, aching in a sad strange way for something she couldn’t quite articulate. She wondered if she’d missed out on a fundamental part of growing up.

Perhaps that was why she’d gravitated toward books.

Why she’d gravitated toward Gaspard, an old soldier brimming with stories who wasn’t too aloof to share them with the greenhorns.

Leaning forward in her sling-seat, Riss watched fire and shadow lick across Mosz’s face as she wove her tale. Her voice dropped low during the story’s valleys, rose high during its peaks. 

Soon, every member of the caravan was leaning forward on the edge of their seat, hanging on the old woman’s every word. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 11 | Book 2, Chapter 13 >>

Book 2, Chapter 11

Esilio was bursting at the seams. Adal could scarcely fathom it. For a town the size it was on the map, they’d expected a few hundred people, maybe a thousand. And the permanent structures built into the slope of the foothill looked as though they were meant to accommodate about that number, in line with his expectations.

Yet for some reason, the hamlet teemed with activity. Tents stretched out in every random direction. Every patch of shade, every scrap of shelter from the desert wind was occupied. Wagons were circled on the fringes of the largest encampments; the proper wagonyard was packed. Someone had hastily assembled some lean-tos against the stable, providing shelter for horses that were tied almost shoulder to shoulder.

In their larger-than-average wagon, they had a hell of a time finding somewhere to park. In the end, Riss managed to tuck the thing up against the side of a reddish butte, though their campsite was only sheltered from the wind on one side. She angled the wagon itself to provide a bit more shelter for the galania and a fire, Adal helping direct her from the ground.

“Did I miss a pilgrimage or something?” she asked as she hopped to the ground. 

“I kept an eye out while we were rolling around,” said Adal. “But I can’t figure out for the life of me where all these people hail from or why they’re here.”

The people who walked Esilio’s dirt roads were as varied a bunch as their shacks and tents. Many had the tell-tale dark coloration of Alkali Flats nomads, camped out in clever, easily-transportable shelters. But there were moneyed merchant wagons among their number. And plenty of paler faces that could have come from any one of the northern cities. Apart from the market yards in a major port like Medao, it was as cosmopolitan and diverse a crowd as one could get.

“At first I thought they must be refugees from some conflict I hadn’t heard of,” Riss said. “But we aren’t that uninformed. If a scuffle broke out somewhere and it was large enough to displace this many people, we’d have heard.”

She banged a fist on the wagon’s door, hollering to those inside that they were walking into town. A moment later, Gaz emerged, squeezing his large frame through the small access door with an amusing degree of care.

“Gotta stretch my legs,” he said. “You two mind a tagalong?”

“Hardly.” Riss smiled.

They left the wagon in Calay and Torcha’s hands. Adal was quite confident the two of them could fend off any would-be thieves. Apart from the fact that Calay was the single most dangerous individual he’d ever crossed paths with, he and Torcha would likely scare the piss out of any brigands before they even had to resort to violence.

“Weird,” Gaz said, of the crowd. That was all he said, but it captured Adal’s thoughts on the matter succinctly.

Then the screaming started.

The sudden high, piteous shriek was such a contrast to their peaceful sunset surroundings that at first Adal wondered if his mind was playing tricks on him. Perhaps he’d heard the scream of a diving falcon or the whistle of a kettle or something. But then another scream pierced the still, dry air and Gaz was looking at him sideways with big, wary eyes and he knew he’d heard correct.

It was the sound of a man in absolute agony. Adal’s hand crept to his sidearm.

The family parked by the campfire closest to where they stood glanced up and toward the direction the sound had come from. Interestingly, none of them stiffened or panicked.

“What the…” 

Up ahead, Riss sped up. She jogged the last few steps into the town’s perimeter fence, where several oil lamps aided the fading sun in illuminating the village proper.

A man and a woman hurried up the road, carrying a stretcher between them. Upon it was a shirtless figure, all shriveled skin and straining tendons, curled in against himself and whimpering shrilly. They hustled past Adal in a hurry, so he couldn’t catch much in the way of detail, but he saw the shade of the man’s skin and the shine of sweat on his face. Disease-stricken. He screamed, clutching at the arm of one of his carriers. 

Riss backed up until her boot bumped into Adal’s.

“This is bad,” she said. “This some kind of plague village? I hadn’t heard anything…”

Gaz stepped in closer to them, looming protectively nearby.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “None of the others look sick.”

And once Adal stopped to consider that, he saw it was true. The huddled crowds in their shelters and tents and fires, the kids sitting on the rooftops of the wagons, the old woman fussing with a chicken coop… they’d all stopped to watch the sick man go past, but none of them looked particularly scared of what was happening.

“Is this something we should be helping with?” Gaz stared off down the road in the direction the stretcher had gone. “We have a physik with us…”

That was true enough. Adal looked to Riss for an answer.

Gaz was right, they had a talented medic with them. But there were a hundred tactical reasons why offering assistance was a terrible idea, each of them leaping into Adal’s mind with greater fervor than the last.

“Let’s feel this situation out first,” said Riss. “If it’s one sick guy, perhaps Calay can help. If there’s a hundred, his presence here could start a riot.”

As a close-knit trio, they started backtracking toward the wagon. Several of the encampments on the outskirts of town looked to be fairly communal, with families sitting close together and big cooking pots beckoning groups of weary travellers. Adal searched the crowd for someone on their own. Someone who looked like they’d know what was going on.

Finally, he spotted a solitary woman smoking a long-stemmed pipe by the side of the path. She was darkly tanned, her hair done up in an elaborate weave of braids. Several silver and copper rings glittered on her fingers, a mark of substantial wealth in these parts. If he had to choose someone from whom to pry information, he’d pick haughty and wealthy over small-town and hard-bitten every time. Closer to home.

“Pardon me,” Adal stepped away from the others to approach her. “I couldn’t help but overhear all that, uh, screaming.”

The woman glanced past him toward the ramshackle buildings. She shrugged, shoulders bundled away in many layers of loose linen robe. 

“Eh,” she said, “probably stepped on a scorpion. Happens.” 

She sounded like she couldn’t possibly be less concerned.

“Sounded pretty painful.” Adal gave her a quick smile, happy to be appraised as a well-meaning foreign bumbler. “Are the scorpions in these parts that bad?”

The woman gave him an odd look, her head tilting. She puffed on her pipe, then turned her head and politely blew her smoke away from his face.

“The stings are quite painful,” she said. “I mean… that’s why we’re all here, aren’t we?” With a wave of her bejewelled hand, she indicated the clusters of camps and shelters.

Adal blinked. “Pardon? That’s why you’re all here?” He tried to work out exactly what she meant by that. “To… get stung by scorpions?”

The woman threw her head back and laughed, a low and scratchy sound. She snickered into her sleeve, peering at him through the haze of sweet-smelling smoke that wreathed her face.

“Many people here have been stung,” she said. “But I wouldn’t go so far as to say on purpose.” Something seemed to click in her mind then. She scrutinized him more closely. “You don’t know, do you. About the migration.”

Now they were getting somewhere. “Afraid not,” he said. “But I’d be mighty grateful if you could enlighten me.” There was no use trying to bribe someone wearing that much glitter; he had to hope he’d paid her well enough in amusement at his own expense.

“You’re lucky you stopped to chat,” she said. “If you rode east tomorrow morning, you’d encounter a wave of scorpions as thick as the Flats are wide.” She punctuated her words with occasional tokes from her pipe. “They burrow up out of the salt at the end of the rainy season. Great, teeming masses of them. Makes travel impossible.”

That… sure was something. 

Adal had never even heard of that before. The idea of a scorpion wave sent such a strong shudder of revulsion through his body that he thought he heard his very skeleton cry out in anguish. He fidgeted, digging his thumbnail into his palm, and settled on letting out a bleh of distaste.

“Yes,” he said, “that sounds… ill-advised.”

“They’ll sting anything in their path,” said the woman. “Strip the flesh straight down to nothing. Leave the cleanest bones I’ve ever seen.”

Really, she could stand to cool it with the details. Adal listened to all that with a forced, tremulous half-smile plastered on his mouth like a bandage.

“So that’s what everyone’s doing here, then? Camping out and waiting for them to pass?”

“Aye. Shouldn’t take longer than a week, maybe as little as seven or eight days if you’re lucky. Riders say they’re a couple days out.”

That would put a damper on their schedule. He glanced back over his shoulder, toward where Riss and Gaz had nearly reached the wagon. They’d stopped, though, choosing to watch him instead.

“And… what if one happened to have a time-sensitive meeting on the other side of the Flats?” he asked. “Would there be any alternate way around?”

Finishing her smoke, the woman lowered her pipe and gave him a big, plump-lipped smile, its friendliness utterly at odds with the bite of her words.

“I would say one was a bit of an idiot to schedule it then.”

Laughing awkwardly, he conceded that with a muttered, “Fair.” Then, composure regained, he gave her a parting smile. “My thanks for your assistance. You’ve been very helpful.”

“We’re all stuck here together,” she said. “Breeds a certain camaraderie, doesn’t it.”

Adal thought back to the swamp, living shoulder-to-shoulder with a sorcerer and his skull-cracker in tent-sized quarters. You don’t know the half of it, he thought. He thanked her again and hurried back to Riss.

###

In the bowels of the wagon, the mood was grim. 

“Scorpion migration,” Calay said, deadpan. 

They sat around the big circular table, kicked back after their evening meal. Adal had just relayed the finer details of his conversation with the Flats woman to the others. They were all doling out dashes of a highly-alcoholic wine into their cups. Torcha had found it stowed away in a storeroom; it had all but turned to vinegar.

“Scorpion migration,” said Riss.

“This is the stupidest thing that has ever cockblocked me,” Calay declared. He drummed his fingers on the tabletop, looking annoyed.

Riss had the map spread open across half the table. She tapped a fingertip to her chin, considering it from a few different angles, as though viewing it upside-down might unlock some hitherto unknown secret route. Tracing a line from their current position, she followed the jagged arc of some geographic feature or another on the map.

“This ravine might slow them down,” she postulated. “We could ask the locals in the morning. See if there’s a chance we might get through. Waiting a week is…”

“It’s a bit shit,” offered Calay.

“—it’s not ideal,” Riss said, slightly more polite.

“Why can’t you just take care of them?” Torcha asked, swirling wine in her cup and staring across the table at Calay. “Just rip a fireball at ‘em or something.”

Calay looked mildly offended. “I’m not sure what stories you grew up hearing,” he said. “But I can’t just rip a fireball at anyone. My talents are a little more nuanced than that.”

“And I don’t like thinking about how much blood he’d need to light thousands of scorpions on fire,” said Gaz. “Who’s gonna donate it? You?” He kicked Torcha’s foot under the table.

“The locals think the swarm is about two days out,” Adal said. “If you think we could reach the ravine in two days…” He looked down to the map, following where Riss’ finger had traced. “Then we can travel along its western edge.”

He hated to admit it, but the prospect of a race against time ignited something in his belly. Adal loved a good deadline, a race against time. He was subtly less excited about how intimately that excitement tangled itself up with dread. 

“That guy sounded like he was in a lot of pain,” Gaz said. “Are we sure we want to risk this?”

“We’ll talk to the locals in the morning,” said Riss. “See if they think we’re being unreasonable. Hells, we can even hire a local scout if we have to. Isn’t like we’re lacking for room.” She gave those gathered at the table a reassuring smile. “You all know me. I’m no fan of unnecessary risks.”

“And I’ll do some research while we’re here,” Calay said. “Learn a bit more about those scorpions and what if anything I can prepare for the venom.” He flexed the fingers of his gloved hand, studying it for a moment. 

Adal’s mind flashed back to the needle-like jab of fangs in his calf, the way Calay had sprung into action to get the antivenin into his system. Back then, he’d had no idea that Calay could have wiped the wound away with a wave of his hand if he’d so desired. 

It was all just a puzzle to him, wasn’t it. Medicine. He didn’t need it to live. But it appeared to be a matter of intellectual curiosity. Of stimulation. Adal could relate to that.

“On that charming note,” Adal said. “I’m going to bunk up and try not to have eight-legged dreams.”

When trying to get to sleep, Adal often ran through the day’s events in his mind, a sort of mental checklist of what he’d accomplished and what needed to be done the following morning. That night, muddling along the blurred boundary between sleep and awareness, he struggled to leap the final hurdle into unconsciousness. Each time he drew close, he snapped awake with a jerk of his leg or his arm, convinced he felt tiny chitinous legs skittering along his skin beneath the covers.

<< Book 2, Chapter 10 | Book 2, Chapter 11 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 10

Well. They were back on the road again.

Riss directed the wagon northeast out of Medao, choosing not to head straight north. The further away from Adelheim the better, she decided. Though she’d had no worrying correspondence from Tarn, wary superstition reared its head whenever she thought about returning to that place or anywhere remotely near it.

Besides, they were traveling in downright luxurious conditions. She’d figured the crew wouldn’t mind a few extra days in their cushiony nests inside the big behemoth of a wagon. And she’d been right.

The rhythm of the road came easily to them. They devised a watch and chore schedule without much conscious discussion, everyone simply falling into doing the tasks that suited them. Torcha kept lookout on the roof; Riss tended the galania and minded their stores. Adal drove in the mornings and manned the charts. Calay and Gaz kept busy either in the galley or on guard at the cargo doors. A wagon the size of the one Leonór had gifted them was meant to sleep two dozen people, so their lodgings were positively spacious.

The road they followed was an undulating path of hard-packed dirt, no ancient stones to guide them. Like a lazy sloshing wave, it rolled over shallow, dry hills of nondescript scrub and a few little fleck-on-the-map hamlets they didn’t bother to stop in.

Then, one evening, the horizon before them just… opened up.

Riss was perched on the pilot’s bench, legs crossed lazily at the ankle. The lizard’s steady, scraping footsteps and the crush of grit under wheels had soothed her into a meditative state, her grip on the reins relaxed. The sun was on its downward journey, just beginning to tinge the clouds apricot.

The wagon crested a hill and suddenly there they were. The Alkali Flats. Stretching off as far as Riss’ eye could see, a flat expanse of crusty salt dominated the horizon. Pinky off-white in color due to the sunset, the salt flats lay at the foot of the hill her wagon was currently descending. And there, nestled into the foothills at a crook in the road, was the final settlement of note before vast, salty emptiness.

“Anyone awake back there?” Riss called over her shoulder. “Quite a view to admire. And I’d like someone to take a peek at the map.”

A male voice made a muffled sound from somewhere inside. But the problem with traveling on a wagon this large was that half the time, Riss had no clue what people inside were yelling at her. She waited, scratching at her cheek, until Calay emerged from inside.

“Adal’s regaling Gaz with tales of the river,” he informed her. “I left them to it.”

He was dressed like he’d halfway put himself to bed, wearing a long linen shirt and an open-fronted woolen cardigan that dangled almost to his ankles. Looks comfortable, she thought, admittedly a little envious. Her tendency toward preparedness and practicality left her in armor more often than not; Calay and Gaz had gone positively rural.

Riss scooched along the bench, offering him a seat. She pointed toward the map compartment, and he unhinged it and sorted through their various charts until he found the right one.

Only once he’d settled down onto the bench beside her did Calay comment on the view. He looked from side to side, sniffed a little, and dubbed it “pretty nice.” Funny man.

“All right,” he said. “What are we looking for?” He spread the map out along his lap, angling it to catch the sunlight.

“Just the name of this village,” Riss said. “L-something? It’s on the tip of my tongue.”

Calay traced a finger over something on the map, then tapped it twice.

“Esilio,” he said. “Close. There’s an L in it. Map says it has the usuals: food, water, and… ah, I’m assuming that symbol means brothel.”

“Not much else to do out here.” Riss chuckled, then slouched back a little on the bench. It had padded leather seats, the type that molded pleasantly to one’s ass on long travels. She’d be sad to see this wagon go. “So Adal’s back there spinning stories about the river, huh?”

“He’s had some wine.” A brief smile edged up the sharp panes of Calay’s face. “They aren’t bad stories. Though I have to admit the more I hear about that man’s childhood, the more it scrambles my brain to think that he ended up here of all places, doing this.”

“We’re all better off for his life choices in that regard,” said Riss.

Calay made a noise like he was considering that statement. He hummed, then smirked at her. “Yeah, all right.” Then, after a moment, he shifted so that he watched Riss more closely than the map.

“What about you?” he finally asked.

“What about me?”

“It just occurred to me I know a lot about Adal’s upbringing. Even more about Torcha’s. But everything I know about you begins and ends with the war.”

Suspicion curled through Riss the way paper curled when burnt: a slow singe. She shook it off though. If Calay wanted to snoop on her or learn private details of her life for some nefarious purpose, he’d have taken a more oblique approach. He wouldn’t ask her to her face. She leaned over a little on the bench and gave him a sniff.

“I see you too have had some wine.” She said it kindly though, not quite an accusation.

“What, is that the only time I’m allowed to indulge in friendly conversation?” He grinned at her then. “Guilty, though. But… if it’s a sore subject, I’ll drop it. I have a few of those myself. I was just… curious.”

“Well, what are you curious about?”

She could always decide not to answer questions if he asked him. That thing he’d said about how everything he knew of her began and ended at the war, that plucked an upsetting string somewhere inside. He knew those things about her because they’d met on professional terms. Because Riss’ history with the Fourth was the backbone of her current occupation and her current lot in life. But… she didn’t want the war to define her. She didn’t like the idea that Calay saw her that way.

“Just… if it’s like Adal. Is this the path you always figured you’d end up on?”

Twisting the reins around her hand, Riss watched muscles ripple along the galania’s back as it trudged slow and determined down the winding road.

“I never really got a chance to consider my own path.” She answered slowly. “I was conscripted pretty young.”

“Tch, that’s a cop-out answer.” Calay’s reprimand was playful. “You grew up in… over where Adal did? Carbec, isn’t it? Never been.”

“Near Carbec, but…” She took a moment to consider her phrasing. “Adal and I grew up in the same place the way a starfish and a whale occupy the same place. Sure they’re both in the sea, but…”

Calay’s low chuckle blended in with the rumble of the wheels. “I get you.”

“His family’s estate is on the outskirts of Carbec proper. I grew up even further outside of town, out in the steppes.”

“And your father was a hunting guide, wasn’t he?”

“Mhm.” Riss grunted out that answer, hoping he’d take the hint and avoid further questioning along those lines. “And what about you?”

All along, they’d picked up bits and pieces of one another’s stories, but she’d always avoided asking Calay direct questions given his reluctance to ever answer them. She liked how they respected one another’s privacy; a solid working relationship—perhaps even a friendship—didn’t always have to be built on knowing one another’s childhood crushes and favorite pie fillings and all that crap.

“Neighborhood in Vasile called Blackbricks,” Calay said, surprising in his directness. “I may have mentioned it. May have not. Gaz grew up just down the road.”

“I do recall that it was a rough neighborhood, whatever the name was.”

Calay sucked in a breath, his cheeks hollowing. “Yep.”

“Carbec’s small enough that it doesn’t really have any bad neighborhoods.” Riss slanted him a sidelong look. “Much as it pains me to say so, it’s good to have a couple city boys on the roster. I think you and Gaz have really helped us settle in down south.”

“Well Medao sure is… different.” He said it with relish. A good difference, then, in his estimation. “It’s nothing like Vasile. Not in any way. Other than how crowded the crowded bits are.”

“Do you miss it?”

“Vasile?” Calay blinked. “I miss…”

He lapsed into silence. Riss did too. Side by side, they considered the sunset, which had blossomed into a many-ribboned orange and gold and pink affair, the haze of some distant dust storm swirling like a far-off crimson blur below it.

“I miss certain people,” Calay said, finally. “I miss the way things were. Miss the simplicity. Don’t figure I’ll ever be able to go back.” She thought he’d finished, but to her surprise, he kept going. “I had a physik’s practice. Two, actually, at one point. Had a hand in a massage parlor, a tavern, and a thriving black market operation as well.”

That caught her by surprise. Calay was certainly educated—he knew medicine, if not the finer points of history and geography and the sorts of formal schooling offered at Medao’s Universitat. But she’d never pegged him for former wealth. He was so comfortable on the road and in the dirt. He didn’t carry himself like a wounded bankrupt.

“Got to admit, I didn’t have you pegged as a fallen emperor of business.”

Calay scoffed, disdainful. “Well, I’d have had to rise up proper in order to fall. And I ballsed that right up.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

Calay leaned into the corner of the bench seat, propping himself up against the arm of it. “Gaz saw it all coming. Because of course he did. And he tried to warn me. But I didn’t listen, because of course I didn’t.”

It was a brief, there-and-gone notion, but Riss felt the glimpse of an urge to comfort him. To give him an elbow or laugh off his evident regrets.

“Well he seems to think you’re worth a second shot,” she said.

“Some-fucking-how.” Calay reached up and smoothed a hand through his hair, the blond of it tinged strawberry by the sunset. “But hey, I like to think there are some benefits to having me around.”

“I promise I’d have fired you if there weren’t.”

She wondered if she’d ever feel comfortable asking him about those benefits. The benefits that had nothing to do with mercenary work. The benefits that had stitched her broken, mangled body back together and hauled her back from the threshold of death. He alluded to his sorcery in such a casual way that it gobsmacked her at times. Escorting clients, bodyguard duty, wagon maintenance, their lives had been so calmly mundane since Adelheim that she almost forgot about his abilities at times.

“Go on,” Calay said. Riss blinked.

“Go on what?”

“You’re looking at me like you want to ask me something.”

She hadn’t realized she’d been staring. And damn, she was tempted. The circumstances were perfect if she wanted to really learn more about just what made Calay tick. Relaxed as he was by wagon life and booze, this was as prime an opportunity as she was going to get. She wished she’d had a chance to read that stack of books back in her office.

Gracelessly, she blurted the first question that came to mind.

“Have you ever met another… person like you?”

“What, you mean a bisexual?” He smiled a close-mouthed smile, daring her to say it. Forcing her to, really.

“No,” Riss deadpanned. “Heaps of those about. A sorcerer, asshole.”

Calay skimmed his tongue over his teeth. He considered her in silence.

“Only the man who taught me,” he finally said. “And he’s long gone.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” The words came out a bit more tender, more heartfelt than she expected. “I lost the man who taught me everything I know, too. It’s…”

“… It’s pretty shit, yeah.” Calay paused. “Mine… disappeared. He’d told me that was a thing sorcerers did. How they had to be so careful, after the Leycenate purged them all. How forethought and elaborate escape plans were part of the package. Then one day I woke up and he was gone.”

Riss winced. She let herself imagine for a moment how horrifying that would have been if Gaspard had pulled it on her.

“You think he’s still alive?”

Calay huffed. “Doubt it. He’s had years to find me again. And for someone with his talents, locating me wouldn’t be tough. No one ever came after him. He just walked off into the dark one night and left the clinic in my hands.” His eyes tightened at the corners. “And you know what? If he is alive, fuck him. I don’t know if I’d buy any excuse for that disappearing act bullshit.”

And for not reaching out, not even once. If that man were still alive, he’d done something unfathomably cruel. Riss knew that both Gaz and Calay had grown up as orphans. He’d never mentioned exactly how close he and this mentor figure were, but she’d never heard Calay mention another. To be abandoned like that by the closest thing he’d ever had to a parent…

Well, that went some way toward explaining Calay’s cruel streak, didn’t it. People tended to reflect back what the world gave them.

They reached the bottom of the hill before Riss could think of anything else to say. She pointed the wagon toward Esilio, their last bastion of human society before the arid, salty desert.

“I doubt you’ll need a navigator for this bit,” Calay said.

Riss shook her head with a hint of a laugh and let him on his way.

<< Book 2, Chapter 9 | Book 2, Chapter 11 >>

Book 2, Chapter 9

The postwoman didn’t look like Calay expected. She was weathered, face scoured by decades of exposure to the elements. She wore a heavy green canvas overcoat and a wide-brimmed hat of woven flax. Sunspots dotted her long, strong-looking hands, and when he let his eyes travel down from her face to her fingertips, he noticed there was still grit under her nails.

He stared at those callused, dirty-nailed hands and recalled the first time he’d ever heard of letters. Alfend Linten had received one at the clinic, delivered by a courier in a tidy uniform with a little bow-tied scarf. Calay, then just a boy of nine or so, had asked what was the point of sending a courier with nothing more than a scrap of paper. Deliveries for the Indigents’ Clinic, sure. Personal deliveries for Mr. Linten, less frequently but still plausible. But who would send a man all the way across the city for a single sheet of paper?

Alfend had explained that this was no ordinary paper. It was a letter from an old friend of his, he said. A friend who lived all the way across the Continent, on the shore of a whole separate ocean.

He’d been too young then to understand the power a man could wield with the written word. Old enough to understand that Alfend was doing a gravely important thing, teaching him the beginnings of those scribbles. An illegal thing, until he acquired his permit.

Calay had never given letter-carriers themselves much thought, but he’d always assumed they were upper-crusty in some way. Because literacy in Vasile was reserved for those with either a title to their name or a particularly useful, regulated profession, it made sense that those who delivered them would be as well.

Fascinating, then, that this one looked like she’d rolled right off some nomad caravan.

She’d gathered them all to her wagon, parked in Medao’s northernmost wagonyard. A wide-bodied wooden structure, the thing was two stories tall, home to a comfortable pillow-strewn living quarters in which Calay currently sat, along with Gaz and Riss and the entire crew. And the postwoman, Leonór, who was laying down the final details of the job.

Slouching back a little on his pillow, Calay watched across the rounded table as the letter-carrier and Riss spoke. Leonór regretted the secrecy, she said, but it was a necessity: she’d planted whispers along the Continental Post routes of a wagon-jacking. Their target was an individual who fancied himself a fence.

“He won’t be able to resist it,” she said. “Turning over a wagon, that’s a big-ticket score. I’ve half a mind to believe he only robbed me to add it to his list of accolades.”

Calay breathed out the beginnings of a laugh. So they were chasing after some glory hound. That would make it easier.

“So we rendezvous with the fence if he’s still camped in the location your scouts advised,” said Riss. “But… what of the wagon?”

Leonór tapped a single, ragged-nailed fingertip to the table.

“Let him keep it for all I care,” she said. “Provided he compensates you fairly.”

“And how exactly will we get home?” Torcha cut in. “If we sell him our wagon?”

Riss shot her a look, begged her with silent eyes to just stay quiet. But Leonór took the question with a smile, crows’ feet tightening at the corners of her eyes.

“With the price this wagon will fetch on the backchannels, you’ll certainly be able to afford a horse home.”

Calay swept his eyes around the meeting chamber, took in the solid wooden frame and the narrow bunks nailed to the far wall. He’d heard tales of the war-wagons that roamed the Continent’s flatter terrain. Like great landborne ships, carrying enough cannons that they could take Medao’s navy gun-for-gun. Wagons were serious business down south.

“It’s part of our compensation package,” Riss explained to the crew at large. “In addition to our retainer and other, as-yet-specified favors.”

That’s a whole mountain of compensation, he thought. Unsure as he was on southern or central-Continential geography, he wondered what aspect of this job justified the sky high price tag. Salt flats and desert was treacherous terrain, he supposed. But nobody had gasped in horror or expressed shock that they’d be going there. They’d have to buy extra water, all right, but the destination elicited no surprise or despair.

He shot a look across the table toward Riss. Her expression was typically pensive; it gave away nothing. Riss always looked like she was thinking hard at the negotiation table. If only she were a little more ethically flexible, he might have invited her to his card games. She could bluf along with the best of them, he reckoned.

It occurred to him that he’d been with Riss for a year now. She’d never treated the company like a dictatorship. They sat at a round table, nobody lording over the head of it. If he had questions, he could bloody well ask them, couldn’t he?

Calay cleared his throat. “I can’t help but notice that’s a fine price for what sounds like straightforward work,” he said. 

Leonór’s eyebrows crept up a little. She regarded him from the shade of her hat.

“So you’re wondering what I’m not telling you, eh?” she asked.

“We’re aware there were some highly sensitive details about this contract,” Riss chimed in. “Hence meeting you in person. Hence all the cloak and dagger. I admit I’ve been wondering too, but I respect that it’s a sensitive situation.”

Leonór graced Riss with a weather-beaten smile. “That’s why I always prefer to work with recon,” she said. “Recon types understand discretion.”

If only you knew, Calay thought. Working in Medao, burying himself in mercenary jobs, settling into an apartment with a balcony and a morning routine—Calay was so discreet whole days passed where he never thought about his magick at all. Some days it felt like he was domesticating himself right out of being a sorcerer. 

“This job is going to require wits, conviction, and caution because the individual who stole my deliveries is a highly wanted man.” She said it calmly, not bothering to imbue the words with any theatrics. “His name is Nuso Rill. And if you haven’t heard of him, I’m sure someone on your team can fill you in.”

The air seemed to leak from the room in one great, collective breath. Calay watched Riss and Adal for their reactions. Riss’ eyes tightened. Adal’s went wide. That twitched a hint of a smile onto his mouth, though he buried it quickly. 

“I’m more familiar with his brother,” Calay volunteered. Anvey Rill and his riots. The crazy bastard had stirred dissent in Vasile since Calay was a boy, sometimes with success and sometimes with periods of extended jail time. Last Calay knew, he was rotting in the cells for plotting to blow up the Leycenate.

“He’s a highwayman,” Adal said. Calay knew that much. Fortunately, Adal continued. “Though that’s simplifying things a great deal. He’s a highwayman with a terrifically efficient gang, and he has a finger in every black market there is. Down here they hate him because he desecrates tombs. Up north they hate him because his men made the roads unlivable unless you paid their taxes.” 

Calay tilted a look toward Adal, curious. “And do they hate him in your hometown, too?”

Surprisingly, Adal laughed. He scratched at the back of his neck, awkwardly averting his eyes off toward Riss. “Well,” he said. “My family runs riverboats. So in all honesty, he’s made us a great deal of money.”

Calay coughed a snicker into a curled fist, then let it trail off and politely set his eyes upon their client.

“So that’s the big reveal, huh?” he asked. “You expect us to knock over the Continent’s most wanted man?”

Leonór gave him another of those thin smiles that seemed to rise more in her eyes than on her mouth. “No,” she said. “I’ll do the knocking-over myself. All you have to do is find him.”

The meeting dissolved into logistics prattle. Calay was less interested in that. Were he in charge of the outing himself, he’d have paid closer mind. But Riss hadn’t failed them yet when organizing all that crap herself, so he left her to it. 

After a while, Gaz posed a question to their client that did capture Calay’s interest.

“What were you carrying that was so interesting Nuso Rill would risk his life to steal it, anyhow?”

Leonór paused mid-sentence, glancing over to Gaz and staying quiet a beat. She looked him over, seemed to be considering whether to even answer. Calay leaned forward on his elbows, expressing nonverbal interest. Riss leaned in, too.

“Privacy is important to the Post,” Leonór said. “People wouldn’t trust us with their correspondence if they knew there was a chance it would be inventoried or peeped at.”

“So you’re saying…”

She nodded at Gaz, confirming. “I have no idea. I don’t know whether he was after a single parcel, a single letter, or the entire bag just to say he’d done it.”

And that? Boy, that sent Calay’s mind reeling with possibilities. What could be contained in a small parcel or letter that was so valuable the most wanted man in the land would risk tangling with this crazy, hard-bitten old bitch? Information, of course, could be priceless. But he’d understood via Hadjo at cards that the war winding down meant the espionage market had really dried up down here. 

So what could it be, then? Smuggling routes? Veins of priceless ore? Dirt on someone important?

They concluded the meeting, his thoughts still racing. He promised Riss that he and Gaz would arrive at the appropriate time, but they’d be taking the next couple days to pack their bags and prepare for time abroad. 

###

From the time Alfend had scooped him up off the street, Calay had lived in his places of work. He’d slept in the surgical chamber of Alfend’s clinic at first, on a spare cot set aside. Later, Alfend had let him move into the upstairs loft. And later still, Calay had moved Gaz in. He liked it, sleeping above the clinic. The constant bustle of patients, orderlies, and visitors. The Vasile of his youth was packed tightly with people, too many of them for his neighborhood to ever truly fall quiet. He’d never be a farm boy, never long for the silence of the wilderness.

So his current lodgings suited him just fine. 

He and Gaz rented a warm, airy flat above a cobbler’s. The walls were thick, the windows let in plenty of light, and the polished brick floor was a cool, pleasant thing to stroll upon in the mornings. It had a narrow salon that overlooked the river, even. Though by no means luxurious, it was warm and secure and bright and high up, all descriptors which Calay had never thought in a hundred years would apply to a place he lived.

So what if there was a shrivelled old woman downstairs determinedly pounding tacks into bootsoles all the live-long day. Calay’s mind filtered the noise out.

They’d already packed most of their things for the upcoming expedition, neither of them being particularly fussy travellers. He’d wound down his card game for the time being, promised the regulars tales of excitement and adventure when he returned. 

For the moment, he sat on a scuffed armchair in the salon, watching thin curls of cloud move across the sky and trying to look dispassionate while Gaz made a big, stupid fuss over him. He had his mangled, mutated arm stretched out atop a small side table. Gaz held it by the wrist. In his other hand, he gripped a pair of small gardening shears that looked just comically tiny. 

“Is this really necessary?” Calay asked, watching as Gaz trimmed tiny, budding purple flowers off a vine that sprouted up between his knuckles. “I’m fairly certain if I leave the glove on they’ll just die and save us all this trouble.”

Snip, snip went the shears. “Seems a waste,” Gaz said.

Calay glanced past him to the bank of thin windows that lined the salon’s southern wall. Small trellises leaned against the bottom of each window, creepers and vines slowly taking them over, crawling up and around the wooden stakes like leafy snakes. It had started as a joke, Gaz harvesting the plants that sometimes sprouted off his arm. Now, though, the joke appeared to have grown into a fully fledged hobby. 

“Who’s going to look after those while we’re away, anyhow?” Calay asked. “I don’t want someone rummaging around up here.”

Gaz snipped the base of the vine, a little flick of the shears that Calay didn’t actually feel. He had a small glass of water ready, dangling the vine down into it. Some of them sprouted roots when harvested this way, others did not and died. Fortunately, the supply seemed to be limitless.

“Gonna move ‘em over to Riss’ place,” Gaz explained. “She’s got that big courtyard. And they’re going to have a housekeeper ‘round while we’re all away.”

Calay’s bark and bone fingers twitched. He suppressed a laugh. “Right.”

“You’ve been quiet since we got back,” Gaz said, carrying the glass over to a window sill. “What’s on your mind?”

“The mailbag.” Calay saw no point in beating around the bush. “I’m dying to know what was in that woman’s mailbag. My mind won’t shut up about it.”

Gaz spent a couple minutes fussing over his window-boxes, checking the soil and dashing a bit of water into some of the plants. Calay watched him do this often but he never quite seemed to pick up on all the patterns, what needed watering when and how much. It seemed a very inexact science. 

“Been wondering that, too,” Gaz said. “You have any feelings about going toe to toe with Rill?”

“Not really.” Calay scratched at his jaw. “Be interesting to meet him, I suppose. See if the legend aligns with the man. Somehow, he’s almost turned out to be the least interesting part of this job.”

“What’s the most interesting part?” Gaz walked past him as he asked this, headed for the hallway. Before he could disappear, Calay leaned forward and grabbed him by the wrist.

“The most interesting part by far…” Calay tapped his fingertip to Gaz’s palm for emphasis. “Is devising how I’m going to read everything in that mailbag without anyone else finding out.”

Gaz’s face crinkled up doubtfully. He didn’t retract his hand, but he gave Calay one of those long dubious stares of his. 

“Think about it,” Calay insisted. “Whatever was in there, Nuso Rill risked exposing himself to get it. This letter-carrier has reached out to us, given us a wagon, promised us untold riches if we can recover it. This can’t just be for her pride, Gaz. Old gal is keeping some sort of juicy secret, mark my words.”

It was either something valuable or something forbidden. And either of those could be of great use to Calay. 

“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you to be careful.”

Calay gave Gaz’s hand a fractional squeeze before relinquishing his grip.

“When am I ever not?”

He’d made a career out of being careful. His very existence was one of perpetual risk. And fortunately, he’d have long hours on the road to devise a failproof strategy. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 8 | Book 2, Chapter 10 >>

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