(Short author’s note – I’m finally back in my regular time zone and from next week forward, updates will be less erratic!)
Sleep came and went. Dawn came and went, too. No one roused Calay for watch. In fact, the barracks was entirely empty when he awoke. Waking to see sunlight streaking through the windows was disorienting, even if it was the fresh, infant sunlight of an early dawn. The dry air of the Flats lent itself well to reusing linens; his shirt and glove still felt crisp and dry when he pulled them back on. He didn’t bother buttoning the shirt nor belting his trousers as he climbed all over the wagon in search of the others. The polished wood of the wagon’s floor was appealingly cool against his feet.
He found Torcha on the roof. She looked like she’d been awake for hours, or like she hadn’t slept through the night at all. Either was possible. Bent low beneath the glow of a lantern, she was in her element: stripping and oiling the parts of someone’s sidearm or another. Adal’s, by the look of it.
“Warm out already,” Calay said by way of greeting. “Gonna be a hot one today.”
“Hope the sun don’t put our lizard to sleep,” she said, twisting a pipe cleaner down the barrel of the pistol.
Calay’s brow wrinkled. “Does that happen?”
Torcha shrugged with just her head, tilting her chin. “Well, little ones do it…” Trailing off, she finished her cleaning and then started to piece the pistol back together, hands moving with the absent, mindless confidence of repetition. “Anyway. Everyone’s down below.”
She didn’t mean the cargo hold, nor the pilot’s bench. So Calay climbed out of the wagon and beneath it. There he found Adal and Gaz inspecting the wheels and axles, the most important ritual of the morning.
“How’s she looking?” Calay asked.
Gaz gave him a wordless affirmative gesture. Adal, shimmying around with a lantern, nodded from where he crouched.
“I was curious how the wheels would handle the salt,” he said. “Never traversed this terrain on wheels before. And technically speaking, we’ve been off-road this entire time…”
Calay tuned out, listened to the drone of Adal’s technical explanation as merely background noise. Riss arrived a minute later carrying a hefty woven basket and one of those leather-strap slings all the Beddos used instead of bags. She was laden down with interesting-smelling food, loaves of some bread that used ground rice instead of flour and bottles of black and red berry spirits.
“I figure interesting booze might buy us friends when we rendezvous with the Rill gang,” said Riss.
“What’s our plan for all that, anyway?” Calay asked. “We ought to discuss it in more detail…”
“C’mon.” Riss beckoned him up top. “We’ll chat while we drive.”
Tightening up the wagon, rousing the galania, and setting off was something that came quicker and with greater efficiency every morning that passed. It took mere minutes this time. Soon Calay was sitting on the bench alongside Riss, who flashed a mirror in the sun, signaling to the Beddo wagon. Both began their steady trundle across the dawn-pink salt.
“So,” Riss said. “The plan for Nuso Rill.”
Calay listened with interest even as his eyes swept the horizon.
“We’ll follow this ravine north by northwest,” she said. “It crosses almost the entire Flats; should reach the other side in two, maybe three days. Due north from where the ravine terminates, there’s the canyon Leonór told us about. Inside that canyon is a spit-fleck of a stopover called Frogmouth, up in the canyon wall itself–“
Calay had to cut in. “I’m sorry, called what?”
“Frogmouth. You heard me.”
Calay laughed from deep down in his diaphragm, surprised by the force of his own laughter. Frogmouth. How daft. Sure didn’t sound like the sort of place to search out a famous outlaw. An apothecary who sold dodgy portions to horny old men, maybe…
“And Rill will be there?” he asked.
“He’s been sighted there, at least.” Riss nodded. “It’s a known haunt for all sorts of disreputables looking to fence ill-gotten gains. We’ll hang around town, see if we can send word that we’re looking to offload this wagon. If at all possible, we’re to find out where Rill camps.”
Reclining back on the bench, Calay sniffed the dry, salty air.
“All right,” he said. “So we roll into Frogmouth and see if Rill wants to have us over for tea.”
“Mhm. All we have to do in the meantime is avoid thousands of scorpions.”
As far as plans went, it was diabolically simple. So few moving parts. So few opportunities for things to go wrong.
It had just gone midday when Calay first spied the ravine on the horizon. The sun was punishing, hovering straight overhead as if to scold anyone who’d dare be out at this hour. So when Calay saw what appeared to be a shadow on the horizon, he had to double-check. Heat shimmer made everything wobble and waver, but soon they drew close enough to confirm it.
What began as a crumbling crack in the salty ground soon opened up into a wide gulf easily four or five times the width of their wagon. When Calay peered down its steep, salt-encrusted sides, he couldn’t quite see the bottom due to the angle. Riss directed the galania to give the ravine a generous berth. The Beddos did likewise.
Something inside Calay relaxed. The old twinge in his jaw unclenched. They’d made it. And not a single scorpion in sight.
He took a turn manning the rear guard for a while, rifle balanced in his lap. Not that there was a soul behind them. Only the dance of heat off the flat, off-white ground.
More uneventful hours passed. Calay’s mind retreated into that quiet, contemplative place where he considered his goals: Frogmouth, Rill, the postwoman’s mysterious collection of letters. Then Riss shouted something, a relaxed-sounding order directed down below.
There was no urgency in her voice. The wagon rolled to a gentle stop. Calay climbed down to see what was the matter.
Nothing, it turned out. They were merely parting ways with their caravan companions. The whole Beddo family came out to say their goodbyes. Calay lingered at the edge of the crowd, standing in the wagon’s shadow as Riss bade them all farewell. He picked up bits and pieces of their conversation. The Beddos were heading straight west from this bend in the ravine, climbing up into the distant mountains and into plateau country. Continental geography still twisted his brain into knots a little, but the plateaus weren’t far from where Riss grew up, if he had it right. No wonder she was making nice with the traders.
Calay had played it out in his mind a few times, how he’d respond if he ran into fellow Vasa travelers. He could not envision a scenario in which they weren’t sent to kill him.
The elder Beddo woman spotted him, waving to his spot in the shade.
“And you,” she called over. “How did you sleep?”
Calay gave her a thin, shadowed smile.
“Like a baby,” he said.
As he watched their small, gaudy wagon disappear into the distance, he once again felt that subtle, seismic tug. Felt like the Flats were thinning their numbers.
It hadn’t been that impressive when it was merely a mark on Riss’ map, but soon the ravine crumbled and tumbled deep into the earth. Calay appreciated it over his left shoulder from where he lounged at the rear boarding plank. It was there whenever he turned his head, providing a comfortable barrier against the flood of incoming scorpions. They had time on their side now.
So when he heard Torcha whistle the alert, he wondered what could be the matter. It certainly wasn’t scorpions.
Climbing up onto the roof, he was joined by everyone but Riss. Torcha sat beneath her sun-shade, eyes to the east, her mouth a thin flat line.
“You’re right,” Adal was saying. “I don’t like the look of them.”
Calay followed their stares out toward the horizon. From where he’d been watching, south and down below, he hadn’t seen the clouds mounting. They looked unlike any storm clouds he’d ever seen, lacking the grey-black-brown gradient of the storms that ravaged the coasts of his youth. These clouds were grey-red, towering higher than any he’d ever seen. They looked like great heaps of dishes in the sky.
“Doesn’t look like rain…” he started.
“No,” said Adal. “But keep watching.”
It only took a couple seconds. They all watched the distant clouds as lightning lanced from one to another, forking out in all directions.
“That doesn’t look like any storm I ever saw,” said Gaz. There was no curtain of rain beneath it at all.
“Storms behave differently out here over nothing but dry land,” said Adal. “The plateau near Carbec, down the dry side you can get dry lightning. Thunderstorms with no rain. They can develop into dust storms, too. Sudden gusts of wind, grains of sand like knives. They’re real bastards.”
“But do you reckon it’s headed this way?” asked Torcha.
Adal thinned his lips. “Hard to say. I’m not familiar with the terrain here. And we’re on a moving wagon, makes the wind tough to gauge.”
“I’d say our first order of business ought to be finding out,” said Calay.
Something unseen raced through his blood, dread and anticipation rising through the hair on his arms like steam. Was it the charge of the storm? Was it normal to feel them even this far off? Adal disappeared down the hatch, calling out something to Riss down below.
“That ain’t a dust storm,” Torcha said, as if in some attempt to comfort him. “They’re like a solid wall of red coming at you.”
Calay’s shoulders twitched.
“I’m more worried about the lightning,” she said. “All this wood we’re sitting on. And we’re the tallest thing for miles.”
Beneath their feet, the wagon juddered. The ravine began to speed by quicker. Riss was urging the lizard into a run.
The wagon’s occupants all leapt into frantic action. With the same expedience they’d shown in their morning routine they now latched and shuttered all the windows. Torcha rolled up the awnings. Calay ducked inside, slid down the ladder, and met Riss on the bench. Her jaw had tensed, her eyes on the distant storm. Calay watched it for a while too, peering past her.
“Headed our way, then?” he asked.
“Adal seems to think so. Could miss us depending on how hard it’s rolling, but I’d rather not take that chance.”
Calay slid his tongue over his teeth. Nerves prickled in his mangled arm. “Is there anything I can do?”
Riss didn’t look up. “Not unless you can control the weather.”
Calay didn’t know if his talents could ever extend that far. There was so much he’d never learned, so many characters in the alphabet he’d never practiced. He wondered where his skills might be if Alfend Linten hadn’t disappeared. If he’d had an actual tutor showing him the way rather than scraps of diaries and notes and wary, careful experimentation.
“Afraid not,” he said. “But… I can put out fires, at least.”
That one had been a priority after the riots in Blackbricks. Flames needed air to feed themselves; he could swallow the air above them, muffle them with shadow. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the closest he’d been able to teach himself.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Riss said.
Calay wished it wouldn’t, but as the wind turned and began to pick up speed, licking through his hair with a chill that seemed almost beckoning, he didn’t hold out hope.
Soon they’d secured every loose item they could. Riss urged the galania into a full-on run, its massive claws churning up salty spray as it dashed along the alkali fields. The wagon behind it shuddered and bumped and creaked, dragged along at a speedier pace than its groaning structures were used to.
Calay couldn’t tell at first, with the height of the clouds and the width of their spread. Hard to see whether they were coming or going. But soon he felt the telltale drop in his lungs and his gut, the sensation of weather turning. Their wagon wasn’t a ship; it lacked a barometer. But Calay didn’t need one to know the storm was hot on their heels.