Book 2, Chapter 21

Gaz was tougher than most purely by build and dumb parental luck. While he’d never met his parents, he figured they must have been big. Growing up in a series of charity homes, bounced from household to household like so many of the Sunken Quarter’s unwanted boys, he’d had to grow tougher still. The littler ones, the ones with something to prove, they always tried to challenge him. He supposed it was human nature for people to look for the tallest tree in the forest and try to chop it down. Was a way for people to trick themselves into thinking they’d accomplished something. 

He’d toughed all that out.

But he knew, after hours of walking in the salt flats, that he could not tough this one out.

Calay had done what he could for Gaz’s leg by means of lizard blood and good old fashioned regular medicine. All in all, he’d done a bang-up job. And as always he had a truly exquisite selection of painkillers on hand. But while the wound no longer bled or hurt, his leg didn’t quite support his weight properly. His stride felt off. He tried adjusting his steps, even the way he held his hips, anything to put the weight down a little differently.

But after gods-knew-how-many hours, he just couldn’t keep it up anymore.

He didn’t allow himself to stumble. The first time he felt his ankle roll, he corrected, then came to a stop. Calay, who’d been walking beside him in stony-faced silence, stopped as well.

For a quiet moment, they held still and watched the others keep walking. Watched the flicker of Riss’ torch bob a little further off in the darkness. Watched Adal and Torcha, who stuck close together, their faces half in shadow. It was easy to believe, if one was a paranoid sort, that if neither Gaz or Calay said anything, they might just keep walking forever, leaving them at the mercy of the desert.

But of course they didn’t. Riss stopped, likely having heard their footsteps slow, and looked back.

Riss regarded him with soft, apologetic eyes in the fireglow. She didn’t say anything. Neither did he. 

“Think we’ve all gone ‘bout as far as we can for now,” said Torcha. Gaz didn’t quite believe she meant it, but he appreciated the cover.

They shared water, then settled down right where they’d stopped. Gaz wasn’t any recon specialist like the others, but he figured it out: no sense in looking for a campsite in terrain like this. Salt was salt. 

Hunkering down, they unpacked what little they’d carried. Gaz unrolled a length of patterned orange fabric from his pack, meant as a sun shelter but now serving as a blanket. He plopped his pack onto the hard salt, let his ass hit the ground, and laid back. He didn’t care that he hit the ground and rolled over before anyone else had even sat; he had nothing to prove. So conversations carried on above him at standing level: should we build a fire, yes the desert will probably feel mighty chilly once we aren’t walking, how long should we rest, I have no idea my hourglass was on the wagon. The chatter all sort of melted together.

He dozed, didn’t realize he was dozing, then found himself roused by a gentle shake to the shoulder. Calay crouched beside him, now backlit by a small fire, and he had a small cookpot in his hand.

“Thought you’d want us to wake you for food,” he said. And that was the correct answer, because whatever the crew had cooked up smelled fruity and spicy and sweet and absolutely mouth-watering. 

“Go ahead,” he said. “Finish it off.”

Gaz took the pot by its stubby handle and stirred the contents with the wooden spoon inside. Stewed pears with a bit of oats, if his nose didn’t deceive him. Blinking curiously and looking past Calay, he sought out the others around the tiny, guttering firepit dug into the salty crust.

“Fancy food for a night like this,” he called out toward Riss, who sat alone by the fire, attempting to consult the map by its light.

“I was saving them,” she said. “For… I don’t know, something special. A good day. Seemed a waste to leave them on the wagon.”

“Pears are full of water,” Calay helpfully chimed in. “Good choice on a trek like this where we have to mind our supply.”

Gaz wanted to ask exactly how far off Riss thought they were. And whether she judged their water supply adequate to get there. But when he took the first bite of spicy stewed pear, the crust of brown sugar crunching pleasantly in his teeth, he decided he could put such dire and depressing questions off. At least for a while.

Half in darkness, further off away from the fire, he spied the lounging figures of Adal and Torcha. Adal slept sitting up, snoring lightly, back propped against the heap of backpacks. Torcha leaned against his side, her head on his shoulder. The closest she ever got to admitting that she could feel sincere worry for someone.

“How’s he doing?” Gaz asked. Nobody had to ask him to clarify.

“Tired,” said Calay. “I brewed him some of the tea with the good leaves before we took off. But herbs can only kick your ass along the road so long. Figured he was going to crash hard.”

It had taken every last drop of human blood they had left to patch Adal back together and convince him he had the energy to make the walk. Gaz–who had years as a physik’s assistant under his belt, present for all kinds of awful work on stabs and burns and illnesses, who had snapped Calay’s arm off when he had to–grimaced at the memory. Granted, he didn’t stop eating his pears. But when he thought back, his heart felt heavy. Subtle nausea rippled through his stomach.

Adal had been borderline unrecognizable when they’d found him. Calay had diagnosed it: a crack up the skull, bleeding in the brain. And he hadn’t had to diagnose the shattered jaw, the teeth visible through the gash torn in his cheek. 

When Gaz blinked, he still saw Adal’s eyes. The vacant, empty questioning expression, like he didn’t know what had happened. Gaz took another bite of pear, chewing slowly. He’d seen that before, back in Vasile. Like something in the body used the last of its dying energy to shield a person from what had become of them.

When his teeth bit down, they encountered something crunchy inside his mouth, some husk of a seed or spice pod. That, that was what got his stomach fully queasy. That sudden crunch, the thought of teeth, teeth not quite looking right… he swallowed and felt ill.

“And how are you?” Riss had her attentive eyes on him now, the map forgotten.

“Fine-ish.” Gaz answered honestly. “Barely hurts. Leg feels a little weak. You made the right call. We didn’t have any to spare.”

“I know I did.” 

Good old Riss. Gaz had to chuckle a little when she said that. But she kept going.

“I hope you know it wasn’t easy. If I didn’t trust Calay to look after you, I wouldn’t have.”

Gaz tried another bite and found whatever skin-crawling sensory upset he’d endured at the crunch was gone. He chewed, then smirked in Calay’s direction.

“Yeah,” he said. “He’s all right, ain’t he.”

“Careful,” Calay said, voice low and tired. “I’ll kick you in the good leg.”

Once Gaz had all but licked the pot clean, he lurched up and helped Riss pack up what they needed to. Stretching out his leg helped. He ambled off, took a piss, all the usual nighttime crap. 

“I’m afraid we won’t be sleeping through the night,” said Riss once he returned. “We’ve got to keep moving and we’ll move best when it’s cool.”

Gaz understood. He didn’t like it, but he understood.

He curled back up beneath his patterned blanket, trying to ignore the dull ache surfacing in the meat of his thigh. Rolling over, stretching out, curling up again–he couldn’t find a position that was completely comfortable.l

And naturally, this draw Calay over, because if there was one thing he knew about Gaz from all their years spent so close together, it was that Gaz had never been a restless sleeper.

Salt crunched and crackled as he took a seat beside where Gaz sprawled.

“Hey,” he said. “Can I… get you anything?”

Gaz stretched out his arms, arching his back and groaning like a sad old man. “Nah.”

“You sure?”

“Just getting comfy.” Gaz adjusted the pack he used as a pillow, sitting up slightly. Then, to his despair, it was yanked out from behind his head. He grumbled and swiped at the offender, but soon Calay replaced it, now with something softer pillowed atop it. 

“Is that your jacket?”

“Nah.” 

Gaz rested his head back atop the pack, leaning down cautiously. Something wooly and soft now blanketed the tanned leather.

“… It’s Torcha’s jumper,” Calay admitted. 

Gaz leaned up, reaching behind his head. “Oh come on. That’s–”

“Shh, shh, she’s asleep. She’s not using it.”

Calay palmed him by the face and shoved him back into a prone position. Not hard, but hard enough that Gaz gave up with his protestations. He mumbled an unintelligible few syllables in Torcha’s defense, then slouched back down.

“Admit it,” Calay didn’t remove his hand. “It’s cozy.”

Gaz scrunched up his face beneath the invading palm that rested across his mouth and nose. “Are you trying to smother me to sleep?”

In answer, Calay drummed his fingertips across Gaz’s forehead. Gaz nudged at him halfheartedly, then just gave up. He’d slept under stranger circumstances. Eyes falling shut, he breathed out a weary sigh against Calay’s hand and tried not to wonder how long until Riss would wake them.

The fingers upon his face relaxed. Calay shifted, then drew his thumb along the curve of Gaz’s eye socket, tracing down toward the tiny tattoos upon his cheek. Poorly-conceived to begin with and executed just as badly, the trio of minuscule knives inked on his skin was a remnant of his time with Kitta’s crew, the Three Blades. It was no small source of amusement to Calay, who almost never passed up an opportunity to rib him for it.

Yet now Calay was quiet. He traced his thumb along each faded little knife with a solemn, quiet affection that Gaz didn’t need his eyes open to sense. 

“Relax,” Gaz muttered. “‘M’gonna be fine.”

Calay’s hand stilled. “I know,” he said. “Just…”

The fire crackled in the silence that fell while Calay sorted out his thoughts. On such a dark, mildly chilly night, the sound of the fire tricked Gaz into feeling a little warmer. Reminded him of his boyhood sleeping habit: always by the hearth if he had a say in the matter.

Calay finally broke his silence. “You called me heartless, once.”

“… I didn’t mean it.” Gaz recalled the argument in that vague way a mind never quite lets go of past embarrassments. “Also, that was ages ago.”

“I know.” Calay’s exhale had a hint of a laugh to it. “But Riss said something that reminded me. And… I don’t know. It feels pertinent to say.” Gaz stayed quiet, prompting him to ramble on. “You asked me if it hurt having to watch our patients die, knowing that I could witch them healthy if I was willing to expose myself. Knowing how many more people we might have saved.”

“That was an asshole thing for me to say,” Gaz said. “I was mad. And I’m pretty sure I already apolo–”

Calay shushed him. “Shh. Just. Let me finish. I was trying to say that I’ve discovered it hurts way, way worse when the patient is you.”

Calay had always handled affection roughly the same way a stray cat did: aloof with a touch of demanding, always needing it on his own terms and never for too long all at once. Idle, physical things he was fine with–like a kitten permitting cheek-scratches and providing head-butts in turn–but even since the first time they’d slept together, he’d shied away from admitting anything so frankly. And Gaz, ever familiar with the temperament of strays, hadn’t pushed him. If there was one thing he’d learned in their years as new friends, then old friends, then whatever the hell they were now, it was this: Calay had to figure things out at his own pace or else he’d blitz through them with brass knuckles on.

All the same, the words stoked a little curl of contentment in Gaz’s chest.

He couldn’t help but ask.

“Did you really leap down the ravine to rescue me?”

Leather and cloth rustled. Salt cracked. Something heavy fwumphed down nearby, then Calay stretched out with his back to Gaz’s. He tucked up his legs some, getting comfortable.

“I had my charms on,” he said. “I knew I’d be fine.”

“You always land on your feet,” Gaz conceded, the last coherent thought he had before he lapsed into a tired, dreamless sleep.

A few times in the night, he stirred, roused by some noise or another. First it was the whistle of wind through the ravine, a lonely whoosh and scrape. Then it was crickets, rhythmically chirping off in the darkness. He tried to take comfort in that second bit the same way he took comfort in the sound of his slumbering friends around him. Surely the crickets would flee if the scorpions were that close, right? Animals had a sense for that, right? Like seabirds taking flight before a big squall. Like butterflies knew how to migrate.

Unless…

An uncomfortable thought lodged in him like a splinter.

Unless the crickets had no idea what was coming. Just chirping on obliviously with no clue of the danger that lurked just around the corner.

Sleep came harder after that.

<< Book 2, Chapter 20 | To Be Continued >>

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Book 2, Chapter 20

Renato Cassi adjusted the long, gold-trimmed cuffs of his uniform jacket, boredly inspecting his sleeves while he staked out Riss Chou’s house. A bit of dried blood darkened one of the shiny, star-embossed buttons on his coat, catching his eye by virtue of its drab crustiness. Frowning, he scratched it off with his thumbnail. He did all this while keeping one eye sort-of-kind-of on the front gate. Chances that he’d miss anything of import were very, very low.

For three days in a row now he’d kept watch from a parked carriage, ambling by when he could. He’d changed up the time of day a few times, coming by twice in the evening and once in the morning. After this much surveillance, he was satisfied that he had the housekeeper’s schedule in hand: she came by in the morning, about halfway between dawn and noon-bell, and stayed for a mere couple hours.

She’d left when the sun was far higher in the sky. No one else had come by since. In fact, the house hadn’t had a single visitor apart from her. Which tracked with Renato’s suspicions about the state of Riss Chou’s social life. She hadn’t changed much.

Fingering the set of slender, hook-tipped iron lockpicks in his pocket, Renato made the call. Tonight was the night.

He pulled his warden’s cap on, tugged it securely over his ears, and climbed out of the carriage. Back straight, he strode up to the gate and let himself in without hesitation, making for the front door. As a member of Medao’s finest—if tangentially—he had no need to skulk about like a common thief. If any neighbors happened to spy him ferreting about in Chou’s yard, they’d assume he was there on official business. Which was why he gave the door a solid knock, waiting patiently on the front steps. 

There was, of course, no reply. This left Renato free to skirt around to the side fencing. He groped through strands of thick ivy and unlatched another gate, letting himself into the high-walled drive between the home itself and its disused carriage house.

Though the house looked handsome from the street, its carriage house was half-collapsed, a heap of useless brick with a caved-in roof that didn’t even promise useful storage space. It appeared wholly neglected, and as Renato let himself into the interior courtyard he saw similar signs of disrepair in the masonry and fountains. The garden looked like a cake someone had stopped icing halfway through, the tufts of greenery and growth visible here and there only drawing further attention to the bald spots. There were a truly baffling number of lion statues, all of which needed a wash.

So the company was doing well, but not that well. He felt the tiniest spike of malicious enjoyment there, he had to admit. The shaded, tree-lined street was in a decent part of town, but not a neighborhood without its fixer-uppers. The old, high, narrow brick homes were expensive to staff—Riss was making a rookie mistake by not hiring a live-in housekeeper. And not just because a housekeeper would have kept Renato out.

Crossing the yard, watched by a half-dozen immutable stone lions, he checked the two doors that granted access. One led into the kitchen, a narrow green-painted wooden door with a small window inset in the top. He jiggled the handle and found it locked, but the door rattled promisingly in its frame the way that old, easily-beguiled doors did. 

Renato slid his tools from his pocket and got to work. Within minutes he was in. Courtyard doors always were weaker than the front ones; the rickety lock felt ancient, its tumblers easy to manipulate. Heavens, had Riss even changed the locks when she’d moved in?

The small, blue-tiled kitchen was cool and quiet in its abandonment, its hearth vacant of a fire for some time. Renato crept through it without really looking, uninterested in its contents. 

What was he interested in, though? Pacing down a short hallway, well-illuminated with natural light thanks to the many windows, he glanced at closed doors and wondered what they might hold. Wondered what he was actually looking for. 

In the end, Renato supposed he was merely nosy.

He wanted to see how the old crew was doing. Wanted to see how the people he once called friends were carrying on without him. Perhaps—tch, how gauche—he was looking for evidence that they were miserable without him. Or at least not as secure and financially comfortable as they might otherwise have been. 

Walking the halls of Riss’ home felt like walking through a vision of his own alternate future: a few bedrooms, modest furnishings, a well-built but unimportant house on a nice but unimportant lane. He breezed through the sitting rooms, unsurprised to find them bare of personal touches. Riss treated everywhere she ever lived like a tent: sparse, unadorned, and ideally bare of any belongings that weren’t capable of being emptied out and carried away upon one’s shoulder. Her family was a few generations removed from their Carbec steppe nomad heritage, but perhaps such impulses lived on in the blood. Who knew.

After prowling a while, poking around through a modest armory and a sparse bedroom on the first floor, he began to wonder if there was even anything juicy to find.

And what was ‘juicy’ to him now? Come, he thought. He might as well be honest with himself. The bitter, nasty side of him—normally kept on a sturdy, short leash—was hoping to find some evidence that Riss was miserable. That moving on without him, dumping him like a mistress she’d outgrown, had been the wrong call. He doubted he’d find concrete evidence that she regretted parting ways with him, but there were other tells: opium and laudanum in excessive amounts (unlikely), a maudlin diary (extremely unlikely), a preponderance of alcohol among the stores (perhaps the most likely of the three). Thus far he’d seen no evidence of any of that. Perhaps she was stolid and boring even in her grief.

Finally, he came to a small wooden door inset with squares of red-stained glass. When he tried the handle, he found it locked. Interest piqued, he selected a spidery torsion wrench and a fine, hooked pick from his set. This one was meatier than the courtyard door, though only by a narrow margin, a newer tumbler lock that took some genuine finessing. He held the wrench steady, working the pins free, and felt a spark of elation when all clicked into place.

Behind the door was a modest office, all wooden walls and wooden furniture. The desk looked new, a heavy walnut construction that still smelled of fresh polish. Several items he recognized adorned the walls: Riss’ old hornbow, a crossbow made from the spiralled horns of a steppe antelope. Then there was a buckler bearing old Fourth Recce insignia. A big picture window let in plenty of light from the courtyard and opposite its panes hung a massive, hand-drawn map of Continental geography. It covered everything from the northernmost crags of the Janel Coast and Vasile’s big, crescent-shaped bay to the dozens of tiny islands south of Medao, few of which were inscribed with names. Riss had jotted notes here and there, added a few additional roads. At a glance, most of her notes seemed uninteresting.

The desk, though. That drew Renato in as if by gravity. He sidled around behind it, took a seat in the green-cushioned chair. The plump leather seat was comfortable. He could see it: Riss decorating this room shortly after moving in, allowing herself this one luxury. Telling herself she’d earned it.

His own desk at home was much nicer. But he could see why she’d chosen this one. It was well-built, the lines of it speaking to quality even where they’d spared ornamentation.

Renato tried the drawers one at a time, sliding each open and using the tip of his torsion wrench to flip through papers. He found the usual assortment of ledgers, paged through them without much expectation. Riss kept neat books, surprising nobody. She also didn’t seem to be up to any particularly salacious business.

He found a drawer populated by neatly-organized correspondence, mostly letters to and from clients. There was a red-sealed Letter of Commendation from the Baron of Adelheim among the lot, a letter from Tarn Gullardson thanking her for her bravery and duty and blah blah blah. Renato had heard Tarn’s lot had endured some horrifying weirdness in the swamps there; it barely perked his eyebrows to discover Riss had been involved. In that same drawer was a ledger of her personal accounts: preferred restaurants, a… massage parlor?, a leatherworker’s, and a place that looked like it was probably a brothel. What sort of person only hit the brothel monthly?

The bottom-right side of the desk was home to a big cabinet rather than more drawers. And when Renato tried it, he found the handle didn’t budge. Curious, he squatted down and discovered a subtle lock tucked beneath the handle itself.

She was ever uncreative in her habits. Well, he instantly knew where the juiciest secrets in the house would be.

Desk locks existed more to deter children and suspicious spouses than any determined picklock. Renato sprung the cabinet open with ease.

Inside, the cabinet contained two small storage boxes, a paper-wrapped stack of books, and a velveteen bag. One of the boxes was packed with letters—he recognized the loopy handwriting as Adalgis’—and the other with odd little treasures. There were pearls, some silverwork, an impressive choker of filigree gold and garnets. A smaller bag inside contained signet rings he didn’t recognize as well as a fine, hand-painted silk scarf, the kind that cost more in the shops than even Renato made in a half-month. Curious but ultimately unmoving. He packed the boxes as he’d found them and went for the books.

He expected more ledgers, but what he found was far, far more interesting.

Peeling the paper back, he tilted his head and read the spines of the books, forehead wrinkling. By the time he’d reached the last in the stack, his eyebrows were on a collision course with his hairline. Northener history? Librida Sorcieri? What the fuck?

Selecting the volume with the juiciest title, a grey-bound hardback entitled Sorcery and the State, Renato rifled through the pages with a baffled tilt of his head.

Rocking back on his haunches on the office floor, he scrubbed a hand beneath his hat as he read some bone-dry introduction about the historical purge of sorcerers from within Vasile’s city walls. He kneaded the stubble on his scalp as if in the hopes he could massage a stroke of inspiration right out of his skull.

When that failed to work, he just said, “Hunh.”

Though it might surprise civilians to learn such, one of the most important tools in a jailer’s toolbox was empathy. Interrogations were just a great, exhausting marathon of empathy, trying to inveigle a person into sharing their innermost thoughts by means of inhabiting their state of mind. Trying to see where others were coming from in order to explain the acts they committed. Using empathy to gauge who among the newly-released who was truly remorseful versus those who were likely recidivists.

From his time as disciplinarian in the Fourth to his new career in Medao’s dungeons, Renato had made his fortune on empathy more than anything else.

Yet for all he tried, no matter how many angles from which he considered the pile of books in his hands, he could not fucking fathom why Riss Chou, the least interesting person Carbec had ever barfed up, would own a bunch of books about sorcery.

Suddenly, he had an investigation on his hands.

<< Book 2, Chapter 19 | Book 2, Chapter 21 >>

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