Book 2, Chapter 23

(See a quick author’s note in the comments of this chapter–sorry I disappeared for a bit!)

The Meduese woman and her second-in-command with the melted face offered Adal and Calay a ride in what they called the “more comfortable” wagon, the bigger of the pair. It was a narrow walnut-wood construction, three stories tall, and had a canvas awning spread across the top. If Adal squinted, he could make out what appeared to be potted palm trees on the roof. While it didn’t quite stack up to the big war-wagons the narlies dragged across the maps during the war, it was easily the size of a riverboat. Standing outside it and peeking through the door gave him the same crawling sensation as he got when staring down the mouth of a cave. This is foreign territory and you won’t have the upper hand here. 

“I’ll stick with—” He was about to say you to Riss, but she waved a hand to cut him off.

“They’re splitting us up on purpose,” she murmured. “A group of five is a big risk on a wagon.”

As much as that offended his sense of dignity and manners, she was correct. Five passengers of unknown origin was potential hijacking territory. Their rescuers were simply taking the same precautions Adal himself would take in their shoes. Oddly, that realization made him feel better. The fact that their rescuers saw them as a potential threat meant they weren’t bugs to be squished underfoot.

“We’ll be fine,” said Riss, ticking up a tired smile. “Look after yourself. We’ll see you in Frogmouth.”

She was awful quick to dismiss him, quick to turn her back and trudge toward the smaller wagon in the distance. Torcha followed her, asleep on her feet, boots audibly dragging on the salt.

That left Gaz and Calay, who regarded each other in that strange silence that often passed between them. Adal got it, sort of. A lot could pass between two people with a look, and for every year of history between two people, that silent vocabulary grew.

“He should come with us,” Calay said, glancing over to the curly-haired woman. What was her name again? Melada? Adal’s sun-dizzy mind wasn’t grasping onto details with its usual tenacity.

“No room.” She popped a reed into her mouth, began to chew it. “Sorry.”

Calay gestured toward the bandages around Gaz’s thigh. “His leg’s buggered,” he protested. “I’m his medic.”

“The hammocks here might actually be worse if he’s got a busted leg,” she said. “I’m afraid neither of our haulers are particularly spacious.”

Gaz put a hand to the middle of Calay’s back and assured him all was fine. Nobody voiced it, but they were all far more worried about Calay at the moment. He looked like absolute dogshit, having picked up shakes and night sweats sometime in the last two nights. The dark circles commonly found beneath his eyes now bloomed like fresh bruises. It wasn’t like him to protest this vocally about being separated from Gaz for all of a few hours; Adal wondered if his brain might be fevered.

“Come on,” Adal said. “The sooner we mount up, the sooner we get to Frogmouth.”

“You’ll feel better once you’ve got some water in you,” said Gaz.

They didn’t embrace or speak any well-wishes or even say goodbye. They just nodded at one another and went their separate ways. 

Stepping inside the wagon was a borderline euphoric experience. Though it was hot and stuffy inside, being shut away from the sun did wonders. All his cave-mouth trepidation fled him in a moment as soon as he stepped into the shade. The woman—Maf, the crew called her—led them inside and through a series of low-ceilinged hallways, cramped and poorly lit and caked with dirt. Every possible interior surface that could be converted into storage space had been, from cargo nets and crate mounts to long shelves lining every possible wall, their contents lashed into place with twine and cord. Some of the shelves were so shallow and precarious that their contents were lashed into place with fraying twine, which bulged at the seams to contain books and bottles and pots and jars.

She ushered them up a zig-zagging set of stairs and into a smoky, window-lined lounge. Hammocks hung from the woodplank ceiling, which was painted with a bright floral mural of eye-wateringly high contrast reds and greens and purples and golds. It was all a little much for Adal’s senses to keep up with.

A short, bald woman passed him a cool ceramic bottle. Maf produced another, passing it over to Calay.

“Drink up,” she said. “Careful not to take too much at once; it might upset your stomach.”

Adal popped the wax stopper free with his thumb, bottle halfway to his mouth before Calay spoke up.

“This isn’t just water.” Wary as ever. “What’s in here?”

Maf smiled, the apples of her cheeks dimpling.

“Mostly water,” she assured them. “Little bit of basil. Little bit of citrus cordial. Fruit’s good for the body if you’re sunstruck.”

Adal sipped. The drink tasted just as she’d described—sweet and tart with an herbal note on the nose. It was the most refreshing thing he’d ever imbibed in his entire thirty-plus years. He had to restrain himself from glugging the rest down in seconds.

Low cushions and bean bags littered the floor. Their host stepped around them toward a table in the corner, where Adal only just now noticed her crew were all staring at him with blatant curiosity.

“Guys,” said Maf. “This is Adalgis and Calay. Their wagon went off the road and we’re helping them back to Frogmouth. You be good hosts, yeah?”

Adal couldn’t help but wonder what business this woman was actually in. She’d said something to Riss about being an archaeologist, but Adal had never seen an archaeologist or geologist who travelled around with their whole dig crew in tow. They were traveling more like the Beddos, some big nomadic family, but a glance at the diversely shaped and colored crew around the table told Adal they were quite unlikely to be blood relatives.

… She was right. A bit of sun and a bit of water really was bringing his brain back.

“May I sit?” he asked.

Maf swept a hand toward the bay of hammocks. “Any seat that isn’t occupied is yours. Your healer’s got the right idea.”

Adal glanced over and discovered that Calay had already collapsed into a hammock, an arm draped over his sunken eyes. He’d stripped off his coat and his shirt, sagging back in nothing but his undershirt and trousers. Adal spied purple-blue bruising along his chest. When the hells had he acquired that?

“I appreciate your hospitality,” Adal said, trying to put on an appropriate social face regardless of the circumstances. “We’re very grateful.”

Maf—her full name occurred to him, he’d heard Riss call her Mafalda—waved dismissively at him, her smile relaxed. “Think nothing of it,” she said. “It’s part of the code out here. You pass a traveller in need, you help them if you can. People remember if you leave folk to die by the roadside. Long memories in this part of the world.”

“Still,” said Adal. “You’re going out of your way.”

“And I’m sure you’ll pay the favor forward the next time someone needs it.”

That he would.

Mafalda strolled over to join in her crew’s gaming. They had seercards, dice, every common distraction from a bored soldiers’ barracks. Adal considered joining them, but he knew he was cognitively not up to the task. He dragged a bean bag over to Calay’s hammock, propping it up against the wall. Just as he turned his back on those sitting at the gambling table, his ear caught a snatch of conversation: some of Mafalda’s crew weren’t pleased to be heading back to Frogmouth. In fact, one wondered blatantly what was worth turning the fuck around and heading straight back. So they’d come from Frogmouth in the beginning…?

Adal didn’t have time to continue speculating. A series of whistles relayed through the crew, signals to the driver no doubt. Moments later they were moving. He spilled down into his seat, tucking his bag in beside him, and sighed immediately in the relief of being off his feet. Even more relieving, once the wagon began to move, air circulated wonderfully through the many slat-lined windows. Within minutes, the temperature inside the lounge dropped. A cool breeze caressed his cheek.

He was nearly alone on a wagon full of strangers, his only companion visibly ill, but the paranoid parts of him just didn’t have the energy to surface. He enjoyed the relief for what it was: cool and shady.

###

The journey was, like all wagon travel, plodding and monotonous. Adal napped, woke, had more water, then napped again. He checked in on Calay, who mumbled that he was awake but suffering a headache and please don’t take this the wrong way but unable to cope with human voices for the time being.

Mafalda’s staff rotated, the crew in the lounge departing for their watch. They were replaced by an equal number of dusty, sinewy, tattooed individuals. One of them, a dark-skinned woman called Cori, offered him free rein over her collection of novels heaped upon one of the wagon’s many shelves. Adal selected one at random, tried to read, and found that reading on a wagon made him terribly motion sick. Unfair, but that was wagon travel for you.

They rolled on through the night. Adal slept again, then woke to morning light glaring in through the slats.

This morning, Calay seemed better. His color had improved, skin no longer carrying a grey-yellow tinge. 

Adal wasn’t sure how to approach him. While they were comfortable with one another now, they weren’t exactly friends. Adal wanted to know how he was doing. Genuinely cared, even. But he respected that the man seemed to value his space and his silence.

Breakfast arrived in the form of a platter of dark grain crackers with tinned fish and sliced tomatoes and herbs. Not at all what Adal was expecting. Migraine or no migraine, he thought fish might be worth rousing Calay from slumber. Northerners liked their fish terrible and salty, didn’t they?

Calay didn’t grouse at him for the intrusion, taking a couple crackers with a mumbled thanks. Adal sat back down on the floor. They ate side by side in silence, crunching crackers and thinking their separate thoughts. He hoped Riss and the others were well. He hoped they’d reach Frogmouth soon. Now that his wits had returned to him, they had a mission to salvage.

###

An indeterminate crawl of hours later, Mafalda summoned them both up onto the roof. Calay was moving much better, no longer dragging his feet, though he lurked behind Adal on their journey through the wagon’s bowels and didn’t say much.

Up top, a dry salty breeze whispered through his hair the second they emerged from the hatch.

“Thought you might enjoy the view,” said Mafalda, propping a boot up on a rung of the thin safety rail that caged them in.

Past the railing, the Salt Flats exploded into desert colors, a warm-toned palette reminiscent of spice jars and dried chilis in Medao’s city markets. Smooth, low hills rippled up out of the salt, streaked with orange and red and deep, dusky purple, and beyond them rose wind-smoothed sandstone cliffs of banded orange and red. Calay whistled.

“That’s about the most colorful thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.

“We’re headed straight up the middle of it.” Mafalda pointed out a canyon, a little shadowed squiggle between the sandstone bluffs. Greenery grew out of its mouth in scraggly tufts, hinting at a river or spring nearby.

Though he no longer wandered the desert on foot, dehydrated and disoriented, Adal’s throat still seized when he saw those treetops. That human instinct, the draw to water as a source of life and safety, thrummed through him like blood. Children of the Deel felt it stronger than most, people said. His fingers twitched.

He glanced back behind their wagon, through the dust trail it kicked up, and spied the smaller wagon trundling determinedly behind. Riss and the others were fine.

“We’ll be nestled up in Frogmouth before sundown,” Mafalda said. “You’ll have some time to stretch your legs and find your bearings. Might be tough finding five beds given the scorpion problem, but you all seem like resourceful sorts.”

You haven’t the half of it, Adal thought.

Up and into the canyon they went, following a well-worn path that followed parallel to a trickly river. From his perch up on the roof, relaxed beneath the flapping canvas awning, Adal spied the broad, tan backs of gold panners crouched in the stream.

They passed into shade, an immediate relief, and soon passed into Frogmouth itself.

Adal didn’t realize he was looking at the town until Mafalda pointed it out: a series of holes and burrows dug into the sandstone, small caves with tarps and flags and bric-a-brac hanging along their gaping mouths. Riss hadn’t been kidding when she said Frogmouth was dug into the canyon itself.

Around a bend in a road, he spied more traditional structures: stilt houses hovering above the river, catwalks and rope ladders balancing precariously between them all. A few bigger structures perched atop one sandstone hill, crafted of mismatched wood that the wind had bullied into submission, every plank peeling and warped.

When he breathed in, the air felt humid in his lungs and smelled of water and fresh green growth. It was like smelling springtime itself. Intoxicating.

The wagon passed beneath the mismatched structures, following the road to a large drift of packed-down sand where several other wagons loitered. The biggest was a hulking war argosy, cannon shutters lining its flanks. Though he couldn’t be sure without a peek inside, it looked as though it were still packing a full broadside. Most of those had been decommissioned after the war, their cannons fixed to city walls and fortresses.

The sight of it flooded his stomach with unease. Many a wagon had passed into private hands after the war, but the sort of private hands that could command a wagon like that were above his paygrade. The big war-wagons took easily thirty or forty hands to crew. They cost as much as a small fortress. 

Distantly, his body remembered the throb of cannon-fire, the way it bit into his bones and shook like little earthquakes.

He glanced over to Calay, who appeared wholly untroubled by such thoughts, gawking upwards at the hidey-holes with an eager little smile edging at his mouth.

Adal supposed everything was a new and exciting sight to someone who’d rarely ventured outside their hometown. 

“I can’t thank you enough for your assistance,” Adal said to Mafalda. “I know I keep saying it, but you saved our proverbial bacon.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure out a way to repay me,” she said.

Then she winked at him, dropping back through the hatch, leaving he and Calay free to reconvene with the crew and explore.

Somewhere in all those tunnels, or behind the shutters of that hulking war-wagon, or perhaps sipping whiskey in whatever passed for a tavern here, Nuso Rill was waiting. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 22 | To Be Continued >>

Book 2, Chapter 22

Home.

Mafalda could almost taste the crunchy-fried fish wraps, the crisp fresh cabbage, her mother’s famous sweet potato and shrimp boil-up. It wasn’t right, working so far away from the sea for so long. A girl could only subsist on venison and beans and eggs and flatbreads for so long. Where was the flavor?

Reclined back in a hammock aboard their little trundler wagon, Mafalda and Blitt swapped daydreams about the city and the coast, trading homesick anecdotes back and forth while passing around a bottle of Beddo plum wine. 

“What’s the first thing you’re gonna eat when we hit the coast?” Mafalda asked, taking a swig of the thick, sweet wine. She peered across the cargo bay to Blitt, who relaxed in a hammock identical to hers. Only he just about spilled out of his, on account of not being as conveniently-sized as Mafalda. The sight of him gave her a shoulder-shaking giggle, though she conceded at least part of that might be due to the wine.

Blitt lurched over and swiped the wine from her hand, a grin crinkling up his ruined face.

“Crab fritters,” he said, gravely. “I’ve tried making them myself, but–”

Mafalda spoke in unison with his last few words:

“But they never turn out like Jacilla’s.” She rolled her eyes at him good-naturedly as she mimicked the line he often repeated around camp. “You know, most fellas at camp jerk it to thoughts of their wives’ bodies, not their food.”

Blitt went red as a beet, at least the parts of his face which weren’t all melted with scar tissue. That just shoved Mafalda overboard into laughing anew, and bless him, Blitt knew she didn’t mean it, because he was laughing too, and the others playing dice at the hold’s small table were laughing, and it was going to be amazing finally being home again. If Maf closed her eyes, she could smell the sea breeze already.

The pilot hollered for her, an unmistakable three-syllable bellow. 

Leaning upright, Mafalda shoved some errant dark curls out of her eyes, glancing aside to Blitt. He shrugged. She shrugged back. It took her a couple moments to find her feet and trust them enough to heave up out of the hammock. She wobbled a little with the wagon’s motion, bare feet scuffing along the dusty planks of the floor. It was a short walk across the cargo trundler’s hold, then a climb up one short ladder and then another. The wagon was built almost more vertically than horizontally, a towering thing that crept across the flat desert terrain like an ambling townhouse when in motion.

Mafalda reached the roof, knocked the trapdoor open, and hauled up beneath the sunshade. She then dropped down onto the pilot’s perch from above, landing with the fluid grace of the intoxicated beside Nuso’s best driver, Wiggen.

“Morning Wigs,” she said, even though the sun was well past that point in the sky. “To what do I owe the honor?”

Wiggen, a wiry Meduese fellow with a smattering of dark freckles across his arms, pointed out toward the horizon. When Mafalda followed his pointing finger, she spotted a dark smudge across the featureless expanse of salt. Given the distance and the waver of heat off the salty ground, she couldn’t make out much detail, but she guessed the dark spots might be tents.

They’d spied smoke in the distance the day prior. Nothing too unusual about that most of the time, but it had piqued her interest a little given the time of year. Anyone with half a head’s worth of sense was quickly moving on from the Flats to ensure they didn’t become a scorpion pincushion.

Mafalda rubbed at her chin.

“Does it look like they’ve moved?” she asked. “Or is that roughly the same position as the fire yesterday?”

Wigs rolled a narrow shoulder and consulted the horizon.

“Tough to say,” he said. “But my guess is it’s the same. Like someone’s stuck out there and they ain’t moving.”

Mafalda had traveled the length of the Flats for many a season. She could probably guide a wagon from the Teags to Esilio with her eyes closed. 

“They’re on the ravine route, aren’t they.”

Wigs nodded, already catching what she was getting at with that comment.

“Aye,” he said. “We could turn back that way, investigate, if it pleases you.”

They were headed inland, leaving the ravine and the coming scorpion horde behind. But the tentlike smudges in the distance were close enough that it wouldn’t put them in any danger to sniff it out.

“It isn’t about what pleases me,” said Maf, clapping the pilot on his shoulder. “We’ll vote on it. The boys might not be feeling the raiding spirit. Everyone just sort of wants to get home and sleep in their own beds and eat some fish and catch up on lost time with their partners.” She paused, scritching a hand through her hair.

Wigs made a noncommittal hum in the back of his throat, though he agreed to the vote nonetheless. 

Mafalda called it out through the hatch, explaining the situation: camp on the horizon, didn’t appear like the inhabitants had moved for a time, possibility it was anything from a caravan in need of rescue to a lawman’s trap. Only Blitt voted in the negative, surly old sod that he was. He took his being overruled in good spirits.

Regretfully, this turn of events meant that more wine was off the cards. Mafalda cracked open a fresh cask of water, determined to sober up before the gang descended on the campsite. When representing the Continent’s most infamous band of outlaws, it would not do to show up drunk and giggly. 

###

Any possibility of raiding these travellers for coin evaporated as soon as Mafalda got a good look at their campsite. Even the word “campsite” was a stretch. A pair of ragged lean-tos slouched half against one another, the posture of their struts defeatedly saggy. Deflated-looking leather rucksacks and a few canvas bags littered the ground nearby. Were it not for the fact that they’d seen fire less than a day ago, Mafalda might have assumed the camp to be deserted.

Still, as sorry as it looked, there were precautions to be taken. 

Maf and Blitt headed up a small recon party, dismounting the wagon and approaching on foot. Back in skinnier times, when they’d needed to be creative to fund their digs, Nuso had pioneered more than one variety of roadside explosive. The charges didn’t have to be enough to destroy a wagon, just cripple it. Mafalda was glad those days were behind them, but Nuso’s tricks had been replicated now. They were out there in the world. No wagons close to any roadside bags. Ever.

“Ahoy there!” she called out, approaching the tents unarmed. She knew Blitt had a rifle trained over her shoulder, and that was to say nothing of the six others on the wagon and the second wagon loitering just behind her own.

“Shit,” Blitt muttered behind her. “Look at you. Nuso would have a fit.”

Mafalda twirled around to face him, struck a pose, and stuck out her tongue. “Shame he isn’t here!”

The time for playful banter came to an end when movement shuddered up one of the tents. A darkly-tanned woman crawled out from inside. Once she freed herself of the tent flap, she crouched in eerie, unmoving silence. She had pin-straight charcoal hair and wore a deep green cloak, though hair and cloak both were stiff with salt and tousled by wind. Her deep-socketed stare and the visible sinew on her neck looked like a textbook case of water-lack. 

She stared at Mafalda in a silence that seemed even more total thanks to her lack of movement. Sat there like a wild animal caught in the crosshairs, she made no move to reply to Maf’s friendly greeting.

“It’s all right,” Maf said, and something in the woman’s stare twitched. She sniffed the air.

That wild animal look, it wasn’t doe or rabbit. It was more like a boar. She wasn’t spooked; she was sizing Mafalda up.

“You’ll have to forgive me.” When the woman finally spoke, it was deep-voiced and articulate. “We’ve been alone out here a while. You spooked me.”

She stood up fully, stretching, and swept the drape of her cloak back over one shoulder, revealing a loose-fitting linen blouse and a pair of wide-legged trousers, sashed at the waist in the far southern style. She was almost a full head taller than Mafalda, with a competent and broad-shouldered build. Even in her visibly dehydrated state, she looked like what Nuso might call an ass-kicking sort.

“We?” Mafalda asked, glancing toward the tent. She wondered how many there were with her.

Nodding stiffly, the woman took a step toward her. She didn’t seem deterred by Blitt’s rifle.

“Four others,” she said. “My friends. Two of them are in a bad way.”

Hooking a thumb through the belt loop of her trousers, Mafalda slouched her weight on one foot and studied the woman’s calm, dark eyes.

“Not surprising,” she said bluntly. “You’re insane to be out here on foot this time of year. Scorpions get them?” She doubted it; there would be screaming if so.

“No.”

Intriguing how this stranger hadn’t introduced herself yet. She had seven kinds of foreigner wafting off her–Meduese slacks, Carbecer steppe accent, cluelessness about the ins and outs of Salt Flats travel.

“I’m Mafalda,” Maf said, saluting off her brow with an empty hand. “Why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself and your friends and we’ll see what we can do to help ‘em out.”

The woman’s eyes tracked her hand. She swept one of her own palms across her chest at shoulder-height, a gesture of greeting. Maf had seen it before in riverfolk types.

“Well met, Mafalda. I’m Riss Chou.” She pronounced Maf’s name with an Inland flattening of the vowels. More like Mefalda. But Maf held her tongue. She was dehydrated all to hell and looked a little lost. 

The woman–Riss–turned toward the tents and tilted a little nod.

“Inside is my Second, Adalgis of House Altave. And my gunner, scout, and medic. We’re armed but we certainly won’t raise them at you without provocation.” Her chapped lips tweaked up in a brief smile. “We know when we’re outgunned.”

“Where you bound for?” Maf asked, taking the nod as an invitation to stroll over toward the camp. She passed the remains of the fire, the scent of ash mingling with salt on the air. “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you there’s nothing out here for miles.”

At that, Riss gave a low grunt. “We’re bound for Frogmouth,” she said. “Up in the canyons. And no, you needn’t tell me that. We were traveling by wagon but suffered a bit of misfortune en route.” She spoke in a measured meter that immediately lulled Maf’s sense of bandit’s wariness. A calming presence. It was easy to see why she was in charge of this operation, even if her Second had a fancy name.

Mafalda broke the bad news.

“You won’t make Frogmouth on foot,” she said. “Not before the migration. And possibly not at all, given your water-lack.”

At that, Riss’ smile grew weary and resigned around the eyes.

“Well then we’re lucky you wandered by. We can pay handsomely for escort out of the Flats. Doesn’t matter which way you’re headed. We’ll take what we can get.”

Mafalda appreciated her pragmatism. It wasn’t the first time she’d come across wanderers lost in the salt. Certainly wouldn’t be the last. Code was if you saw someone in distress this deep in the salt, you helped them. You never knew when it might be your turn next. This Riss, she was coping with it better than most others Maf had rescued, to such a degree that it invited begrudging admiration. While Maf watched, Riss slipped into the closest tent, murmured something inside it.

“My crew’s coming out now,” she said. 

“Her folks are coming out!” Maf called over her shoulder to Blitt. “Rifle away. They’re no threat to us.”

“You’re playing this awful casually,” Blitt warned her. But Maf waved him off. If Riss was lying about the contents of those tents, if her crew were bloodthirsty marauders, if Riss herself suddenly and inexplicably transformed into a giant snake, their riflemen on the wagon would take care of it. Maf’s faith in her crew was unwavering.

A skinny girl with frizzy orange-red hair crawled out first, locking eyes with Mafalda in a challenging glower. Riss put a hand to her shoulder, said something under her breath to shush her. The girl huffed, her cheeks puffing out, and Mafalda saw then that she wasn’t quite as young as she appeared–just short and thin, clothes hanging off her like they were borrowed from an older sibling.

“So what’s your business in Frogmouth?” Mafalda asked. Nobody went to Frogmouth for above-board business. The cover stories were always entertaining.

Riss considered her through narrow, pensive eyes. “We’re mercenaries,” she finally said. “We came into possession of that wagon of ours and I’m told the fences in Frogmouth can work wonders.”

That sparked Mafalda’s interest. 

“What happened to the wagon?”

At that moment, a blond man slipped out into the camp, peeling the tent flap back. He was about Riss’ height once he stood, with sun-kissed skin that bore only a few superficial scars. Mafalda pegged him as the Second immediately; the elements had sanded off his fine-bred edges a little, but there was no mistaking the hair and skin and general hale quality of someone who’d had a privileged start at life. He’d settled into working life by the look of his traveler’s garb and tan, but this specimen would always be easy on the eyes.

“This is Adalgis,” said Riss. “And regarding the wagon, well…” She turned her eyes toward the jagged dark chasm that cleaved the flats in two. “It’s down the bottom of that gulch, I’m afraid.”

Mafalda cupped her chin in a hand. “Unfortunate.”

“Sure is.”

Yes, this mercenary was definitely new to the Flats. She didn’t seem to know that a wagon crash, while not quite common, was not the game-over catastrophe she seemed to think it was. Gears began to turn pleasantly in Mafalda’s mind. The crew could always use another wagon. And this one might come at the bargain price of zero if she played her cards right.

“You left it where you dropped it?” she asked, eyebrows perking.

Riss blinked. “There’s only five of us. Repairs did not seem to be an option. That and the galania…”

“Didn’t make it,” Adalgis said.

“Splat,” said the redhead.

Mafalda had to swallow a grin down. She couldn’t believe her luck. They’d just left it there. Hadn’t even thought to send an outrider to Frogmouth for a tow. Unless the thing was shattered to absolute smithereens, even the broken shell of a galania-sized wagon was priceless. Waiting lists for new frames were years-long. Something about how they specially treated the timber, the builders said, how they processed it to toughen it up to withstand the cannon mounts and recoil. Axles, wheels, interior walls, the peripherals, those could all be rebuilt. But if the body was intact…

There was only one downside. One major, major downside.

“I’m afraid I’m just coming from Frogmouth,” Mafalda said. “I’m headed west. We’d just turned off the ravine route when we spotted the smoke from your fire.”

The line of Riss’ pursed mouth faltered. She looked disappointed for a half-second.

“I’ve been looking forward to my mother’s home cooking for weeks now,” Mafalda said. “I’ve got to be blunt with you, miss Chou: it would take a lot to convince me to turn back.”

Riss rolled her eyes. “We can pay,” she said. “I promise you that. We’ve got accounts at Meduese Imperial. Which I’m assuming you’re familiar with, by your accent.” She paused. “And we’ve got a cache of small-batch Beddo wine back on the wagon. It’s yours if you get us to Frogmouth.”

Inside, Mafalda was less conflicted than she pretended to be. The wagon that had made up her mind. The wine, well, the boys would appreciate it at least. 

Still. She felt a pang of regret in her stomach. Home. Some damn thing always seemed to get in the way. Dig schedules, lawmen, scorpions. A big, big wagon was getting in her way now. Big enough to haul more workers and more artefacts. To carry more supplies back to their dig site when the scorpions cleared off.

Gods damn it. 

Tapping a finger to her cheek, Mafalda put on a show of sighing in resignation.

“All right,” she said. “We’ll take your folks to Frogmouth, Miss Chou. You’d best pack up quickly.”

Only once they were dismantling the tents did the final two members of Chou’s mercenary crew emerge out into the sunlight. A big, tanned man ducked out first, stripped down to a singlet and breeches. He had a freshly-shaved and freshly-sunburnt scalp and a raggedy strip of multicolored cloth binding one of his legs. The man that crept out after him was smaller in every way: short, pale, wan, sickly, and silent, with his arm in a sling and a haunted quality to his eyes. 

They introduced themselves at Riss’ prodding, along with the redhead. They were called Torcha, Gaz, and Calay. 

She had to be careful not to pause a beat when she heard that last name. She introduced herself with a smile, unoffended that the unwell-looking man didn’t offer to shake her hand. She observed him for a while, watched the way he leaned on his big friend, followed him like a pale and wary shadow.

Calay was a common first name in Vasile. Common enough that her momentary flash of familiarity might have been misplaced. But the longer she observed him, the more she was certain she’d seen those haunted eyes staring out at her from a wanted poster.

How interesting. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 21.5 | Book 2, Chapter 23 >>

Book 2, Chapter 21.5

Boy, it was hot.

After that first day, Gaz vowed that he would forever shut his mouth any time a southerner claimed that Vasa folks couldn’t handle the heat. The salt flats had redefined what heat was. All the times in Gaz’s life when he’d been sweaty and swampy and overheated were just precursors. Warm-ups, if he allowed his sense of humor to get that morbid.

Considering how terrible they all felt by nightfall on day three, morbid wasn’t starting to look too far out of the question.

The mountains were closer, there was no denying that. Before night fell and veiled them from view, Gaz guessed they’d more than halved the distance they needed to reach the foothills. The ravine still gaped across the salt to their right. More than once they’d discussed whether it was worth climbing in to walk in the shade. Unfortunately, unless Calay could get his hands on some blood, that option no longer seemed viable. While they had plenty of food, they were down to their last day or two of water. The heat was baking their brains to custard in their skulls.

If they climbed down now, Gaz wasn’t sure any of them would be strong enough to climb back out again.

Their nighttime walks were growing shorter and shorter. Adal had been the first to admit their pace was just too much for him. He’d either developed a tolerance to whatever uppers Calay had been feeding him or they’d simply run out. Calay had stumbled next, unwilling to ask for extra rest breaks himself but first to fall asleep whenever they stopped walking.

Gaz, on the other hand, was feeling a little better. His leg was holding together all right. He felt a little shitty, improving while the others began to falter. He had no real explanation for it beyond the fact that he’d always been a hardy sort. Riss, who was of similar stock, also seemed to be struggling less than the rest.

On this particular break, it was Torcha who seemed to be feeling it hardest. While Riss built up the fire, Torcha kicked pebbles over the edge of the ravine, unbothered by her closeness to it even in the near-complete dark.

“Doesn’t that spook you?” Gaz asked, watching her in the glow of his lantern-staff.

“Nah,” she said. Kick, kick. “Heights don’t bug me none.”

Which Gaz knew already. He was too tired to attempt making further conversation, sinking slowly to the ground. He thought of rooftop chases back in Vasile, he and Calay racing across crumbling tenements into the decay of the Sunken Quarter. Heights hadn’t bothered them none, either.

When Torcha stepped over to join him, she stumbled. And unlike she usually might have, she couldn’t catch herself. She skidded down to the salt on her ass, cursing, and landed with a great, discordant clang like a clock going off.

Everyone turned to look at her, puzzled by the noise.

“The hell was that?” Riss asked. “Sounds like someone dropped a piano.”

“My guitar,” Torcha mumbled, rolling over. She swung her pack around into her lap, withdrawing the little guitar Gaz and Calay had stolen for her in the pit-stop town of Wishes. Fortunately, the impact didn’t seem to have broken it.

Riss stared at her in abject bewilderment. She scratched a hand across the scar at her temple.

“You carried your guitar all this way?”

With care she typically reserved for her rifle, Torcha turned the guitar over in her hands and inspected it. She twisted a tuning peg and plucked a single string. Gaz watched all this, slightly puzzled. He’d never been one to form much in the way of emotional attachments to possessions. Stuff tended to come and go out of his life. Sometimes he missed a particularly nice tool when life’s twists and turns eventually parted it from him. But most of the time, stuff was stuff, and it seemed to be the role of ‘stuff’ in life to disappear eventually.

Everyone bunked down, too tired to give Torcha shit for the guitar thing. She continued tinkering with it, trying out a few slow, cautious chords. She was getting better in the same way that a snakebite ‘got better’ after a few days. 

“What a way to go,” Calay mumbled, curled up on his side. “Always hoped the soundtrack to my inevitable death would be a bit more dramatic.”

“Ha ha.” Riss tossed a pebble at him; it didn’t hit its mark. “Nobody’s dying, I’m afraid.”

That was all the banter they had energy for. Everyone nodded off, glad to be off their feet. Gaz kept an ear cocked as he settled down on his side, wondering if he’d even be able to tell what thousands of scuttling scorpions sounded like. Would they just wake one morning to find the ravine alive and wiggling and full of them? Would they–

He must have fallen asleep mid-thought, because when he was shaken awake an indeterminate time later, he couldn’t remember what he’d been wondering.

They woke.

They walked.

This time, nobody said a thing.

Gaz’s feet felt heavy. His leg was healing up well, but the rest of him felt slow to respond, like he was sleeping off a big night of drink. 

Cheeks scorched with sunburn, face tucked beneath one of Torcha’s scarves, Adal and Riss kept them all at it, mindful drill-masters with a pack of cadets that couldn’t keep up.

Calay had trouble walking in a straight line.

The distant sky began to glow pink. Dawn was coming. Gaz hated it, hated the heat the coming day would bring. Throughout the course of his entire life, he’d had had very little energy to hate things. Now it felt like he hated the daylight with all the hate he’d ever had in him. Honestly, though, hating left him really tired. He wasn’t sure he could keep it up.

The mountains were close, but not as close as they’d hoped.

They rested.

They got back up.

They rested again. Was it on purpose, or did someone simply fall?

It was getting tough to keep track.

<< Book 2, Chapter 21 | Book 2, Chapter 22 >>

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