Book 2, Chapter 30

Gods, it was pleasant out.

Just the right amount of humidity thickened the air, enough to turn Renato Cassi’s long walk from the library into a balmy stroll instead of an irritable, sunburnt trudge. A big, grey-bellied rainstorm had emptied itself down onto Medao for the last two days, and the city glistened with reflective puddles. He kept his sheaf of papers wrapped tightly in a sealskin folio, bundled to his side in case the rain wasn’t yet finished.

His house was among the more modest which lined the perimeter of the Quadrata Tafta, one of the city’s big parade squares. He hurried home past the rain-shiny windows of innumerable public servants, magistrates and advisors and professors of varying prestige. He himself lived on the quieter side of the square, in an early settler-era manor that had been remodeled into three generous apartments. And as luck would have it, the two apartments he shared walls with were both city residences of distant mayors, empty save for their servants and the occasional kept lover.

In short, his home was luxurious, modern, and quiet. Just as he liked things.

Upon letting himself in, he found that his staff had the oil lamps lit and the cookfires roaring on the bottom floor. Renato suspected he wouldn’t need to open the vents that night for warmth. The rain had been persistent but not all that cold.

He took two generous squares of pastry folded with layers of cured sausage and cheese from the batch in the oven, then sought out a spicy chutney from the pantry. The pastries were probably meant for breakfast, the base of something more elaborate, but they were ready now and the stacks of the Universitat’s library had beguiled him away from lunch.

Thanking his housekeeper and cook, he retired upstairs. At first he thought to read in his study, but he’d been trying to make a habit of eating there less often, lest the place absorb the odor of old bread and ham. He lived alone for the time being, but that was no excuse to backslide into a bachelor’s habits.

So he walked his meal and his reading into the smoking room. It hadn’t seen much use of late. The brocade curtains on the walls rustled as if to greet him when he opened the door, excited by the prospect of a visitor. He lit the lamps, then a cone of incense as well, then looked toward his writing desk.

The desk was a light, portable wooden thing, designed to be packed and carried in the field. He’d kept it as a trophy from a Selyek camp they’d raided back in the day. No telling how many of Zeyinade’s orders had been passed along and penned upon its surface. The sight of it lit a little flicker of pride in his stomach each time it caught his eye.

But gods, he’d had a long day. His feet hurt. His stomach growled for want of cheese and sausage. He gave the desk a fond smile, then trudged over to his chaise, spreading himself out like a painter’s model and sighing with relief. The cushions welcomed him and he propped his back up until everything felt just-so. Then he opened the flap of his folio, picking through the papers within before his evening snack got his fingers all greasy.

The Universitat’s archivists had graciously lent him a whole series of lecturers’ notes on Vasa history, covering a few hundred years prior to and including the era that Riss Chou’s books seemed to encompass. Renato had been careful not to ask about sorcery directly, touchy subject that it was. But he wondered if next time he might as well be so bold—as soon as he’d said it was penal system business, the archivists had been happy to comply. Nobody had asked him to justify his interests.

Life in city government was full of pleasant little surprises.

Patient and meticulous even as curiosity all but consumed him, he paused to cut his squares of pastry thrice crosswise each, making little bite-sized parcels of them. He balanced the thin porcelain plate upon his chest, pinched a tiny fork in hand, and forked the first bite of flaky, buttery pastry into his mouth while his other hand flipped the cover page over on his first batch of notes.

Steffensis Collected Vasa History:

Early City-State Years to the Formation of the Leycenate

… Oof, okay, he did not need to go back that far. Early Age of Exploration types had settled Vasile after a series of naff attempts at finding new trade routes, giving up and plunking down in the first safe harbor they found. Anti-monarchists to a man, they’d rattled around doing gods-knew-what and mined copper and ate fish for several hundred years until at some point they came to the conclusion that they missed having a stable government. And now a bunch of twats in big haughty chairs they insisted weren’t thrones sat in a big circle and voted on things.

Renato figured he knew enough about that. He leafed through the volume of notes until the first instance of the word magick caught his eye.

was inevitable that a city built by magick would eventually turn against its architects. Vasile would be nothing without its sorcerers and its people resented that. The Leycenate, an ostensibly democratic institution, caved to this resentment wherever it could.

To preserve the veneer of impartiality, the Leycenate barred sorcerers from holding public office and insisted that magick users had little bearing on policy. This sounded as farcical back then as it does now, for everyone knows that in Vasile, the only thing that has bearing on policy is money. And the various sorcerous tradesmagickal architects, memographers, navigators, artisanswielded great wealth if not official political influence.

Renato skimmed through the years of unrest that fomented in Vasile for a few decades, one set of riots after another. The rise of anti-magick unionists and small artisan movements insisting on ‘human-made’ product, backed up by superstition that products or building materials touched by sorcery would lend horrible curses and side effects to those who used them. Those old wives’ tales were worldwide. He’d heard them growing up even in Medao, where a sorcerer had not been sighted for a good few hundred years.

This was all vaguely interesting, Renato supposed, but he’d never had a scholarly bent. History for history’s sake wasn’t his thing. What he wanted to know was why Riss felt she needed to know all this. He forked a square of pastry into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. Suppose it was naïve to think the answer would just leap off the page at me, he thought.

Perhaps he was still too far back in time. Riss’ books had focused on the Purge, hadn’t they? He flipped a few pages forward. Whoever had kept these notes, be it Professor Steffensi themselves or a dutiful student, had excellent indexing habits. He quickly found the years he was looking for.

The purging of Vasiles sorcerers was a turning point for the city-states history, bringing an abrupt halt to years of accelerated technological development. It was not a move that made the Leycenate friends among the moneyed elite, but the pull of populism proved too strong, and the measure gained support from the ground up. While some of the Leycenates Landed Lords and Ladies campaigned openly for all sorcerers within the citys bounds to be exiled or killed, a secret committee of the governments most influential had a different plan altogether, one that had already been put in motion.

Meanwhile, as the tide of public opinion turned against them, sorcerers began to meet in secret. There was no consensus among them regarding what to do about the rising tide of anti-magicker sentiment in the city. Some suggested a coupafter all, they had the power. Others simply fled the city or went into hiding. An idealistic few believed that as long as they obeyed the Leycenates guidelines, democracy would protect them. Chief among the proponents of working within the system was the famed sorceress architect Carcelli. She became the de-facto voice of those who backed the City given that she was already a known entity who cooperated with the government on a frequent basis. Her primary opposition, though only in the magick-wielding circles as he was careful to avoid excess publicity, was a man known by many aliases. For ease of recordkeeping here, we shall use his birth name: Keril Boulter.

Little is known about Boulters early life. Memography was his first introduction to the sorcerous arts, and he graduated from an apprenticeship at Mircha Colrenays school. His memographers work brought him first to the outskirts and then to the inner circles of power within the city. He wrote the memoirs of several noteworthy clients up to and including lesser members of the Founding Families, and all records of his acquaintance hint at a man who was circumspect almost to an excessive degree.

Indeed, it is perhaps this willingness to abstain from power, to remain on its fringes right up until historys moment required it of him, that lent Boulter the edge with which he eventually bested Carcellis influence.

Or perhaps, as one old historian supposes, rebellion was inevitable on the sorcerers part. They gave their labor, their sweat, their very lives for Vasile. They built the city up from nothing with their own blood. Such rebuke after such devotion! One can hardly blame them for looking down upon the city and finding it wanting for gratitude.

A wet, forgotten lumpy weight rested on Renato’s tongue. He’d taken a bite from his pastry several paragraphs ago and forgotten to even chew it. Once this Steffensi got going, they could spin a real yarn. Renato gulped down his sullen wad of egg and bread, grimacing at how wet it felt on the way down.

He read raptly, following the tale of Boulter as he recruited followers among the city’s spurned sorcerers. The more law-abiding sorcerers in turn then attempted to form an autonomous democratic council to elect representatives to interface with the Leycenate as public pressure built. A charismatic young revolutionary backed by Carcelli’s faction was elected to speak on the council’s behalf, the margin overwhelming. So naturally, the Leycenate responded by dissolving the council in its infancy and having him murdered. There were a lot of threads to follow, and way too many of those curly-wurly r-rolling Vasa names for Renato to keep fully separate in his mind.

Finally, he got to the good stuff.

After the council’s dissolution, Boulter set about recruiting something more resembling revolutionaries than mere allies.

One consequence of governments that reject the concept of ruling by birthright is that people still daydream about being king. Democracies and republics then convince these daydreamers that they have a shot at the big chair provided they kill the right people. Vasile is no stranger to would-be revolutionaries and attempts at coups. Indeed, scholars of Vasa history can draw parallels between Boulter’s movement and many which followed it, up to and including the present difficulties thrown at the Leycenate by Anvey Rill and his mad bombers. While Rill and his ilk use technology to threaten and terrify the masses, though, Boulter had the threat of sorcery behind him. And not just one man’s sorcery. His followers numbered over two dozen.

It’s fortunate for both the Leycenate and the civilians of Vasile that Boulter was a plant all along. By the time his would-be coup came to a head, he’d recruited all of the city’s bloodiest-minded sorcerous practitioners, and it was with his help that the Leycenate was able to slaughter or imprison every last one of them. Boulter cut their revolution off at the knees with zero losses to the city’s personnel and not a drop of blood shed. Next week’s lectures will cover what little is known about the specifics of Boulter’s betrayal, as the exact methods are shrouded in mystery. Vasile has worked hard to scrub the worst of the Purge and its sorcerous secrets from the written record, starting with the 103rd Sitting Literacy Act, which outlawed literacy to all commonborn citizens unless they bear a permit. Though the Act has had amendments and revisions since the 101st sitting, it remains in place to this day…

Renato’s eyes began to glaze over when Professor Steffensi drifted into a lengthy blow-by-blow of Vasile’s legislative crimes against literacy. He had to admit, though, the historical betrayals made for surprisingly riveting reading considering how many years everyone involved had been dead.

Finishing his snack, Renato considered Riss. He did not like thinking about her, and her reappearance in Medao had caused him to do far too much of it. If he dwelled on her too long, his thoughts strayed back to Gaspard, and that was a wound he’d rather not pick at.

At least the discovery of her strange new fascination with sorcery gave him a sort of side outlet for his frustrations. As long as he was trying to figure out her goals, he wasn’t thinking about their shared past, their shared pain. The pain she seemed to be flagrantly, disrespectfully getting over, with her new crew of misfits and jobs all over the Continent.

That he was acting like a spurned lover was not a fact that was lost on Renato. He sighed, beginning to loosen his scarf. He took pride in his appearance, in the complex knots of his uniform’s ascot and the polished hardware he got to tote on special occasions. That was Riss’ problem, he thought. The place where their leadership styles diverged. Riss had attached herself to Gaspard out of some sad hero worship, obliviously fanning the flames of her own daddy issues. Renato, he’d taken pride in the company. In their work.

He freed his scarf from the collar of his shirt, then shook the length of embroidered silk out, smoothing the wrinkles. Fine lines of smoky thread glimmered against the black background, a repeating pattern of subtle chevrons.

Work. That was the key. The thought occurred to him as he began to unbutton his waistcoat. Whatever the motivations behind Riss’ newfound scholarly interests, they’d have come from her work. She certainly hadn’t been exposed to the history of sorcery since coming to Medao; his whisperers would have fed that information straight to him.

Before bed that night, he’d write the Ambassador, he decided. Ambassador Ercun favored Riss for local jobs, which meant they had some history. He’d pose as an interested client, ask about her history. Somewhere between Gaspard’s funeral and Riss’ re-emergence from the Adelheim swamps, that’s where he’d find his answers.

<< Book 2, Chapter 29 | Book 2, Chapter 31 >>

And as always, votes on TopWebFiction are appreciated!

Author Update – I won the thing! And a software update borked the website, but it’s fixed now

(Edited as of 10th Aug, 11pm – it’s all working again! Hooray!)

Hi all,

My life is a neverending torrent of stress, be it good and bad, at the moment, so I will keep this brief:

Thank you SO much to everyone who voted for me and Into the Mire at this year’s Sir Julius Vogel Awards! I am thrilled to announce that we took home the Best Short Story win. I was more than happy to lose the Best Collected Work nod to Marie Hodgkinson’s excellent anthologies, so I don’t consider that a loss in any way. 🙂

Now that we’re award winners… well, nothing much is going to change around here, honestly.

In addition to the happy news, I have been alerted by a reader that the recent WordPress update has broken the site’s hyperlink structure. This is not great. This is in addition to the fact that WordPress somehow altered my group rewrite privileges on my own install directories, which means it’s been impossible to make major changes to the website without accessing the FTP manually, which is a time consuming process compared to WP’s quickie editor. This is why parts of the website look garbage and bad. Unfortunately, been work and WorldCon and some post-WorldCon publicity efforts I’ve been wrapped up in, I haven’t even had a chance to sit down and look at it.

I have implemented a fix for the permalink on the Table of Contents Page for the time being and will manually be fixing hyperlinks on chapters shortly. (Ed note – as above, this is fixed now, leaving the post up for posterity.)

This is all stuff I know how to fix, it’s just that I’ve had approximately 45 minutes of alone time per day since maybe July, and my health hasn’t been great, so I tend to spend any second I’m not working just collapsed in an unconscious pile.

On the bright side, I’ve successfully moved up to the north island of New Zealand, although uh, none of my belongings have arrived yet, which is a little alarming considering the movers said “first week of August.” I am assuming my furniture will return from the war someday.

As an apology for the continual slowness of updates on the Patreon, I’ve put together something really cool, it’s just that the website breaking means I haven’t been able to upload it yet. Typical.

Those who know me have said in the past that my life is basically what would happen if a D&D player rolled a 1 or a 20 on every single roll for every minor event in their lives. I’m in a weird headspace about it but honestly that seems accurate given the current state of affairs.

Because of the way life is, Wednesdays are no longer a good update day for me. I’m going to shift things to the weekend, when hopefully I have a chance to catch up on some sleep and edit with a clear brain before posting. I have a huge backlog of the serial written already, it’s just that I feel uncomfortable posting chapters that haven’t been fully, comprehensibly edited by me at my most awake.

I’m sorry if I sound terse or frustrated–I am stressed out, but trust that I am very happy, and I am still very committed to this work, even if life seems determined to shove me off a series of increasingly taller cliffs.

Thank you for your votes and for your reading and for spending your hard-earned leisure time on, of all things, my web fiction. It means so much that so many of you have been here leaving comments and reading along for multiple years now!

Please be well, please be safe, and pet your cats and dogs for me. (And birds if they’re okay with it, probably not fish.)

Book 2, Chapter 29

“Oh… boy.”

Riss stood on a ledge halfway down the precarious via ferrata that she and Mafalda’s joined crews had rigged into the plunging canyon wall. The series of screwed-in handholds, bars, and ropes made use of a few natural gouges in the ravine’s side, providing a pathway to the ground that was at least moderately safer than climbing by hand.

Provided, of course, one could focus enough to climb. This was proving difficult, for at the midway mark of one’s descent, one encountered the… aroma.

An invisible wall of deathly stink separated the upper canyon from the lower. When one encountered the smell, one had to stop and catch one’s breath. And then one had to stop upon the ledge right where Riss stood, gazing down in gut-bubbling awe, wonder, and disgust at the several slowly-liquefying tons of lizard that lay decomposing on the salty, sandy canyon floor. It spread out there like the world’s least wholesome reflecting pool, its serene ooze speared through the middle by the snapped remnants of her war-wagon in lieu of a statue of Tempata or whatever goddess people put in fountains these days.

Oh boy was all she could make herself say.

Mafalda’s people had generously agreed to escort them to the crash site, providing both safety in numbers and labor to paw through the wreckage in search of something useful. Riss knew it would be bad, but she didn’t realize that ‘bad’ was to this situation like ‘accident’ was to pissing your pants at your own wedding in front of your parents, your betrothed, and the Emperor.

Someone heavy landed behind her, ropes rattling and squealing as they disengaged from a pulley overhead. A couple crunching footsteps sounded at her back, then a low and wilted groan. The voice was low, masculine, and especially pained.

His olive complexion made greener than usual by the smell, Nuso Rill let out a blegh and pinched his nose as he crept along the ledge to her side.

Under any other circumstances, Riss might have had to watch herself. She might have had to be careful with where her eyes strayed, ration how often she peeked at him out of the corner of her eye. She didn’t want to give away that she was paying attention, that she was making note of Rill’s habits.

Now, though? None of that was an issue. Because everyone’s eyes were watering with lizard-stink and Rill wasn’t paying any attention whatsoever to what she was doing and she herself could barely stand to look at him because focusing her eyes somehow made her smell everything more intensely.

“Whew,” Rill announced. “I don’t think I’ve ever—” He coughed. He sputtered. He tried again. The stench fought him every step of the way.

Finally, with a wheeze, he said, “I can’t even joke about this.”

“Me either,” Riss rasped, shielding her face with a hand. “Calay—our medic—has got some ointment down below. Says it’s—cough—what he used during autopsies. Supposed to help.”

Rill muttered something; she couldn’t tell what it was. One of his workers clambered past behind them, continuing on his descent without pausing on their ledge. Riss wondered spitefully whether he was just trying to look tough in front of his boss. She told herself that’s what it was, lest she otherwise explode into flames with jealousy.

Rill stepped into her blurry field of vision, hand outstretched.

“Here,” he said.

She’d been rendered so dumbstruck by the odor that for a moment she couldn’t make sense of what he was holding. A scarf and a bottle of clear liquid? But then she watched him spill a dash of the liquid onto the scarf and it clicked: some sort of alcohol. She didn’t hesitate, snatching the fabric out of Rill’s hand.

Looping the fabric over her mouth and nose, she tied it so that the wet patch was centered on her face. Within seconds, her vision was blurring for all new reasons: the potent stink of gin right up in her eyes and nose and mouth.

But after she breathed it in for a moment or two, she had to admit it: this new bad smell offended her less.

“Thanks,” she started to say, but she found the spot beside her already vacated. Rill was halfway down the next ladder, climbing busily, uninterested in her gratitude.

It’s better this way, she thought.

Down at ground level, Calay was coordinating ointment and Mafalda was coordinating her laborers. They’d begun hauling debris and valuables alike out of the shattered wagon. These objects were heaped in two piles a ways from the wreck site, divided roughly into can we salvage it? and lost cause. Once that was all said and done, Maf’s people would perform an internal examination, see if there was any way they could shore the wagon up enough to limp it away from where it had nose-dived.

Riss wasn’t sure where they’d go from there, given it was still down at the bottom of a ravine several times deeper than it was tall. But Mafalda spoke of all her plans and what-ifs with a smooth and breezy confidence that assured Riss she had something in mind. Either that or this chubby, unassuming Meduese woman was the single slickest bullshitter Riss had ever come across. In which case she’d hardly be able to summon up anger. She’d just be impressed.

Once she got working, she was almost grateful for the heat and the stink. The cramped, airless confines of the wagon trapped the sun’s warmth and the rot of decay all the same. Everyone held their breath while hauling out their burdens. But after her second or third trip inside, Riss found there was a rhythm to it. A beat and a count that made it easier to put up with and easier to predict where her limits lay. The grateful feeling came from juggling all these distractions in her head, the required focus providing an ample distraction from any stray thoughts of Adal’s injury.

They still hadn’t talked about it. He had yet to ask her.

Perhaps they never would?

Perhaps that was for the best.

Then it was time for another trip inside, another two minutes of wheezing exhales and shaking arms as she struggled to drag a splintered dresser toward the exit.

All up, Mafalda and Rill had brought two dozen workers. Their efforts made Riss’ contributions rather meagre by sheer numbers, though Calay eventually joined in and helped out. That left everyone digging but Torcha, who was playing sentry up top.

The sun reached its highest point and began its descent, and with it came a merciful afternoon breeze. It wasn’t decided by any means of verbal communication, but by gestures and grunt and general weary foll0w-the-leader, everyone trickled out into the ravine and took a short walk until they were upwind of the carcass. There they rested, took water, and mumbled estimates at how much longer things might take.

Riss pulled the scarf down off her mouth and took a cautious breath, pleased to find the smell was bearable from so far off. There was still a certain sourness in the air, but it only descended when the wind settled, which wasn’t often.

“Purple’s a good color on you.”

Adal had found her, arriving at her arm to guide her to a patch of shade where the rest of her crew waited. Once the distraction of immediate work in front of her face was gone, Riss once again found herself conscious of the disparity in numbers. Rill’s people had shown no inclination they meant harm, but what did that mean, this far from civilization?

And what the hells did Adal mean by…?


They sat. Riss’s arms and shoulders moved like aged, rusted hinges in need of a good oiling. She wasn’t an unfit woman, but this was a different type of labor to her usual.

“Don’t tell me you’re sunstruck.” Adal reached out and tapped a gloved finger to the scarf that dangled from Riss’ throat. She looked down.

Oh. The scarf she wore was purple. In the overbearing stinkiness of the moment, she had not registered a thing about it save for the fact that it smelled less worse than breathing regular air. Unwrapping it from around her neck, she shook out the length of finely-woven fabric and studied it. She couldn’t quite place its origin, thicker than silk but lighter than wool, dyed an even aubergine purple with occasional threads of a lighter shade shimmering when it caught the sun. Gold-dyed tassels fringed its shorter ends, soft to the touch and only mildly tatty with use.

“I honestly hadn’t looked at it,” she said after giving the accessory a thorough inspection. “Rill was handing them out.”

One of Adal’s eyebrows arched, but before he could say anything, two shots rang out high overhead.

The gunfire came so sudden that at first, Riss wasn’t sure she’d heard right. The combination of wind and distance and depth, the ravine swallowing sounds from up on surface level, distorted the rifle reports in a way that almost might have been rocks tumbling into the canyon, or something in the wreck shattering, or…

But no. Everyone else around her had a moment of similar hesitation, but then hands went for sidearms and backs stood up straight and every single pair of eyes in the ravine immediately went to either Riss or Nuso Rill.

Rill sought Mafalda first, hooking an arm to her in gesture. Then the pair of them beelined over to Riss.

“That’s our sentries,” Rill said. “Something’s happening up top. You’ve got a gal up there, yeah?”

“Sure do,” Riss confirmed.

“Any other long-arms specialists?”

Riss didn’t hesitate. “Myself and Adalgis.”

“Good. Come. We’re heading up top the wagons.”

Rill didn’t waste a single word, and just like on the via ferrata earlier, he was gone as soon as he’d spoken. He fired off some instructions to Mafalda, who broke from his side and mustered her workers.

Riss wasn’t sure how she felt about taking short, snappy orders from the man she’d come to hunt, but Rill’s people seemed to have a system. For now, gumming up their works seemed like a bad idea.

“I’m doing as he says,” she told the others. “For now.”

Adal didn’t argue, lifting his coat from where he’d dropped it and shrugging it back on.

To Gaz and Calay, she said, “I don’t think I have to tell you this: listen to Mafalda for now, but look out for yourselves. If her orders get dangerous, trust your gut.”

It was impossible to give any instruction beyond that, given they didn’t even know what was lurking overhead. If nothing else, she trusted Gaz and Calay to look out for one another. And at least she’d have Adal and Torcha with her. Rill’s gang would have procedures for things like this, codes and signals and other sorts of bandit contingency plans. She just hoped he’d be kind enough to include her people in the getaway if they needed one.

Then she was sprinting across the ravine’s sandy floor to the climbing paths, Adal hot on her heels. Rill stood at the base of a ladder, briefing the last of his men. He sent two up the ladder before him, then turned to ensure Riss was following. When she and Adal arrived, he greeted them with a brazen grin.

“So did that signal mean anything specific?” Riss pre-empted him.

“I believe you military types might call it a rally to arms,” said Rill. Then he began to climb.

That was not in fact what anyone in the Army had ever called it. Thoroughly baffled, Riss watched the man climb, then set off after him. She couldn’t tell if he was being deliberately vague or if he was simply one of those criminal sorts who had gotten to where he was by being cavalier about his crew’s lives. Now was not the time to psychoanalyze him.

Rill climbed like a bloody jungle lemur; Riss had to push herself to keep up, ascending the via ferrata at twice the speed she’d climbed down. She felt strangely compelled to pace Rill, to ensure she didn’t fall behind. As if only total and enthusiastic compliance with his suggestions would save her people from suspicion.

Her knees alternated between a warning quiver and locking up entirely on the final ladder, and when she heaved herself up over the edge of the ravine, Rill was already waiting. Rather than offering her a hand up, he reached down and grabbed the straps of her knapsack, hauling her up the last step and to her feet. Then, when Adal arrived a minute later, Rill did the same for him, yanking them both up like a sailor hoisting half-drowned comrades into a lifeboat.

Riss scanned the horizon, saw nothing but blue sky and clouds and salt.

“This way,” Rill said. “One of you uptop each wagon.”

They’d parked their two wagons some distance apart, a common safety measure adopted by most caravans. Distance meant less opportunity for shrapnel and incendiary rounds to take out multiple targets. Gaspard had said there were all sorts of other formations, especially during infantry conflicts, but the way they rigged wagons nowadays, who in their right mind would charge one with infantry? Whatever threatened them now, Riss at least had that knowledge on her side.

“Are you sure we shouldn’t—” Adal began, and Riss knew what he meant. She reached out and gave his shoulder a single, hard squeeze.

“Don’t need to work together to shoot something at distance,” she said. “Besides, if I’m being honest we’re both better as spotters anyhow.”

She didn’t see Torcha, but at least this way one of them would end up with her.

They split up, Riss jogging toward the nearest of the two wagons. Rill took off at Adal’s back, hustling him up into the cargo hold of the wagon further off.

Hustling up the boarding plank, Riss was met in the hold by a lanky, hard-bitten man. He stood about her height, with grey hair and a sailor’s skin, all weathered flesh and tattoos. He had a cudgel in his hand, and when she first stepped in, he raised it reflexively.

“Whoa there.” Riss put up a palm, not moving for her own weapon. “Rill sent me.”

That did nothing to massage the suspicion off his features, though at least he didn’t brain her.

“Nuso,” she clarified.

“Yep,” said the guard. “Only one Rill here. Ain’t nobody calls him by his family name, though.”

She was responding to an alarm, following the orders of someone she’d never worked for any couldn’t possibly be expected to trust, wobbling along on half-spent legs, and now some fucking goon was trying to menace her back outside? Riss’ mouth tightened into a scowl. She didn’t fear this guy; if she had to, she would whoop his ass.

“Please let me past,” she said. “I’m one of the mercs Nuso picked up in Frogmouth. He said he wanted riflemen.” And then, after a short pause, she added, “I’m only going to ask nicely the once.”

Whether it was her insistence or her explanation, when Riss next attempted to shove her way past the geezer, he let her through. She took the straight shot through the wagon’s mostly-empty cargo hold, hurrying up every ladder she could find. This wasn’t the one she’d ridden into Frogmouth; it was bigger, its hallways twisting and turning in a way that she suspected was due to some sort of homemade retrofitting. No way an army would roll out in something like this.

Jogging up a set of three steps, she turned a corner and slammed straight into someone barreling hard in the other direction.

“Whoa, there.” A familiar voice. After a moment’s initial shock, Salka steadied Riss by the arm, then gave her a reassuring smile.

“Taking the long way around, eh?” asked Nuso, who loomed behind her. Past him, the grey-haired guy had followed along, and she was glad for him to witness a bit of friendly repartee between her and his boss.

“You’ll note I haven’t been in here before,” Riss said. “I figured I’d find the roof eventually.”

Nuso pointed a finger toward a ladder mounted at the end of the passage. It led up toward a hatch.

“Ladies first,” he said.

Salka took point and they all filed out together, emerging into daylight. The sun was wretched hot, no ravine up in the Flats to funnel wind along. When the breeze did struggle past, it was limp enough that it barely teased Riss’ hair.

When she surveyed the horizon, she still saw nothing. But years of dealing with the Academy’s biggest, brightest, and most fragilely masculine officers had taught her that the last thing to do in this situation was admit she knew nothing. When Rill and his crew all dropped to their bellies and crawled to the lip of the roof, she did likewise. She ended up at his left elbow, Salka and Grey-Hair on the right. Salka passed Rill a slender wooden case and he flipped it open to reveal a shiny, brass-ringed spyglass.

The spyglass telescoped outward with a series of satisfying mechanical clinks. Rill held it to his eye, squinting. “Fucking hells, Sal,” he told her. “Nice eyes. I can barely spot it even through this.”

“Spot it?” Riss finally asked, now that she was aware it was something the naked eye likely couldn’t see on its own.

Rill leaned in sideways, offering her the spyglass. She took it, cradling it to her right eye.

“At the horizon,” he said. “Five or so degrees off the sun.”

Even once she found it, the dark object on the horizon appeared more a blur than anything. “Got it,” Riss said. “I think.”

Rill reached over and adjusted something on the instrument, gently nudging its focus ring while she held it still. The brass was warm against her cheek.

The image in the glass resolved clearer. What was previously a dark smudge crystallized sharply into the outline of a heavy war-wagon, many storeys tall. Riss couldn’t see the cannon-ports up its side, but she could guess at the number. She was no expert wagon-spotter, having served where she had. But it was coming from the northwest, from Frogmouth, and she’d only seen one wagon menacing the yard in town that matched that thick, dark-walled profile.

A plume of dust rose off the wagon’s silhouette like steam, churned up by the feet of its two crested galania, which charged along with their heads down. Riss could practically hear the rumble of their massive, clawed feet, feel the reverberations in her ribcage.

She didn’t realize how closely Rill had leaned into her personal space until she finally tore her gaze from the eyepiece and tried to pass the spyglass back. She barely even had to move. Rill just sort of rotated it in her hand, leaving her holding the far end while he peered through it.

“So,” Riss said. “How many guns is this thing packing?”

“More than we have hands to wield them,” murmured Rill, still peering through the spyglass.

“I meant artillery,” she clarified.

At her side, Rill remained perfectly relaxed, laid flat across the warm wood of the rooftop. He crossed his legs at the ankle, continuing to watch the dust rise on the horizon.

“Oh,” he said. “Zero.”

She couldn’t have heard him right.


“Mhm.” He sounded disappointed in an abstract way, like he’d just tasted a dessert that didn’t live up to expectations. “They don’t sell these things with the cannons still in them. And good luck getting your hands on cannons independently.”


“Yes, that wagon is an exception.” Rill finally looked up from the spyglass, slanting a look sideways and upward to where Riss gawked at him. “Perhaps you’re beginning to see why I was so wary of Eber Hanley.”

Now Eber Hanley and his thirty-two cannons were barreling straight toward them. 

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