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Book 2, Chapter 33

Riss watched, dumbfounded, as certain death turned around and limped away.

The moments since the bizarre, otherworldly screaming began passed as a series of disjointed, sequential images in her mind, as if seen through rapidly-blinking eyelids. Hanley poised over Mafalda. His face when the first shriek rang out. His jerky, stalking footsteps back into the screaming darkness of the loading ramp. The wailing was so loud it carried over the Flats with ease. It throbbed like Riss’ own pulse in her temples.

How many people were on that wagon? A whole chorus of voices sounded from it, all shrieking in synchronised agony.

Blink. Hanley disappearing. The wagon, troublingly inert. Nuso by her side, then not. Footsteps thundering across the roof where she huddled. A different kind of thunder sounded, more distant, the rumbles of a storm on the horizon. She couldn’t place it at first until sense, slowly, beat-by-beat, drummed itself back into her brain.

Wheels. Big, man-sized wheels. Hanley’s wagon had turned tail and rolled off.

Beside her, Rill and Mafalda were caught mid-embrace, his arms around hers, his hands splayed across the backs of her shoulders. He clutched her tight, fingers digging into her shirt. She muttered something in Meduese that Riss didn’t understand, then winced as Rill daubed at her cheek with a rag. Hanley had only hit her once, but it had left a shallow gash across her cheek.

Rill turned his head, about to speak, then caught Riss watching. He coughed forcefully and stepped back, giving Mafalda’s forearm a squeeze.

“You’ll be right,” he said.

“I know,” she answered, like that wasn’t ever a question.

More than just about anything Riss had witnessed of them in Frogmouth, the moment humanized them. It was one thing to tend to your friend in their time of need, to express that concern, to fret over them, to patch up their scrapes and ensure they were well. It was another, more relatable thing entirely to be embarrassed by it. The tips of Riss’ ears burned for having witnessed it. She recalled herself crouched over Adal, holding tight to his shoulder, scooping his teeth back into–

Riss bit down on her own tongue, grinding her molars down to anchor herself.

Nobody atop the wagon spoke. It was difficult, in the passing of all that chaos, in the alleviation of all that threat, not to hold one’s breath. Riss squinted across the distance, sought out Adal and Torcha atop the other wagon’s roof, but she couldn’t quite spot them amid the sun-shades and little wooden ramparts.

Finally, Nuso Rill said what they were all thinking.

“Anyone have a gods-damned clue what that was?”

“Sure don’t, boss.” Salka glowered doubtfully at the departing hulk of Hanley’s craft. “But forgive my cowardice if I don’t wanna stick around long enough to investigate.”

Surprisingly, he looked to Riss next. “What do you think?”

Riss, still reeling, did not have the mental fortitude to give a helpful response. She could have paused a half-second, thought through what to say, what sort of impression she’d like to make. Her quarry was asking her a question. This was an opportunity to earn trust. To reel him in.

Instead, she shook her head and spit over the side of the wagon, a superstitious gesture that she almost never felt compelled to perform. She wiped her mouth and tried not to think of screams and teeth.

“No clue,” she said. “And I think Salka’s right. We’d be foolish to call Fortune’s bluff here.”

Since descending into the horrors of the southern swamps, Riss had learned a thing or two about the many ways in which life itself could turn profane. The ways reality could warp, either in corruption-pitted pockets of nature or wielded in the hands of dark artists like Calay. There was a time when sunlight, a faint breeze, the presence of calm fellow humans, and the slow, lumbering passing of the weirdness as it had rolled away would have been enough to convince Riss that danger had passed. That unseen meant unextant. With all she’d seen and learned in the last year, she could no longer prop those beliefs up with conviction.

The screaming may have receded with the wagon that contained it. But that did not mean whatever caused it could be constrained by walls.

Rill sent a runner down to the ravine camp. Lookouts passed words and gestures back and forth.

The two crews below abandoned their worksite, swarming up over the ravine’s edge. Adal arrived from the other wagon, then Torcha next. Riss spotted Gaz’s hulking profile as soon as he hauled up into view, and a moment later he helped Calay up to the surface. Riss only relaxed once they all were safe within her sight, and though she was immeasurably glad to have them all returned to her, she could not summon the guts to express that relief until they were far the fuck away from the Flats and their curses.

Twice this stretch of salt had almost claimed her, claimed her people. She would not allow it a third attempt.

###

There was a certain kinship borne from survival. Anyone who’d set foot on the southern front—and likely veterans of any other conflict—could tell you that. In her darker moments, Riss wondered if perhaps she had no other way of bonding with people, no other way of relating to her peers that didn’t involve shared trauma and hard-won trust earned under fire.

Riss had not been attempting to engender this kinship with Nuso Rill’s people, but that appeared to be what was developing, for upon their return to Frogmouth, most of Rill’s gang greeted her with the smiles of allies. People swapped hearty back-pats and nervous, relieved laughs, the universal bonds woven through exhaling in unison and muttering bullet dodged, ey?

Not everyone was quick to relax, of course. Those who’d been aboard the wagons, who’d heard that disembodied choir of screams, had more on their minds than budding camaraderie. And Riss’ own people were of a mixed mind. Adal seemed inclined toward unwinding. Torcha, too, though more warily so. Gaz and Calay were quiet, the latter barely exchanging two words with her.

Riss suspected he had something to do with what had transpired, but interrogating him in the midst of Rill’s crowd was out of the question.

They rolled securely back into Frogmouth, the trip uneventful, and when they arrived they found Hanley’s hulking wagon absent from the yard. Rill’s pilots decided to occupy the yard themselves rather than rolling further up onto the butte, presumably as a signal to Hanley that he could fuck right off again if he dared return. Before, she might have winced at such a brazen display, worried that pissing on Hanley’s front doorstep to mark territory would only blow things up in Frogmouth yet further, but squabbling outlaws fell so far down Riss’ list of present concerns that she could not summon the energy to give a single shit.

Before Riss could slip away and debrief her crew, Rill cornered her. Well, “cornered” was a misnomer. He approached her in a friendly, open-ended, perfectly-relaxed fashion that her nervy mind leapt to interpret as cornered. She met him with a smile, knowing her reserve likely came off as tiredness and fine with that.

“Big day,” said Rill, lounging against the wall of the cargo hold. Riss stood on the ramp, watching some of his laborers unload empty barrels and crates.

“I’ll say.” She’d let him make the overtures. Clearly he wanted something.

“Your folk handled themselves well out there.” He gave an appreciative little upnod, one professional to another, and Riss paid him back with a guarded grin.

“Veterans to a man,” she said. “I don’t travel with dead weight.”

“I see that now.” A barely-there whistle of laughter snuck out from the corner of his mouth. “Funny, considering you folks washed up in here like half-dead driftwood after Maf fished you up out of the salt.”

All the sea metaphors seemed odd, given the desert. But then she recalled: the Rill brothers, Nuso and Anvey, they were Vasa-born, weren’t they?

“That was a worse-than-average week for us. I hope the wreckage gave you something, at least.”

Rill lifted his shoulders. “We’ll hire some hands and send them back around. Long as Hanley keeps his distance, the wagon itself looked in good enough shape to winch out and repair.”

Riss couldn’t keep the shock off her face. She’d assumed it was meant for parts.

“There are good repair crews here,” he said. “Part of how the town keeps itself afloat during the lean seasons. And if you think winching it up ain’t possible, you clearly haven’t seen what a team of six galania can do instead of two.”

“Oh, I believe you. Just… surprised you’re going to bother, I suppose, given how badly it’s munted.”

A light wind, chilled with the advent of evening, slithered its way into the cargo hold. Rill began to roll down the cuffs of his sleeves.

“Munted we can fix, provided the whole thing ain’t in pieces.” He glanced off to the side, then back at her. “You river folks may not be aware—the bodies on those things, they go for as many australs as an Altave riverboat. And the waitlist is just as long.”

She got it then. Their client really had been generous with that bonus. Not that her crew would be seeing much of it now.

“I suppose you’ll be deducting the cost of all this labor from our price, hm?”

Rill’s smile was pleasant, disarming. “It has been an expensive operation,” he conceded. “But I think it’ll still be more than worth your time.” A slight hesitation caught him then, snagged between his words. She wouldn’t have picked up on it if she hadn’t been watching him so carefully. He cleared his throat to cover it up, let out a dusty little cough. “And there’s other business, you know. Beyond wagons.” Again with the smile.

Like the tumblers of a lock falling into place when a key was turned, something clicked in her brain. She could see it plain as day across his face, in the slight crease between his brows. That hesitation. His expression. He was about to offer her a deal, and he was about to offer it in a particular way that a particular type of man brokered deals with women.

“Soon as the crew’s got the wagon under control, we have business calling us away out of town,” he said. “Your folks showed up when it mattered earlier. If you’re looking for your next contract, I’d like to make an offer.” That smile edged up fractionally, razor-sharp. “And I’d love it if you’d do me the honor of making that offer over dinner.”

Called it.

Trying to predict the moves of an exiled terrorist-turned-highwayman (turned apparently black market archaeologist?) might have been a tall order, but predicting the moves of a man whose hands lingered a little long when he passed her a spyglass, who wanted to have a meal together after a brush with death by cannonball? That she could do.

“I’m not exactly hurting for work,” she demurred. “But now that I’ve sampled your crew’s cooking, I’d be silly if I didn’t at least hear you out.”

Rill stretched and shoved up out of his slouch. He ambled down the boarding plank, pausing briefly at the top of it. Riss was conscious of his positioning–he was blocking the exit, his broad frame filling the doorway.

“It’s a sensitive job, I’m afraid,” he said.

“Aren’t they all.” She narrowed her eyes, hoped her smile looked playful.

“Then you’ll understand I’ll need to be a little selective about our dinner guests for the time being.” He backed off down the plank, freeing up her exit. “Just the two of us to start.”

Riss followed him down the plank, taking one step down for every one he backpedaled.

“I can do that,” she said.

He slipped her a conspiratorial wink, then slung his rucksack over his shoulder and began to amble off with no further words of parting. And no plans for where to meet, she noted. But in a place as small as Frogmouth, everybody all elbow-to-elbow with everybody else, she figured he’d be able to find her easily enough.

Adal was not going to be happy. And Calay likely wouldn’t be thrilled either. But this was an opportunity too juicy to pass up. Riss hadn’t counted on impressing Rill that much. They didn’t need to follow him to the next job site, not completely. But if they knew where he’d next be making camp? Above and beyond what Léonor had asked for. There’d be bonuses in a result like that. And sincere appreciation from one of the Continental Post’s most decorated carriers.

All of that was worth Adal and Calay mother-henning over her. And she could soothe their ruffled feathers easily enough.

Hesitating on the boarding ramp, she watched Rill stroll out into the night. He moved so loosely, so sedately, like the trouble on the Flats had already rolled on off him like water off a duck. Out of sight, out of mind, she supposed. Riss looped her thumb through her belt and tried to borrow a little of that swagger on her way out. If only her memory could be so short.

<< Book 2, Chapter 32 | To Be Continued >>

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Book 2, Chapter 32

From his earliest days, Gaz had been forced to speak a language that wasn’t native to him. He’d had no intuition for it as a boy, hadn’t easily grasped the nonverbal cues that preceded violence. But he was big, and big kids got put to work guarding stairwells and shaking down debtors. Within a few short years, he was fluent in this new tongue he’d never asked for. And what he saw transpiring between Mafalda and Eber Hanley was worrying long before it came to blows.

Perhaps an artifact of those early years, Gaz rarely used his size to outright bully past people. But down in the ravine, with Riss summoned away by the alarm, he and Calay had lost their patience. They waited for a time, saw no further signals come from above, and decided to take a peek on their own. When Mafalda’s foreman objected, Gaz had just marched past him and given him an ugly glare, and he must have still had the old shit-eye down perfectly, because nobody followed them.

Now they clung to the climbing rig, gazing up over the edge of the cliff to the flats above, where the standoff appeared to be unraveling toward something ugly.

Cautious of peeking out so far as to make himself a target, Gaz ducked his head down. He squinted over at Calay, who held on with his bad arm, his good hand’s fingers twitching restlessly on a rung of the ladder.

“We’ve gotta do something,” Gaz said. “This is about to get bad.”

“No way he doesn’t have gunners on the roof, even if we can’t see them.” Calay bared his teeth, grimacing upward.

They both knew they had ways of getting through sentries. Even armed ones. But out there on the open salt? Rill’s people would see. Hanley’s people would see. And there was always a chance Hanley had some crack shot on his squad, someone who could put a lucky bullet between Calay’s eyes before he had a chance to—

He cut that thought off before it could fully form.

“You’ve been on that wagon.” Gaz tried to coach Calay toward a solution even as his own racing thoughts came up short. “There has to be something. A weak spot. A…”

Up above them, Hanley hit Mafalda with a vicious backhand. She went down hard. Gaz’s breath hiccupped in his throat.

“We can’t let him get those cannons hot.”

Calay needed no reminding of what hardware like that was capable of. When they’d escaped Vasile, they’d meandered down the coast, taking piecemeal work when they could. Frequently, this had been at overflow hospitals, tending to the carts of fresh wounded carried out from the inland front.

Gaz was no stranger to injuries and illness. His years working at the Indigents Clinic had inured him to a lot, but they had not prepared him for artillery.

He chose not to dwell on it now, even as he knew similar recollections must be crowding into Calay’s mind.

“There’s something,” Calay said, after what felt like an eternity. And then, after a shorter but still agonizing pause, “but I don’t… I don’t want to do it.”

Gaz’s brows knit. That caught him short. Calay’s decision-making usually came split-second, springing forth from some strange inner place equal parts calculation and whim. At its best it looked like mad genius and at its worst it looked like shit-poor impulse control.

Now, though, he was hesitant. And he’d voiced his hesitation, spoken it so openly. The knuckles of his good hand flexed uncomfortably, and his next breath stilled him. Falling into another stretch of prolonged silence, he watched Mafalda and in turn Gaz watched him.

Then the shutters on the big wagon all cranked open as it readied its gun-ports.

Calay let go of the ladder. He fell to the first of Rill’s platforms, and it shook a little as it took his weight. Gaz wanted to hiss at him to be more careful, but he saw now that darting quickness, that way some thought or another had spurred Calay onward, and he was relieved for it.

Gaz didn’t trust the scaffold not to buckle beneath him, so he climbed down the proper way. He planted his feet firm on the planks just in time to run full-on into Calay’s outstretched forearm. Calay held him back, staved him off with a strange and disproportionate strength he shouldn’t have had. Just another subtle change in the way his arm had regrown. Gaz obediently paused.

“Stay up here,” said Calay. “I’ve got to do this down in the wagon. Where no one can see.”

Magick, then.

Calay was not normally resistant to using sorcery, not in a way that made him quiet and ill-at-ease. Before he could begin his descent, Gaz reached for the arm that had shoved him. His fingers wound around the wrist of Calay’s glove. It felt odd in his hand, too thick, the texture all wrong, the hard shell of bark tangible even below the leather.

“Hey,” he said. “Everything….?” Okay?

Calay looked up, the set of his mouth hard and grim.

“I’ll be fine.” He clasped his good hand over Gaz’s for a half-second, then wrenched himself free and began to climb down.

The last thing Gaz heard from him was, “You’ll know it’s working if it works.”

He did not have time to contemplate what that might be, because yelling from above drew his attention back toward the ladder. Worry set in. Every muscle in his body tensed for cannonfire. But when he got to the edge of the ravine again and peered up, the violence did not seem to have escalated. Hanley had retreated fully inside the shelter of his wagon, a thin figure in its doorway.

A thin, dry wind breathed a little life into the listless flats, and on it, he heard Hanley shout. Something about you’re making a mistake. He could no longer see Mafalda, which worried him, but watching Hanley stalk across the ground and back toward his wagon worried him more.

Come on, Calay. He didn’t even have a pistol on him. He’d be a sitting duck if discovered.

He had no idea how long it took to ready cannons for firing. Had heard only that it was a big, complex process, that the big war-wagons had needed crews of dozens. He imagined Hanley’s crew moving in concert, a well-oiled human machine bent on churning out machine-level violence, and he felt sick.

A few more precious seconds ticked by, and just when he was starting to think there was no way Calay could have worked his tricks in time, a thin, high sound reached his ears. Muted shrieking from the big, heavy wagon.

Hanley paused on its threshold and stared up toward the cannon-ports. His hand went to his hip. The shrieking continued unabated, rising in volume and growing more and more frantic. Gaz had screamed like that a few times in his life: once when he’d accidentally splashed boiling water on himself. Once when he’d stepped on a nail. That sudden shock, then the onset of pain, then the horrible combination of the two when you realized what had happened. Someone was realizing something painful now.

Moments later, a chorus of other voices joined in, cries of discomfort and confusion. They rose and fell, pitchy and unsteady, like the crying of a baby who wasn’t sure what it was crying about. The voices sounded young. Real young.

Gaz’s stomach tied itself in knots. He watched Hanley, who gripped a weapon of some kind from his belt, face too far away to read. Mafalda, meanwhile, had crept back into view, now near the closer of Nuso Rill’s two wagons. She wasn’t quite behind cover, but as the screaming continued to escalate, Hanley seemed disinclined to shoot. He rushed inside the wagon’s shadowed interior without ever opening fire. The cannon ports loomed open, staring across the Flats like vacant eyes, still slumbering.

Well, now he knew what Calay had meant. And why he hadn’t wanted to do it. Gaz didn’t know the specifics, but he didn’t have to. He could piece together the broad strokes. Calay had worked on one of Hanley’s boys—and ugh, the way everyone in town referred to them as Hanley’s boys made his skin crawl—and had saved him from an infected tooth. Gaz had to assume he’d harvested some blood along the way, and now…

Now he was casting glyphs with it for the sole purpose of inflicting that boiling-water, stepping-on-nail pain. On people who appeared to be children.

Turning away from the tableau topside, Gaz looked down into the ravine. Wrong move. The sheer plunge of rock and the distance from his feet to the ground hit him with a mild wave of vertigo. He gripped the ladder with white knuckles, and the longer he endured the sound of it, the more he came to find the pitchy, wailing screaming was worse at his back than when he was watching.

Founders, Calay. He swallowed. That’s enough! He’s inside! You’ve done what you had to do!

But of course, Calay couldn’t see that. Gaz couldn’t see him down below. He was sheltered in the remnants of their wrecked wagon.

How long would he keep it up? Could he even hear the screaming down there to know it was working?

Gaz let go of the ladder, in motion before his brain had even consciously decided to move. He bodied himself down the scaffold, climbing with an aim for speed over safety, and he missed several handholds on the way. Fortunately none of his slip-ups proved fatal, and his arms were throbbing and his palms were raw by the time he reached the ground. But at least he wasn’t a red smear in the dirt like their lizard.

His arrival drew attention, and that was fine, because he needed someone up there fast. He stalked up to the first of Mafalda’s goons in arm’s reach, a scruffy woman who wore her hair in a plait.

“Get…” He had to catch his breath before he could speak. “Get up top. Bring a lantern or a torch. Burn something if it looks like they’re gonna start shooting.” That’s what he tried to say, at least. He was pretty sure it came out more like get up top, bring lantern, burn something if shooting. When the woman just stared at him with a contemptuous expression, he reached down and grabbed a fistful of her shirt, yanking her up onto her tiptoes.

“Get up there!” he growled. “Nuso’s driving ‘em back, I think. Signal if that ain’t the case!”

He released his grip and she stumbled back to her feet, eyes the size of wagon wheels. She scurried for the ladder in a hurry. Everyone else gave him space as he ran for the wagon like hounds were nipping at his ankles. It did not occur to him that he was making a scene, nor that he should worry whether anyone followed him, nor that he should mind where he put his feet as he clambered through the wagon’s shattered shell. All that mattered was getting to Calay and stopping it.

Calay had hidden himself away in the most inaccessible possible corner of the wagon’s interior. Gaz found him in the ruined, cleared-out shell of the barracks. The curved beams of the wagon’s hull arched overhead, framing him on either side, and for a moment Gaz was struck by the impression that it seemed Calay had been swallowed by some great beast, trapped in its wooden ribcage.

He sat on the floor, one leg curled beneath him, the other stretched out straight. His gnarled arm clenched and unclenched spasmodically, and it stilled in a tight fist when Gaz stepped into view.

Something in the wagon’s great, listing frame creaked. The room was otherwise silent, so still that the air itself barely stirred as he crept in. So quiet that when blood dribbled from Calay’s clenched hand to the splintered wooden floor, he heard each individual droplet fall.

“Is it—?”

“You can—”

They spoke in unison, voices overlapping. Then they both fell quiet once again.

Hesitating a beat, Gaz cleared his throat. “It worked. I think. Whatever you did.”

Calay’s chest visibly inflated as he sucked in air. He nodded very slowly, like a man in a trance. His Adam’s apple worked up and down as he swallowed the thick, slow swallow of someone trying to hold onto their lunch.

Gaz couldn’t quite get a read on him. There was distress there in his face, but he wasn’t sure what kind. And with neither of them sure the immediate danger had passed, now was not the time to get into all that.

It occurred to him why the quiet down in the wagon seemed so total: the screaming had also felt that way. It had seemed to come from everywhere, filling his ears from all directions. Now in its absence, the world felt muffled the way it did in those first few hours after snow.

“Come on.” He stood over Calay, offering a hand down. “Can’t spend too long in here. They’ll start to wonder.”

“I told them we had weapons stashed in here,” Calay said. He gripped Gaz’s hand and pulled himself to his feet. He rose steadily, balance fine. These were good signs. Gaz was so used to seeing blood dripping off him in various amounts that it didn’t even occur to him that the blood might be Calay’s. He just wiped it off the glove and then patted some dust into the stains to half-assedly camouflage it.

Before they ducked back into the sunlight, he heard Calay inhale through his teeth. Tension stood out on his neck as he rubbed his jawline with a knuckle, discomfort shadowing his eyes even further than sleeplessness did by default.

Neither of them wanted to say it. But they were thinking it all the same.

We said we’d never use it like that. We promised.

Now that that promise had been broken, would future lapses come easier?

<< Book 2, Chapter 31 | Book 2, Chapter 33 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 31

The approaching wagon was still too far-off for its thunder to shake the ground, yet it danced across the surface of Riss’ eardrums all the same. Or was it the roar of her pulse? She sat tight, saying nothing, stifled by the knowledge that she was not the commander in this place. She kept waiting for Nuso to break into action, to start slinging orders to his band of gunners and thieves. But he just sat there, watching through the spyglass.

“… So…” Riss coughed dryly. “What’s the plan?”

“Our options are limited.” Rill’s manner was incongruously relaxed, his voice languid. “The plan is to wait for Hanley to arrive and see what he wants.”

She must have made some sound of disbelief, or he heard her breath catch, because a moment later, he chuckled throatily and drummed his fingers on the spyglass’ wooden body.

“There’s no way we could pack up, set off, and get up to full charge before he gets here. Those lizards mean business. And those cannons have reach. If he plans on using them, we’re just as juicy a target trying to flee as sitting still.”

This all made a certain sense, given her limited understanding of the finer points of artillery engagements.

“So we just have to, what, hope he doesn’t plan on blowing us to bits?”

“Mhm.” Rill’s shoulders twitched in a shrug so close his arm jostled hers. “But there’s a lot of evidence in our favor there.”

She thought on it a moment, but her brain was all wrapped around itself, far too tense for deduction exercises or other academic bullshit. 

“I give. Share with the rest of the class?”

Salka spoke up from Rill’s other side. “Wagons are expensive. Hanley’s got a lot of men. Unlikely he’d blow us up when he could capture these for his own fleet.”

Like their reasons for not fleeing, that also made sense.

“Besides,” said Rill. “If he really wanted to blast us to gibbets, he wouldn’t come at us in the middle of the day, not with his whole broadside. He’d send scouts, locate our camp, then creep up on us in the night. Approach from the west so you don’t throw as long a shadow, wait for dawn to hit them before it hits you, then you light up and away she goes.” A pause. “Or at least that’s what I’d have done.”

So Rill’s camp didn’t like Hanley, but they trusted him to be a smart operator. That was worth knowing.

“So…” Sitting there doing nothing felt wrong. Every fiber in Riss’ body longed to twitch toward motion.

Rill gently extracted the spyglass from her hands. His wide mouth lifted in a conciliatory smile, as if to say my bad.

“So we wait and see what he wants,” he repeated. A pause, then he tacked on, “You’ve waited out tenser times than these. I can tell.”

Riss’ brow tightened. She didn’t even know why that remark made her defensive.

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m ex-recce.”

“Oh, that part was obvious.”

It was subtle, but he seemed to delight in the way he could read her. This rankled her further, though she didn’t let it creep onto her face. She took a deep breath, felt the scrape of the roof’s planks against her ribcage. She was unarmored, having prepped for a day of laboring in the hot sun.

“Say,” said Rill. “What’s the worst scrape you ever been in?”

“Pardon?” Riss finally tore her eyes from the horizon, looked at him sideways.

“You know. We’ve got all this time. May as well get to know each other a little better.”

A procession of horrors came and went through Riss’ mind, passing through like a grim parade. She’d been in a lot of ‘scrapes.’ Almost none of them were fit for this particular band of company. And the more recent ones, like knowing she lived with magically-knitted bone growing inside her body, the jolts of fear it still gave her when she worried whether her own innards would someday resemble Calay’s mangled arm, those were moments she wouldn’t share with any company.

She reached for one that lurked further back in the chronology of her memory. Something safe to share by virtue of its distance.

“Would have been when I was just a little girl,” she said. And when Rill’s expression registered faint surprise, she elaborated: “Oh, I’ve been in some hairy ones as a grown-up, for certain. But now, I’m equipped with training, a cool head, skills you don’t have when you’re that young. You grow up, you learn to stack the deck in your favor.”

The stagnant air stirred; a windchime clattered somewhere on the wagon’s dusty exterior.

“You know the Laurentines, the range between the Inland and Vasa territory. I’m sure a fellow like you gets around. I grew up in Carbec, if you couldn’t tell from the accent.” The barest hint of a smile. “Anyway. Southern Laurentines are the closest mountains to the steppes where I grew up. My father was a hunting guide. Deer and boar, mostly. But every so often, he’d lead big trips up to the mountains for clients who could afford it. He started taking me out on day-hunts from a pretty young age, and once I’d survived a few years of that no worse for wear, he decided it was time to take me on one of the big trips, teach me those all-important mountain skills.”

Over Rill’s shoulder, Salka and the grey-haired man were half-watching her.

“We set out during the hot season, but you know how mountains are…”

Riss focused her eyes on the distance, on the dust plume billowing into the washed-out blue of the sky.

“Got caught in an out-of-season storm. Had to bunker down in a little canyon we’d passed, to shelter from the wind. That part wasn’t so bad. We were prepared. But in the night, my father heard something.”

She didn’t dwell on it, but it was easy to recall the way her blood had chilled. Riss and her father had never gotten along, but at that age, a child’s faith in their parents was absolute. Or at least a child’s faith in their parents’ perception, their sensory skills. Your mother or father could still disappoint you, could still get things wrong, but you never thought them crazy. Or worse, liars.

“He told me to stay put,” she said. “He skulked off to investigate, or to ward off whatever-it-was. I don’t know how many hours I waited for him.” Without sleeping, eyes fixed open, staring at the narrow gap in the tent’s flaps with utter, bone-deep certainty that something terrible was going to come careening through, hungry and sharp and too fast to flee.

“I fell asleep eventually, out of sheer exhaustion. We’d been hiking all day, after all. When I woke up, he still wasn’t there.” And nope, she was not going to dwell on how that had felt. “It took me ages to work up the courage to creep out of that tent, but even at that age, I’d seen what frostbite could do. I knew I had to get moving, with or without him. I fought through the chill, packed up camp on my own. We always had a plan for what to do if something separated us in the wilderness: track ourselves home. Or in this case to the trailhead.”

She gusted out a breezy laugh to massage the spite from her voice. “By the time I got there, he was waiting. Perfectly unharmed and disappointed I took so long.”

Twitching her fingers, she beckoned to Rill for the spyglass. Readying it and placing it to her eye, she watched those dozens of cannons bearing down closer, felt the weight of all that iron in her bowels. Or at least she told herself it was the iron, and not the weight of what she’d skimmed over in her story.

She hadn’t told them that her father had ditched her in the night on purpose. That it had been a test of her training. But when she lowered the spyglass from her eye, she caught Nuso Rill watching her, his thoughtful eyes weighed down by something that looked a lot like the heaviness she felt in her guts.

Anvey Rill, his brother, the revolutionary, had a reputation for cruelty among those who studied history. He’d stoked Vasile to riots on more than one occasion. Who knew how many lives his constant, futile bombings had cut short.

A father who could raise a brother like that might have something in common with her own, she thought. A weird, unspoken understanding passed between the two of them in that moment, unacknowledged yet undeniable, more felt than seen, the way a storm might tug unseen on a barometer’s needle.

“Well, suppose I should be going.”

Stretching and rising as if from a refreshing nap, Rill pushed up. He waved for Riss to keep the spyglass, then passed his rifle down to Salka.

“You sure that’s wise, boss?” Salka asked.

“Hanley’s going to want to talk to somebody,” he said. “And it certainly isn’t gonna be one of you.”

Riss watched, eyebrows lifting minutely, as he climbed down off the wagon’s roof. A few moments later, he emerged out into the sunlight, ambling across the crystallized salt. He waved toward the other wagon in the distance, then folded his arms and waited for the dustcloud that approached them like a windblown storm.

Watching Hanley’s big, armored wagon roll in violated some unspoken rule. Riss’ hated it so hard her teeth hated it and her skin hated it and her bones hated it and her soul hated it. Sitting there, watching through glass that lent the scene an absurd and sterile distance, felt like a refutation of her own battlefield instincts as well as basic common sense. But what else was there to do? She was the one who’d made the call to bind their fates up with Rill’s for the time being.

When the wagon finally rolled to a stop, it was still far enough off that the plumes of salty dust obscured its edges. It was a thick, looming shadow, made all the more menacing by the lack of detail. Its galania stood statue-still as though possessed of some supernatural discipline.

Down below, Nuso shifted his weight from foot to foot, a laughably tiny presence in the face of such an enormous war machine. Riss wondered what the accuracy on those cannons was like. When she considered the shadows of the distant wagon and couldn’t quite figure out whether its gunports were open or shut, her intestines tied themselves into an anxious little knot.

Neither Salka nor the grey-haired rifleman spoke. Not even the wind dared interrupt.

Taking slow steps, Nuso approached the wagon, hands down at his sides. He passed from cannon range into rifle range, thus also overshooting any distance at which his crew could still hear shouted orders. Riss was tempted to ask her temporary allies on the rooftop if he was always like this, but she didn’t want to be the first to break that tense, brittle silence.

You’ve got gravel in your guts, her father used to say to mercs and hunters on the trails that impressed him. Nuso, if nothing else, had gravel. She was beginning to wonder if his skull was full of gravel, too, with how cavalier he was acting.

A window shutter heaved open on the big wagon. Nuso shouted up toward it. A voice inside boomed something back. Riss noticed something in his posture change—he slipped an arm behind himself, spreading his feet on the salty ground. A hunch dug at her and she adjusted the spyglass, studying his back. The whole exchange had taken seconds.

“He’s signaling,” Riss said when she confirmed sight of Rill’s hands. “Holding up two fingers behind his back.”

Salka grunted, then pushed up off the rooftop and to her feet.

Riss, still unsure where she should fit into all this, watched her rise, curious.

Already on her way down the hatch, Salka explained. “That means he’s askin’ for Mafalda.”

It took some time, rallying Mafalda up from the canyon floor. Salka climbed down to go fetch her, and the few minutes where nothing happened were excruciating. Being in the Flats again was bad enough on its own, but now that Riss had lived through that treacherous journey on foot, she had a newfound respect for just how open and exposed the terrain was. If Hanley opened fire on Rill’s wagons, their options for cover were limited. The wagon itself was a target, no way she’d stick close by that. She’d have to hurry her way to Torcha, then take cover in the canyon. At least the crew had supplies down there…

What followed was a tense negotiation of the worst kind: the kind Riss could only observe from afar, not privy to what was being said or the level of tension that Rill or his Second may be experiencing (or, let’s be honest, she thought—causing). Mafalda emerged, crawling her way up the via ferrata, and she joined Nuso on the flat stretch of salt. They turned toward each other, conversing.

Riss, stuck watching, the most useless role imaginable,  didn’t notice her teeth were grinding together until her jaw started to hurt.

Mafalda and Rill had a dialogue between them that seemed to be more gestures than anything: a turn of the hand here, a shake of the head there. Riss wondered if it were some sort of organized thieves’ cant and made a mental note to ask Calay if he’d picked up on it. In the middle of her contemplations, Mafalda abruptly waved a palm and, with a little shooing gesture, sent Rill on his way.

Rill crept back from Hanley’s wagon with visible reluctance, feet dragging. The very arc of his spine seemed to curve toward the wagon, or perhaps more accurately toward Mafalda, a protective impulse Riss recognized well. She was sympathetic when she met him at the hatch.

All Rill had to offer at first as he settled down beside the others was a deep, resigned, “Hmph.”

“He won’t negotiate with you, huh?” Salka asked. “I mean, I can’t say I’m surprised…”

“Creepy piece of shit.” Nuso gestured for the spyglass. Riss readily handed it over.

She wasn’t sure if she felt better or worse now that Mafalda was facing the wagon on her own. Bully for her, she didn’t have long to consider it—the wagon’s front hatch spilled open, unhinging like a jaw, and the spindly silhouette of Eber Hanley, clad all in black, stepped forth. Riss definitely felt worse then. Beside her, Rill made a sound like he was holding back bile.

“I don’t like this,” he murmured.

“I don’t either.” Riss tried to offer him something, anything that passed for expertise. “But if he’s out here, then that means his people won’t shoot.”

The aged, grey-haired bandit perched on the precipice of the rooftop gave a dismissive snort.

“You don’t know a thing ‘bout how this all works, Carbecer,” he said.

“Oh, can it, Rath.”  To Riss’ surprise, Rill immediately intervened on her behalf. “We may not have an itemized breakdown of Chou’s service, but I’m sure she’s seen a war-wagon in action.”

Riss kept her mouth shut. If the boss was willing to defend her, so be it.

She didn’t see the initial movement that caused Salka to hiss for them all to shut up, but she turned her head in time to see the aftermath.

Out on the Flats, mid-parlay with Eber Hanley, Mafalda took a threatening step toward him. She was substantially shorter, tilting her chin up to eye him in the face the way Torcha had to when she spoke to Gaz. Her shoulders were stiff, body language a study in ready defiance, a one more word out of you and I’ll show you where to shove it forward slouch.

Eber Hanley drew back an arm and struck Mafalda forcefully across the mouth, a stiff backhand that sent her doubling over.

Salka roared an expletive. Nuso lunged forward for his rifle. And Rath, whose name Riss committed to memory, lifted his sights to his eye.

Riss could only hold her breath and stare. Mafalda struggled back upright and Hanley loomed smugly over her; the tension threatened to explode into a horrifyingly one-sided artillery exchange.

Fuck. There had to be something she could do.

“What was he asking for?” she hissed toward Rill, biting the words.

“He wants the wagon,” Rill growled. “He told us to heave off and abandon it.”

So why send for Mafalda, if that was the only negotiation on the table? Riss couldn’t fathom his reasoning. But before she had a chance to ask further questions, the bandits atop the roof all let out a low, collective curse.

Riss watched as little pinpricks of darkness shuttered open along the length of Hanley’s wagon, blinking open like night-dark eyes, a predator rousing from its afternoon slumber. One by one, the cannon apertures opened. How long did it take to prime a cannon? Had they begun the firing process? Riss had no answers. And even if she’d known, what good would that do her now? She knew then the source of that sick feeling that had taken up residence in her stomach since the dark wagon rolled up.

She recognized in herself that old soldier’s yearning: if she wasn’t the one calling the shots, by gods she wished someone was ordering her around. Facing down this much firepower with neither orders nor command on her side? No wonder she wanted to throw up. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 30 | Book 2, Chapter 32 >>

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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…?

“Purple?”

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.

“Zero?”

“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.”

“But…”

“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. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 28 | Book 2, Chapter 30 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 28

They slept rough that first night in Frogmouth, bedrolls down on a patch of scrubby grass atop the butte. They used the leeward side of the big general store for shelter from the wind. Apart from that, they had naught but their blankets. 

But Mafalda had been right—it was a patch of grass blessedly free of mosquitos.

The swimming hole, their inadvertent brush with Rill’s gang, the strange man at the cookout… hard to believe it had all been a single day. No wonder Adal fell asleep immediately.

And when he awoke to the first rosy touches of light upon the red rocks, he almost didn’t mind the crick in his back.

He believed he’d roused before the others at first, surrounded by still-sleeping bodies. But despite the fact that he’d had to fight swollen, heavy eyelids and limbs that felt leaden, he’d risen with that damnable certainty that further sleep would elude him. One knew it in the gut. So he peeled his covers off, knocked his boots together to check for scorpions, then slipped his feet in and shoved up. Several cartilaginous bits and pieces inside his body cracked and grinded in protest, but he ignored them. This too he knew in the gut: the body just did that when you slept on bare ground in your thirties. Woeful.

Mid-stretch, he discovered he was not the only one awake.

Calay sat on the very edge of the butte, his back to Adal, his stare directed downward into the canyon. His spine was a slumped c-curve, shoulders drawn in a hunch that could read as protective, secretive, or perhaps just cold. He cradled a long-stemmed pipe in his gloved right hand, a trail of smoke slithering out of it in an ever-widening fan, diffused by the breeze.

Adal might normally have left him to it, but the wagon ride they’d shared had opened a little space between the two of them. Odd, considering they’d spent it mostly silent or sleeping. But when he shrugged his old Recce jacket on and wandered over, he could tell he wasn’t imagining it. Calay had dropped some unseen gate that had previously barred him, and in turn Adal no longer viewed him on first reflex as sorcerer, weirdo, think he still has a bottle of my blood somewhere that we keep politely not discussing.

He sat, knees akimbo, and Calay tilted the pipe toward him in both greeting and offer.

“You’re always smoking something,” Adal glanced at it, sniffed the air. “Or drinking something.”

Calay’s mouth twitched at the corners, a smile that hadn’t quite woken all the way up yet. His pale eyes were similarly sleepy.

“Smoking things and drinking things has a way of regulating the body’s processes,” he said. He toked on the pipe, then released a gauzy trickle of bitter-smelling smoke. “You wouldn’t like me with my processes un-regulated.”

After exhaling, he perked up a bit. His shoulders loosened. A trio of swallows darted overhead, deftly swooping and racing after one another, and Calay watched them with a slow turn of his head. He smoothed his thumb along the mouthpiece of the pipe. Adal had spent enough mornings camping alongside him to guess the pipe was packed with a pick-me-up of some sort, but the slow way he moved and the heaviness around his eyelids hinted that this wasn’t quite a usual morning.

He hazarded a guess.

“You haven’t slept.”

“Tch.” Calay made a face like a housecat kicked out of a favored patch of sun. “… A little. Here and there.”

“How are you not exhausted?” Adal felt as though his body was only just recovering from the trial he’d put it through in the alkali flats. He could have slept for days.

Calay’s sour expression deepened. “I am exhausted, you pretty, well-bred idiot.” The words lacked the venom he might have laced them with earlier on in their relationship.

“So why not sleep? Or use one of your many substances to put you to sleep? Why stay up all night toking this stuff?”

Sighing, Calay smudged a thumb beneath one eye. He stared down at the pipe for a time. Adal eventually stopped watching him and turned his eyes on the sunrise instead. The low, impossibly-flat basin of the Salt Flats stretched all the way out to infinity. Proper sunrise was still a while off, but the featureless landscape meant nothing stood between them and the steady procession of light across geography. And when the sun finally hit something other than salt, it warmed the sandstone with a healthy, invigorating glow. It wasn’t like watching dawn. It was like watching spring erode winter. Like watching a dormant landscape come to life after some period of frozen stasis.

“I only started smoking this when I knew you lot would be getting up,” Calay confessed. “I had my sleepytime tea at dark. It just… didn’t work.”

“Mind unquiet?” Adal asked.

“More than the usual.”

By the time Calay had returned from treating Eber Hanley’s man, the crew had already bunked down. Adal hadn’t noticed anything out of order, save for the fact that Calay had been quiet. But it was late. Quiet was normal that time of night. They’d all fallen into their patch-of-grass bunks at more or less the same time. It scratched at him, bothered him in a splinter-under-the-nails kind of way that he hadn’t noticed anything amiss.

Calay puffed on his pipe again. The embers within the bowl glowed.

“I don’t know what Riss’ plan is,” he said. “But things have the potential to get real, real ugly in this town. Eber Hanley is up to something and I think it’s worse than whatever Rill’s been up to.”

Adal kept quiet. Calay slid a look side to side, studying the sprawl atop the butte. Scattered tents littered the ground near Rill’s wagon and others camped closer to the strip of shops and buildings. None were within earshot. Still, he re-hunched his shoulders and lowered his voice, as though he were speaking to Adal in a crowded room full of eager, hungry ears.

“I took a snoop around Hanley’s wagon,” he murmured. “Or at least best I could. He’s doing something fucked up in there.”

Wonder what it takes for Calay of all people to consider something ‘fucked up.’ Adal refrained from voicing that thought.

“What did you see?”

Calay gave his head a curt shake. “Not what I saw. What I heard. I had to be careful. It’s…” Tension rose along his jawline. “Some sort of cult shit. I don’t know. He’s keeping kids in there. He told me the kid I worked on had taken a vow of silence, y’know, for religious reasons. But I’m not so sure…” He spoke slowly, skeptically, as if still trying to organize his own thoughts.

“I’ll explain more when Riss is up,” he said. “No sense telling the same story four times.”

While that made sense, Adal did not like the idea of waiting. The way Calay had phrased it worried him in a way that mere words rarely did. Adal was a cautious man, but he wasn’t nervy. The horrors of the southern marshes had of course terrified him, but those had been real flesh-and-blood constructs—or worse, sometimes fleshless and bloodless—that had nearly flensed his skin off his bones. 

It was natural and sensible to be horrified by such things. The purity of the terror he’d felt in that place had been novel.

Yet this cold, creeping fear that subtly clenched him from the throat to the stomach to the balls was not a sensation he was used to feeling from words.

He’s keeping kids in there.

Was it possible they’d stumbled upon a place where the Continent’s most wanted bandit wasn’t the threat that should worry them most?

###

One of the inns in town still had seats for breakfast, so they clustered around a small table and filled up on ham and lentils. Adal ate with vigor, having partaken of little at the bandits’ banquet. He’d had trouble working up an appetite surrounded by all of Rill’s men. Now, he shoveled his food down quickly, as though by speeding that part up, he could get them out of the building, back to a quiet patch of butte, and get Calay talking again. Mornings tended to be slow and full of distractions whenever he really had his mind set on something, so he expected an arduous wait. Fortunately, luck was on his side. Nobody seemed in a mood to dawdle. 

After breakfast, they sought directions to the closest well, and luck continued to favour them: there wasn’t anyone else thirsty at the moment.

“All right,” Adal said as they gathered ‘round the well. “You tell Riss what you told me about last night.”

Calay did an odd thing then. He did tell his tale, starting back to when he agreed to check out Eber Hanley’s wounded fellow on Riss’ orders. But as he did it, he took up the water bucket in his hands. He turned it over a few times as though examining it, then lowered it carefully down into the darkened ring of stones, loosing a bit of its lead at a time.  As he watched the bucket descend, he described how he’d worked on Hanley’s boy, who had an infection in his tooth. How Hanley had breathed down his neck the entire time he was aboard the wagon, and only when Calay had snuck some charms onto himself had he discovered that there were dozens of silent people inside the wagon. People he swore he could tell were children, based on the sounds of their breath and heartbeat.

He pulled the bucket up, hands still moving with uncharacteristic hesitation, and ladled water into his canteens. He passed the bucket sideways to Torcha without looking at it.

The whole time he spoke, he never once made eye contact. Never once looked up from the well and its dark water.

“However bad Nuso Rill is, we can’t ally ourselves with that man to get at him.” 

There was a softness in his voice that Adal couldn’t pin down. Like the sheer weight of the disgust he felt rendered him incapable of raising it further.

Riss had stood silently throughout the story, moving only when Torcha passed her the bucket.

“I’ll talk to Mafalda,” she said. “See if we might try to broker some deal yet. Maybe lead them to the contents of the busted wagon, if nothing else.”

Calay’s eyebrows crept up in surprise. He regarded Riss for a moment’s silence, then wiped a splash of stray well-water from the back of his good hand.

“Really? That’s it? You’re not going to…?”

“To what?” The bucket continued its way around. By the time it reached Adal, however, it was empty. He sent it back down the well. Wood scraped on stone, dredging up fleeting ghosts–wellwater, reaching hands, foul smell, the flit of an arrow past his ear.

Calay was still talking. Adal left the past in the past.

“I don’t know. I thought you’d… look into it further? Ask me questions? Just surprised you agreed so quickly.”

Riss’ thin mouth lifted in a smile so subtle it might not have been there.

“Well,” she said. “You gave us your word that’s what happened. This man’s got a wagon full of children that he claims have taken a vow of silence, but your gut says that doesn’t feel right.”

Calay did not look soothed by Riss’ words. If anything, he looked more confused.

“Yes…” he said, trailing off. Adal recognized that yes from his Academy days. It was the voice of a resigned pupil awaiting correction, someone expecting to be told they’d fucked up.

Instead, Riss put the conversation to bed.

“That’s enough evidence for me,” she said. “We salvage what we can of the original plan. Hanley’s out.”

With that, she announced her intentions to knock on Rill’s door and see what deals could be made. Torcha asked to tag along, leaving Adal with Gaz and Calay. Together, they watched the women go.

“Huh,” Calay said. “I’m a little…”

“Surprised she trusts us that much?” Gaz asked, his eyes squinting at the corners with a sort of kind-hearted mockery.

“Must you phrase it so overtly?” Calay kicked a clump of weeds as he departed the well.

Adal checked that he’d filled the last of his canteens and waterskins, then left the half-filled bucket balanced atop the ring of stones. They’d paid the innkeep for two full buckets, but finding a spare skin for the remaining water was far down his list of priorities. Call it a modest kindness to the next thirsty soul who stumbled across it.

“Wonder if Rill’s people know anything.” Calay unwrapped a sliver of something from his pocket and tucked it in between his teeth.

“About Hanley and his wagon? Quite possibly.” Adal recalled the confrontation at the fire. “They’re two of the biggest players in this town, if not the biggest altogether. And neither strikes me as the sort who doesn’t do his research.”

Hmph.” Calay rolled his jaw. When he turned his head next, Adal caught side of a frond-tipped reed dangling from his mouth. He wondered what effect chewing that had on the body. Probably helped wake him up or put him to sleep or regulated his pissing or some nonsense.

“So what now?” asked Adal. “I thought I might stretch my legs and see what’s what around town. Not much to do until Riss returns from her meeting.”

Adal didn’t like not being there, but he trusted Riss’ read on Mafalda. Rill’s people would be paranoid, as all bandit types were. Crowding them with numbers would almost certainly be a mistake.

“I feel like we saw almost every nook and cranny in town in our search for a bed yesterday,” Gaz muttered.

Adal strayed a look toward a meandering, ragtag line of propped-up tents that spread from the general store’s doorstep like a rash. Frogmouth really was overrun. He’d wondered whether they might have better luck finding a softer place to sleep that night, but had anyone actually left? The tents didn’t seem to have thinned at all.

“Well, there’s one thing you can count on anywhere there’s a high enough concentration of bandits,” said Calay. “I’m going to find wherever the locals play cards.”

Which was how, some time later, Adal found himself crammed into a crowded, noisy watering hole known only as The Jug, strangers’ knees pressed in against him on all sides, watching Calay throw dice.

Or at least he was watching Calay attempt to throw dice. For the rules of whatever game was common to Frogmouth differed from whatever he was used to. A shrivelled old local who appeared as though he’d been pickled by drink from the inside out was busy giving him lessons. Adal wasn’t sure how Calay could even hear him. Some would-be entertainers were banging drums in a corner of the establishment, and it was far, far too early for drums.

“This is horrendous,” Adal muttered, leaning over toward Gaz solely because sharing Gaz’s personal space was a more attractive alternative than sharing it with a complete unknown.

“Aw, it’s not so bad.” Gaz gave him a little grin, then pointed toward the goings-on on the tabletop, where Calay’s instructor was explaining the etchings upon the little ivory dice.

“The dice here don’t even have pips,” he said. “I’m enjoying trying to figure out what all the little sketches mean.”

Calay must have heard him over the clamor, because he snorted. “Afraid I’ve got some sad news for you, mate.” He tapped one of the dice upon the table. “My tutor here informs me that every dust-bitten tribe in this whole region has different rules for the etchings. And half the folks here play dice with different pictures altogether.”

“I had no idea he took it so seriously,” said Adal.

“It’s less the gambling than it is the rules,” said Gaz. “Rules make things predictable. Make games quick to learn. A half-dozen people all playing by a half-dozen different rulebooks on different sets of dice makes it tough to…”

Adal tuned him out for a moment as a thought occurred to him. Gaz was right. This had nothing to do with the gambling. And certainly nothing to do with winning coin, for Calay had proven he had ways of acquiring that when he needed it.

Like Gaz said, this was about rules. This was about knowing systems and manipulating information and probability to produce a desired outcome. Hopefully a favorable one. A winning one.

Whatever Calay had heard in that wagon, he was dying to have control of something back in his own hands.

After that, Adal fell quiet. He leaned in at Gaz’s arm and watched the dice clatter across the sticky, knife-scratched tabletop. He cheered silently for Calay, not because he gave even half a shit about anyone winning a purse, but because he too longed to regain some semblance of agency.

When Riss finally turned up at high noon, they were up a good hundred and twenty-austral between the three of them. Adal resolved to ask Calay later which of his little tricks he used to bend the dice in his favor.

Though their moods had improved somewhat, the news Riss brought with her set everyone on edge all over again. She’d come to an agreement with Mafalda and Nuso, it seemed. They were willing to entertain buying the contents of the wagon, shattered to shit though it may be. But there was, as always, a catch: they required Riss and her people to journey back into the Flats and assist with the recovery effort.

Instead of hunting Rill down, they were about to work for him.

<< Book 2, Chapter 27 | Book 2, Chapter 29 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 27

In Frogmouth, the wind whistled up and down the canyon’s length, cooing constantly in a way Calay did not like. The noise was a distraction. The constant shiver of every branch and blade of grass was a distraction. The town was foreign enough and its plunging canyon and precarious walkways dangerous enough that he leaned upon his own powers of perception for comfort, and that wind had them all on the fritz. On his whole walk down from the cookpits to the wagonyard, his eyes leapt and jumped at every phantom movement. Apart from when the culprit was a bird or a single drunken pedestrian, the movement was always just the wind. And all the while, that shrill whisper of air against stone tickled his ears, as if beckoning him in a sentient way.

While he walked, he chewed on a sliver of dartweed he’d cut at the root, just enough to tingle his sinuses and keep him awake and alert. The danger of being so close to Nuso Rill’s territory was likely enough to inspire its own form of insomnia, but Calay enjoyed chemical reassurances when he could not rely on magickal ones.

Eber Hanley’s wagon loomed silently in the yard, a forbidding monolith with sixteen shuttered windows down either side. Adal had commented on the cannon ports when they’d passed by the first time, and now those ports were all Calay could look at. Hanley was a strange, unsettling man. Calay did not like to contemplate why such a man might need thirty-two cannons.

If nothing else, doing this favor for the Hanleys would at least lend them usable information in that regard.

Who were these people? Why were they here?

Calay had some experience with power, both wielding it himself and having it wielded against him. He’d observed the systems in Vasile, the structure that kept women like Rovelenne Talvace in power. She’d wielded it cruelly, first against the city and then against him personally. It was a different kind of violence than that of the gangs of his youth, but it functioned similarly at a basic level. He wondered what power had graced Hanley with his cannons. 

He took the two steps up to the wagon’s access hatch, then curled his fist. He didn’t hesitate, just knocked. The sound of his knocking reverberated through the wagon’s heavy wood, and the walls were thick enough they insulated any and all sound from escaping. He had no idea if anyone was even on the way until the door opened, swinging inward a scant inch.

Eber Hanley’s shrewd, wrinkle-framed eyes squinted down at him from almost a foot above. The man squinted out of the darkness like a hermit crab, then finally swung the door fully open, allowing Calay a glimpse of what lay inside: a bog-standard normal hallway.

“My apologies,” he said. “One can never be too careful.”

Calay put on a placid smile. “One cannot,” he said. “I’m the physiker Riss Chou mentioned.” He patted his gloved hand to his satchel for good measure.

“You’re a little young for a physik,” said Hanley, scrutinizing him. “But I’m sure I’m not the first to say so.”

Calay battled a reflexive snarl off his face, then simply chuffed a brief, demure laugh. It had been a while since anyone mistook him for young, but then again, Hanley looked fucking ancient. Maybe anyone on the right side of forty looked young when you were pushing what looked like eighty summers yourself.

“I started my education early,” he said. Hells, it was even true. “Now, Riss says you have a boy with a broken tooth?”

Hanley nodded, dispensing with the small talk in favour of leading Calay down the hallway in silence. With curious, ever-flitting eyes, Calay took in his surroundings as they walked. The narrow access hallway, which ran straight up in the middle of the wagon’s wheelbase, was so plainly unadorned and bare-bones it almost defied description by virtue of its boringness. It was the exact opposite of Mafalda’s wagon, no shelves or storage anywhere to be seen. It reminded Calay of a picked-clean carcass, just an empty ribcage of struts and beams. Every so often, small doors branched off into the wagon’s innards, though what lay beyond them was anyone’s guess.

Calay was loath to start up the conversation again himself, happy to engage in his silent study of the place, but there were practicalities to address.

“Do you have any—” he began to ask. He was about to say supplies on hand, curious as to whether the Hanley clan had anesthetics or even pliers to hand if the need arose.

But before he could speak another word, Hanley lifted a hand in warning. And he didn’t just lift it, he lifted it and whooshed it across the hallway, palm coming to rest mere inches from Calay’s face, level with his mouth. The only reason that withered palm did not connect with Calay’s face was Calay’s own wary, ready reflexes—he’d snatched a hand up and grabbed Hanley by the forearm before the hand could make contact. Which was fortunate for him, because Calay would have probably bit him.

“What the—” Calay began again.

Eber shushed him, hissing out a soft shhh.

Calay, perturbed, flexed his fingers warningly around the old man’s forearm. He could feel the definitions of muscle and sinew there, the loose sag of age—he’d been a venerable specimen once, but now all his meat and skin hung off him like too-large clothes. Calay could snap his ulna like a twig if he so desired it.

Hanley, knowing he was beat, instead lifted a finger to his own lips. He repeated the shhh, and it was just so fucking weird that Calay fell obediently silent by default.

Why did it matter if they spoke in the gods-damned wagon? Calay kept an ear out, wondering if there was some important orders being given that he’d accidentally over-spoke. Or perhaps there was a sermon going on somewhere. Strange, controlling types like Hanley were often religious. He released the old man’s arm, eyeballing him with a cautious squint, and they began to walk again.

Hanley only spoke when they’d reached the end of that narrow hallway, climbed a ladder to the second floor, then ascended to the third. Hanley then led him out onto an open-air observation platform shrouded by canvas tarpaulins, their lashings pulled taut against the constant canyon wind.

“My apologies,” Hanley said. “There are worshippers below who prefer their silence. I try to give it to them.”

Aha. So it was a religious thing. Calay filed that away for future reference.

“No harm done.” The edges of his mouth piqued in an even smile. “If I’d known, I wouldn’t have spoken. I’m not a devout man myself, but I try to be respectful.”

Calay wondered at the worshippers: their number, their nature, the reason for their silence. But he didn’t wonder enough to ask, at least not until the business with the patient was resolved.

“I’m assuming I won’t be treating him out here…” Calay considered the platform. It wasn’t even long enough for a man to lay down.

Hanley shook his head. He wound one of his big, knobby-knuckled hands into a fist and rapped it rhythmically against the wagon’s wall. He drummed out six beats in a pattern, then waited. A short time later, six beats in the same pattern answered in kind, drummed from somewhere inside the wagon’s many-doored interior.

“The boy you’re treating has undertaken a vow of silence,” said Hanley. “We respect his wishes. We don’t speak around him.”

Calay’s eyebrows perked. “That’s a heck of a vow,” he said. “Last I heard vows of silence didn’t apply to everyone around you.”

“Ours is a special family, Mr. Maunet.”

Something about the way he said it made Calay’s skin crawl. Nobody who had a special family for normal reasons would ever phrase it that way. Still, this was a reconnaissance mission, and the things he was learning were valuable, heebie-jeebie inducing though they may be.

“I may have to ask him questions,” Calay warned.

“He won’t answer,” said Hanley.

Squinting his eyes closed for a single, frustrated moment, Calay checked himself. He exhaled, reminded himself that he didn’t have enough blood on his person to shank his way out through an entire wagon of religious loonies, then found a modicum of peace.

“All right then,” he said. “Show me to the patient.”

Hanley led him back through the wagon’s claustrophobic interior, past yet more doors. Calay had counted thirty-four doors so far, a staggering amount considering he’d only seen two of the wagon’s floors in full. There was no telling how many men Hanley had inside. Calay had yet to see a soul, but they’d known he was coming. If Hanley’s people were rivals to the Rill gang, he could see why they’d want to conceal the truth of their numbers.

“Through here,” Hanley whispered. He paused outside one of the many unmarked doors, a simple oval crafted of thick wooden planks. It bore no window, no distinguishing marks, only a simple brass handle, which Hanley fondled but did not yet open.

“We’ve been hit hard by illness of late,” he whispered. “The boy may be alarmed by your presence. I’ll do my best to calm him.”

Curious, Calay ran through his mental catalogue of maladies. Had it been something Nuso Rill’s physiks could have saved them from? How deep did that enmity run?

Hanley stepped in first, opening the door and stooping his tall frame through. It was a tight squeeze even for a man so narrow; he had to hunch severely to creep inside, moving like a spindly mantis balancing on a leaf. Calay followed through without even having to duck his head, flitting a curious glance around the room as he stepped over the threshold.

The patient’s chamber was a simple one, comfortable enough to host two sets of bunks without feeling overly cramped. A simple glass oil lamp sputtered on a squat wooden nightstand, gilding the room in gentle warm light. Calay wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting—the bare, ascetic chambers of a penitent, perhaps?—but the bunkroom was just a bunkroom. It could have existed on any of the half-dozen wagons Calay had ever set foot on, save for perhaps the chaotic clutter of Mafalda’s. For it was clean and tidy and the residents’ belongings were sparse.

Only one of the bunks was occupied, and the few personal effects scattered throughout the room all orbited the occupied bunk, hinting that perhaps he was the room’s only resident.

The boy in question, the one who was the cause of such grief and discussion around Rill’s cookfire, was more of a young man. Calay had been expecting something in the ten to twelve-year-old range, the way everyone spoke of him as though he were a child. But the teenager splayed out on the bottom bunk was closer to twenty than ten, already growth-spurted. He had the gawky, haphazard build that boys that age got when their muscle hadn’t figured out how to distribute itself evenly yet. No stubble yet shadowed his jaw but his features themselves were hardening up some, cheekbones struggling through the baby fat that still stubbornly plumped them up.

The sight of him caused Calay’s breath to unexpectedly catch in his chest. A painful scraping sensation accompanied his next exhale, the grate of bad memories brushing up against the present.

This silent, devout boy—he looked so much like Booter the last time Calay had seen him. The same awkward build, the same dark curly hair. He found himself thinking thoughts that felt so familiar: he’s just about grown, wonder how tall he’ll get, bet the ladies—or the fellas—will have their eyes out for him.

He was older than Gaz would have been when pressed into the service of his first gang. Another victim of the momentum of the streets, swept up and into the waiting arms of power.

Suddenly, he was glad for the youth’s vow of silence. His own voice had left him.

Blinking away Booter’s ghost, he focused on the pallid, dark-haired young man in front of him and the tell-tale bulge interrupting the smooth line of his jaw. Something in his mouth was swollen badly.

At first he wondered if his patient was sedated, but when he stepped close enough that his shadow passed over the teen’s face, his eyes slivered open. Not all the way open, though. And when Calay began his examination, it was easy to see why: a fever burned within him, his brow sticky with sweat and sickness. Opening his eyes must have taken monumental effort.

Calay took a seat on the edge of his bunk, looking down into the young man’s fever-rosy face.

A rare impulse surfaced, one that almost never grabbed him: he wanted to say hello, introduce himself, share some comforting words. Promise him that all the pain he was about to feel would lead to a better outcome. Calay could put on a good bedside manner when he tried, but it was rarely a priority with one-offs. Especially one-offs in creepy, cultish wagons. But those memories from Vasile had tugged at him and now he couldn’t help himself.

“Hello,” he said, voice soft and low. “Eber here informs me that you’ve taken a vow of silence. I’ll be working in your mouth, so it would be tough to speak to me anyway. But I do need one thing from you: if the pain gets too much, knock your knuckles against the bedframe. I have help for that, but I need to know you need it.” He paused, considered the age of his patient, and added a few more words of wisdom:

“Don’t try to be tough. There’s no need.”

He unpacked the things he needed from his satchel and got to work. First, he offered the boy a drop of his laudanum tincture, applying it sublingually. Then he explained that he needed to drain away the swelling to see which tooth it was that was causing the ruckus. Eber Hanley stood behind him like a watchful gargoyle, observing as Calay made careful, subtle cuts to the boy’s jaw and gum both, bleeding him into a bowl and then prodding around his gums to seek the abscess he knew he’d find.

It was interesting, how he started to think of him as the boy again once his eyes were watering with pain and Calay’s fingers were carefully palpating his gums. Like he’d grown younger. He found the abscessed molar in short order, felt a sticky seep of pus against his fingers as the boy shuddered and drew in a breath. He felt it even through the floral tincture, then. Calay coated a finger in heybrin powder and rubbed it all along the affected gumline, waiting a few seconds for the numbness to take hold.

He tried not to pay too much mind to the dribble of blood flowing into his bowl, but his heart sped up every time he remembered its presence. He was close, so close, to reinforcing his supply. It would splinter his heart a little to draw on this poor sod’s blood, but he’d do it in a heartbeat if he had to, resemblance to specters from Calay’s past be damned. 

Once he’d completed his examination, he said for both his patient and Eber Hanley’s benefit:

“I’m going to have to take the tooth.”

At some point, the molar in question had sustained a break that left the root exposed. Infection had taken hold, the kind that even good hygiene couldn’t fight back. The kind that Calay’s ministrations might not be enough to combat.

He looked down into fever-swollen eyes, found that the boy was watching him with a resigned, knowing intelligence. He knew what was coming. He didn’t fight when Eber took him by the shoulders, pinning him down.

Calay wasn’t a dentist. He had little formal training in that regard, but more to the point, he didn’t have the proper equipment, having never travelled with an elevator bar or any of the spidery, hook-edged little tools common to the trade.

He did, however, have a can opener. Which had felt like so much wasted weight in his satchel, given that food-tinning technology didn’t seem to have penetrated the continent’s pastoral inlands.

Well, it could be repurposed.

He got to work.

Later, when it was finished, he looked over his shoulder and asked Eber if he had fresh water so that he could wash his red-flecked hands. The patriarch, who’d said nothing during the procedure, gave a silent nod and unfolded from his seat, scarecrow-like body stalking out into the wagon’s silent halls. He closed the door, leaving Calay alone with the boy, whose name he still didn’t know.

The tooth sat in a small bowl on the bedside table, the cracked and broken mass of it no longer pouring its infection into the boy’s body. Beside it, the bowl of blood and pus was nearly half-full, no longer necessary as Calay had closed the boy’s drainage cuts.

Mild regret rose in him as he reached into his satchel, retrieved an empty flagon, and filled it from the bowl. He did not want to hurt this unfortunate adolescent caught in the crossfire between two feuding men. But as much as he wished to avoid causing that hurt, the sad reality was that the boy’s current predicament would give Calay superb cover were he forced to use the blood to his own ends. What’s that? The boy with the broken tooth is sick again? It would hardly raise an eyebrow.

Another feeling rose in him, crowding at that mild regret: the urge to snoop. To uncover something useful while he was aboard this rolling fortress.

He stashed his flagon away, hoping he’d have an opportunity to mix the boy’s blood with someone else’s to thin the side effects down the line.

Unpacking his herbs from his bag, he found some curls of dried bark and set them aside, as well as a small quantity of his powdered heybrin. The usual supplies, herbal mouth rinses and the like, he imagined Eber could scrounge up in Frogmouth.

“I’ll be going now,” he said to his patient, who had not moved or opened his eyes since the can opener had entered his mouth. Calay hoped he’d felt nothing. And it was a hope rooted in a solid, confident foundation given how deeply Calay had dosed him.

The boy made no sound, didn’t twitch an eyelash.

Calay turned an ear toward the door, had yet to hear any sounds of Eber returning. It was risky business, slinking out of here and having a nose around. He recalled the way Tarn’s people had turfed him out on his ass for skulking through the servants’ passageways at Adelheim.

And then he recalled that he had access to a fully sedated body and fresh, warm blood. Fresh, warm blood that—if used incrementally—could clue him in on the wagon’s goings-on without causing too much pain and stress to its owner.

He tried to make an internal show of weighing his options. Tried to pretend it was a debate. That was one of Gaz’s earliest lessons for him back in the day, when he’d first tried to temper the rage that had defined Calay’s childhood: at least ask yourself if it’s worth doing. Stop and ask the question. Sometimes that’s enough to stop you from doing it.

This time the question was not enough to deter him. The ends justified the means.

Mindful that Eber could return at any moment, Calay quickly dipped his finger into the blood bowl and got to work. He glyphed himself once beside the eye and once below the ear, the tiniest and most dilute sketches he could manage. Just enough to lend his senses an edge.

A soft, pained groan rose up from the boy on the bunk as the magick sizzled. Calay leaned down and brushed a strand of wayward hair off his feverish forehead.

“I’m sorry,” he said. And he meant it, really. But even as he said it and meant it, his knuckle brushed the boy’s temple and he felt the thrum of his pulse, that throb of too-warm blood and the power it promised. It had been a hard few days, feeling powerless and bloodless. His fingers tingled with a renewed purpose that all but chased away the guilt.

The door behind him opened. Eber’s footsteps approached him from behind, and soon the spindly man towered in his periphery.

Dipping a nod, Calay gestured to the supplies he’d left on the table.

“The powder’s for the pain,” he said. “Rub it into his gums if he’s still too weak to do it himself. Boil the bark and have him swish the liquid around in his mouth.” A brief, haphazard smile. “Better if he spits it out, but it won’t kill him if he doesn’t. Do warn him it’ll make his piss smell right unpleasant.” If people weren’t warned about that part, they tended to worry they were dying.

Eber thanked him in a distant, perfunctory way. Calay was used to it, the way patriarchs took it when you treated their children. He wondered if it was a universal trait among patriarchs. He hadn’t the personal experience to make a comparison. He then wondered if the boy was even Eber’s son. A father might have shared his son’s name.

“So he’ll make a full recovery?”

Calay pursed his mouth into a fine line. His tongue made a soft tch.

“I suspect he will,” he said. “Teeth stuff is funny. Can’t ever fully promise. Sometimes the root turns bad and you can’t fight the rot back. But he looks to be a stout one.”

“That he is.”

Calay rose up from where he sat, tilted his head up so he could look Eber in the eye.

“We’re in town ‘til further notice,,” he said. “If he worsens, send for me.”

The very edges of a well-suppressed flicker of surprise registered on Eber’s weathered face. Calay wondered why it might be that the man was unused to kindness. This place has a pecking order. He rolled it around in his mind, stretched it, tried to fit the pieces together. I’d have thought a man with a wagon like this would be at the top. But he seems stunned…

They left the boy to his slumber, ducking back into the strangely barren hallway. Calay’s shoulders felt looser, his chest less tight. Sitting down and treating a patient, actually treating someone he had the facilities to help, had released a tension in him that he hadn’t recognized was there.

But before he could enjoy that release for what it was, he heard it.

He had to catch himself, had to forcibly plant one foot in front of the other as he followed Eber down the hall. He clung to his own footfalls like a lifeline, like the soles of his boots were the only thing anchoring him to the ground. His calm depended on it. His lie depended on it. Because he absolutely could not let Eber know what he heard.

Breathing. All around him, breathing. Every blank, inert door he’d passed in the wagon’s silent halls held breathing lungs behind it. He could only hear it with his newly-augmented senses, the chorus of asynchronous rasps, in and out, inhale and exhale. Not the long, slow breath of those who slept but the calm and patient rhythm of someone sitting very patiently and very awake.

Dozens of someones. Possibly hundreds. Small someones with small lungs, the wet slither of pleural membranes that needed to take in air quicker than grown adults.

Calay shoved his hands deep into his pockets, clenched his knuckles tight, and focused on his footfalls.

Eber’s wagon was full of children. Children sitting in silence in the dark.

The moment he stepped out into the cool desert night, once he was finally free of that labyrinth of doors and raspy breathing, his heart battered against his sternum like he’d just run a mile. He swallowed, pried his hands open, and performed what felt like gross, inept puppetry: lift eyebrows, smile with mouth, offer hand for shake. Eber took his hand and shook it and Calay restrained the urge to twist the old man’s arm in its socket and rip it off.

“We never discussed payment,” said Eber, and Calay could not imagine himself taking money or material goods from a place of such oppressive, deep-reaching evil. Children with lungs that small did not take vows of silence. Not voluntarily. He did not want payment that came from behind one of those horrible doors.

He puppeted himself into motion again, polite and restrained.

“Pay it forward when you can,” he said. He could not make himself smile.

Eber again seemed surprised by the notion of charity. Calay knew why now. The people of Frogmouth must have picked up on it. Itinerant and free-flowing as the population was, there would still be rumors.

As Eber doffed his hat in parting, Calay studied his face. While there was a certain attenuated too-alert old man creepiness to him, he looked so… mild. But then, his last years in Vasile had shown him badness didn’t always manifest as a sharp-toothed, tatted-up criminal with brass knuckles and a shiv knocking on your front door.

He said his goodbyes and left the wagon looming silently in the yard, bristling with its cannon-ports and concealing its terrible cargo. He’d have to be cautious in how he passed this on to the others. Frogmouth was a small town and he sensed they’d only begun to probe the depths of its tangled allegiances.

He wanted to learn more about Eber Hanley. But he also never wanted to set eyes on the man again.

<< Book 2, Chapter 26 | Book 2, Chapter 28 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 26

Sure enough, Mafalda spotted Riss almost as soon as Riss spotted her. She waved, beckoning, and Riss motioned up the path for the others to take a seat. 

She had about fifteen seconds to warn them. And it was either warn them in a terribly ungraceful way or let them go in blind.

So she put on a bracing smile, did her best to act casual, and dropped the bomb:

“Salka told Torcha and I that the Rill Gang are putting on a cookout tonight.” She sounded admirably casual, all things considered. “Turns out that gal, Mafalda, who gave us a ride in? She’s a… colleague.” 

That part was still giving Riss some trouble. Mafalda and Rill worked together in some capacity. She knew that based on the crew they had in common. And by the fact that Mafalda was sitting here with Rill’s people, perfectly at ease. Since they were known the Continent over as Rill’s gang, she assumed Mafalda to be a subordinate of some sort, but she just… 

Frankly, she just didn’t seem hard enough to run with those sorts. The war had stifled Rill’s career as a highwayman, with its many roadblocks and artillery patrols and curfews. But the ease with which Mafalda moved among these people hinted at a long courtship. She was no recent acquisition. 

People could be surprising, though, Riss reminded herself. And besides that, they could always lie.

To her great relief, none of her crew did a physical double-take when informed about who they’d be dining with. Gaz took a half-step closer to the lot of them, a move that could have been subconscious. And Calay shoved his gloved hand deeper into the recesses of his jacket. Torcha met her eyes, upnodding subtly, and Adal simply gave her a look that said message received. 

And then they were in earshot. There would be no more discussion. 

“Glad you decided to join us.” Mafalda gave her a big smile that dimpled both cheeks. “Salka told me she invited you.” 

The cool calm of Riss’ smile did not quite penetrate deep enough to settle her nerves. But it would have to do.

“Looks like we get to thank you a second time,” she said. 

They all took seats around the heap of coals, Riss to Mafalda’s side and Torcha not far away. The others ended up clustered a bit further off. Calay appeared to be angling himself to the perimeter of the gathering, which Riss figured was smart. He and Gaz kept an observant eye on the crowd. Riss herself performed a passive, automatic headcount. Just shy of thirty people, any one of whom could be a close friend or loyal follower of Rill. Speaking off, the boss himself didn’t appear to be present just yet, but Riss suspected it wouldn’t be long. 

The twilights in Frogmouth were long, probably on account of how damnably flat the land was on either side of the plateau. Riss noted that lights glowed from within the wagon parked nearby. She watched it surreptitiously, unsure how many personnel a wagon like that could even conceal. Enough to turn this gathering from firmly in Nuso’s favour to overwhelmingly, she figured. 

She kept one eye trained on the crowd, passively scanning for Rill’s profile. She’d only had the one glimpse of him, and he’d been half-naked and soaking wet, but she was confident she could clock him from afar once he showed.

Soon, however, it was time to eat. The crowd thickened and tracking individuals became difficult. Mafalda and her crew used big, wooden-handled spits to lift the heavy tureens from the coals. Steam bubbled and hissed and escaped when they were cracked open, and on the heels of the hissing came a flood of aromas that distracted Riss entirely from her outlaw-spotting mission. 

Down the line, people passed out heaping plates of slow-roasted pork, so thick with sauce that it was borderline sludgy, if such a word could ever be used to describe food in a positive light. It fell apart into flakes when prodded even gently with a fork, all the connective tissue having melted away. The pork came on a bed of still-crunchy roasted root vegetables and big slabs of sheet-baked bread, dense and heavier at the corners and edges. Mafalda got up to mingle at some point, telling Riss and her people to have as much as they liked.

The bread was thick, crumbly, and not wheat-based. Riss was enjoying an exploratory chew of her slab, trying to figure out exactly what grain it was composed of, when someone slouched into Mafalda’s vacated seat. 

Reclining in the sling chair like his limbs just couldn’t be arsed to hold up his body anymore, Nuso Rill stretched out and kicked up his feet, now fully clothed and looking relaxed as could be. 

Riss quickly shovelled a bite of bread down her gullet, lest her face make some unwelcome expression. She chewed, cheeks bulging out, and when Rill looked her way she was forced into relinquishing a truly pitiable smile. 

He didn’t know her. They’d never crossed paths before. There was no possible way that this man, this notorious outlaw born in Vasile but exiled to the wilds, had ever occupied the same space as her. Yet when his eyes met hers, there was something there. A glimmer of recognition and interest. Excitable recognition. 

Rill sat up, his eyes alert and clear, and wagged a finger at her.

“You,” he said. “I’ve been dying to hear your story.”

Shit.

Riss stopped chewing. She could hear the whistle of her own breath in her lungs. 

At that moment, Rill noticed he had gravy on his thumb. He bent his head, licked it off, then gestured at her again. All the while, Riss tried to formulate a response to that statement that gave away nothing of her true intentions yet also didn’t sound completely absurd. It was harder than she thought it would be. She put on a show of chewing and swallowing, holding up a politely stalling finger to buy herself a moment’s time.

“My apologies,” said Rill while she chewed. “That likely didn’t make a whole lot of sense, did it. My Crew Leader told me she scooped a half-dozen mercenaries out of the desert, you see.” He tipped her a coy wink. “I had to see what all the fuss was about.”

“Fuss?” asked Riss, falling back on an old tradition. When completely lost and at the mercy of another party in a conversation, simply repeat one of their own words back to them as a question. “I wasn’t aware we caused a fuss.”

“She turned around in order to bring you here.” His eyebrows were animated when he talked, bouncing around to emphasize his words. “She wouldn’t do that for just anyone.”

Interesting. Riss assumed she’d been on the receiving end of common Flats emergency courtesy, not any kind of special treatment. 

“What I’m asking is what business do you have in Frogmouth that she decided couldn’t wait, hm?”

There it was. Though his exterior was affable and his manner was relaxed, Rill asked the question with a directness that spoke volumes. Not only was he suspicious as to her motivations, he felt powerful enough in this place to candidly demand she share them. All around the fire, chatter rose and fell. Were some of Rill’s crew watching her? Were their eyes lingering? Tough to say, but she felt observed.

“We had a wagon to sell,” Riss said, as blunt as his question. “Emphasis on the had.”

Rill pulled a face, then made a sympathetic noise. “Sorry to hear that.”

“Easy come, easy go,” said Riss. “The contractor’s life.”

That pried an appreciative laugh out of him, the sound of it big and booming. It was certainly more laughter than her mildly successful joke warranted, yet somehow his reaction didn’t seem forced. Riss decided it was because the laughter matched his face: mobile, open, expressive, all features of a man who felt he had very little to hide. 

He was not what she’d been expecting. She wondered whether it would be an unwise move to mention that. To mention she was aware of his reputation at all. 

“Good to see you two are hitting it off.” Mafalda arrived from somewhere in the firelit dark, a red clay jug in her hand. 

To Riss, she offered both a swig from the jug and playful squint. “He’s very charming, isn’t he?”

“He is.” Riss took the jug, wary to drink it. All the usual anxieties that surfaced when offered a drink by a stranger flashed through her mind, then all new ones considering the context: booze would be bad for her in this scenario. She couldn’t lose her edge. Not around these folks. But she couldn’t look like she was rejecting their hospitality, either…

The jug was halfway to Riss’ mouth when all conversation around the fire abruptly shrivelled and died. Mafalda turned away from Riss and squinted toward the fire’s edge. Whatever caught her eye stilled her mouth into a wary line. The motion was so subtle, so quickly repressed that a less skilled observer might have missed it, but Riss caught the way Mafalda’s hand strayed ever-so-slightly toward her belt. 

A man had appeared at the fringe of their little cookout, and some aspect of his person caused the entire party to grind to a halt. It was as though everyone seated by the fire had sensed a change in the weather, or had their spine chilled by some otherworldly current.

Riss studied what she could of the newcomer, though the flicker of the fire and the distance made it difficult. He was a tall, narrow fellow, so tall and so narrow that he almost looked more like a drawing than a flesh and blood human. Firelit shadows hooded his eyes and he wore a stiff, starched cape that was just as black. Riss had seen scarecrows in the Textile Districts with more flesh and fat on their faces. 

She did not yet feel chatty enough with Nuso Rill to ask him what was going on.

Fortunately, Torcha felt no such reservations. 

“Who the fuck?” she asked, leaning over in Mafalda’s direction.

“That’s Eber Hanley,” Mafalda said. “Looks like he wants something.”

Eber Hanley strode through the crowd, straight for where Riss sat. She tensed, but it became apparent after a moment’s observation that he was headed for Nuso.

Relaxed as ever, Rill eased up out of his seat and found his feet. He gave his shoulders a languid roll, like a man just rising from slumber, and put on a pleasant smile for the sunken-cheeked walking scarecrow that approached him.

“Mr. Hanley,” he said. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” His tone carried that surface-level friendliness that Riss guessed was characteristic, but an edge lurked beneath it that he hadn’t used with her, like hard metal eased from a sheath. 

Another realization occurred to Riss then: she had made a significant miscalculation when it came to the balance of power in Frogmouth. Anyone who could silence a room like this, leave Rill Gang’s leader on his feet, unoffended when addressed so directly, was a noteworthy player. And in all the research they’d done, the name Eber Hanley had completely escaped their notice. 

“I have a humble request,” said Hanley. He stood at arm’s length to Rill, the two of them sizing one another up. 

Rill’s eyelid twitched at the word humble. “Speak it,” he said.

“I’ve need of your physiker.” Hanley’s voice was a grave warble. “The boy has a bad tooth.”

Rill ticked his head sideways by a mere degree, eyeballing Hanley as if to say that’s it? Riss felt as though she had to be missing some context. It seemed a simple enough request. The collective pause around the campfire hinted at some old enmity, some antipathy that might mar Hanley’s request.

“And why not simply send him to a physic in town?” Rill asked, as though just making conversation. “Plenty of hands in Frogmouth can pull a tooth.”

Eber Hanley’s eyes tightened into thin, contemptuous slits.

“You know why,” he said. 

Nobody around the fire even seemed to breathe, all eyes focused on the silent stalemate.

“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” Rill finally said, his pause deliberate and uncomfortable. “If your boy wanted my physiker’s assistance, he should have kept his hands to himself.”

Like the roots of some gnarled, withered tree, Eber’s hands clenched. His knuckles bulged with arthritis, bumpy and uneven with nodules. He took a half-step back, then reached slowly up toward his own head. He grabbed his cap, pulling it off and revealing a few thin, scraggly wisps of white hair. He crumpled the hat in his hand.

“Nuso,” he said. “If that tooth turns worse, he could pass on.” Then, quieter: “Don’t make me beg.”

Riss caught a glimpse of motion in the silent, firelit crowd: Calay leaned forward across his knees, seeking her eyes. He made an inquiring chin-lift in Eber’s direction. Riss knew what he was asking: if Rill turned this fellow away, should they offer their services? Riss waved a single finger, hoping he got the message to stand down for now. She didn’t feel comfortable committing Calay’s assistance to anyone until she knew just who they were and what they stood for.

“I won’t make you beg,” Nuso said. “Because I’m saying no. I’m sorry about the boy, but he put one of my diggers in a cast. Perhaps he should have thought with his brain instead of his fists.”

Hanley’s shoulders bunched together. He straightened, inhaled, and seemed to rise a few inches taller. Revulsion slithered through Riss’ stomach—something about the way he moved recalled the creeping-clacking crawling woods of Adelheim. The slow, creaky deliberation. Hanley’s hand clamped around his hat. His lips drew into a fierce sneer. 

Expression twisting into a hateful, vulgar thing, he spat into the dust at Rill’s feet.

“If he dies, it’s on you,” Hanley warned.

“Interesting,” Rill countered. “I’d have thought it was his own damn fault.”

Hanley actually hissed at him, hissed like a gods-damned animal, and for a split second the atmosphere around the fire hovered on the verge of something explosive, some great communal boiling-over of tension, but it fizzled rather than blew when Hanley decided to simply turn his back on Rill and slink off into the dark.

There wasn’t a single person by the fire who didn’t watch him go. Riss, eyebrows arched, hadn’t a clue what to say when Rill retook his seat beside her.

“Pardon the intrusion,” he said. “I do hate to be disagreeable, but sometimes people force my hand.”

Riss tried to relax. “We all have our codes,” she said. “I wouldn’t force my physiker to treat the hand that struck him either. Provided I’ve read the situation correctly.”

Rill nodded to her, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Got it in one,” he said. “Eber’s boys get restless and cause problems in town. Bunch of young idiots stuffed to the gills with piss and vinegar and religion. We’ll all be better off when they pack up and move on.”

“He runs a crew full of stroppy, repressed young men,” said Mafalda, who’d drifted back to Rill’s flank while watching their unwanted guest depart. 

“Recipe for trouble,” said Riss. 

“Mhm.” Mafalda gestured at one of the lantern-lit buildings behind them. “One of his folk kicked up a fuss at the inn, came to fists between his fella and ours. It happens, but tch, it’s just bad manners in a town this small.”

An idea percolated in Riss’ mind. She licked her lips, then cast a curious glance between the pair of outlaws. She surveyed their faces, tried to gauge just how much Hanley’s surprise appearance had put them on edge. Both Rill and Mafalda appeared to be fully relaxed again, posture slouched and eyes returned to their meal.

“You know,” Riss said. “Given the situation with our wagon, we do have a physiker who could use some work. But if this Hanley fellow is a sworn enemy or something, let us know and I’m happy to pull back. Times are lean at the moment, is all.”

She felt Rill’s gaze settle on her, an oppressive and critical weight. He had shrewd eyes. They glittered beneath a heavy, low brow that always looked just a little scrunched up in thought.

“Far be it from me to prohibit a man from earning a living,” said Rill. He exhaled disdainfully. “I don’t wish the boy dead just because he struck one of ours in what appeared to be a young-dumb-and-full-of-come type confrontation. Ol’ Eber’s just got to learn that there are consequences to his actions and he can’t come crying for help from the same hand he bit.”

Riss gave him a smile, meeting those calculating eyes. “Entirely reasonable,” she said. 

“When you think about it…” Rill shared with her a razor-thin grin, as though they were two close friends sharing a delicious secret. “You’re in an enviable position here. I figure your sawbones is the only one in town not affiliated with myself. That means you can charge ol’ Eber out the ass, should you feel so inclined.”

Riss tapped her nose a single time, registering that she’d heard him loud and clear. 

“So you’ll be heading off, then?” Rill asked. He hadn’t looked away from her despite the fact that Riss had thought their business concluded.

“Not just yet.” Riss sought out Calay through the flames, spying him and Gaz sitting so far out on the fire’s fringes that they almost weren’t touched by its light or warmth at all. “We had a rough go of it in the flats,” she said. “Like you, I’m not so heartless. I couldn’t yank my medic away by the collar in the middle of his first warm, civilized meal in days.”

Rill snapped his fingers, and though he looked away and called some instructions to one of his workers, Riss couldn’t help but feel that his attention hadn’t fully left her. She sat still, waiting for him to speak again. 

He did not. Instead, he waved someone over his way, and one of his crew deposited a hefty leather instrument case across his lap. Rill smoothed a hand across it, then dusted it off and flipped it open. At an acute angle, Riss could only just spy the polished wooden guitar that was nestled within, stashed with care in padding of crushed red velvet.

“You and your medic and all the rest can stay as long as you like,” Rill said, extracting the guitar from its case. He began to tune it, plucking one string and then humming a note to himself, a far more meditative and organized process than when Torcha did the same.

“I appreciate your hospitality,” said Riss, eyes on his hands.

Sedate and patient, the Continent’s most wanted man tuned his guitar beside her, his eyes drifting off to somewhere far away.

“It’s like you said.” He adjusted a tuning peg. “It’s a rough world out there. Hot meals and calm wind are too few and far between. There’s certain things you’ve gotta hold onto when the world serves them up to you.”

Something in Riss’ chest twinged uncomfortably. She thought of ballrooms and starched dress blues and uncomfortable, too-tight boots that stunk of fresh wax. She thought of rictus smiles for passing generals and tightly-buttoned collars and a dutiful if dreary insistence on sobriety. And she thought of how, through it all, she’d had Gaspard at one elbow and Adalgis at the other. Fine meals and mandatory socializing suffered through for the sake of her career, for the sake of her advancement, made tolerable by the people she had at her side. 

Loss was a hell of a thing. It snuck up on you when you least expected it. Riss found her wary tension at Rill’s proximity replaced by a bittersweet nostalgia, a contemplation of all that the world had served up to her and how holding onto it was easier said than done.

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