Interlude: Second-Year Field Work at Moetta Cave

Mafalda Latch sat ramrod-straight at her desk, forearms resting flat in front of her. She didn’t turn her head to look, but she watched from the corner of her eye as a few pupils hustled into the lecture hall, borderline late. First-years, probably. Mutters of dismay reached her ears from somewhere in the back–the latecomers were learning the hard way that showing up on time wasn’t enough. If you wanted a desk to yourself, you had to show up early. Otherwise, you ended up sitting on the last raised stair of the hall, crammed thigh-to-thigh with the other idiots. 

Welcome to the Universitat, kids, she thought. She was only twenty-two, at most three years older than them, but that didn’t stop her.

The lecture hall’s wide double-doors slammed shut as Professor Ines dragged them closed. She stomped up to the podium, a squat potato of a woman in a formless linen smock, her expression characteristically humorless. 

As the professor walked past her desk, Mafalda felt her hands twitch. She hadn’t noticed, but she’d curled them into defensive little fists, and her scarred knuckles flexed in some sort of sympathetic response, as if they remembered the pain Professor Ines had caused them last year without help from Mafalda’s brain.

Despite all that, despite the bowel-deep wariness she felt whenever sitting in the professor’s line of sight, Mafalda was glad to be back in Medao for her second year of lectures. The hot-season break had been merciful, though it began just a week or two too late by her reckoning. Home, though, was a different kind of stifling. The fishing village where her parents lived, a half-day’s ride from the city, was a far cry from the bustle she’d grown used to. She’d blown through all the books she’d packed in less than a week, and while she enjoyed the fishing trips with her father, she’d had enough after four or five.

The Universitat, for all its flaws and all its horrible goblin employees, was her conduit to the city. Her excuse to be there. 

And finally, in year two of her studies, she’d be moving on to practical courses. Which meant that the Universitat experience itself would be more pleasant this go-around. More interesting. 

Caught up in her thoughts, she zoned out while Professor Ines went over schedules and syllabuses and all that crap, only half of which was applicable to second-years. Mafalda twisted a curl of dark hair around her finger, only perking up when the professor uttered the magic words: first-season field work. 

Mafalda held her breath and mentally recited a chant for luck. Any of the first-season field assignments would impart valuable archaeological knowledge, but some assignments were juicier than others. She had a classmate who’d spent two seasons of her first year digging up bog bodies, and ew. Mafalda appreciated the valuable contributions of bog bodies to the academic canon, but if given the choice, she preferred working in drier climes. 

Professor Ines read out the title of each dig, then the students assigned to the project. First up was the Symphonic Hall construction, where the Universitat team was required to excavate the site where the concert hall was to be built, ensuring no caches of artefacts or relics of previous construction lurked beneath. Next was the Faultline team, who were assigned to explore the length of the great, jutting fault line that broke a shelf in the rolling hills north of the city. The earthquake had been a generation ago, before Maf’s time, but each year rain and erosion unearthed new treasures where the earth was broken–and the fault was a hundred miles long. That list too sailed on past with no mention of her name. A spark of hope lit in her chest.

Perhaps she’d be assigned to a tomb? Or an abandoned village? Those were the two pie-in-the-sky assignments second-years sometimes had to wait for. But Mafalda’s marks had been excellent. She’d managed a whole extra language course last year on top of her usual class load. Was it too much to hope that perhaps she’d earned a spot on something exciting?

The Cullomardo Tomb list came and went without her. As did all the villages she was aware of. The lecture hall held a couple hundred and Mafalda could have sworn that every single ass in a seat got called before her name did. 

But finally, it came. Mafalda Latch, on the list to attend first-season field work at a place called Moetta Caves.

Caves? That sounded more geological than archaeological. And she’d never heard of Moetta. Like a lot of Meduese names, it was probably just the surname of whatever explorer had tripped and fell into it back during the Great Migration. It told her nothing. The complete lack of context was both annoying and thrilling–she’d have liked to have had an immediate grasp on what she was in for. But the part of her who enjoyed research was itching to whisk away to the library, to question every professor she had on what precisely was so special about these caves. 

Caves of course could be a valuable resource when studying Meduese history. In the time before the Migration, before the city was built, the early families buried their dead in caves north of the alkali flats. In areas known to be former First Families land, every cave uncovered was excavated and mapped on the off-chance it needed to be walled up and consecrated. Doors were built when necessary, the caves’ contents were inventoried, the lineage and history of the individuals within were documented, and guards were assigned if anything valuable was found inside.

But sometimes, of course, the dig teams found nothing. 

Unless this Moetta Cave was a known dig site, Mafalda was potentially staring down the barrel of a whole season of exploring and mapping a big, empty hole in the ground. The thought caused her throat to seize up, her breath leaking out in a tight, anguished sigh. 

Her eyes flicked toward the door. She needed to get to the library post-haste. A part of her was even willing to risk Professor Ines’ wrath to try for an early exit. But what would she say? She considered straight up complaining of intestinal distress. 

Then she weighed the social consequences of being known as the person who shit her pants on the first day of school, and as eager as she was to get to researching, she held her horses.

###

One could be forgiven for walking right past the entrance to Moetta Cave. It was low to the ground, choked with twisted red-barked bushes, their leaves waxy stiff and their bark sharp with thorns. Mafalda and her crew did, in fact, hike past it three times, noting the small fissure at the base of an outcrop but assuming their surveyors must have meant some other entrance. How had the survey team even wriggled inside?

Further exploration yielded nothing, however, so machetes and elbow grease it was. Working in shifts, they hacked at the bushes and carted trunks and boughs out in pieces, carving a path through the thorny scrub to the dark crack in the white-yellow stone. The thorns fought back, slicing and biting and menacing the knuckles of each and every laborer on site.

Once they’d cut a clear path, the cave entrance still didn’t promise anything grand. Mafalda, soaked through with sweat and toweling at the back of her neck, puffed out a humid sigh. 

The butte of white-yellow rock stretched roughly north to south, providing shade as the day wore on but promising brutal sun in the mornings. There wasn’t much tree cover, but the flat ground made a good campsite, and slowly they cobbled together their base camp atop patches of loamy soil and beds of orange-red grass. 

Almost every aspect of that first afternoon set the pace for the weeks to come: the grueling physical work, the heat, the soaked-through sticky shirts, the bleeding knuckles, the thorns jabbing into her soft and uncallused hands despite the gloves she wore. But Mafalda persevered, as she always had. Like she’d conquered the road-blocks in her first year of Universitat, where she’d come up against gulfs in her education, having not grown up in the city. Like she’d conquered the soul-crushing disappointment and year-long doldrums of not even passing the admissions exams the first year she’d arrived in Medao. 

She wasn’t the smartest in her class. She wasn’t even street smart like her peers raised in the city. She wasn’t tough, as evidenced by how hard that first day in the field so thoroughly kicked her ass. Hells, she didn’t even make up for it socially–short, awkward, kind of chubby, unable to tame her hair and clueless about how to dress herself. Field work and its endless parade of white silk shirts and khaki shorts was sort of a blessing in disguise there. 

So why go through it all? Why stick it out? Apart from how deeply she owed it to her parents to succeed, the promise she’d made them, her zeal for her work walked the knife’s-edge balance between passion and obsession. She was willing to risk far, far more than the wrath of Professor Ines to make a discovery. To contribute something. To stumble across a lost civilization, or at least lost books, or failing all that at least some lost important dead people.

If there was anything worth finding in this stupid, scratchy, sticky, low-ceilinged cave, she’d find it. 

###

For all her determination, for all her willingness to risk it all, Mafalda couldn’t change reality. Magick might have been real two hundred years ago, but all the sorcerers were dead now. And even if there were any left, it would take far more than a sorcerous miracle to salvage the expedition to Moetta Cave.

You know what she’d found–after weeks of mapping every tiny passage, after crawling on her belly and tearing even her sturdy workwear and scraping her elbows and knees and eating camp food and sleeping on a campsite that had a tilt that made the blood rush to her feet?

She’d found mosquitos. A seemingly infinite number of mosquitos, all breeding within the puddles of stagnant water that dampened the cave’s interior. 

Apart from the mosquitos? Fuck-all. 

Mafalda tried to stay focused. She tried to remain upbeat. It was hard work, but she was under no illusions that graduating from the School of Archaeology wouldn’t be hard work. She clung to her academic’s mantra, a line she recalled from one of the first lectures she’d ever attended: in science, it was just as important to prove a negative as a positive. Proving an absence was just as valid a contribution to the body of knowledge the Universitat was trying to build.

Boy, it just… sucked, though. Every new passage filled with nothing but dirt and larvae eroded her enthusiasm just a tiny bit more. 

And compared to the others on the expedition, Mafalda was a ray of hells-drowned sunshine! Professor Banno, the expedition leader, handed out assignments these days like a bored noble listlessly watching his farmers toil. While the students had formed their little cliques and bonds, while there was some semblance of camaraderie, Mafalda didn’t have the energy nor the enthusiasm to make friends. Everyone sort of stuck to themselves or their little pairs, doing as they were told, hoping that they’d reach the end of the cavern soon. 

Nobody knew how deep or far Moetta’s tendrils stretched. While that had first felt like a big, juicy challenge worth sinking her teeth into, now Mafalda dreaded the discovery of new branches and chambers. Half weren’t even tall enough for a person to stand inside. She was tired of crawling around like a slug and inadvertently breathing mosquitos straight up her nose. 

It was in the middle of one such chamber–a low-ceilinged thing she had to sit to investigate–that the man first approached her.

Professor Banno had brought along more than just his stable of students. They had a camp cook, a quartet of security guards, and some porters who’d helped hoof all their gear in and now served as general laborers, hauling out debris and shoring up passages and chopping firewood and the like. They didn’t spend much time in the caverns, as they generally had other jobs to do. So when Mafalda heard scraping and scuffing down the passage she was presently mapping, she was surprised to discover that the source of it was one of the laborer men, crawling forward on his stomach and shielding his face against the lanternlight. 

She’d been sitting cross-legged in the cave’s highest point, jotting notes in her notebook while sucking marrow out of the remnants of her lunch. 

“Oh!” She waved at the man with the rib bone she’d been nibbling on. “Hi.”

With a grunt of exertion, the man hauled himself free of the narrow passage and pushed up onto his haunches. As he crept into the glow of her lantern, Mafalda caught a better look at him. He was older than her, maybe in his late twenties, with strong features and thick black hair that fell all the way to his shoulders. Muttering and patting himself down, he seemed preoccupied with said hair, gathering it up at the nape of his neck. Finally, Mafalda spotted what he was looking for: a leather cord that had fallen onto the cavern floor. He snatched it up and secured his hair, tying it off.

“There we go,” he said. And then, belatedly, “Hello! My, you were a bit further down than they told me you’d be.”

Mafalda turned to face this newcomer so she could examine him more closely. He’d come looking for her specifically? Whyever for? 

He was familiar in the sense that she knew she’d seen him around camp before, but only as part of the backdrop. He wore an outfit much the same as hers–sturdy linen work shirt rolled up to the elbows, thick canvas trousers for crawling about in, suspenders to keep it all from sliding down off the ass when engaging in said crawling. When he smiled, it was the sort of abashed grin that put an observer at ease. He had an open, approachable face. 

“Sorry if I startled you down here,” he said. “I couldn’t tell exactly where you were until I spotted your lantern. I should have called.”

It was custom in the cave, as much as there was any real established etiquette, to cooee if you were coming up on someone else’s light. Saved people getting startled and kicking lanterns over.

“You didn’t startle me.” Mafalda shrugged, finally setting the rib back on the scrap of crumpled paper she’d used as a plate. “But I have to admit I’m wondering why you’re here.”

Again with the smile. The man folded his legs and sat down opposite her, having to hunch his larger frame more than she did in the cavern. If it weren’t for the fact that he was so… so… disarmingly goofy, she might have been a little put off by how close he sat.

“My name is Celio,” he said. “And I’d like to talk to you about a job.”

He stuck his arm out, holding a hand toward her. She tilted her head, staring at his empty palm. He didn’t have anything for her, so why…?

Belatedly, she recalled that in the north, people still shook hands. And now that she gave it conscious thought, he did have a northern accent of some kind. While the Universitat itself was based in Medao, their dig site was home to a varied cast of characters. She’d grown used to hearing the clashing, unfamiliar lilts of her fellow students and workers.

He’d retracted his hand before she could belatedly indulge the custom.

“Sorry,” he said. “I haven’t been down here long. I forget.”

Hand-shaking was a thing like sorcery, a relic of the past. When the ghost ships had brought the ague to Medao, the physiks said touch spread disease. Even after the city recovered, some customs never bounced back–shaking hands and kissing cheeks for greetings.

“Going to be tough to recruit down this way for your job if you keep trying to rub your hands on people!” Mafalda gave him a gap-toothed grin.

“Jokes aside,” he said. “I’m serious.”

Mafalda brushed dust from her cheek, listening.

“We’re all getting sick of this.” He swept a big, callused hand around to indicate the cavern’s interior. “It isn’t what we signed up for. And I’m not even from the university like you. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to be stuck down here instead of working on… well… anything else.”

Mafalda squinted at him, the words igniting a defensive spark. She felt obligated to defend the Universitat and its ideals. “It isn’t perfect,” she said. “But it’s my first dig. I’m just glad to be here, learning techniques that will help me out on all the future jobs where I do get to uncover something interesting.”

“I get that,” said Celio. “That’s a good attitude to have. In a student.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? I am a student.” Now he was just getting on her nerves. Who tried to poach someone for a job by belittling their course of study?

Celio steepled his fingers, leaning forward over his own legs. He propped his elbows on his knees, eyes reflecting the lanternlight. 

“What if I told you I had a lead on a dig that actually mattered? A tomb, discovered on a slice of private property. And an owner eager to get it all mapped and surveyed so he can get on with his plans. So eager he’s willing to pay in cash as well as first excavation rights.”

Mafalda’s scam senses started tingling. That sales pitch reminded her of the time a travelling salesman had sold her mother a set of iron-bottomed saucepots, claiming they enriched the blood if you prepared food in them. What a load of nonsense.

“I’d say if you had a lead like that, why waste your time here? I’d be gone already.”

He smiled, unoffended. “Because I can’t do it alone.” 

People didn’t sit on valuable finds like that, not for weeks. Yet here he was, toiling away in this cavern as a common laborer. He wasn’t old enough or cutthroat-looking enough to be a crew leader. Whatever this guy’s game was, Mafalda doubted it would add up to anything more than disappointment and empty pockets.

“Well you don’t know me,” she said, letting her eyes wander up toward the heavily-shadowed ceiling of the cavern, the little bumps and ridges and striations in the stone. “And I haven’t even graduated yet.”

“I don’t know you personally,” said Celio, “but I’ve been watching you.”

Yikes! Mafalda squinted at him sideways.

“I’ve seen how hard you work. How you keep putting in the hours and following procedure even though everyone here knows this cave’s spent, knows there’s nothing to find. You don’t half-ass it like the others do. My employer would appreciate that a hell of a lot more than a degree.”

He had her there. She did work hard. She’d always worked hard. She’d had to. She’d failed to gain entrance to the Universitat the first year she applied, falling short in chemistry and literacy. So she’d studied both, put in a solid year of hard work where her rural childhood education had failed her. And then she’d had to keep it up, being a year older than all her classmates. And she had to work hard to look like she wasn’t working, because there was nothing more embarrassing than an over-ager who still struggled.

“I’ll give you some free advice,” she said. “Don’t ever approach a girl alone in a cave and say you’ve been watching her. That’ll get you shot.”

Yet for all his many social stumbles over the course of this conversation, she didn’t feel threatened. Honestly, he seemed a little too inept to successfully stalk a woman for nefarious purposes. Or maybe that’s just what a real scoundrel would want you to think, she thought.

“I appreciate the tip,” Celio said earnestly.

Stretching out her arms, Mafalda began to pack up her things. She’d mapped this cavern to its borders, hadn’t seen any passageways along the perimeter. It was time to get back to base camp and sort out her next assignment from Banno.

“Hey!” Celio spoke up, a little more urgent than before. He reached out a hand, as though to grab at her arm and prevent her from leaving. But he didn’t grab her. Instead, he clutched something in his fist, a leather-wrapped bundle.

“Just have a look at this,” he said. “Would you at least do that?”

Mafalda held out her palm. “Sure.” She wasn’t angry with him or anything. If she was being honest, weird as the conversation had been, it was more entertaining than endlessly sketching the same contours of rock over and over and over. 

Celio dropped a weighty object into her palm, a heavy thing concealed by a scrap of suede. Mafalda unwrapped it, tugging the drawstrings open on the little pouch and revealing what it hid: a piece of hammered silver, tarnished with age. It was a pendant or buckle of some sort, its shape a spined half-sunburst of primitive metalwork. A series of small parallel holes had been bored through the center. While all that was interesting, what seized Mafalda’s heart and wrenched her eyes open wider were the tiny characters etched into the metal, along the curve of the sun. She couldn’t read them, but…

“This is Low Sunnish,” she whispered, voice dry and soft with awe. Not the language spoken by the First Familes, but that of their ancestors. Older than most of what the Universitat worked on. Water dripped somewhere off in the bowels of the cave, and in her stunned silence, every sound felt amplified, hammering on her eardrums.

Could it be a clever forgery? Possibly. But it was solid silver. And the carved characters had a convincing depth and age to them. 

Even as her heart skipped and fluttered in her chest, even as excitement threatened to bubble away the last of her ennui, Mafalda cast a suspicious squint at the man beside her.

“If this is real, it’s even weirder that your employer is sitting on this find,” she murmured. “Do you know what this is?”

“It’s old,” said Celio. “But I’m not trained like you. So I don’t know exactly what, no.”

Mafalda opened her mouth, ready to share with him all her many and instant speculations about the piece of silver. But caution stalled her. Too much about this situation didn’t add up.

Though it harmed her, physically harmed her like stubbing her toe, she wrapped the thin suede back around the silver buckle and drew the drawstring shut. She passed it back to Celio, noting the thick calluses and short, dirty nails upon his hands. Could he sense her reluctance? Could he tell he’d hooked her, that passing the pouch back took so much effort?

“I don’t know you,” she said. “And I don’t know your employer. But I do know that if all this was on the up-and-up, you wouldn’t be hoofing crates for Professor Banno in the middle of nowhere.”

She expected him to argue. To protest. To insist that she had it all wrong, that both he and his mysterious employer were completely trustworthy. To at least be offended on behalf of his honor.

He did none of those things. Celio stuffed the pouch away into a pocket and looked at her for a moment, then inclined his head in a stout, understanding nod.

“You know what? That’s totally fair.” 

Mafalda’s squint deepened. Somehow, that only made her more suspicious.

“I’ll leave you to your mapping, Mafalda Latch,” Celio said. He dropped down onto his hands and knees again, then grabbed up his toolbag. He waved at her, then made way for the passage, tucking his shoulders in and preparing to crawl.

“You’re right,” he said as he started to shimmy down the passageway, his voice distorted by the much lower ceiling. “We don’t know each other. You have every reason not to trust me. But hey, you’ve got weeks left. Whole weeks of this. That is–oof–plenty of time for me to change your mind.”

And just like that, squeezing himself into the darkness of the cave, he was gone. And on such an arrogant note! Mafalda gathered her things, taking care to cart out her ribs and rubbish with her, and headed out along the same passageway, shoving her bag in front of her as she inched through the tunnel.

In the dark, visions of gleaming silver–of unfathomable, unknown languages and the secret history they concealed–danced before her eyes.

To Be Continued

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Chapter 69

Despite the rhythmic grind and rumble of the wagon’s wheels, a cottony, quilted quiet wrapped its interior. Like Calay’s mind was already filtering out the background noise and focusing instead of the lack of any other sound. They’d been on the road for an indeterminate handful of hours, Adal still driving while Riss kept watch up front. Torcha had clambered up into the overhead luggage loft with her rifle.

The cargo hold was rather bare, their meager possessions heaped onto the floor and lashed into place. Tarn had been kind enough to provide them with a hefty water barrel before turfing them out on their asses, and a couple of old crates rattled half-emptily around. The whole contraption smelled of sawdust and a particularly dry, musty smell that he decided must be “lizard.”

Overall he wasn’t sure how he felt about wagon travel. He’d done it rarely, always found it a little claustrophobic and off-putting. As much as he was unsettled by vast, big-sky wilderness, he disliked being unable to see his own surroundings even more. And the windows on this thing, like all enclosed coaches, were pitiful.

Gaz shared none of his concerns. He’d nipped a blanket from their offered quarters at Adelheim and as soon as they were underway he’d unfurled it, propped his pack under his chin, and curled against a cargo net. In their time on the road down the Janel coast, he’d conked off to sleep every time they set foot in a wagon. Something about the motion, he said. Rocked him to sleep like a baby.

Well wasn’t that great for one of them.

Eventually his restlessness got the better of him. Calay left Gaz to his awkwardly-curled nap in the hold and clambered up through the hatch into the passenger compartment. Which was, in a stroke of absurd hilarity, empty despite its more comfortable seating. Adal had left the pilot’s door open, so Calay had retreated further back into the hold for want of privacy. Now, though, he crawled up toward the aperture and settled down on one of the padded bench seats, cocking his head so he could peer up toward the driver.

Sunlight shone through the window, striking Adal’s blond hair, a glittering corona. He had a distant, dreamy smile on his face for who knew what private reason.

Everyone looked different in the sun. 

He’d noticed it at the castle. Riss dressed differently when she wasn’t in the field. Adal lost that pinch of annoyance that perched near-permanently around his eyes. It was an odd thing to be struck by, this passing thought that the people you spent time with were people in their own right with their own lives and their own histories and you only knew a single facet of them. Calay didn’t like that one bit. It made people unpredictable.

Something on Adal’s face changed. His expression faltered, eyes going serious and head turning to glance at something off the road. 

Well, Calay couldn’t let that rest without an investigation. He hadn’t crawled up front for a conversation per se, just a distraction. Looked as though he’d found it. Creaking the door open to announce himself, he pulled himself up through the small hatch that separated the passenger cabin from the pilot’s bench and the great outdoors.

Adal glanced down and greeted him with a quiet nod. Nothing on his face betrayed upset or alarm. Curious, Calay glanced around as he settled onto the narrow seat, peering at the vista that greeted them over the galania’s broad reptilian back.

Seeing forest on either side of the wagon was an uncomfortable, startling thing–and this particular forest was a cratered, damaged hellscape. Calay blinked hard, needed a moment to take it all in. 

They were passing through an area that had sustained heavy artillery shelling. Craters like huge pockmarks littered the field on either side of the road. Heaps of mossed-over refuse still littered the roadside. As opposed to the clear-cut remains left by loggers, the trees here looked to have been blown apart, the occasional half-splintered trunk still standing. Though the forest was fast reclaiming all it touched, what rocks remained bore scorch marks. Despite the signs that man had passed through here, there was nothing manmade in sight.

On their journey south from Vasile, Calay and Gaz had passed through some areas that had sustained artillery damage. They’d spied from a distance the occasional fortification blown through with cannon holes. But this, this was wholesale destruction down to the soil.

Adal noted his quiet, met it with sober eyes. 

“It got bad down here,” he said. “Wherever the war-wagons passed through.”

Calay had heard of the war-wagons. He’d never seen one save from a great distance. Massive constructions the size of ships, broadsides of cannons all up and down their lengths, hauled by whole teams of massive lizards like the single one that hauled their coach with ease.

“Fuck me,” he said. 

“In some of these villages, the destruction was absolute.”

Calay blinked hard. “This was a village?” There was literally no sign of it. Not a scrap of evidence.

Adal’s shoulders twitched up. He shrugged while loosely holding the reins. 

“I’m not certain,” he said. “But there must have been something here worth bombing into the dirt.”

He found himself wanting to ask about the war. It annoyed Calay when he didn’t know things. And at the time the war had broken out, back in Vasile, he’d had other matters to attend. Even though the war had, in a roundabout way, shaped his future. If the Inland Empire hadn’t blockaded the river, he never would have accepted work from House Talvace. And if he’d never accepted work from Talvace, he’d have never… well, he’d likely still be running a clinic for the underprivileged, pulling teeth and delivering babies.

“So what kicked it all off, anyhow?” He tried to sound conversational, hoped he wasn’t prying painful nails out of Adal’s past.

“Kicked off…?”

“The war.”

Adal blinked and loosed a single breath of laughter. “Oh. Well, every war starts the same way, doesn’t it? Someone wants something someone else has.”

Calay dredged up what he could remember. He lifted his eyes skyward, where clouds were rolling in, choking away the selective sparkle of the sunshine. “That northern leader, he invaded down this way to get access to the river. That’s why your people clogged up the river supply lines.”

“Correct enough. There were other things they were after–silk production, encircling their old enemy in favorable territory–but more or less. The Selyeks–”

“The who?”

“… The northeners.” For a moment, Adal looked oddly embarrassed. “I thought you might have tired of hearing us all curse northerners and narlies, so I used their proper name.”

A weird little smile crept up Calay’s mouth. He hadn’t anticipated that. And he appreciated it in a way that was difficult to vocalize.

“Selyeks,” he said, to spare Adal having to linger in that awkward moment. 

“Yes. Of the United Principalities of New Selyekaskim.”

Calay’s eyes inched open a little wider with every successive word of that. “I can see why you just say ‘narlies.’” He tried to repeat that last word in his mind and couldn’t manage it. Sel-ye-kas-kim.

Adal took his few questions as an opportunity to launch into a full-blown civics lesson. He explained that the Selyeks, under their new leadership, wanted to acquire a land buffer around the Inland Empire due to a history of tensions and skirmishes between the two nations. Under their General Zeyinade, they’d swept in south and toppled the local governments in the textile districts who were a part of the Inland Empire but somehow not fully a part of it, a stewardship of some kind derived through  a series of agreements between the local and Empirical rulers and–

Calay regretted asking. He nodded along, absorbing about half the details, and reserved some amusement for how animated the subject seemed to make Adal. Everyone has something they enjoy being asked about, Gaz had told him once. People like to feel like they know things. 

“I’m surprised none of this penetrated the papers in Vasile,” Adal finally said. “Your people have a reputation as being well-read and civically minded.”

Calay’s face crinkled up. “Sure,” he said. “The type of people who read papers.”

Adal seemed to get it then, seemed to suddenly visualize the vast gulf in life experience between the two of them. His mouth snapped shut. 

Calay hated feeling ignorant. He hated not being able to anticipate things, and willful ignorance was like intentionally robbing yourself of the tools to anticipate outcomes and make good decisions. So he hovered on an awkward precipice for a moment–here was Adal, lofty and well-bred and well-connected, a source of good information it would benefit him to mine. Adal knew the geography of where they were headed. Knew the politics. Knew a great many things that Calay, in his isolated inner-city existence, had simply never been exposed to.

Yet in order to access that information, he’d have to admit he knew fuck-all about all that. To Adalgis. Calay bit the inside of his cheek, scowling. 

Life was a rotten bitch who struck rotten bargains sometimes.

Just as he was about to broach the subject of their destination, Gaz squeezed up through the hatch, just his head and shoulders, and peered up at them.

“Huh,” he said. “Okay.” When Calay answered with a questioning look, he explained, “Oh, just wondering where everyone got to.”

Riss leaned up from the guard’s perch along the wagon’s flank, drawn by the sound of extra voices. “Something the matter?”

Adal looked to either side of him, squeezing his shoulders a little narrower. The bench accommodated he and Calay with little room to spare, and Riss leaning up on one side and Gaz on the other was a little much. He grumbled something under his breath.

“What’s that?” asked Riss.

“I said this wagon seats eight people, but in order for it to accomplish this at least some of said people have to sit on the bloody seats.”

Torcha’s voice echoed from the luggage loft, muffled and sleepy:

“Are mams and paps fighting again?”

Adal rubbed the heel of his hand against his face.

The clouds chose that moment to disgorge a single drop of rain, which hurtled down out of the sky and struck Calay square on the nose. 

More rain followed. Within moments it was splashing down steadily. It was warm rain, not altogether unpleasant. Calay ran a finger up his face, enjoyed the droplets tickling down his skin. Riss grumbled and hauled herself up off the guard’s perch, squeezing past him and Adal both as she headed for the hatch. Gaz retreated fully back inside to let her through.

“What?” she asked as Adal made a sound of protest. “Nobody’s going to shoot at us in a downpour. Besides, I’ve kept watch long enough.”

Calay snickered and gave Adal a pat across the shoulders, also clambering backwards into the dry warmth of the wagon’s passenger cabin.

“Be seeing you,” he said, leaving Adal to yank the awning further down across the bench. It reached almost the entire way, but the knees of his trousers would soak through unless he had a sealskin.

Sliding down the bench seat, Calay stretched out his legs. He laid out almost entirely horizontal, crossing his legs at the ankle and propping his back against Gaz’s side. Rain knocked the drumbeat of its knuckles against the coach, blending with the grind of the wheels. The music of the road. Calay flicked his damp hair out of his face and settled in for the ride, resting his head back against Gaz’s shoulder. 

Cracking one eye open, he watched as Riss also reclined, unpacking a book from a trunk beneath the bench seat. She propped it on her knee.

They were heading south. Calay didn’t know much about south. He knew Medao was down there somewhere. And past that, the islands where the fisher tribes made their living. Plenty of country to get himself lost in. They’d entertained their notions of settling down, of no longer running, but as nice as it had sounded, it wasn’t ever realistically on the table. The best they could hope for was to disappear for a while at a time. To take their quiet moments if and when they could, like they’d managed in the swamp.

“This ain’t so bad,” Gaz declared after a moment of quiet. Calay murmured a wordless noise of agreement.

There were, he supposed, worse people to be disappearing with. He didn’t fully trust Riss yet, but he trusted her to do the honorable thing by her own code. He could predict that. And Torcha, well, she was Torcha. Unpredictable, but now bound to him in that strange and disarming way. 

“I suppose I’ll just stay out here, then.” Adal’s voice came through the hatch. “With the lizard.”

Well, four of the five of them were comfortable. And four out of five wasn’t bad. 

End of Book One.

<< Chapter 68 | To Be Continued >>

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Chapter 68

From where she stood atop the tower, Riss could take in the entirety of Adelheim. Up so high, the hamlet looked even smaller than it did at ground level, framed by the rectangle of the window. Past the ramshackle buildings, slopes of marshland and distant hills undulated like waves left behind by some great, world-shaping flood. In the far northern distance lurked the faintest traces of cloud-veiled mountains, little brushstrokes of blue-grey against a lighter blue sky. Tarn stood beside her, staring in the same direction.

Due north was Carbec–Tarn’s family and Adal’s home. 

Tarn had not spoken since they ascended the tower. He’d had a bit of a rant at Adal for disturbing the hanging, but Riss had figured it out for the theatre it was mid-lecture. As soon as they were out of earshot of his soldiers, he’d dropped it. He’d ordered the others to retreat to the castle while his garrison searched the town for any other troublemakers. Riss doubted he’d find anything, but that too was all theatre.

“You’ve left me in a difficult position,” Tarn finally said. 

Riss wasn’t sure whether he was fishing for an apology or an explanation. She thought back to their first conversation, when he’d taken her to his sitting room and explained the mission. That briefing felt a decade past. She remembered how unsure she’d felt, how wary. All of that was gone now.

“I take full responsibility,” she said. “Torcha made the call to intervene when they held up our medic. I’d have done the same.”

“Which I understand.” Tarn glanced down at the sling that crossed his chest. “He’s a handy fellow. But it puts me in a predicament, as overseer of this place. Rather than flagging down my Lieutenant, she and Adalgis undermined my authority and shot up my town square. I’m sure you can imagine how little action a garrison like this typically sees. They’re seething. You yanked the rug out from under them.”

He turned to face her, expression drawn. “And at the hanging of the turncoat who killed my son. You know me, Riss–I understand Torcha and Adalgis did what they felt was correct. But the way this played out, it reads like an intentional subversion of my governance. I have to do something. Otherwise I’ll look the horse’s arse here–a handful of outlanders rolling in and upending every aspect of my rule? Right after some upstart shot me?” He released a great gusty sigh, as if he’d been holding all the world’s worries in his lungs.

“Never thought I’d see the day where you got all political and tried to think four hop-skips ahead of the rabble.” She paired that with a wry smile. Whatever was coming, she wasn’t going to like it. But she wanted him to know that she didn’t take it personally.

Tarn gestured for her to follow, though he didn’t make for the staircase. The tower culminated in a narrow stone platform with a window aperture on either side. Presently they stood before one, another at their back. Rather than walking back down the steps, he turned, pointing toward a stretch of rough-textured stone wall between the windows. She’d noticed some old, peeling paint on the rock when they’d first arrived but hadn’t paid it much mind. 

“Look here, Riss.”

She looked. Splashed over the wall, flaked away by time, was a square-bordered mural which must have been vibrant in its day. The border consisted of red and orange squares and an accompanying bright yellow filigree. The interior of the mural contained splashes of mostly green and blue, but its subjects were rendered indistinct by age. Deep red stone shone through the paint like blood welling on a skinned knee.

“Once, long before me, this place was owned by someone who worshipped some sort of sky god. You can find these murals in every tower. Then, when the Meduese occupied the Deel some four or five generations back, they brought their own customs with them. Salt mummies and such. Every seventy years or so, some new bastard redecorates this place.”

Though Riss was enjoying the history lesson, she wasn’t sure what he was getting at. 

“So you’re saying you’re just the latest bastard, sir?” Another quick, disarming smile. At least he’d veered away from the inevitability of floggings.

“Precisely. I don’t want to be. I’d rather be at home. I’d rather be tendng my own fire and fucking my wife, Riss.”

She coughed. “Wouldn’t we all.” Shit. That could be interpreted badly. “Except not your wife, sir.”

One of Tarn’s eyebrows inched up threateningly. He looked torn between laughing and smacking her upside the head. It was an expression she’d frequently witnessed in the war. Dangerous though it might be, it felt familiar.

“At any rate. What I meant is this: it is always political. There is no way to exist in this place while ignoring the political. Turn your back on the political and whoever rolls over these lands next will plant an arrow in your arse-cheek.”

Riss grunted. She knew that, in an abstract way. But it was not the way she viewed the world by default.

“You’re just like him, you know.”

At first, Riss bristled upon hearing that. A hand twitched at her side. She resisted balling it into a fist, but only through conscious effort. She was nothing like her father. What the fuck! She was galled that Tarn would even bring up such a thing, even toward the goal of pointing out that Riss had a very provincial upbringing.

It wasn’t until she caught the restrained, bittersweet smile Tarn wore that she realized he meant a different him.

Tarn was right. Gaspard Marcinen had never had time for politics. In the early days, before his legend had even begun to bud, politics had landed him on death row and he’d only finagled himself out by virtue of promising favors to worse people than the ones who’d jailed him. Riss wished she’d learned more of his story. She wished she’d asked more questions. 

“I don’t think he was tired of politics as much as he was tired of everything,” Riss said, her voice soft and speculative. She studied the aged flakes of paint on the wall before her. “Toward the end, he got pretty disillusioned. The war-wagons, the rifles, the broadsides–he was only ever good at war and war changed when he wasn’t looking.”

Tarn made a dismissive-sounding grunt. He reached down toward his belt, retrieving a small pipe of carved horn and a pouch. He began to pack it without really looking at it, his attention on her.

“War doesn’t change,” he said. “Just the tools men use to wage it. Men have been fighting wars for the same reasons back when all they had was rocks and sharp sticks.”

“Real inspiring words coming from a career officer.” Riss grinned sidelong at him.

“You’ll understand why old men look back fondly on every fight they ever fought once you’re my age,” Tarn promised. He beckoned her down the stairs, pausing long enough to light his pipe on a wall-sconce. 

The stairwell, like all at Adelheim, was a tight and narrow fit. Riss spiralled down a few floors, back to ground level, and as they walked down a hallway, Tarn declared her company’s sentence.

“You can’t stay here,” he said. “Not after that. I can’t afford to lose any further face. I’ll have a wagon readied and at the soonest possible convenience you’re getting the boot.”

Nodding shallowly, Riss accepted that. She’d known it would be something like that. She felt worse for Tarn than for herself.

“Sorry I can’t stick around, old friend,” she said. 

He did nothing to hide the faint regret in his voice. “I might have liked the company.”

Riss bade him good afternoon and went to inform her mercenaries. 

###

“All things considered, shit could have gone worse.”

Torcha lounged on a settee in the corner of Riss’s room while she packed her things. She hadn’t even unpacked her own bags, so she was ready to go. The dog lounged at her feet, flat and deflated by the afternoon heat and seeking solace on the cool stone floor.

“We’re being driven out of town for the sole purpose of humiliating us,” Riss countered.

“But nobody who didn’t deserve it got shot in the head.”

Sometimes she was tough to argue with. 

Riss had sent word to the others as best she could. Calay and Gaz hadn’t been seen since the incident at the hanging, though that didn’t surprise her terribly. They were wise to keep their heads down. And past that, they were capable of looking after themselves. Riss had her own affairs to tidy and not long to tidy them.

“It’s stupid,” Torcha said, summing up her thoughts on the day’s events. “Tarn’s the big dick in this town. Why not act like it and stomp down hard on anyone who gives him grief for letting us stay?”

“It’s complicated,” said Riss, who did not feel like having that discussion again.

Torcha heard it in her voice and relented. “I know,” she said. “And I get it. To an extent. It’s just stupid. Watching Tarn of all people get cock-blocked by public opinion is…” She couldn’t seem to find a strong enough word. Instead, she knifed a hand through the air and made a foul hand-sign at nothing.

The door swung open and Adal piled in. He had bags heaped over his arms, one of which he deposited at Riss’ feet. 

“Thank me later,” he said. 

“What’s this?”

Adal patted the bag that still hung from his shoulder. “Clean clothes and ammunition.”

Riss gave him a hearty slug on the back, right between the shoulder blades. “Atta boy.”

They got to packing, not a moment to lose.

###

The late afternoon sun cast all it touched in red-orange light. The castle’s stones glowed dusty carnelian, and Riss could see why the locals called it, in their awkward language, Blood-Stone Fortress. While that didn’t exactly roll off the tongue, she understood the inspiration. 

In the yard, encircled by those menacing red walls, their wagon waited. It was hitched to a single pissy-looking galania, the lizard sitting nearly motionless and glaring at whoever happened to wander up closest. Riss could swear there was a hint of malevolence in its eyes. Behind her, Adal loaded their bags into the wagon’s cargo hold. Torcha sat up top, already relaxing in the pilot’s chamber, though Riss was fairly sure she had no idea how to drive.

They still hadn’t heard from Calay or Gaz. It seemed an odd end to their shared story to leave without seeing them one last time, but Riss supposed life didn’t always work out like books. In real life, the criminals who lived were the ones who vanished into the night or rode off toward the horizon without giving anyone a chance to interfere with their escape. They’d lasted this long without her intervening on their behalf. They’d be–

A side door of the castle’s inner wall flew open. Chased out by a chorus of angry shouting, Calay stumbled down the steps, falling the last few and landing flat on his back in the dust. Gaz followed a moment later, more dignified but still in a hurry. The voice that chased them out was familiar, but hollowed as it was by the interior hallway, Riss couldn’t place it. She picked out the words reprehensible and abuse of our hospitality and oh, it was Veslin. The housemaster stomped into view, red in the face and glowering at the northerners on the ground.

“And stay out,” he said. The glare he gave them might have beheaded lesser men.

Gaz grabbed Calay by the scruff of the neck and they made haste to the wagon, scurrying around the back. Riss did not have time to ask what all that was about, but she hoped it couldn’t be that serious given nobody had been run through with anything sharp. 

Up overhead, Torcha cackled. The three of them were having far too much fun without her. A suspicious amount of fun. Momentarily, Riss had a vision of herself as an overbearing mother, heavy eyelids and apron and squealing babies at her feet. Then Tarn was storming out into the yard and all introspection was shelved for the time being.

“Veslin!” he bellowed. “Have you at last rid my home of these bothersome mercenaries?”

Riss had to fight the smile off her face. To those who knew Tarn intimately, the smirk in his voice was unmistakable. She hoped his servants were not so familiar.

“Yes, Baron.” Veslin appeared at his side. “I caught the physiker in the servants’ tunnels. No idea what that is about. He’s fortunate he was already due to be evicted.”

Tarn crossed the yard with heavy footsteps, squaring off with Riss. “Let this be a lesson to you,” he said. “The leadership of my garrison shall go without question on our own lands. You were out of line. You’re lucky I haven’t run you up the gallows alongside the murderer Vosk.”

Riss bowed her head, the picture of contrition.

“You won’t see hide nor hair of me in these parts again, Baron,” she said. “We beg your mercy and leave you to administer your lands.”

Tarn flicked a hand through the air as though she were a gnat who’d flown into his face. A pissant of a problem he couldn’t wait to be done with. It would have stung were Riss not aware the measure was mostly charade. 

“Out of my fucking sight,” he said. “I grow weary of having to look at you. Go before I change my mind.”

Riss gestured to her crew, hooking a thumb toward the wagon. “Let’s git,” she said. 

They clambered inside. Calay and Gaz waited in the cargo hold already, hunkered down for the long haul.

Riss let Adal take over piloting duties for the time being. He hated the big lizards, but he was better at steering a wagon than she ever was. He glowered in distaste at the galania as he hauled up onto the perch, muttering something under his breath. 

“What’s that?” Riss asked, situating herself onto the guard’s rest. 

“I said ‘well this could have gone better.'” 

She thought back to Torcha’s much more optimistic summation. Life was funny like that. 

The wagon juddered into motion. Moments later, a series of soft concussive impacts spattered against the sides of it. Tarn’s people were pelting them with rotten fruit on their way out. Riss smothered a laugh, leaning back on her seat and putting a hand to the machete that dangled from her hip.

“So where to, boss?” Adal asked, peering down at her from above. 

“The hells away from here,” Riss said. “South, maybe.”

“There’s a lot of south between here and the coast,” said Adal, speculative.

“Maybe Medao then.” Riss rolled a shoulder, finding that she didn’t have to fake the carefree nonchalance. “Or somewhere else, if we happen upon something interesting.”

They had a wagon. They had provisions. And most importantly, they had five guns to guard it all. They could go just about anywhere. 

<< Chapter 67 | Chapter 69 >>

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Chapter 67

Digging his hand into the interior pocket of his duster, Calay gripped his vial. But he did something uncharacteristic then: he hesitated.

A second shot shattered the warm midday air and the bounty hunter behind Gaz dropped, his neck a spray of red mist. Bystanders screamed. Gaz, quick on his feet, leapt aside from the bleeding body and swung an arm at the third bounty hunter, the woman. While she’d had the presence of mind to draw her sidearm, she wasn’t quick enough. Gaz clotheslined her viciously, sending her toppling backwards, boots in the air. Then he joined Calay and together the two of them rushed for cover.

Calay was glad for that moment’s hesitation. He couldn’t even let himself breathe as he and Gaz scrambled on their hands and knees, knuckles in the dirt.

If his ears were right–and his ears were pretty good–those shots had come from two separate guns. He had no idea where to seek cover because he had no idea where the gunfire was coming from.

He heard Tarn’s voice, a fierce bellow of orders to his men. The crowd seethed around them, bodies tumbling and flying every which way in disorganized panic. They had one thing on their side: this crowd was much much smaller than any riot Calay had ever been caught in before.

Bent low and holding their hands over their necks, they scurried for the nearest building. Their posture would afford them no protection whatsoever from long arms fire. Calay just had to have faith in the fact that thus far, the only heads that had been blown off belonged to the bounty hunters.

As if in answer to his own thoughts, a pistol shot pierced through the crowd. But it either missed its target or didn’t down them, because nobody fell.

Gaz dragged Calay down behind the corner of a building. No gunfire followed them. In fact, no further shots rang out at all.

Blood smell clogged Calay’s nostrils, the splash of it up his back nauseatingly strong. And it wasn’t even blood he could fucking use.

“Who in the hell–?” Gaz sounded like he intended to continue his question, but instead he just waved a hand. His face was a touch pale, the whites of his eyes visible as he scoured the rapidly-dissipating crowd.

“There’s no way they were Leycenate.” Calay was confident of that. “Bounty hunters. Had to be. Not particularly skilled ones.”

And now that he was no longer scrambling, now that his brain had time to catch up to his bone-deep instinct to run and hide, he was pretty sure he knew the identities of the shooters as well. Provided it wasn’t some rival bounty hunting crew swooping in to defend a prize they saw as theirs.

Beyond the wall they hid behind, the village green was silent as a crypt. Calay took a deep breath in through his mouth. That quiet wasn’t promising.

“Should we make a run for it?” Gaz gestured off down the road in front of them, which led down the hill toward the wagonyard. “We could wait at the bridge or the wagons until the Baron sorts this out.”

Calay shook his head. “No need,” he said. “If the Baron can’t sort this out from where he was standing, it’s the sort of trouble that’ll catch up to us before we make the bridge.”

Someone called his name. A male voice, accented wholly unlike that of the bounty hunters. A clean, crisp accent that Calay in his travels was starting to associate with the middle territories. Gaz’s shoulders slumped immediately with relief.

“Adalgis!” Calay cupped a hand to his mouth. “So tell me–were they trying to kill us or you?”

“I’m endeavoring to find that out!” came the reply. “Come on out and assist me!”

To his surprise, Calay levered up to his feet and stepped out from behind his cover without hesitation. He apparently trusted Adal’s word more than he’d put conscious thought to. He waited until Gaz too was up, then together they returned to the green, walking light-footed over the trampled grass.

The population of Adelheim had retreated to their dwellings. Two bodies–just the two bounty hunters–were facedown in the dust. Adal stood over one, his expression a narrow sneer of thought. Further afield, Tarn’s men stood with guns in a bristling semicircle, warding back curious onlookers. Riss crouched near a sobbing woman and child who sat in the shade of a gnarled tree.

And there, still swinging from his rope, was Harlan Vosk, dead for minutes now. Calay flipped a vulgar dockyard hand-sign toward the body but didn’t allow himself time to think any spiteful thoughts. He joined Adal in a hurry, his suspicions about the source of the gunfire thus confirmed.

“You and Torcha,” he said. “You parked her somewhere. Why?”

But Gaz had already figured it out. “Those fellas from the pub yesterday,” he said.

“Fellows from the pub?” Calay eyeballed him.

“Yes.” Adal crouched over the corpse, hands rooting through the pockets of its coat. The body was dressed in drably unremarkable clothes, but beneath the sack coat his armor was nicer than first glance implied–soft, flexible boiled leather with plenty of padding. Discreet and professional. Calay saw no Vasa insignias, but that didn’t surprise him. Specialists in covert work rarely tended to advertise.

But… fellows from the pub?

“So are you going to explain?” Calay asked nobody in particular.

“We swung by the hovel that passes for a bar here. Yesterday morning,” Gaz said. “While you were sleeping. Had a confrontation with some locals who said they were sick of northerners hanging about. I thought they just meant me, but…”

“Torcha and I decided to scout around town a little after someone took those pot-shots at Tarn,” said Adal. “The innkeeper said he’d had a lot of narlie traffic through lately, and it didn’t take long to suss out that they meant more than just you two.”

Calay took a moment to scan the low thatched rooftops. He didn’t see Torcha anywhere, but it was possible she’d already abandoned her nest once the shooting tapered off.

Adal saw him looking. “Second floor of the inn,” he said. “Through the window. We rented a room.”

Calay grunted. “Clever.”

“Yes, well, we didn’t know it was you they were here for. We assumed they were here to cause trouble for Tarn. Right place right time, I figure.” At that moment, he let out a soft aha and withdrew something from an inside pocket of the corpse’s waistcoat. A rolled-up tube of parchment tied with ribbon. Calay and Gaz both fell silent at the sight of it. The ribbon was pale blue woven through with bands of indigo. Copper threads fringed the bottom.

“I take it this means something where you’re from,” said Adal.

“Signatory ribbon of House Talvace,” Calay said. He saw no point in attempting to conceal the truth from Adal–he was about to learn a lot from the contents of that scroll. Internally, Calay braced himself. He reminded himself that Adal already knew the worst secret. The rest would land as a soft blow by comparison. He hoped. An expectant lump caught in his throat at the realization that Adal of all people might take more personal offense to his crimes than some, being a member of a Landed Family and all. But–

Adal untied the ribbon, unfurled the scroll, and read it.

“Mm,” he said. “You’re in some elite company. Your name’s here on the bottom. Higher up than Liolinde but lower than Nuso and Anvey Rill.”

A rough, surprised laugh eked out of Calay’s mouth. The scroll wasn’t a personal dossier on him, then–it was just a copy of Vasile’s most wanted list. Liolinde was a famous thief who hadn’t been heard from in years, widely presumed dead. The Rill Brothers were perhaps the most notorious outlaws on the Continent–one ran a band of highwaymen and the other had attempted to overthrow the Vasa Leycenate years back. Anvey Rill had caused the riots that nearly burnt Calay’s clinic to the ground.

“They say anything juicy about me?” Calay asked.

Adal flipped the scroll around to show him. The paragraph bearing Calay’s name and a hastily-sketched likeness said only that he travelled “with a large companion”–ha–and that he was wanted for the deaths of sixteen persons of both noble blood and employ. Most interestingly, it said not a word about his sorcerous inclinations.

“I wonder how they arrived at twenty-eight thousand as the bounty,” Adal said. “Honestly, that’s a tad lower than I’d have expected.”

Calay cocked his head sideways. “Should I take offense to that?”

“What about the woman?” Gaz asked, suddenly interjecting. “There was a third bounty hunter. A woman. I don’t see her among the dead or injured.”

Adal’s expression flattened. “I saw her,” he said. “Couldn’t give chase in the crowd. I tried once and missed.” He breathed out and looked toward Riss for a moment. “I hope you understand, in a crowd like this it was–“

Gaz cut that off with a curt shake of his head. “Relax. I get it. You don’t need to apologize for not wanting to blow a hole through a bystander.”

Calay wondered for a moment if he would have shown the same reluctance. For a long time, the answer would have been no. But he’d hesitated to use his blood, hadn’t he? Was this the fabled restraint Gaz had been trying to teach him all this time? Had it finally become his first resort?

“It was inevitable sellswords of some stripe would catch up to us,” Calay said. “I’d have liked to interrogate her, but the reality of it is that if one company knew where we were, others won’t be far behind. One of them getting away isn’t going to be a difference-maker. They had to learn our location from someone, and that someone will send more.” There were so many possibilities. He hadn’t bothered to even commit the names of all his enemies to memory.

Beside all that, though, he noted Adal’s apology. Whatever bonds their time in the mire had forged, a few days of recuperating did not appear to have put the mercenary back into Riss’ mercenaries. Or perhaps he was just playing nice because Calay still had a flagon of his blood. He considered using his particular brand of verbal alchemy to transmute that into a favor–if he played it right, he imagined he could get Adal to ask Tarn to overturn every stone in town in search of that bounty hunter woman. Send a message back to her people, whomever they might be, that he wasn’t to be fucked with.

But the more he thought about that, the more pointless it felt. As much as he wanted to open up the throats of anyone who’d dare hold a gun on him and Gaz, the moment had a certain weighty inevitability to it. Rather like the moment they’d kissed. Odd as it was to do so while thoughts of kissing crossed his mind, he looked to the gallows. He watched the limp body of Harlan Vosk dangle there, removed of all animation, a husk that had once been a thing he loathed.

Life reduced itself to a series of if-thens in his mind, a series of computations like the basic mathematics Alfend had patiently taught him as a boy.

If they made it out of the swamp, then Vosk must die to preserve their secret in Adelheim.

If Vosk died, they were free to do as they wished in Adelheim.

If someone discovered them, they had to leave Adelheim immediately.

That those last two had happened simultaneously was just bad luck.

“I hope you weren’t too betrothed to the idea of staying here a while,” he said, eyes on Gaz.

Gaz heaved a big shoulder and turned his eyes toward the corpse as well. Just past where Vosk dangled, Riss and Tarn were engaged in an animated discussion. Tarn raised his voice. Calay heard the word ruckus. He’d always liked that word.

“I knew what I was signing on for,” said Gaz.

The words felt like they applied to more than just the latest leg in their run from the law. But now wasn’t really the time or place for that.

Riss finished her discussion with Tarn and spun in a circle, pausing when she caught sight of them. She approached with a heavy-footed, stomping gait and–much to Calay’s amusement–actually shoved the freshly-hanged corpse out of her path rather than divert around it.

She planted her hands on her hips when she arrived. “Well that was a shitshow.” A half-beat pause, during which she zeroed in on Adal. “You and Torcha have some explaining to do.”

Adal whiffed out a ghost of a laugh, as if he’d been expecting that. He lifted a glove, gesturing. “I know we–“

Riss cut him off, tut-tutting.

“Not to me. To Tarn. He’s shitting mad.”

Calay glanced between the mercenaries, keeping his mouth shut. He thought he had the power dynamics of this little unit all figured out, but throwing Tarn into the mix appeared to upset the balance. He took a step closer to Gaz. Together, they watched as Adal walked off toward Tarn with his proverbial tail between his legs.

Had they not told Tarn of their plan to stake out the hanging? That seemed unwise.

Riss muttered something about scoping out the wagonyard. Calay considered offering his assistance, but a better idea occurred to him.

“You go on ahead,” he said to Riss. “I’ll get these cleaned up and out of the way.”

He gestured down to the bodies congealing in the dirt. Perhaps they had some secrets yet to give up.

<< Chapter 66 | Chapter 68 >>

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Chapter 66

The last time Calay had been a guest of honor at a hanging, it had been his own. That meant that the festivities surrounding Vosk’s execution were already an improvement. Yet despite the fact that he stood firmly in the good graces of Adelheim’s ruler, he woke with apprehension stewing in his stomach and no good explanation for its presence.

The whole town was gripped by hanging fever, an excitement heard and seen as many furtive conversations and knowing glances around the castle grounds all morning. Adelheim hadn’t witnessed any executions since the war, one of Tarn’s staff had explained, so Vosk being run up a tree was an event for the whole population. Plus he’d been one of the Baron’s own men. An extra layer of intrigue!

“It’s an event for me, too,” Calay had said, showing off his bandaged arm. “He’s the bastard who shot me.”

Gaz had been less enthused. And his attitudes hadn’t changed over the last few hours, despite Calay’s attempts at cajoling. They’d spent the morning running errands, sorting through their payments from Riss and organizing laundry and mending and all the little domestic minutiae that Calay had forgotten completely about. Now, though, the sun was drawing close to its highest point and the hanging was nigh.

They sat in one of the Baron’s many sitting rooms, occupying a pair of plush brocade chairs. The small, high-ceilinged chamber was decorated with hunting trophies: great mounted boar tusks, racks of many-pronged antlers larger than Calay thought deer ever got, and finely-tanned pelts from creatures he didn’t recognize. Truthfully, he could have done without all the animal bits. They reminded him a little too freshly of the ordeal he’d just been through. A small frown tightened his mouth–he wondered how long it would be before he could set eyes on something that triggered memory of the swamp without feeling an instinctual twinge of revulsion. Were there some associations doomed to be tainted forever? He focused on the conversation at hand, determined not to let his thoughts stray too far inward.

“I can’t blame you for wanting to skip it,” Calay said. “Just as I’m sure you understand why I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Slumped back in the chair opposite his, Gaz ticked down a nod. “He almost killed you.”

It was so, so much more than that. He almost elaborated right then and there. But the words got stuck on the tip of his tongue. If there was anyone he didn’t need to explain himself to, it was Gaz. So instead, he decided to ask one last time.

“So that’s definitely a no?”

Wrinkles of visible discomfort edged in at the corners of Gaz’s eyes and mouth. He looked away from Calay, gaze climbing up toward an ornate matchlock rifle mounted on the wall.

“Don’t take this as an insult,” he said. “But I don’t think I need it the way you do.”

Calay fought back a reflexive scowl. Hellpits, what was that supposed to mean? There was a time when he would have violently rankled at the idea of being told he needed something. Would have seen it as an unbearably patronizing notion. Now, though, he had to concede that perhaps a person finally knew him well enough to say such things. Still discomfiting.

“You’re right,” Calay said after some silent consideration. “I don’t know if need is quite the right word, but it will make me comfortable and put me at ease to see him dead.”

“You annoyed you won’t be personally slitting his throat?”

“Eh.” There was a time that he was, back in the swamp. Now? The vindictive had been set aside in favor of the practical. “It mattered a great deal to Riss, being able to march him back to her Baron. More advantageous for us to help her succeed than to piss in her porridge for the sake of a personal grudge.”

Oddly, Gaz smiled.

“What?” Calay prodded.

“Nothing.” His smile turned thoughtful. “Just… it’s interesting, how people change.”

Calay tilted his head. His friend could be awful puzzling at times. For all his lack of education and his unpolished accent and his beat-to-shit face, Gaz had a brain that was full of little observations Calay never bothered to make. He saw things Calay never paid attention to. And that made Calay deathly curious as to what exact ‘interesting’ changes he’d undergone. Precisely what aspects of his behavior were on the pedestal here?

“For the better?” he asked, self-indulgently.

“Yeah.” Gaz’s smile was lazy, a little smug. “Suppose.”

At that moment, the door swung open and Riss strode in. She wore a new cloak, a handsome piece made of some durable, dove-grey fabric that held shimmering threads of embroidery in a tight, repeating key pattern. It looked like silk but less flimsy. Calay whistled and made an approving hand gesture. She glanced his way with a puzzled squint, then looked to Gaz as well.

“Either of you seen Torcha?” She sounded hurried.

“Not since breakfast,” Gaz said.

“She say she needed to talk to me about something?”

“We only saw her in passing,” Calay butted in. “She and Adal went off somewhere.”

Riss sighed and conked the heel of her hand to her brow. “Great,” she said. “I know they were both asking after me, but I have no idea where they are. I suppose we’ll see them at high sun.”

“Suppose so.”

She turned and stepped halfway through the door. “I’m heading out now,” she said. “You’re welcome to come with.”

Calay glanced back over his shoulder, tracking her on her way out. “Suppose I oughta,” he said. “I’d hate to miss it.” He heaved up out of his chair and stretched, rolling out his wrists and shoulders.

To his surprise, Gaz rose alongside him, falling into step and following him toward Riss.

“Change of heart?”

The sudden seriousness in Gaz’s eyes was just as odd as the cryptic smile he’d put on earlier. “Yeah,” he said. He did not elaborate. And since they were heading out of their private sitting room and into the endless, open-doored march of chambers that composed the castle’s second floor, Calay didn’t ask.Sound travelled easily in those vaulted halls.

###

A contrast to the high buildings and tiered seating that surrounded Vasile’s hanging tree and all the ages-old ceremony that went with it, Adelheim’s village green was positively provincial. The village green itself scarcely deserved the name–it was a flat, well-stomped square of scraggly, spiky grass just outside the inn, the town’s largest building. Calay hadn’t noticed the old wooden gallows on his first trip through town–it was worn and warped, built up against the fat trunk of a squat old tree that was just beginning to unfurl new leaves. It blended in, a seldom-used piece of wooden backdrop.

Now that he stood before it, though, he couldn’t tear his eyes away.

The crowd pressed in eagerly, a few hundred thick. Excited murmurs skittered past his ears, too far off and too numerous for him to pick out any words. Riss was spared the press of the crowd at least. She stood up front with Tarn and a dozen of his men, who graciously created a cordon with their bodies. Gaz hadn’t wanted to stand that close, so Calay had scouted out a spot at the very rear of the crowd, upon a little rise of hill that gave them a view over the masses.

Overhead, the sky was a gorgeous sapphire blue, not a cloud in it.

“Cracking blue sky that is.” Calay leaned in a little toward Gaz at his side. “Beautiful day to say goodbye to the asshole who cost me my arm.”

Gaz gave an affirmative grunt. He was watching the crowd more than the sky or the tree.

A pair of uniformed guards led Vosk down the hill, his hands bound at the small of his back. Calay watched him walk, soaking up the details: the scraggly hair, the sunken eyes, the disheveled face, the way he shrank in against his own body as if trying to disappear. The sight gave him a visceral satisfaction, a sense of final triumph.

Piercing the murmured conversation like a blade, a sharp cry rose up from somewhere in the crowd. A woman’s voice, low and distraught. Vosk’s head jerked up at the sound and his eyes searched the faces. Calay couldn’t see her, but he guessed it must be a wife, perhaps a daughter.

Beside him, Gaz breathed out hard. He averted his eyes from Vosk and took a step toward the fence that ringed the inn’s yard. Putting a hand to a fencepost, he picked at the wood, suddenly very interested in it. Calay felt the echo of that small frown returning to his mouth.

“Hey,” he said. “If this is going to be that hard for you to watch–”

Gaz shook his head, silencing the offer before Calay could even make it.

Vosk’s escort reached the gallows. They marched him up the steps and one of them unfurled a length of rope from a bag. He slung it up over the frame with a lackadaisical ease, as if running fishing line. The woman wailed again.

Tarn’s voice rose above the din. “You are all in luck,” he said. “I was not made custodian of these lands on account of my speeches.” Nobody laughed. But that didn’t stop him. “The man before you is a traitor of the lowest order. Apart from his role in the murder of my son, he wore the colors of my garrison while engaging in petty brigandage. He left his brothers in arms to die in that wretched swamp–men that you all knew.”

It was easy to see why Tarn had achieved such success in the army. His voice carried easily, buttressed with a natural commander’s charisma. He yelled without sounding like he was yelling.

His bad arm still bound to his torso with the sling, he lifted one glove toward the gallows. “To die by hanging is a kinder fate than he gave others. Harlan Vosk, your crimes are numerous and your sentence is death.” He intoned the words with little anger or ceremony, as if simply glad to be rid of the man.

Tarn addressed Vosk directly when he said that last bit, but Vosk gave no indication of having heard. He stared at the ground, tangled white-grey hair veiling his face from onlookers. A sneer twitched its way onto Calay’s mouth at the sight of him. Pathetic, the way he shrank up there rather than facing his judgment like a man. Calay recalled his own walk to the gallows, the measured calm he’d felt, the way he’d looked the guards in the eye.

Vosk was a weak man. It was a miracle he’d survived all he had. Calay was delighted to be the one who caught him in the end.

The hangman looped the noose around Vosk’s neck and tightened it. Calay’s heart quickened in his chest. Gaz had gone awful quiet.

Someone in the crowd lobbed a rock through the air. It struck Vosk in the temple, causing him to teeter sideways. The guard at his side caught him before he could topple over. One of Tarn’s other men bellowed a warning to the crowd to settle down. Others laughed.

A few stragglers joined the audience at the rear, closing in near where he and Gaz stood. Someone jostled Calay’s shoulder. He jostled them right back, used to having to jockey for space against those who saw his height as an invitation to body him out of the way. Gaz, who must have been suffering similar indignities, let out an irritated little growl.

Then something cut that growl abruptly short. He went quiet. A too-abrupt kind of quiet. Calay turned to face him–

–and immediately felt the press of something hard and metallic against his spine. Barrel of a pistol, unless he was mistaken. It wasn’t sharp enough to be a blade.

Gaz was in a similar position. He had his hands up at his sides and a short, stocky man crowding in close behind him. Calay couldn’t quite see his gun-hand, but the posture was telltale. The man holding Gaz up was paler than the norm around these parts, dressed in steel-studded leather and a heavy leather duster. He looked like he’d just hopped off a horse after a week-long ride. His cheeks carried a faint hint of sunburn.

“That’s right,” said a voice behind him. “You get the picture. No sudden movements.”

Someone up at the gallows was addressing the crowd, but Calay missed the words. He sought faces in the crowd nearby, trying to gauge how many assailants there actually were. A third person–a woman–lingered close to the man accosting Gaz. Her eyes were hard and her posture tense.

Three versus two. That’d normally be easy. But in a crowd this big, Calay would have to be smart. He had a vial of blood on him, of course–never left home without it–but all hell would break loose if he wove magick here. He could take three mercenaries–he was less certain about his fate versus an entire village of spooked, superstitious peasants. Not to mention Tarn and his men.

Slowly, Calay surveyed his surroundings. Plenty of peasant assholes close by, but they wouldn’t be any help. Riss was up front with Tarn, far too far away to see anything or assist. He couldn’t see Adal and Torcha–they were likely up front as well, but on the other side of the gallows where the crowd was too thick to see.

Gaz met his eyes. His expression balanced on the tightrope between apology and annoyance. Calay gave him a tight-mouthed smile.

“Just relax, big fella,” said the woman, eyes up toward Gaz. “The two of you are gonna talk a walk with us.”

The gun jabbed into his back. Calay figured that meant turn around and start walking, so he did. His faceless assailant marched right along behind. They were out of the crowd in moments.

“Here’s how this is going to go,” said the man behind him. “We’ve got a wagon in the yard, and you’re going to climb aboard it. If not, you’ll be loaded aboard it in a sack. Are we clear?”

Finally, he’d spoken enough that Calay could peg his accent. Vasa, without question.

But these three leather-clad twerps didn’t look like agents of the Leycenate. Nor did they look like Syl’s compatriots, the Cult of Charvell. Bounty hunters, then. He’d known they’d come. He and Gaz had made it further than he’d thought. Someone was bound to catch up to them eventually.

On the bright side, they were taking him to a wagon. It would be much easier to kill them all there.

Walking calmly, his eyes forward and his steps leashed by the prod of muzzle against his spine, Calay behaved himself.

Something wooden snapped in the distance behind him. A murmur rose through the gathered population of Adelheim. Vosk had taken his drop off the gallows, then. And Calay’s chance to watch it had been rudely yanked out from under him by these tough-talking idiots who didn’t even realize they were marching themselves into an early grave.

“I was hoping to watch that hanging,” he said with a sigh. “So tell me–how much does the Leycenate have on me, hm? Or is it House Talvace that sent you? House Bellecote?” Vain though it might have been, he was curious who’d ponied up the gold.

“Quiet,” the bounty hunter hissed. “We can make this less pleasant if you force our hand.”

Before Calay could speak another word to the man, gunfire ripped through the village green. A shot rang out and something warm and liquid splattered against the back of Calay’s neck. He leapt forward. For a single, insane moment, he had the terrified impression that he’d been shot and what he felt was his own brains, somehow. He touched the back of his head and his hand came away red. Stumbling and turning, he spun around in time to see the bounty hunter behind him fall to the ground, a limp and lifeless sack of meat clutching a dented matchlock in one hand.

He stepped in something soft. Bits of brain and skull decorated the grassy ground. The screaming started, first right beside him and then rippling outward through the crowd as if contagious.

By the time the second shot rang out, the village green had erupted into full-blown pandemonium.

<< Chapter 65 | Chapter 67 >>

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Chapter 65

The castle at Adelheim was much the same as the others in the region–at least the ones that weren’t heaps of rubble. It was older than the town itself, its basement levels built of entirely different stone. Walking down the corkscrew staircase into its depths was like a journey back in time, or a journey through the sediment of the earth itself. Riss could see the layers where old construction ended and new began. The whole stairwell reeked of damp stone and iron.

“Boy,” she said to Tarn’s back, trying to soothe the tension in her own stomach more than anything. “How many times you figure they’ve knocked this thing down and built it back up again?”

“Hopefully no more now that I live in it,” he said.

She thought back to the attempt on his life. He was so unfazed by it. Was this not the first time?

“Suppose the region’s always been a little unstable,” she said.

Tarn grunted agreement. “There’s a reason why Medao is the closest city of any note. Nothing large enough to constitute a proper port survives down here without someone or another attempting to annex it, even if it’s just the bastard with the next-largest plot of land down the road.”

At the termination of the stairs lay a heavy, iron-barred door. Veslin unlocked it and heaved it open, beckoning both Tarn and Riss inside. A pair of guards in the livery of Tarn’s garrison manned the hallway. Their expressions read boredly professional at first glance, but if Riss looked longer, she could spy the relief that snuck into their eyes upon the sight of their commander. They straightened as Tarn passed.

Only one of the cells appeared to be occupied, judging by the single guard stationed outside it. Despite the fact that logic told her no harm could reasonably come to her or Tarn in this situation, her hand wandered to the sheath at her hip. She hadn’t worn her machete, heavy as it was, but in a pinch she’d made quick work of a man with much smaller blades before.

Riss wondered how the soldiers were taking it, having to watch after one of their own. How Vosk was taking it, being imprisoned by people who were once his brothers and sisters in arms. She recalled the empathy she’d felt for him when they’d shared a fire, when she’d looked into his eyes and thought she’d seen the same loss she suffered. Her jaw clenched involuntarily.

There’s no threat here, she tried to tell herself, even through the wary goosebumps that rose on her arms. He’s going to get his.

“Baron.” The guard outside the cell door straightened.

Through the narrow slits in the wood, Riss saw only inky blackness. The interior of the cell was completely without light. Tarn peeked through, one thick eyebrow aloft, then glanced to the guard in wordless enquiry.

“He cries like crazy whenever we light the lamps,” the guard said, disdainful. “We grew tired of it.” Cruel, Riss thought, but understandable. She was relieved to see they appeared to rightly see Vosk as the traitor he was rather than a figure deserving of sympathy for having once shared their colors.

“Veslin says he’s been causing trouble?” Tarn glanced aside to his houseman now, who simply nodded. Riss felt like an unnecessary card on the table, not relevant to anyone’s hand. But Vosk could cause real harm if he’d somehow figured out a way to share what he knew.

Tarn instructed the man to open the door with a tick of his chin. Riss’ stomach tightened.

Crashing a fist against the door in a warning knock, the guard twisted a key in the heavy iron lock. The sound of it was refreshingly mechanical, secure somehow in a way that set Riss’ pulse at ease: click, scrape, creak. As the door swung outward, an immediate waft of foul air hit their noses. Tarn and Riss both coughed, though the guard did not. Perhaps he was used to it. The cell smelled–atop the usual damp earth and sour, metallic odor–of decades of human filth. Nothing new or fresh, but the persistent odor of neglect and suffering had been all but baked into the stone it was hewn from.

Behind them, the guard helpfully held a torch aloft, allowing light to spill into the interior.

Each cell was designed to house far more than a single prisoner. Sets of disused manacles dangled off the walls, splotched with rust. Straw-stuffed pallets lined one wall, but the bedding had been torn from many of them, scattered around the floor and resembling nothing so much as the floor of a stable. Straw crunched under their boots as they stepped inside, Tarn at the fore.

A lone figure slumped on the pallet in the farthest corner, distinctly human but only half-lit. It didn’t move when they neared, though they could hear the rasp of its breathing.

“He’s restrained?” Tarn and Riss realized it in the same moment, though only Tarn asked aloud.

Behind them, Veslin and the guard stepped closer. Once they did, their fire further illuminated the dark stone walls, which Riss only just noticed were shiny.

She craned her head back for a better view. Slick writing glistened on the walls, warningly dark even against the rock. Her breath caught in her throat. Tarn studied the wall above the pallets, its bricks similarly slippery. Each crudely-drawn character caught the light, gleaming still-wet. Reflecting the fire, the writing looked like molten copper.

The words were completely indistinguishable. Riss wasn’t sure whether that could be put down to the writing surface, the frenzied nature of the strokes that drew them, or unfamiliarity of the language.

The smell told her all she needed to know about what Vosk had used for ink: his own blood.

They stood over the man curled on his heap of straw. Crude bandagings wrapped his arms, and he hugged himself in a loose fetal position. Unlike the rest of the mercenary party, he hadn’t been offered a bath or a change of clothes upon arriving at the castle. He still reeked of the swamp. He didn’t stir when they drew close.

“You’ve sedated him?” she asked.

“Aye.” Veslin spoke behind her. “When they mentioned he was mutilating himself, I sent the house physician down. Once I checked in, I sent for you immediately. Things looked… unusual.” Turns out it wasn’t just Adal’s servants who had a gift for understatement.

Tarn made a sound like he’d just bit into a sour fruit. He beckoned for Veslin’s light, then swung it around, examining the bloodied characters strewn all over the walls. For a moment, worry seized Riss in a deathly-tight, clenching grip–had Vosk detailed her treachery here? Written about all Calay was capable of? But prolonged study of the markings revealed no new insights. She couldn’t make heads or tails of them. Judging by the blank expression on his features, Tarn couldn’t grasp them either.

“Anyone understand this gibberish?” he asked, glancing back to Veslin.

The houseman stepped into the center of the cell, turning his head this way and that. His mouth compressed as he studied the walls. Riss saw recognition flash in his torchlit eyes. She minded her expression, betraying nothing even as curiosity scratched at her innards like a rat in a trap.

“Huh.” Veslin made a soft sound of comprehension. He spun in a slow circle, studying the bloodied walls, then returned his eyes to Tarn and lifted a tight-shouldered shrug.

“It’s just one sentence in Sunnish,” he said. “Repeated over and over again.”

Riss felt an odd sort of relief–one sentence could cause a lot of damage, but it couldn’t reveal all of what she’d concealed.

“Well?” Tarn, impatient. “Out with it.”

Veslin folded his arms across his middle, hugging himself loosely. His voice was soft, reedy, reluctant to speak the words.

“Come unto the ground,” he said.

Though Riss hadn’t the foggiest idea what it meant, the words snuffed her relief like a breath to a candle. If asked, she could never explain precisely why they sent that frigid chill up her back. But now that she’d heard it, she wanted to be out of that basement. She did not want to be in, as Vosk had put it, the ground.

It felt like he’d beckoned them downward and they’d answered. Which felt like playing into someone else’s hands.

Tarn shared none of her worry. His eyebrows scrunched and he glanced back to the prone man in the straw.

“Means bugger all to me,” he said. He directed his next order at Veslin: “Have them call us me back when he’s awake. Restrain him further if you must. Can’t have him slithering free of the noose now.”

Riss was glad to step through the door, though the hallway was only marginally less oppressive. She thought of the heavy tons of earth that pressed in against the dungeon’s stones, had an insane moment of worry over whether the walls would be strong enough to hold it all back.

It was soil. It was completely inert. Shaking her head, Riss palmed at her face. With each step she and Tarn took toward the surface, she could breathe a little easier.

They reached an alcove in the narrow stairwell where light shone through a window. Aboveground again, then. Tarn waved Veslin on, then cornered Riss for a moment, gesturing for her to wait.

“Riss,” he said. He cradled his injured shoulder for a moment, then straightened.

“Yes, sir?” Again, she fell back on the sir. He let it slide.

“You’ve done me a great service.” His stare turned heavy, solemn. “Though the news wasn’t what we wanted, it was close to what I expected. Nobody expected you to retrieve Lukra from that marsh alive.”

Riss, who’d been so wound up in the character of the expedition and what it stood for, had scarcely thought of it in those terms since embarking. Less so since returning. Once they were knee-deep in the mud, the whys behind why she was out there had ceased to matter. Survival had come first. Survival and seeing Vosk brought to whatever justice they could manage.

“There were some close calls,” she said, unwilling to dwell on the details. “I’m pleased you found my conduct sufficient.”

“Never a doubt in my mind,” said Tarn. He released a breath that seemed to settle more of his weight upon his bearish shoulders. “The townsfolk here, they prefer their hangings at midday. They say the further you are from dark, the less chance of ghosts escaping and hanging around or some nonsense.”

Riss gave him a skeptical look, retaining her silence.

“We’ll hang him tomorrow and be done with this. If you and your company fancied remaining in Adelheim longer, I would certainly have use of you. For starters I’d like to track down the swine who did this.” He tapped the dressing upon his shoulder.

“I think Adal would be amenable,” Riss said. They’d have to circle the wagons and discuss it, but for the time being she had no business elsewhere. Adelheim was as good a center of operations as any.

“Thank you, Riss.”

Before returning to the courtyard, she paused and glanced up into Tarn’s face.

“No,” she said. “Thank you. I needed this. You knew I needed it. This is the last I’ll speak of the matter, but I appreciate what you did.” She couldn’t bring herself to say any more of it aloud, how she’d doubted herself and her capabilities. How she’d immersed herself in that wrong-headed, self-pitying thinking for lack of a better exit strategy.

“I chose you because you were the right one for the job,” Tarn said, ever willing to lend her plausible deniability.

“You offered me a drink, back when this all began.” Riss’ mouth curved in a short lived smile. “I believe I’ll finally take you up on that.”

###

It was halfway through her glass of wine, a viscous and pleasantly sweet concoction that glimmered gold in the sunlight, that the wrongness of come unto the ground returned. Riss sat at Tarn’s side, laughing at one of his long-winded recollections, and then the world around her seemed to still. Color seeped from the tablecloths, the sky, the booze-ruddied cheeks of her friends.

Riss had spent days in the field with Vosk. She’d spoken to him at length.

Vosk had never used the word unto. Come unto the ground wasn’t just an eerie beckoning to something that felt wrong, it was an invitation written in words the man who wrote them would never, ever use.

<< Chapter 64 | Chapter 66 >>

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Chapter 64

Apart from the circumstances being less than ideal, Riss’ briefing went about as she thought it would. Tarn sat and listened, sipping from his flask as she explained the findings of their expedition: the decision that Vosk and Lukra made to betray the clothiers, the massacre, the trees setting upon them. It didn’t paint Lukra in the kindest light, but Tarn deserved better than a bullshit narrative that plastered over his son’s cracks.

“Vosk turned on us before we had him pegged,” Riss explained. “He killed Geetsha, the woman sent to guide us through the swamp. And he shot Calay here as well. Under duress, he confessed to the whole thing.”

Tarn’s shoulders slumped. He released a weary sigh. Calay had stitched and bandaged him up, one more scar to add to the many that lurked in the thickets of dark hair that shaded his arms. He’d complained fiercely when the physik had rigged his arm in a sling, but he was behaving for the time being.

“I’m pleased to see you got through it,” he said to Calay, who leaned against a table now, hand in his pocket.

Riss had to ask about one thing, now that she had the opportunity. It had been burning a hole in her pocket like an unspent coin.

“A few of our mercs met with Geetsha’s people,” she said, slow and thoughtful. “They spoke of an agreement you’d brokered?” Really, all she needed to know was that Tarn hadn’t sent them in there as fodder. Her gut told her that wasn’t the case, but that did little to assuage the worry of her brain, which was burdened by no such intuitions.

Tarn tilted his chin down, a slow nod. “Yes,” he said. “The Indefinite-Collective, they call themselves. Some sort of tribal presence deep in the marshes. Their territory butts up against mine. When I put out word about Lukra’s disappearance, they sent a representative. They said they’d assist in exchange for my men staying the hells out of their swamp.”

“That was all?” It sounded tidy enough. Believable enough.

“Mhm.” Tarn yawned and smothered it with the back of a hand. “Half my duty as chaperone over these lands is signing papers to agree to stay out of other people’s territory. The locals hate the place anyway. As far as I’m concerned, I lose nothing avoiding it.”

If he had any opinion–or any knowledge whatsoever–of the strange magicks the Collective used, whatever witchery they’d wrangled to locate Vosk in the woods, he didn’t voice it. Riss decided against pursuing it further. If the end goal was to avoid the place, perhaps they could avoid it in conversation as well.

As she related the last few days of their expedition, she felt Calay’s eyes on her, a hard stare that simmered at her back like hot coals. Gaz too watched her speak, though his own expression was considerably less severe.

She got to the part with the sheep. She said nothing of what she’d uncovered about Calay’s true nature.

Somewhere along the way, she’d simply decided not to.

While a distantly loyal part of her twinged in discomfort at hiding such a thing from Tarn, loyalty was a complex creature. She didn’t feel loyalty to Calay on the same level she felt it to say, Adal. But he’d saved Torcha. He’d brought Vosk back alive. He’d done the job she’d hired him to do. That he’d performed it all under false pretenses was not a thing she’d be quick to forget, but it was something she could understand, given what she’d learned of the man.

“Suppose that settles it,” Tarn grumbled from his bed. “You all leave me to an afternoon of rest, will you? We’ve got a party to throw and a bastard to execute, but I believe I need a nap.”

Calay rubbed a hand down his face across the room and mumbled something she didn’t quite catch.

“We’ll see you at supper,” Gaz explained.

She let them go. She saw no reason to keep anyone.

“Anything need doing?” she asked Veslin as they all filed out into the hallway. But no, he had no duties for her. As was to be expected. Tarn had a whole castle full of guards and bootlickers, no need for a hired hand.

Which meant she could spend some quality time in the library. Riss excused herself and wandered off to do just that. As she walked, she wondered whether it might be worthwhile to ask the house staff if they had any books that detailed the region’s history, anything about the swamp’s origins. But with each progressive footstep, that desire waned. As curious as she was, delving into the swamp even as an intellectual pursuit felt like inviting it back into her life.

###

The talk all throughout the Estate was of Tarn’s resilience, how impressive a man he was to put together a feast at such short notice. And after being set upon by highwaymen, no less! Riss kept her amusement to herself; clearly none of these hangers-on had served with him. Otherwise they’d have known this was a more or less expected Tarn reaction rather than some feat of bravery and constitution.

Still, the feast was an impressive one. Riss wasn’t sure what an evening meal typically consisted of at Adelheim’s castle, but tonight Tarn’s staff had rounded up a dozen suckling pigs and roast them until their flesh was blackened and split. Great wheels of soft white cheese and slivered slices of harder, sharper yellow stuff were heaped around the perimeter of the formal dining table. She had a whole bowl of bread dumplings in cream sauce. The only dish Riss didn’t sample was the platter of roasted mushrooms. When that was passed around, she politely abstained. So did everyone else who’d journeyed with her into the swamp, save for Torcha who chowed them down indifferently.

Riss and her company shared the head of the table with the Baron himself, honored guests. It was a tad less structured than other formal meals Riss had been forced to sit through at the hands of various nobility, which suited her just fine. Adal got to spend the night schmoozing, she and Torcha got to relax, and Tarn enjoyed telling the story of how he fought off the bandits on the road. It grew more heroic with every retelling.

After supper, people dispersed to the courtyards, which were strung with faceted-glass lanterns. A woman fingerpicked a guitar in a shaded corner and nimble servers flitted to and fro with flutes of wine. Servants set up smaller side tables in the shade, heaped with cheese tarts and roasted fruits.

Riss was far from an expert on plants, but she liked the landscaping in the courtyard. Big, red-leafed bushes left to grow a little wild partitioned the courtyard off, decidedly different to the regimented shrubbery common in the Inland. Of course, where Riss had grown up, nobody’s homes were close enough together to need shrubs to delineate property boundaries. She found intentional landscaping a curious, intriguing thing regardless of what plants were used.

Gaz found her like that, wineglass in hand, watching the crowd.

It was funny, seeing a person completely removed from their usual context. When the accords had been signed and the war was well and truly over, Riss and several others in the Fourth hadn’t been so quick to shed their uniforms as others. She wondered if on some level they were worried they wouldn’t be able to recognize one another without them. That the sense of kinship they’d developed would evaporate the second they lost their trappings and accessories.

Seeing Gaz at a party holding a wine flute was kind of like that. Were it not for the fact that he still towered, she might not have recognized him.

Mindful of his glass, Gaz eased down onto a long stone bench, his back to the wild red-brown shrubs. He looked up at her, making pointed eye contact.

“Thanks for what you did back there.” He didn’t have to specify.

Riss lifted a shoulder, casual. “It’s nothing,” she said. “You two were invaluable out there.”

Gaz turned the wineglass, the little crystal thing dwarfed by his too-large hand. “We’ve been invaluable before. You should have seen how they repaid us.”

Riss tilted her own glass down towards his, offering a cheers.

“Well I’m not them.”

An expression of half amusement half disbelief flickered over Gaz’s face. She’d never noticed it before, but he was younger than she’d initially thought. The scars, the crooked nose, the rough texture of his skin–they were all signs of life’s little hardships built up, but years weren’t among them. He and Calay both couldn’t have been thirty yet. Younger than her, at any rate.

Gaz clinked his glass to hers, smiling. Removed from the context of muck and blood, she could see now that he had a kind smile. Kind eyes, too.

“You two are an odd pair, if you don’t mind my saying.” She spoke candidly, sipping her wine after. It was a tangy, citrusy white, the kind that danced along the tongue.

When Gaz sipped, he sputtered a little. An odd, abashed look crossed his face and he looked back up at her with a shallow cough.

“Pardon me,” Riss said with round eyes.

“Oh, wasn’t you.” Gaz cleared his throat. “Just… uh, funny way of phrasing. What makes you say that?”

Riss levelled a wordless look at him.

“Fine, fine.” He huffed out a single breath of laughter. “Suppose we’re pretty different, yeah. But I could say the same for you and Torcha.”

Riss searched the courtyard for Torcha and didn’t see her. She did however spy Tarn sitting at a small table, chatting Calay’s ear off. Calay slouched in a seat catty-corner to him, watching Tarn over the brim of his wineglass, his expression inscrutable. She hadn’t warned him about how long-winded her old Captain could be when he got on the sauce. His loss.

“Torcha’s an interesting case,” she said, ever opting for the understatement. “Adal and I kind of look out for her, I suppose. The world’s hard for kids like her.”

Gaz didn’t say anything, but the slight tilt of his head and the way he kept his interested eyes on hers bade her to continue talking.

“I’m sure you know what I mean.” She sipped her wine. “Tough for folks my age too, but tougher on the young ones. They grow up in the midst of all this conflict, fight or flee at a moment’s notice. That becomes normal for them, so when they encounter real-normal they just don’t know what to do.” And she hadn’t even touched on the things Torcha had done before Riss and Gaspard had encountered her on that strange first night. Nor the people the girl had trained with.

Gaz’s fingers twitched a little on the stem of the glass he held. “I get that,” he said. “Better than most who ducked the war, I think. Vasile didn’t even dip its toes in, but…”

The way he and Calay fought, they’d gone through something. Riss didn’t know the details, but there were skills one simply didn’t acquire unless one lived a certain type of life.

“Conflict is conflict,” she said. “I get the sense you’ve seen your share.”

“So yeah.” Gaz fiddled with his glass again, then sipped the last of it down. His hands seemed more fidgety than usual. “It’s a little odd, stepping out of that and into a whole other life.”

Riss recalled Discharge Week and all the bittersweet feelings that had come with it. Gaspard pacing like a caged beast or eating sweet rolls by the dozen at his desk. The rambling, pages-long letters she’d penned to Adal while he recuperated. The vague sense of guilt she’d felt that she wasn’t happier. The war was over; peace was an objectively good thing. But Riss had felt like an outcast among her own men, an odd duck in the barracks who had no wife at home, no kids who’d missed her, not even a job to return to. She had only a father who’d willingly given her up for conscription and written not a single letter.

The Fourth, in its own disjointed and irregular way, had given her structure and purpose.

“My mentor,” she said to Gaz, a little foggy-eyed. “He put it best, I think. After they signed the accords, we mostly just kicked around stress-eating sticky buns and spinning our wheels.”

“Half of that doesn’t sound too bad,” said Gaz.

Riss chuckled and stretched out her arms, lifting her shoulders. After a moment’s consideration, she sank down onto the bench at Gaz’s side. “He likened it to being a horse. Said with these old warhorses, they often cause a ruckus and aren’t good for fuck-all during peacetime. They get so used to how crazy it is, to the constant noise, that you take ‘em home and they’re too wild for the plow. He said that’s what happens–you get home and you just can’t work the plow anymore.”

Gaz absorbed that in silence for a time. When he finally spoke again, he looked down at the glass in his hands.

“Yeah. You get it.” A pause. “We had a good thing going back home. I’m just trying to get us to a place where we can find that again. Do the thing we’re good at.”

Questions tingled on the tip of her tongue. Despite the candid moment they were sharing, Riss wasn’t sure he’d answer if she asked them.

“You have to know how hard that’s going to be.” She said it without judgment, kept her voice low and her wording vague. “With what he is. No matter where you end up…”

“We’re always going to be running, yeah.” Gaz said it matter-of-factly. He knew. He was under no illusions.

When Riss said the two of them were different, what she’d really meant was that the more she learned about Gaz, the stranger it was that he’d hitched his wagon to someone like Calay. He lacked the cutthroat instincts, the viciousness. Not that she doubted he was capable of vicious things–she’d fought alongside him, after all–but capability did not equal inclination.

A narrow figure scurried past her, moving quickly through the yard. Riss glanced up, spotting Veslin making a beeline for Tarn’s table. He dipped his head, interrupted Tarn and Calay, and said something that caused both to turn their heads toward him, smiles faltering on their faces.

Tarn exhaled wearily, then heaved up out of his seat. He encouraged Calay to stay put with a wave, then allowed Veslin to lead him back toward the castle. As he passed Riss’ bench, he gestured to her, ticking his chin up.

“Riss,” he said. “I hate to interrupt your hard-earned time off, but Veslin informs me the prisoner is causing a ruckus in the cells.”

Riss shot up to her feet immediately. How in the fuck was Vosk still capable of causing problems? As she followed Tarn inside, she tried to make a quick mental inventory of everything she’d left out of her briefing.

Namely the bits about Calay. And exactly how Vosk had lost his tongue.

<< Chapter 63 | Chapter 65 >>

Chapter 63

Staring down the hill toward the distant fields of sweet potatoes and the clumps of twiggy springtime trees, Adal tried to get a good look at what was riding toward them. Within a few seconds, he determined that it was a wagon. It looked like the one Tarn had rode in on a couple weeks back, though it was tough to say–who knew how many wagons called Adelheim’s wagonyard home.

“They’ve let the wagon cross the bridge,” he said to Torcha. “So it must be friendly. But the code they’re blowing has the locals rattled. I don’t think it’s an invasion, at least, but it can’t be good.”

Within minutes, the wagon was hurrying up the hill. The closer it got, the more the details solidified stones of sharp, crystalline concern in Adal’s gut: its team was incomplete, a horse missing from the lead pair. Once his mind shed the more fantastical threats–monsters and armies, which both seemed unlikely now–he worried that Tarn’s entourage might have fallen victim to the usual hazards of the road. Bandits, rivals, assassins, none of them less dangerous solely because worse things lurked off-road.

“Come on,” he said to Torcha. “I don’t think we’re in any danger, but we might be needed.”

She made a sound of quiet agreement, content to follow orders, and hurried after him. Rounding the fence, he jogged up the side of the road.

When the wagon caught up with them, rumbling crazily past, he had only half a moment to take it in. Slick, shiny black liquid oozed in streaks down its sides, glittering in the morning sun. The team was indeed missing a horse, its harness empty. The window shutters were drawn and bolted, so he had no idea what was happening inside. The more he saw, the less he liked.

They spotted Gaz a moment later. He’d acquired a forearm-long knife from somewhere and had it up and ready. He’d parked himself in the doorway of a smithy, looming there warily with his eyes on the road.

“Gaz!” Torcha hollered. “C’mon!”

Reluctant to step free from the doorway, he glanced over his shoulder. Adal realized he was talking to someone inside. He gestured a little with the knife, then nodded, his expression dark. When he stepped away, Adal caught a glimpse of a man and woman standing inside, squinting out toward the road in suspicion.

Please don’t tell me he decided to try to rob the fucking blacksmiths in the confusion, he thought. There’d be no coming back from that. No amount of explaining away could–

Gaz reached them. He walked right past Adal and Torcha and peered down the road.

“I don’t see anything!” he hollered, and it took Adal a moment to realize he was speaking to the couple in the smithy.

Finally, he looked to Adal, lowering the blade. “Any idea what’s going on out here?”

“Not a clue.” Adal gestured up the hill. “But the Baron’s wagon took off that way in a hurry, so we’re heading up to find out. I’d suggest you tag along.”

“Don’t gotta tell me twice.” Gaz looked down to the knife in his hand, then back toward the squat, low-roofed building he’d emerged from.

“Keep it!” shouted a woman’s voice from inside. Gaz shrugged and seemed to take that as answer enough. Adal didn’t stop to ask him what all that had been about.

Together, they hurried up toward the castle, following a trail of pitch-black droplets in the road.

At the apex of the hill, out of breath, they reached the gates. More guards than usual clustered around the outside, milling about nervously, and Adal took point in case anybody got over-cautious. Fortunately they had a good memory for faces, because they let him pass without a fuss. As he stepped into the inner yard, the heavy wooden gates shunted closed behind them, the earth momentarily trembling with the impact.

The Baron’s wagon was parked askew in the inner yard, attendants scrambling all over it like flies on a carcass. Gaz dropped to a knee in the road, touching his finger to one of the droplets in the dust.

“Pretty sure that’s lantern oil,” he said. “Looks like someone tried to light your Baron on fire.”

Adal glanced toward the castle’s front door. Surely Tarn had physikers on staff. But all the same, they had a damn good medic sleeping right upstairs.

“Get Calay,” he said. “Just in case.”

Gaz must have had similar thoughts, because he didn’t argue. He sprinted off toward the door, shoving past the throng of servants who were hurrying in the opposite direction.

At that moment, the wagon’s heavy passenger door thumped open. Tarn stomped out into the dusty courtyard, his face flushed and sweaty. Adal’s worry relaxed at first, the sight of the man relieving, but then he spotted the arrow shaft protruding from the Baron’s body.

“Unhand me,” Tarn bellowed at his many hangers-on, waving an arm. When he turned, Adal could see that the arrow was lodged in his left shoulder. Tarn was armored, but he’d gone without pauldrons, and it had cost him. He sputtered frustrated obscenities at anyone who got too near, then took a couple listing steps toward the door. It was then that he spotted Adal, his eyes going wide.

“Adalgis!” he boomed. “You’ve returned from the swamp!”

Adal bit back the urge to salute. Instead he just jogged to the man’s side, approaching him with alacrity. “Sir,” he said. “That I have. Riss is preparing her report now, but–” He glanced to the arrow shaft.

“I’m well aware,” said Tarn.

The Baron’s staff had ceased their attempts at intervention, letting Adal act as their representative until someone with more authority arrived. He cleared his throat.

“We’ve got a talented physik on our team,” he said. “The man saved my life on our expedition. I’m sure you have your own staff for such emergencies, but I feel duty-bound to offer his services.”

Tarn breathed in through clenched teeth. He reached up and touched the arrow shaft that jutted from his sleeve. Adal noted that he didn’t appear to have suffered any further wounds, which was a relief.

“And this, Adalgis.” Tarn tapped the cloth beside where the arrow pierced him. “This is why Lirette is still back home.” He sighed, hand dropping down to his side. “Fine. Fine. Show me to your chirurgeon.”

Adal had wondered where Tarn’s wife was staying. It made sense, her being back in Carbec until the political situation resolved itself. Adal stepped up and, unaware whether he was breaking any formalities or protocol, took Tarn by the elbow.

“This way, sir,” he said.

“You can stop that,” Tarn informed him. “You needn’t sir me in peacetime.”

Adal hadn’t spared it a thought. It had just come out. He nodded then, cheeks puffing out a little. “Right,” he said. “You’re a Baron now. Right this way, Baron.”

Tarn glared at him. Peace had softened that glare, though only a fraction. “Right,” Tarn said with a huff. “Right now I’m not a Baron or a Captain. I’m just fucked off.”

They blustered into the castle’s foyer, trailed at a distance by a dozen harried attendants who dared not get involved.

###

Adal had some regrets.

For starters, he thought perhaps he should have let Tarn’s own medical staff see to him. Recommending Calay had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now that everyone was gathered in Tarn’s bedchamber and the sorcerer was en route, Adal’s mind reeled with the sheer enormity of how many things could go wrong.

As it turned out, his fears were not misplaced.

The door swung open. Gaz stepped in, mid-sentence, and gave Calay a little nudge to encourage him all the way inside.

Since the last time Adal had set eyes on him, Calay had acquired a black eye and a swollen cheek. His hair was a tangled mess and the clothes he wore didn’t seem to be his own, a borrowed tunic and trousers that hung off him like the trappings of a scarecrow. Gaz had bandaged his arm again, but the bandages weren’t fresh.

“Baron,” Calay said with a deferential nod, not moving any closer.

Tarn, reclined atop his bed while a servant held a compress to his bleeding shoulder, glanced at Adal with a slow lift of his eyebrows. He didn’t say anything, but the look said it all: this is your world-class medic, eh? Adal spread his hands, conciliatory, and beckoned Calay closer.

“Ooh,” Calay said, sighting the arrow. “That looks nasty.”

Was… was he hung over? Adal took a deep breath. Fantastic. That explained why he hadn’t come down for breakfast.

Grunting thickly, Tarn sat up as best he could, the servant pausing in their blood-staunching duty to fluff his pillow. His staff had stripped his chestplate and leathers away, leaving him in a dark green shirt, the fabric pinned to his arm by way of the arrow.

Despite his messy appearance, Calay was all business when he crouched at Tarn’s bedside, inspecting him. “You’re lucky,” he said. “Looks like it’s only gone through the meat. There’s some important tendons and muscles back here…” He gestured with his left hand. “But so long as the head didn’t fragment, you’ll be in the clear.”

The door opened again. This time Riss, Torcha, and Veslin all piled in, the latter leading the others, all of them in a great hurry. Tarn’s eyes snapped up toward the doorway and he growled.

“Everybody out!” he bellowed. “If you weren’t on the marsh expedition and your name isn’t Veslin, out.”

The bedroom emptied. Veslin took over minding Tarn at his bedside while Calay continued his inspection.

Adal explained before Riss even asked. “He says they were set upon at the crossroads. Brigands. Locals who aren’t thrilled with the current distribution of lands and titles. Tried to set his carriage alight, and when that didn’t work they fired off a few and vanished into the woods.”

Riss sniffed, grimacing mildly. “Lucky for him nobody down this way can afford rifles, eh.”

“We’ve gotta talk when you get a second,” Torcha butted in. She glanced toward the door, her eyes narrow.

“One crisis at a time,” said Riss.

Behind them, Calay was busy trimming the sleeve off Tarn’s arm with a small pair of scissors. He worked slowly, Gaz looming behind him like the world’s most menacing nurse, passing him instruments and taking them back in silent intervals.

“Would you like a drink, sir?” Riss called.

“Damn your sirs!” Tarn hollered.

The Baron’s chambers were expansive, a long room with several attached sitting rooms and a massive, carved-basalt hearth. The fire was mere coals for the moment, but Riss walked toward it, seeking something out. The mantel was host to several strange objects: a large reptilian skull of some kind, a thick iron helmet with a dent in one side, a frame with polished medals gleaming inside. Trophies of Tarn’s career with the Inland. Just to the side of all that, Riss located a narrow cabinet. She opened it up and rummaged through it, eventually coming up with a small flask.

“I can give him something more potent than liquor,” Calay offered. He flexed a pair of tweezers in his hand.

“That’s up to him,” said Riss, passing the flask to Tarn without further word. Tarn took it, bit off the cap, and took a swig. He didn’t comment on the contents.

Riss pinched the bridge of her nose as she returned to Adal’s side.

“This is not how I expected to give my briefing,” she said.

Behind her, Tarn let out a hard, low-throated growl of pain as Calay yanked the arrow shaft free. Adal only watched out of the corner of his eye. He’d seen enough of that in the war, thanks. And regardless of how many questions Calay’s current appearance raised, he didn’t doubt the man’s abilities.

“Riss,” Tarn said, swigging from his flask. “You might as well get over here and get–rrgh–started.” Tarn grunted while Calay worked on the wound, digging around with his tweezers.

“I thought we’d begin when he was finished,” she said. But Tarn snapped his fingers, waving her over, and she went. Adal followed with her, Torcha lurking slightly behind.

“You didn’t tell me you had so many northerners on your payroll.” Tarn watched as Calay threaded a thin, curved needle.

“I hire the best people for the job regardless of their city of birth or prior affiliations,” Riss said.

“If I’d known my accent was going to get me constantly punched in the face down here, I might have carried on to Medao,” Calay mused as he began to stitch the Baron shut.

Riss unfolded some notes from a pocket of her coat, scanning over the parchment. She began to brief Tarn on all that had transpired in the swamp.

<< Chapter 62 | Chapter 64 >>

Chapter 62

Adal woke at some point in the night, fuzzy-headed and warm all over. He, Riss, and Torcha had all fallen asleep, the latter two atop the bed and him upon a folded sheepskin on the floor, his back to the frame. He knew by the vague tilt to the floor and the way his thoughts were slow to catch up that he was still nice and drunk, but even in that state he decided to be kind to his back and retreat to his own bed. After all, he was on the wrong side of thirty now. Aches and pains didn’t always vanish on their own anymore. The occasional twinge of pain still shot up his calf from where the rock creature had grabbed his leg–he’d tried not to think about it. Tried not to think about it still even as it flared up again.

He left the girls to their rest and slipped out into the hallway, making the short walk to his own chambers in silence. Days-old muscle bruises throbbed when he moved certain body parts, even through the drink, aches that wouldn’t quite go away. But as he settled in beneath the quilts and sheepskins upon his own bed, he found he didn’t mind the pain.

Rolling his foot, he felt the little twinges through his leg. Remembered how sharp it had felt, that wrench up his hip. Remembered even earlier in the mission that sensation of needlelike fangs piercing his skin.

All the little aches and pains of a body that had survived another campaign.

He rolled over onto his side and let his eyes fall closed. Loth, it was good to see Riss smile again. At her lowest, she hadn’t believed she could come out of this on the other side. But he’d had faith. And she’d proven his faith correctly placed once again.

He let the gentle rocking of the floor lull him back to sleep.

###

Breakfast on the grounds of House Gullardson was nowhere near as organized an affair as it was in the structured halls of House Altave. Tarn’s senior staff–who he could spot by their livery–and a gaggle of assorted guests all threaded in and out through the dining chambers, none lingering too long.

When people passed by his table, they slowed. He felt their gazes on his back, though no one commented. Were they simply wondering who these strangers were? Or had word of their expedition attained some dubious mythology in the hamlet?

Gossip around the castle said the Baron was due back around midday. Adal listened but did not care to speak, happy to find a chair at a side table and munch down fruit tarts with great, heaped spoonfuls of thick eggy custard. He ate ravenously, like his body had forgotten what bread was and immediately decided it was experiencing a dire shortage. Torcha and Riss sat catty-corner to him, their table otherwise empty. None of the passers-by who stopped to ogle the three of them were brave enough to stop and strike up a conversation.

A half-hour into their meal, Adal spotted a familiar lumbering silhouette skirting the very edges of the dining hall. Gaz walked like a man hurrying through a room full of sleeping babies. When Veslin, the housemaster, cornered him, he said few words and nodded a lot. Veslin directed him toward Adal and Riss’ table, and Adal lifted a hand to guide him over.

Interestingly, Gaz was alone. Adal swept a look all around the dining chamber and didn’t see his partner in crime.

Gaz seemed moderately flustered by all the activity around the tables, the servers swooping in and asking did he take tea and if so how. He sat too-straight in his chair, eyes a little wide, and looked relieved when the interrogation was over.

“All well?” Riss asked, teacup in hand.

Gaz scrubbed a palm over his freshly-cut hair. His answer took a moment. “Yeah. Think so.” When Riss glanced pointedly to the empty seat beside him, he followed the look and then went ah. “… He’s sleeping.”

“Can’t blame him,” said Torcha. The two of them shared a look between them, then a subtle nod. Adal was a little lost.

“I think we all needed a bit of rest,” said Riss, doing her best to be diplomatic.

Gaz located a bowl of boiled eggs atop the table, then dragged it a little closer to himself. He plucked up a couple, then set about attempting to peel them with fingers that were far too large for the task. He fixed the egg in his hands with an intense stare while he worked, to the exclusion of all other subjects at the table.

Something was definitely up. He didn’t seem as relaxed as a man who’d just survived a death march through that hell-swamp should have been. But if Riss wasn’t going to pursue that line of questioning, Adal sure wasn’t going to bother either.

Adal took another cup of tea when Veslin offered it. Down this way, the tea of choice was a blood-red root of some kind, shaved thin and dried and boiled. It had a pleasantly earthy flavor with a hint of sweetness to it. Little by little, the tiny pleasures of civilized life were revealing themselves once more, chipping away at the layers of tiredness and desolation and anxiety that had gripped him for days. Rather like Gaz determinedly chipped away at that eggshell.

It felt like coming back from the war all over again. Only this time, he’d come back to the people he chose rather than the family he happened to be born with.

He watched as Gaz stuffed an entire egg into his mouth.

Well, he’d chosen some of the people.

The next time Veslin drifted by, he and Riss shared a few quiet words. Riss downed the last of her tea, snatched up an apricot for the road, and gestured off down the hallway.

“I’m going to prep for our briefing with the Baron,” she said. “When the horn sounds, consider yourselves wanted back here, but until then you’re off-duty. Take advantage of it. That’s an order.”

When she rose up, she plucked the napkin off her lap and folded it. Then she adjusted the drape of her jacket–a threadbare green linen thing with golden embroidery that Adal hadn’t seen on her in some time. It was a little odd, seeing everyone out of their arms and armor. Their bodies looked strangely small and vulnerable.

“You’ll make sure Calay makes it down for the briefing?” Riss glanced down to Gaz, who was busy picking the crust off a roll without eating it. His hands paused when she addressed him.

“Will do,” he said. “And I’ll make sure he’s…” He gestured to his right arm. “Y’know.”

Riss made an agreeable sound and headed off, housemaster in tow.

Torcha speared a sausage off a platter and chewed on it, watching the crowd as it began to thin. “I still can’t believe these people all work for Tarn,” she said, sounding vaguely mystified.

Adal, who’d grown up in a household full of his own maids and servants and hangers-on, didn’t comment on that. Yawning, he too folded his napkin and set it upon his plate. He’d forced himself to curb his appetite–too much bread after living on field rations for days tended to have a soporific effect. The last thing he wanted was to nod off mid-briefing on account of a bread nap.

“I’ve got to return our bird to the stockyards,” he said. Glancing to Torcha, then to Gaz, he lifted a palm. “If either of you felt like tagging along.”

“Why not,” said Torcha.

Gaz rubbed the back of his neck, then glanced off in the direction of the staircase. “Suppose,” he said. “You know if there’s a decent leatherworker in this town?”

Adal rose up and shrugged his coat back on. “I can show you one. Can’t promise he’s decent.”

“Good enough.”

They thanked Tarn’s staff for their hospitality, then hit the streets of Adelheim.

###

The man who ran the stockyard was not impressed that Adal was only returning one bird. He prattled on about how expensive it was to rear them into adulthood, how he could have worked a good ten thousand australs out of the lost one over the course of her life.

“Well, you can take that up with the Baron,” Adal said, not in the mood to argue. “Simply bill it to the garrison. It was a hazardous expedition.”

He couldn’t bring himself to pay full attention to the vitriol being thrown his way. A new acquisition in the yard had stolen his eye, a beast that hadn’t been there when they’d first embarked.

Lurking in a large pen all to itself, across the dusty yard and segregated away from the rest of the stables, a massive galania sat immobile as a spider. The quadrupedal, low-bellied lizard was the size of a carriage, its tail twice as long. Its scales were the same dusty deep red as Adelheim’s claybricks; its hide looked as thick as the castle walls, too. As he watched it, the thing flickered its tongue in and out of its mouth, tasting the air.

He hadn’t seen one up close since the war. And now that he had, he found he didn’t dislike them any less. Big reptiles unnerved him on some sort of childhood-instinct level. You couldn’t gauge them by their body language like you could a horse or a dog. He’d been given the opportunity to attend Cavalry Academy in training, but he’d have sooner licked wet paint. Cavalry wasn’t just horses anymore, not since the war-wagons took over.

Beside him, Gaz let out a low, amused heh.

“What?” Adal glanced over at him, tilted his head.

“Oh, nothing. Got in a scrap with one of those, back in the day.”

Adal waited to see if he’d continue, eyeballing the man with blatant curiosity.

“Just weird.” Gaz shrugged, his voice quiet with contemplation. “After the last couple weeks, a big bastard lizard doesn’t really strike fear into the heart anymore, does it.”

Speak for yourself, Adal thought. But Gaz had a point. They’d faced down worse. If you shot a galania in the face, it would probably die. Still, he preferred not to find that out the hard way.

“You want to buy it or are you just gawking?” asked the stockman, butting in.

“Look, I’m sorry about the bird–” Adal tried to be diplomatic, but Torcha cut him off. She stepped between he and the stockman and flipped up a rude two-fingered hand gesture.

It was about time they got going anyhow. Adal dragged Torcha out of the yard by her shoulder. Gaz followed along behind them. The stockman yelled something at their backs, but Adal didn’t catch it and he didn’t particularly care. For lack of a better option, he steered Torcha across the road and up the hill toward the pub.

Only the pub didn’t prove a more peaceful alternative.

Outside, the usual assortment of loiterers and smokers were relaxing, a loosely-gathered handful of them. It was the middle of the workday and there they stood, pointedly not seeking gainful employment. They relaxed in the shade of the building’s sagging porch, and all their conversation dried up to a trickle and then silence as soon as Adal neared them.

At first he wondered if Gaz or Torcha had antagonized these gentlemen prior to today, but the group didn’t seem to be singling either of them out. The trio all drew the same level of wariness, a sort of edgy, tight-lipped quiet like the kind that gripped Privates when a notoriously hard-nosed Sergeant was on the prowl for a whipping boy in the drill yards.

Gaz didn’t approach the building any closer. Behind Adal, he cleared his throat.

“Gonna go find that leatherworker,” he mumbled, avoiding the crowd. One of the men on the steps must have heard his accent, though, because he spat in the direction Gaz walked off.

“That’s hardly necessary,” said Adal. He felt a little spark of defensiveness, which surprised him. Gaz wasn’t even around to see Adal defend his honour, but by Loth he felt compelled to.

“Speak for yourself.” The spitter in question was a tall, too-thin man with ruddy cheeks and loose-hanging clothes. He squinted at Adal from beneath a straw hat that was on the verge of fragmenting to pieces, loose-woven grass jutting brokenly from the brim. “We’ve had enough trouble with these narlanders kickin’ around. Then you lot roll in.”

“We’re not here to cause any disturbances,” said Adal, polite but also not retreating. Torcha took a step closer.

The man threw his head back and laughed, cradling a hand to his head to keep his hat in place. “A man pokes his nose in every cursed schowe and weald he comes across, but he doesn’t want to cause any disturbances.

Adal straightened. He hadn’t left the castle with the intent to deck a man in broad daylight, but he wasn’t about to let himself be used as a pincushion for a peasant who’d had a bad week.

Torcha jutted up her chin and murmured a few low words at the men in a language Adal barely recognized. He forgot she spoke Sunnish sometimes, as little as they’d ever had to use it in the field. Hideous language, with all those strung-together vowels. No crisp diction in it.

Whatever she said, the words hadn’t had an ameliorating effect. The man in the hat flung a hand up, making a warding gesture at her. Adal couldn’t understand the words he spoke back, but he knew what beat it looked like in any language. Torcha did not step back.

“Torcha,” he warned her. She gave him a stiff little shrug, unapologetic as ever.

Before Adal could get another word in, the bellow of a distant horn cut through the tense quiet in the yard. All heads turned toward the drawbridge at the base of the hill. The Baron’s party was returning, then.

The horn kept bellowing, though. It was a different pattern to the one Adal had heard before, the single drone to announce the incoming entourage. He shot a quick look toward the locals, whose faces all bunched up with concern and confusion at the sound. Some sort of emergency signal, if he interpreted their expressions correctly.

All business, he looked back to the man in the hat, hoping recent events were enough to put the past five minutes behind them. “Shall we arm ourselves?”

“Do whatever the fuck you like,” the man said, shoving past.

Adal let him go. The street didn’t quite empty entirely, a few curious onlookers remaining in doorways. But mothers shooed their kids inside. The guards up on the ramparts stiffened and more guards arrived behind them. Adal and Torcha made for the fence that ringed the pub, the best available cover.

“You packing?” he asked, aware that all he had on him was a bootknife.

“Is the sky blue?” Torcha grumbled and reached for her belt, though she didn’t draw yet.

They watched in tense, breath-held silence as a plume of dust rose up from the road beyond the bridge. Adal noted that the soldiers at the guard tower hadn’t raised the drawbridge yet, which meant whatever was approaching wasn’t an enemy army or some monster crawled out of the swamp to drag them back. He checked a glance up toward the castle. Even if he and Torcha legged it, they wouldn’t make the gates in time.

He hoped Gaz had the good sense to put himself somewhere secure. Riss and the others, at least they had the keep to retreat to.

Whatever was happening, he and Torcha would have to face it as they were.

<< Chapter 61 | Chapter 63 >>

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Chapter 61

Calay felt cleansed. The bath had helped scour the last of the swamp away, sure, but this–this felt like an exorcism. Sighing and relaxing back on his side, he luxuriated in the sensation of clean bedding beneath him and sweat cooling on his skin.

Gaz’s fingers brushed one of his hipbones, a light touch at first and then more confident, his whole palm settling there in a loose, comfortable drape.

“Don’t you get shy on me after,” Calay teased.

He felt more than heard the laugh in response, a warm gust of air on the back of his neck.

“It’s not that.” Gaz dragged a thumb along the crest of his hip, pensive. “Just… this is a bit new.”

“Mm.” Calay liked that when he thought about it. “Yeah.”

His mind was quieter than it had been in months. And though he remained tired and rather sore from his run-in in the pub, the ache in his jaw was now coupled with that pleasant, whole-body ache of muscles well-used in the pursuit of far more enjoyable activities.

Gaz’s fingers traced up the lines of his ribcage. They found the pale path of an old, time-faded scar and followed it.

Back in the mire, there had been so much Calay felt they needed to talk about but couldn’t. So many plans to consider, contingencies to secure, suspicions to share. And they’d been able to speak of next to none of it due to the ever-present ears of Riss and her company.

None of that had changed now that they were alone. The same concerns still hung in his mind like jagged stalactites: whether Riss would keep his secret, whether anyone from Vasile had cottoned onto their trail, whether the thing growing inside his arm would need to be excised. Good concerns. Practical concerns.

Yet now that they were alone, he found he didn’t care to voice any of it. He couldn’t control Riss, nor the bounty hunters. The arm perhaps, in that he could always cut it off again, but who knew whether that would fix things or make them aggressively worse.

The subject of the Bridging loomed, too. How best to address it. If he wanted to address it. Addressing it would open up a line of questioning for what Gaz might have seen when he’d peeked beneath the veil of Calay’s thoughts.

The thought calcified inside him: He can’t pity me. I’ll lose it. I’ll fucking lose it.

“How you feeling?” Gaz asked, prescient as ever when it came to shifts in Calay’s mood.

“Better.” He meant it.

Now Gaz’s hand wandered across his chest. He exhaled another amused whuff of air as his fingertips brushed a hickey that darkened Calay’s collarbone, then he ghosted his fingers up and over his shoulder. He trailed light, affectionate touches down Calay’s bicep, then paused where flesh terminated and bark began.

“Can I?” he asked.

“Mhm.”

He’d been surprised earlier when Gaz had grabbed him by the wrist. Surprised that he’d felt it through all the strange shit growing there. How his arm felt like both a part of him and not. Both a thing that belonged to him and not.

Gaz continued his idle explorations, fingers traversing the cracks and veins in the bark, carefully gliding over the sharp bones beneath. He touched gently at the slim blade of a claw; that sent a pleasurable shiver through Calay’s gut.

Something in that shiver transitioned to something else, something a little chillier, by the time it reached his chest.

“Hey,” he murmured, voice low. “I…” Rumbling wagon. Gulls wheeling through the sky. The scent of beetles boiling to their deaths by the dozen. “I don’t think I ever thanked you. For doing what you had to do back there.”

Gaz’s fingers stilled. He cradled Calay’s talons against his much-larger hand.

His reply was typically blunt. “It’s the worst thing I ever did.”

Calay knew. He’d felt that too. When they’d Bridged, he’d glimpsed inside Gaz and Torcha’s minds, seized on moments when they’d felt their lowest and most blazingly enraged. Torcha’s helplessness as outsiders wrenched away her way of life a piece at a time. The fury and triumph of her revenge.

Gaz, though.

Everything he’d glimpsed through Gaz’s eyes was familiar.

Knots of worry in his stomach when a black-lacquered carriage pulled out of sight. Terror and disbelief at watching Calay dragged from the Clinic by watchmen, his frantic begging to Rovelenne Talvace to spare the facility. Shards of glass pried from palms already riddled with scars.

He’d felt Gaz’s cold dread when he’d awoken to find Calay gone that morning, equal parts fearing seeing him again or not. How he sank further still, then near fully broke when Calay staggered home, saturated with blood and unable to speak of what he’d done.

He’d felt now–both inside himself and outside himself–Gaz’s seemingly infinite capacity for forgiveness.

Swallowing hard, his throat tightening up again, Calay tried not to dwell on it. He tried not to remember the hollow resignation, the grief which lapped past sorrow and all the way to numbness again. When they’d strung Calay up from the gallows tree, Gaz had thought of ransacked buildings, shells of things once tall and proud that had since been emptied of anything of value, never again to feel the warmth of life within them.

Every horrible thing that dwelled in Gaz’s head had been Calay’s fault.

They’d been through some shit together prior to that, of course. Before House Talvace, before the gang wars, before the gallows tree, when they were just two kids sleeping on cots in the surgery room, they already shared an unspoken understanding. There’d never been any question that they had each other’s backs. But Calay hadn’t until that moment grasped the scope of how much Gaz had gone through to keep that promise.

And when he racked his brain for any possible explanation, any reason behind why a person would endure so much for another–for the person who had caused it all in the fucking first place–the answer came as easy as a slap to the cheek.

It’s what you do when you love someone.

Breathing was suddenly difficult. His chest felt tight. His talons twitched, though he was mindful not to clench a fist around Gaz’s fingers. That old urge rose in him again, a sneering phantom, the urge to ball up his fists and just hit something. To pummel the world until it all made sense again.

“Hey, hey…” Gaz leaned in against his back, scooping his other arm up and under Calay from beneath. “Relax. You’re shaking like a leaf.”

He’d felt the hot tears that stung at Gaz’s eyes when he wrenched the knife into Calay’s arm. The disgust, the fear, the determination–it was all a part of him now, like two shades of ink splashed together in the same vial.

“I felt how hard it was for you,” Calay whispered into the crook of Gaz’s arm. “How hard… all of it has been. I put you through the fucking wringer, didn’t I? Shit. Then everything else.”

Again, Gaz’s fingers idly descended on Calay’s claws. He squinted one eye, expression pensive as he carefully examined the sharpened blades that now grew where fingers once were.

“Don’t really think it’s fair to blame yourself for this,” he said, tapping a fingertip to one of Calay’s knuckles.

“I wasn’t talking about the arm. More… everything that led up to this.”

“What, you mean the part where you murdered a shitload of people in cold blood and had to be smuggled out of the city?” Despite the words, Gaz’s tone was casual, far from biting. He lifted Calay’s clawed hand in his own, then brought it to his face. “Yeah, all that was on you. But not this.”

Calay hiked up an eyebrow. “Thanks, I think.”

Gaz kissed his knuckle, the same spot where the tiny purple flowers had bloomed.

“I’ve been thinking.” Calay cleared his throat, able to rein in his emotions once more. “About what you said. You remember back when we first took this contract? You said sooner or later, we’d have to stop running and actually establish cover.”

“Sounds like something smart I’d say,” Gaz’s tone was glib. He had yet to relinquish Calay’s hand. Calay found he didn’t mind.

“Well… what if we stopped running? What if we… stayed here.” When he said it aloud, it sounded like an utterly foreign concept. Like a combination of words spoken by someone who wasn’t fluent in common. Like nonsense.

Staying in Adelheim was a stupid idea. Not because it was dangerous–Calay reasoned it was likely rather safe. They were far from the Leycenate’s reach and Adelheim itself was such a spit-fleck on the map that any would-be prizehunters would have to travel far off the beaten tracks to even sniff it out.

No, staying in Adelheim was a stupid idea because of Riss. Because of what her company knew of them. Instinct, conventional wisdom, common sense, everything Calay knew told him that staying put in a place where someone knew his secret was bad news. They’d parted ways in the castle atrium on good enough terms, he’d thought. Riss understood that he’d given her Vosk as a favor. Adalgis had his own reasons for behaving. Torcha… well, Torcha was an odd case. All he could say for certain was that he knew she had no designs to kill him anymore.

But… Calay looked around the room, studying the heavy stone walls and the patterned tapestries that dampened their chill. One of them depicted a row of farmers bent over yam hills, digging out yams and looking far too thrilled about it. He admired the gleam of the copper bathtub, the shine of the oil lamps. He sagged back against the warm, solid weight of Gaz against him in a real, timber-framed bed with a feather-stuffed mattress. They had clean sheets. Warm food. Solid walls between them and the outside world.

If he allowed himself a moment of vulnerability to reflect on why, he knew the answer: this was the safest he’d felt since they’d fled.

“We could stay, sure,” Gaz said, his answer simple and offhand. Like Calay hadn’t just proposed something momentous. Like he hadn’t just suggested a betrayal of their entire strategy. He said it like the choice meant nothing to him, like he was happy to go along with whatever Calay decided.

“It’s a bad idea.” Calay never could help arguing with himself.

“Maybe.” Gaz’s tone of voice didn’t change.

“What would we even do?” They’d have australs to last a while after Riss paid them out. But there was no work here. Riss and Adal and Torcha, they at least had the option of joining the Baron’s garrison. Calay was not a soldier. He never would be. Hated the very idea.

“I’m sure a physik could find work anywhere.”

“A physik with one hand who has to hide his bone arm from his patients?”

In response to that, Gaz lifted Calay’s ruined hand to his mouth again and calmly kissed his palm. The sensation was damnably pleasant. Calay had wondered how much feeling he’d ever regain there, but he’d only considered it in terms of pain or temperature or pressure.

“We could get you a glove.” Gaz hitched a one-shouldered shrug.

“You seem so unbothered by any of this.” Calay brushed his hair out of his eyes, gazing up at Gaz in the waning lamplight. His broad, heavy-featured face was lax with calm. A hint of a smile curved his mouth in the most unconscious way. It had been a long time since Calay had felt as free as Gaz looked.

“I can let it bother me in the morning.” Gaz’s answer had a relaxed finality to it. “Right now I feel… pretty good. I’d rather just enjoy that.”

He made it sound so easy. Calay tucked himself more fully into the loose embrace that held him, sighing and attempting to banish every last scheme from his head.

“I think I said I want to stay because I feel good too,” he mumbled into Gaz’s forearm. “And… maybe if we don’t leave, we can just… keep feeling good.”

Perhaps they could disappear into the belly of this castle and see it as a sanctuary, not a dungeon. Perhaps he could train himself to be the kind of person who could be happy in a place where yams were a noteworthy enough event to be celebrated in tapestry.

Gaz yawned, stretching his legs and arching his back. He slouched deeper into the soft nest of their bedding, pulling Calay in against his chest. Calay let himself be affectionately manhandled, happy to fall wherever Gaz dropped him.

In all their speculating on the future, they hadn’t addressed what had happened between them. The sudden, explosive nature of it had left Calay reeling a little, though reeling in a satisfied and comfortable way, somehow. He recognized the impulse for what it was–born from the same compulsion that drove him to the bar fight. Some combination of frustration, momentum, pent-up aggression, and let’s face it, standard-issue human horniness. Just like back home, when he hadn’t been able to get it out of his system one way, he’d found another. In Vasile it had been nights at the Gilded Hand. Here in Adelheim, it was apparently… this.

Hellpits, he had some messes to clean up and he couldn’t stop making new ones.

Soft snoring reached his ears as Gaz drifted off. Calay considered blowing out the lamp, but that would mean moving. So instead he just turned his face away from the light, eyes closing.

Gaz was right. They’d discuss the repercussions of whatever this was in the morning.

The world was soft and warm and slow. Perhaps, for a time, there could be peace.

###

What a feeling it is to simply let go.

Since the day Alfend Linten disappeared, since the day he inherited the mantle of sorcerer and doctor at once, forced yet again to grow up too soon, this thing has been building in him. It’s pressure, it’s steam, it’s a kettle nestled in a fire’s coals. The pressure built in him through the riots in the Vasa streets, when he did his best to tend to those the Leycenate had set their dogs upon. Mauled in life by the jaws of the city, then mauled in death by teeth that were less metaphorical.

It built in him further as they picked his empire apart bone by bone, dismantling the things he’d built and all the good they’d set out to do. Yes, he’d overreached. Yes, he’d caused harm. He wasn’t innocent. But none of them were either.

From the day he was born, he’d never been as free as the moment he stepped out of that cell.

They lead him out of the twisting, turning guts of Leycenate House’s dungeons. He’s in the square now, and it’s packed with people. Some sprawl up onto the monument’s stairs, sitting at the feet of the Founders for a better view. The Founders’ brassy, blank stares are turned toward the sea, as if even in statue form they won’t stoop to pay him any attention.

Get on with it, he wants to say. But they’ve stuffed a gag in his mouth. They’ve also bound his hands behind his back, unaware of the futility of such precautions. Watchmen march him through the crowd, which is packed elbow-to-elbow. Toward the rear of the teeming mass, someone’s erected seating for the Landed Lords and Ladies. He doesn’t dignify the stands with a glance, wondering instead how exactly to best mime the face of a man condemned.

He only has to pretend a little longer.

They drag him beneath the sprawl of the Gallows Tree, the old gnarled presence that has lurked in the Square since history can remember. It’s ancient. It’s dead. Its twisted boughs throw writhing, tentacular shadows on the aged stone, but Calay isn’t scared of it. He grits his teeth into the rag that gags him, biding his time.

As they haul him up onto a stool, some dignitary whose name he can’t remember bellows out his crimes. It’s a satisfyingly lengthy list. The crier imbues the words with appropriate menace. He flits the tiniest glance off toward the Landed in their marquee. Shame Lady Rovelenne couldn’t join you, he wishes he could say.

He does not search the crowd for his friends. Doesn’t want the memory of their haunted eyes to wake him at night. Gaz is out there somewhere. Syl, too. And he imagines Loy might be there, if only because watching him die would be of scientific curiosity.

Turn away, he wishes he could tell them. You don’t need to watch this part. It’ll all be over in a minute. Right now, they’re holding their breaths and awaiting something awful. They don’t know they’re watching a magic trick. Don’t know the coin’s about to reappear in their palm, safe and sound.

The dignitary doesn’t offer him the chance to say any last words. He loops the noose around Calay’s throat like a man helping a child learn to tie a scarf–gentle, careful.

He curls his hands into fists, testing the binds at his back. They’d be enough for most men, but he’s no mere man. All the long nights in darkness and captivity, they were mitigated by the knowledge that the fuckers upstairs had no idea what they were dealing with.

They read out his sentence and kick the stool out from under his feet without further ceremony. A roar rises up from the crowd. He likes to think some of them sound upset.

He falls. He flexes his arms. With a hard twist and a sudden snap, the ropes at his back fray and burst apart. The noose bites in. His head whips back. It hurts, but only for a minute. It should have broken his neck, but it doesn’t. He reaches up for the rope around his throat and summons the strength he was hiding, the blood-fortified power and potency–

When he pulls on the rope, the whole bough shudders. It cracks at the base, drooping down from the tree. Hollow, old, unstable, it snaps off from the trunk and falls into Calay’s waiting hand. A gasp rises from the crowd. Bodies warily retreat. Watchmen scramble for their rifles.

Calay snaps off a smaller branch and whips it through the air, smashing it into the temple of the man who hanged him. When he falls, Calay is on him in an instant, scooping his fingers into the wound that gushes from his scalp.

He paints his face. Light sizzles through the air. There was enough blood in a rat, but there’s a lot more in a man.

###

Calay’s heart was still pounding when he woke. That particular dream hadn’t accosted him in a while. Breathing out hard, he tried to wipe at his face but found that Gaz was slumbering on his good arm, snoringly oblivious.

Sighing, he counted heartbeats in his mind, slowed his breath deliberately until everything settled down. When he closed his eyes, he could already feel the stirrings of paranoia and agitation, the doubt creeping in to erode at the calm he’d felt when he and Gaz discussed their future.

He tried to recapture that hopefulness, that restful feeling. It slipped through his fingers like the details of his dream, which receded until all they left him with was a vague throb of adrenaline in his chest and a sneaking suspicion that they had to keep moving. Or else.

<< Chapter 60 | Chapter 62 >>

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