Book 2, Chapter 14

“And it’s a good thing that Petrilo dug, too.” The old woman, Mosz, leaned forward in her sling chair as her story entered the home stretch. “When his fingers cracked through the salt, he heard down below him the scratch and drag of the lang-dolac’s footsteps. In a frantic scramble, Petrilo dug his way free. He smashed through the salt, pushing his head through like a bird hatching from an egg. He took his first breath of fresh dawn air. Then he wriggled his shoulders free.

“His imagination filled his head with thoughts of sharp, cold bones grabbing at his ankles as he dragged himself up and onto the salt. The scratching beneath him drew nearer, nearer…” The old woman bounced her thick grey brows a single time. “But it never breached the surface. That day, Petrilo discovered something that would serve his people for generations to come: things bewitched can’t cross the barrier between salt and sky.”

She hesitated for a moment on that note, allowing those gathered around the fire to absorb that wisdom. Calay hadn’t noticed that he’d been holding his breath, but he released it in a slow exhale. He’d been hanging on her every word.

“These restless bones walking beneath the salt, these creatures, some say this explains the poison.” Mosz gestured with a gnarled hand. “Why some colors of salt turn you ill.”

Calay spent a long while pondering her words. At first he’d been ready to dismiss the story as an old wives’ tale–literally, given the age of the woman telling it. If certain varieties of salt from the Flats made people sick when they ingested it, that must be due to the chemical composition. Something in it turned the stomach. That could be useful in medicine, he knew–emetic powders were tough to measure, difficult to come by in Vasile. Expensive compared to the mostly-effective if crude method of suggesting a nauseous patient consume charcoal.

Now, though, he found his mind open to more unnatural possibilities. The swamp at Adelheim had changed him. No alterations in chemical composition could explain the way those trees moved. Or the strange mental connection that withered corpse had opened between he and Gaz and Torcha. The blinking motes of light inside his consciousness, little eyes opening and closing in the swamp like so many doors.

He knew it was silly that those experiences had shaken him so fundamentally. He was a sorcerer, for fuck’s sake. But the thing about sorcery that regular humans didn’t understand was that sorcery was simply a language. Sorcery had rules. Calay’s magicks sometimes had effects that weren’t as powerful as anticipated. Rarely they exceeded his expectations. Sometimes a new combination of glyphs had an effect that wasn’t quite what he was aiming for. But by and large, sorcery was simple mechanics. It was levers and wheels. It behaved in a predictable way that he could rely upon when needed.

If Alfend Linten’s teachings had opened Calay’s eyes, the last year of his life had opened a third one. 

There were things out there beyond his understanding. Beyond medicine. Beyond anatomy. Possibly even beyond sorcery. A campfire tale of forgotten bones doomed to shuffle eternally beneath the salt, poisoning everything above it… good, spooky entertainment though it might have been, Calay was unable to fully write the idea off.

Mosz’s son–or was it her brother?–passed around a bottle of something strong, a tart red liquor. Everyone took a parting swig and thanked the elder woman for her story. Calay left Riss to sort out the watch schedules and left Adal to dole out dessert.

He stood at the very fringe of the fire’s light, face turned toward the stars. Closing his eyes, he tried to clear his mind. Tried to focus on the gentle rasp of wind over salt, the crackle of the fire. Tried to figure out if he could sense anything. He was a sorcerer; surely if there was anything mystical or unusual about these parts, he should be able to tell.

All he felt was a little chilly, frankly. His road clothes were loose, breathable, comfortable for the hot confines of the wagon. But the hot desert turned brisk at night. 

The stars, though. They sure were something out here. It was silly, he knew, to be so constantly taken aback by the flatness of a region called the Alkali Flats. And yet he was. He’d never been in a place so flat. Even the widest squares in Vasile were nothing by comparison. There wasn’t a tree in sight, nor any hills or mountains. The old woman had said they’d spy the mountains by tomorrow. For now, there was nothing to indicate any one direction differed from another. Just the sun and the stars–far more stars than he was accustomed to seeing even when out of doors. Whole ribbons of them, little waterfalls of faint light that rippled across the sky.

Solid footsteps crunched at his back. He glanced over, expected to find Gaz towering at his side. Intead, to his surprise, it was Mosz who’d joined him. She wasn’t much taller than him, but her heavy feet had fooled him.

“You have a look to you,” she declared. Her tone of voice didn’t reveal whether she thought that was a good thing or a bad thing. 

Calay said nothing, merely tilted his head, inviting her to explain.

“A quiet man with a loud mind,” she said. Her tone had a vague, world-weary sympathy to it, as if his was a problem suffered by a loved one or Mosz herself.

You don’t know me, Calay nearly snapped. But he restrained himself. The Beddos were, for the time being, their traveling companions. They’d engaged in no suspicious behavior. And he had to grudgingly admit that he’d enjoyed the lively story that Mosz had told, had enjoyed following Petrilo’s ups and downs.

“It’s been a long ride,” Calay conceded. “For many months before this one.”

If he were the type to share that sort of thing, he might have elaborated further on the strange feelings the Flats conjured in him. The way the vast, empty bigness of nature made him feel disconcertingly small. How the lack of walls triggered some primal, ancient prey mentality in the back of his mind. A constant low-key warning to run run run, because there was no shelter, because he was out in the open like a plump mouse in a barren field, cluelessly unaware of the circling hawks overhead.

Calay had always preferred to see himself as the hawk. He hated that vulnerability.

“Where I come from,” he told the woman instead. “It’s easy to see where you fit. Out here…” Too much horizon, too much space, it blurred the edges of everything together.

“Out here a man is alone with his own bones,” said Mosz. “Just your bones and the sky.”

That sent a little twitch through Calay’s shoulders. “Right,” he said.

“We have something that can help you sleep,” she offered. “Bottle of black spirits. Tastes of salted liquorice and calming mixed herbs.”

That sounded like an intriguing flavor profile. Calay wasn’t entirely sure. But then again, he could afford it. And they had a wagon to haul it. And building a bit of extra goodwill with these traders seemed like a smart move. All those justifications stacked up and he passed Mosz a handful of australs. She met him at the door to his wagon a few minutes later, waddling back with a skinny, long-necked glass bottle. She patted the back of his gloved hand as she passed it over, promising him pleasant dreams.

“Uh, thanks,” he said, unsure how to react to any of that. 

If she felt anything abnormal beneath the kidskin of his glove, she didn’t comment. She didn’t even glance down.

Everyone retreated to their respective wagons for the night. Calay didn’t trouble himself with the specifics of who was keeping which watch–he figured someone would wake him when it was his turn. There was a time not many years ago when he’d have never been able to take such a hands-off approach to his own safety. A time when he’d have insisted on first watch to take a measure of everyone else. To watch his own back.

Was he growing that comfortable with his companions or was he merely confident that none of them could kill him? He supposed he’d never know the answer to that.

When his brain got too thoughtful or the world got too weird, he had only one thing to do. He sought out the familiar, the calming. 

Gaz was alone in the second floor barracks when Calay finally found him. The big, thick-walled wagon was generous with its space. You could hardly guess five people slept aboard. 

“I have a mystery drink from our caravan companions,” Calay announced when he strolled in. “Pleasant dreams or your money back.”

Gaz, who was in the process of making up his bunk, finished shaking out a quilt. The skinny mattress of the bunk was built into a recess in the wall, an awkward shape and size. He hovered the quilt over it as though unsure which angle from which to attack.

“My dreams are already nice,” he said casually, without looking up. Finally, he just draped the quilt into place and left it there with a big, pensive shrug.

“Well aren’t you blessed.”  Calay rummaged around in the nook at the rear of the barracks, searching for a glass. 

“I like to think so.”

By the time Calay had located the pair of cups, Gaz had made up his bed for the night and taken up a seat beside the closest window. There weren’t any window slits or portholes beside the bunks. This made sense for safety and security purposes, Calay knew, but at the same time he understood his friend’s desire to have eyes on the sky. Being cooped up in a wagon in a strange wilderness with no sense of one’s place or position in the world made him uneasy. With all the shades drawn down, you couldn’t even tell the time of day.

“I wonder if this is how it is when you’re at sea,” Calay said. He poured two slim measures of thick, shiny black liquor and pressed one into Gaz’s hand.

“Think this place would be awful cramped if we were.” Gaz took the liquor, sniffed it. “Loy says sleeping on a ship is a nightmare. Everyone’s shoulder to shoulder in tiny hammocks. Ship’s only big enough to sleep a third of her crew at once.”

That was the first time he’d discussed Loy in such depth for… well, since they’d left her. Calay couldn’t even articulate how much had changed since then. He felt an impetus to apologize then, to tell Gaz that he knew how badly he’d misjudged his feelings for Loy and that he was sorry, truly sorry, for the cruel things he’d said.

But the funny thing about all those years, all that distance, was that he found the more he thought about it, the more it didn’t matter. Was it worth apologizing for something that occurred an emotional lifetime ago? Was a sincere apology worth doing if you had to tug open old wounds to do it? At what point did one outweigh the other? These, too, Calay figured he’d never know the answer to.

“I meant more the… spatial strangeness of it,” he said, staying focused on boats. “Having a sense of motion without a sense of place. Feeling the wheels moving without being able to see where you’re going or even where you are.”

Gaz sipped his liquor, then made a pleased noise. “Nice,” he said. “And… that part is horrible, yeah.”

Calay glanced down and discovered his cup was empty. He’d slugged his own drink down without even tasting it. Or noticing he’d done it. Too many questions rattling around in his head. 

“We’d be terrible sailors,” he said as he poured himself another drink.

Footsteps creaked quietly across the roof. Calay paused, glancing up, but soon he knew the heel-heavy stomps as Torcha’s. Then Adal’s, tapping with his toes. Riss was the only one he didn’t hear yet; she rolled her feet a little when she walked, a hint of the recon bowman’s woodlands crawl never having left her. When he heard these patterns, he found them calming.

She joined the pair a moment later, strolling sedately across the roof.

Gaz’s features were inscrutable as he studied the Flats outside the window. Or perhaps the stars. There were all sorts of questions and conversations that could have filled these quiet moments, yet the stark state of the land outside seemed to request his silence. Involuntarily, his thoughts snapped back to the sharp sizzle of connection, the flood of racing thoughts and sensation he’d felt from Gaz and Torcha both when they’d touched hands with the Collective. The Bridging. 

This flat, empty place seemed to stretch every human connection thinner. Its silence and stillness wedged into the gaps between people, encouraging vastness between them.

Calay had a lot of questions he could have asked. Were apologies worth it if they unearthed old hurts? Was he starting to call these familiar footsteps his friends? When exactly was one of them going to cave and broach the subject of what are we, exactly, these days? 

Yet as he studied the fire through the window and watched the flames flicker, all that came to mind was a sinister interpretation of the Flats’ quiet. This quiet is trying to spread us out, he thought. Because it’s easier to pick us off one by one. 

He tasted his drink by the third glass. It didn’t quite tuck him into a cozy liquorice bed the way Mosz promised, but it did help him sleep. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 13 | To Be Continued >>

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Book 2, Chapter 13

If you’re looking for a story of the Flats to pass around at night, there is none quite like the story of the salt-digger Petrilo. Years and years ago, when the wave of the First Wasting spread across the maps, many in the Flats grew ill. Petrilo, a young man of only seventeen, was sent into the vast and uncaring salt to seek a burial place for his ailing parents. 

A plague creeping its way across the Continent, his own parents perilously ill, you would think Petrilo was juggling enough problems. But his trials were only just beginning.

###

Petrilo shuddered, trying to catch his breath without slowing down. He’d been walking for hours, ever since his horse had finally given out a few miles back. The sun had since dipped below the horizon, but still the Flats radiated heat up into his face. Sweat poured down his brow, the bottoms of his feet throbbed in his rawhide boots, and a persistent ache in his side stabbed toward his lungs with each breath he choked down.

Still he kept walking. And he only walked because he’d run out of stamina to run.

Still the forgotten bones pursued him.

Bleached white by the unforgiving desert sun, the bones had rested in a neat and fleshless pile when he’d first rode past. The salt was well on its way to subsuming them, glittering in multifaceted crystals. Petrilo spared no worries for the old ways, for the stories his grandmother had told him growing up. The stories about how bones in this part of the world don’t stay still unless properly interred. He didn’t ride close for the purpose of inspecting them, nor out of a sense of deliberate disrespect… but he rode too close regardless.

He woke them.

The clatter at his back had spurred his horse into a frenzied gallop. It ran until it dropped dead. Yet no matter how fast it ran, each time Petrilo looked over his shoulder, a lurching silhouette studded with shining crystals loomed in the distance behind him.

A lang-dolac. Bones, once forgotten, now spiteful.

Petrilo couldn’t bear to look back. He couldn’t stand the sight of the thing, the way its head drooped in a painful-looking wobble, weighted down by salt. The way it moved, unnatural and swaying, bobbing like an owl swallowing a mouse. 

He could hear it, could tell its nearness by the drag of its club foot across the salt. Each dragging skrrrtch sent a fresh tremor of fear through him, stabs of fright and breathlessness all but cleaving his chest in two.

It was too late to send a prayer up to his grandmother, to apologise for his foolishness. He’d set out to search for a burial plot for his parents, burdened with illness back at camp, but it seemed he’d only found his own grave. 

Something caught his eye: a shadow on the horizon, too persistent to be a trick of the light or a side effect of his exhaustion. 

The only thing that could save Petrilo now was a shelter, some fortress the lang-dolac couldn’t tear apart with its bony forelimbs. A shadow on the ground wasn’t that. But it at least gave him something to focus on, some target to strive toward. Forcing down a struggling breath, Petrilo redoubled his efforts and broke out into a slow jog, salt crunching under his soles.

A ribbon of black stretched across the horizon, opening up as he struggled closer. Soon, his eyes could pick out enough detail and perceive enough depth that he recognized it as a chasm in the ground. Several hundred handspans long, the rend in the earth was a pitch-black hole, its jagged edges like a wound torn by dogs’ teeth. 

If he could find a crevice narrow enough to wriggle into, it might buy him time. The bone and crystal creature loomed as tall as a horse, its bony limbs thick with inches of crusted salt. Petrilo was smaller, nimbler, and if he could find a narrow place to hide…

His shoes reached the ravine’s edge. Panting, he peered down into the dark. He could scarcely see a thing. 

Behind him, the salt skrrrtch-ed with each dragging footstep the creature took.

Petrilo couldn’t help it. He looked back. 

A jagged, dark skeleton on the horizon, the lang-dolac trudged resolutely forward, walking with ageless patience. It dragged one of its arms now, too. Doubled over, it resembled a hideous, lopsided monkey, its jaw nearly scraping the salty earth. The salt crystals that studded its bones glowed subtly, lit from within by a ghostly bluish light.

Petrilo stared, jaw agape, as the creature lifted its head. He felt rather than saw it make eye contact. Blue fire blazed to life in its crystal-edged eye sockets.

Yelping, Petrilo threw himself over the edge of the ravine. He sought footholds at an awkward scrabble, more sliding than climbing, spurred forward by an adrenal surge of pure terror. His hands scraped at rocks and missed. Sharp stone shredded his tunic and pierced through one sole of his shoes. By the time he hit the bottom, he was more falling than climbing, battered and scraped.

Above him, a sliver of sky glowed with starlight, threads of purple and vivid blue blotched across the murky black.

He took a moment to catch his breath, dry-mouthed and panting. Then he reached into his sling, seeking a torch. He’d pushed his arms to the limit on the climb and now he paid the price: his hands trembled, unwilling to comply with his brain’s demands. Finally, he fished out his flint and struck a light, already edging away from the cliff he’d climbed down.

Red-brown stone walls held him in a close embrace, just enough space between them to shimmy through. He picked a direction at random, working his way through the tight-fitting slot canyon. Within moments, he heard it at his back: a far-off, distance-muffled skirrrrrr-ch.

Shoving forward, he launched through the slot canyon as quick as his feet could carry him, uncaring of the sting when stone scraped at his shins and elbows. There was a tumbling clatter-clack behind him as the creature threw itself into the ravine, mindless of pain or damage in its single-minded pursuit of him.

Just as he was growing out of breath once more, Petrilo spied an opening in the sheer stone wall: a thin crack of cave, just the sort of passageway he’d hoped he could wriggle into, far too short for the lang-dolac to crawl inside. 

Drawing in a breath and turning his shoulders sideways, Petrilo squeezed inside. He had to hold his torch at an awkward angle, the flames guttering each time they brushed against hard stone. He crept as quietly as he could, taking the narrow passage deep into the wall of the ravine. The narrow passage twisted and turned, sloping downward, and soon he could no longer see the sky. It was as though the earth had swallowed him, pushed him down its rough stone esophagus.

His pulse slowed, then his footsteps did likewise. Aching all over, he leaned against the cavern wall and exhaled harshly. The creature could no longer see the light from his torch; with luck, it would pass him by entirely. Could it smell? Could it hear? How was it tracking him, anyway? The old stories, they never had pertinent information about how their horrors hunted. The thought sent a dry, dusty laugh bubbling out of Petrilo’s chest, though he muffled it with a fist.

He began to wonder how long he should stay put, how long he could hide down here before he could be sure the creature wandered off. Though he was still aware of his fear, with each minute of silence that passed, it grew a little further away. And with that distance came clarity: he could survive this. He would survive this. Soon, this would be just another story passed among his aunties and uncles at the fireside. 

Reaching back into his sling, Petrilo splashed a scant measure of water into his mouth. He said a silent prayer of thanks to Mother Salt and Father Water. Each year it seemed the young along the salt trails believed in Mother and Father less, but Petrilo wanted to cover all his bases. If anyone actually intervened back there, he thought, thanks. Then he chuckled to himself. What his grandmother would say if she’d heard him praying such foolishness. His chuckle died in his throat. She’d probably get the belt, is what she’d do. A devout woman for all her days–

Distorted by the high stone walls, a horrible crack echoed down the corridor. Followed by another. And another. It was the sound of a buzzard’s beak rending carrion apart. The sound a horse’s hooves made when they trampled a man to death. A twisting, pulling, rending-apart sound, a louder version of the crunch when Petrilo snapped at the ribs of roast suckling piglets.

Then came the dragging. Skrrrtch. 

Stowing his water immediately, Petrilo shoved off the wall and started scrambling down the stony passage anew. How had the creature found him? He’d been so quiet, so still… It must be smell, he reasoned. Or some innate sixth sense. A glowing monster of crystal and bone? Perhaps it could hear his very heartbeat. Or his thoughts. He was a fool to think he’d outwitted it.

When one of his calves seized up with cramp, he ignored the pain. Then, to his eternal, cursing frustration, the narrow tunnel broadened up before him. The crack broke through into a cavern proper, the big footstep-echoing kind with dripping stalactites and bands of darker color rippling through the reddish stone. He’d have taken a moment to appreciate the marbled beauty of it were it not for death snapping at his heels.

And now, in this bigger space, the lang-dolac would be able to move about freely. 

Petrilo’s fingers trembled on the shaft of his torch. The rough-walled chamber was so broad that the torchlight didn’t reach its far walls. He put a hand to his heart, murmured a small prayer to quiet its frenzied beating. The torch wouldn’t be an asset here. It would be a beacon, drawing the creature toward him in such a visible, open space.

An idea occurred to him. Edging as quick as he could along the cavern wall, he sought out a narrow passageway to the left. He navigated the first turn in its corridor, then paused. If this idea worked, it would buy him time. Time to do what his brain hadn’t exactly decided, but time was what he needed.

There were many members of Petrilo’s family who were famed for their smarts. His grandmother and grandfather, for example, had dedicated their lives to studying the game trails and migratory patterns of the Flats’ native creatures. Their study combined with the other families’ hunting and trapping techniques had ushered his people into an era of modest prosperity. They’d sired six children between the two of them, and of the four who survived to adulthood, all were hailed as quick thinkers and solvers of problems. His own father was a leatherworker, already one of the camp’s best despite his comparatively young age. 

This was all to say that in Petrilo’s youth, there had always been an expectation placed upon him. The burden of future success had weighed him down through the many failures of his childhood. Each time he failed to achieve something great or woke one morning thinking he’d come up with some genius only to discover it was a bold, idiotic stinker of an idea, he feared more and more that he’d inherited none of the mettle and wit that graced his lineage.

In that moment, when he dropped his torch and left it guttering on the ground, Petrilo didn’t know it, but he was making his smartest decision yet. 

Picking a tense, quiet path back into the main cavern, Petrilo sought off in the opposite direction to the light. He could only hope the lang-dolac was tempted by his cunning lure. He could hear it, if he paused and strained itself. The scrape of its footsteps was uneven now, sharper than before. 

Creeping to the far right side of the cavern, Petrilo ducked down a passageway, guiding himself by feel alone. He’d glimpsed his options in the torchlight back when he had it. Unfortunately, that hadn’t been long enough to make a mental map of ground hazards or low-hanging stalactites, but he swept his hands out before him like a man in a dust storm, slowly inching along without maiming himself.

Time melted away to an abstract, far-off concept. All that mattered was putting distance between himself and the old bones before they figured out his ruse. It occurred to him at some point that he’d been creeping along in total blackness for at least an hour. Maybe more. It felt like forever. So he began to count in his mind, so at least he had some measure of how long had passed. The counting served a second purpose, too: it distracted his mind from obsessing over his ears, from straining hard to hear the rasp of the creature’s footsteps coming for him. 

His counting passed one hundred. Two hundred. Three. Still, he had yet to hear the creature. He also had yet to find a way out for himself, but that was a secondary concern. Petrilo had heard tales in his youth of men lost in the wilderness, how quickly they died up top from water-lack. Here, though, he was down below. And he had water on his person. By lost wilderness person standards, he was a prince. 

His count had reached sixteen hundred and eighty when he passed beneath the light.

Blinking and startling back, Petrilo turned his eyes toward the cavern ceiling. Faint pink light warmed the passageway from above. The tunnel itself was three times Petrilo’s height, perhaps taller at its apex, but in the faint new light provided from up top, he could spy great, thick stalactites spearing down from the ceiling like teeth.

Climbing to the light would be trivial. For a moment, he wondered if he should. But instinct quashed that thought quickly: light could only come from one source out here, in this place where nothing was man-made. Light meant the sun. Meant a way out.

So Petrilo climbed. He whipped his sling back over a shoulder and shimmed up the closest stalagmite, gaining a few handspans of elevation. Then he swung a foot out, bracing himself between two of the narrow stone pillars. He shimmed up between them, climbing like a lemur, then swung onto the stalactite proper, inching his way up it while hugging it with both arms. It was slower going than this description makes it sound, friends. Petrilo wasn’t quite a great thinker like his parents, but woe be to him, he was not a great athlete either. Still, he persisted upward. 

And a good thing, too. Because after many minutes of slow, persistent climbing, he heard the first telltale kerrrrshkt down the tunnel. 

His heart fell down into his toes. How could the creature have possibly found him? He’d lured it away. He’d been creeping along for hours. There was simply no way.

Yet his ears did not betray him. He heard another dragging footstep, then another. He had no way of knowing how far off they were.

So Petrilo climbed with renewed urgency, inching his way up toward the ceiling of the cave. He discovered the source of the light only when he neared it: the first rays of sunlight peeking through a hard-caked layer of salt. The rosy glow of dawn filtered through hundreds upon hundreds of tiny salt crystals, tinging his skin pink and all the surrounding stone with it–it was among the most beautiful sights Petrilo had ever seen. He paused for a breath, as if hoping to absorb the sunlight’s splendor, and for a brief, beautiful moment it drove all thoughts and worries of the creature from his mind.

Skrrrrch. That didn’t last long. 

Whipping a hand out behind him, Petrilo reached into his sling. He withdrew his digging stick, a sharp-tipped whittled antler used to break up clumps of salt when foraging.

Petrilo had been digging salt his whole life. This was something he knew. 

Slow, persistent, careful to conserve his strength, he began to dig toward the light. He dug for his life. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 12 | Book 2, Chapter 14 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 12

(Author’s note – Sorry this update came late! I’ve experienced a time zone change when transiting from NZ to Portugal and I lost a day!)

Riss’ suspicions about the ravine route proved correct. When they roused themselves in the morning and drifted into the closest pub for a hot breakfast, she found that there were around two dozen travelers just like herself who were preparing to make the same journey.

They took bowls of savory rice porridge at the end of a long communal table. Riss took a bite of the thick, glutinous stuff and tried to pick out all the fillings by flavor: two types of onion, some sort of nutty tasting root, and of course the sticky yolk of the soft-fried egg on top. After days of road food, the meal was a welcome luxury.

Adal found a stumpy, scar-faced woman further down their table and introduced her to Riss as a caravan master.

“Her folk are heading the same way as us,” he said to Riss. Then to his new friend, he said, “I thought I’d see how you felt about caravaning together.”

“Safety in numbers,” the woman said through a thick Plateau accent. They flattened all their vowels in the plateau up past Carbec, pronouncing every sound like an ‘e.’

Riss scratched at an eye, digging sleep grit out with her thumb. “I thought if those scorpions caught up to us numbers wouldn’t matter.”

The woman cocked a look up at her, unimpressed. “More dangers in the Flats than scorpions, Carbecer.”

Riss smiled a little. The Plateau region where this caravan boss hailed from, it wasn’t far from the steppes where she’d grown up. Just that tiny thread of familiarity was enough to put Riss at ease regarding the prospect of traveling together. Besides, the more practical and paranoid part of her reasoned, if they try to jump us, it’s their funeral.

“How many tagging along with you?” Riss relaxed her speech a little, let her hometown roughen up her syllables.

“Six,” said the woman. “Two outriders on horseback, the rest of us in our wagon. All family. Big, fast horses. But we’ll pace them so we don’t outrun you.” A wink flashed in the depths of her squinty, pox-scarred face.

They spat and shook on it, then Riss turned her focus toward finishing her porridge before it cooled. Nobody liked a cold fried egg.

###

Everyone who set off from Esilio that morning took slightly different routes. The Beddo clan, whose names Riss was struggling to keep straight due to the hurried nature of their introduction, were the only ones who stuck close by. Every mile or so, more riders peeled off on their own routes. After a few hours’ travel, the Beddos’ small trader wagon before them was their only company. 

Riss, currently playing navigator while Adal steered the lizard, took a sip from her canteen.

“I still feel weird about this,” she admitted. “But if all these other travelers are chancing it, we aren’t risking ourselves unnecessarily.” Not that large groups of people couldn’t make stupid decisions. Far from it, in Riss’ experience. But these were locals, people who knew the route. The elder Beddo woman, Mosz, had placated her worries with a dismissive grunt. In a rig like that? With lizard that size? You’ll get to the ravine a full day before any danger. 

Riss found that if she listened to her gut, she felt quietly confident. And unlike their last excursion far from home, self-doubt no longer plagued her every thought. In the year since Adelheim, she’d cultivated a wary, callused sort of confidence. 

“Feeling weird is natural,” Adal said, echoing her thoughts even as she thought them. “You’re in unfamiliar territory traveling with strangers. Frankly I’d be concerned if you felt indifferent.”

It was nice hearing horses again. The clop of their hooves on salt rose up from the compact, gaudy wagon ahead of them. As the sun cleared up over the ever-present haze of horizon dust, it glinted off the metallic paint splashed in curlicues along the wagon’s trim. Riss noted it had a fold-out panel up one side. Traveling merchant families like the Beddos, operating a family store out of the same wagon they lived in, had been a staple of Riss’ childhood. Over the years, the popularity of the profession had waned. As firearms grew cheaper and easier to use, their proliferation had caused a staggering rise in general banditry. Far, far easier to be a highwayman if you could just blast a hole in anyone who didn’t comply with you.

Anyone that old still running a trade wagon had seen some shit. Riss smiled a little to herself.

“They mention what they’re hauling?” she asked.

“Spirits, apparently. They’re distillers. Just made a delivery to Esilio.”

Wood creaked behind them. Riss heard a series of light, thumping footsteps wandering around on the roof, then the murmur of idle conversation.

“Say,” came Calay’s voice from above. “How will we actually know what to look for when keeping an eye out for scorpions? Can you even see scorpions from that far away?”

“That’s why I’ve got a spyglass,” Torcha answered. “I might even let you use it.”

“Might?”

“Well you’ll owe me a favor…”

Riss relaxed, pulling the sun-shade down so that it fully shielded her. High sun in the Flats was going to be brutal. But for now, the morning was shaping up to be a damn nice one.

###

Tempting as it was to push on through the night, the Beddos’ horses didn’t have the stamina. Riss wondered for a moment if it was at all feasible to park the smaller wagon and its team inside her war-wagon–she was fairly certain it would fit in the cargo hold–but in the end, that sounded like a lot of work. When she suggested the idea to Mosz, the elderly woman just laughed. She promised Riss they had plenty of time.

“Besides,” she said. “Surely your eyes are getting tired. You deserve rest as much as any horse.”

Riss had to concede that.

So they circled their wagons, as best as two wagons could form a circle. One of the younger Beddos built a bonfire; Gaz and Adal sorted out contributions to a group meal: boiled sweet potatoes and venison shanks with gravy. Afterward, they got a bread pudding cooking. Adal was certain they had just enough milk left over for a caramel sauce, but he wasn’t entirely sure he remembered how to make it. Riss chuckled as she listened to him recite the recipe, mumbling under his breath while sorting through tins and boxes.

“Surprised you can cook anything at all,” Calay teased him. “Wasn’t that a job for your servants?”

Adal rolled his eyes. “I’ll have you know I’ve been living on my own for over a third of my life, thank you.”

Riss relaxed back, looking up at the stars. There were fewer visible than she thought there would be, given the lack of city light. That ever-present haze of salty dust made visibility difficult the further off one looked. Sure didn’t seem like a rainy season was coming or going. Everything was dry as a bone. From where she lounged in her sling-chair, she reached down with two fingers and felt at the salty ground.

“Pretty wild, ain’t it.” Torcha noticed what she was doing. She tapped the heel of a boot against the salty earth. 

“Especially when you consider how expensive salt is up-Continent,” said Riss. “We’d make millions in Vasile if we hacked a bunch of this up and carted it northward.”

Someone made a quiet noise of disagreement. Mosz stomped up behind them, sorting through the contents of a carrying sling she wore over her shoulder.

“Not quite,” she said. “This isn’t good eating salt. Eating salt comes from mines to the north.”

“What’s the difference?” asked Riss. She’d never given salt a second thought beyond using it to cure meats back home when she and her father had killed more than two people could eat or trade.

“Colour,” said Mosz. “And… the salt from the Flats here, sometimes kills you if you eat it.”

Riss blinked hard. “Huh.” Well, that was good to know.

“How?” asked Torcha, turning so that she could give the old woman her full attention.

“You figure that out,” Mosz said, “that’s when you make millions in Vasile. Nobody knows. Years and years ago, stories said it was a curse. But if a curse, it’s a sloppy one. A curse who targets people at random? Lazy curse.”

Riss had to admit she was interested, too. Her childhood had been so isolated, just she and her father off in the plains and later the woods. She’d missed out on all the folklore that lingered in the hills outside Carbec. Apart from people saying his name in passing profanity, she’d never even heard of Adal’s river god until she was in her twenties.

“What kind of stories?” She flashed Mosz a little grin. “Even if you don’t believe them, there’s always a skeleton of truth in those old tales, isn’t there?”

Mosz dragged her chair closer to the fire. She shrugged off her outer two layers, shaking out the baggy dress she wore beneath. Despite the sunspots upon her skin and her evident age, her arms were still wiry with muscle when she rolled up her sleeves. She checked the heavy iron oven within the coals, a sweet custard-and-caramel smell wafting out when she opened it.

“Was a time when I charged hard coin for storytelling,” she said.

Riss patted the coinpurse at her hip. “If you have any bottles of your wares left over after the drop at Esilio,” she said. “We’d take them off your hands. Perhaps you could throw a story or two in as an extra?”

“Cheeky,” said Mosz.

But that must have done the trick, because a moment later she beckoned everyone around the fire. 

And oh, it had been a while since Riss had sat around a fire and heard a real, salt-and-blood elder tell a story. Growing up out where she had, so far removed from both her father and her mother’s families, she’d missed out on such experiences. Later, when she made passing friends in the closest village to her homestead, she’d heard their second and thirdhand accounts, the stories and legends and traditions their families had passed on. It had always left her wanting, aching in a sad strange way for something she couldn’t quite articulate. She wondered if she’d missed out on a fundamental part of growing up.

Perhaps that was why she’d gravitated toward books.

Why she’d gravitated toward Gaspard, an old soldier brimming with stories who wasn’t too aloof to share them with the greenhorns.

Leaning forward in her sling-seat, Riss watched fire and shadow lick across Mosz’s face as she wove her tale. Her voice dropped low during the story’s valleys, rose high during its peaks. 

Soon, every member of the caravan was leaning forward on the edge of their seat, hanging on the old woman’s every word. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 11 | Book 2, Chapter 13 >>

Book 2, Chapter 11

Esilio was bursting at the seams. Adal could scarcely fathom it. For a town the size it was on the map, they’d expected a few hundred people, maybe a thousand. And the permanent structures built into the slope of the foothill looked as though they were meant to accommodate about that number, in line with his expectations.

Yet for some reason, the hamlet teemed with activity. Tents stretched out in every random direction. Every patch of shade, every scrap of shelter from the desert wind was occupied. Wagons were circled on the fringes of the largest encampments; the proper wagonyard was packed. Someone had hastily assembled some lean-tos against the stable, providing shelter for horses that were tied almost shoulder to shoulder.

In their larger-than-average wagon, they had a hell of a time finding somewhere to park. In the end, Riss managed to tuck the thing up against the side of a reddish butte, though their campsite was only sheltered from the wind on one side. She angled the wagon itself to provide a bit more shelter for the galania and a fire, Adal helping direct her from the ground.

“Did I miss a pilgrimage or something?” she asked as she hopped to the ground. 

“I kept an eye out while we were rolling around,” said Adal. “But I can’t figure out for the life of me where all these people hail from or why they’re here.”

The people who walked Esilio’s dirt roads were as varied a bunch as their shacks and tents. Many had the tell-tale dark coloration of Alkali Flats nomads, camped out in clever, easily-transportable shelters. But there were moneyed merchant wagons among their number. And plenty of paler faces that could have come from any one of the northern cities. Apart from the market yards in a major port like Medao, it was as cosmopolitan and diverse a crowd as one could get.

“At first I thought they must be refugees from some conflict I hadn’t heard of,” Riss said. “But we aren’t that uninformed. If a scuffle broke out somewhere and it was large enough to displace this many people, we’d have heard.”

She banged a fist on the wagon’s door, hollering to those inside that they were walking into town. A moment later, Gaz emerged, squeezing his large frame through the small access door with an amusing degree of care.

“Gotta stretch my legs,” he said. “You two mind a tagalong?”

“Hardly.” Riss smiled.

They left the wagon in Calay and Torcha’s hands. Adal was quite confident the two of them could fend off any would-be thieves. Apart from the fact that Calay was the single most dangerous individual he’d ever crossed paths with, he and Torcha would likely scare the piss out of any brigands before they even had to resort to violence.

“Weird,” Gaz said, of the crowd. That was all he said, but it captured Adal’s thoughts on the matter succinctly.

Then the screaming started.

The sudden high, piteous shriek was such a contrast to their peaceful sunset surroundings that at first Adal wondered if his mind was playing tricks on him. Perhaps he’d heard the scream of a diving falcon or the whistle of a kettle or something. But then another scream pierced the still, dry air and Gaz was looking at him sideways with big, wary eyes and he knew he’d heard correct.

It was the sound of a man in absolute agony. Adal’s hand crept to his sidearm.

The family parked by the campfire closest to where they stood glanced up and toward the direction the sound had come from. Interestingly, none of them stiffened or panicked.

“What the…” 

Up ahead, Riss sped up. She jogged the last few steps into the town’s perimeter fence, where several oil lamps aided the fading sun in illuminating the village proper.

A man and a woman hurried up the road, carrying a stretcher between them. Upon it was a shirtless figure, all shriveled skin and straining tendons, curled in against himself and whimpering shrilly. They hustled past Adal in a hurry, so he couldn’t catch much in the way of detail, but he saw the shade of the man’s skin and the shine of sweat on his face. Disease-stricken. He screamed, clutching at the arm of one of his carriers. 

Riss backed up until her boot bumped into Adal’s.

“This is bad,” she said. “This some kind of plague village? I hadn’t heard anything…”

Gaz stepped in closer to them, looming protectively nearby.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “None of the others look sick.”

And once Adal stopped to consider that, he saw it was true. The huddled crowds in their shelters and tents and fires, the kids sitting on the rooftops of the wagons, the old woman fussing with a chicken coop… they’d all stopped to watch the sick man go past, but none of them looked particularly scared of what was happening.

“Is this something we should be helping with?” Gaz stared off down the road in the direction the stretcher had gone. “We have a physik with us…”

That was true enough. Adal looked to Riss for an answer.

Gaz was right, they had a talented medic with them. But there were a hundred tactical reasons why offering assistance was a terrible idea, each of them leaping into Adal’s mind with greater fervor than the last.

“Let’s feel this situation out first,” said Riss. “If it’s one sick guy, perhaps Calay can help. If there’s a hundred, his presence here could start a riot.”

As a close-knit trio, they started backtracking toward the wagon. Several of the encampments on the outskirts of town looked to be fairly communal, with families sitting close together and big cooking pots beckoning groups of weary travellers. Adal searched the crowd for someone on their own. Someone who looked like they’d know what was going on.

Finally, he spotted a solitary woman smoking a long-stemmed pipe by the side of the path. She was darkly tanned, her hair done up in an elaborate weave of braids. Several silver and copper rings glittered on her fingers, a mark of substantial wealth in these parts. If he had to choose someone from whom to pry information, he’d pick haughty and wealthy over small-town and hard-bitten every time. Closer to home.

“Pardon me,” Adal stepped away from the others to approach her. “I couldn’t help but overhear all that, uh, screaming.”

The woman glanced past him toward the ramshackle buildings. She shrugged, shoulders bundled away in many layers of loose linen robe. 

“Eh,” she said, “probably stepped on a scorpion. Happens.” 

She sounded like she couldn’t possibly be less concerned.

“Sounded pretty painful.” Adal gave her a quick smile, happy to be appraised as a well-meaning foreign bumbler. “Are the scorpions in these parts that bad?”

The woman gave him an odd look, her head tilting. She puffed on her pipe, then turned her head and politely blew her smoke away from his face.

“The stings are quite painful,” she said. “I mean… that’s why we’re all here, aren’t we?” With a wave of her bejewelled hand, she indicated the clusters of camps and shelters.

Adal blinked. “Pardon? That’s why you’re all here?” He tried to work out exactly what she meant by that. “To… get stung by scorpions?”

The woman threw her head back and laughed, a low and scratchy sound. She snickered into her sleeve, peering at him through the haze of sweet-smelling smoke that wreathed her face.

“Many people here have been stung,” she said. “But I wouldn’t go so far as to say on purpose.” Something seemed to click in her mind then. She scrutinized him more closely. “You don’t know, do you. About the migration.”

Now they were getting somewhere. “Afraid not,” he said. “But I’d be mighty grateful if you could enlighten me.” There was no use trying to bribe someone wearing that much glitter; he had to hope he’d paid her well enough in amusement at his own expense.

“You’re lucky you stopped to chat,” she said. “If you rode east tomorrow morning, you’d encounter a wave of scorpions as thick as the Flats are wide.” She punctuated her words with occasional tokes from her pipe. “They burrow up out of the salt at the end of the rainy season. Great, teeming masses of them. Makes travel impossible.”

That… sure was something. 

Adal had never even heard of that before. The idea of a scorpion wave sent such a strong shudder of revulsion through his body that he thought he heard his very skeleton cry out in anguish. He fidgeted, digging his thumbnail into his palm, and settled on letting out a bleh of distaste.

“Yes,” he said, “that sounds… ill-advised.”

“They’ll sting anything in their path,” said the woman. “Strip the flesh straight down to nothing. Leave the cleanest bones I’ve ever seen.”

Really, she could stand to cool it with the details. Adal listened to all that with a forced, tremulous half-smile plastered on his mouth like a bandage.

“So that’s what everyone’s doing here, then? Camping out and waiting for them to pass?”

“Aye. Shouldn’t take longer than a week, maybe as little as seven or eight days if you’re lucky. Riders say they’re a couple days out.”

That would put a damper on their schedule. He glanced back over his shoulder, toward where Riss and Gaz had nearly reached the wagon. They’d stopped, though, choosing to watch him instead.

“And… what if one happened to have a time-sensitive meeting on the other side of the Flats?” he asked. “Would there be any alternate way around?”

Finishing her smoke, the woman lowered her pipe and gave him a big, plump-lipped smile, its friendliness utterly at odds with the bite of her words.

“I would say one was a bit of an idiot to schedule it then.”

Laughing awkwardly, he conceded that with a muttered, “Fair.” Then, composure regained, he gave her a parting smile. “My thanks for your assistance. You’ve been very helpful.”

“We’re all stuck here together,” she said. “Breeds a certain camaraderie, doesn’t it.”

Adal thought back to the swamp, living shoulder-to-shoulder with a sorcerer and his skull-cracker in tent-sized quarters. You don’t know the half of it, he thought. He thanked her again and hurried back to Riss.

###

In the bowels of the wagon, the mood was grim. 

“Scorpion migration,” Calay said, deadpan. 

They sat around the big circular table, kicked back after their evening meal. Adal had just relayed the finer details of his conversation with the Flats woman to the others. They were all doling out dashes of a highly-alcoholic wine into their cups. Torcha had found it stowed away in a storeroom; it had all but turned to vinegar.

“Scorpion migration,” said Riss.

“This is the stupidest thing that has ever cockblocked me,” Calay declared. He drummed his fingers on the tabletop, looking annoyed.

Riss had the map spread open across half the table. She tapped a fingertip to her chin, considering it from a few different angles, as though viewing it upside-down might unlock some hitherto unknown secret route. Tracing a line from their current position, she followed the jagged arc of some geographic feature or another on the map.

“This ravine might slow them down,” she postulated. “We could ask the locals in the morning. See if there’s a chance we might get through. Waiting a week is…”

“It’s a bit shit,” offered Calay.

“—it’s not ideal,” Riss said, slightly more polite.

“Why can’t you just take care of them?” Torcha asked, swirling wine in her cup and staring across the table at Calay. “Just rip a fireball at ‘em or something.”

Calay looked mildly offended. “I’m not sure what stories you grew up hearing,” he said. “But I can’t just rip a fireball at anyone. My talents are a little more nuanced than that.”

“And I don’t like thinking about how much blood he’d need to light thousands of scorpions on fire,” said Gaz. “Who’s gonna donate it? You?” He kicked Torcha’s foot under the table.

“The locals think the swarm is about two days out,” Adal said. “If you think we could reach the ravine in two days…” He looked down to the map, following where Riss’ finger had traced. “Then we can travel along its western edge.”

He hated to admit it, but the prospect of a race against time ignited something in his belly. Adal loved a good deadline, a race against time. He was subtly less excited about how intimately that excitement tangled itself up with dread. 

“That guy sounded like he was in a lot of pain,” Gaz said. “Are we sure we want to risk this?”

“We’ll talk to the locals in the morning,” said Riss. “See if they think we’re being unreasonable. Hells, we can even hire a local scout if we have to. Isn’t like we’re lacking for room.” She gave those gathered at the table a reassuring smile. “You all know me. I’m no fan of unnecessary risks.”

“And I’ll do some research while we’re here,” Calay said. “Learn a bit more about those scorpions and what if anything I can prepare for the venom.” He flexed the fingers of his gloved hand, studying it for a moment. 

Adal’s mind flashed back to the needle-like jab of fangs in his calf, the way Calay had sprung into action to get the antivenin into his system. Back then, he’d had no idea that Calay could have wiped the wound away with a wave of his hand if he’d so desired. 

It was all just a puzzle to him, wasn’t it. Medicine. He didn’t need it to live. But it appeared to be a matter of intellectual curiosity. Of stimulation. Adal could relate to that.

“On that charming note,” Adal said. “I’m going to bunk up and try not to have eight-legged dreams.”

When trying to get to sleep, Adal often ran through the day’s events in his mind, a sort of mental checklist of what he’d accomplished and what needed to be done the following morning. That night, muddling along the blurred boundary between sleep and awareness, he struggled to leap the final hurdle into unconsciousness. Each time he drew close, he snapped awake with a jerk of his leg or his arm, convinced he felt tiny chitinous legs skittering along his skin beneath the covers.

<< Book 2, Chapter 10 | Book 2, Chapter 11 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 10

Well. They were back on the road again.

Riss directed the wagon northeast out of Medao, choosing not to head straight north. The further away from Adelheim the better, she decided. Though she’d had no worrying correspondence from Tarn, wary superstition reared its head whenever she thought about returning to that place or anywhere remotely near it.

Besides, they were traveling in downright luxurious conditions. She’d figured the crew wouldn’t mind a few extra days in their cushiony nests inside the big behemoth of a wagon. And she’d been right.

The rhythm of the road came easily to them. They devised a watch and chore schedule without much conscious discussion, everyone simply falling into doing the tasks that suited them. Torcha kept lookout on the roof; Riss tended the galania and minded their stores. Adal drove in the mornings and manned the charts. Calay and Gaz kept busy either in the galley or on guard at the cargo doors. A wagon the size of the one Leonór had gifted them was meant to sleep two dozen people, so their lodgings were positively spacious.

The road they followed was an undulating path of hard-packed dirt, no ancient stones to guide them. Like a lazy sloshing wave, it rolled over shallow, dry hills of nondescript scrub and a few little fleck-on-the-map hamlets they didn’t bother to stop in.

Then, one evening, the horizon before them just… opened up.

Riss was perched on the pilot’s bench, legs crossed lazily at the ankle. The lizard’s steady, scraping footsteps and the crush of grit under wheels had soothed her into a meditative state, her grip on the reins relaxed. The sun was on its downward journey, just beginning to tinge the clouds apricot.

The wagon crested a hill and suddenly there they were. The Alkali Flats. Stretching off as far as Riss’ eye could see, a flat expanse of crusty salt dominated the horizon. Pinky off-white in color due to the sunset, the salt flats lay at the foot of the hill her wagon was currently descending. And there, nestled into the foothills at a crook in the road, was the final settlement of note before vast, salty emptiness.

“Anyone awake back there?” Riss called over her shoulder. “Quite a view to admire. And I’d like someone to take a peek at the map.”

A male voice made a muffled sound from somewhere inside. But the problem with traveling on a wagon this large was that half the time, Riss had no clue what people inside were yelling at her. She waited, scratching at her cheek, until Calay emerged from inside.

“Adal’s regaling Gaz with tales of the river,” he informed her. “I left them to it.”

He was dressed like he’d halfway put himself to bed, wearing a long linen shirt and an open-fronted woolen cardigan that dangled almost to his ankles. Looks comfortable, she thought, admittedly a little envious. Her tendency toward preparedness and practicality left her in armor more often than not; Calay and Gaz had gone positively rural.

Riss scooched along the bench, offering him a seat. She pointed toward the map compartment, and he unhinged it and sorted through their various charts until he found the right one.

Only once he’d settled down onto the bench beside her did Calay comment on the view. He looked from side to side, sniffed a little, and dubbed it “pretty nice.” Funny man.

“All right,” he said. “What are we looking for?” He spread the map out along his lap, angling it to catch the sunlight.

“Just the name of this village,” Riss said. “L-something? It’s on the tip of my tongue.”

Calay traced a finger over something on the map, then tapped it twice.

“Esilio,” he said. “Close. There’s an L in it. Map says it has the usuals: food, water, and… ah, I’m assuming that symbol means brothel.”

“Not much else to do out here.” Riss chuckled, then slouched back a little on the bench. It had padded leather seats, the type that molded pleasantly to one’s ass on long travels. She’d be sad to see this wagon go. “So Adal’s back there spinning stories about the river, huh?”

“He’s had some wine.” A brief smile edged up the sharp panes of Calay’s face. “They aren’t bad stories. Though I have to admit the more I hear about that man’s childhood, the more it scrambles my brain to think that he ended up here of all places, doing this.”

“We’re all better off for his life choices in that regard,” said Riss.

Calay made a noise like he was considering that statement. He hummed, then smirked at her. “Yeah, all right.” Then, after a moment, he shifted so that he watched Riss more closely than the map.

“What about you?” he finally asked.

“What about me?”

“It just occurred to me I know a lot about Adal’s upbringing. Even more about Torcha’s. But everything I know about you begins and ends with the war.”

Suspicion curled through Riss the way paper curled when burnt: a slow singe. She shook it off though. If Calay wanted to snoop on her or learn private details of her life for some nefarious purpose, he’d have taken a more oblique approach. He wouldn’t ask her to her face. She leaned over a little on the bench and gave him a sniff.

“I see you too have had some wine.” She said it kindly though, not quite an accusation.

“What, is that the only time I’m allowed to indulge in friendly conversation?” He grinned at her then. “Guilty, though. But… if it’s a sore subject, I’ll drop it. I have a few of those myself. I was just… curious.”

“Well, what are you curious about?”

She could always decide not to answer questions if he asked him. That thing he’d said about how everything he knew of her began and ended at the war, that plucked an upsetting string somewhere inside. He knew those things about her because they’d met on professional terms. Because Riss’ history with the Fourth was the backbone of her current occupation and her current lot in life. But… she didn’t want the war to define her. She didn’t like the idea that Calay saw her that way.

“Just… if it’s like Adal. Is this the path you always figured you’d end up on?”

Twisting the reins around her hand, Riss watched muscles ripple along the galania’s back as it trudged slow and determined down the winding road.

“I never really got a chance to consider my own path.” She answered slowly. “I was conscripted pretty young.”

“Tch, that’s a cop-out answer.” Calay’s reprimand was playful. “You grew up in… over where Adal did? Carbec, isn’t it? Never been.”

“Near Carbec, but…” She took a moment to consider her phrasing. “Adal and I grew up in the same place the way a starfish and a whale occupy the same place. Sure they’re both in the sea, but…”

Calay’s low chuckle blended in with the rumble of the wheels. “I get you.”

“His family’s estate is on the outskirts of Carbec proper. I grew up even further outside of town, out in the steppes.”

“And your father was a hunting guide, wasn’t he?”

“Mhm.” Riss grunted out that answer, hoping he’d take the hint and avoid further questioning along those lines. “And what about you?”

All along, they’d picked up bits and pieces of one another’s stories, but she’d always avoided asking Calay direct questions given his reluctance to ever answer them. She liked how they respected one another’s privacy; a solid working relationship—perhaps even a friendship—didn’t always have to be built on knowing one another’s childhood crushes and favorite pie fillings and all that crap.

“Neighborhood in Vasile called Blackbricks,” Calay said, surprising in his directness. “I may have mentioned it. May have not. Gaz grew up just down the road.”

“I do recall that it was a rough neighborhood, whatever the name was.”

Calay sucked in a breath, his cheeks hollowing. “Yep.”

“Carbec’s small enough that it doesn’t really have any bad neighborhoods.” Riss slanted him a sidelong look. “Much as it pains me to say so, it’s good to have a couple city boys on the roster. I think you and Gaz have really helped us settle in down south.”

“Well Medao sure is… different.” He said it with relish. A good difference, then, in his estimation. “It’s nothing like Vasile. Not in any way. Other than how crowded the crowded bits are.”

“Do you miss it?”

“Vasile?” Calay blinked. “I miss…”

He lapsed into silence. Riss did too. Side by side, they considered the sunset, which had blossomed into a many-ribboned orange and gold and pink affair, the haze of some distant dust storm swirling like a far-off crimson blur below it.

“I miss certain people,” Calay said, finally. “I miss the way things were. Miss the simplicity. Don’t figure I’ll ever be able to go back.” She thought he’d finished, but to her surprise, he kept going. “I had a physik’s practice. Two, actually, at one point. Had a hand in a massage parlor, a tavern, and a thriving black market operation as well.”

That caught her by surprise. Calay was certainly educated—he knew medicine, if not the finer points of history and geography and the sorts of formal schooling offered at Medao’s Universitat. But she’d never pegged him for former wealth. He was so comfortable on the road and in the dirt. He didn’t carry himself like a wounded bankrupt.

“Got to admit, I didn’t have you pegged as a fallen emperor of business.”

Calay scoffed, disdainful. “Well, I’d have had to rise up proper in order to fall. And I ballsed that right up.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

Calay leaned into the corner of the bench seat, propping himself up against the arm of it. “Gaz saw it all coming. Because of course he did. And he tried to warn me. But I didn’t listen, because of course I didn’t.”

It was a brief, there-and-gone notion, but Riss felt the glimpse of an urge to comfort him. To give him an elbow or laugh off his evident regrets.

“Well he seems to think you’re worth a second shot,” she said.

“Some-fucking-how.” Calay reached up and smoothed a hand through his hair, the blond of it tinged strawberry by the sunset. “But hey, I like to think there are some benefits to having me around.”

“I promise I’d have fired you if there weren’t.”

She wondered if she’d ever feel comfortable asking him about those benefits. The benefits that had nothing to do with mercenary work. The benefits that had stitched her broken, mangled body back together and hauled her back from the threshold of death. He alluded to his sorcery in such a casual way that it gobsmacked her at times. Escorting clients, bodyguard duty, wagon maintenance, their lives had been so calmly mundane since Adelheim that she almost forgot about his abilities at times.

“Go on,” Calay said. Riss blinked.

“Go on what?”

“You’re looking at me like you want to ask me something.”

She hadn’t realized she’d been staring. And damn, she was tempted. The circumstances were perfect if she wanted to really learn more about just what made Calay tick. Relaxed as he was by wagon life and booze, this was as prime an opportunity as she was going to get. She wished she’d had a chance to read that stack of books back in her office.

Gracelessly, she blurted the first question that came to mind.

“Have you ever met another… person like you?”

“What, you mean a bisexual?” He smiled a close-mouthed smile, daring her to say it. Forcing her to, really.

“No,” Riss deadpanned. “Heaps of those about. A sorcerer, asshole.”

Calay skimmed his tongue over his teeth. He considered her in silence.

“Only the man who taught me,” he finally said. “And he’s long gone.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” The words came out a bit more tender, more heartfelt than she expected. “I lost the man who taught me everything I know, too. It’s…”

“… It’s pretty shit, yeah.” Calay paused. “Mine… disappeared. He’d told me that was a thing sorcerers did. How they had to be so careful, after the Leycenate purged them all. How forethought and elaborate escape plans were part of the package. Then one day I woke up and he was gone.”

Riss winced. She let herself imagine for a moment how horrifying that would have been if Gaspard had pulled it on her.

“You think he’s still alive?”

Calay huffed. “Doubt it. He’s had years to find me again. And for someone with his talents, locating me wouldn’t be tough. No one ever came after him. He just walked off into the dark one night and left the clinic in my hands.” His eyes tightened at the corners. “And you know what? If he is alive, fuck him. I don’t know if I’d buy any excuse for that disappearing act bullshit.”

And for not reaching out, not even once. If that man were still alive, he’d done something unfathomably cruel. Riss knew that both Gaz and Calay had grown up as orphans. He’d never mentioned exactly how close he and this mentor figure were, but she’d never heard Calay mention another. To be abandoned like that by the closest thing he’d ever had to a parent…

Well, that went some way toward explaining Calay’s cruel streak, didn’t it. People tended to reflect back what the world gave them.

They reached the bottom of the hill before Riss could think of anything else to say. She pointed the wagon toward Esilio, their last bastion of human society before the arid, salty desert.

“I doubt you’ll need a navigator for this bit,” Calay said.

Riss shook her head with a hint of a laugh and let him on his way.

<< Book 2, Chapter 9 | Book 2, Chapter 11 >>

Book 2, Chapter 9

The postwoman didn’t look like Calay expected. She was weathered, face scoured by decades of exposure to the elements. She wore a heavy green canvas overcoat and a wide-brimmed hat of woven flax. Sunspots dotted her long, strong-looking hands, and when he let his eyes travel down from her face to her fingertips, he noticed there was still grit under her nails.

He stared at those callused, dirty-nailed hands and recalled the first time he’d ever heard of letters. Alfend Linten had received one at the clinic, delivered by a courier in a tidy uniform with a little bow-tied scarf. Calay, then just a boy of nine or so, had asked what was the point of sending a courier with nothing more than a scrap of paper. Deliveries for the Indigents’ Clinic, sure. Personal deliveries for Mr. Linten, less frequently but still plausible. But who would send a man all the way across the city for a single sheet of paper?

Alfend had explained that this was no ordinary paper. It was a letter from an old friend of his, he said. A friend who lived all the way across the Continent, on the shore of a whole separate ocean.

He’d been too young then to understand the power a man could wield with the written word. Old enough to understand that Alfend was doing a gravely important thing, teaching him the beginnings of those scribbles. An illegal thing, until he acquired his permit.

Calay had never given letter-carriers themselves much thought, but he’d always assumed they were upper-crusty in some way. Because literacy in Vasile was reserved for those with either a title to their name or a particularly useful, regulated profession, it made sense that those who delivered them would be as well.

Fascinating, then, that this one looked like she’d rolled right off some nomad caravan.

She’d gathered them all to her wagon, parked in Medao’s northernmost wagonyard. A wide-bodied wooden structure, the thing was two stories tall, home to a comfortable pillow-strewn living quarters in which Calay currently sat, along with Gaz and Riss and the entire crew. And the postwoman, Leonór, who was laying down the final details of the job.

Slouching back a little on his pillow, Calay watched across the rounded table as the letter-carrier and Riss spoke. Leonór regretted the secrecy, she said, but it was a necessity: she’d planted whispers along the Continental Post routes of a wagon-jacking. Their target was an individual who fancied himself a fence.

“He won’t be able to resist it,” she said. “Turning over a wagon, that’s a big-ticket score. I’ve half a mind to believe he only robbed me to add it to his list of accolades.”

Calay breathed out the beginnings of a laugh. So they were chasing after some glory hound. That would make it easier.

“So we rendezvous with the fence if he’s still camped in the location your scouts advised,” said Riss. “But… what of the wagon?”

Leonór tapped a single, ragged-nailed fingertip to the table.

“Let him keep it for all I care,” she said. “Provided he compensates you fairly.”

“And how exactly will we get home?” Torcha cut in. “If we sell him our wagon?”

Riss shot her a look, begged her with silent eyes to just stay quiet. But Leonór took the question with a smile, crows’ feet tightening at the corners of her eyes.

“With the price this wagon will fetch on the backchannels, you’ll certainly be able to afford a horse home.”

Calay swept his eyes around the meeting chamber, took in the solid wooden frame and the narrow bunks nailed to the far wall. He’d heard tales of the war-wagons that roamed the Continent’s flatter terrain. Like great landborne ships, carrying enough cannons that they could take Medao’s navy gun-for-gun. Wagons were serious business down south.

“It’s part of our compensation package,” Riss explained to the crew at large. “In addition to our retainer and other, as-yet-specified favors.”

That’s a whole mountain of compensation, he thought. Unsure as he was on southern or central-Continential geography, he wondered what aspect of this job justified the sky high price tag. Salt flats and desert was treacherous terrain, he supposed. But nobody had gasped in horror or expressed shock that they’d be going there. They’d have to buy extra water, all right, but the destination elicited no surprise or despair.

He shot a look across the table toward Riss. Her expression was typically pensive; it gave away nothing. Riss always looked like she was thinking hard at the negotiation table. If only she were a little more ethically flexible, he might have invited her to his card games. She could bluf along with the best of them, he reckoned.

It occurred to him that he’d been with Riss for a year now. She’d never treated the company like a dictatorship. They sat at a round table, nobody lording over the head of it. If he had questions, he could bloody well ask them, couldn’t he?

Calay cleared his throat. “I can’t help but notice that’s a fine price for what sounds like straightforward work,” he said. 

Leonór’s eyebrows crept up a little. She regarded him from the shade of her hat.

“So you’re wondering what I’m not telling you, eh?” she asked.

“We’re aware there were some highly sensitive details about this contract,” Riss chimed in. “Hence meeting you in person. Hence all the cloak and dagger. I admit I’ve been wondering too, but I respect that it’s a sensitive situation.”

Leonór graced Riss with a weather-beaten smile. “That’s why I always prefer to work with recon,” she said. “Recon types understand discretion.”

If only you knew, Calay thought. Working in Medao, burying himself in mercenary jobs, settling into an apartment with a balcony and a morning routine—Calay was so discreet whole days passed where he never thought about his magick at all. Some days it felt like he was domesticating himself right out of being a sorcerer. 

“This job is going to require wits, conviction, and caution because the individual who stole my deliveries is a highly wanted man.” She said it calmly, not bothering to imbue the words with any theatrics. “His name is Nuso Rill. And if you haven’t heard of him, I’m sure someone on your team can fill you in.”

The air seemed to leak from the room in one great, collective breath. Calay watched Riss and Adal for their reactions. Riss’ eyes tightened. Adal’s went wide. That twitched a hint of a smile onto his mouth, though he buried it quickly. 

“I’m more familiar with his brother,” Calay volunteered. Anvey Rill and his riots. The crazy bastard had stirred dissent in Vasile since Calay was a boy, sometimes with success and sometimes with periods of extended jail time. Last Calay knew, he was rotting in the cells for plotting to blow up the Leycenate.

“He’s a highwayman,” Adal said. Calay knew that much. Fortunately, Adal continued. “Though that’s simplifying things a great deal. He’s a highwayman with a terrifically efficient gang, and he has a finger in every black market there is. Down here they hate him because he desecrates tombs. Up north they hate him because his men made the roads unlivable unless you paid their taxes.” 

Calay tilted a look toward Adal, curious. “And do they hate him in your hometown, too?”

Surprisingly, Adal laughed. He scratched at the back of his neck, awkwardly averting his eyes off toward Riss. “Well,” he said. “My family runs riverboats. So in all honesty, he’s made us a great deal of money.”

Calay coughed a snicker into a curled fist, then let it trail off and politely set his eyes upon their client.

“So that’s the big reveal, huh?” he asked. “You expect us to knock over the Continent’s most wanted man?”

Leonór gave him another of those thin smiles that seemed to rise more in her eyes than on her mouth. “No,” she said. “I’ll do the knocking-over myself. All you have to do is find him.”

The meeting dissolved into logistics prattle. Calay was less interested in that. Were he in charge of the outing himself, he’d have paid closer mind. But Riss hadn’t failed them yet when organizing all that crap herself, so he left her to it. 

After a while, Gaz posed a question to their client that did capture Calay’s interest.

“What were you carrying that was so interesting Nuso Rill would risk his life to steal it, anyhow?”

Leonór paused mid-sentence, glancing over to Gaz and staying quiet a beat. She looked him over, seemed to be considering whether to even answer. Calay leaned forward on his elbows, expressing nonverbal interest. Riss leaned in, too.

“Privacy is important to the Post,” Leonór said. “People wouldn’t trust us with their correspondence if they knew there was a chance it would be inventoried or peeped at.”

“So you’re saying…”

She nodded at Gaz, confirming. “I have no idea. I don’t know whether he was after a single parcel, a single letter, or the entire bag just to say he’d done it.”

And that? Boy, that sent Calay’s mind reeling with possibilities. What could be contained in a small parcel or letter that was so valuable the most wanted man in the land would risk tangling with this crazy, hard-bitten old bitch? Information, of course, could be priceless. But he’d understood via Hadjo at cards that the war winding down meant the espionage market had really dried up down here. 

So what could it be, then? Smuggling routes? Veins of priceless ore? Dirt on someone important?

They concluded the meeting, his thoughts still racing. He promised Riss that he and Gaz would arrive at the appropriate time, but they’d be taking the next couple days to pack their bags and prepare for time abroad. 

###

From the time Alfend had scooped him up off the street, Calay had lived in his places of work. He’d slept in the surgical chamber of Alfend’s clinic at first, on a spare cot set aside. Later, Alfend had let him move into the upstairs loft. And later still, Calay had moved Gaz in. He liked it, sleeping above the clinic. The constant bustle of patients, orderlies, and visitors. The Vasile of his youth was packed tightly with people, too many of them for his neighborhood to ever truly fall quiet. He’d never be a farm boy, never long for the silence of the wilderness.

So his current lodgings suited him just fine. 

He and Gaz rented a warm, airy flat above a cobbler’s. The walls were thick, the windows let in plenty of light, and the polished brick floor was a cool, pleasant thing to stroll upon in the mornings. It had a narrow salon that overlooked the river, even. Though by no means luxurious, it was warm and secure and bright and high up, all descriptors which Calay had never thought in a hundred years would apply to a place he lived.

So what if there was a shrivelled old woman downstairs determinedly pounding tacks into bootsoles all the live-long day. Calay’s mind filtered the noise out.

They’d already packed most of their things for the upcoming expedition, neither of them being particularly fussy travellers. He’d wound down his card game for the time being, promised the regulars tales of excitement and adventure when he returned. 

For the moment, he sat on a scuffed armchair in the salon, watching thin curls of cloud move across the sky and trying to look dispassionate while Gaz made a big, stupid fuss over him. He had his mangled, mutated arm stretched out atop a small side table. Gaz held it by the wrist. In his other hand, he gripped a pair of small gardening shears that looked just comically tiny. 

“Is this really necessary?” Calay asked, watching as Gaz trimmed tiny, budding purple flowers off a vine that sprouted up between his knuckles. “I’m fairly certain if I leave the glove on they’ll just die and save us all this trouble.”

Snip, snip went the shears. “Seems a waste,” Gaz said.

Calay glanced past him to the bank of thin windows that lined the salon’s southern wall. Small trellises leaned against the bottom of each window, creepers and vines slowly taking them over, crawling up and around the wooden stakes like leafy snakes. It had started as a joke, Gaz harvesting the plants that sometimes sprouted off his arm. Now, though, the joke appeared to have grown into a fully fledged hobby. 

“Who’s going to look after those while we’re away, anyhow?” Calay asked. “I don’t want someone rummaging around up here.”

Gaz snipped the base of the vine, a little flick of the shears that Calay didn’t actually feel. He had a small glass of water ready, dangling the vine down into it. Some of them sprouted roots when harvested this way, others did not and died. Fortunately, the supply seemed to be limitless.

“Gonna move ‘em over to Riss’ place,” Gaz explained. “She’s got that big courtyard. And they’re going to have a housekeeper ‘round while we’re all away.”

Calay’s bark and bone fingers twitched. He suppressed a laugh. “Right.”

“You’ve been quiet since we got back,” Gaz said, carrying the glass over to a window sill. “What’s on your mind?”

“The mailbag.” Calay saw no point in beating around the bush. “I’m dying to know what was in that woman’s mailbag. My mind won’t shut up about it.”

Gaz spent a couple minutes fussing over his window-boxes, checking the soil and dashing a bit of water into some of the plants. Calay watched him do this often but he never quite seemed to pick up on all the patterns, what needed watering when and how much. It seemed a very inexact science. 

“Been wondering that, too,” Gaz said. “You have any feelings about going toe to toe with Rill?”

“Not really.” Calay scratched at his jaw. “Be interesting to meet him, I suppose. See if the legend aligns with the man. Somehow, he’s almost turned out to be the least interesting part of this job.”

“What’s the most interesting part?” Gaz walked past him as he asked this, headed for the hallway. Before he could disappear, Calay leaned forward and grabbed him by the wrist.

“The most interesting part by far…” Calay tapped his fingertip to Gaz’s palm for emphasis. “Is devising how I’m going to read everything in that mailbag without anyone else finding out.”

Gaz’s face crinkled up doubtfully. He didn’t retract his hand, but he gave Calay one of those long dubious stares of his. 

“Think about it,” Calay insisted. “Whatever was in there, Nuso Rill risked exposing himself to get it. This letter-carrier has reached out to us, given us a wagon, promised us untold riches if we can recover it. This can’t just be for her pride, Gaz. Old gal is keeping some sort of juicy secret, mark my words.”

It was either something valuable or something forbidden. And either of those could be of great use to Calay. 

“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you to be careful.”

Calay gave Gaz’s hand a fractional squeeze before relinquishing his grip.

“When am I ever not?”

He’d made a career out of being careful. His very existence was one of perpetual risk. And fortunately, he’d have long hours on the road to devise a failproof strategy. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 8 | Book 2, Chapter 10 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 8

Once his crew had napped and bathed and whatever else they needed, Adal saw to his own errands, including catching up on correspondence. A sole scroll waited in their postbox, penned in tidy block letters. It informed he and Riss that they were cleared to brief their crew on the Continental Post job. The postwoman would not be attending. She said she was organizing their transport, and that “deliveries” would arrive over the course of the week. This was all written in vague euphemism, and the letter itself went unsigned. 

This was all a little cloak and dagger for Adal. They’d taken fewer precautions during the actual war. But for the prize and access she promised, he figured Riss was happy to jump through her silly hoops. 

Riss gathered them all in the courtyard to lay out the specifics. She and Adal took a seat on the brick bench that ringed around the fountain. He watched water spew from the mouth of one of those ghastly little lion statues. Money never could buy taste. Hopefully they’d be able to afford a full do-over soon.

“We really ought to do something about all these,” he said. “This fountain just looks like it’s…”

“Puking? Yeah.” 

The lion stonework lion continued to spew water into the cistern.

Calay and Gaz arrived together, the former wearing the latter’s too-large jacket slung around his shoulders like a shawl. Gaz leaned against one of the half-walls, Calay taking a seat down in the grass near his feet. He stretched out, yawning, and crossed his legs at the ankle. The sight of them so slouchily comfortable, so relaxed considering last evening’s unexpected turn, lit a little flicker of jealousy in Adal’s gut. But then he was waving Torcha over to join them and it was gone.

“Feeling better?” Adal asked her. No longer wearing her jailhouse smock or her ruined gown, she’d scrubbed up and dressed in a loose, billowy caftan. Her hair was pinned up around her crown in curlers, still drying.

“Much,” she said. She took a seat on a stone near the unlit firepit.

All eyes rose to Riss.

“Well.” She rubbed her hands together. “No sense beating around the bush. Adal received a letter this afternoon confirming that long-term job I mentioned is on. Provided all the preparations stay on schedule, we’ll be leaving first of the new month.”

Torcha immediately cut in. “So we’ll be missing the jubilee?”

“The what?” Riss, as usual, was not clued in when it came to Medao’s bustling party schedule.

“There’s a jubilee honoring the King at month’s beginning,” Adal explained. “Twenty-five years on the throne.” Not that Medao ever needed a reason to have a festival. The year only had three months in it and somehow they found a special occasion at the beginning and end of every single one. 

“You’ll just have to pay your respects to the King from the road,” said Riss.

“They bake special cakes, though.” Torcha sighed theatrically, leaning back on her palms.

“Anyway.” Riss scoffed at her. “A letter-carrier from the Continental Post was robbed some time ago.” She paused to allow that to sink in. There were wide eyes all around the courtyard. Everyone knew how rare an event that was. “She’s hired us to locate the individual who stole her papers. She has intel on his location to a regional level. Apparently he often camps out in the foothills north of the Alkali Flats.”

Calay lifted a finger, waited for Riss to glance his way. “Question,” he said. “You say locate. That’s all we have to do? Just… find this guy and tell the letter-carrier where he’s at?” He sounded skeptical.

“Mhm.” Riss shrugged. “I guess in her eyes it’s personal. She strikes me as the sort to do her own dirty work.” 

Pointedly, nobody asked what the postwoman planned to do once she caught him. Once the job was done, none of them were being paid to fret over the man’s fate.

“Never been to the Flats before,” said Torcha. “We cutting across ‘em or along the western border?”

“Across.” Riss nodded down at her. “We’ll stick as close to the borderland as we can. Weather’s less treacherous. But the hill country would slow us down a lot. Easier to travel over flatter ground.”

“It’ll be a first for all of us,” Gaz said, giving Torcha a little smile. Adal got the impression that neither he nor Calay had traveled much prior to fleeing Vasile.

“Once I have the final details nailed down, I’ll pass it all on,” Riss said. “This is a big job for us. The Continental Post, they’re pretty insular folks. It isn’t often they let outside contractors work alongside them. Reputation-wise, they’re the best there is. This could open a lot of doors for us.”

“Speaking of impressing clients…” Gaz again. “The Ambassador and kid were both, uh, fine, right?”

Riss blinked. “Oh, yeah. I don’t think Sal even cared. Havasi sent a nice thank-you note.”

“Great to hear my charming evening with Renato wasn’t for nothing,” Torcha muttered. And… wait, what? Adal must have misheard her.

“Renato?” he asked, butting in. “Our Renato?”

Slowly, every head in the courtyard turned toward him. The distinct feeling of last to know settled on Adal like a fool’s cap. Not a pleasant sensation. He crossed his arms over his chest, looking sideways to Riss and awaiting an explanation.

“Yes,” she said, voice as clipped as would be expected. “Renato Cassi. He’s still in town and working as a prison warden. Apparently he was interrogating Torcha about me all night while she was in the cells.”

Adal was unprepared for the hot, combative rage that rose in him like steam. 

“The fuck?” He shot a look to Torcha. Renato could be cruel when he wanted. Always had that streak in him. And now that he had a lifelong grudge to nurse against Riss, that was a potent elixir. But Torcha looked unharmed.

“I’m fine,” Torcha promised. “But it was pretty weird. He doesn’t hate Riss any less than he used to, no matter how nice he tries to dress up his words.”

“I feel like we’re missing something,” Calay said. “That guy seemed like a right prick, but some context would be nice.”

“Renato blames Riss for a bunch of bullshit that wasn’t her fault,” Adal snapped. “He worked with us for years, and under Gaspard Marcinen before that.”

“An old war buddy?”

“Sort of.” Adal twitched a half-shrug. “He was in another recon unit. But after the Inland dissolved us and Gaspard founded the company, Renato joined up. He’s a talented sawbones.” And now he was putting those skills to work in a prison. The implication made Adal’s skin crawl.

Riss took over then. “It’s a bit more complicated than that. Renato blames me for—” Only the briefest hesitation. “—the dissolution of the first version of this mercenary company.”

Adal watched the physical transformation occur in her. She took a deep breath, straightening up and facing Calay and Gaz head on. She crossed her legs at the knee, resting her fingers on her calf, and told them Gaspard’s story in full for the first time.

“We were running a wagon escort in some rough territory,” she said. “Gaspard had been training me up as his Second for some time, and he let me take point on this particular job. I was a lot greener then, and I ran us right into an ambush. The bandits blew the door off the back of the wagon. He didn’t make it out.” 

Gaz’s features furrowed hard as he watched Riss speak. Everyone remained silent.

“Renato didn’t take it well,” Riss continued. “Well, not that any of us did. But he blamed me. Perhaps rightfully. After Gaspard fell, he rounded up everyone and insisted we take a confidence vote in my leadership. When everyone but him voted to keep me, he sort of…”

That part she didn’t quite know how to explain. Adal did it for her.

“He flew off the handle and I beat him within an inch of his life.” 

Calay and Gaz looked mildly surprised by that revelation. Adal himself was still surprised it had happened. But when he looked back on that night, when he recalled the feeling of Renato’s cheekbone caving in beneath his knuckles, it wasn’t with anything remotely resembling regret. 

Sitting up more attentively in the grass, Calay absently ran his hand through the short, still-growing strands. He twirled one around his finger.

“Torcha.” He spoke slowly, thoughtfully. “When you say Renato interrogated you, what sort of questions was he asking?”

Torcha glowered up at the sky for a moment. “Mostly how long we’d been in town. What Riss was up to. Where we’d been the last few years. I said ‘interrogate’ mostly as a joke. He played it off like a friendly conversation at first. Then he started asking about jobs and stuff. I gave him nice, friendly, vague-as-hell answers.”

Calay worked his jaw for a moment. “I see.”

Renato sniffing around Riss’ business meant he might eventually sniff around Calay’s. It was an uncomfortable thorn-in-the-side development. But Adal had no doubt that Calay had contingency plans in place. He was a clever operator. If any of his side projects weren’t above-water in the eyes of Meduese law, he’d be careful.

“Not a great feeling knowing there’s a jailer out there with a hate hard-on for us,” he said. “You think he’s going to become a problem?”

Adal almost hoped Renato tried something. He was perfectly ready to hit him again.

“I doubt it,” said Riss. “I think I got a pretty decent read on him at the jail. He set himself up as an old pal helping us out, kept talking to me like I was a poor downtrodden dear. I think he’s enjoying rubbing it in.”

The last time Renato had seen Riss, she’d been shattered. Those first few weeks after Gaspard’s death had left her a shaking, sleepless shell. Perhaps Renato thought she hadn’t recovered. Then again, until recently, she hadn’t. At least not all the way. 

“He’s manageable,” Riss promised Calay. “I’ll manage him.”

Calay seemed satisfied with that. Gaz steered the conversation back toward their original mission.

“So this mystery thief,” he said. “We know much about how they got one over on the mail-lady?”

“Apart from the fact that the letter-carrier called the thief a him we don’t have anything to go on yet,” said Riss. “The client says she’ll inform us as soon as she can meet in person. She’s big on privacy.”

The conversation petered out, none of the others voicing anymore questions for Riss. Calay and Gaz said their farewells for the day and wandered off home. Riss retreated upstairs.

“Torcha,” Adal said before she could disappear off to… wherever she frequently disappeared to. “Can I ask you something?”

Torcha adjusted one of her hair-rollers and looked up at him expectantly. “Sure.”

For a moment he considered asking whether Renato had mentioned him. He’d called the man a friend for some time. Fought alongside him, camped out with him, shared meals around the fire with him. A part of Adal still regretted that it ended the way it had, even if he felt no shame for ensuring that end was final.

“You think she’s making the correct call about Renato?” he asked instead. “You were there. I’d just like your read on it.”

“Riss downplays uncomfortable stuff sometimes,” Torcha answered. “But… I dunno. I don’t think he’s out for blood, if that’s what you mean.”

Swishy, striped kaftan swirling about her ankles, she stepped past Adal and into the house.

“I reckon he could make our lives difficult,” she said as she passed. “If he wanted.”

That’s more what Adal was afraid of. 

<< Book 2, Chapter 7 | Book 2, Chapter 9 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 7

Riss was not looking forward to the task of explaining Renato to Calay and Gaz. On the ride home, she left it with a terse placeholder explanation:

“Renato’s our former you.”

She’d expected some smart remark in reply, perhaps a question about which aspects of Calay’s person Renato so embodied, but he said nothing. Torcha was also silent on the ride back to the townhouse, slouched against the padded seat of the cab with mostly-closed eyes. She vanished upstairs before Riss had even paid the driver. 

Thankfully, Adal was at home, ready to sweep in and help her wrangle all the morning’s divergent pains in the ass into a manageable to-do list. He was just seeing a client out when they arrived, a polite smile curved at his mouth.

“Well that looks like it could have gone worse,” he said.

“Pardon?”

Adal hooked a thumb back over his shoulder. “Our resident lawbreaker is already home safe and sound.”

Riss ghosted out a laugh, then slipped out the back door into the courtyard. She needed some sun. Between the periodical nightmares and being frequently roused at ridiculous hours of the morning, she was running low on sleep. She hoped the sun might recharge her a little, shake her into a reasonable forgery of consciousness.

The tall brick house’s courtyard was still a work in progress. Ringed by half-height brick walls, the yard featured a small fountain with a shallow reflecting pool. Whoever had owned the place before Riss and Adal had really had a thing for lions. The big, shaggy-maned things that once roamed the high plains and plateaus between Carbec and Lower Vasile. Every so often, rumor surfaced out of the bush. Some wayward hunter or guide or priest tripping balls on some vision walk always claimed to have seen a lion recently. People liked to keep the stories alive, Riss supposed. Didn’t want to let go of the past so long as the past was more adventurous and mysterious than it was painful.

Either way, her yard was home to approximately a dozen sculpted lion heads and she was not feeling that architectural choice. 

Green vines had begun to creep up the walls of the house itself. Soon they’d bud with little purple flowers, or at least that’s what Gaz had promised her when he’d planted them. Full of surprises, Gaz. She’d had no idea he was a gardener.

“All right,” Adal announced when he stepped out into the sunshine. “Torcha’s running a bath upstairs. All the morning meetings are accounted for. Gaz needs a nap, I’m gonna pack him in the guest room if you don’t object.”

An unwitting smile leapt up onto Riss’ face as she listened to all this. “I do not object,” she said. Adal had things well and truly in hand. Like he always—

A gentle bell chimed, a high and unobtrusive little ding that they heard even from the yard. The doorbell. Adal turned, but Riss took a step in front of him, cutting him off.

“I’ve got this one,” she said. 

And it was fortunate she made that decision, given the delivery that was waiting for her.

A rail-thin, darkly-complected man wearing a courier’s uniform stood on her doorstep, a paper-wrapped bundle held to his chest. He straightened when Riss opened the door, bowing his head to her politely in greeting.

“Some books you ordered, miss?” he asked.

Riss nodded calmly even as her heart jumped. She fished a couple australs from her pocket, tipping the courier and offering an arm. The bundle in question looked at least five or six books high. Ambassador Havasi had been successful, then. And not only that, but willing to share the fruits of those successes.

“Appreciate it,” Riss said as the courier departed. She turned back in through the doorway and nearly elbowed Calay in the face.

“Whoa!” He stepped back, putting up his hands. “Sorry. I heard the bell, wasn’t sure what was going on.”

Riss clutched the heavy bundle of books to her chest. She looked at Calay over the top of them, hoping that the bundle adequately concealed her facial expression. Hoping she didn’t look nervous.

“Just a courier,” she said. And her voice came out perfectly neutral. And that was good. She started walking toward the staircase, though to her dismay Calay followed along at her side. He slouched his jacket half off his shoulders, hands in his pockets.

“Need a hand with that?” he asked. Suspicion snapped its fingers in the rear of her mind, trying to get her attention. Was he normally this helpful? Was he going out of his way to interfere with her solely because he suspected what the contents of the parcel might be?

“No, that’s all right.” Riss ticked her chin up toward the apex of the staircase. “Just running these up to the office.”

Calay nodded and peeled off in the direction of the kitchen, ambling through her house as though he had all the permission in the world to be there. Which, if she thought about it for a moment, she supposed he did. 

One hell of an awkward moment averted, Riss carried the books upstairs to her office and swung the door shut. Then, for good measure, she fished her keyring out of her pocket and locked it. With a hard sigh of relief, she carried the books to the desk and sat them down, where they thumped in a weighty, pleasant way. She untied the twine that bound the bundle up, then unfolded the paper, eager to see what the Ambassador had uncovered.

A few of the books were thin things, bound in soft leather and yellowed with age. Likely journals. The bottom four though, their titles shining enticingly in gilt, they were enough of an eyebrow-raiser that Riss was very glad she didn’t have to explain them to Calay. Librida Sorcieri was some sort of old hocus almanac, likely equal parts history and bullshit. Sorcery and the State was a Selyek treatise about the threat of magick to stable government. A real cozy bedroom read. The other two were more what Riss was interested in: In Search of Answers and Fragments Remain: A Chronicle of the Vasa Purge

Yes, there would have been some questions if Calay had caught a glimpse of those. 

It wasn’t that Riss wasn’t planning on sharing her findings. It wasn’t even that Riss suspected she’d flip the books open and discover anything that led her to distrust Calay himself. She knew enough about him to know he’d been a thoroughly untrustworthy individual in his former life. The big bounty and the allusions to his litany of past crimes had been enough to clue her in on that.

She supposed she was simply unnerved by the power imbalance. She’d never worked so closely alongside someone who could end her in the blink of an eye. She wanted to… understand where he was coming from. Although when she thought about it in those terms, it felt sort of like treating him as though he were a temperamental dog prone to biting. Which wasn’t the case.

Riss just hated going in dark. She’d worked in recon for a reason. From the earliest memories of her youth, she’d preferred a solid foundation of knowledge to blind ambition. If her father hadn’t steered her harshly off that path, she might have ended up in a library similar to Ambassador Havasi’s, wiling away the hours as a clerk or some such.

Ah, what might have been. 

She resisted the urge to flip one of the books open immediately. She knew it’d only suck her in, and then she’d have to tear herself away. No, these were books to be consumed on a quiet evening behind a locked door. When life stopped throwing interruptions at her every thirty seconds. As much as the powerful, curious compulsion tingled in her hands, she forced herself to be good. She stacked the books into the bottom cupboard of her desk, where she kept a few other things too precious for everyday use: Gaspard’s pistol, her old letters from Adal.

On her way downstairs, she passed by Torcha’s room and hesitated a moment. Ought to check on her, she thought. Yet another entry in the long line of oughts and shoulds, the never-ending march of duty. This responsibility, at least, was one she was glad to shoulder.

Knocking quietly on the door, she called out. “Torch? You feeling better now that you’ve scrubbed the cells off you?”

“Yeah. Come in if you want,” came the reply through the door.

Riss let herself inside.

Torcha’s room was, like the courtyard, a work in progress. Or rather it existed in a state of permanent work-in-progressness, given that Riss wasn’t sure she’d tidied it or furnished it any more in the last year than she had their first week moving in. Weaves of wool and silk dangled from the walls, mostly in abstract geometrical patterns. Their colors clashed; as far as Riss could tell there was no coordination or theme to it all. The skinny single bed had an ornate head and footboard but was almost laughably narrow. The shelves were all empty. On the far wall, a glass-fronted display cabinet was home to the more ornate selections of Torcha’s one-man arsenal. Long-barreled pistols with mother-of-pearl grips, an absurdly long rifle midway through the reconstruction process, half of it still corroded with rust, powder horns and accessories and such.

A fine layer of dust coated both the bedposts and the top of the narrow table that flanked the wall. Torcha only spent a few nights a week at home. Riss had stopped asking where she went when it became clear that all she did was lounge around Calay and Gaz’s, up to who-knows-what and unwilling to talk about it. Oh well. She was an adult.

Torcha sat in a copper bathing tub, relaxed in front of the hearth. The fire wasn’t lit, though, so she seemed to be staring at the fire screen more than anything. The screen was typical Meduese work, a hammered brass depiction of big ships with big sails engaged in some sort of artillery battle against a sea serpent.

“They sure do love their boat art here,” Riss said, hooking a little grin. She dragged a dusty chair over and sank into it beside the bathtub.

In the bath, Torcha sulked so far down that the water reached her chin. Her hair had grown preposterously long in the last few years, and when it wasn’t bound up as per usual, Riss was always stunned by just how much room it took up. Deep burgundy when wet, it floated on the surface of the bathtub like a sea of kelp. It made her look all of twelve years old.

“Art’s art,” Torcha said, not explaining what she meant by that. She sounded unimpressed.

“So.” Riss glanced down, regarding Torcha’s sole hand visible above the waterline. She gave a pointed look toward the cuts on her knuckles. “Fun night?”

“Was a perfectly consensual scrap,” Torcha said. “Nobody had a problem ‘til the barman pissed his pants and called the law.”

“City people, eh.” Riss just let her vent. 

“The Ambassador was pretty tickled by it, at least.” Torcha grinned. Riss considered whether it was worth correcting her, that she’d been guarding the Ambassador’s kid. Had she even been paying attention? 

“Sorry we couldn’t come get you sooner,” Riss said instead. Professional corrections could come in a day or two. No sense berating someone on the details of a long-finished job when they were fresh out of jail and likely nursing an eye-splitting hangover.

Something changed in Torcha’s demeanor. Her eyes narrowed. Water sloshed against the wall of the tub as she turned to face Riss.

“Renato wouldn’t have let me go earlier,” she said, cool and curt.

“What?” A funny little fear began to unwind itself in Riss’ stomach.

“Yeah. He said they were gonna hold me overnight. He had a bunch of questions. I don’t think it was like their policy, y’know? He let a couple other guys out. But not me.”

“Questions?” Riss didn’t want to push too hard. Renato had been a real prick back there with his over-the-top concern, but it hadn’t occurred to her that he’d purposefully mistreated Torcha. Why would he? They’d gotten on so well before. And Torcha hadn’t given any indication at the jail that he’d…

“Did he hurt you?” Riss asked, interrupting her own earlier question. She suddenly had to know. 

Torcha narrowed a quizzical eye at her. “Shit, boss, no. It wasn’t like that. He’s a royal asshole these days, don’t get me wrong.” She rubbed some droplets of water off her face. “He just kept me up all night. Had all these questions. Wanted to know everything. Honestly, I don’t think he cares about me at all. Mostly, he wanted to know all about you.”

Riss slouched back in her chair, cursing softly. Fucking Renato. She’d suspected his is that you shit was an act. This confirmed it.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Riss said. “Wish I’d slugged him in the face instead of greeting him like a friend, if I’m being honest.”

One of Torcha’s cheeks dimpled as she shook her head, laughing. “No you don’t. Not in the jail where he’s the warden. Leave that kind of boneheaded move to me.”

“So you admit it was boneheaded? Thank you.” Riss grinned now. She couldn’t let herself get wrapped up in seething about Renato. Not while juggling so many other tasks. She didn’t voice it, but she felt a moment of private gratitude toward Torcha then. She knew what a touchy subject it was. Knew Riss’ tendency to stew on things. 

Relaxing back, Riss asked Torcha to give her a play-by-play of the fistfight. She could take a few minutes, shut the door on sorcery and Renato and their coming journey across the Flats. This might be one of the last opportunities she had to do so. 

Then they’d be abandoning their work-in-progress home for another far-flung journey across the Continent. Riss rubbed at her wrist with a thumb, listening as Torcha regaled her with her recollection of the night’s blows.

There was a wariness in Riss now, lying in wait just below the surface. Soon, that postwoman would be briefing them on the finer details of the job. Until she knew the whole story, that wary anticipation would take up space inside her.

At least there was no possible way their destination could be as horrible as the last one.

<< Book 2, Chapter 6 | Book 2, Chapter 8 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 6

In the year since they’d escaped from the hellish swamp at Adelheim, Riss and Calay had developed a working relationship unlike any other she’d ever known. She supposed it made a certain type of sense. Working with a sorcerer wasn’t exactly SOP. She doubted even Adal’s fancy officer academy had courses on that.

But Calay was unique beyond his magickal talents. Just like there was more to Riss than her recon skills, so too was Calay more than his bag of sinister magick tricks. She’d had to learn her way around him as a person, had to overcome her discomfort that he’d joined her company under false pretenses. That latter one had been the big hurdle. 

Riss was willing to forgive a lot in exchange for honesty and hard work. Calay worked as hard as any soldier she’d ever commanded, but honesty was a trickier rabbit to snare. He had a tendency to withhold things, even things that an average person would see no issue with sharing. He’d answer questions if directly asked, but he rarely volunteered details unsolicited. Likewise, if she asked his opinion on things, he was often happy to share, but unless queried he’d often keep his feelings to himself, regarding her with those pale eyes of his and an expression that was somehow a perfect equal blend of passive and attentive.

I see what you’re doing, his eyes seemed to say. I’m just choosing not to comment.

She did not regret trusting her life to him in the swamp. Nor did she regret inviting he and Gaz into her company for good, bounty hunters be damned. Trust was a funny thing. It came instantly between some people. With others, it was like plaque building up on metal. You never really noticed a buckle was rusting. You never saw silver take on tarnish in real time. Yet at some point, you’d glance down and find the trinket in your hand no longer shone like it was supposed to.

Riss and Calay weren’t quite there yet. The trust between them was businesslike and practical.

Yet when she woke in the predawn hours to discover Calay waiting patiently in her sitting room, she had to acknowledge that trust was building into something beyond the transactional. Not because he’d come in the first place, but because her initial response was one of relief rather than suspicion.

Adal had roused her, stealing into her bedchamber and shaking her awake when a knock at the door failed to do the trick. He’d then mumbled an apology and quickly excused himself, informing Riss that Calay was downstairs and needed to speak to her.

“He says it’s urgent,” Adal muttered on his way out, slippers scuffing along the wooden floor.

Riss rolled out of bed still half-asleep, yanked rudely from a dream whose ghostly notes still played in the back of her mind. Of course Calay’s business was urgent. Otherwise he wouldn’t be waking them in the middle of the damned night, would he. 

She stuffed her feet into her own slippers, then threw a heavier dressing gown on over her nightshirt. On her way out the door, she caught a glimpse of herself in the hallway mirror: a frazzle-haired ghost with pale robes and sunken eyes, haunting the corridors of her own home. She rubbed at her face as she descended the stairs, lightly slapping herself across the cheek in the hopes of waking up that tiny bit more.

Adal and Calay sat in the small, wood-panelled sitting room adjacent to the entryway. Adal had lit a couple lamps, but beyond that the house was dark and quiet. They made no small talk, sitting in silence as she arrived. She sank into the armchair closest to the doorway.

As usual, Calay was tough to read. He was dressed in a fine, close-cut wool suit, the charcoal grey getup that they’d had tailored for a diplomatic assignment the previous winter. His mutated arm was politely gloved and out of sight. He looked for all appearances like a visiting businessman interrupted on the road to City Hall. Only the stiff posture with which he sat on the long, low silken lounge hinted that anything was amiss.

“Riss.” He greeted her with a solemn nod. “Sorry to wake you.”

“Think nothing of it.” She gave him a quick smile. “I’m sure you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important.”

Sal Ercun’s family hadn’t battered her door down, so she assumed the escort job had gone off well. Something had happened afterward, then? More bounty hunters? The thing with Calay that kept her wary was that she felt like she never quite knew his business. It appeared, though, that she was about to learn some.

“It’s Torcha,” he said.

Riss temporarily forgot how to breathe. She cleared her throat. Some emotional muscle deep inside her tensed, waiting for the worst. Torcha never could get a handle on her anger. Torcha always was prone to picking fights she couldn’t finish. And gods knew authority didn’t sit well with her, a point of contention in a town as governmentally top-heavy as Medao. So there was—

Calay interrupted her panic before it could fully blossom.

“She’s fine,” he said. “Or at least mostly-fine. She picked a fight with a dockhand on our way back toward the Ambassador’s estate. Ercun the Little walked us through a brawl, so it’s on him more than her. I kept on the client to ensure his safe return. Gaz hung around to make sure she was all right, but the garda scooped her up before they could get lost.”

“And Gaz?” Riss assumed if anything had befallen Gaz that Calay would have mentioned it first. Or… her mind took a darker turn: if something serious ever happened to Gaz, she’d be surprised if Calay ever turned up on her doorstep again.

Calay sniffed and ticked a finger off toward the front door. “He’s at the jailhouse talking to the authorities. We thought it best one of us stuck around.”

Riss nodded a few times as he spoke. “Good work,” she said. “That’s exactly what I would have done.”

Calay’s upper lip lifted, his expression twisting in a grimace. He fidgeted, discomfort evident in the way he held himself.

“I want you to know I feel terrible,” he said. “Normally I’d have never left her like that, but—”

This time, Riss interrupted him. “But you were escorting a client. And the client’s safety takes top priority in those situations.”

The words didn’t wash any relief over Calay’s features. He rolled his knuckles, the thin leather of his glove flexing with the motion.

“She’s an adult,” Riss said. “Tougher than most people twice her age and twice her size. This isn’t the first night she’s spent sleeping off a rage spiral behind a locked door.”

That got a weak laugh out of Calay, shook him out of his nerves a bit.

“Gaz sloshed some booze on her and told her to act drunk,” he said. “Which in hindsight is… very funny. And probably a genuinely solid strategy.”

Riss laughed a quiet, disbelieving laugh of her own. “Better they think she’s a drunk than a menace. Either way, I suppose that leaves us with a couple options. Either we head over now or…”

“The fellows at the door told us that the warden wouldn’t be by ’til after dawn,” Calay said. “Supposedly he’s the only one who has the authority to release her.”

Slouching back in her seat, Riss covered a yawn with her hand. “Dawn it is then.” 

She didn’t bother trying to get back to sleep, retiring upstairs to ready herself for the day.

###

Riss stared out to sea for the duration of the cab ride. They’d agreed to take a carriage at dawn for the sake of appearing both civilized and organized. Adal had volunteered to stay behind and sort out the morning’s business, which made Calay Riss’ sole companion for the journey. He sat opposite her while they wound along Peninsula Road, toward the heart of the city’s administrative district.

She never knew what to say to Calay when they were alone and there was no business at hand. He rarely initiated conversation himself, either. So they sat alone with their thoughts, neither of them volunteering which mental preoccupations kept them steeped in silence.

Calay directed their driver to the City Hall complex, a sprawlingly ornate building with gilt detail along its facade and big stained-glass windows that portrayed a series of seafaring scenes.

“We go in through the archway here.” Calay pointed. “Then in through the courtyard, then that interior building there.” Riss followed his gestures, nodding along.

“Nice place for a jail,” she said. The courtyards were immaculate, with neatly-trimmed grass and bright beds of flowers. The courtyard was fenced in by decoratively-trimmed hedges, their dense foliage thick with thorns.

A pair of King’s Garda ushered them through a heavy wooden door. The bright white stone of the building’s exterior gave way to a drab basalt grey that was more traditionally jail-like. A high wooden desk lorded over the narrow foyer, home to a bored-looking clerk who twirled a ringlet around his finger. Hallways branched off to either side of him, and when Riss peered down one, she was relieved to spy Gaz slouching on a bench. As soon as he spotted her, he stood and made his way over.

The clerk noticed, making the connection, and addressed Riss with a prompt nod, suddenly attentive.

“Warden!” he called. “The girl’s keepers are here!”

Calay greeted Gaz with a wordless laugh. Gaz rubbed at his lower back and rolled his shoulders.

“Just about asked them for a cell so I had somewhere to sleep,” he said.

“Just wait until you’re in your thirties,” Riss said. “You’ll start waking up with aches you can’t explain even when you sleep on a perfectly good mattress.” She gave him a smile. “Thanks for putting yourself through that.”

“Least I could do.” Gaz said. “Sure you woulda done the same for us.”

Riss considered it for a beat. Yes, she thought. At this point she would. 

Before she could dwell on that knowledge overlong, a familiar voice called her name.

“Riss? I can hardly believe it.”

She blinked and straightened up, turning around. A vision from her past strode out of the corridor in a crisp charcoal uniform, the front gleaming with a big brass badge that bore Medao’s city crest.

He’d put on some weight and cleaned up a little since they’d parted ways, but apart from that not much had changed. He barely even looked any older. It was like he’d stepped right out of her memory and into real life.

“Renato.” Riss made herself smile even though she had yet to figure out whether she meant it. “I am… very surprised to see you here.”

The last time she’d set eyes on Renato Cassi, he’d spat in her face. Tears streaming down his cheeks, he’d cursed her to the end of her days. He’d told her she deserved to rot in the deepest pit the gods could dig. 

Now he regarded her with a calm smile, his eyes giving nothing away. Riss recalled her last stroll down the fishmongers’ lane, the gape of shark jaws nailed to a wall. Dark, flat eyes and big white teeth.

He offered her a hand. She shook it. Then he looked past her.

“And who are your friends? I admit I thought it would be Adalgis nipping at your heels.”

Calay tensed up for a half-second, focused on Renato with renewed interest.

“Calay Maunet,” he introduced himself. “And my mate here is Gaz. Adal’s still kicking around, don’t you worry.”

Renato folded his arms across his chest. “Pleasure to meet you. Well, I won’t delay you all any longer.” He turned and yelled some instructions at the clerk, asked them to bring ‘the girl’ back around. Riss’ fingers twitched at her side. Hurry it up, she thought.

“It’s good to see you,” Renato said, regarding Riss for a time. She got the impression he didn’t mean it. “I kept meaning to write.”

She lifted her shoulders. “There’s a hundred letters a year I keep meaning to write. Life’s busy. Think nothing of it.”

Riss felt like she was walking across a thinly-frozen lake, ice cracking threateningly beneath her every step. All the awkwardness, all the hesitation she’d feared she’d feel upon her reunion with Tarn appeared to be manifesting here instead.

Renato stepped in closer to her personal space, leaning his head in toward hers. He didn’t quite whisper, but he spoke quietly enough that the words were meant for her, Calay, and Gaz alone.

“I’ve taken care of everything,” he said. “She won’t face any legal repercussions. Sometimes our emotions get the best of us. I can only imagine how hard it’s been for you and her both.”

“Grief’s funny,” was all Riss had to say to that. “It comes and goes.”

Renato scrunched his eyebrows up, his expression almost cartoonishly sympathetic.

“And you?” he asked. “How have you been coping?”

“Just fine,” said Riss.

“Well let me know if there’s anything I can do for you,” he said. “Anything at all. It must be so hard, building your business back up after something so devastating. Building yourself back up. It absolutely shattered you.”

Riss didn’t let herself rise to the bait. She listened, nodded a couple times, and sighed out a wordless thanks when two stocky guards marched Torcha up the hallway, cutting the conversation off.

Torcha certainly looked like a woman who’d been in a brawl and then spent a night in the cells. She wore a drab, formless ankle-length canvas dress, carrying a bundle of cloth beneath her elbow. Her knuckles were split and scabbed and a fresh scrape adorned her chin. She winced when they walked beneath a window, letting her head hang down and scrubbing hard at her face. 

“Ugh,” she announced, flinching back from the sunlight. “Thanks for coming to get me, boss.”

“Always,” Riss said.

“You need this rucksack back?” Torcha gestured to her dress, squinting up at Renato through sunken, bleary eyes.

Renato looked her over for a moment, then loosed a good-natured chuckle.

“No, no,” he said. “I think you’ve been through enough. Don’t say I never gave you anything, hm?”

A look passed between them that Riss couldn’t quite read. She didn’t like it. Putting a hand to Torcha’s arm, she gave a guiding tug toward herself.

“Are there any forms we need to sign?” Riss asked, looking across toward Renato for hopefully the last time. “Any fines?”

Renato shook his head. “Not for you,” he said. “It’s not often I get to use my position here to help out a friend who’s fallen on hard times. I just hope you’ll get her the help she needs. It’s not easy, going through that at her age.” He cast a look down at Torcha, regarded her like a toddler who’d stubbed her toe.

Riss mumbled her goodbyes and they all made to leave. Renato escorted them to the courtyard, waving off the guards with a casual flick of his wrist.

“I’m sure I don’t have to say this,” he murmured lowly to Riss. “But please be careful. I only have so many favors, eh? Can’t appear too preferential.” 

“Don’t you worry,” Riss told him, smiling politely. “It’s a big, rowdy city. You won’t even know we’re here.”

Walking quickly, they left the high walls and clean white stone of the administrative center behind, making way for the nearest rank of carriages.

“Gods,” Torcha grumbled. “Can someone turn the sun down?”

Gaz unknotted his scarf and draped it over her head. They were still standing like that when a cab finally collected them for the ride home.

“Okay,” Calay said as soon as they were ensconced in the privacy of their cab. “Who the fuck was that?”

<< Book 2, Chapter 5 | Book 2, Chapter 7 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 5

“You look pretty gloomy for a guy who’s about to sleep in a real bed for the first time in a month.” Mafalda cradled her chin in her hands as she peered up from the floor.

Slouched in his hammock, flipping through a book and glaring at it like it had done him a grievous personal injustice, the Continent’s most wanted man sighed. He snapped the book shut and tapped a restless finger to its spine, looking down at her.

“It’s just bad timing, Maf.” Nuso slouched back into his heap of sheepskins and pillows, the motion swaying the hammock gently. “A break’ll be nice, but any other time would have been preferable.”

“Funny man.” Mafalda yawned, stretching out on the lasma hide she lounged upon. The thick brown fur had a weirdly comforting musky aroma now that she’d slept on it so many times. She’d grown used to it. The smell made her tired by association. 

“I’m funny because I’m annoyed we can’t keep working?” Nuso sounded more amused than affronted.

“Funny man to assume Fortune gives a fart what’s convenient for us.” 

Nuso of course didn’t believe in Fortune, or any of the other quasi-gods or goddesses honored the whole island over. That was a debate he and Mafalda had wrestled through many a time over their years together. So she wasn’t surprised when he just grunted at her and let the subject drop. 

On the subject of timing he was, of course, correct. The timing was terrible. 

For most of the past month, they’d been exploring a series of burial sites in and around the Teag Range, a series of low, treeless brown mountains heaped like dung on the northern edge of the Flats. The mountains themselves were terribly uninteresting, but they possessed the most important quality mountains could have in Nuso and Maf’s eyes: they were riddled with holes and caverns. 

Following yet another of Nuso’s mysteriously-acquired ancient maps, they sought a rumored back entrance into a sprawling Meduese tomb complex. Rumors of secret passageways and air shafts and concealed doors were a dime a dozen at any tomb excavation—in the decade or so Mafalda had done this work, she’d heard dozens of stories but only ever found one such chamber—but this particular hillside bore some intriguing signs.

Just six days prior, they’d broken into their most promising chamber yet, a lichen-dappled limestone atrium replete with carvings and signs of human occupation. Their team had documented everything as-was, then come upon an old cave-in that looked like it might conceal a passageway. Considering the atrium was home to no remains, Maf could only guess where that passage might lead. They’d labored intensively to clear it, but nature had chosen to chase them from their campsite prematurely.

Riders had arrived at camp that morning, informing them that the annual scorpion migration had begun across the Flats. Hundreds of thousands of scorpions would arrive in less than two days’ time, a great teeming blanket of them. Maf had never attempted to work during scorpion or tarantula season before, but she’d heard the stories of those who tried—scooping arachnids from boots by the handful and losing laborers by the dozen to bites didn’t sound like a winning strategy. 

“I hoped we’d have a little more time, is all.” Nuso stared up at the rocky, torch-lit ceiling, his expression morose. 

“We will.” Mafalda pushed herself up off the rug, knowing if she stayed much longer she’d doze off. “We’ll have all the time in the world once the scorpions have passed by.”

White-yellow like the salt flats where they laid their eggs, the scorpions in question were about the size of a thumb and venomous as all hell. Mafalda did not plan on sticking around long enough to see a single one. She wasn’t an arachnophobe—such a thing was more or less impossible for a tomb crawler—but there was a particularly sickly quality to the Flats Scorpion that made her stomach churn. They were gross.

Which is why she’d ordered her crew to construct a big wooden gate for their dig site. Hopefully the little bastards would all skitter right over the top without considering making a home of their cavern. 

“Gonna go check on the construction,” she announced. “You want anything from downstairs?”

Nuso stayed relaxed where he was. He swished a hand toward her, a gesture that could have meant anything. 

“Nah,” he finally said. “Unless you spy any wine down there.”

Mafalda chuckled and left him to his sulking. Their loft was a flat patch of rock with hammocks for sleeping and a listing desk all ringed in by assorted warped wooden furnishings that functioned almost entirely as book storage. They’d boxed up everything worth taking home and carried it down to the doors already, so when Mafalda climbed the ladder down into base camp proper, all looked pretty bare. The wagons outside bulged with cargo, but if she knew Nuso he’d manage to fit another half-ton in somehow. 

Ambling through a narrow, greyish-white tunnel that glittered with veins of quartz, Maf strolled up a gentle slope and followed the distorted echoes of saws and hammers. Every member of their fourteen-man team who wasn’t securing artifacts in the wagons was working on the gates, and as Mafalda stepped through to the worksite the scent of freshly-sawed evergreen brushed her nose like a cool wind. She enjoyed a couple pleasant sniffs, then sought out her foreman.

“How goes it, Blitt?” she asked, leaning over a hefty figure who lashed skinny tree trunks to a frame of wooden planks.

Blitt rose up and dabbed at his sweaty brow with a sleeve. The man had a face like a dropped pie, ravaged by burn scars. That long-ago trauma had melted his features to one side, though his unmarred right eye observed Mafalda with a weary, competent intelligence. 

“Ahead of schedule, if you’ll believe it.” Blitt grinned, only half his mouth moving. 

“Fuck off.” Maf squinted at him, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it didn’t. He clunked a boot against the wooden frame, pointing downward.

“These larch ain’t much to work with, but if we saw ‘em in half we reckon the gaps are narrow enough to only let a few scorpys through. And we’ll lash blankets to the backside too.”

The harsh winds and lack of adequate topsoil in the Teags meant that trees were hard to come by. The crew had scavenged a day’s ride off and found a few groves of scraggly larch, evergreens with trunks that were barely as thick as Blitt’s forearms. Proper planks would have left a much more airtight campsite, but in the field, you took what you could get.

Maf puckered her lips at Blitt. “I could kiss you,” she said.

“Aye, and then who would build your next gate when my wife puts me in an early grave?”

She wondered all the time if Blitt’s wife was really as hardcore as he liked to joke. Must be some woman. But that sort of banter could wait for the long wagon ride back to civilization. Maf told the crew to keep up the good work, then skulked off toward the wagons to steal a bottle of wine for their pouty crew leader. 

###

Hour by hour, they packed up the last month of their lives and stowed it all away. Everything nonessential was left behind. Camp now reminded her of the ghost towns she’d passed through in her studies, traces of old civilizations left behind. Except their buckets were new and their latrine still stank and hopefully they’d all be back to work in a few weeks.

Nuso dallied far off in the darkness, snuffing out the last of their torches and lanterns. She watched his distant silhouette, the way he moved through camp with slow, soft steps. He got this way when he didn’t want to go, a sort of whole-body reluctance to his every action. Eventually, he satisfied himself with the state of things and turned back her way.

She considered him as he neared her. He was still the same old Nuso, albeit a few inches taller and a little leaner than when they’d first met all those years ago. He still wore his hair long, still dressed like a man worth a fraction of the illicit wealth he held claim to. 

Maf had never thought he’d looked like an outlaw. His eyes were too soft. He smiled too much. Maybe that’s why she found it so easy to work with him, to run the digs and turn a blind eye to his other enterprises.

“Come home with me,” she said once he was at her side. “It’ll do you good.”

Nuso reached back over his shoulder, untying and then re-tying his ponytail. His face always scrunched up when he did it, like securing his hair took the entirety of his mental energies.

“No can do,” he said. “They’re a bit hot for me down south.”

“We could smuggle you through like last time.” Mafalda knew it was a losing battle but kept at it anyways. “You know my mother would love to see you. She asks about you every time.”

“Your mother is a lovely woman,” Nuso said dutifully. “But I’ve got business in the opposite direction. And I’ve already organized transport up the river.”

Blitt had told him once that back in the day, in the early formation stages of their smugglers’ gang, Nuso’s nickname had been Asnoto. The older hands still called him that sometimes. It took months for Maf to gain their trust, and only then did someone let it slip that the moniker meant donkey in Sunnish. Due to the boss’ stubbornness, of course, Blitt had informed her with a polite cough. 

Maf knew she couldn’t force Nuso to do anything he didn’t want to do. But it was a shame, how he couldn’t appreciate time off for what it was. 

“You’ll regret it if you don’t take an honest-to-gods break soon,” she said, heaving her knapsack up onto her back. 

They stepped through the gate, which stood complete and reinforced with woolen blankets and tarps up the back. Maf curled a fist and knocked a pattern on it for luck, grinning at the doors as they stepped through. Her team had done her proud. The gate itself was built far enough back into the cavern that it wasn’t visible from the outside. If they had to clear some scorpions out of the tunnel before it, fair enough. A small price to pay for protecting the majority of the dig. 

The desert sky was the hue of fresh spring lavender as they stepped outside, a powder-purple twilight. Crossing the Flats during the day was brutally hot, so they planned to caravan by night.

“Such a shame,” said Nuso, turning back to regard the cave’s opening for a moment.

From where they stood, it looked like an innocent crack in the stone, no signs modern or ancient of what waited within.

“We’ll be back,” Maf promised. “And then it’ll only be a few days before we crack that passage wide open.”

They ambled toward their wagon, Nuso shoving his hands in his pockets.

“What do you think is down there?” he asked.

“Haven’t a clue.” Maf grinned excitably. “But I’m certain there’s a tunnel of some sort. I can feel it in my bones.”

The weird thing was that she wasn’t even joking. Standing down near that heap of collapsed rock, Maf had felt the strangest sensation. A flicker of intuition, the way your scruff rose up when you walked past an unfriendly dog. Only instead of warning her off, it felt almost like it was beckoning her in. 

Nuso feels it too, she thought. That’s why he doesn’t want to leave. He’s paranoid someone else will find this place before we can make it back. 

Yet Maf was oddly certain that wouldn’t happen. She had her share of pragmatic worries about any excavation, but she hadn’t fretted over that in the slightest when they’d packed down camp. 

As they hauled up into their wagon and got comfortable, sharing flasks around with the gang and settling in for a long ride, Maf felt it in her gut like she’d already swallowed the truth. They’d be back. They’d crack that passageway open like an oyster and see if anything glittered.

Whatever waited inside would be theirs. And Nuso wouldn’t have to fight his way through a hundred thousand scorpions to get to it. The best of both worlds. 

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