Book 2, Chapter 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He hazarded a guess.

“You haven’t slept.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mind unquiet?” Adal asked.

“More than the usual.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you see?”

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

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

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

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

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

He’s keeping kids in there.

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, Riss put the conversation to bed.

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

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

“Huh,” Calay said. “I’m a little…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<< Book 2, Chapter 27 | To Be Continued >>

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Book 2, Chapter 27

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

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

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

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

Who were these people? Why were they here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the—” Calay began again.

Eber shushed him, hissing out a soft shhh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He won’t answer,” said Hanley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, it could be repurposed.

He got to work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So he’ll make a full recovery?”

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

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

“That he is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He puppeted himself into motion again, polite and restrained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book 2, Chapter 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, Torcha felt no such reservations. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know why,” he said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Recipe for trouble,” said Riss. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<< Book 2, Chapter 25 | Book 2, Chapter 27 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 25

(See author’s note in the comments below!)

Tension sank its teeth into Riss. All the little muscles in her abdomen tensed, body bracing itself as though anticipating a physical blow. It was perhaps overkill. Nuso Rill was all the way on the other side of the pool, chatting casually to his comrades. When he did glance over toward Salka, his eyes passed over Riss without a moment’s pause. She was just part of the backdrop. 

Yet she felt certain that he had somehow seen her. Somehow knew her purpose in Frogmouth. She calculated the distance to her discarded weapons, wondered just what the odds were that she and the others could fight their way out. How many of the people at the swimming hole were on Nuso’s payroll? And how many more would side with his people against an outsider? Would it all explode into chaos?

Nothing exploded, chaotic or otherwise. The children continued climbing up onto their perch and diving down into the pool. Others continued their lazy sunbathing. And across the swimming hole, Nuso trudged up out of the water. He shook himself dry like a dog, then wrung out his hair, left it dangling loose down his back. He stepped into a pair of sandals, yelled something to one of his crew, and then announced that he was going to get the grub.

Riss did her best not to stare, waving pointlessly at Calay just so she would look like she was doing something. Calay tilted his head in blatant confusion, then lifted his glove for a slow, tentative wave in return. Gaz and Adal both lounged nearby, the former in the water and the latter now on the shore.

They had no idea. Urgency bubbled up in Riss’ stomach like indigestion. Torcha had heard, at least. And Riss was fairly sure she’d fit the necessary pieces together. But fuck, the other three had no clue what was coming. No clue how careful they had to be.

“You all right?” Shit. Salka had noticed she’d gone quiet.

Riss blinked and rubbed at her brow, making a show of it.

“Yeah. I’m fine. Just getting over that sunstroke still. I get a little fuzzy-headed.”

“It’s a bastard.” Salka’s tone was sympathetic.

“So…” Riss groped for a thread of conversation. “Regarding those mosquitos. You know a place around here we could make camp where they won’t ruin our day?”

Salka scratched at her stubbly head, then peered up toward the clifftops. A few of the canyon-town’s rickety buildings perched overhead, silhouetted against the afternoon sun. Sunlight peeked through visible gaps in the boards. Perhaps camping out on the outskirts of town was a wiser choice, mosquitos or not. Riss wasn’t sure she could sleep in a glorified treehouse over a several-story drop. Or even worse, beneath said treehouse.

“Honestly?” Salka laughed. “Just about anywhere. Folks here are used to drunks falling over where they stand.” Her face scrunched up in thought. “Well, that is, the ones that don’t fall into the canyon…”

Riss had never before thought the phrase I’d prefer the thousands of scorpions, but when compared to sleeping on the open street in a town full of bloodthirsty opportunists where one wrong step would send a careless pedestrian plummeting to the canyon floor, the scorpions were starting to look like an attractive alternative. And that was without even throwing Rill into the mix.

“I’m sure we’ll find somewhere,” Riss said with an ease she didn’t feel.

Salka looked her up and down, then grunted approvingly. “You were in the service. I can tell. You’ve slept in worse places.”

Riss’ thoughts flashed back to campsites thick with mud, the serenade of otherworldly voices wailing in the night. The beguiling cries for help in the swamp, so clever, so convincingly almost human.

“Sure have,” she said.

Riss knew she couldn’t depart just after Rill did. That would draw suspicion. But at the same time, she felt antsy, uncertain. Hanging around in her togs without even a knife in hand had seemed a relaxing prospect mere hours ago. Now it felt like a bold, brash, award-winningly dipshit move and there was nothing she could do about it. 

Torcha and Salka went back to their small talk. Riss let them. There were far too many people populating the swimming hole, at least some of which she knew to be affiliated with Rill. So swimming back to Adal and Gaz and explaining what she’d learned wasn’t an option. 

In the end, she had nothing to do but the thing she’d gone down there to do in the first place: swim. Diving smoothly beneath the surface, Riss kicked hard, swimming back-and-forth lengths across the rock pool to burn nervous energy. She’d always been a strong swimmer, part and parcel of growing up in river country. In her early years, when the days were long and her father’s wrath was far-reaching and the frustration was a constant, never-abetting pressure, she’d swum off much of her teenage angst in swimming holes such as these. Or up and down the gentler forks of the Deel itself, fighting against the current.

She lost track of how many lengths she’d completed somewhere around fifteen, then kept going. Finally, she peeled off so as to not exhaust herself completely. The pleasant post-exercise blood buzz flooded through her like a strong drink, but the kind that left one refreshed and clear-headed rather than drunk.

Adal, seemingly inspired by her own efforts, took over her swimming spot once she hauled herself up and out of the pool. She stretched out on the sandstone, wringing out her underthings, and then let the sun do the work of drying them. 

“Love a good swim,” Gaz rumbled from where he relaxed. “Brings back good memories.”

Riss perked open an eye, glancing curiously over at him. He did not specify the memories, but a hint of a smile inched up his broad mouth.

“I’d have figured the sea in Vasile was far too cold for swimming,” Riss said. “Or at least, you know, swimming for fun.” 

Gaz laughed low in his throat. He made a little gesture with one hand, waving it up toward the sky, which was growing darker and dappled with fluffy little clouds.

“Yeah, no, not in Vasile. Too cold. And also kinda dirty. Have you actually been up there? Not sure you could pay me to swim in that harbor.” 

“I haven’t,” Riss admitted. “Just heard stories.”

She found it interesting, the way Gaz and Calay discussed their hometown. Almost always, they discussed Vasile in terms of how crowded, dirty, and cold it was. Occasionally she’d hear them wax nostalgic about a particular person or a specific place, but those mentions were few and far between. Calay’s laundry list of crimes had certainly caused a falling-out between the two and their homeland, but Riss suspected there was a deeper conflict there. She suspected the emotional divorce had begun long before they were running from the law.

“You ever miss home?” she asked, stretching in the sun. She arched her back until it popped, then relaxed.

“Doesn’t everyone miss home a little?” Gaz asked in return.

“Sure.” Riss’ thoughts were free-flowing with details at the moment. Nothing she minded sharing. “I miss home all the time. The steppes. I miss how big the clouds get, these huge storm formations you could watch for hours. I miss… I miss how everything there is made of braided grass and flax. You never really see it outside of the Inland, never notice it ‘til it’s gone.”

“Oyster shell,” said Gaz. “In Vasile, lots of stuff is crushed-up oyster shell. Dried coral. Lots of copper, too. Big copper mines not far outside the city.”

“You miss oysters and copper?” Riss had to laugh.

Gaz chuffed. “No, not really miss them. But it’s like your grass thing. You notice their absence.”

“That you do.”

Adal emerged from the pool then, water trailing off down his sun-pink shoulders. He dripped some on Riss as he walked past. She cursed at him without much fire in it.

“Adal,” she said before he could wander out of earshot. “Come here for a minute. I have–”

A pair of tanned, lanky youths walked close by, carrying rolled-up blankets on their shoulders. The path took them just past the patch of sandstone where Riss relaxed, close enough that she could hear the discussion they were having on whether they thought there’d be girls at the cookout later that night.

Piss. There was just nowhere safe to mention Rill.

“Uh, yes?” Adal had stopped in his tracks, was staring at her now.

Riss glanced up at him, then fell short of words. She was struck momentarily by how the sunlight hit him, sparkling in the beads of water in his hair. His eyebrows lifted. He looked so real, so alive. Her heart stalled in her chest, shattered fragments of bone and broken teeth piercing through the mental veil she’d cast to repress the sight of them.

“Later,” Riss said, managing to cough the word out. “Just had a thought.”

Adal regarded her with skepticism but let it go.

By unspoken consensus, everybody began to pack up their things and tug their clothes back on. Swimming had worn out its welcome.

###

Just like when they’d first arrived, they spent the rest of the afternoon scouring Frogmouth for potential places to sleep. The sun fell, and Riss was unprepared for how chilly the wind turned. Locals who’d been wandering the paths in nothing but britches and sandals now wore more than one layer. Woolen ponchos seemed to be the local fashion of choice, proliferating the paths in brightly-dyed patterns and weaves. 

Torcha, of course, took to them instantly. She asked a passing woman where she could get one of those “blanket-coats” and that set the company off on a whole new adventure. By the end of it, Riss’ thighs ached from all the hiking and the tips of her ears were numb from the wind. But it was a fruitful pursuit, for every single one of them now possessed their very own dyed wool poncho. She’d purchased a couple of wool blankets also, just in case their quest for beds brought them nowhere. All the while, she kept an eye and ear open, waiting for a chance when the crew might be completely alone. She needed to warn them, needed to explain to them that Rill was much much closer than they’d anticipated, but paranoia rattled her cage. What if Rill’s people saw her whispering in Adal’s ear? What if this shopkeep was an informant? What if the next shopkeep worked for them outright?

When a big, loud bell clanged out through the canyon, Riss initially froze with alarm. They were just leaving the wool shop, purchases clutched to their chests. Bells meant fire. Bells meant narlies breaching the perimeter.

Not in Frogmouth, it seemed. Many of the locals glanced up toward the rim of the canyon itself, over the top of all the ramshackle buildings and their dubious homemade walkways. But nobody panicked. 

“Dinner bell,” Torcha said after a moment. “I bet that’s Salka’s dinner bell.”

Riss considered. The cadence of the alarm sure hadn’t been… well, alarmed. 

They allowed themselves to be caught up in the general flow of foot traffic. Riss took the side of the path closest to the canyon, not even realizing that she’d positioned herself between it and Adal until they walked out of the danger zone. They crossed a creaky but sturdy bridge, ascending a worn path in the sandstone until they emerged from the shadow of the canyon itself up onto the top of a flat butte.

Clustered atop the butte were a few buildings, much sturdier-looking than the ones in the canyon. They were all wooden, but made of thicker planks. They had real roofs with tar and shingle as opposed to iffy thatch and gapped boards. And even more surprisingly, a big two-story wagon squatted beside them, no team currently harnessed to its yoke. 

Outside the largest of the buildings, a deep firepit glowed against the purple evening sky. The split-log seats around it were rapidly filling up. People carried sling chairs down the wagon’s boarding ramp, making more seats by the fireside.

Heavy cast-iron tureens and casserole dishes peeked up through the coals of the fire, lurking like fish beneath the surface of water. Riss could only tell their presence by the occasional jut of a handle or a knob, but it was a sight to which she was well accustomed. Camp cooking at its finest.

“Oi! Torcha! Riss!” Salka’s voice rose up from the whisper of wind and the murmur of voices. She sat in a sling-chair close by the fire, a half-knitted sweater sprawled across her knees. Riss studied the crowd and spotted Mafalda not far away, laughing with one of the many tan-faced swimming hole kids. 

It appeared they were going to be attending Nuso Rill’s cookout whether they’d intended to or not. 

To a person who’d grown up as intensely, cuttingly alone as Riss, big communal meals and social gatherings were always more burden than anything. They meant putting on airs, remembering people’s names, acting interested. Riss excelled at those things, but they took significant concentration. Her mind always ached as much with the social hangover as that of the alcohol on the morning after. 

That was part of what had drawn her to Adal, back in the service. They complemented one another, shored up one another’s weaknesses. She had an iron-clad constitution and never hesitated in matters of discipline or quick thinking in the field; he had an endless capacity for small-talk and buttering up their betters and the social skills to translate their reports into just what their Captains wanted to hear. 

Riss tried to think of this particular dinner along those lines. Just another promotion ceremony, another commendation supper, another graduation formal. She had to be on her best behavior, no doubt, but she had more leeway with Nuso Rill than with the decorated brass of the Inland. Here, she could be a dusty mysterious outlander who kept to herself save for when she thanked her hosts for their hospitality. There would be no forced elbow-rubbing, no expected lines to recite. And there wouldn’t be any mandatory dancing.

There was also the small matter of the sorcerer. Regardless of Rill’s superior numbers and his sway in this town, Riss had three quick guns on her side as well as an ally who could poach Rill’s brain his skull like an egg if push came to shove.

All the same, she hoped it would not come to that. 

And don’t you worry if you act a little cagey, she reminded herself. This is an outlaw town. Everyone here has something to hide. Everyone has their own reasons to keep quiet.

None of Gaspard’s many lessons had prepared her for anything like this. 

 

<< Book 2, Chapter 24 | Book 2, Chapter 26 >>

Thanks for all your votes on TopWebFiction over the last two years! Click here if you wanna add another. 😉

Author Update: Nominated for the Sir Julius Vogel awards! Rad new art!

Hi everyone! It’s been a very long time since I wrote an author update, so I figured I’d say hi and explain what’s been going on in my corner of the world.

For starters, I have some extremely cool newsInto the Mire has been nominated for the Sir Julius Vogel award, New Zealand’s top literary prize in science fiction and fantasy. I posted about it in the comments section yesterday, but for those who might not have seen, I’ll drop a brief rundown: I’ve had it confirmed by the committee that I’m on the longlist for Best Collected Work (Mire) and Best Short Story this year. That was for my short A Shriek Across the Sky, a tale about a father-son fishing trip that turns malevolently, eldritchly bad. You can read it free online in SPONGE magazine! And there’s even an audio edition if you’re into that sort of thing. 🙂

Making the shortlist of the Vogels comes down to a popular vote, and because my life has been extremely chaotic lately, I didn’t get around until posting the link until now. To which I say: whoops, my bad. But also, life has been really, really chaotic. 

Anyway, I’ve written a little guide on how to fill out the voting form as well as a link to the form itself. If you had two minutes to spare and you’ve enjoyed Mire at all over the years, I’d really appreciate it if you filled this out for me.

Again, joke’s on me for waiting so long, because voting closes in… uh, 30 hours. Whoops.

All the support I’ve had from readers over the years–the lovely comments, the fanart, the votes on TopWebFiction–has helped get Mire to this point, so really, truly thank you for helping my little side project grow this much. 🙂

And in completely unrelated news, I finally get to show off some absolutely jaw-dropping art! These are courtesy of an incredible artist named Floaty. He isn’t currently taking commissions but you can find him on twitter here.

Can I just… WOW, the hair! The details on the face!
Aaaah he looks so haunted. There’s something really creepy about this one in the best way.
THE ATTITUDE. The head tilt! Seriously I can’t stop staring at these.

I am just… completely floored. Floaty captured their personalities so perfectly. 😭 It’s always so thrilling to see artists bring my characters to life. Thank you to everyone who’s posted doodles on the Discord server, too! We have a gallery up there with all the art pinned if you haven’t stopped by and want to check it out. I keep meaning to set up a gallery page on the website but things are a little messed up in Caseyville at the moment.

(What follows is a long ramble about my personal life, please don’t feel obligated to read it unless you’re curious why I wasn’t able to update for a while, heh.)

As some of you know, I travelled to the US in Feb as I had a death in the family. After being knocked down for a few weeks in the USA with a mysterious respiratory illness, I managed to sneak back to New Zealand just as the pandemic was really spreading and things were starting to shut down. Unfortunately, I was supposed to be moving house from NZ’s south island to the North Island. I had everything all packed up and ready to go, even signed a lease on a new place, got the utilities connected…

… And then our country went into complete lockdown for 4 weeks. I was able to get a flight, but my husband was not. Rather than go a month without my partner and my cat, I made the difficult choice to abandon the new flat and move back south so I wouldn’t be alone, especially as I’m still recovering from my illness. We got the family together in the nick of time.

This means of course having to re-unpack my shit for the SECOND time (after the big trip to the US) and working out how to fully work from home. Then my partner lost his job and I had to take on some extra hours at one of my job to ensure everything stays all right financially… as we’re now paying two sets of bills and rent on the house which I’m not able to live in until quarantine is over.

In short, life’s been pretty flippin’ wild. But things are a little more stable now and I’ve got a desk to work from and very gratefully both my jobs are in industries that should be stable for the next… however long. I’m looking forward to getting back into writing and escaping back into Riss and co’s world again, because it’s always been very cathartic for me.

Times are a little weird right now. I apologise if this comes off as kind of emotionally distant or spacey, I’ve been exhausted and brain-dead for a while now and it’s tough to find the words for things. Times are weird and anxious all over the world and it feels silly to focus on things like book awards, but on the other hand I guess it’s a very human thing to do, seeking out little pockets of normalcy when everything’s all topsy-turvy.

Anyway, if you’ve made it to the end of this–thanks for reading! I’m sorry for disappearing. I’m very lucky to have a home, a job, and a family to look out for right now. And I hope that by updating regularly again I’ll be able to provide a little distraction when folks might need it.

Take care, and feel free to stop by the Discord and say hi if you wanna shoot the shit a bit.

Book 2, Chapter 24

(We have some exciting news! Into the Mire has been nominated for a major literary reward! Check the comment section on this chapter for the news. :D)

The canyon funneled cool wind through the town of Frogmouth, fending off the midday heat. Riss rested in a patch of shade, sat beneath the twisted trunk of an old, leafless tree. She could almost relax around trees now. Almost. But when the wind blew and shivering twigs and branches shifted in the corners of her eyes, she caught herself looking. Checking. Just in case.

The tree was a tree. In Frogmouth, all was well.

Or at least as well as a town packed sardine-tight full of bandits could be.

Once Mafalda’s crew dropped them off, they’d set about finding a place to stay. Problem was, Frogmouth was full up at the moment. Just like Esilio, the town suffered from a serious case of scorpion-related overtourism. And as sun-baked and dehydrated as Riss and Adal still were, hiking up yet another hill only to be told by yet another innkeeper that they were all out of beds was beginning to sound like toturte.

They all met up at a crossroads, a narrow path chiseled beneath an overhang in the red stone. Gaz, Riss, and Torcha passed around a bottle of cold-brewed tea while waiting for word on whether Adal and Calay’s explorations had been any more successful.

A withered, sun-tanned old man hiked past them on the trail, then paused for a moment when his eyes passed over Riss’ face.

“Say,” he said. “You’re looking a little sunstruck.”

Riss rubbed beneath an eye, blinking at him, “Was a hard hike to get here,” she said. “Under a very hot sun.”

The old man whistled, then pointed down a side path, a winding series of switchbacks that disappeared down toward the canyon floor.

“Beautiful day for a swim,” he said. “If you’re new in town, there’s a swimming hole just down that-a-way.”

What kind of bandit hideout had a swimming hole? Riss’ confusion must have shown on her face, because the old man cackled, his Adam’s apple bobbling.

“Gotta beat the heat somehow, sweetheart,” he said. Then he tipped his hat to them and went on his way.

Torcha took a swig from the tea. “I could go for a swim,” she said. Riss, who balked at being called sweetheart even by people her own age whom she liked, remained silent.

Gaz made a skeptical noise and shoved up from his patch of shade. He walked across the dusty, worn track in the sandstone and peered over the edge. From her vantage point, all Riss could see was the tops of a few broad-leafed trees, occasionally stirred by the wind. She perked her eyebrows at Gaz when he returned, hoping for a report.

“Got to admit,” he said, “it looks shady down there.” He paused. “The good kind of shady.”

Every minute they waited for Calay and Adal, the wind seemed to grow drier and hotter. By the time they actually arrived, Riss had to admit that okay, she had spent every single minute pondering how nice it would be to go for a swim. When she proposed the idea to Adal, he smeared sweat off his brow and responded with enthusiasm. Calay responded with indifference. That was as close to consensus as Riss cared about achieving.

Mindful of their footing, they departed from the main track and began the descent down into the canyon, following the trail the oldster had pointed out. It was narrow and not maintained in any way, only a trail by virtue of use. An untold number of years’ worth of boots had worn the sandstone smooth, little divots carved into the middle of the path by erosion and rainfall. They had to walk single-file, frequently slowing their pace to an awkward shuffle. The moment they stepped beneath the canopy of the small, scrubby forest that clustered around the river, the relief was palpable: the temperature dropped, the wind took on a pleasantly herbal scent, and sunlight backlit the leaves a beautiful green-gold.

All told, the descent took them down about the height of a four or five story building. They met no one coming the other way. Riss kept a wary eye out the entire time, unsure exactly what they were getting themselves into. Frogmouth had a reputation. She wasn’t about to march into a trap even as her own sense of caution informed her that she was likely overreacting and the locals here had no reason to desire to trap her.

A pair of sun-tanned, chubby kids sat fishing on a half-rotted log at the riverside, glancing up when Riss stepped free of the trail and onto a broader, more intentional-looking trail. Someone at least had taken a machete to the undergrowth here, hacking a way through, so Riss could glance past them toward the cool blue-toned ribbon of the river itself.

The kids turned back to their fishing poles, utterly uninterested in the strangers that had just emerged. Riss supposed Frogmouth was a town of strangers. If they even live here themselves, they’re used to it, she thought.

A sudden, explosive splash sounded from further down the path, followed by a peal of feminine laughter.

“Sounds like a swimming hole all right,” said Adal. He fell into step at Riss’ side, waistcoat draped over his arm. In the heat and the wind, he’d stripped down to a loose linen shirt, gloves tucked into his sash. He looked calm. Relaxed. The sight of it sparked a smile up Riss’ mouth and chased away the lingering unease that she still felt when looking at him.

The path veered past a particularly thick copse of trees and then, quite abruptly, they were at the pool.

Here, the river–which was really more of a creek by size and depth–was broad and deep, passing through a natural basin worn in the sandstone. Years ago, some helpful souls had piled stone after stone into the water, forming a natural dam that trapped yet more water in the existing pool. This had the effect of stalling the current in all but the shore closest to where Riss stood, the pool sparklingly bright on top and deep enough that it was dark, dark blue on the bottom.

About a dozen people of various sizes, shapes, colors, and ages lounged on the smooth sandstone banks, some snoozing in the sun with hats propped over their faces. A couple of faces Riss vaguely recognized from Mafalda’s laboring crew relaxed in the shallows, trading hits off a pipe. And up on the canyon wall, ascending perilous handholds and footholds, a pack of skinny, barefoot kids hurled themselves into the water with impressive speed and force, no doubt the source of the massive splashes they’d heard while walking in.

“Well this is nicer than I expected,” Torcha said. She was already peeling off her outermost layers.

Calay arched his eyebrows at her, watching with an expression of dubious discomfort. “You’re just going to strip down in front of the locals?” he asked. “Not afraid of attracting any bandit admirers?”

Torcha flipped him off, then yanked the last of her shirts up and over her head. A few people had turned to glance their way, curious about the newcomers, but Riss noted that most of the swimmers were in similar states of undress. Nobody seemed to care.

“What do you think?” Adal asked Riss. “I feel uneasy going unarmed here, I have to admit. But…”

At that point, Torcha tossed her gunbelt down atop the pile of discarded clothing. Naked as the day she was born, she took off running for the shore and threw herself in. She surfaced a moment later, hair plastered to her face, and proceeded to splash off into a patch of shade. Her form could use work, Riss considered. And you could see her entire ass. But fuck it, looked like she was having fun.

“She’s easy to please,” said Calay, toying with the hem of his single leather glove.

She never got the chance to be a kid, Riss thought. She was defensive at times about Torcha’s immaturity, her impulsiveness. Perhaps a little jealous of how easily she could unwind and partake in bits and pieces of the childhood Riss herself hadn’t really had either.

That thought sealed the deal. Riss began unbuttoning her shirt. Adal tapped her shoulder, then ticked his chin off toward a tangle of fuschia bushes.

“Might as well not undress on the path,” he said. “Let’s claim a bit of beach for ourselves.” He scooped up Torcha’s things, draping her gunbelt over his shoulder. Once they’d found a smooth, pebble-free spot to sit, everyone unlaced their boots. In Calay’s case, that was all he did. He rolled up the cuffs of his pants, then dangled his feet down into the cool water, sighing in pleasure.

Riss, who opted to keep her undershirt and shortpants on, slouched down beside him. She wasn’t quite brave enough to leap in without testing the water first, doing so with a little poke of one toe. Calay chuffed amusedly as he watched her.

“What,” she said. “I don’t see you leaping in headfirst.”

Calay pointedly drummed his gloved fingers on the sandstone. “Don’t think that would be wise.”

Riss glanced down, followed the motion of his fingers. She remembered what laid beneath the surface of that glove, the strange rippled construct of bone and bark that composed Calay’s right hand.

“Go on,” he said. “Someone has to watch our guns anyhow. You go enjoy yourself.”

Dipping her feet deeper into the water, Riss found it cooler than air temperature but not cold. Levering up with her arms, she slowly pushed off the sandstone and eased in…

… And promptly ducked her head underwater. She’d misjudged how deep the pool was. Coughing and sputtering, she gave a couple hard kicks and then transitioned into easily treading water. Droplets trickled into her eyes; she wiped them away with a hand. Squinting down, she tried to wrap her mind around what she saw. The bottom of the pool looked so close. But a moment’s further study revealed what had tricked her: the water was so clear she’d underestimated its depth. This was never a problem on the Deel, which was thick with algea and often ran muddy with overflow.

Above her, Calay snickered. She flicked a halfhearted splash at him, then pushed off the sandstone bank with her legs and kicked into a few hard, powerful strokes, crossing the pool to where Torcha loitered. A pair of large splashes behind her sounded the arrival of Gaz and Adal.

Torcha was already in conversation with one of the locals, leaning on her forearms and making small talk. Riss recognized the woman Torcha spoke to–she’d been on Mafalda’s other wagon, a bald gal whose name Riss wasn’t sure she’d been told. Riss gave them both a lazy wave upon arrival.

“Don’t mind me,” she said. “I’m just here for the shade.”

Torcha grinned toothily. “Salka here was just telling me there might be food later.”

The bald woman, who was broad of build and covered liberally in fading tattoos, laughed a single booming time.

“Might,” she said. “But that was before you invited three more.”

Torcha casually tossed her damp hair over a shoulder, then bound it up in a bit of cord.

“Even better,” she said. “There’s actually four more of us.”

“You’ll have to excuse her,” said Riss, her voice warmed with relaxed amusement. “We’ve been cooped up on our lonesome for a while. She gets a little stir-crazy.”

Salka rolled her shoulders in a what-can-you-do shrug, then let her eyes slouch closed. She stood on the bottom of the pool, which was much shallower this close to the homemade dam. Riss tilted into a lean beside her, though she gave plenty of distance.

“One of our boys got lucky earlier,” Salka said, voice so deep it was competition for Gaz. “Bagged the biggest pig I’ve ever seen. We’re so laden from our dig that we couldn’t carry all the meat out if we wanted to.”

Riss hummed in consideration. “That reminds me,” she said. “I thanked your boss earlier, but I wanted to pass it on to you and all the other diggers as well: thanks for turning around for us. Mafalda said she was missing out on spending time with her family? That’s huge.” She upnodded, a gesture of respect to the woman. “You put your necks out for us. We won’t forget that.”

Salka’s mouth lifted, her smile easy and broad-lipped. “It’s what you do in the Flats, love,” she said. “No room for error out there. Even less room for indifference.”

She could hear it then, buried but faint: traces of a Flats accent. Riss was by no means an expert on the Flats nomads and their customs, but she’d heard bits and pieces over the years.

“Makes sense,” she said. “Could be you out there one day.”

Mmm-hm,” Salka boomed. “Anyway, as I was saying to your friend. Once the boss comes by, we’ll see what we’re doing with the pig. Only roasting pit big enough in this pothole is communal anyhow.”

Riss and her people certainly weren’t lacking in food at the moment, though it was only on account of not lacking for money. They had more than enough to sustain themselves in Frogmouth for however long was necessary. She tried not to linger overlong on the subject of money, though, because the loss of that wagon came rearing right back up to kick her in the gut.

She was interested in the dinner for non-monetary reasons. There was no place like a big communal meal to get a feel for a place and the arteries of its loyalty. With a little luck, the event would give her the opportunity to see whether Rill’s people kept to themselves or mingled with the locals. And who among them was best to approach, if the latter.

“Well I’m sure Torcha told you we’ve been to all three hells and back trying to find a place to stay.” Riss yawned into the crook of an arm. “Suppose if we can’t find anywhere to bunk down, you might as well send our dinner invitation here. We may just pitch a tent.”

Salka’s nose wrinkled. She quickly shook her head. “Wouldn’t do that,” she said.

Riss perked her eyebrows, curious. “Why? Think we’ll get jumped?”

At that, Salka snorted out a laugh. “In a way.” She grimaced. “If what mosquitos do can be considered jumping. It’s too hot and breezy for ‘em now, but they come in droves when the wind settles in the evening.”

Torcha, who’d fallen silent in favor of listening to Riss and Salka talk, pulled a face.

“Thanks for the warning,” Riss said. “Well, this place isn’t huge. I’m sure if your boss says the whole town’s welcome for chow, we’ll get word somehow.”

An excited woop sounded from up above. A skinny, dark-skinned kid plummeted down from the canyon wall and into the pool, bombing them all with a splash. Torcha cackled and spat out water. Riss just shook her hair out.

“Shouldn’t be too long,” Salka said. She tilted her head up, elevating her eyes toward where the divers hunkered on their little cliff. She pointed at one particular figure, taller than most of the others. A broad-shouldered but leanly-built man wearing nothing but a pair of raggedy cut-off breeches proceeded to shove another, much smaller figure off the ledge, laughing raucously as he did it.

Riss cocked her head to one side. “That’s your boss? The shover or the shove-ee?”

All three of them watched as one of the kids took revenge for his friend, planting both hands on the big man’s lower back. He shoved hard and the man went down, sailing through the air. He pencilled his legs and arms against his torso before he landed, plummeting beneath the surface. When he bobbed back up, both the youths he’d ambushed proceeded to rain splashes down upon his face.

“He’s a bit of both,” said Salka. “But he’d better stop fart-assing around. Pig like that’ll take hours to roast; we gotta get started if we’re gonna.”

“I have to admit,” Riss said, “he has my sympathies. Rough to pull a man out of this cool water on such a hot day.”

“Eh. He’ll survive.” Salka turned toward the divers, who were now dunking one another on the shore of the pool. She turned her bellow on them with ease. “Oi! Noose! You find a gutter for that hog yet or what?”

Water whipping off his hair, the man turned his head toward them. He rolled his eyes when he spotted Salka, made a shooing motion.

“I get it, I get it!” he called. “You’re hungry! … But yes, they’re working on it now.”

Riss watched, mesmerized. The man’s hair was dark to begin with, darker still with water, plastered to his shoulders. He wrung it out, then wiggled a finger in his ear. She took him in for a moment, studying his face. He had thick, expressive eyebrows that moved and dipped when he laughed. His cheeks were red from either sun or laughter or exertion. Though he was paler than a lot of the swimmers loitering nearby, his skin had an olive undertone, the coloring common to those who grew up along the Janel coast. The coloring Calay might have one day attained if he ever let himself get a little sun.

The posters didn’t do him justice. Didn’t capture the way he moved, the easy athleticism and confidence. They made him look like a long-nosed, big-chinned, big-eyebrowed ruffian.

They got the stubble right, though.

Well fuck me, Riss thought. This child-dunking, pig-barbecuing shirtless horsearound was Nuso Rill.

<< Book 2, Chapter 23 | Book 2, Chapter 25 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maf smiled, the apples of her cheeks dimpling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“May I sit?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That he would.

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<< Book 2, Chapter 22 | Book 2, Chapter 24 >>

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Book 2, Chapter 22

Home.

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

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

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

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

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

Mafalda spoke in unison with his last few words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mafalda rubbed at her chin.

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

Wigs rolled a narrow shoulder and consulted the horizon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mafalda broke the bad news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That sparked Mafalda’s interest. 

“What happened to the wagon?”

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

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

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

“Sure is.”

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

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

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

“Didn’t make it,” Adalgis said.

“Splat,” said the redhead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gods damn it. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

How interesting. 

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

Book 2, Chapter 21.5

Boy, it was hot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You carried your guitar all this way?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

They woke.

They walked.

This time, nobody said a thing.

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

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

Calay had trouble walking in a straight line.

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

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

They rested.

They got back up.

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

It was getting tough to keep track.

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

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Book 2, Chapter 21

Gaz was tougher than most purely by build and dumb parental luck. While he’d never met his parents, he figured they must have been big. Growing up in a series of charity homes, bounced from household to household like so many of the Sunken Quarter’s unwanted boys, he’d had to grow tougher still. The littler ones, the ones with something to prove, they always tried to challenge him. He supposed it was human nature for people to look for the tallest tree in the forest and try to chop it down. Was a way for people to trick themselves into thinking they’d accomplished something. 

He’d toughed all that out.

But he knew, after hours of walking in the salt flats, that he could not tough this one out.

Calay had done what he could for Gaz’s leg by means of lizard blood and good old fashioned regular medicine. All in all, he’d done a bang-up job. And as always he had a truly exquisite selection of painkillers on hand. But while the wound no longer bled or hurt, his leg didn’t quite support his weight properly. His stride felt off. He tried adjusting his steps, even the way he held his hips, anything to put the weight down a little differently.

But after gods-knew-how-many hours, he just couldn’t keep it up anymore.

He didn’t allow himself to stumble. The first time he felt his ankle roll, he corrected, then came to a stop. Calay, who’d been walking beside him in stony-faced silence, stopped as well.

For a quiet moment, they held still and watched the others keep walking. Watched the flicker of Riss’ torch bob a little further off in the darkness. Watched Adal and Torcha, who stuck close together, their faces half in shadow. It was easy to believe, if one was a paranoid sort, that if neither Gaz or Calay said anything, they might just keep walking forever, leaving them at the mercy of the desert.

But of course they didn’t. Riss stopped, likely having heard their footsteps slow, and looked back.

Riss regarded him with soft, apologetic eyes in the fireglow. She didn’t say anything. Neither did he. 

“Think we’ve all gone ‘bout as far as we can for now,” said Torcha. Gaz didn’t quite believe she meant it, but he appreciated the cover.

They shared water, then settled down right where they’d stopped. Gaz wasn’t any recon specialist like the others, but he figured it out: no sense in looking for a campsite in terrain like this. Salt was salt. 

Hunkering down, they unpacked what little they’d carried. Gaz unrolled a length of patterned orange fabric from his pack, meant as a sun shelter but now serving as a blanket. He plopped his pack onto the hard salt, let his ass hit the ground, and laid back. He didn’t care that he hit the ground and rolled over before anyone else had even sat; he had nothing to prove. So conversations carried on above him at standing level: should we build a fire, yes the desert will probably feel mighty chilly once we aren’t walking, how long should we rest, I have no idea my hourglass was on the wagon. The chatter all sort of melted together.

He dozed, didn’t realize he was dozing, then found himself roused by a gentle shake to the shoulder. Calay crouched beside him, now backlit by a small fire, and he had a small cookpot in his hand.

“Thought you’d want us to wake you for food,” he said. And that was the correct answer, because whatever the crew had cooked up smelled fruity and spicy and sweet and absolutely mouth-watering. 

“Go ahead,” he said. “Finish it off.”

Gaz took the pot by its stubby handle and stirred the contents with the wooden spoon inside. Stewed pears with a bit of oats, if his nose didn’t deceive him. Blinking curiously and looking past Calay, he sought out the others around the tiny, guttering firepit dug into the salty crust.

“Fancy food for a night like this,” he called out toward Riss, who sat alone by the fire, attempting to consult the map by its light.

“I was saving them,” she said. “For… I don’t know, something special. A good day. Seemed a waste to leave them on the wagon.”

“Pears are full of water,” Calay helpfully chimed in. “Good choice on a trek like this where we have to mind our supply.”

Gaz wanted to ask exactly how far off Riss thought they were. And whether she judged their water supply adequate to get there. But when he took the first bite of spicy stewed pear, the crust of brown sugar crunching pleasantly in his teeth, he decided he could put such dire and depressing questions off. At least for a while.

Half in darkness, further off away from the fire, he spied the lounging figures of Adal and Torcha. Adal slept sitting up, snoring lightly, back propped against the heap of backpacks. Torcha leaned against his side, her head on his shoulder. The closest she ever got to admitting that she could feel sincere worry for someone.

“How’s he doing?” Gaz asked. Nobody had to ask him to clarify.

“Tired,” said Calay. “I brewed him some of the tea with the good leaves before we took off. But herbs can only kick your ass along the road so long. Figured he was going to crash hard.”

It had taken every last drop of human blood they had left to patch Adal back together and convince him he had the energy to make the walk. Gaz–who had years as a physik’s assistant under his belt, present for all kinds of awful work on stabs and burns and illnesses, who had snapped Calay’s arm off when he had to–grimaced at the memory. Granted, he didn’t stop eating his pears. But when he thought back, his heart felt heavy. Subtle nausea rippled through his stomach.

Adal had been borderline unrecognizable when they’d found him. Calay had diagnosed it: a crack up the skull, bleeding in the brain. And he hadn’t had to diagnose the shattered jaw, the teeth visible through the gash torn in his cheek. 

When Gaz blinked, he still saw Adal’s eyes. The vacant, empty questioning expression, like he didn’t know what had happened. Gaz took another bite of pear, chewing slowly. He’d seen that before, back in Vasile. Like something in the body used the last of its dying energy to shield a person from what had become of them.

When his teeth bit down, they encountered something crunchy inside his mouth, some husk of a seed or spice pod. That, that was what got his stomach fully queasy. That sudden crunch, the thought of teeth, teeth not quite looking right… he swallowed and felt ill.

“And how are you?” Riss had her attentive eyes on him now, the map forgotten.

“Fine-ish.” Gaz answered honestly. “Barely hurts. Leg feels a little weak. You made the right call. We didn’t have any to spare.”

“I know I did.” 

Good old Riss. Gaz had to chuckle a little when she said that. But she kept going.

“I hope you know it wasn’t easy. If I didn’t trust Calay to look after you, I wouldn’t have.”

Gaz tried another bite and found whatever skin-crawling sensory upset he’d endured at the crunch was gone. He chewed, then smirked in Calay’s direction.

“Yeah,” he said. “He’s all right, ain’t he.”

“Careful,” Calay said, voice low and tired. “I’ll kick you in the good leg.”

Once Gaz had all but licked the pot clean, he lurched up and helped Riss pack up what they needed to. Stretching out his leg helped. He ambled off, took a piss, all the usual nighttime crap. 

“I’m afraid we won’t be sleeping through the night,” said Riss once he returned. “We’ve got to keep moving and we’ll move best when it’s cool.”

Gaz understood. He didn’t like it, but he understood.

He curled back up beneath his patterned blanket, trying to ignore the dull ache surfacing in the meat of his thigh. Rolling over, stretching out, curling up again–he couldn’t find a position that was completely comfortable.l

And naturally, this draw Calay over, because if there was one thing he knew about Gaz from all their years spent so close together, it was that Gaz had never been a restless sleeper.

Salt crunched and crackled as he took a seat beside where Gaz sprawled.

“Hey,” he said. “Can I… get you anything?”

Gaz stretched out his arms, arching his back and groaning like a sad old man. “Nah.”

“You sure?”

“Just getting comfy.” Gaz adjusted the pack he used as a pillow, sitting up slightly. Then, to his despair, it was yanked out from behind his head. He grumbled and swiped at the offender, but soon Calay replaced it, now with something softer pillowed atop it. 

“Is that your jacket?”

“Nah.” 

Gaz rested his head back atop the pack, leaning down cautiously. Something wooly and soft now blanketed the tanned leather.

“… It’s Torcha’s jumper,” Calay admitted. 

Gaz leaned up, reaching behind his head. “Oh come on. That’s–”

“Shh, shh, she’s asleep. She’s not using it.”

Calay palmed him by the face and shoved him back into a prone position. Not hard, but hard enough that Gaz gave up with his protestations. He mumbled an unintelligible few syllables in Torcha’s defense, then slouched back down.

“Admit it,” Calay didn’t remove his hand. “It’s cozy.”

Gaz scrunched up his face beneath the invading palm that rested across his mouth and nose. “Are you trying to smother me to sleep?”

In answer, Calay drummed his fingertips across Gaz’s forehead. Gaz nudged at him halfheartedly, then just gave up. He’d slept under stranger circumstances. Eyes falling shut, he breathed out a weary sigh against Calay’s hand and tried not to wonder how long until Riss would wake them.

The fingers upon his face relaxed. Calay shifted, then drew his thumb along the curve of Gaz’s eye socket, tracing down toward the tiny tattoos upon his cheek. Poorly-conceived to begin with and executed just as badly, the trio of minuscule knives inked on his skin was a remnant of his time with Kitta’s crew, the Three Blades. It was no small source of amusement to Calay, who almost never passed up an opportunity to rib him for it.

Yet now Calay was quiet. He traced his thumb along each faded little knife with a solemn, quiet affection that Gaz didn’t need his eyes open to sense. 

“Relax,” Gaz muttered. “‘M’gonna be fine.”

Calay’s hand stilled. “I know,” he said. “Just…”

The fire crackled in the silence that fell while Calay sorted out his thoughts. On such a dark, mildly chilly night, the sound of the fire tricked Gaz into feeling a little warmer. Reminded him of his boyhood sleeping habit: always by the hearth if he had a say in the matter.

Calay finally broke his silence. “You called me heartless, once.”

“… I didn’t mean it.” Gaz recalled the argument in that vague way a mind never quite lets go of past embarrassments. “Also, that was ages ago.”

“I know.” Calay’s exhale had a hint of a laugh to it. “But Riss said something that reminded me. And… I don’t know. It feels pertinent to say.” Gaz stayed quiet, prompting him to ramble on. “You asked me if it hurt having to watch our patients die, knowing that I could witch them healthy if I was willing to expose myself. Knowing how many more people we might have saved.”

“That was an asshole thing for me to say,” Gaz said. “I was mad. And I’m pretty sure I already apolo–”

Calay shushed him. “Shh. Just. Let me finish. I was trying to say that I’ve discovered it hurts way, way worse when the patient is you.”

Calay had always handled affection roughly the same way a stray cat did: aloof with a touch of demanding, always needing it on his own terms and never for too long all at once. Idle, physical things he was fine with–like a kitten permitting cheek-scratches and providing head-butts in turn–but even since the first time they’d slept together, he’d shied away from admitting anything so frankly. And Gaz, ever familiar with the temperament of strays, hadn’t pushed him. If there was one thing he’d learned in their years as new friends, then old friends, then whatever the hell they were now, it was this: Calay had to figure things out at his own pace or else he’d blitz through them with brass knuckles on.

All the same, the words stoked a little curl of contentment in Gaz’s chest.

He couldn’t help but ask.

“Did you really leap down the ravine to rescue me?”

Leather and cloth rustled. Salt cracked. Something heavy fwumphed down nearby, then Calay stretched out with his back to Gaz’s. He tucked up his legs some, getting comfortable.

“I had my charms on,” he said. “I knew I’d be fine.”

“You always land on your feet,” Gaz conceded, the last coherent thought he had before he lapsed into a tired, dreamless sleep.

A few times in the night, he stirred, roused by some noise or another. First it was the whistle of wind through the ravine, a lonely whoosh and scrape. Then it was crickets, rhythmically chirping off in the darkness. He tried to take comfort in that second bit the same way he took comfort in the sound of his slumbering friends around him. Surely the crickets would flee if the scorpions were that close, right? Animals had a sense for that, right? Like seabirds taking flight before a big squall. Like butterflies knew how to migrate.

Unless…

An uncomfortable thought lodged in him like a splinter.

Unless the crickets had no idea what was coming. Just chirping on obliviously with no clue of the danger that lurked just around the corner.

Sleep came harder after that.

<< Book 2, Chapter 20 | Book 2, Chapter 21.5 >>

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