Book 2, Chapter 1

One year later…

Facedown on the bed, Riss Chou breathed in deep, inhaling a lungful of the humid, perfume-heavy fug that stuffed the air so thick it may as well have been a mattress. She struggled to keep her eyes open, then realized she didn’t have to do that and let them close. 

Faint, far-away, barely felt, a pinprick jabbed up her neck. Then another. This new girl they had, Vattja or Vajaya or something, she had masterful hands. Riss barely felt the needles going in. The final one registered as a little twinge through her palms, a pleasant tingle afterward. She exhaled into the perfumed air. 

She’d thought acupuncture sounded like a bunch of hocus when she’d first heard of it. People shoving needles up your neck was supposed to be relaxing? But Gaspard had sworn by it. And one night when they were off on entitlement, roaming the port city with nothing else to do, he’d invited her into a brightly-painted turquoise building, where they’d climbed seven flights of stairs and arrived at the very salon Riss relaxed in now. Acupuncture, massage, hot baths, strangely scented candles–hocus or not, she’d grown addicted to the whole package.

“No pain, miss?” asked the acupuncturist, apparently finished.

Riss bit back a wisecrack at the miss, instead simply let out a quiet hum of affirmation.

“Fantastic.” The needler gave her a pat on the naked calf. Riss wore nothing at the moment, not even a towel, just a tidy line of needles marching up and down her spine. She listened to quiet footsteps as the girl walked off.

“A fresh oil in the burner, miss?” she asked.

Riss couldn’t stand it a second time. “Easy with the ‘miss’,” she said. “We’re both adults.” Meduese society was big on honorifics if you were even a smidge older than the person you addressed. It was baked into the foundation of their language. Constant honorifics weren’t an issue in the army, but it felt damned weird on the tongues of civilians. Riss had done nothing to earn these people’s respect. Being slightly old wasn’t an accomplishment.

“My apologies,” said the needler, and Riss just huffed. She thought back through the library of oils, most of which she’d sampled over the years.

“The Temple,” she murmured. “Lightning on stone. The weather turning just before the rain.”

She had no idea what manner of alchemy they used, what kind of strange compounds made up their mixtures, but their oils somehow managed to conjure the advertised images to mind. When the acupuncturist poured a measure of the requested oil into the burner, the thick air took on a cooler, thinner quality somehow. Riss smelled hot stone and ozone, a whiff of petrichor that was distant enough it seemed to be carried on the wind.

Fuck, this place was worth every austral.

The door clicked shut and Riss relaxed yet further into the bed, her mind blissfully blank.

When Gaspard had first treated her to an afternoon at the Coral Rooms, he’d paused outside the door and explained to her the only rule: once you stepped over the threshold, absolutely no thoughts of work or duty. That mindset had taken some getting used to. Riss was an overthinker, rarely inclined to quiet her mind on purpose. But after a few sessions, she’d succumbed to the meditative allure of it, to the freeing sensation of having a mental blank slate.

Which is why, when the door cracked open again, she said nothing. She listened to the soft footsteps that skirted the room and assumed the light, unobtrusive footfalls belonged to one of the staff. But they didn’t depart out the other door. Or creep nearer to her bed, as one of the attendants might.

Just when Riss was about to ask what was the matter, a woman’s voice spoke up from behind her.

“My apologies, miss.” Not the same girl–this one was older, though she kept her voice subserviently low. “Just dropping off fresh flowers.”

Riss cracked an eye open. She couldn’t turn her head, not with the needles up and down her neck, but she watched what she could with absent curiosity. 

A short, aged woman with dusky tan skin–tanner even than Riss’ own–flitted about the room. Heaped in her arm was a cloth-wrapped bundle of snapdragon stalks, the blooms colored crimson and yellow and orange. She wore a loose blue robe with wide, fluttery sleeves and a pair of wide-legged culottes below it. With muted, shuffling footsteps, the old woman made a circuit of the room’s many vases, tucking the stalks of flowers in. She paid no attention to their arrangement, or at least didn’t seem to, but the varied warm-toned colors all worked together, taking on the reddish cast of the room’s tiled walls. All was cheery and bright. The woman shuffled out of Riss’ field of vision, humming quietly to herself.

“Oh,” she said, sounding surprised. “You’ve got a touch of blood, miss.”

Riss grunted. It happened, what with needles being jabbed into the body and all.

“Here,” said the elderly woman. “Let me dab that off.”

Footsteps at Riss’ back. The sensation of someone leaning into her personal space. She felt something soft brush against the nape of her neck, the gentle press of fabric.

Some subconscious sixth sense warned her before her conscious mind could. Alarm slammed into Riss from some buried instinctual place, a half-second flash of danger, danger, something isn’t as it seems.

But unfortunately it wasn’t quick enough. Riss’ fingers twitched against her palm at the same moment she felt fingers press against the back of her neck.

“Easy, now.” The old woman’s voice wasn’t far from her ear. “You oughtn’t move with all these pins up your back.” 

Riss worked her jaw in silence, knowing that was correct and absolutely hating it. She anticipated the press of a blade to her lumbar, or the sound of a pistol cocking. Nothing came. Just a weird old woman leaning over her, grabbing her by the nape.

“Well,” she said through her teeth. “You certainly aren’t here for the flowers, so what do you want?”

Riss took a mental inventory of her last few jobs. Escorts, mostly. Medao was a rich city, but deprivation from the war had turned the roads dangerous. There was the Hantel job. The time they’d stood guard on that ship bound for the southern islands. Nothing came to mind that might have generated any enemies. And though her people were building comfortable lives for themselves, they were by no means wealthy enough to be worth ransoming. So what, then?

The woman patted the back of Riss’ neck as if to reassure her, as though she’d read her thoughts.

“Relax,” she said. “I mean you no harm. I want a few minutes of your time, nothing more.”

Riss’ apprehension was melting, recasting itself as skeptical annoyance. “So why not make an appointment like anybody else? I’m not a hard woman to get ahold of.” 

Already her mind was leaping to wild conclusions. This mystery woman had known where to find her, so clearly if she’d needed a consult like a garden variety client, she could have had one. Instead, this clandestine crap. Was she some sort of criminal, here to offer Riss terms to avoid her bounty? Riss couldn’t recall any elderly most-wanteds. Come to parlay on behalf of a child, perhaps?

“No offense meant, but I can’t be seen talking to the likes of you.” The woman clucked her tongue, as if that fact caused her regret.

“You’re making a hell of an impression,” Riss grumbled. Interrupting her recreational time, swanning in like some sort of overbearing grandmother, now insulting her as well?

“Hm. That didn’t quite come out right. Mercenaries, Miss Chou. I meant mercenaries.”

“Well you aren’t some high-bred afraid to mingle with the commonborn.” Riss could tell that much from the gentle roll of the woman’s South-Continental accent, the way she clipped her r’s and lingered on her vowels. Not quite so severe as Torcha’s, but similar. You couldn’t bury that salt-of-the-earth accent.

“No, nothing like that.” The hand eased off Riss’ neck. “I’m a professional from whom complete neutrality is expected. And while you and your company may be neutral now, it wasn’t long ago you were fighting under a particular banner. Were I to consult you, my organization would worry over how that appeared to our clients.”

Provided all that was true, it made sense. Neutrality in the professional guilds and unions had been a major sticking point during the war. Sometimes it only went surface-deep. Other unions, such as the cartographers, had risked their very existence to avoid allowing one side or the other to press them.

When Riss said nothing, her visitor took that as an opportunity to finally introduce herself.

“My name is Leonór Sarine,” she said. And that was a name Riss wasn’t unfamiliar with.

“The letter carrier.” Riss wished she could turn her head up to have a look, to take the woman’s face in. She wished she’d studied it closer. “Well now this all makes sense.”

A scraping sound behind her. Leonór dragged out a chair from the small table at the back, settling in.

The Continental Post billed itself as not only the most neutral courier in the land, but also the most secure. Some of their letter carriers were legends in the field in their own right, ghosts the likes of which could rival Gaspard at his best. Their ranks possessed the traits of the best spies, the best assassins, and the best reconnaissance men, all combining toward an aim of efficient, secure communication in a world that was often neither of those things.

Leonór Sarine was one of their best, to those who were aware of her. She and her company had come through for Tarn more than once when receiving communications from Carbec and he couldn’t spare runners from his own platoons.  

Riss was officially curious. Someone of the Post seeking out the likes of her was intriguing enough on its own, but if Leonór was being honest with her, she was doing so under her employers’ noses.

“Tell me,” Riss said. “What can I help you with?” She paired it with a cautiously game smile, as if they’d just sat down for tea in her parlor. As if she’d orchestrated this meeting all along.

“The job itself is pretty straightforward,” said Leonór. “And I know this goes without saying, but before I speak on it, I need your assurance you ain’t about to breathe a word of this to anyone.”

“Consider yourself assured,” said Riss. 

“Once upon a time, I was informed Gaspard Marcinen was the best game in town for clandestine recon work. And if I couldn’t get hold of him, his daughter was almost as good.”

Riss coughed, then immediately regretted it, one of her needles twinging. She longed for the space and mobility to gesticulate exactly how that sentence made her feel–gobsmacked, on the verge of hysterical laughter. 

“I hesitate to turn away a referral,” she said. “But your source got one of those things wrong.”

Leonór tut-tutted her tongue. “I see.”

“But I’m interested.” Riss pressed in, didn’t want to leave the woman thinking too long in silence. “Do go on.”

The old woman didn’t hesitate. She launched into a terse story that had the ring of a prepared statement to it. She spoke slowly, as if reciting from memory or perhaps dwelling a little long on each word.

“Some time ago, I was set upon in the field. The assailant wounded me badly, left me bleeding in the dirt, and made off with a bag of my letters.”

A rare event, especially to a letter carrier of her reputation. Continental Post were usually left to do their thing, even in the most fraught territories. It was a service all sides depended on, so there was an informal agreement not to hassle them. Of course, that didn’t stop garden variety highwaymen and scofflaws from trying to rob them like any other traveler. 

“It’s a hazardous job,” Leonór said. “But we usually come out better off than the other guy. This is the only instance in my thirty-year career that someone got one over on me.”

The Post also had a reputation for training its carriers well and arming them to the teeth. Those garden variety highwaymen ended up in shallow graves by the roadside more often than not.

“So you want me to kill ‘em?” Riss ventured.

“Not kill. Merely locate. I intend to recover my stolen property and deliver it to its rightful destinations.”

Riss wished again that she could move. She wanted to take a measure of this woman, to look her in the eye. Because that sounded like a tall order for someone of such advanced years. 

Of course, if she took the job, the aftermath wouldn’t be Riss’ problem. Locating was easy. Leaving the postwoman to her fate, well, if that’s what the client wanted. 

“I have reason to believe the man who robbed me has made camp up north of the alkali flats, in the foothills. Transport for your crew to the region would be covered. Lodging as well. The Post has connections all over the map; we’d provide everything save for your consumables.”

Well, this evening of acupuncture hadn’t turned out as relaxing as Riss had hoped. And she wasn’t so much violating Gaspard’s no duty in the Corals rule as brutally curbstomping it and kicking it down a flight of stairs. But there was money to be made here. Good money. And beyond that, influence. Access. The Continental Post was an entity that opened doors. An especially valuable connection for a mercenary looking to distance herself from her old Army affiliations. 

“I’ll get you a copy of our standard offer sheet,” Riss said. “And I’m sure you’ll understand that I have to discuss this with my team. The Flats are a ways away and we’d be away from home base for some time. But for the right price I could clear my schedule.” She hoped the true extent of her interest didn’t quite make it into her voice.

“Understandable.” Chair legs scraped along the ground as Leonór rose up. “And believe me, the Post can meet the right price. Speaking of, your bill here at the Corals has been settled. There’s a credit on your account for your next visit, as I can’t be seen stopping by your parlor for tea.”

That sent a twitch through Riss’ eye. She didn’t want to feel indebted to this woman, not for a simple conversation. But she supposed what’s done was done. 

“I found this method a little disruptive, I must say. But if this is how you prefer it…” She couldn’t let the letter carrier leave without voicing at least some displeasure at the method. Fanciful high-paying jobs or not, you couldn’t put a price on the soothing, nerve-repairing qualities of a good acupuncture session.

As footsteps receded into the rear of the room, one more question occurred to Riss.

“You didn’t uh… hurt any of the girls to get in, did you?” Postworkers had a reputation. They got high marks for competence and neutrality, but were said to be lacking in other traits. Empathy. Restraint. 

A dusty chuckle echoed through the quiet chamber.

“Scared ‘em a little, maybe,” said Leonór on her way out. The door clicked softly closed behind her. 

<< Wishes 2 | Book 2, Chapter 2 >>

 

Interlude: Wishes 2

Gaz couldn’t quite decide between the Edendunne mint and the silverstem. He wasn’t quite so picky about his tea as Calay was, but he enjoyed both a great deal. Mint was refreshing, a good early morning pick-me-up. Silverstem was herbier, less sharp, more of a bedtime beverage. As much as he enjoyed a cup while preparing for slumber, he couldn’t remember the last time his life’s circumstances had allowed a quiet cup of tea before bed. Half the time expecting a bed to sleep in at all was asking for too much.

Before he could make his selection, shouting drew him out of the teaseller’s tent and back into the market yard. Torcha’s sharp, rough-edged voice, volume cranked up in agitation. She was calling someone a… 

“Did she just say vulture?” Calay asked at his side. The two of them peeked around the corners of a few tents, searching for the source of the clamor.

They found Torcha in a junk shop on the fringes of the market, a low-ceilinged tent with a hangdog look about it. Both the outside and the inside looked like they’d seen better days. Calay stifled a sneeze as they ducked inside.

At the counter, Torcha stood with her hands on her hips. She was squaring off against a short, pale-faced man with wisps of brassy hair. He lounged against the counter, posture slack with indifference, his expression that of a man untroubled by his circumstances. Whatever fuss she was kicking up, it was water off a duck’s back to him. 

“Why don’t you fetch me a bucket,” Torcha muttered, one eye narrowed at the shopkeep. “I’ll flay my arm open and pay you in a pint of blood while I’m at it.”

Gaz coughed into his palm, then tried to peek around Torcha to see what exactly they were haggling over. A dusty guitar sat on the counter, half-polished and looking about as shabby as the tent and its owner. 

“Something the matter?” Calay shined an easygoing smile toward the pair. 

“This ingrate jacked up the price on this guitar the second I expressed the faintest interest in buying it,” Torcha grumbled. “How much you reckon a piece like this is worth?”

Calay glanced down at the guitar, then twitched a shrug. “Haven’t the foggiest. I don’t play guitar. Couple hundred? It’s beat to shit.”

“Hey!” The shopkeeper interjected. “I’ll not have my merchandise insulted. The guitar is an antique, made by a renowned luthier. It isn’t in pristine condition, no. But that’s why it costs six hundred instead of three or four thousand.”

Six hundred australs. Gaz blew out a low whistle. For much of his life, six hundred australs outnumbered what he made in a year. He was no musician, but he didn’t think guitars usually cost that much. He took a step closer, gazing down at the instrument. It was glossy, expensive-looking in a way he couldn’t pinpoint. Its strings were a little frayed, but beneath the dust it looked nice. 

Calay reached over and gave Torcha a pat on the shoulder. “You know how it is in stopovers like this, gal. Everyone here is selling Meduese relics and historied antiques with no proof and no providence. They’re just hoping a traveler will wander by who’s bored or stupid or loaded enough to pay the price.”

The merchant slammed an open palm against the counter. The resulting impact was strong enough that a stand of painted water gourds jiggled and swayed on its display. Dust motes twinkled in the air.

“All three of you,” the merchant growled. “Out. If you’re offended by my prices, no one’s holding a knife to your throats.”

Gaz ducked out first. Wary of his size and unpolished appearance, he found that those who didn’t know him frequently took his very presence at an altercation as a show of hostility or an escalation of force. The last thing he wanted was to cause trouble. He exhaled in relief when Calay dragged Torcha out. She was still scowling.

“The fuck’s your problem?” she asked him. “We could take him.”

“Yes,” said Calay. “If we were brigands.”

“He’s a profiteering prick.”

That was sort of the entire purpose a man became a merchant, wasn’t it? Gaz didn’t think that would add anything constructive to the discussion. Then his thoughts drifted sidelong toward a brief observation of his friends. It sure was something, the way Calay and Torcha had recognized one another in their rage. The Indefinite-Collective had built a bridge between them. A very angry bridge. He seemed to come to her when she was angry now. Or maybe it was the other way around.

Maybe they’d use it to help one another. Hopefully they wouldn’t use it to feed one another. Otherwise, Gaz worried, the poor guitar-selling asshole was a dead man.

Instead of saying all that, Gaz cast a curious glance Torcha’s way.

“I didn’t even know you played guitar,” he said.

“I don’t.” She laughed, anger shaken off as easy as it had mounted. “But it might be a nice way to pass time when we’re cooped up all day. Gives me something to do.”

“Can’t argue with that,” he said.

“Ah, piss on him.” Calay dismissed it all with a wave of his hand. “Come on. Maybe there’s a tent in here that sells something fun to smoke.”

###

Sleeping in the wagon was a complicated balancing act. It wasn’t meant for five fully-grown humans to stretch out comfortably. But they managed, to the small extent that it was manageable. Almost everyone slept in the spots they’d initially staked out upon leaving Adelheim: Gaz and Calay in the rear cargo hold, Torcha up top in the luggage loft. Riss and Adal slept on the benches in the passenger’s chamber. It was likely a more comfortable arrangement than the spot Gaz had chosen, but the cargo hold had a door that granted at least the illusion of privacy.

Cramped as the cargo hold was, Gaz knew the moment he awoke that he was alone. There was no telltale knees or elbows prodding against his lower back. No snoring in his ear.

He hauled on his boots and slipped out for a piss. Too much silverstem tea before bedtime. Once that matter was attended to, he took a moment to consider the dirty, moonlit silhouette of Wishes. 

There was something quaint about it. Something that might have been charming with a second coat of paint. Or… okay, even a first. 

Hooking his thumbs through his belt, Gaz leaned against the exterior wagon wall. Inside, he could hear the others breathing. No sound whatsoever emanated from inside the rickety buildings. He listened for the caws of distant birds, the sound of wolves on the hunt, anything. Instead, only silence greeted him. 

Silence was an odd, disquieting thing. He was too city-born for it. Too used to noise to ever grow comfortable in a place like this.

By the time he heard Calay’s familiar footsteps crunching up toward him, he was grateful for the sound.

“Thought I’d find you here,” he said, squinting into the dark. Calay had likely augmented his eyes, but Gaz could barely see shit. There was barely a scrap of moon and the stars were veiled by thin, dust-streaked clouds.

“Did I wake you on my way out?” Calay matched the low pitch of Gaz’s voice, sounding chagrined.

“Nah.” Gaz peered toward the drape of Calay’s coat, trying to see beneath it in the gloom. “You nicked it, then?”

Calay pivoted on a heel, leaning against the wagon with a soft thud. Gaz caught a brief glimpse of the guitar cradled against his side, wood and lacquer flashing telltale in the moonlight. Gaz exhaled the ghost of a laugh through his nose. As soon as he’d realized Calay was gone, he’d guessed.

He couldn’t resist the temptation to rub it in a little. “Careful. Once she figures out you’ve gone soft, it’s all over. She’ll be ordering you around by month’s end.”

As they crept toward the cargo hold’s door, Calay gently clotheslined him, thwacking a forearm across his neck.

“I haven’t.” He hmphed. “I just miss it sometimes. Getting in people’s way. Being a regular, trouble-causing Jackass of the Road. Doing one over on pricks who think they’re better than us.”

Careful with the guitar, he levered himself up into the wagon hold, then scooted back on his ass, making way for Gaz to climb in after him. Though Gaz did his best, it was not a quiet or subtle embarkation. He banged his elbow on a crate, then nearly fell over on his elbows when his boot snagged in a cargo net.

“Founders’ tears,” Calay hissed. “You trying to wake that pasty bastard up? Get the whole town after us?”

Gaz muttered a half-formed obscenity and felt about for his blanket and pillow, determined to get comfortable again. Instead, he felt something repeatedly prod him in the ribs. Something blunt and leathery and–

“Is that your foot?” A sigh. “Why?”

“You’re on the trapdoor,” Calay whispered. “Scoot.”

Picking himself up and shoving himself against the wall, Gaz began a complicated half-crawl half-scoot over their cargo, until he found a hard-edged crate and was able to climb atop it. Couldn’t Calay at least light a match or something? He didn’t bother voicing a complaint, but he made his displeasure known in the dramatic sighs and slow dragging motions that composed his climbing.

Something creaked and squeaked. Calay unhinged the trapdoor, then secured the guitar down belowdecks. 

While Tarn’s wagon wasn’t quite a smuggler’s jobby, the floor of the cargo hold was shallow enough that belowdecks storage had proved to be impressively discreet. Discreet enough that Gaz and Calay had slept atop the trapdoor for two nights before they’d noticed it. Even if the pasty pawn shopper came looking, Gaz was confident their transport would stand up to scrutiny. The trapdoor clicked quietly shut as Calay lowered it down.

“Well?” he asked a couple moments later.

“Well what?”

“Aren’t you going to climb down?”

Gaz leaned down off the crate and felt along the wall in the dark until his hands encountered a pillow. He grabbed it and dragged it over regardless of whose it might be. He stretched, orienting himself. If he rested his head near the passengers’ door and his feet near the loading bay, he had enough room to stretch out entirely. 

As he did so, he felt Calay nestle up comfortably against his back. He draped a blanket over the both of them, though it wasn’t quite long enough to cover Gaz’s feet.

“There we go.” Calay sounded pleased with himself. “You can’t tell me you didn’t miss it at least a little. Thieving.”

“If that’s what you’re telling yourself.” Gaz smiled into the dark. 

He couldn’t begin to explain how it felt, the strange way that being in the swamp had touched them, had connected them. Calay had been wrestling with it ever since, unwilling to talk about it then raging against it then giving in to it in equal, unpredictable measure. He threw fists in a tavern then dragged Gaz to bed with him. He’d kissed him one night, then pushed him away the next morning, then apologized by noon. He’d sat up with Torcha long into the night, laughing and reminiscing about the gang back in Blackbricks. Then today he still insisted that the favor he did her wasn’t a favor. He’d just missed thieving.

Gaz rolled onto his back, getting comfortable. He eased an arm behind Calay’s neck, curling it around his shoulders and drawing him in a little closer.

“You know,” he started to say. “It’s okay to–”

A sudden shriek of fright cut him off. The single yell, a woman’s voice muffled by planks of pine, came from the passengers’ compartment. A moment later, soft voices followed, too low to be understood through the door. A man, the cadence of his words low and soothing.

Riss again.

Gaz’s words died in his throat. Calay too went silent. They listened through the door as Adal roused her from her nightmare, then quietly talked her down. Not that either man strained to hear the words. Gaz felt a perverse sense of voyeurism, like he was witnessing something he should not. He tried to avoid making out anything said.

None of them talked about the nightmares. It wasn’t always Riss. They carried on, blazing their trail away from Adelheim. Distance eased the strange psychic tug on Gaz’s mind, the way he swore he could sometimes feel that connection again, like someone breathing on the back of his neck. They didn’t ask Riss what she dreamed of. She didn’t ask them what it felt like to have their hearts flayed open and peeked into by innumerable nameless beings. 

It’s okay to give a shit, he’d wanted to tell Calay.

But he knew why Calay persisted.

They were all just trying to pretend they were the same. That the swamp hadn’t changed them.

<< Wishes 1 | To Be Continued >>

Next week we swing into Book 2! If you’re enjoying the story, feel free to give us a vote on TopWebFiction. Thanks!

Interlude: Wishes

“Doesn’t this guy ever have to eat?”

Riss glanced up at the sound of Torcha’s voice. The younger woman stared down at the galania’s back, watching as it dragged itself–and their wagon–step after ponderous step. Presently they sat upon the pilot’s bench, Adal taking a much-needed rest. 

He’d shown Riss the ropes when it came to manipulating the harness and controlling the lizard. The task had turned out to be far, far easier than she imagined. Compared to a horse, the galania was practically an automat. It walked in a straight line as directed, responded well to the yank of the reins when necessary. And when the harness was eased off its shoulders and further down its back, its central buckles undone, the thing just went to sleep.

It was honestly kind of eerie, like the water-powered automats in some nobles’ palaces. Shut off the water and they just died. Pull back the harness and hood its eyes and the lizard just stopped

Then again, in this heat she couldn’t blame it. The further south they drove, the hotter and drier the climate turned. The swampy lowlands had dried away to repetitive, rolling hills, their yellowed grass crying out for rain. The tree cover thinned too. The last time they’d stopped to fill up on water, Riss had hit the sad excuse of a trading post beside the well and bought herself a broad-brimmed straw hat. The next time they’d passed through a village, she’d bought a loosely-woven cotton robe and boy she was longing for it now. But whomever sat on the pilot’s bench and the guard’s perch had to stay armored, just in case. The last thing they wanted to do was truss themselves up like a pretty, easy meal for highwaymen.

They could handle any trouble the road threw at them. Riss was certain of that. But there was wisdom in not inviting trouble to be handled.

She recalled Adal’s little lecture about the galania, choosing to pass on only a small sliver of that wisdom to Torcha.

“If you feed them something properly large, they only have to eat every five or six days,” Riss explained. “If we don’t stable him up before then, we’ll have to hope we get lucky and find a big enough deer.” She glanced down at the lizard, pensive. “Or two.”

Torcha didn’t seem comforted by this. She regarded the galania with fresh suspicion.

“Trust me,” Riss promised. “It’ll become evident when he gets hungry.”

“Remind me not to walk in front of him,” Torcha said. “We’re close enough to five days that I don’t trust the fucker.”

They were four days out of Adelheim now. All the horrors and dredged-up emotions of that strange, discomfiting mission felt further away with geographic distance. It all felt like some nightmare, the real intense kind that stuck with you but mercifully began to blur with time, its details melting away. 

Now Riss and her crew were just another pack of assholes on a wagon. The ordinariness of it pleased her. Freed of all that strangeness and its complicated solutions and its murky moralities and deals-with-devils, she could get back to doing what she did best. 

“Huh.” Torcha again, this time sounding interested in something. “Wishes.”

Riss blinked and tipped up the brim of her hat, peering past the frayed straw edges toward a sun-bleached wooden sign nailed at eyeball-height to a nearby tree trunk.

WISHES, it read.

A smaller sign below it was painted with an arrow, pointing rightwards off the main road.

Riss peered further into the distance, noting a T-intersection up ahead. The mysterious path toward WISHES looked well-worn, intentionally widened for wagon passage. Originally gravel, grass had begun to overtake it, sprouting in withered little yellow-orange clumps up through the rocks.

As they neared the crossroads, a second sign promised WISHES but also VITTLES, along with another imploring painted arrow. 

With the immediacy of a mother who could predict her child’s tantrums, Riss knew what Torcha was about to say.

“No,” she said preemptively.

“Oh come on.” Torcha stuck out her tongue. “We’re down to half a barrel of water and it’s too hot to go hunting.”

“Yes,” said Riss. “But I’m not thrilled about the wishes. Some roadside scam artist set this place up to skim australs off idiot travelers, you know.”

“So?” 

“So if we stop here, we’re the idiots.”

But a quick survey of the wagon’s occupants overruled her caution. Fine, Riss thought. Let them buy overpriced crap or get their fortunes told or whatever crud this place is peddling. Perhaps they were blowing off steam, still venting pressure valves that the swamp had twisted too tight. Who was she to argue with that?

###

Wagon ride? Boring.

Shit-pit watering holes by the roadside? Boring.

Nothing to look at but the inside of the wagon and a bunch of grass? Boring.

If nothing else, the word wishes promised something unique. Even if it turned out to be stupid. This was the entirety of Torcha’s justification. That was all she needed.

So when she hopped free of the wagon and sized up the raggedy lean-tos and squat little shacks before her, she couldn’t help but be disappointed. A sign welcomed them to Wishes in both common and Sunnish.

“Fucksake,” Torcha muttered, shoving her hands in her pockets. “Wishes is just the name of the town.” She felt hoodwinked. The urge to kick something passed fleetingly through her foot, but she held off because the only things in kicking range were their wagon and Adalgis.

The town of Wishes–if it even deserved the title–was backed up into a dry yellow hillside. It looked scavenged from spare parts. Every structure was so brittle, dry, and washed-out that it sort of blended into the background. It made Torcha feel like she was squinting through her eyelashes when she looked at it. She’d hoped there might have at least been a hokey fortune-teller or some nomad caravan selling trinkets for good luck, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

“Well,” said Riss, trying to console her, “we still need food. Maybe they’ll have something tasty.”

“That’s a good point,” Torcha said. She sighed, looking back over her shoulder to where Calay and Gaz were clambering down out of the wagon. They both looked half-asleep. 

“Gonna see if they’ve got a mirror,” Gaz said. “My hair’s getting all bushy.” Torcha squinted at him, giving him a once-over. His hair was maybe half an inch long on the sides. Maybe

“I’ll tag along,” she said, stepping up into the giant man’s personal space. “Maybe there’ll be a junk shop worth nosing through.”

“Sounds good.” Gaz strode off toward the only human in sight, an old woman stooped over a washboard, laboring hard with her hands submerged in her bucket.

“Well aren’t you two thick as thieves,” Calay said, stalking along on Torcha’s other side.

Torcha shrugged her pocket-bound hands at him, flapping out the sides of her coat. “What, you jealous or something?”

Something was up with those two. She hadn’t putted in because it wasn’t her business, but something had upset Calay’s apple cart. Free from the pressing danger of the swamp and their reliance on his otherworldly talents, Torcha saw the man for what he was: kind of moody and weirdly sensitive. 

But all the same, she didn’t want him miserable. So when his response to her was a tiny scowl, she gave him a smile and freed up a hand, grabbing at his sleeve.

“Come on,” she said, yanking at his good arm. “You’ll regret it if you don’t come with us.”

Calay, looking confused, pulled his hat down and allowed himself to be led along. “Is that supposed to be a threat?”

Torcha laughed, waving to the old woman as Gaz began to chat her up. 

“Not a threat,” she said. “I mean we’ll probably find something fantastic and you’ll spend the rest of the day sulking ‘cause you missed out.”

Calay didn’t like missing out on things, or feeling like anything was happening that escaped his notice. Torcha had felt that, felt it hard, a yank through her guts like she’d been harpooned with it back when… back when the… when the thing she had trouble putting into words had happened. For all the calm he tried to wear, it was a put-on. An act. He was a turbulent, volatile soul.

“Mhm,” was all he said back at her.

The old woman pointed out the town’s various fixtures to Gaz: the general store, which was a dilapidated single-room building with a chicken coop built into the side. The “inn,” which was in fact a single room in the back of her own home. And then there was the thing that sparked Torcha’s interest: the bazaar. She used that word specifically. A hardpack yard stuffed with tents where various wandering sorts plied their trade.

“What’s the difference between a bazaar and a market again?” Gaz asked as they walked across the crunchy grass toward the collection of patchwork tents. 

“How far west you are,” said Calay. “Far as I can tell that’s it.”

The bazaar wasn’t crowded. There were only a half-dozen tents, but each one had distinct, interesting fabric that caught Torcha’s eye. One was a soft-tanned leather that felt like deer velvet when she touched it. Gaz and Calay discovered one sold medicinal tinctures and that swallowed their attention whole. Torcha kept wandering, poking her head into a tent packed with crates of wine and then one that was stuffed to the brim with assorted knick-knacks.

The knick-knack tent hadn’t been packed down in some time. It had sat in this place long enough that dust had gathered on its struts and many of its wares. It reminded her of the Rummage Shop of her childhood, the free-for-all trading post on the outskirts of town where you could barter just about anything provided you could prove it had even vague material value. 

The tent appeared to be unmanned, so Torcha let herself explore. The first thing to catch her eye was a collection of small potted plants. Each little pot of red-orange clay was home to a single stem, tall and graceful. A few were blossoming, their flowers pale pink and purple. She liked them, but carrying one around on a wagon was impractical. So she then turned to the wall-hangings, leafing through a few and dislodging great mushroom clouds of dust. 

Technically-speaking, they were well woven. But all they had on them was pictures of guys on horseback stabbing boars and shooting deer and that kind of shit. Snooze. Torcha flipped through them like the pages of a book she couldn’t be bothered reading all the way, then let them hang limp.

Finally, she spotted something interesting–really interesting–all the way down on a bottom shelf. It was so dull with dust that her eye might have passed right over it if not for random chance. Sidestepping the sunken ceiling of the tent, she crouched down and lifted the wooden thing off its sad, bottom shelf home: a small three-quarter size guitar, the type for children who were just learning or travelers.

Rubbing her sleeve over its lightweight wooden body, she swept away the dust until its grey-brown became a brown-gold. The wood was old and unpolished, but it shone when she stepped into the light. Further dusting revealed a subtle sunburst pattern lacquered onto the back and around the sound-hole. The neck had simple but eye-catching mother of pearl inlays, little shiny triangles that marked the frets.

Torcha plucked one of the withered gut strings. The note that twanged out was sad, dry, and out of tune. 

That didn’t matter. She wanted it immediately.

She didn’t know how to play guitar and up until that moment had never felt the inclination. That didn’t matter either.

<< Second-Year Field Work 2 | Wishes 2 >>

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Interlude: Second-Year Field Work at Moetta Cave 2

One hundred and forty-nine. Including chambers, passageways, and antechambers, that was the grand total of how many “rooms” Mafalda’s expedition had mapped at Moetta Cave. And each was somehow more boring and empty than the last. 

After five weeks, Maf’s notebook was an encyclopedia of failure. 

She tried not to think of it that way, of course. She was still learning. Though her maps portrayed nothing more than empty caverns, they were still improving in the sense of technical skill–tighter lines, clearer pictures. And Professor Banno’s geomorphology lessons unveiled a lot about how Moetta Cave and other big whitestone caverns were formed. 

There was no glory to be had, but she told herself she was still getting her tuition’s worth.

And at least she still had one thing to entertain herself between lengthy sessions of depressing boredom spent sketching in an empty cave: Celio’s regularly scheduled interruptions. He didn’t get a lot of free time with the work he did, but every few days he’d manage to sneak off into the bowels of the cave to sit beside her and talk. He’d taken I don’t know you as a challenge to be conquered, a peak to ascend and plant a flag upon. 

He had yet to mention the silver buckle since that very first day.

Mafalda was privately glad of that. Knowing it existed, knowing it was just sitting there burning a hole in his pocket while they toiled away in banality… that was rough.

She tried not to think about it at all.

“So do you have any siblings?” Celio asked, munching on a sweet roll. They sat beside a murky, shallow pool in one of the lower caverns, snacking and tossing bits of bread to the pale, eyeless guppies that flitted and curled in loose-knit schools throughout the puddles. 

“Nah.” Maf flicked breadcrumbs into the water. The pink-white fish made little ripples across the surface with their seeking mouths. “You?”

A small, fond smile appeared on Celio’s face and disappeared just as quickly, a match for the short-lived ripples. “Yeah,” he said. “I’ve got a brother. I don’t get to see him often.”

“He back up north?” She had yet to ask where he came from. She assumed he’d tell her when he felt comfortable.

“Mhm.” The corners of his mouth twitched downward. “He’s… in prison, actually.”

Mafalda hadn’t been expecting that. She sat up a little straighter, her eyes widening. “Oh.” She’d never known anyone who’d been in jail before. Or had a family member there. Her hometown didn’t even have a jail. She couldn’t remember anyone committing serious enough crimes to need it. “I’m sorry,” she finally said. “That… must be hard.”

“It’s tough not knowing how he’s doing.” Celio’s eyes went distant, his mind on someone hundreds of miles away. “I write to him sometimes, but he’s never answered.”

“Maybe they don’t let him?”

“That could certainly be it.”

She wanted to ask what for, but that felt like an impolite question. Instead, she offered a bit of empathy. Someone wouldn’t mention an incarcerated family member unless empathy was what they were looking for, right? Just someone to talk to. Someone to relate to. Someone to bounce words off of in a dark, lonely cave.

“You’re right about how it’s tough,” she said. “My parents live in Tantuela. It’s a village on the coast. Takes about seven or eight hours on horseback from Medao.”

“That doesn’t sound so far away,” he said, only a little judgemental.

“If you own a horse, maybe.” Maf turned her head sideways and gave him a look. “Plus my father’s a fisherman. So unless we set a date weeks in advance, I don’t know whether he’ll even be ashore when I make a trip home.”

“What kind of fisherman?” He seemed interested now, his lunch forgotten.

“Crabs during crab season, whatever else the rest of the year.”

“On a big ship? Or…?”

Mafalda snorted. “There aren’t any big ships in Tantuela.”

“Yeah, I suppose not.” Celio’s teeth flashed in a grin. “My father was a fisherman when I was growing up. Then he got promoted, started working for the fishmonger’s union. I saw him more often back when he still had to go to sea.”

“Fishmonger’s union?” Maf had never heard of such a thing. Medao had unions, she knew the concept. But who on earth needed one to sell fish?

“It’s a Vasa thing,” Celio explained. “There’s a union for everything. And there’s all this disputed water. Captains squabbled for territory and fishing rights all the time. It was only once the Leycenate established the unions that people stopped shooting each other up with cannons over it.”

So he was from Vasile, then. That explained the accent. That was impressively far north. She’d always imagined Vasa folks as paler, more… well… she glanced down toward the murky pool. She’d expected people from the far north to be the color of those cave fish, so pale it hurt to look at them in bright light. 

“Everything I’ve heard about Vasile makes it sound painfully complicated,” she said, grinning. “You glad to be down here?”

Celio stretched out his hands, reclining back on the sandy ground. “Well we get more sun down here…”

The personal questions lapsed away into talk of field work and gossip-swapping. Gossip was a hot commodity at Moetta, for lack of anything else for the students to get up to. Maf wondered if anyone gossiped about her and Celio. If people assumed they were knocking boots instead of relaxedly bullshitting.

She stole a glance at him, took a moment to appreciate how the cavern’s shadows danced across his jaw. He had intelligent eyes. A kind laugh.

Hells. He was pretty cute. If people were gossiping about the two of them, it would help Mafalda’s reputation. 

###

With the cave as uninteresting as it had been, Professor Banno had grown lax with his schedule. Most mornings, Mafalda slept in until she woke naturally, no need for an alarm. They were only working to a schedule in the barest sense of the word, so even the Professor indulged in sleep-ins. 

Normally, she woke to the sounds of a camp coming to life: crackling fire, clinking cups and kettles, the yawning of her fellow archaeologists, birdsong scattered through the trees. It was slow, pleasant, luxurious. 

So when she awoke the following morning to distressed yelps and authoritative shouting, it was disorienting. For a half-second she considered whether it might be a dream, but a sudden shudder through her tent’s walls dispelled that notion.

“Get up!” Professor Banno hollered. “And get dressed. The Port Authority are here.”

The Port Authority? As in… customs? Blinking blurrily, Mafalda wriggled into some trousers and pulled on a shirt, buttoning it with sloppy, slow, half-asleep hands. She twisted her hair back, clipped it, and groped around the cluttered tent floor for a pair of clean socks, the only part of her wardrobe that she even bothered to sniff-check. Such was field life. Stepping into her boots without lacing them, she ducked out of the tent and into the campsite, which was chaotic with scrambling bodies, everyone’s early morning routines disrupted.

Brown-uniformed soldiers of the Medao Port Authority crowded along the side of the camp closest to the road, a little formation who spoke among themselves. One of them, an officer Maf presumed, was speaking to Professor Banno by the fire. Students and porters gradually stumbled out of their tents, congregating by the stove. At least one kind soul had had the presence of mind to put a percolator on, and Mafalda tightly folded her arms while shuffling into the queue for coffee and tea. 

“What’s all this about?” someone asked, saving her the trouble. It was unusual. They were pretty far inland for the Port Authority to care about their business. 

The officer, a dark-complected man with an unreadably stony face, stepped aside from Professor Banno and addressed the crowd.

“Good morning,” he said, his voice the scratch of a lifelong smoker. “We apologize for the intrusion. The last thing we want is to upset the Universitat’s work, so we will be as brief as possible.”

Mafalda noticed that in the background, the soldiers had spread out. They were searching the tents, although not particularly thoroughly. They merely flipped entry flaps open and poked their heads inside. Not looking for stolen goods, then.

“We have reason to believe a dangerous fugitive has passed through this way,” he said, reaching into the satchel that hung at his side. Unfurling a sheet of paper, he showed off a wanted poster to the gathered crowd. A few quiet gasps rose from the students closest, then a murmur of recognition raced through the camp.

Her breath tight and stifled, Mafalda knew whose face would be on that poster before she got a good look at it. The sketch didn’t do him any favors. His features were kinder in real life, the line of his brows less harsh. His hair was longer, too. But there was no mistaking that the sketch was Celio.

The litany of reasons she’d given him for staying at Moetta replayed through her mind like a song. I don’t know you. I don’t know your employer. I can’t just leave. We’re almost done here anyhow. Even if I’m bored, I’m still learning. I can’t just run off the first time someone waves a job offer in my face–sometimes you have to put in the shit-work to get the glory. 

And, most importantly, the reason closest to her heart:

You have no idea how hard my parents worked to send me here. I won’t throw that gift in their faces. 

A cold chill grabbed Mafalda by the shoulders and wouldn’t let her go. She stood silent and immobile as the Port Authority men inspected her tent, then moved on. They searched the entire camp, overturning sleeping bags and peeking into every nook and cranny.

Maf swallowed. She dared not look at the faces of her classmates. Had any of them seen her and Celio together? Did anyone wonder about them? Were they now wondering about her?

She’d known something was off with him. From the moment he’d pulled that silver from his pocket, she’d been unsure. That it was something illegal, some smuggled artifact he hadn’t actually dug up on his own, hadn’t occurred to her. But in hindsight it was obvious. It made more sense than strange employers and mysterious private land deeds.

The Port Authority searched the camp for a while longer, but soon it was evident that Celio was nowhere to be seen. His tent, a small one at the very edge of the encampment, sat empty. The Port Authority confiscated its contents, then packed up to leave. They left a copy of the poster with the Professor, who promised he’d share it along. Mafalda paid it barely a glance, only long enough to discover that the man she knew as Celio went by at least a dozen other names. That lie somehow hurt more than the rest. 

Professor Banno couldn’t find it in his heart to make them work that afternoon. They sat around showing off maps and writings, quizzing one another on excavation techniques and trying not to wonder too hard about the criminal that had slept in their midst. The lawmen had called him a dangerous fugitive but not elaborated on his crimes.

Though he was long gone, Celio’s presence hung like a dark shroud over their camp for the rest of the excavation. In the end, Professor Banno called the whole thing off early. They’d mapped all they needed to, he said. Better to get back to the Universitat and get a head start on second-season’s classwork.

Gradually, as she worked out the remainder of her second year, Mafalda ceased to think about the awkward, bright-eyed young man and his warm smile and his secret silver. She thought about Celio less and less, pouring herself into her studies with determination. She hadn’t lied when she told him that her primary motivation for staying in school was doing right by her parents. 

She was not going to graduate with anything less than the highest honors, not after all they’d gone through to get her there. She was proud of herself for avoiding that temptation, for not derailing her life.

###

Graduation came and went. It was, you know, nice. A big dinner. A final presentation on her third-year research concerning tissue preservation in differing burial methods. Professor Ines invited her to do a secondary research certificate with a focus on mummies. Professor Banno gifted her a bottle of wine.

At the ceremony, they bestowed upon her with great ceremony a practitioner’s license and a deep blue cloak with ermine trim, embroidered with the Universitat’s colors. She shrugged it on, enjoyed the way it made her feel, then found it dreadfully sweaty by the end of the evening.

It was, without a doubt, the best night of her life. But of course, like all best nights of people’s lives, by the morning she barely remembered half of it. The whole day was a charming blur, familiar smiling faces and words of encouragement and warm fuzzy feelings of accomplishment that all bled together like watercolors on too-wet paper. She remembered hugging her parents outside their hotel room, the warm glow of pride.

She woke in the morning with a smile on her face. Indistinct as the memories might be, she glanced to the coat-rack and saw her cloak hanging by the door and knew it was all real.

Despite graduating, Mafalda retained her room in the boarding house where she’d spent her student years. There was no sense moving somewhere more expensive when she was likely to be sent away on a dig within weeks. So when she rolled out of bed to make herself a morning cup of tea, she had to walk down the hallway to the kitchen to do so.

And when she arrived in the kitchen–a cramped but brightly-tiled space stuffed with drying herbs and big glass jars of pickled vegetables–she was in for a hell of a fright.

Celio sat at the kitchen counter, flipping through a book while casually sipping cream tea. 

There was no mistaking him. If she hadn’t recognized him on sight, the way he looked up at her and immediately smiled confirmed it. He closed the book, its pages snapping together audibly, and spread his arms as if to hug her.

“I hear congratulations are in order,” he said.

To which Mafalda answered, “Why the fuck are you in my house?”

Celio laughed a little. “Well, I wanted to talk to you. Your landlady knocked on the door, but you were out cold. Which makes sense, now that I think about it. Big night you must have had. I ought to have called later in the day.”

Mafalda ran a hand through her hair–which was unbrushed, a crazy tangled mess. She wondered if she might be dreaming. 

“Tea?” asked Celio, rising and moving to the stovetop. He checked the fire, then checked the kettle boiling atop the iron potbelly. He moved like he was familiar with this place, like he was so at home in her personal space. And yes, even though she shared it with eight other people, she still felt territorially defensive of the house. He wasn’t supposed to be in it.

“You have some explaining to do,” she said. “The Port Authority ransacked our camp the day after you disappeared.” 

Celio fixed a cup of tea without looking at it, spooning leaves into the strainer, his eyes on Mafalda.

“If I’d warned you, you would have had something to hide,” he said. “Better to not put you in that position.”

Mafalda narrowed her eyes. She drummed her fingers on the countertop. “Dunno if that should be your choice to make.”

“It was all a misunderstanding anyhow.” Celio passed her a teacup, one of the brown-glazed things the landlady provided to her charges by the dozen. Stiff with shock, Mafalda took the cup and stared at it.

“So you stalked me all the way here and now… what exactly? You want to apologize?” 

Celio’s lip twitched in a pout. “Stalked is a harsh word. I wanted to check in on a friend after her graduation.”

How was she supposed to react to that? Had they really been friends? Friendship was built on foundations of trust and mutual understanding. Based on what the Port Authority had shared, much of what he’d told her at camp had been a lie. If not all of it.

“I promise I wasn’t up to anything unseemly.” Celio skirted around the counter and re-took his seat. “I merely remembered what you said.”

“What I said?”

His bright, curious eyes found hers. As he spoke, his mouth lifted in an irrepressible grin, like a street magician about to pluck a coin from her hair.

“Two years ago you told me that you had to stay in Medao. That you owed it to your parents because of the sacrifices they’d made so you could graduate.”

Mafalda’s eyes widened. She laughed a single time, a hard bark. The volume surprised her.

“Are you serious?” she asked. “I’d sooner shit in my hands and clap.”

The turn of phrase seemed to catch him off guard. Instead of reacting to her rejection, he threw back his head and let out a startled laugh of his own. It took him a moment to get himself under control. Throughout the entirety of said moment, Mafalda glared at him.

“You lied to me,” she said before he could get a word in. “You lied about everything. This job of yours, it probably doesn’t even exist.”

Celio, looking wounded, grabbed his book off the countertop. He held it out to her, a small leather-bound peace offering.

“I wouldn’t say ‘lied.’ Everything I told you was true. I just left some details out. There really is a dig, Mafalda. And I really did find that silver there. And–this is the part where I admit something a little embarrassing–I held off on excavating further. Because I want you there.”

Were it not for the silver, Mafalda would have thrown him out on his ass. But that buckle, it had haunted her dreams. In all her third-year field work, in all her studies, in all her visits to the city’s museums and caches, she’d yet to see anything like it. 

She snatched the book forcefully from Celio’s hand, flipping it open.

The book wasn’t a book at all. It was a leather folio with a pocket on either side and a collection of documents housed within. She recognized the documents immediately: several maps, a shipping manifest, an order from an outfitter’s shop, and a contract detailing excavation rights. The second half of the folio was home to a few sloppy sketches of rock outcrops, more maps and trails and–

She reached the back of the folder, drawing out a thin square of parchment. It was a rubbing taken in charcoal, detailing some engravings on a circular pattern. It was far, far larger than the buckle, taken from perhaps a shield or a plate or some other round metallic object. The individual characters were clear and crisp, a sign of quality workmanship given their age. Just like the buckle, they were Low Sunnish, the ancestral root language of the tongue Mafalda had grown up speaking.

“There’s more,” Celio said, quiet. “So much more.”

Again, Mafalda felt that pull. Like gravity itself were drawing her along this path, toward these ancient objects and their buried, untold stories.

“There’s nothing to guarantee this is even real,” she said. “You lied about everything. Even your name. I’d be an idiot to trust you now.”

But already she was making excuses to herself. Telling herself that she’d worked for untrustworthy bosses in the past. That her second dig in third-year had been a borderline criminal enterprise. And most importantly, reminding her that in the interest of uncovering something big, she hadn’t given a shit about that part.

Mafalda was all too aware that her hunger for discovery overruled a lot of the ethical concerns that tied her peers down. Somehow, Celio had spotted it way back when. And she’d known he’d spotted it, too. Otherwise, why had she let herself befriend him? Why hadn’t she reported him to Professor Banno? Why hadn’t she voluntarily come forward to the Port Authority to tell them what he’d shared with her?

She hadn’t exactly protected him. But she hadn’t sold him out either.

Because that would mean selling out the silver.

“You’re thinking it over,” he said, grinning cheekily. “I can see you’re thinking it over.”

Mafalda closed the folder, then ran her fingertips across its cracked, aged leather surface. Her gut was telling her to go. Her gut was a silly, girlish thing given to whims and daydreams. But slowly, it was convincing her brain.

She’d learned a lot in the last two years. She could protect herself.

“If I was even to consider going with you,” she said. “I’d need to choose my own team. You’ve proven you can’t be trusted. And this site’s a long way from civilization.”

Celio’s smile shone like the first sun after a long rain. “Choose your assistants,” he said. “Your security. You know better than I do about that sort of thing anyway.”

There’s got to be something he’s getting out of this, she warned herself. Something more than an archaeologist. 

But she was young and freshly-graduated and full of piss and vinegar. Turning the folio over in her hands, Mafalda regarded her guest with a skeptical expression.

“And most importantly,” she said. “You come clean. I want the real story–why were you at Moetta? How did you know to run? And what’s your actual name?”

That last bit was a test. The Port Authority poster had listed it, among his many aliases. If he told her anything other than the truth now, she’d walk.

“Well the first one’s easy,” Celio said. He clambered down off his chair, then stretched. Taking a single languid step toward her, he started to hold out a hand…

… then retracted it, remembering his faux-pas in the cavern.

Choosing instead to comb the hand through his long, well-kept hair, he smiled at her. It was a shy smile, but beneath it was a certain confidence. She wondered how she hadn’t seen it before, that sly edge to his mouth and eyes.

“My name’s Nuso,” he said. “Nuso Celio Rill.”

And didn’t that just beat all. He was telling the truth. 

<< Interlude: Second-Year Field Work at Moetta Cave | To Be Continued >>

Interlude: Second-Year Field Work at Moetta Cave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

Apart from the mosquitos? Fuck-all. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mafalda brushed dust from her cheek, listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yikes! Mafalda squinted at him sideways.

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

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

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

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

“I appreciate the tip,” Celio said earnestly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

|| Interlude: Second-Year Field Work at Moetta Cave 2 >>

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Chapter 69

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

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

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

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

Well wasn’t that great for one of them.

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

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

Everyone looked different in the sun. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adal noted his quiet, met it with sober eyes. 

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

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

“Fuck me,” he said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kicked off…?”

“The war.”

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

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

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

“The who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life was a rotten bitch who struck rotten bargains sometimes.

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?” asked Riss.

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

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

“Are mams and paps fighting again?”

Adal rubbed the heel of his hand against his face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of Book One.

<< Chapter 68 | Second-Year Field Work >>

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Chapter 68

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look here, Riss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re just like him, you know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

Sometimes she was tough to argue with. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank me later,” he said. 

“What’s this?”

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

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

They got to packing, not a moment to lose.

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riss bowed her head, the picture of contrition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 67

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fellows from the pub?” Calay eyeballed him.

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

But… fellows from the pub?

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

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

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

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

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

Calay grunted. “Clever.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riss cut him off, tut-tutting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

<< Chapter 66 | Chapter 68 >>

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Chapter 66

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So that’s definitely a no?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oddly, Gaz smiled.

“What?” Calay prodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not since breakfast,” Gaz said.

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

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

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

“Suppose so.”

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

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

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

“Change of heart?”

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<< Chapter 65 | Chapter 67 >>

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Chapter 65

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve sedated him?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come unto the ground,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riss gave him a skeptical look, retaining her silence.

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

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

“Thank you, Riss.”

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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