Well. They were back on the road again.
Riss directed the wagon northeast out of Medao, choosing not to head straight north. The further away from Adelheim the better, she decided. Though she’d had no worrying correspondence from Tarn, wary superstition reared its head whenever she thought about returning to that place or anywhere remotely near it.
Besides, they were traveling in downright luxurious conditions. She’d figured the crew wouldn’t mind a few extra days in their cushiony nests inside the big behemoth of a wagon. And she’d been right.
The rhythm of the road came easily to them. They devised a watch and chore schedule without much conscious discussion, everyone simply falling into doing the tasks that suited them. Torcha kept lookout on the roof; Riss tended the galania and minded their stores. Adal drove in the mornings and manned the charts. Calay and Gaz kept busy either in the galley or on guard at the cargo doors. A wagon the size of the one Leonór had gifted them was meant to sleep two dozen people, so their lodgings were positively spacious.
The road they followed was an undulating path of hard-packed dirt, no ancient stones to guide them. Like a lazy sloshing wave, it rolled over shallow, dry hills of nondescript scrub and a few little fleck-on-the-map hamlets they didn’t bother to stop in.
Then, one evening, the horizon before them just… opened up.
Riss was perched on the pilot’s bench, legs crossed lazily at the ankle. The lizard’s steady, scraping footsteps and the crush of grit under wheels had soothed her into a meditative state, her grip on the reins relaxed. The sun was on its downward journey, just beginning to tinge the clouds apricot.
The wagon crested a hill and suddenly there they were. The Alkali Flats. Stretching off as far as Riss’ eye could see, a flat expanse of crusty salt dominated the horizon. Pinky off-white in color due to the sunset, the salt flats lay at the foot of the hill her wagon was currently descending. And there, nestled into the foothills at a crook in the road, was the final settlement of note before vast, salty emptiness.
“Anyone awake back there?” Riss called over her shoulder. “Quite a view to admire. And I’d like someone to take a peek at the map.”
A male voice made a muffled sound from somewhere inside. But the problem with traveling on a wagon this large was that half the time, Riss had no clue what people inside were yelling at her. She waited, scratching at her cheek, until Calay emerged from inside.
“Adal’s regaling Gaz with tales of the river,” he informed her. “I left them to it.”
He was dressed like he’d halfway put himself to bed, wearing a long linen shirt and an open-fronted woolen cardigan that dangled almost to his ankles. Looks comfortable, she thought, admittedly a little envious. Her tendency toward preparedness and practicality left her in armor more often than not; Calay and Gaz had gone positively rural.
Riss scooched along the bench, offering him a seat. She pointed toward the map compartment, and he unhinged it and sorted through their various charts until he found the right one.
Only once he’d settled down onto the bench beside her did Calay comment on the view. He looked from side to side, sniffed a little, and dubbed it “pretty nice.” Funny man.
“All right,” he said. “What are we looking for?” He spread the map out along his lap, angling it to catch the sunlight.
“Just the name of this village,” Riss said. “L-something? It’s on the tip of my tongue.”
Calay traced a finger over something on the map, then tapped it twice.
“Esilio,” he said. “Close. There’s an L in it. Map says it has the usuals: food, water, and… ah, I’m assuming that symbol means brothel.”
“Not much else to do out here.” Riss chuckled, then slouched back a little on the bench. It had padded leather seats, the type that molded pleasantly to one’s ass on long travels. She’d be sad to see this wagon go. “So Adal’s back there spinning stories about the river, huh?”
“He’s had some wine.” A brief smile edged up the sharp panes of Calay’s face. “They aren’t bad stories. Though I have to admit the more I hear about that man’s childhood, the more it scrambles my brain to think that he ended up here of all places, doing this.”
“We’re all better off for his life choices in that regard,” said Riss.
Calay made a noise like he was considering that statement. He hummed, then smirked at her. “Yeah, all right.” Then, after a moment, he shifted so that he watched Riss more closely than the map.
“What about you?” he finally asked.
“What about me?”
“It just occurred to me I know a lot about Adal’s upbringing. Even more about Torcha’s. But everything I know about you begins and ends with the war.”
Suspicion curled through Riss the way paper curled when burnt: a slow singe. She shook it off though. If Calay wanted to snoop on her or learn private details of her life for some nefarious purpose, he’d have taken a more oblique approach. He wouldn’t ask her to her face. She leaned over a little on the bench and gave him a sniff.
“I see you too have had some wine.” She said it kindly though, not quite an accusation.
“What, is that the only time I’m allowed to indulge in friendly conversation?” He grinned at her then. “Guilty, though. But… if it’s a sore subject, I’ll drop it. I have a few of those myself. I was just… curious.”
“Well, what are you curious about?”
She could always decide not to answer questions if he asked him. That thing he’d said about how everything he knew of her began and ended at the war, that plucked an upsetting string somewhere inside. He knew those things about her because they’d met on professional terms. Because Riss’ history with the Fourth was the backbone of her current occupation and her current lot in life. But… she didn’t want the war to define her. She didn’t like the idea that Calay saw her that way.
“Just… if it’s like Adal. Is this the path you always figured you’d end up on?”
Twisting the reins around her hand, Riss watched muscles ripple along the galania’s back as it trudged slow and determined down the winding road.
“I never really got a chance to consider my own path.” She answered slowly. “I was conscripted pretty young.”
“Tch, that’s a cop-out answer.” Calay’s reprimand was playful. “You grew up in… over where Adal did? Carbec, isn’t it? Never been.”
“Near Carbec, but…” She took a moment to consider her phrasing. “Adal and I grew up in the same place the way a starfish and a whale occupy the same place. Sure they’re both in the sea, but…”
Calay’s low chuckle blended in with the rumble of the wheels. “I get you.”
“His family’s estate is on the outskirts of Carbec proper. I grew up even further outside of town, out in the steppes.”
“And your father was a hunting guide, wasn’t he?”
“Mhm.” Riss grunted out that answer, hoping he’d take the hint and avoid further questioning along those lines. “And what about you?”
All along, they’d picked up bits and pieces of one another’s stories, but she’d always avoided asking Calay direct questions given his reluctance to ever answer them. She liked how they respected one another’s privacy; a solid working relationship—perhaps even a friendship—didn’t always have to be built on knowing one another’s childhood crushes and favorite pie fillings and all that crap.
“Neighborhood in Vasile called Blackbricks,” Calay said, surprising in his directness. “I may have mentioned it. May have not. Gaz grew up just down the road.”
“I do recall that it was a rough neighborhood, whatever the name was.”
Calay sucked in a breath, his cheeks hollowing. “Yep.”
“Carbec’s small enough that it doesn’t really have any bad neighborhoods.” Riss slanted him a sidelong look. “Much as it pains me to say so, it’s good to have a couple city boys on the roster. I think you and Gaz have really helped us settle in down south.”
“Well Medao sure is… different.” He said it with relish. A good difference, then, in his estimation. “It’s nothing like Vasile. Not in any way. Other than how crowded the crowded bits are.”
“Do you miss it?”
“Vasile?” Calay blinked. “I miss…”
He lapsed into silence. Riss did too. Side by side, they considered the sunset, which had blossomed into a many-ribboned orange and gold and pink affair, the haze of some distant dust storm swirling like a far-off crimson blur below it.
“I miss certain people,” Calay said, finally. “I miss the way things were. Miss the simplicity. Don’t figure I’ll ever be able to go back.” She thought he’d finished, but to her surprise, he kept going. “I had a physik’s practice. Two, actually, at one point. Had a hand in a massage parlor, a tavern, and a thriving black market operation as well.”
That caught her by surprise. Calay was certainly educated—he knew medicine, if not the finer points of history and geography and the sorts of formal schooling offered at Medao’s Universitat. But she’d never pegged him for former wealth. He was so comfortable on the road and in the dirt. He didn’t carry himself like a wounded bankrupt.
“Got to admit, I didn’t have you pegged as a fallen emperor of business.”
Calay scoffed, disdainful. “Well, I’d have had to rise up proper in order to fall. And I ballsed that right up.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
Calay leaned into the corner of the bench seat, propping himself up against the arm of it. “Gaz saw it all coming. Because of course he did. And he tried to warn me. But I didn’t listen, because of course I didn’t.”
It was a brief, there-and-gone notion, but Riss felt the glimpse of an urge to comfort him. To give him an elbow or laugh off his evident regrets.
“Well he seems to think you’re worth a second shot,” she said.
“Some-fucking-how.” Calay reached up and smoothed a hand through his hair, the blond of it tinged strawberry by the sunset. “But hey, I like to think there are some benefits to having me around.”
“I promise I’d have fired you if there weren’t.”
She wondered if she’d ever feel comfortable asking him about those benefits. The benefits that had nothing to do with mercenary work. The benefits that had stitched her broken, mangled body back together and hauled her back from the threshold of death. He alluded to his sorcery in such a casual way that it gobsmacked her at times. Escorting clients, bodyguard duty, wagon maintenance, their lives had been so calmly mundane since Adelheim that she almost forgot about his abilities at times.
“Go on,” Calay said. Riss blinked.
“Go on what?”
“You’re looking at me like you want to ask me something.”
She hadn’t realized she’d been staring. And damn, she was tempted. The circumstances were perfect if she wanted to really learn more about just what made Calay tick. Relaxed as he was by wagon life and booze, this was as prime an opportunity as she was going to get. She wished she’d had a chance to read that stack of books back in her office.
Gracelessly, she blurted the first question that came to mind.
“Have you ever met another… person like you?”
“What, you mean a bisexual?” He smiled a close-mouthed smile, daring her to say it. Forcing her to, really.
“No,” Riss deadpanned. “Heaps of those about. A sorcerer, asshole.”
Calay skimmed his tongue over his teeth. He considered her in silence.
“Only the man who taught me,” he finally said. “And he’s long gone.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” The words came out a bit more tender, more heartfelt than she expected. “I lost the man who taught me everything I know, too. It’s…”
“… It’s pretty shit, yeah.” Calay paused. “Mine… disappeared. He’d told me that was a thing sorcerers did. How they had to be so careful, after the Leycenate purged them all. How forethought and elaborate escape plans were part of the package. Then one day I woke up and he was gone.”
Riss winced. She let herself imagine for a moment how horrifying that would have been if Gaspard had pulled it on her.
“You think he’s still alive?”
Calay huffed. “Doubt it. He’s had years to find me again. And for someone with his talents, locating me wouldn’t be tough. No one ever came after him. He just walked off into the dark one night and left the clinic in my hands.” His eyes tightened at the corners. “And you know what? If he is alive, fuck him. I don’t know if I’d buy any excuse for that disappearing act bullshit.”
And for not reaching out, not even once. If that man were still alive, he’d done something unfathomably cruel. Riss knew that both Gaz and Calay had grown up as orphans. He’d never mentioned exactly how close he and this mentor figure were, but she’d never heard Calay mention another. To be abandoned like that by the closest thing he’d ever had to a parent…
Well, that went some way toward explaining Calay’s cruel streak, didn’t it. People tended to reflect back what the world gave them.
They reached the bottom of the hill before Riss could think of anything else to say. She pointed the wagon toward Esilio, their last bastion of human society before the arid, salty desert.
“I doubt you’ll need a navigator for this bit,” Calay said.
Riss shook her head with a hint of a laugh and let him on his way.