In Frogmouth, the wind whistled up and down the canyon’s length, cooing constantly in a way Calay did not like. The noise was a distraction. The constant shiver of every branch and blade of grass was a distraction. The town was foreign enough and its plunging canyon and precarious walkways dangerous enough that he leaned upon his own powers of perception for comfort, and that wind had them all on the fritz. On his whole walk down from the cookpits to the wagonyard, his eyes leapt and jumped at every phantom movement. Apart from when the culprit was a bird or a single drunken pedestrian, the movement was always just the wind. And all the while, that shrill whisper of air against stone tickled his ears, as if beckoning him in a sentient way.
While he walked, he chewed on a sliver of dartweed he’d cut at the root, just enough to tingle his sinuses and keep him awake and alert. The danger of being so close to Nuso Rill’s territory was likely enough to inspire its own form of insomnia, but Calay enjoyed chemical reassurances when he could not rely on magickal ones.
Eber Hanley’s wagon loomed silently in the yard, a forbidding monolith with sixteen shuttered windows down either side. Adal had commented on the cannon ports when they’d passed by the first time, and now those ports were all Calay could look at. Hanley was a strange, unsettling man. Calay did not like to contemplate why such a man might need thirty-two cannons.
If nothing else, doing this favor for the Hanleys would at least lend them usable information in that regard.
Who were these people? Why were they here?
Calay had some experience with power, both wielding it himself and having it wielded against him. He’d observed the systems in Vasile, the structure that kept women like Rovelenne Talvace in power. She’d wielded it cruelly, first against the city and then against him personally. It was a different kind of violence than that of the gangs of his youth, but it functioned similarly at a basic level. He wondered what power had graced Hanley with his cannons.
He took the two steps up to the wagon’s access hatch, then curled his fist. He didn’t hesitate, just knocked. The sound of his knocking reverberated through the wagon’s heavy wood, and the walls were thick enough they insulated any and all sound from escaping. He had no idea if anyone was even on the way until the door opened, swinging inward a scant inch.
Eber Hanley’s shrewd, wrinkle-framed eyes squinted down at him from almost a foot above. The man squinted out of the darkness like a hermit crab, then finally swung the door fully open, allowing Calay a glimpse of what lay inside: a bog-standard normal hallway.
“My apologies,” he said. “One can never be too careful.”
Calay put on a placid smile. “One cannot,” he said. “I’m the physiker Riss Chou mentioned.” He patted his gloved hand to his satchel for good measure.
“You’re a little young for a physik,” said Hanley, scrutinizing him. “But I’m sure I’m not the first to say so.”
Calay battled a reflexive snarl off his face, then simply chuffed a brief, demure laugh. It had been a while since anyone mistook him for young, but then again, Hanley looked fucking ancient. Maybe anyone on the right side of forty looked young when you were pushing what looked like eighty summers yourself.
“I started my education early,” he said. Hells, it was even true. “Now, Riss says you have a boy with a broken tooth?”
Hanley nodded, dispensing with the small talk in favour of leading Calay down the hallway in silence. With curious, ever-flitting eyes, Calay took in his surroundings as they walked. The narrow access hallway, which ran straight up in the middle of the wagon’s wheelbase, was so plainly unadorned and bare-bones it almost defied description by virtue of its boringness. It was the exact opposite of Mafalda’s wagon, no shelves or storage anywhere to be seen. It reminded Calay of a picked-clean carcass, just an empty ribcage of struts and beams. Every so often, small doors branched off into the wagon’s innards, though what lay beyond them was anyone’s guess.
Calay was loath to start up the conversation again himself, happy to engage in his silent study of the place, but there were practicalities to address.
“Do you have any—” he began to ask. He was about to say supplies on hand, curious as to whether the Hanley clan had anesthetics or even pliers to hand if the need arose.
But before he could speak another word, Hanley lifted a hand in warning. And he didn’t just lift it, he lifted it and whooshed it across the hallway, palm coming to rest mere inches from Calay’s face, level with his mouth. The only reason that withered palm did not connect with Calay’s face was Calay’s own wary, ready reflexes—he’d snatched a hand up and grabbed Hanley by the forearm before the hand could make contact. Which was fortunate for him, because Calay would have probably bit him.
“What the—” Calay began again.
Eber shushed him, hissing out a soft shhh.
Calay, perturbed, flexed his fingers warningly around the old man’s forearm. He could feel the definitions of muscle and sinew there, the loose sag of age—he’d been a venerable specimen once, but now all his meat and skin hung off him like too-large clothes. Calay could snap his ulna like a twig if he so desired it.
Hanley, knowing he was beat, instead lifted a finger to his own lips. He repeated the shhh, and it was just so fucking weird that Calay fell obediently silent by default.
Why did it matter if they spoke in the gods-damned wagon? Calay kept an ear out, wondering if there was some important orders being given that he’d accidentally over-spoke. Or perhaps there was a sermon going on somewhere. Strange, controlling types like Hanley were often religious. He released the old man’s arm, eyeballing him with a cautious squint, and they began to walk again.
Hanley only spoke when they’d reached the end of that narrow hallway, climbed a ladder to the second floor, then ascended to the third. Hanley then led him out onto an open-air observation platform shrouded by canvas tarpaulins, their lashings pulled taut against the constant canyon wind.
“My apologies,” Hanley said. “There are worshippers below who prefer their silence. I try to give it to them.”
Aha. So it was a religious thing. Calay filed that away for future reference.
“No harm done.” The edges of his mouth piqued in an even smile. “If I’d known, I wouldn’t have spoken. I’m not a devout man myself, but I try to be respectful.”
Calay wondered at the worshippers: their number, their nature, the reason for their silence. But he didn’t wonder enough to ask, at least not until the business with the patient was resolved.
“I’m assuming I won’t be treating him out here…” Calay considered the platform. It wasn’t even long enough for a man to lay down.
Hanley shook his head. He wound one of his big, knobby-knuckled hands into a fist and rapped it rhythmically against the wagon’s wall. He drummed out six beats in a pattern, then waited. A short time later, six beats in the same pattern answered in kind, drummed from somewhere inside the wagon’s many-doored interior.
“The boy you’re treating has undertaken a vow of silence,” said Hanley. “We respect his wishes. We don’t speak around him.”
Calay’s eyebrows perked. “That’s a heck of a vow,” he said. “Last I heard vows of silence didn’t apply to everyone around you.”
“Ours is a special family, Mr. Maunet.”
Something about the way he said it made Calay’s skin crawl. Nobody who had a special family for normal reasons would ever phrase it that way. Still, this was a reconnaissance mission, and the things he was learning were valuable, heebie-jeebie inducing though they may be.
“I may have to ask him questions,” Calay warned.
“He won’t answer,” said Hanley.
Squinting his eyes closed for a single, frustrated moment, Calay checked himself. He exhaled, reminded himself that he didn’t have enough blood on his person to shank his way out through an entire wagon of religious loonies, then found a modicum of peace.
“All right then,” he said. “Show me to the patient.”
Hanley led him back through the wagon’s claustrophobic interior, past yet more doors. Calay had counted thirty-four doors so far, a staggering amount considering he’d only seen two of the wagon’s floors in full. There was no telling how many men Hanley had inside. Calay had yet to see a soul, but they’d known he was coming. If Hanley’s people were rivals to the Rill gang, he could see why they’d want to conceal the truth of their numbers.
“Through here,” Hanley whispered. He paused outside one of the many unmarked doors, a simple oval crafted of thick wooden planks. It bore no window, no distinguishing marks, only a simple brass handle, which Hanley fondled but did not yet open.
“We’ve been hit hard by illness of late,” he whispered. “The boy may be alarmed by your presence. I’ll do my best to calm him.”
Curious, Calay ran through his mental catalogue of maladies. Had it been something Nuso Rill’s physiks could have saved them from? How deep did that enmity run?
Hanley stepped in first, opening the door and stooping his tall frame through. It was a tight squeeze even for a man so narrow; he had to hunch severely to creep inside, moving like a spindly mantis balancing on a leaf. Calay followed through without even having to duck his head, flitting a curious glance around the room as he stepped over the threshold.
The patient’s chamber was a simple one, comfortable enough to host two sets of bunks without feeling overly cramped. A simple glass oil lamp sputtered on a squat wooden nightstand, gilding the room in gentle warm light. Calay wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting—the bare, ascetic chambers of a penitent, perhaps?—but the bunkroom was just a bunkroom. It could have existed on any of the half-dozen wagons Calay had ever set foot on, save for perhaps the chaotic clutter of Mafalda’s. For it was clean and tidy and the residents’ belongings were sparse.
Only one of the bunks was occupied, and the few personal effects scattered throughout the room all orbited the occupied bunk, hinting that perhaps he was the room’s only resident.
The boy in question, the one who was the cause of such grief and discussion around Rill’s cookfire, was more of a young man. Calay had been expecting something in the ten to twelve-year-old range, the way everyone spoke of him as though he were a child. But the teenager splayed out on the bottom bunk was closer to twenty than ten, already growth-spurted. He had the gawky, haphazard build that boys that age got when their muscle hadn’t figured out how to distribute itself evenly yet. No stubble yet shadowed his jaw but his features themselves were hardening up some, cheekbones struggling through the baby fat that still stubbornly plumped them up.
The sight of him caused Calay’s breath to unexpectedly catch in his chest. A painful scraping sensation accompanied his next exhale, the grate of bad memories brushing up against the present.
This silent, devout boy—he looked so much like Booter the last time Calay had seen him. The same awkward build, the same dark curly hair. He found himself thinking thoughts that felt so familiar: he’s just about grown, wonder how tall he’ll get, bet the ladies—or the fellas—will have their eyes out for him.
He was older than Gaz would have been when pressed into the service of his first gang. Another victim of the momentum of the streets, swept up and into the waiting arms of power.
Suddenly, he was glad for the youth’s vow of silence. His own voice had left him.
Blinking away Booter’s ghost, he focused on the pallid, dark-haired young man in front of him and the tell-tale bulge interrupting the smooth line of his jaw. Something in his mouth was swollen badly.
At first he wondered if his patient was sedated, but when he stepped close enough that his shadow passed over the teen’s face, his eyes slivered open. Not all the way open, though. And when Calay began his examination, it was easy to see why: a fever burned within him, his brow sticky with sweat and sickness. Opening his eyes must have taken monumental effort.
Calay took a seat on the edge of his bunk, looking down into the young man’s fever-rosy face.
A rare impulse surfaced, one that almost never grabbed him: he wanted to say hello, introduce himself, share some comforting words. Promise him that all the pain he was about to feel would lead to a better outcome. Calay could put on a good bedside manner when he tried, but it was rarely a priority with one-offs. Especially one-offs in creepy, cultish wagons. But those memories from Vasile had tugged at him and now he couldn’t help himself.
“Hello,” he said, voice soft and low. “Eber here informs me that you’ve taken a vow of silence. I’ll be working in your mouth, so it would be tough to speak to me anyway. But I do need one thing from you: if the pain gets too much, knock your knuckles against the bedframe. I have help for that, but I need to know you need it.” He paused, considered the age of his patient, and added a few more words of wisdom:
“Don’t try to be tough. There’s no need.”
He unpacked the things he needed from his satchel and got to work. First, he offered the boy a drop of his laudanum tincture, applying it sublingually. Then he explained that he needed to drain away the swelling to see which tooth it was that was causing the ruckus. Eber Hanley stood behind him like a watchful gargoyle, observing as Calay made careful, subtle cuts to the boy’s jaw and gum both, bleeding him into a bowl and then prodding around his gums to seek the abscess he knew he’d find.
It was interesting, how he started to think of him as the boy again once his eyes were watering with pain and Calay’s fingers were carefully palpating his gums. Like he’d grown younger. He found the abscessed molar in short order, felt a sticky seep of pus against his fingers as the boy shuddered and drew in a breath. He felt it even through the floral tincture, then. Calay coated a finger in heybrin powder and rubbed it all along the affected gumline, waiting a few seconds for the numbness to take hold.
He tried not to pay too much mind to the dribble of blood flowing into his bowl, but his heart sped up every time he remembered its presence. He was close, so close, to reinforcing his supply. It would splinter his heart a little to draw on this poor sod’s blood, but he’d do it in a heartbeat if he had to, resemblance to specters from Calay’s past be damned.
Once he’d completed his examination, he said for both his patient and Eber Hanley’s benefit:
“I’m going to have to take the tooth.”
At some point, the molar in question had sustained a break that left the root exposed. Infection had taken hold, the kind that even good hygiene couldn’t fight back. The kind that Calay’s ministrations might not be enough to combat.
He looked down into fever-swollen eyes, found that the boy was watching him with a resigned, knowing intelligence. He knew what was coming. He didn’t fight when Eber took him by the shoulders, pinning him down.
Calay wasn’t a dentist. He had little formal training in that regard, but more to the point, he didn’t have the proper equipment, having never travelled with an elevator bar or any of the spidery, hook-edged little tools common to the trade.
He did, however, have a can opener. Which had felt like so much wasted weight in his satchel, given that food-tinning technology didn’t seem to have penetrated the continent’s pastoral inlands.
Well, it could be repurposed.
He got to work.
Later, when it was finished, he looked over his shoulder and asked Eber if he had fresh water so that he could wash his red-flecked hands. The patriarch, who’d said nothing during the procedure, gave a silent nod and unfolded from his seat, scarecrow-like body stalking out into the wagon’s silent halls. He closed the door, leaving Calay alone with the boy, whose name he still didn’t know.
The tooth sat in a small bowl on the bedside table, the cracked and broken mass of it no longer pouring its infection into the boy’s body. Beside it, the bowl of blood and pus was nearly half-full, no longer necessary as Calay had closed the boy’s drainage cuts.
Mild regret rose in him as he reached into his satchel, retrieved an empty flagon, and filled it from the bowl. He did not want to hurt this unfortunate adolescent caught in the crossfire between two feuding men. But as much as he wished to avoid causing that hurt, the sad reality was that the boy’s current predicament would give Calay superb cover were he forced to use the blood to his own ends. What’s that? The boy with the broken tooth is sick again? It would hardly raise an eyebrow.
Another feeling rose in him, crowding at that mild regret: the urge to snoop. To uncover something useful while he was aboard this rolling fortress.
He stashed his flagon away, hoping he’d have an opportunity to mix the boy’s blood with someone else’s to thin the side effects down the line.
Unpacking his herbs from his bag, he found some curls of dried bark and set them aside, as well as a small quantity of his powdered heybrin. The usual supplies, herbal mouth rinses and the like, he imagined Eber could scrounge up in Frogmouth.
“I’ll be going now,” he said to his patient, who had not moved or opened his eyes since the can opener had entered his mouth. Calay hoped he’d felt nothing. And it was a hope rooted in a solid, confident foundation given how deeply Calay had dosed him.
The boy made no sound, didn’t twitch an eyelash.
Calay turned an ear toward the door, had yet to hear any sounds of Eber returning. It was risky business, slinking out of here and having a nose around. He recalled the way Tarn’s people had turfed him out on his ass for skulking through the servants’ passageways at Adelheim.
And then he recalled that he had access to a fully sedated body and fresh, warm blood. Fresh, warm blood that—if used incrementally—could clue him in on the wagon’s goings-on without causing too much pain and stress to its owner.
He tried to make an internal show of weighing his options. Tried to pretend it was a debate. That was one of Gaz’s earliest lessons for him back in the day, when he’d first tried to temper the rage that had defined Calay’s childhood: at least ask yourself if it’s worth doing. Stop and ask the question. Sometimes that’s enough to stop you from doing it.
This time the question was not enough to deter him. The ends justified the means.
Mindful that Eber could return at any moment, Calay quickly dipped his finger into the blood bowl and got to work. He glyphed himself once beside the eye and once below the ear, the tiniest and most dilute sketches he could manage. Just enough to lend his senses an edge.
A soft, pained groan rose up from the boy on the bunk as the magick sizzled. Calay leaned down and brushed a strand of wayward hair off his feverish forehead.
“I’m sorry,” he said. And he meant it, really. But even as he said it and meant it, his knuckle brushed the boy’s temple and he felt the thrum of his pulse, that throb of too-warm blood and the power it promised. It had been a hard few days, feeling powerless and bloodless. His fingers tingled with a renewed purpose that all but chased away the guilt.
The door behind him opened. Eber’s footsteps approached him from behind, and soon the spindly man towered in his periphery.
Dipping a nod, Calay gestured to the supplies he’d left on the table.
“The powder’s for the pain,” he said. “Rub it into his gums if he’s still too weak to do it himself. Boil the bark and have him swish the liquid around in his mouth.” A brief, haphazard smile. “Better if he spits it out, but it won’t kill him if he doesn’t. Do warn him it’ll make his piss smell right unpleasant.” If people weren’t warned about that part, they tended to worry they were dying.
Eber thanked him in a distant, perfunctory way. Calay was used to it, the way patriarchs took it when you treated their children. He wondered if it was a universal trait among patriarchs. He hadn’t the personal experience to make a comparison. He then wondered if the boy was even Eber’s son. A father might have shared his son’s name.
“So he’ll make a full recovery?”
Calay pursed his mouth into a fine line. His tongue made a soft tch.
“I suspect he will,” he said. “Teeth stuff is funny. Can’t ever fully promise. Sometimes the root turns bad and you can’t fight the rot back. But he looks to be a stout one.”
“That he is.”
Calay rose up from where he sat, tilted his head up so he could look Eber in the eye.
“We’re in town ‘til further notice,,” he said. “If he worsens, send for me.”
The very edges of a well-suppressed flicker of surprise registered on Eber’s weathered face. Calay wondered why it might be that the man was unused to kindness. This place has a pecking order. He rolled it around in his mind, stretched it, tried to fit the pieces together. I’d have thought a man with a wagon like this would be at the top. But he seems stunned…
They left the boy to his slumber, ducking back into the strangely barren hallway. Calay’s shoulders felt looser, his chest less tight. Sitting down and treating a patient, actually treating someone he had the facilities to help, had released a tension in him that he hadn’t recognized was there.
But before he could enjoy that release for what it was, he heard it.
He had to catch himself, had to forcibly plant one foot in front of the other as he followed Eber down the hall. He clung to his own footfalls like a lifeline, like the soles of his boots were the only thing anchoring him to the ground. His calm depended on it. His lie depended on it. Because he absolutely could not let Eber know what he heard.
Breathing. All around him, breathing. Every blank, inert door he’d passed in the wagon’s silent halls held breathing lungs behind it. He could only hear it with his newly-augmented senses, the chorus of asynchronous rasps, in and out, inhale and exhale. Not the long, slow breath of those who slept but the calm and patient rhythm of someone sitting very patiently and very awake.
Dozens of someones. Possibly hundreds. Small someones with small lungs, the wet slither of pleural membranes that needed to take in air quicker than grown adults.
Calay shoved his hands deep into his pockets, clenched his knuckles tight, and focused on his footfalls.
Eber’s wagon was full of children. Children sitting in silence in the dark.
The moment he stepped out into the cool desert night, once he was finally free of that labyrinth of doors and raspy breathing, his heart battered against his sternum like he’d just run a mile. He swallowed, pried his hands open, and performed what felt like gross, inept puppetry: lift eyebrows, smile with mouth, offer hand for shake. Eber took his hand and shook it and Calay restrained the urge to twist the old man’s arm in its socket and rip it off.
“We never discussed payment,” said Eber, and Calay could not imagine himself taking money or material goods from a place of such oppressive, deep-reaching evil. Children with lungs that small did not take vows of silence. Not voluntarily. He did not want payment that came from behind one of those horrible doors.
He puppeted himself into motion again, polite and restrained.
“Pay it forward when you can,” he said. He could not make himself smile.
Eber again seemed surprised by the notion of charity. Calay knew why now. The people of Frogmouth must have picked up on it. Itinerant and free-flowing as the population was, there would still be rumors.
As Eber doffed his hat in parting, Calay studied his face. While there was a certain attenuated too-alert old man creepiness to him, he looked so… mild. But then, his last years in Vasile had shown him badness didn’t always manifest as a sharp-toothed, tatted-up criminal with brass knuckles and a shiv knocking on your front door.
He said his goodbyes and left the wagon looming silently in the yard, bristling with its cannon-ports and concealing its terrible cargo. He’d have to be cautious in how he passed this on to the others. Frogmouth was a small town and he sensed they’d only begun to probe the depths of its tangled allegiances.
He wanted to learn more about Eber Hanley. But he also never wanted to set eyes on the man again.