The approaching wagon was still too far-off for its thunder to shake the ground, yet it danced across the surface of Riss’ eardrums all the same. Or was it the roar of her pulse? She sat tight, saying nothing, stifled by the knowledge that she was not the commander in this place. She kept waiting for Nuso to break into action, to start slinging orders to his band of gunners and thieves. But he just sat there, watching through the spyglass.
“… So…” Riss coughed dryly. “What’s the plan?”
“Our options are limited.” Rill’s manner was incongruously relaxed, his voice languid. “The plan is to wait for Hanley to arrive and see what he wants.”
She must have made some sound of disbelief, or he heard her breath catch, because a moment later, he chuckled throatily and drummed his fingers on the spyglass’ wooden body.
“There’s no way we could pack up, set off, and get up to full charge before he gets here. Those lizards mean business. And those cannons have reach. If he plans on using them, we’re just as juicy a target trying to flee as sitting still.”
This all made a certain sense, given her limited understanding of the finer points of artillery engagements.
“So we just have to, what, hope he doesn’t plan on blowing us to bits?”
“Mhm.” Rill’s shoulders twitched in a shrug so close his arm jostled hers. “But there’s a lot of evidence in our favor there.”
She thought on it a moment, but her brain was all wrapped around itself, far too tense for deduction exercises or other academic bullshit.
“I give. Share with the rest of the class?”
Salka spoke up from Rill’s other side. “Wagons are expensive. Hanley’s got a lot of men. Unlikely he’d blow us up when he could capture these for his own fleet.”
Like their reasons for not fleeing, that also made sense.
“Besides,” said Rill. “If he really wanted to blast us to gibbets, he wouldn’t come at us in the middle of the day, not with his whole broadside. He’d send scouts, locate our camp, then creep up on us in the night. Approach from the west so you don’t throw as long a shadow, wait for dawn to hit them before it hits you, then you light up and away she goes.” A pause. “Or at least that’s what I’d have done.”
So Rill’s camp didn’t like Hanley, but they trusted him to be a smart operator. That was worth knowing.
“So…” Sitting there doing nothing felt wrong. Every fiber in Riss’ body longed to twitch toward motion.
Rill gently extracted the spyglass from her hands. His wide mouth lifted in a conciliatory smile, as if to say my bad.
“So we wait and see what he wants,” he repeated. A pause, then he tacked on, “You’ve waited out tenser times than these. I can tell.”
Riss’ brow tightened. She didn’t even know why that remark made her defensive.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m ex-recce.”
“Oh, that part was obvious.”
It was subtle, but he seemed to delight in the way he could read her. This rankled her further, though she didn’t let it creep onto her face. She took a deep breath, felt the scrape of the roof’s planks against her ribcage. She was unarmored, having prepped for a day of laboring in the hot sun.
“Say,” said Rill. “What’s the worst scrape you ever been in?”
“Pardon?” Riss finally tore her eyes from the horizon, looked at him sideways.
“You know. We’ve got all this time. May as well get to know each other a little better.”
A procession of horrors came and went through Riss’ mind, passing through like a grim parade. She’d been in a lot of ‘scrapes.’ Almost none of them were fit for this particular band of company. And the more recent ones, like knowing she lived with magically-knitted bone growing inside her body, the jolts of fear it still gave her when she worried whether her own innards would someday resemble Calay’s mangled arm, those were moments she wouldn’t share with any company.
She reached for one that lurked further back in the chronology of her memory. Something safe to share by virtue of its distance.
“Would have been when I was just a little girl,” she said. And when Rill’s expression registered faint surprise, she elaborated: “Oh, I’ve been in some hairy ones as a grown-up, for certain. But now, I’m equipped with training, a cool head, skills you don’t have when you’re that young. You grow up, you learn to stack the deck in your favor.”
The stagnant air stirred; a windchime clattered somewhere on the wagon’s dusty exterior.
“You know the Laurentines, the range between the Inland and Vasa territory. I’m sure a fellow like you gets around. I grew up in Carbec, if you couldn’t tell from the accent.” The barest hint of a smile. “Anyway. Southern Laurentines are the closest mountains to the steppes where I grew up. My father was a hunting guide. Deer and boar, mostly. But every so often, he’d lead big trips up to the mountains for clients who could afford it. He started taking me out on day-hunts from a pretty young age, and once I’d survived a few years of that no worse for wear, he decided it was time to take me on one of the big trips, teach me those all-important mountain skills.”
Over Rill’s shoulder, Salka and the grey-haired man were half-watching her.
“We set out during the hot season, but you know how mountains are…”
Riss focused her eyes on the distance, on the dust plume billowing into the washed-out blue of the sky.
“Got caught in an out-of-season storm. Had to bunker down in a little canyon we’d passed, to shelter from the wind. That part wasn’t so bad. We were prepared. But in the night, my father heard something.”
She didn’t dwell on it, but it was easy to recall the way her blood had chilled. Riss and her father had never gotten along, but at that age, a child’s faith in their parents was absolute. Or at least a child’s faith in their parents’ perception, their sensory skills. Your mother or father could still disappoint you, could still get things wrong, but you never thought them crazy. Or worse, liars.
“He told me to stay put,” she said. “He skulked off to investigate, or to ward off whatever-it-was. I don’t know how many hours I waited for him.” Without sleeping, eyes fixed open, staring at the narrow gap in the tent’s flaps with utter, bone-deep certainty that something terrible was going to come careening through, hungry and sharp and too fast to flee.
“I fell asleep eventually, out of sheer exhaustion. We’d been hiking all day, after all. When I woke up, he still wasn’t there.” And nope, she was not going to dwell on how that had felt. “It took me ages to work up the courage to creep out of that tent, but even at that age, I’d seen what frostbite could do. I knew I had to get moving, with or without him. I fought through the chill, packed up camp on my own. We always had a plan for what to do if something separated us in the wilderness: track ourselves home. Or in this case to the trailhead.”
She gusted out a breezy laugh to massage the spite from her voice. “By the time I got there, he was waiting. Perfectly unharmed and disappointed I took so long.”
Twitching her fingers, she beckoned to Rill for the spyglass. Readying it and placing it to her eye, she watched those dozens of cannons bearing down closer, felt the weight of all that iron in her bowels. Or at least she told herself it was the iron, and not the weight of what she’d skimmed over in her story.
She hadn’t told them that her father had ditched her in the night on purpose. That it had been a test of her training. But when she lowered the spyglass from her eye, she caught Nuso Rill watching her, his thoughtful eyes weighed down by something that looked a lot like the heaviness she felt in her guts.
Anvey Rill, his brother, the revolutionary, had a reputation for cruelty among those who studied history. He’d stoked Vasile to riots on more than one occasion. Who knew how many lives his constant, futile bombings had cut short.
A father who could raise a brother like that might have something in common with her own, she thought. A weird, unspoken understanding passed between the two of them in that moment, unacknowledged yet undeniable, more felt than seen, the way a storm might tug unseen on a barometer’s needle.
“Well, suppose I should be going.”
Stretching and rising as if from a refreshing nap, Rill pushed up. He waved for Riss to keep the spyglass, then passed his rifle down to Salka.
“You sure that’s wise, boss?” Salka asked.
“Hanley’s going to want to talk to somebody,” he said. “And it certainly isn’t gonna be one of you.”
Riss watched, eyebrows lifting minutely, as he climbed down off the wagon’s roof. A few moments later, he emerged out into the sunlight, ambling across the crystallized salt. He waved toward the other wagon in the distance, then folded his arms and waited for the dustcloud that approached them like a windblown storm.
Watching Hanley’s big, armored wagon roll in violated some unspoken rule. Riss’ hated it so hard her teeth hated it and her skin hated it and her bones hated it and her soul hated it. Sitting there, watching through glass that lent the scene an absurd and sterile distance, felt like a refutation of her own battlefield instincts as well as basic common sense. But what else was there to do? She was the one who’d made the call to bind their fates up with Rill’s for the time being.
When the wagon finally rolled to a stop, it was still far enough off that the plumes of salty dust obscured its edges. It was a thick, looming shadow, made all the more menacing by the lack of detail. Its galania stood statue-still as though possessed of some supernatural discipline.
Down below, Nuso shifted his weight from foot to foot, a laughably tiny presence in the face of such an enormous war machine. Riss wondered what the accuracy on those cannons was like. When she considered the shadows of the distant wagon and couldn’t quite figure out whether its gunports were open or shut, her intestines tied themselves into an anxious little knot.
Neither Salka nor the grey-haired rifleman spoke. Not even the wind dared interrupt.
Taking slow steps, Nuso approached the wagon, hands down at his sides. He passed from cannon range into rifle range, thus also overshooting any distance at which his crew could still hear shouted orders. Riss was tempted to ask her temporary allies on the rooftop if he was always like this, but she didn’t want to be the first to break that tense, brittle silence.
You’ve got gravel in your guts, her father used to say to mercs and hunters on the trails that impressed him. Nuso, if nothing else, had gravel. She was beginning to wonder if his skull was full of gravel, too, with how cavalier he was acting.
A window shutter heaved open on the big wagon. Nuso shouted up toward it. A voice inside boomed something back. Riss noticed something in his posture change—he slipped an arm behind himself, spreading his feet on the salty ground. A hunch dug at her and she adjusted the spyglass, studying his back. The whole exchange had taken seconds.
“He’s signaling,” Riss said when she confirmed sight of Rill’s hands. “Holding up two fingers behind his back.”
Salka grunted, then pushed up off the rooftop and to her feet.
Riss, still unsure where she should fit into all this, watched her rise, curious.
Already on her way down the hatch, Salka explained. “That means he’s askin’ for Mafalda.”
It took some time, rallying Mafalda up from the canyon floor. Salka climbed down to go fetch her, and the few minutes where nothing happened were excruciating. Being in the Flats again was bad enough on its own, but now that Riss had lived through that treacherous journey on foot, she had a newfound respect for just how open and exposed the terrain was. If Hanley opened fire on Rill’s wagons, their options for cover were limited. The wagon itself was a target, no way she’d stick close by that. She’d have to hurry her way to Torcha, then take cover in the canyon. At least the crew had supplies down there…
What followed was a tense negotiation of the worst kind: the kind Riss could only observe from afar, not privy to what was being said or the level of tension that Rill or his Second may be experiencing (or, let’s be honest, she thought—causing). Mafalda emerged, crawling her way up the via ferrata, and she joined Nuso on the flat stretch of salt. They turned toward each other, conversing.
Riss, stuck watching, the most useless role imaginable, didn’t notice her teeth were grinding together until her jaw started to hurt.
Mafalda and Rill had a dialogue between them that seemed to be more gestures than anything: a turn of the hand here, a shake of the head there. Riss wondered if it were some sort of organized thieves’ cant and made a mental note to ask Calay if he’d picked up on it. In the middle of her contemplations, Mafalda abruptly waved a palm and, with a little shooing gesture, sent Rill on his way.
Rill crept back from Hanley’s wagon with visible reluctance, feet dragging. The very arc of his spine seemed to curve toward the wagon, or perhaps more accurately toward Mafalda, a protective impulse Riss recognized well. She was sympathetic when she met him at the hatch.
All Rill had to offer at first as he settled down beside the others was a deep, resigned, “Hmph.”
“He won’t negotiate with you, huh?” Salka asked. “I mean, I can’t say I’m surprised…”
“Creepy piece of shit.” Nuso gestured for the spyglass. Riss readily handed it over.
She wasn’t sure if she felt better or worse now that Mafalda was facing the wagon on her own. Bully for her, she didn’t have long to consider it—the wagon’s front hatch spilled open, unhinging like a jaw, and the spindly silhouette of Eber Hanley, clad all in black, stepped forth. Riss definitely felt worse then. Beside her, Rill made a sound like he was holding back bile.
“I don’t like this,” he murmured.
“I don’t either.” Riss tried to offer him something, anything that passed for expertise. “But if he’s out here, then that means his people won’t shoot.”
The aged, grey-haired bandit perched on the precipice of the rooftop gave a dismissive snort.
“You don’t know a thing ‘bout how this all works, Carbecer,” he said.
“Oh, can it, Rath.” To Riss’ surprise, Rill immediately intervened on her behalf. “We may not have an itemized breakdown of Chou’s service, but I’m sure she’s seen a war-wagon in action.”
Riss kept her mouth shut. If the boss was willing to defend her, so be it.
She didn’t see the initial movement that caused Salka to hiss for them all to shut up, but she turned her head in time to see the aftermath.
Out on the Flats, mid-parlay with Eber Hanley, Mafalda took a threatening step toward him. She was substantially shorter, tilting her chin up to eye him in the face the way Torcha had to when she spoke to Gaz. Her shoulders were stiff, body language a study in ready defiance, a one more word out of you and I’ll show you where to shove it forward slouch.
Eber Hanley drew back an arm and struck Mafalda forcefully across the mouth, a stiff backhand that sent her doubling over.
Salka roared an expletive. Nuso lunged forward for his rifle. And Rath, whose name Riss committed to memory, lifted his sights to his eye.
Riss could only hold her breath and stare. Mafalda struggled back upright and Hanley loomed smugly over her; the tension threatened to explode into a horrifyingly one-sided artillery exchange.
Fuck. There had to be something she could do.
“What was he asking for?” she hissed toward Rill, biting the words.
“He wants the wagon,” Rill growled. “He told us to heave off and abandon it.”
So why send for Mafalda, if that was the only negotiation on the table? Riss couldn’t fathom his reasoning. But before she had a chance to ask further questions, the bandits atop the roof all let out a low, collective curse.
Riss watched as little pinpricks of darkness shuttered open along the length of Hanley’s wagon, blinking open like night-dark eyes, a predator rousing from its afternoon slumber. One by one, the cannon apertures opened. How long did it take to prime a cannon? Had they begun the firing process? Riss had no answers. And even if she’d known, what good would that do her now? She knew then the source of that sick feeling that had taken up residence in her stomach since the dark wagon rolled up.
She recognized in herself that old soldier’s yearning: if she wasn’t the one calling the shots, by gods she wished someone was ordering her around. Facing down this much firepower with neither orders nor command on her side? No wonder she wanted to throw up.