Sure enough, Mafalda spotted Riss almost as soon as Riss spotted her. She waved, beckoning, and Riss motioned up the path for the others to take a seat.
She had about fifteen seconds to warn them. And it was either warn them in a terribly ungraceful way or let them go in blind.
So she put on a bracing smile, did her best to act casual, and dropped the bomb:
“Salka told Torcha and I that the Rill Gang are putting on a cookout tonight.” She sounded admirably casual, all things considered. “Turns out that gal, Mafalda, who gave us a ride in? She’s a… colleague.”
That part was still giving Riss some trouble. Mafalda and Rill worked together in some capacity. She knew that based on the crew they had in common. And by the fact that Mafalda was sitting here with Rill’s people, perfectly at ease. Since they were known the Continent over as Rill’s gang, she assumed Mafalda to be a subordinate of some sort, but she just…
Frankly, she just didn’t seem hard enough to run with those sorts. The war had stifled Rill’s career as a highwayman, with its many roadblocks and artillery patrols and curfews. But the ease with which Mafalda moved among these people hinted at a long courtship. She was no recent acquisition.
People could be surprising, though, Riss reminded herself. And besides that, they could always lie.
To her great relief, none of her crew did a physical double-take when informed about who they’d be dining with. Gaz took a half-step closer to the lot of them, a move that could have been subconscious. And Calay shoved his gloved hand deeper into the recesses of his jacket. Torcha met her eyes, upnodding subtly, and Adal simply gave her a look that said message received.
And then they were in earshot. There would be no more discussion.
“Glad you decided to join us.” Mafalda gave her a big smile that dimpled both cheeks. “Salka told me she invited you.”
The cool calm of Riss’ smile did not quite penetrate deep enough to settle her nerves. But it would have to do.
“Looks like we get to thank you a second time,” she said.
They all took seats around the heap of coals, Riss to Mafalda’s side and Torcha not far away. The others ended up clustered a bit further off. Calay appeared to be angling himself to the perimeter of the gathering, which Riss figured was smart. He and Gaz kept an observant eye on the crowd. Riss herself performed a passive, automatic headcount. Just shy of thirty people, any one of whom could be a close friend or loyal follower of Rill. Speaking off, the boss himself didn’t appear to be present just yet, but Riss suspected it wouldn’t be long.
The twilights in Frogmouth were long, probably on account of how damnably flat the land was on either side of the plateau. Riss noted that lights glowed from within the wagon parked nearby. She watched it surreptitiously, unsure how many personnel a wagon like that could even conceal. Enough to turn this gathering from firmly in Nuso’s favour to overwhelmingly, she figured.
She kept one eye trained on the crowd, passively scanning for Rill’s profile. She’d only had the one glimpse of him, and he’d been half-naked and soaking wet, but she was confident she could clock him from afar once he showed.
Soon, however, it was time to eat. The crowd thickened and tracking individuals became difficult. Mafalda and her crew used big, wooden-handled spits to lift the heavy tureens from the coals. Steam bubbled and hissed and escaped when they were cracked open, and on the heels of the hissing came a flood of aromas that distracted Riss entirely from her outlaw-spotting mission.
Down the line, people passed out heaping plates of slow-roasted pork, so thick with sauce that it was borderline sludgy, if such a word could ever be used to describe food in a positive light. It fell apart into flakes when prodded even gently with a fork, all the connective tissue having melted away. The pork came on a bed of still-crunchy roasted root vegetables and big slabs of sheet-baked bread, dense and heavier at the corners and edges. Mafalda got up to mingle at some point, telling Riss and her people to have as much as they liked.
The bread was thick, crumbly, and not wheat-based. Riss was enjoying an exploratory chew of her slab, trying to figure out exactly what grain it was composed of, when someone slouched into Mafalda’s vacated seat.
Reclining in the sling chair like his limbs just couldn’t be arsed to hold up his body anymore, Nuso Rill stretched out and kicked up his feet, now fully clothed and looking relaxed as could be.
Riss quickly shovelled a bite of bread down her gullet, lest her face make some unwelcome expression. She chewed, cheeks bulging out, and when Rill looked her way she was forced into relinquishing a truly pitiable smile.
He didn’t know her. They’d never crossed paths before. There was no possible way that this man, this notorious outlaw born in Vasile but exiled to the wilds, had ever occupied the same space as her. Yet when his eyes met hers, there was something there. A glimmer of recognition and interest. Excitable recognition.
Rill sat up, his eyes alert and clear, and wagged a finger at her.
“You,” he said. “I’ve been dying to hear your story.”
Riss stopped chewing. She could hear the whistle of her own breath in her lungs.
At that moment, Rill noticed he had gravy on his thumb. He bent his head, licked it off, then gestured at her again. All the while, Riss tried to formulate a response to that statement that gave away nothing of her true intentions yet also didn’t sound completely absurd. It was harder than she thought it would be. She put on a show of chewing and swallowing, holding up a politely stalling finger to buy herself a moment’s time.
“My apologies,” said Rill while she chewed. “That likely didn’t make a whole lot of sense, did it. My Crew Leader told me she scooped a half-dozen mercenaries out of the desert, you see.” He tipped her a coy wink. “I had to see what all the fuss was about.”
“Fuss?” asked Riss, falling back on an old tradition. When completely lost and at the mercy of another party in a conversation, simply repeat one of their own words back to them as a question. “I wasn’t aware we caused a fuss.”
“She turned around in order to bring you here.” His eyebrows were animated when he talked, bouncing around to emphasize his words. “She wouldn’t do that for just anyone.”
Interesting. Riss assumed she’d been on the receiving end of common Flats emergency courtesy, not any kind of special treatment.
“What I’m asking is what business do you have in Frogmouth that she decided couldn’t wait, hm?”
There it was. Though his exterior was affable and his manner was relaxed, Rill asked the question with a directness that spoke volumes. Not only was he suspicious as to her motivations, he felt powerful enough in this place to candidly demand she share them. All around the fire, chatter rose and fell. Were some of Rill’s crew watching her? Were their eyes lingering? Tough to say, but she felt observed.
“We had a wagon to sell,” Riss said, as blunt as his question. “Emphasis on the had.”
Rill pulled a face, then made a sympathetic noise. “Sorry to hear that.”
“Easy come, easy go,” said Riss. “The contractor’s life.”
That pried an appreciative laugh out of him, the sound of it big and booming. It was certainly more laughter than her mildly successful joke warranted, yet somehow his reaction didn’t seem forced. Riss decided it was because the laughter matched his face: mobile, open, expressive, all features of a man who felt he had very little to hide.
He was not what she’d been expecting. She wondered whether it would be an unwise move to mention that. To mention she was aware of his reputation at all.
“Good to see you two are hitting it off.” Mafalda arrived from somewhere in the firelit dark, a red clay jug in her hand.
To Riss, she offered both a swig from the jug and playful squint. “He’s very charming, isn’t he?”
“He is.” Riss took the jug, wary to drink it. All the usual anxieties that surfaced when offered a drink by a stranger flashed through her mind, then all new ones considering the context: booze would be bad for her in this scenario. She couldn’t lose her edge. Not around these folks. But she couldn’t look like she was rejecting their hospitality, either…
The jug was halfway to Riss’ mouth when all conversation around the fire abruptly shrivelled and died. Mafalda turned away from Riss and squinted toward the fire’s edge. Whatever caught her eye stilled her mouth into a wary line. The motion was so subtle, so quickly repressed that a less skilled observer might have missed it, but Riss caught the way Mafalda’s hand strayed ever-so-slightly toward her belt.
A man had appeared at the fringe of their little cookout, and some aspect of his person caused the entire party to grind to a halt. It was as though everyone seated by the fire had sensed a change in the weather, or had their spine chilled by some otherworldly current.
Riss studied what she could of the newcomer, though the flicker of the fire and the distance made it difficult. He was a tall, narrow fellow, so tall and so narrow that he almost looked more like a drawing than a flesh and blood human. Firelit shadows hooded his eyes and he wore a stiff, starched cape that was just as black. Riss had seen scarecrows in the Textile Districts with more flesh and fat on their faces.
She did not yet feel chatty enough with Nuso Rill to ask him what was going on.
Fortunately, Torcha felt no such reservations.
“Who the fuck?” she asked, leaning over in Mafalda’s direction.
“That’s Eber Hanley,” Mafalda said. “Looks like he wants something.”
Eber Hanley strode through the crowd, straight for where Riss sat. She tensed, but it became apparent after a moment’s observation that he was headed for Nuso.
Relaxed as ever, Rill eased up out of his seat and found his feet. He gave his shoulders a languid roll, like a man just rising from slumber, and put on a pleasant smile for the sunken-cheeked walking scarecrow that approached him.
“Mr. Hanley,” he said. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” His tone carried that surface-level friendliness that Riss guessed was characteristic, but an edge lurked beneath it that he hadn’t used with her, like hard metal eased from a sheath.
Another realization occurred to Riss then: she had made a significant miscalculation when it came to the balance of power in Frogmouth. Anyone who could silence a room like this, leave Rill Gang’s leader on his feet, unoffended when addressed so directly, was a noteworthy player. And in all the research they’d done, the name Eber Hanley had completely escaped their notice.
“I have a humble request,” said Hanley. He stood at arm’s length to Rill, the two of them sizing one another up.
Rill’s eyelid twitched at the word humble. “Speak it,” he said.
“I’ve need of your physiker.” Hanley’s voice was a grave warble. “The boy has a bad tooth.”
Rill ticked his head sideways by a mere degree, eyeballing Hanley as if to say that’s it? Riss felt as though she had to be missing some context. It seemed a simple enough request. The collective pause around the campfire hinted at some old enmity, some antipathy that might mar Hanley’s request.
“And why not simply send him to a physic in town?” Rill asked, as though just making conversation. “Plenty of hands in Frogmouth can pull a tooth.”
Eber Hanley’s eyes tightened into thin, contemptuous slits.
“You know why,” he said.
Nobody around the fire even seemed to breathe, all eyes focused on the silent stalemate.
“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” Rill finally said, his pause deliberate and uncomfortable. “If your boy wanted my physiker’s assistance, he should have kept his hands to himself.”
Like the roots of some gnarled, withered tree, Eber’s hands clenched. His knuckles bulged with arthritis, bumpy and uneven with nodules. He took a half-step back, then reached slowly up toward his own head. He grabbed his cap, pulling it off and revealing a few thin, scraggly wisps of white hair. He crumpled the hat in his hand.
“Nuso,” he said. “If that tooth turns worse, he could pass on.” Then, quieter: “Don’t make me beg.”
Riss caught a glimpse of motion in the silent, firelit crowd: Calay leaned forward across his knees, seeking her eyes. He made an inquiring chin-lift in Eber’s direction. Riss knew what he was asking: if Rill turned this fellow away, should they offer their services? Riss waved a single finger, hoping he got the message to stand down for now. She didn’t feel comfortable committing Calay’s assistance to anyone until she knew just who they were and what they stood for.
“I won’t make you beg,” Nuso said. “Because I’m saying no. I’m sorry about the boy, but he put one of my diggers in a cast. Perhaps he should have thought with his brain instead of his fists.”
Hanley’s shoulders bunched together. He straightened, inhaled, and seemed to rise a few inches taller. Revulsion slithered through Riss’ stomach—something about the way he moved recalled the creeping-clacking crawling woods of Adelheim. The slow, creaky deliberation. Hanley’s hand clamped around his hat. His lips drew into a fierce sneer.
Expression twisting into a hateful, vulgar thing, he spat into the dust at Rill’s feet.
“If he dies, it’s on you,” Hanley warned.
“Interesting,” Rill countered. “I’d have thought it was his own damn fault.”
Hanley actually hissed at him, hissed like a gods-damned animal, and for a split second the atmosphere around the fire hovered on the verge of something explosive, some great communal boiling-over of tension, but it fizzled rather than blew when Hanley decided to simply turn his back on Rill and slink off into the dark.
There wasn’t a single person by the fire who didn’t watch him go. Riss, eyebrows arched, hadn’t a clue what to say when Rill retook his seat beside her.
“Pardon the intrusion,” he said. “I do hate to be disagreeable, but sometimes people force my hand.”
Riss tried to relax. “We all have our codes,” she said. “I wouldn’t force my physiker to treat the hand that struck him either. Provided I’ve read the situation correctly.”
Rill nodded to her, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Got it in one,” he said. “Eber’s boys get restless and cause problems in town. Bunch of young idiots stuffed to the gills with piss and vinegar and religion. We’ll all be better off when they pack up and move on.”
“He runs a crew full of stroppy, repressed young men,” said Mafalda, who’d drifted back to Rill’s flank while watching their unwanted guest depart.
“Recipe for trouble,” said Riss.
“Mhm.” Mafalda gestured at one of the lantern-lit buildings behind them. “One of his folk kicked up a fuss at the inn, came to fists between his fella and ours. It happens, but tch, it’s just bad manners in a town this small.”
An idea percolated in Riss’ mind. She licked her lips, then cast a curious glance between the pair of outlaws. She surveyed their faces, tried to gauge just how much Hanley’s surprise appearance had put them on edge. Both Rill and Mafalda appeared to be fully relaxed again, posture slouched and eyes returned to their meal.
“You know,” Riss said. “Given the situation with our wagon, we do have a physiker who could use some work. But if this Hanley fellow is a sworn enemy or something, let us know and I’m happy to pull back. Times are lean at the moment, is all.”
She felt Rill’s gaze settle on her, an oppressive and critical weight. He had shrewd eyes. They glittered beneath a heavy, low brow that always looked just a little scrunched up in thought.
“Far be it from me to prohibit a man from earning a living,” said Rill. He exhaled disdainfully. “I don’t wish the boy dead just because he struck one of ours in what appeared to be a young-dumb-and-full-of-come type confrontation. Ol’ Eber’s just got to learn that there are consequences to his actions and he can’t come crying for help from the same hand he bit.”
Riss gave him a smile, meeting those calculating eyes. “Entirely reasonable,” she said.
“When you think about it…” Rill shared with her a razor-thin grin, as though they were two close friends sharing a delicious secret. “You’re in an enviable position here. I figure your sawbones is the only one in town not affiliated with myself. That means you can charge ol’ Eber out the ass, should you feel so inclined.”
Riss tapped her nose a single time, registering that she’d heard him loud and clear.
“So you’ll be heading off, then?” Rill asked. He hadn’t looked away from her despite the fact that Riss had thought their business concluded.
“Not just yet.” Riss sought out Calay through the flames, spying him and Gaz sitting so far out on the fire’s fringes that they almost weren’t touched by its light or warmth at all. “We had a rough go of it in the flats,” she said. “Like you, I’m not so heartless. I couldn’t yank my medic away by the collar in the middle of his first warm, civilized meal in days.”
Rill snapped his fingers, and though he looked away and called some instructions to one of his workers, Riss couldn’t help but feel that his attention hadn’t fully left her. She sat still, waiting for him to speak again.
He did not. Instead, he waved someone over his way, and one of his crew deposited a hefty leather instrument case across his lap. Rill smoothed a hand across it, then dusted it off and flipped it open. At an acute angle, Riss could only just spy the polished wooden guitar that was nestled within, stashed with care in padding of crushed red velvet.
“You and your medic and all the rest can stay as long as you like,” Rill said, extracting the guitar from its case. He began to tune it, plucking one string and then humming a note to himself, a far more meditative and organized process than when Torcha did the same.
“I appreciate your hospitality,” said Riss, eyes on his hands.
Sedate and patient, the Continent’s most wanted man tuned his guitar beside her, his eyes drifting off to somewhere far away.
“It’s like you said.” He adjusted a tuning peg. “It’s a rough world out there. Hot meals and calm wind are too few and far between. There’s certain things you’ve gotta hold onto when the world serves them up to you.”
Something in Riss’ chest twinged uncomfortably. She thought of ballrooms and starched dress blues and uncomfortable, too-tight boots that stunk of fresh wax. She thought of rictus smiles for passing generals and tightly-buttoned collars and a dutiful if dreary insistence on sobriety. And she thought of how, through it all, she’d had Gaspard at one elbow and Adalgis at the other. Fine meals and mandatory socializing suffered through for the sake of her career, for the sake of her advancement, made tolerable by the people she had at her side.
Loss was a hell of a thing. It snuck up on you when you least expected it. Riss found her wary tension at Rill’s proximity replaced by a bittersweet nostalgia, a contemplation of all that the world had served up to her and how holding onto it was easier said than done.
<< Book 2, Chapter 25 | To Be Continued >>