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.
To Be Continued