Food had a way of soothing the psyche as it soothed the body. The rudimentary stew they’d fashioned resembled the cuisine of Adal’s childhood only in staple ingredients, yet it was enough to transport him to a much healthier, less precarious mental place.
He recalled a favored dish of his childhood: whole silvergill stuffed with water chestnuts in a sticky, spicy sauce that the family cook never did elaborate on. It was, as his mother would have said, a meal for entertaining. Something they only had when occasions necessitated use of the great House Altave dining hall. Adal always looked forward to those dinners as a child.
Riss took Vosk off in search of his ill-gotten loot, so Adal checked in with the others.
“Torcha,” he asked. “You all right for next watch?”
“Of course.” She picked her teeth with a fishbone. “I’m feeling pretty rested.”
Adal nodded. “You and Gaz, then, once Riss is back.”
Around the fishbone, Torcha’s mouth formed a small, cross line.
“With him?” She shifted a look toward Gaz and eyed him with open disdain.
“Calay was with me on mine,” he explained. “We’ve got to keep cycling watches so everyone gets enough rest. It isn’t ideal, but this is not an ideal situation.”
She made that deep, dubious grunt that said she thought something was bullshit but wasn’t going to voice that opinion. Adal had been on the receiving end of that little vocalization a few times in his life.
Torcha had a tendency to view things with a paucity of nuance. She’d been that way since they’d found her—or rather since she’d found them—back in the thick of the war. It felt unfair to ascribe it all to her uncultured upbringing, but the truth was that many in the Lower Deel and the outer textile regions lived fairly blunt, black and white lives.
In wartime, that thinking had been an asset. It had seen Torcha through unknown horrors, the specifics of which she’d never discussed with the Fourth.
But the situation with Calay and Gaz required a soft, careful touch. At least for the time being. With every night’s rest, those two would be recovering. Adal estimated Calay would be sturdy on his feet come morning, and then they’d have to take precious care to ensure that neither of the northerners deduced that Riss intended to sell them out.
Across the fire, Calay inhaled his stew voraciously, as if thoughts of double-crossing and wary intrigue couldn’t have been further from his mind.
“I have to say…” He smacked his lips. “When you told me you were a spearfisher, I thought you were joking. Or perhaps coming on to me.”
Adal exhaled through his nose, not quite a laugh. Before he could reply, Torcha stepped in to defend his honor.
“Yeah, well, looks like everybody on this expedition is more than what they seemed.” She coupled the words with a hard, bitter stare across the fire, eyes on Calay.
Calay opened his mouth, but for once, nothing came out. He shut it with a click of teeth. He looked, to Adal’s surprise, genuinely chagrined.
“Uh, either way… I think he was trying to say thanks for the fish.” Gaz set his bowl in the stack, then rubbed the bandages wound around his upper arm. As soon as Adal noticed, he couldn’t help but glance toward Calay’s right arm, or at least the lump beneath his duster where he kept it hidden away.
“He’s not your fucking friend, Narlie,” Torcha snapped.
“Torcha.” Adal put up a palm. “I can defend myself, thanks.”
Her eyes narrowed, this time on Adal. “Then why aren’t you? Why are you just letting them talk to you like we’re pals? Like they’re still on the right side of all this?”
With a gust of a sigh, Adal sat up. He’d take her for a private walk ‘round the pool, discuss things with her as he had with Riss. That would settle her. Except…
Damn. He couldn’t leave Calay and Gaz alone. Frustrated, he ground his molars for a moment.
Loth, in a lot of ways it really was just like being back on the front. The complete lack of privacy, at least.
He took a moment to swallow his frustration. Torcha’s anger was not her fault. It might have been inconvenient to the diplomatic approach he was trying to take, but the blame was solely Calay’s. He couldn’t hold her natural, understandable reactions against her.
Besides, this was the Torcha who had mellowed substantially compared to the girl they’d taken under wing after liberating Semmer’s Mill. She’d been younger then, with a temper the gods themselves would be right to fear. Her fury had seemed uncontrollable at first, but they’d discovered one presence in all the world that soothed her. Someone she looked up to enough that she’d shut up and listen even when in the depths of her rage.
And that person was presently occupied elsewhere.
“I get it. I really do. I’m not downplaying anything. I’m just…” There really wasn’t any better excuse than the truth. “I’m exhausted, Torcha. I am too tired to spare any energy on anger.”
Which was true. But as soon as he said it, he knew it also wasn’t the entire truth. He had felt flickers of familiarity, of relaxation if not quite kinship, during their meal. Everyone had shut their mouths and enjoyed their food, even if it was just a big stupid game of play pretend–much like the collective delusions that House Altave contained a cheery family within its dining hall.
Adal was used to wringing humanity out of less-than-ideal circumstances. It didn’t mean his heart was softening. Or that he’d forgotten the betrayal. But Torcha didn’t see it that way.
“You don’t have to be spittin’ mad.” She shifted the fishbone to the other side of her mouth, unimpressed in her regard of him. “But you’re treating them like people.”
Adal’s thoughts came to rest at an ideological blockade he didn’t know he had.
He disagreed with her there. He’d never realized it until that moment, but when she phrased it that way, his mind was quick to counter: They are people, Torcha. A sorcerer was not a thing that masqueraded as a person. A sorcerer was a person who learned to do a thing that let them masquerade as something else.
Despite what Gaz and Calay had done to them, Adal still saw them as fundamentally human. Torcha apparently did not. This was dicier than he thought it was.
The thump-crunch of boots on stone announced Riss’ return not a moment too soon. She arrived tossing a small suede pouch back and forth between her hands. Vosk limped stiffly before her, his expression a tired grimace.
“Well that was illuminating.” Riss retook her seat near the fire, tossing the pouch toward Torcha. “Have a look at these.”
Torcha blinked, her ire forgotten for now. She caught the bag and peered inside.
From inside the pouch, she fished out a single pinky nail-sized pearl, its shade a creamy rose gold. She held it up for a moment, admiring the shine of firelight on its surface.
“Lotta beads like that,” said Riss. “Gemstones, too. Some fancy glass. Nice silks. I didn’t go through it all, but it’s likely more than we can even carry. So lay off Adal and let him go to sleep with visions of moneybags dancing in his head, hm?”
Adal blinked. “You heard all that?”
“I heard enough.” Riss beckoned Torcha up with a crook of her finger. “C’mere, resident textile expert. I need someone to tell me what’s worth carting out of here.”
Torcha rolled to her feet, limber and young and eager to please the boss. They strolled back into the rear of the cave. Vosk watched them go.
The sun had yet to set, but Adal wasn’t going to waste any opportunity for sleep between watches. He tethered Vosk’s hands again, and when the man complained, Adal decided he was about due for a pat-down as well. But he hadn’t acquired any weapons or stowed any contraband on his person, at least not yet.
“Gonna do us next?” Calay asked, baring his teeth in the first smile Adal had seen on him since he’d been shot.
Adal stared him down. “Do I have to?”
Calay and Gaz shared a look between the two of them.
“Reckon not,” said Gaz.
“Shame,” said Calay. “It’s been so long since I felt the tender touch of a man.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Vosk growled.
For all the hearty meal had rejuvenated him, Adal had just about had it with all the bickering. He knocked the toe of a boot warningly against the back of Vosk’s shoulder.
“Enough out of you,” he said. “Regardless of anything else that’s happened on this expedition, the fact remains that only one among us tried to murder someone.”
Maybe Torcha’s solution was right after all. Diplomacy was growing awful tiring. As he turned away from Vosk, Adal’s spine tingled most unpleasantly. He felt eyes on his back. When he returned to the fire, he saw Calay observing him in silence, firelight accentuating the deep shadows of his face. Convalescent though he might have been, his attention hadn’t wavered at all throughout Adal’s entire conversation with Torcha. He’d heard every word.
Alone at the fire with only Calay, Gaz, and Vosk for company, Adal felt as though his allies were very far away. Nonetheless, he schooled his mouth into a calm smile, never one to let a little malice ruin a good meal.