Riss stood on a ledge halfway down the precarious via ferrata that she and Mafalda’s joined crews had rigged into the plunging canyon wall. The series of screwed-in handholds, bars, and ropes made use of a few natural gouges in the ravine’s side, providing a pathway to the ground that was at least moderately safer than climbing by hand.
Provided, of course, one could focus enough to climb. This was proving difficult, for at the midway mark of one’s descent, one encountered the… aroma.
An invisible wall of deathly stink separated the upper canyon from the lower. When one encountered the smell, one had to stop and catch one’s breath. And then one had to stop upon the ledge right where Riss stood, gazing down in gut-bubbling awe, wonder, and disgust at the several slowly-liquefying tons of lizard that lay decomposing on the salty, sandy canyon floor. It spread out there like the world’s least wholesome reflecting pool, its serene ooze speared through the middle by the snapped remnants of her war-wagon in lieu of a statue of Tempata or whatever goddess people put in fountains these days.
Oh boy was all she could make herself say.
Mafalda’s people had generously agreed to escort them to the crash site, providing both safety in numbers and labor to paw through the wreckage in search of something useful. Riss knew it would be bad, but she didn’t realize that ‘bad’ was to this situation like ‘accident’ was to pissing your pants at your own wedding in front of your parents, your betrothed, and the Emperor.
Someone heavy landed behind her, ropes rattling and squealing as they disengaged from a pulley overhead. A couple crunching footsteps sounded at her back, then a low and wilted groan. The voice was low, masculine, and especially pained.
His olive complexion made greener than usual by the smell, Nuso Rill let out a blegh and pinched his nose as he crept along the ledge to her side.
Under any other circumstances, Riss might have had to watch herself. She might have had to be careful with where her eyes strayed, ration how often she peeked at him out of the corner of her eye. She didn’t want to give away that she was paying attention, that she was making note of Rill’s habits.
Now, though? None of that was an issue. Because everyone’s eyes were watering with lizard-stink and Rill wasn’t paying any attention whatsoever to what she was doing and she herself could barely stand to look at him because focusing her eyes somehow made her smell everything more intensely.
“Whew,” Rill announced. “I don’t think I’ve ever—” He coughed. He sputtered. He tried again. The stench fought him every step of the way.
Finally, with a wheeze, he said, “I can’t even joke about this.”
“Me either,” Riss rasped, shielding her face with a hand. “Calay—our medic—has got some ointment down below. Says it’s—cough—what he used during autopsies. Supposed to help.”
Rill muttered something; she couldn’t tell what it was. One of his workers clambered past behind them, continuing on his descent without pausing on their ledge. Riss wondered spitefully whether he was just trying to look tough in front of his boss. She told herself that’s what it was, lest she otherwise explode into flames with jealousy.
Rill stepped into her blurry field of vision, hand outstretched.
“Here,” he said.
She’d been rendered so dumbstruck by the odor that for a moment she couldn’t make sense of what he was holding. A scarf and a bottle of clear liquid? But then she watched him spill a dash of the liquid onto the scarf and it clicked: some sort of alcohol. She didn’t hesitate, snatching the fabric out of Rill’s hand.
Looping the fabric over her mouth and nose, she tied it so that the wet patch was centered on her face. Within seconds, her vision was blurring for all new reasons: the potent stink of gin right up in her eyes and nose and mouth.
But after she breathed it in for a moment or two, she had to admit it: this new bad smell offended her less.
“Thanks,” she started to say, but she found the spot beside her already vacated. Rill was halfway down the next ladder, climbing busily, uninterested in her gratitude.
It’s better this way, she thought.
Down at ground level, Calay was coordinating ointment and Mafalda was coordinating her laborers. They’d begun hauling debris and valuables alike out of the shattered wagon. These objects were heaped in two piles a ways from the wreck site, divided roughly into can we salvage it? and lost cause. Once that was all said and done, Maf’s people would perform an internal examination, see if there was any way they could shore the wagon up enough to limp it away from where it had nose-dived.
Riss wasn’t sure where they’d go from there, given it was still down at the bottom of a ravine several times deeper than it was tall. But Mafalda spoke of all her plans and what-ifs with a smooth and breezy confidence that assured Riss she had something in mind. Either that or this chubby, unassuming Meduese woman was the single slickest bullshitter Riss had ever come across. In which case she’d hardly be able to summon up anger. She’d just be impressed.
Once she got working, she was almost grateful for the heat and the stink. The cramped, airless confines of the wagon trapped the sun’s warmth and the rot of decay all the same. Everyone held their breath while hauling out their burdens. But after her second or third trip inside, Riss found there was a rhythm to it. A beat and a count that made it easier to put up with and easier to predict where her limits lay. The grateful feeling came from juggling all these distractions in her head, the required focus providing an ample distraction from any stray thoughts of Adal’s injury.
They still hadn’t talked about it. He had yet to ask her.
Perhaps they never would?
Perhaps that was for the best.
Then it was time for another trip inside, another two minutes of wheezing exhales and shaking arms as she struggled to drag a splintered dresser toward the exit.
All up, Mafalda and Rill had brought two dozen workers. Their efforts made Riss’ contributions rather meagre by sheer numbers, though Calay eventually joined in and helped out. That left everyone digging but Torcha, who was playing sentry up top.
The sun reached its highest point and began its descent, and with it came a merciful afternoon breeze. It wasn’t decided by any means of verbal communication, but by gestures and grunt and general weary foll0w-the-leader, everyone trickled out into the ravine and took a short walk until they were upwind of the carcass. There they rested, took water, and mumbled estimates at how much longer things might take.
Riss pulled the scarf down off her mouth and took a cautious breath, pleased to find the smell was bearable from so far off. There was still a certain sourness in the air, but it only descended when the wind settled, which wasn’t often.
“Purple’s a good color on you.”
Adal had found her, arriving at her arm to guide her to a patch of shade where the rest of her crew waited. Once the distraction of immediate work in front of her face was gone, Riss once again found herself conscious of the disparity in numbers. Rill’s people had shown no inclination they meant harm, but what did that mean, this far from civilization?
And what the hells did Adal mean by…?
They sat. Riss’s arms and shoulders moved like aged, rusted hinges in need of a good oiling. She wasn’t an unfit woman, but this was a different type of labor to her usual.
“Don’t tell me you’re sunstruck.” Adal reached out and tapped a gloved finger to the scarf that dangled from Riss’ throat. She looked down.
Oh. The scarf she wore was purple. In the overbearing stinkiness of the moment, she had not registered a thing about it save for the fact that it smelled less worse than breathing regular air. Unwrapping it from around her neck, she shook out the length of finely-woven fabric and studied it. She couldn’t quite place its origin, thicker than silk but lighter than wool, dyed an even aubergine purple with occasional threads of a lighter shade shimmering when it caught the sun. Gold-dyed tassels fringed its shorter ends, soft to the touch and only mildly tatty with use.
“I honestly hadn’t looked at it,” she said after giving the accessory a thorough inspection. “Rill was handing them out.”
One of Adal’s eyebrows arched, but before he could say anything, two shots rang out high overhead.
The gunfire came so sudden that at first, Riss wasn’t sure she’d heard right. The combination of wind and distance and depth, the ravine swallowing sounds from up on surface level, distorted the rifle reports in a way that almost might have been rocks tumbling into the canyon, or something in the wreck shattering, or…
But no. Everyone else around her had a moment of similar hesitation, but then hands went for sidearms and backs stood up straight and every single pair of eyes in the ravine immediately went to either Riss or Nuso Rill.
Rill sought Mafalda first, hooking an arm to her in gesture. Then the pair of them beelined over to Riss.
“That’s our sentries,” Rill said. “Something’s happening up top. You’ve got a gal up there, yeah?”
“Sure do,” Riss confirmed.
“Any other long-arms specialists?”
Riss didn’t hesitate. “Myself and Adalgis.”
“Good. Come. We’re heading up top the wagons.”
Rill didn’t waste a single word, and just like on the via ferrata earlier, he was gone as soon as he’d spoken. He fired off some instructions to Mafalda, who broke from his side and mustered her workers.
Riss wasn’t sure how she felt about taking short, snappy orders from the man she’d come to hunt, but Rill’s people seemed to have a system. For now, gumming up their works seemed like a bad idea.
“I’m doing as he says,” she told the others. “For now.”
Adal didn’t argue, lifting his coat from where he’d dropped it and shrugging it back on.
To Gaz and Calay, she said, “I don’t think I have to tell you this: listen to Mafalda for now, but look out for yourselves. If her orders get dangerous, trust your gut.”
It was impossible to give any instruction beyond that, given they didn’t even know what was lurking overhead. If nothing else, she trusted Gaz and Calay to look out for one another. And at least she’d have Adal and Torcha with her. Rill’s gang would have procedures for things like this, codes and signals and other sorts of bandit contingency plans. She just hoped he’d be kind enough to include her people in the getaway if they needed one.
Then she was sprinting across the ravine’s sandy floor to the climbing paths, Adal hot on her heels. Rill stood at the base of a ladder, briefing the last of his men. He sent two up the ladder before him, then turned to ensure Riss was following. When she and Adal arrived, he greeted them with a brazen grin.
“So did that signal mean anything specific?” Riss pre-empted him.
“I believe you military types might call it a rally to arms,” said Rill. Then he began to climb.
That was not in fact what anyone in the Army had ever called it. Thoroughly baffled, Riss watched the man climb, then set off after him. She couldn’t tell if he was being deliberately vague or if he was simply one of those criminal sorts who had gotten to where he was by being cavalier about his crew’s lives. Now was not the time to psychoanalyze him.
Rill climbed like a bloody jungle lemur; Riss had to push herself to keep up, ascending the via ferrata at twice the speed she’d climbed down. She felt strangely compelled to pace Rill, to ensure she didn’t fall behind. As if only total and enthusiastic compliance with his suggestions would save her people from suspicion.
Her knees alternated between a warning quiver and locking up entirely on the final ladder, and when she heaved herself up over the edge of the ravine, Rill was already waiting. Rather than offering her a hand up, he reached down and grabbed the straps of her knapsack, hauling her up the last step and to her feet. Then, when Adal arrived a minute later, Rill did the same for him, yanking them both up like a sailor hoisting half-drowned comrades into a lifeboat.
Riss scanned the horizon, saw nothing but blue sky and clouds and salt.
“This way,” Rill said. “One of you uptop each wagon.”
They’d parked their two wagons some distance apart, a common safety measure adopted by most caravans. Distance meant less opportunity for shrapnel and incendiary rounds to take out multiple targets. Gaspard had said there were all sorts of other formations, especially during infantry conflicts, but the way they rigged wagons nowadays, who in their right mind would charge one with infantry? Whatever threatened them now, Riss at least had that knowledge on her side.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t—” Adal began, and Riss knew what he meant. She reached out and gave his shoulder a single, hard squeeze.
“Don’t need to work together to shoot something at distance,” she said. “Besides, if I’m being honest we’re both better as spotters anyhow.”
She didn’t see Torcha, but at least this way one of them would end up with her.
They split up, Riss jogging toward the nearest of the two wagons. Rill took off at Adal’s back, hustling him up into the cargo hold of the wagon further off.
Hustling up the boarding plank, Riss was met in the hold by a lanky, hard-bitten man. He stood about her height, with grey hair and a sailor’s skin, all weathered flesh and tattoos. He had a cudgel in his hand, and when she first stepped in, he raised it reflexively.
“Whoa there.” Riss put up a palm, not moving for her own weapon. “Rill sent me.”
That did nothing to massage the suspicion off his features, though at least he didn’t brain her.
“Nuso,” she clarified.
“Yep,” said the guard. “Only one Rill here. Ain’t nobody calls him by his family name, though.”
She was responding to an alarm, following the orders of someone she’d never worked for any couldn’t possibly be expected to trust, wobbling along on half-spent legs, and now some fucking goon was trying to menace her back outside? Riss’ mouth tightened into a scowl. She didn’t fear this guy; if she had to, she would whoop his ass.
“Please let me past,” she said. “I’m one of the mercs Nuso picked up in Frogmouth. He said he wanted riflemen.” And then, after a short pause, she added, “I’m only going to ask nicely the once.”
Whether it was her insistence or her explanation, when Riss next attempted to shove her way past the geezer, he let her through. She took the straight shot through the wagon’s mostly-empty cargo hold, hurrying up every ladder she could find. This wasn’t the one she’d ridden into Frogmouth; it was bigger, its hallways twisting and turning in a way that she suspected was due to some sort of homemade retrofitting. No way an army would roll out in something like this.
Jogging up a set of three steps, she turned a corner and slammed straight into someone barreling hard in the other direction.
“Whoa, there.” A familiar voice. After a moment’s initial shock, Salka steadied Riss by the arm, then gave her a reassuring smile.
“Taking the long way around, eh?” asked Nuso, who loomed behind her. Past him, the grey-haired guy had followed along, and she was glad for him to witness a bit of friendly repartee between her and his boss.
“You’ll note I haven’t been in here before,” Riss said. “I figured I’d find the roof eventually.”
Nuso pointed a finger toward a ladder mounted at the end of the passage. It led up toward a hatch.
“Ladies first,” he said.
Salka took point and they all filed out together, emerging into daylight. The sun was wretched hot, no ravine up in the Flats to funnel wind along. When the breeze did struggle past, it was limp enough that it barely teased Riss’ hair.
When she surveyed the horizon, she still saw nothing. But years of dealing with the Academy’s biggest, brightest, and most fragilely masculine officers had taught her that the last thing to do in this situation was admit she knew nothing. When Rill and his crew all dropped to their bellies and crawled to the lip of the roof, she did likewise. She ended up at his left elbow, Salka and Grey-Hair on the right. Salka passed Rill a slender wooden case and he flipped it open to reveal a shiny, brass-ringed spyglass.
The spyglass telescoped outward with a series of satisfying mechanical clinks. Rill held it to his eye, squinting. “Fucking hells, Sal,” he told her. “Nice eyes. I can barely spot it even through this.”
“Spot it?” Riss finally asked, now that she was aware it was something the naked eye likely couldn’t see on its own.
Rill leaned in sideways, offering her the spyglass. She took it, cradling it to her right eye.
“At the horizon,” he said. “Five or so degrees off the sun.”
Even once she found it, the dark object on the horizon appeared more a blur than anything. “Got it,” Riss said. “I think.”
Rill reached over and adjusted something on the instrument, gently nudging its focus ring while she held it still. The brass was warm against her cheek.
The image in the glass resolved clearer. What was previously a dark smudge crystallized sharply into the outline of a heavy war-wagon, many storeys tall. Riss couldn’t see the cannon-ports up its side, but she could guess at the number. She was no expert wagon-spotter, having served where she had. But it was coming from the northwest, from Frogmouth, and she’d only seen one wagon menacing the yard in town that matched that thick, dark-walled profile.
A plume of dust rose off the wagon’s silhouette like steam, churned up by the feet of its two crested galania, which charged along with their heads down. Riss could practically hear the rumble of their massive, clawed feet, feel the reverberations in her ribcage.
She didn’t realize how closely Rill had leaned into her personal space until she finally tore her gaze from the eyepiece and tried to pass the spyglass back. She barely even had to move. Rill just sort of rotated it in her hand, leaving her holding the far end while he peered through it.
“So,” Riss said. “How many guns is this thing packing?”
“More than we have hands to wield them,” murmured Rill, still peering through the spyglass.
“I meant artillery,” she clarified.
At her side, Rill remained perfectly relaxed, laid flat across the warm wood of the rooftop. He crossed his legs at the ankle, continuing to watch the dust rise on the horizon.
“Oh,” he said. “Zero.”
She couldn’t have heard him right.
“Mhm.” He sounded disappointed in an abstract way, like he’d just tasted a dessert that didn’t live up to expectations. “They don’t sell these things with the cannons still in them. And good luck getting your hands on cannons independently.”
“Yes, that wagon is an exception.” Rill finally looked up from the spyglass, slanting a look sideways and upward to where Riss gawked at him. “Perhaps you’re beginning to see why I was so wary of Eber Hanley.”
Now Eber Hanley and his thirty-two cannons were barreling straight toward them.