Once Calay had his insurance, he left Adalgis sitting vigil over his fallen friend. A sepulchral atmosphere had settled over the cavern; he felt like he was intruding on something very private. He felt like a man who’d coughed during the moment of silence in a funeral, despite the fact that nobody had died.
His stump itched. He resisted the urge to scratch at the bark, though he did spare a glance down at what was growing from his arm. Sharp-knuckled metacarpals sheathed in bark rather than flesh had begun to take shape roughly where a hand should have been. He preferred not to ponder what eventual shape it might take.
Silent, drained from his exertions patching Riss back together, Calay stalked to his abandoned satchel and dug inside. He’d avoided his cigarettes for the entirety of the trip, cognisant of the risk of smoking in the field. When they were trying to move unseen, it could give away their position to things and people unsavory. He’d assumed Riss would tell him to snuff it, so he hadn’t bothered lighting up. Now, well… Riss wasn’t in the picture at the moment, and also there was no doubt in his mind that every single evil thing in this entire cursed swamp knew just where to find them. They may as well have been straw-stuffed archery targets.
He unfurled his pouch of tobacco, sliproot, papers, and other sundries. The speed with which he moved one-handed annoyed him; he grit his teeth as he worked. He didn’t bother with any clever blends. He’d had that nice high going back in Adelheim, but dulling his senses at the moment seemed like a poor idea. He went for straight tobacco, laying the desiccated leaves out along the parchment. Then he braced the edge of his bone-shard limb against the paper and attempted to crimp and roll it with his remaining fingers.
Gaz found him that way minutes later, staring down at a crinkled mess of paper and tobacco, his shoulders held so stiff they trembled.
Letting a few sacks of silks and pearls hit the cavern floor, Gaz made an inquiring sound, peering down at where Calay sat.
Calay was, for once in his life, caught speechless. The frustration that welled up in him was unlike anything he ever felt. It wasn’t that insane, white-hot anger that had moved him to cut a bloody trail through the Vasa Nobles’ Quarter. It was more like the bitter anger-sorrow cocktail that came from losing a childhood pet to old age or disease.
Everything felt unjust. Every gods-damned thing in the entire world.
But what came out instead, the words twangy and unsteady with emotion, was: “My hands. They always go after my fucking hands.”
Gaz sank down beside him in a heartbeat, reaching for all the paraphernalia.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I got it.”
I know, Calay wanted to say. You’ve always got it. If there is anything I for some reason do not have, you always have it. But a man should be able to roll his own fucking smokes, and instead of rolling a smoke to get through this, I’ve got a thing growing out of my arm and I have to deal with that instead.
Instead, he shut his trap and rubbed at his face. When his thumb skimmed close to an eye, he found the corner of it wet. Curse the swamp and everything in it.
He watched as Gaz folded the paper anew, then tapped in the ground tobacco and smoothed it with his finger. His hands–massive, scarred, thickly callused–had a gentler touch than their appearance suggested, and he pinched and rolled the small joint with dexterous ease. Then he licked the gum, sealed it shut, and presented it to Calay, although only for a moment. He seemed to think better of something, seeking out Calay’s matchbook and lighting the cigarette first. He gave it a single puff, enough to get it really burning, and then passed it over.
Calay took the smoke in his fingers, tucked it into his mouth, and mumbled a thank-you.
“I was gonna roll one for you and Adal, too,” he said, and Gaz made a thoughtful noise. His hands kept working. Paper, herb, crease, tap, roll, pinch, twist. It was strangely calming, the everyday mundaneness of such a process. The smell of the tobacco as much as the experience of smoking it sharpened his brain, that fake-but-workable faux alertness he’d leaned on during many a dreary morning preceded by a sleepless night. Thoughts occurred to him all at once in a great flood, as if they’d been held back until chemically permitted.
He thought of Adal and his silent vigil over Riss.
He thought of Sylvene back home in Blackbricks, how deep his old betrayal must have cut her.
And, perhaps most surprisingly, he even briefly thought of Kella. He hoped she’d found success. He imagined she never thought of him at all.
He spared a moment for Torcha, who seemed to hate him now about as much as Syl. Torcha off in the rain. Perhaps dead, perhaps alive.
He watched Gaz’s hands again, noted the flecks of blood that darkened the undersides of his fingernails. Whose blood even was it at this point? This misguided endeavor had bled them all dry.
“Gaz,” he said, abrupt. “Have I taken you for granted?”
Gaz’s fingers didn’t even slow on the smoke he rolled. “Weird question.”
Calay was articulating himself poorly. The tobacco helped, but he still felt unsteady, head crowded with too much emotion: pain, frustration, the loss of his arm, a dread for the future that he rarely ever felt. The future had always been his for the taking. When things were good, he shot for the stars. When he was down in the shit, the future meant redemption and new opportunities. Now, though, this thing growing out of him… he feared it. He wasn’t ashamed to admit he feared it, the concept was just so foreign to him that he had no idea what to say.
“Let me start over.” He stole a look out the cavern’s mouth, where the rain was tapering off into grey daylight. “We haven’t really had a moment since all… that shit… happened. I wanted to thank you. For that and… all the other times.”
Gaz had a hard face, but it had never hidden a hard heart. He smiled immediately, a crookedly amused lift of his mouth.
“I get it,” he said. “But no, I don’t feel like you take me for granted.” His lips pursed to one side in hesitation, but no further words came.
“Sounds like there was going to be more.” Calay prompted him. “Don’t get cold feet on me now.”
Gaz gathered up the finished smokes and tucked them with care into the pouch. He kept one for himself, sliding it behind an ear.
“It was a little unkind,” he said.
Calay glowered at him. “I can handle unkind. I’m a grown man.”
Gaz spread his fingers, a shrug with only his hand. “Fine. I don’t feel like you take me for granted, or anyone anymore, because you learned a lot since Syl.”
Calay grimaced like he tasted something foul. He puffed smoke and inhaled again, hard.
“Hmph.” He said. “Well.”
Damn, that was a little more honest than Gaz had strictly needed to be there. And yet… Calay supposed he wasn’t wrong.
He spared a moment’s mourning for the trio that once was. Now a partnership. And that was nobody’s fault but his.
Casting a look over his shoulder, he watched Adalgis sit there, hand on the forearm of his sleeping friend. He was far enough away that Calay couldn’t make out the words of his indistinct murmured comfort, but he heard the tone of it: warm, encouraging, a little scared.
An odd, bitter envy bit into him then. He wished he had that empathy and ease of expression that Adalgis possessed. He supposed it was easier to grow up learning those traits and valuing them when you weren’t hurting for basic necessities. Shoulder to shoulder with sixty other brats just as shitty as him in the same crowded orphanage, Calay hadn’t had the time or inclination to practice warmth and appreciation for his fellows. He’d focused on survival. He’d had to.
Gaz had done for him what Adal had done for Riss. At tremendous risk to his own person. The mercenaries would have been well within their right to execute the both of them. To never let him practice magick again.
He finished his cigarette and ashed it on the ground.
“I’d be completely fucked without you, you know.” He said the words to Gaz as he rose, an abrupt cough of speech. He dusted off his trousers, like such an admission was just another aspect of his dawn routine.
Gaz tilted his head. Calay caught a glimpse of his look of surprise, but he didn’t hang around to hear any reply. He couldn’t sit still after all that. All those phantoms crowding in his head, they were getting him twitchy. He had to keep moving.
Pacing out into the humid grey morning, he surveyed the perimeter of their camp. It looked like a small-scale military skirmish had taken place, there were so many crazy tracks through the mud. He found Adal’s rifle caked in the muck and dug it free with his fingers for lack of anything else productive to do. He propped it where Adal would see it, near the mouth of the cavern, then decided to test his luck with a little climb.
The missing hand made it tougher than he anticipated, but he levered himself up atop one of the larger boulders, then leapt up onto the outcrop, where the stone was still slick with leftover rain. Sat on a rocky precipice hemmed in by tufts of yellow, fluffy-topped grass, he stared down into the pool. Its surface reflected the grey clouds above, rendering it silvery and molten.
That itch came over his palms again. It occurred to him consciously for the very first time: I used to scratch at my scars when I was thinking. And now I can’t. No wonder it’s bugging the shit out of me.
Faded with both time and care, the faint silvery lines upon his palm looked older than they were. Alfend Linten had showed him a recipe once, when he was a child. A cream made from beeswax and fruit pits that lessened the appearance of scars if applied while things were healing. Just gift that Mr. Linten had given him before he’d abruptly vanished, leaving the clinic in Calay’s care.
Very few people had ever been dear to him. And for such a small number, they all had one trait in common: they seemed to vanish from his life at an alarming, unstoppable rate.
Gaz found him that way: sitting atop the camp, tapping the bladed edge of his mangled hand against his remaining palm, tangled up in the past.
“Heck of a thing to say to someone and just stalk off,” he said. He had a canteen in hand, and when he twisted the stopper free, steam coiled from its spout. He offered it down to Calay, who took it without even asking what was inside. When he stuck it under his nose, it smelled of grassy, minty tea.
“Well.” Calay’s shoulders stiffened again. He felt tense and defensive for reasons he couldn’t pinpoint. He pissily sipped his tea.
“Nah. I get it.” Gaz kicked a pebble over the precipice and watched it tumble down, into the mud. A chorus of frogs had started up in the distance, all croaking at a slightly different pitch.
“You do?” It wasn’t that he didn’t believe Gaz. More like he wanted to hear it articulated. Maybe hearing someone else talk through their thoughts would settle his own.
“Sure.” Gaz grabbed the canteen off him and took a sip of his own. “It’s just… grief, isn’t it?”
“I don’t follow.”
“Seeing him with her, it dredged up a lot of stuff from back home.” Gaz cleared his throat. “What you said, about how we never got a minute to talk about what happened. I know you meant when you got shot, but it goes back further than that. We haven’t had a minute for a long time.”
Calay ran his tongue over his teeth, tasting the cool mint of the tea. Gaz was, as usual, correct. They’d fled the city immediately after the pandemonium of his would-be hanging. They hadn’t stopped running since. He got shot. He lost his arm. Gaz sacrificed his own blood and safety to ensure he lived. Still they hadn’t stopped.
“It catches up to a person,” Gaz said, like he was speaking from experience.
Calay had lost a lot more than a hand, hadn’t he. And apart from one glorious, sun-soaked swim along the Janel coast after they’d escaped to freedom, he’d scarcely had a moment to breathe since seeing his whole empire torn down. He couldn’t escape the sensation, the cold pit-in-your-stomach truth that the law was yapping at their heels. Or maybe Syl. Or any number of the Landed Families.
“Not us.” He clenched his remaining hand into a tight fist. “They won’t catch up to us.”
Gaz rolled his jaw for a moment, regarding Calay in lengthy silence.
“Not a them, boss. An it. The grief.” He settled a big, heavy hand on Calay’s shoulder and squeezed.
“Well what do you do about it?” Calay rankled at the thought that there was some great, unwieldy gunk of emotion clogging up the filters in his brain, making him stupid.
“Beats me. Try to live a better life. Do stuff that makes you happy. That sort of shit.”
Who had time for that? For what had to be the thousandth time since they had met, Calay wondered how he and Gaz could suffer through such similar upbringings and emerge such completely different people. The same forge that had hardened all his edges had softened all his friend’s in a way that somehow made him no less effective, no less keen.
It wasn’t just Adalgis he envied.
“C’mon.” Gaz pressed the canteen back into his hand. “Tea’s getting cold.”
Maybe this was their moment. Maybe it was the only moment they were going to get. They traded sips until they’d finished it, keeping watch over the camp, listening to the frogs.
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