Despite the rhythmic grind and rumble of the wagon’s wheels, a cottony, quilted quiet wrapped its interior. Like Calay’s mind was already filtering out the background noise and focusing instead of the lack of any other sound. They’d been on the road for an indeterminate handful of hours, Adal still driving while Riss kept watch up front. Torcha had clambered up into the overhead luggage loft with her rifle.
The cargo hold was rather bare, their meager possessions heaped onto the floor and lashed into place. Tarn had been kind enough to provide them with a hefty water barrel before turfing them out on their asses, and a couple of old crates rattled half-emptily around. The whole contraption smelled of sawdust and a particularly dry, musty smell that he decided must be “lizard.”
Overall he wasn’t sure how he felt about wagon travel. He’d done it rarely, always found it a little claustrophobic and off-putting. As much as he was unsettled by vast, big-sky wilderness, he disliked being unable to see his own surroundings even more. And the windows on this thing, like all enclosed coaches, were pitiful.
Gaz shared none of his concerns. He’d nipped a blanket from their offered quarters at Adelheim and as soon as they were underway he’d unfurled it, propped his pack under his chin, and curled against a cargo net. In their time on the road down the Janel coast, he’d conked off to sleep every time they set foot in a wagon. Something about the motion, he said. Rocked him to sleep like a baby.
Well wasn’t that great for one of them.
Eventually his restlessness got the better of him. Calay left Gaz to his awkwardly-curled nap in the hold and clambered up through the hatch into the passenger compartment. Which was, in a stroke of absurd hilarity, empty despite its more comfortable seating. Adal had left the pilot’s door open, so Calay had retreated further back into the hold for want of privacy. Now, though, he crawled up toward the aperture and settled down on one of the padded bench seats, cocking his head so he could peer up toward the driver.
Sunlight shone through the window, striking Adal’s blond hair, a glittering corona. He had a distant, dreamy smile on his face for who knew what private reason.
Everyone looked different in the sun.
He’d noticed it at the castle. Riss dressed differently when she wasn’t in the field. Adal lost that pinch of annoyance that perched near-permanently around his eyes. It was an odd thing to be struck by, this passing thought that the people you spent time with were people in their own right with their own lives and their own histories and you only knew a single facet of them. Calay didn’t like that one bit. It made people unpredictable.
Something on Adal’s face changed. His expression faltered, eyes going serious and head turning to glance at something off the road.
Well, Calay couldn’t let that rest without an investigation. He hadn’t crawled up front for a conversation per se, just a distraction. Looked as though he’d found it. Creaking the door open to announce himself, he pulled himself up through the small hatch that separated the passenger cabin from the pilot’s bench and the great outdoors.
Adal glanced down and greeted him with a quiet nod. Nothing on his face betrayed upset or alarm. Curious, Calay glanced around as he settled onto the narrow seat, peering at the vista that greeted them over the galania’s broad reptilian back.
Seeing forest on either side of the wagon was an uncomfortable, startling thing–and this particular forest was a cratered, damaged hellscape. Calay blinked hard, needed a moment to take it all in.
They were passing through an area that had sustained heavy artillery shelling. Craters like huge pockmarks littered the field on either side of the road. Heaps of mossed-over refuse still littered the roadside. As opposed to the clear-cut remains left by loggers, the trees here looked to have been blown apart, the occasional half-splintered trunk still standing. Though the forest was fast reclaiming all it touched, what rocks remained bore scorch marks. Despite the signs that man had passed through here, there was nothing manmade in sight.
On their journey south from Vasile, Calay and Gaz had passed through some areas that had sustained artillery damage. They’d spied from a distance the occasional fortification blown through with cannon holes. But this, this was wholesale destruction down to the soil.
Adal noted his quiet, met it with sober eyes.
“It got bad down here,” he said. “Wherever the war-wagons passed through.”
Calay had heard of the war-wagons. He’d never seen one save from a great distance. Massive constructions the size of ships, broadsides of cannons all up and down their lengths, hauled by whole teams of massive lizards like the single one that hauled their coach with ease.
“Fuck me,” he said.
“In some of these villages, the destruction was absolute.”
Calay blinked hard. “This was a village?” There was literally no sign of it. Not a scrap of evidence.
Adal’s shoulders twitched up. He shrugged while loosely holding the reins.
“I’m not certain,” he said. “But there must have been something here worth bombing into the dirt.”
He found himself wanting to ask about the war. It annoyed Calay when he didn’t know things. And at the time the war had broken out, back in Vasile, he’d had other matters to attend. Even though the war had, in a roundabout way, shaped his future. If the Inland Empire hadn’t blockaded the river, he never would have accepted work from House Talvace. And if he’d never accepted work from Talvace, he’d have never… well, he’d likely still be running a clinic for the underprivileged, pulling teeth and delivering babies.
“So what kicked it all off, anyhow?” He tried to sound conversational, hoped he wasn’t prying painful nails out of Adal’s past.
Adal blinked and loosed a single breath of laughter. “Oh. Well, every war starts the same way, doesn’t it? Someone wants something someone else has.”
Calay dredged up what he could remember. He lifted his eyes skyward, where clouds were rolling in, choking away the selective sparkle of the sunshine. “That northern leader, he invaded down this way to get access to the river. That’s why your people clogged up the river supply lines.”
“Correct enough. There were other things they were after–silk production, encircling their old enemy in favorable territory–but more or less. The Selyeks–”
“… The northeners.” For a moment, Adal looked oddly embarrassed. “I thought you might have tired of hearing us all curse northerners and narlies, so I used their proper name.”
A weird little smile crept up Calay’s mouth. He hadn’t anticipated that. And he appreciated it in a way that was difficult to vocalize.
“Selyeks,” he said, to spare Adal having to linger in that awkward moment.
“Yes. Of the United Principalities of New Selyekaskim.”
Calay’s eyes inched open a little wider with every successive word of that. “I can see why you just say ‘narlies.’” He tried to repeat that last word in his mind and couldn’t manage it. Sel-ye-kas-kim.
Adal took his few questions as an opportunity to launch into a full-blown civics lesson. He explained that the Selyeks, under their new leadership, wanted to acquire a land buffer around the Inland Empire due to a history of tensions and skirmishes between the two nations. Under their General Zeyinade, they’d swept in south and toppled the local governments in the textile districts who were a part of the Inland Empire but somehow not fully a part of it, a stewardship of some kind derived through a series of agreements between the local and Empirical rulers and–
Calay regretted asking. He nodded along, absorbing about half the details, and reserved some amusement for how animated the subject seemed to make Adal. Everyone has something they enjoy being asked about, Gaz had told him once. People like to feel like they know things.
“I’m surprised none of this penetrated the papers in Vasile,” Adal finally said. “Your people have a reputation as being well-read and civically minded.”
Calay’s face crinkled up. “Sure,” he said. “The type of people who read papers.”
Adal seemed to get it then, seemed to suddenly visualize the vast gulf in life experience between the two of them. His mouth snapped shut.
Calay hated feeling ignorant. He hated not being able to anticipate things, and willful ignorance was like intentionally robbing yourself of the tools to anticipate outcomes and make good decisions. So he hovered on an awkward precipice for a moment–here was Adal, lofty and well-bred and well-connected, a source of good information it would benefit him to mine. Adal knew the geography of where they were headed. Knew the politics. Knew a great many things that Calay, in his isolated inner-city existence, had simply never been exposed to.
Yet in order to access that information, he’d have to admit he knew fuck-all about all that. To Adalgis. Calay bit the inside of his cheek, scowling.
Life was a rotten bitch who struck rotten bargains sometimes.
Just as he was about to broach the subject of their destination, Gaz squeezed up through the hatch, just his head and shoulders, and peered up at them.
“Huh,” he said. “Okay.” When Calay answered with a questioning look, he explained, “Oh, just wondering where everyone got to.”
Riss leaned up from the guard’s perch along the wagon’s flank, drawn by the sound of extra voices. “Something the matter?”
Adal looked to either side of him, squeezing his shoulders a little narrower. The bench accommodated he and Calay with little room to spare, and Riss leaning up on one side and Gaz on the other was a little much. He grumbled something under his breath.
“What’s that?” asked Riss.
“I said this wagon seats eight people, but in order for it to accomplish this at least some of said people have to sit on the bloody seats.”
Torcha’s voice echoed from the luggage loft, muffled and sleepy:
“Are mams and paps fighting again?”
Adal rubbed the heel of his hand against his face.
The clouds chose that moment to disgorge a single drop of rain, which hurtled down out of the sky and struck Calay square on the nose.
More rain followed. Within moments it was splashing down steadily. It was warm rain, not altogether unpleasant. Calay ran a finger up his face, enjoyed the droplets tickling down his skin. Riss grumbled and hauled herself up off the guard’s perch, squeezing past him and Adal both as she headed for the hatch. Gaz retreated fully back inside to let her through.
“What?” she asked as Adal made a sound of protest. “Nobody’s going to shoot at us in a downpour. Besides, I’ve kept watch long enough.”
Calay snickered and gave Adal a pat across the shoulders, also clambering backwards into the dry warmth of the wagon’s passenger cabin.
“Be seeing you,” he said, leaving Adal to yank the awning further down across the bench. It reached almost the entire way, but the knees of his trousers would soak through unless he had a sealskin.
Sliding down the bench seat, Calay stretched out his legs. He laid out almost entirely horizontal, crossing his legs at the ankle and propping his back against Gaz’s side. Rain knocked the drumbeat of its knuckles against the coach, blending with the grind of the wheels. The music of the road. Calay flicked his damp hair out of his face and settled in for the ride, resting his head back against Gaz’s shoulder.
Cracking one eye open, he watched as Riss also reclined, unpacking a book from a trunk beneath the bench seat. She propped it on her knee.
They were heading south. Calay didn’t know much about south. He knew Medao was down there somewhere. And past that, the islands where the fisher tribes made their living. Plenty of country to get himself lost in. They’d entertained their notions of settling down, of no longer running, but as nice as it had sounded, it wasn’t ever realistically on the table. The best they could hope for was to disappear for a while at a time. To take their quiet moments if and when they could, like they’d managed in the swamp.
“This ain’t so bad,” Gaz declared after a moment of quiet. Calay murmured a wordless noise of agreement.
There were, he supposed, worse people to be disappearing with. He didn’t fully trust Riss yet, but he trusted her to do the honorable thing by her own code. He could predict that. And Torcha, well, she was Torcha. Unpredictable, but now bound to him in that strange and disarming way.
“I suppose I’ll just stay out here, then.” Adal’s voice came through the hatch. “With the lizard.”
Well, four of the five of them were comfortable. And four out of five wasn’t bad.
End of Book One.