Calay inhaled and held it. He had options. They all had their drawbacks.
He could approach Vosk in a friendly, nonthreatening fashion. Act like he hadn’t seen a thing. Because of course, normal eyes couldn’t see that far into the dark. He could slip back to the camp and grab the others. But that might not give him enough time. If Vosk was trying to harm their would-be patient, those few minutes might make all the difference.
The sound of murmured voices reached his ears. Vosk and the survivor were speaking, but he couldn’t quite make out what was being said.
And the other question: to ward himself or not? Should anything unusual happen, he wanted the protection. Wards were easy enough to sketch onto his skin. However, that too had a downside: if anything made contact, the flash and sparkle would be a dead giveaway that something about him wasn’t natural.
Calay fingered the vial of blood still tucked away against his palm. Coming at Vosk magickal guns blazing wouldn’t help the situation any. And perhaps Vosk was just checking in on the man. Perhaps that’s all it was. Maybe Calay’s paranoia was not serving him well in this case.
This was exactly the sort of situation he needed Gaz for. Not for his muscle, but for his calm, clear consideration of the basic facts of things. Calay often tangled himself up in layers of deception and his concern for the far-off, as-yet-unforeseen consequences of his actions. What, he wondered, would Gaz do?
Gaz would ask simple questions with simple answers.
Did Calay trust Vosk? No. When he asked himself, he found he did not. But did he trust himself enough to defuse this situation–whatever type of situation it turned out to be–without magick?
Yes, he did.
He could talk his way out of plenty. And when that failed, regular violence often sufficed.
That wasn’t so hard, he thought. Thanks, buddy.
From the brambles, he called out, “Vosk, you aren’t tree-food, are you?”
Across the clearing, the stooped-over shadow stiffened. Vosk hesitated before he replied.
“Checking on our man here,” he called.
He emerged from the brambles, passing through the flutter of threads and into the coal-lit clearing. Tangled thorny branches and old, dead wood glowed orange-red all around him, and the filaments gleamed like molten gold up in the tree’s boughs.
Vosk stepped back from the tree, which sat unthreatening and still.
“How is he?”
As Vosk moved closer, Calay’s eyes caught the presence of something in the man’s hand: a small glitter of glass. The painkiller cocktail he’d given Vosk for his ribs.
“Not making much sense. Mostly groaning. Occasionally asking where and who we are. Asked for water.” Was Vosk’s voice tighter than usual? Tense?
Vosk’s eyes, dark in the night, slid sideways and down. He’d spotted Calay looking at his hand. Calmly, he slipped his hands beneath the drape of his cloak, and though it made sense that he’d be secreting the bottle somewhere for safekeeping, Calay’s instincts screamed gun gun he’s going for his gun.
“Glad you didn’t run into anything nasty out here.” Calay flashed him a quick, disarming smile.
From low to the ground, a ragged voice whispered:
Startled at the sudden intrusion into their conversation, Calay looked down. Twisted through the roots of the tree, the shiny, wet eyes of its half-digested meal peered up at him, wide and imploring.
“… Lying.” The man wheezed. Calay steeled himself.
He heard rather than saw the rustle of fabric as Vosk adjusted his cloak. Calay already knew what he’d see when he turned around: the barrel of Vosk’s pistol pointed squarely at his midsection. From this close, he wouldn’t miss.
So this is how it’s going to be, then.
Calay had several tricks up his sleeve, but he wasn’t sure how many he could weave quick enough to divert lead from point blank range. He turned the situation over in his mind, detached and analytical. It wasn’t the first time he’d been held at gunpoint and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. All he needed to do was divert Vosk’s attention for a half-second, then he could spring any number of traps. Failing that, Gaz would be rousing the others soon.
He noticed Vosk hadn’t said anything.
“Not even going to try to justify yourself?” he asked. He was genuinely curious. Betrayals were a fact of life in Calay’s line of work. Each one was like a sunset: so many layers, so many colors, no two the same.
“Would it make any difference?” Vosk kept the barrel of the pistol leveled at him and lifted a tiny shrug, like a kid caught misbehaving.
“It would satisfy my curiosity.” Calay unfurled his hands, showed Vosk his palms. He’d play the good hostage for now. “I figured out that you were trying to dose our man here, yes, but I have no idea why.”
“How about ‘why doesn’t concern you.’”
“Fine by me.” Calay tried to get a read on the man’s temperament. Generally speaking, there were three types of people who had ever held a knife to Calay’s throat in the alleys: nervous kids with something to prove, common thugs who had no idea who they were fucking with, and stone-cold professionals who knew what they were up against. The impassive cast to Vosk’s features and the steady calm with which he trained his muzzle on Calay suggested it was some combination of the second and the third.
He sees me as just another obstacle between him and whatever he wants. Now, how to exploit that?
Before Vosk could speak again, Calay figured he may as well try the oldest trick in the book.
“I’m going to turn around now,” he said. “Very slowly.”
He spun on his boots, a slow-motion pirouette, and continued to show Vosk his empty hands. In his slightly too-shiny, altered vision, Vosk’s eyes seemed to glow.
“Look,” said Calay. “I’m not here because of my loyalty to your war profiteer Baron and the grand army of Emperor who-gives-a-shit. I’m here to get paid. You pay me, I saw nothing.”
A minute tremble across Vosk’s mouth: a micro-expression he tried to suppress. He was considering it.
The man trapped in the base of the tree wheezed a protest, mangled words Calay couldn’t understand.
“Hells,” he said, ticking his chin downward. “Slide me a little extra and I’ll take care of him myself.”
Vosk, despite the tense draw of his lips, exhaled a near-soundless laugh.
“Some medic you are.”
The fire beside them crackled. Calay steeled himself, willed his body not to jump at the sound. Any sudden movements could end badly for him, even though by his calculations, Vosk seemed to be listening to reason.
“Well, I was trained as a medic.” Tuck a little truth into the pocket of the lie and people bite all the way down. “But I’m not like Riss. You can tell with her already. Too much heart for this line of work. If you’re here to sabotage her, she’s a source of income to me, nothing more.”
The barrel of the pistol angled downward some. A subtle shift of the hand–subtle enough it might have even been subconscious on Vosk’s part–but a telling one.
The fire crackled again. Then again. And this time, both Vosk and Calay shifted a look toward it. The crackling grew in both volume and frequency, like snapping twigs or popping knuckles on either side of their ears.
“… That’s not the fire, is it,” Calay said aloud. Treat him as an ally against the possibility of an external threat. He’ll mirror it.
All around them, the thorns began to clatter. The brambles came alive, shivering like bodies in the cold.
“Vosk,” said Calay, voice lifting with restrained alarm. “Please let me draw my gun.”