Calay felt cleansed. The bath had helped scour the last of the swamp away, sure, but this–this felt like an exorcism. Sighing and relaxing back on his side, he luxuriated in the sensation of clean bedding beneath him and sweat cooling on his skin.
Gaz’s fingers brushed one of his hipbones, a light touch at first and then more confident, his whole palm settling there in a loose, comfortable drape.
“Don’t you get shy on me after,” Calay teased.
He felt more than heard the laugh in response, a warm gust of air on the back of his neck.
“It’s not that.” Gaz dragged a thumb along the crest of his hip, pensive. “Just… this is a bit new.”
“Mm.” Calay liked that when he thought about it. “Yeah.”
His mind was quieter than it had been in months. And though he remained tired and rather sore from his run-in in the pub, the ache in his jaw was now coupled with that pleasant, whole-body ache of muscles well-used in the pursuit of far more enjoyable activities.
Gaz’s fingers traced up the lines of his ribcage. They found the pale path of an old, time-faded scar and followed it.
Back in the mire, there had been so much Calay felt they needed to talk about but couldn’t. So many plans to consider, contingencies to secure, suspicions to share. And they’d been able to speak of next to none of it due to the ever-present ears of Riss and her company.
None of that had changed now that they were alone. The same concerns still hung in his mind like jagged stalactites: whether Riss would keep his secret, whether anyone from Vasile had cottoned onto their trail, whether the thing growing inside his arm would need to be excised. Good concerns. Practical concerns.
Yet now that they were alone, he found he didn’t care to voice any of it. He couldn’t control Riss, nor the bounty hunters. The arm perhaps, in that he could always cut it off again, but who knew whether that would fix things or make them aggressively worse.
The subject of the Bridging loomed, too. How best to address it. If he wanted to address it. Addressing it would open up a line of questioning for what Gaz might have seen when he’d peeked beneath the veil of Calay’s thoughts.
The thought calcified inside him: He can’t pity me. I’ll lose it. I’ll fucking lose it.
“How you feeling?” Gaz asked, prescient as ever when it came to shifts in Calay’s mood.
“Better.” He meant it.
Now Gaz’s hand wandered across his chest. He exhaled another amused whuff of air as his fingertips brushed a hickey that darkened Calay’s collarbone, then he ghosted his fingers up and over his shoulder. He trailed light, affectionate touches down Calay’s bicep, then paused where flesh terminated and bark began.
“Can I?” he asked.
He’d been surprised earlier when Gaz had grabbed him by the wrist. Surprised that he’d felt it through all the strange shit growing there. How his arm felt like both a part of him and not. Both a thing that belonged to him and not.
Gaz continued his idle explorations, fingers traversing the cracks and veins in the bark, carefully gliding over the sharp bones beneath. He touched gently at the slim blade of a claw; that sent a pleasurable shiver through Calay’s gut.
Something in that shiver transitioned to something else, something a little chillier, by the time it reached his chest.
“Hey,” he murmured, voice low. “I…” Rumbling wagon. Gulls wheeling through the sky. The scent of beetles boiling to their deaths by the dozen. “I don’t think I ever thanked you. For doing what you had to do back there.”
Gaz’s fingers stilled. He cradled Calay’s talons against his much-larger hand.
His reply was typically blunt. “It’s the worst thing I ever did.”
Calay knew. He’d felt that too. When they’d Bridged, he’d glimpsed inside Gaz and Torcha’s minds, seized on moments when they’d felt their lowest and most blazingly enraged. Torcha’s helplessness as outsiders wrenched away her way of life a piece at a time. The fury and triumph of her revenge.
Everything he’d glimpsed through Gaz’s eyes was familiar.
Knots of worry in his stomach when a black-lacquered carriage pulled out of sight. Terror and disbelief at watching Calay dragged from the Clinic by watchmen, his frantic begging to Rovelenne Talvace to spare the facility. Shards of glass pried from palms already riddled with scars.
He’d felt Gaz’s cold dread when he’d awoken to find Calay gone that morning, equal parts fearing seeing him again or not. How he sank further still, then near fully broke when Calay staggered home, saturated with blood and unable to speak of what he’d done.
He’d felt now–both inside himself and outside himself–Gaz’s seemingly infinite capacity for forgiveness.
Swallowing hard, his throat tightening up again, Calay tried not to dwell on it. He tried not to remember the hollow resignation, the grief which lapped past sorrow and all the way to numbness again. When they’d strung Calay up from the gallows tree, Gaz had thought of ransacked buildings, shells of things once tall and proud that had since been emptied of anything of value, never again to feel the warmth of life within them.
Every horrible thing that dwelled in Gaz’s head had been Calay’s fault.
They’d been through some shit together prior to that, of course. Before House Talvace, before the gang wars, before the gallows tree, when they were just two kids sleeping on cots in the surgery room, they already shared an unspoken understanding. There’d never been any question that they had each other’s backs. But Calay hadn’t until that moment grasped the scope of how much Gaz had gone through to keep that promise.
And when he racked his brain for any possible explanation, any reason behind why a person would endure so much for another–for the person who had caused it all in the fucking first place–the answer came as easy as a slap to the cheek.
It’s what you do when you love someone.
Breathing was suddenly difficult. His chest felt tight. His talons twitched, though he was mindful not to clench a fist around Gaz’s fingers. That old urge rose in him again, a sneering phantom, the urge to ball up his fists and just hit something. To pummel the world until it all made sense again.
“Hey, hey…” Gaz leaned in against his back, scooping his other arm up and under Calay from beneath. “Relax. You’re shaking like a leaf.”
He’d felt the hot tears that stung at Gaz’s eyes when he wrenched the knife into Calay’s arm. The disgust, the fear, the determination–it was all a part of him now, like two shades of ink splashed together in the same vial.
“I felt how hard it was for you,” Calay whispered into the crook of Gaz’s arm. “How hard… all of it has been. I put you through the fucking wringer, didn’t I? Shit. Then everything else.”
Again, Gaz’s fingers idly descended on Calay’s claws. He squinted one eye, expression pensive as he carefully examined the sharpened blades that now grew where fingers once were.
“Don’t really think it’s fair to blame yourself for this,” he said, tapping a fingertip to one of Calay’s knuckles.
“I wasn’t talking about the arm. More… everything that led up to this.”
“What, you mean the part where you murdered a shitload of people in cold blood and had to be smuggled out of the city?” Despite the words, Gaz’s tone was casual, far from biting. He lifted Calay’s clawed hand in his own, then brought it to his face. “Yeah, all that was on you. But not this.”
Calay hiked up an eyebrow. “Thanks, I think.”
Gaz kissed his knuckle, the same spot where the tiny purple flowers had bloomed.
“I’ve been thinking.” Calay cleared his throat, able to rein in his emotions once more. “About what you said. You remember back when we first took this contract? You said sooner or later, we’d have to stop running and actually establish cover.”
“Sounds like something smart I’d say,” Gaz’s tone was glib. He had yet to relinquish Calay’s hand. Calay found he didn’t mind.
“Well… what if we stopped running? What if we… stayed here.” When he said it aloud, it sounded like an utterly foreign concept. Like a combination of words spoken by someone who wasn’t fluent in common. Like nonsense.
Staying in Adelheim was a stupid idea. Not because it was dangerous–Calay reasoned it was likely rather safe. They were far from the Leycenate’s reach and Adelheim itself was such a spit-fleck on the map that any would-be prizehunters would have to travel far off the beaten tracks to even sniff it out.
No, staying in Adelheim was a stupid idea because of Riss. Because of what her company knew of them. Instinct, conventional wisdom, common sense, everything Calay knew told him that staying put in a place where someone knew his secret was bad news. They’d parted ways in the castle atrium on good enough terms, he’d thought. Riss understood that he’d given her Vosk as a favor. Adalgis had his own reasons for behaving. Torcha… well, Torcha was an odd case. All he could say for certain was that he knew she had no designs to kill him anymore.
But… Calay looked around the room, studying the heavy stone walls and the patterned tapestries that dampened their chill. One of them depicted a row of farmers bent over yam hills, digging out yams and looking far too thrilled about it. He admired the gleam of the copper bathtub, the shine of the oil lamps. He sagged back against the warm, solid weight of Gaz against him in a real, timber-framed bed with a feather-stuffed mattress. They had clean sheets. Warm food. Solid walls between them and the outside world.
If he allowed himself a moment of vulnerability to reflect on why, he knew the answer: this was the safest he’d felt since they’d fled.
“We could stay, sure,” Gaz said, his answer simple and offhand. Like Calay hadn’t just proposed something momentous. Like he hadn’t just suggested a betrayal of their entire strategy. He said it like the choice meant nothing to him, like he was happy to go along with whatever Calay decided.
“It’s a bad idea.” Calay never could help arguing with himself.
“Maybe.” Gaz’s tone of voice didn’t change.
“What would we even do?” They’d have australs to last a while after Riss paid them out. But there was no work here. Riss and Adal and Torcha, they at least had the option of joining the Baron’s garrison. Calay was not a soldier. He never would be. Hated the very idea.
“I’m sure a physik could find work anywhere.”
“A physik with one hand who has to hide his bone arm from his patients?”
In response to that, Gaz lifted Calay’s ruined hand to his mouth again and calmly kissed his palm. The sensation was damnably pleasant. Calay had wondered how much feeling he’d ever regain there, but he’d only considered it in terms of pain or temperature or pressure.
“We could get you a glove.” Gaz hitched a one-shouldered shrug.
“You seem so unbothered by any of this.” Calay brushed his hair out of his eyes, gazing up at Gaz in the waning lamplight. His broad, heavy-featured face was lax with calm. A hint of a smile curved his mouth in the most unconscious way. It had been a long time since Calay had felt as free as Gaz looked.
“I can let it bother me in the morning.” Gaz’s answer had a relaxed finality to it. “Right now I feel… pretty good. I’d rather just enjoy that.”
He made it sound so easy. Calay tucked himself more fully into the loose embrace that held him, sighing and attempting to banish every last scheme from his head.
“I think I said I want to stay because I feel good too,” he mumbled into Gaz’s forearm. “And… maybe if we don’t leave, we can just… keep feeling good.”
Perhaps they could disappear into the belly of this castle and see it as a sanctuary, not a dungeon. Perhaps he could train himself to be the kind of person who could be happy in a place where yams were a noteworthy enough event to be celebrated in tapestry.
Gaz yawned, stretching his legs and arching his back. He slouched deeper into the soft nest of their bedding, pulling Calay in against his chest. Calay let himself be affectionately manhandled, happy to fall wherever Gaz dropped him.
In all their speculating on the future, they hadn’t addressed what had happened between them. The sudden, explosive nature of it had left Calay reeling a little, though reeling in a satisfied and comfortable way, somehow. He recognized the impulse for what it was–born from the same compulsion that drove him to the bar fight. Some combination of frustration, momentum, pent-up aggression, and let’s face it, standard-issue human horniness. Just like back home, when he hadn’t been able to get it out of his system one way, he’d found another. In Vasile it had been nights at the Gilded Hand. Here in Adelheim, it was apparently… this.
Hellpits, he had some messes to clean up and he couldn’t stop making new ones.
Soft snoring reached his ears as Gaz drifted off. Calay considered blowing out the lamp, but that would mean moving. So instead he just turned his face away from the light, eyes closing.
Gaz was right. They’d discuss the repercussions of whatever this was in the morning.
The world was soft and warm and slow. Perhaps, for a time, there could be peace.
What a feeling it is to simply let go.
Since the day Alfend Linten disappeared, since the day he inherited the mantle of sorcerer and doctor at once, forced yet again to grow up too soon, this thing has been building in him. It’s pressure, it’s steam, it’s a kettle nestled in a fire’s coals. The pressure built in him through the riots in the Vasa streets, when he did his best to tend to those the Leycenate had set their dogs upon. Mauled in life by the jaws of the city, then mauled in death by teeth that were less metaphorical.
It built in him further as they picked his empire apart bone by bone, dismantling the things he’d built and all the good they’d set out to do. Yes, he’d overreached. Yes, he’d caused harm. He wasn’t innocent. But none of them were either.
From the day he was born, he’d never been as free as the moment he stepped out of that cell.
They lead him out of the twisting, turning guts of Leycenate House’s dungeons. He’s in the square now, and it’s packed with people. Some sprawl up onto the monument’s stairs, sitting at the feet of the Founders for a better view. The Founders’ brassy, blank stares are turned toward the sea, as if even in statue form they won’t stoop to pay him any attention.
Get on with it, he wants to say. But they’ve stuffed a gag in his mouth. They’ve also bound his hands behind his back, unaware of the futility of such precautions. Watchmen march him through the crowd, which is packed elbow-to-elbow. Toward the rear of the teeming mass, someone’s erected seating for the Landed Lords and Ladies. He doesn’t dignify the stands with a glance, wondering instead how exactly to best mime the face of a man condemned.
He only has to pretend a little longer.
They drag him beneath the sprawl of the Gallows Tree, the old gnarled presence that has lurked in the Square since history can remember. It’s ancient. It’s dead. Its twisted boughs throw writhing, tentacular shadows on the aged stone, but Calay isn’t scared of it. He grits his teeth into the rag that gags him, biding his time.
As they haul him up onto a stool, some dignitary whose name he can’t remember bellows out his crimes. It’s a satisfyingly lengthy list. The crier imbues the words with appropriate menace. He flits the tiniest glance off toward the Landed in their marquee. Shame Lady Rovelenne couldn’t join you, he wishes he could say.
He does not search the crowd for his friends. Doesn’t want the memory of their haunted eyes to wake him at night. Gaz is out there somewhere. Syl, too. And he imagines Loy might be there, if only because watching him die would be of scientific curiosity.
Turn away, he wishes he could tell them. You don’t need to watch this part. It’ll all be over in a minute. Right now, they’re holding their breaths and awaiting something awful. They don’t know they’re watching a magic trick. Don’t know the coin’s about to reappear in their palm, safe and sound.
The dignitary doesn’t offer him the chance to say any last words. He loops the noose around Calay’s throat like a man helping a child learn to tie a scarf–gentle, careful.
He curls his hands into fists, testing the binds at his back. They’d be enough for most men, but he’s no mere man. All the long nights in darkness and captivity, they were mitigated by the knowledge that the fuckers upstairs had no idea what they were dealing with.
They read out his sentence and kick the stool out from under his feet without further ceremony. A roar rises up from the crowd. He likes to think some of them sound upset.
He falls. He flexes his arms. With a hard twist and a sudden snap, the ropes at his back fray and burst apart. The noose bites in. His head whips back. It hurts, but only for a minute. It should have broken his neck, but it doesn’t. He reaches up for the rope around his throat and summons the strength he was hiding, the blood-fortified power and potency–
When he pulls on the rope, the whole bough shudders. It cracks at the base, drooping down from the tree. Hollow, old, unstable, it snaps off from the trunk and falls into Calay’s waiting hand. A gasp rises from the crowd. Bodies warily retreat. Watchmen scramble for their rifles.
Calay snaps off a smaller branch and whips it through the air, smashing it into the temple of the man who hanged him. When he falls, Calay is on him in an instant, scooping his fingers into the wound that gushes from his scalp.
He paints his face. Light sizzles through the air. There was enough blood in a rat, but there’s a lot more in a man.
Calay’s heart was still pounding when he woke. That particular dream hadn’t accosted him in a while. Breathing out hard, he tried to wipe at his face but found that Gaz was slumbering on his good arm, snoringly oblivious.
Sighing, he counted heartbeats in his mind, slowed his breath deliberately until everything settled down. When he closed his eyes, he could already feel the stirrings of paranoia and agitation, the doubt creeping in to erode at the calm he’d felt when he and Gaz discussed their future.
He tried to recapture that hopefulness, that restful feeling. It slipped through his fingers like the details of his dream, which receded until all they left him with was a vague throb of adrenaline in his chest and a sneaking suspicion that they had to keep moving. Or else.