From where she stood atop the tower, Riss could take in the entirety of Adelheim. Up so high, the hamlet looked even smaller than it did at ground level, framed by the rectangle of the window. Past the ramshackle buildings, slopes of marshland and distant hills undulated like waves left behind by some great, world-shaping flood. In the far northern distance lurked the faintest traces of cloud-veiled mountains, little brushstrokes of blue-grey against a lighter blue sky. Tarn stood beside her, staring in the same direction.
Due north was Carbec–Tarn’s family and Adal’s home.
Tarn had not spoken since they ascended the tower. He’d had a bit of a rant at Adal for disturbing the hanging, but Riss had figured it out for the theatre it was mid-lecture. As soon as they were out of earshot of his soldiers, he’d dropped it. He’d ordered the others to retreat to the castle while his garrison searched the town for any other troublemakers. Riss doubted he’d find anything, but that too was all theatre.
“You’ve left me in a difficult position,” Tarn finally said.
Riss wasn’t sure whether he was fishing for an apology or an explanation. She thought back to their first conversation, when he’d taken her to his sitting room and explained the mission. That briefing felt a decade past. She remembered how unsure she’d felt, how wary. All of that was gone now.
“I take full responsibility,” she said. “Torcha made the call to intervene when they held up our medic. I’d have done the same.”
“Which I understand.” Tarn glanced down at the sling that crossed his chest. “He’s a handy fellow. But it puts me in a predicament, as overseer of this place. Rather than flagging down my Lieutenant, she and Adalgis undermined my authority and shot up my town square. I’m sure you can imagine how little action a garrison like this typically sees. They’re seething. You yanked the rug out from under them.”
He turned to face her, expression drawn. “And at the hanging of the turncoat who killed my son. You know me, Riss–I understand Torcha and Adalgis did what they felt was correct. But the way this played out, it reads like an intentional subversion of my governance. I have to do something. Otherwise I’ll look the horse’s arse here–a handful of outlanders rolling in and upending every aspect of my rule? Right after some upstart shot me?” He released a great gusty sigh, as if he’d been holding all the world’s worries in his lungs.
“Never thought I’d see the day where you got all political and tried to think four hop-skips ahead of the rabble.” She paired that with a wry smile. Whatever was coming, she wasn’t going to like it. But she wanted him to know that she didn’t take it personally.
Tarn gestured for her to follow, though he didn’t make for the staircase. The tower culminated in a narrow stone platform with a window aperture on either side. Presently they stood before one, another at their back. Rather than walking back down the steps, he turned, pointing toward a stretch of rough-textured stone wall between the windows. She’d noticed some old, peeling paint on the rock when they’d first arrived but hadn’t paid it much mind.
“Look here, Riss.”
She looked. Splashed over the wall, flaked away by time, was a square-bordered mural which must have been vibrant in its day. The border consisted of red and orange squares and an accompanying bright yellow filigree. The interior of the mural contained splashes of mostly green and blue, but its subjects were rendered indistinct by age. Deep red stone shone through the paint like blood welling on a skinned knee.
“Once, long before me, this place was owned by someone who worshipped some sort of sky god. You can find these murals in every tower. Then, when the Meduese occupied the Deel some four or five generations back, they brought their own customs with them. Salt mummies and such. Every seventy years or so, some new bastard redecorates this place.”
Though Riss was enjoying the history lesson, she wasn’t sure what he was getting at.
“So you’re saying you’re just the latest bastard, sir?” Another quick, disarming smile. At least he’d veered away from the inevitability of floggings.
“Precisely. I don’t want to be. I’d rather be at home. I’d rather be tendng my own fire and fucking my wife, Riss.”
She coughed. “Wouldn’t we all.” Shit. That could be interpreted badly. “Except not your wife, sir.”
One of Tarn’s eyebrows inched up threateningly. He looked torn between laughing and smacking her upside the head. It was an expression she’d frequently witnessed in the war. Dangerous though it might be, it felt familiar.
“At any rate. What I meant is this: it is always political. There is no way to exist in this place while ignoring the political. Turn your back on the political and whoever rolls over these lands next will plant an arrow in your arse-cheek.”
Riss grunted. She knew that, in an abstract way. But it was not the way she viewed the world by default.
“You’re just like him, you know.”
At first, Riss bristled upon hearing that. A hand twitched at her side. She resisted balling it into a fist, but only through conscious effort. She was nothing like her father. What the fuck! She was galled that Tarn would even bring up such a thing, even toward the goal of pointing out that Riss had a very provincial upbringing.
It wasn’t until she caught the restrained, bittersweet smile Tarn wore that she realized he meant a different him.
Tarn was right. Gaspard Marcinen had never had time for politics. In the early days, before his legend had even begun to bud, politics had landed him on death row and he’d only finagled himself out by virtue of promising favors to worse people than the ones who’d jailed him. Riss wished she’d learned more of his story. She wished she’d asked more questions.
“I don’t think he was tired of politics as much as he was tired of everything,” Riss said, her voice soft and speculative. She studied the aged flakes of paint on the wall before her. “Toward the end, he got pretty disillusioned. The war-wagons, the rifles, the broadsides–he was only ever good at war and war changed when he wasn’t looking.”
Tarn made a dismissive-sounding grunt. He reached down toward his belt, retrieving a small pipe of carved horn and a pouch. He began to pack it without really looking at it, his attention on her.
“War doesn’t change,” he said. “Just the tools men use to wage it. Men have been fighting wars for the same reasons back when all they had was rocks and sharp sticks.”
“Real inspiring words coming from a career officer.” Riss grinned sidelong at him.
“You’ll understand why old men look back fondly on every fight they ever fought once you’re my age,” Tarn promised. He beckoned her down the stairs, pausing long enough to light his pipe on a wall-sconce.
The stairwell, like all at Adelheim, was a tight and narrow fit. Riss spiralled down a few floors, back to ground level, and as they walked down a hallway, Tarn declared her company’s sentence.
“You can’t stay here,” he said. “Not after that. I can’t afford to lose any further face. I’ll have a wagon readied and at the soonest possible convenience you’re getting the boot.”
Nodding shallowly, Riss accepted that. She’d known it would be something like that. She felt worse for Tarn than for herself.
“Sorry I can’t stick around, old friend,” she said.
He did nothing to hide the faint regret in his voice. “I might have liked the company.”
Riss bade him good afternoon and went to inform her mercenaries.
“All things considered, shit could have gone worse.”
Torcha lounged on a settee in the corner of Riss’s room while she packed her things. She hadn’t even unpacked her own bags, so she was ready to go. The dog lounged at her feet, flat and deflated by the afternoon heat and seeking solace on the cool stone floor.
“We’re being driven out of town for the sole purpose of humiliating us,” Riss countered.
“But nobody who didn’t deserve it got shot in the head.”
Sometimes she was tough to argue with.
Riss had sent word to the others as best she could. Calay and Gaz hadn’t been seen since the incident at the hanging, though that didn’t surprise her terribly. They were wise to keep their heads down. And past that, they were capable of looking after themselves. Riss had her own affairs to tidy and not long to tidy them.
“It’s stupid,” Torcha said, summing up her thoughts on the day’s events. “Tarn’s the big dick in this town. Why not act like it and stomp down hard on anyone who gives him grief for letting us stay?”
“It’s complicated,” said Riss, who did not feel like having that discussion again.
Torcha heard it in her voice and relented. “I know,” she said. “And I get it. To an extent. It’s just stupid. Watching Tarn of all people get cock-blocked by public opinion is…” She couldn’t seem to find a strong enough word. Instead, she knifed a hand through the air and made a foul hand-sign at nothing.
The door swung open and Adal piled in. He had bags heaped over his arms, one of which he deposited at Riss’ feet.
“Thank me later,” he said.
Adal patted the bag that still hung from his shoulder. “Clean clothes and ammunition.”
Riss gave him a hearty slug on the back, right between the shoulder blades. “Atta boy.”
They got to packing, not a moment to lose.
The late afternoon sun cast all it touched in red-orange light. The castle’s stones glowed dusty carnelian, and Riss could see why the locals called it, in their awkward language, Blood-Stone Fortress. While that didn’t exactly roll off the tongue, she understood the inspiration.
In the yard, encircled by those menacing red walls, their wagon waited. It was hitched to a single pissy-looking galania, the lizard sitting nearly motionless and glaring at whoever happened to wander up closest. Riss could swear there was a hint of malevolence in its eyes. Behind her, Adal loaded their bags into the wagon’s cargo hold. Torcha sat up top, already relaxing in the pilot’s chamber, though Riss was fairly sure she had no idea how to drive.
They still hadn’t heard from Calay or Gaz. It seemed an odd end to their shared story to leave without seeing them one last time, but Riss supposed life didn’t always work out like books. In real life, the criminals who lived were the ones who vanished into the night or rode off toward the horizon without giving anyone a chance to interfere with their escape. They’d lasted this long without her intervening on their behalf. They’d be–
A side door of the castle’s inner wall flew open. Chased out by a chorus of angry shouting, Calay stumbled down the steps, falling the last few and landing flat on his back in the dust. Gaz followed a moment later, more dignified but still in a hurry. The voice that chased them out was familiar, but hollowed as it was by the interior hallway, Riss couldn’t place it. She picked out the words reprehensible and abuse of our hospitality and oh, it was Veslin. The housemaster stomped into view, red in the face and glowering at the northerners on the ground.
“And stay out,” he said. The glare he gave them might have beheaded lesser men.
Gaz grabbed Calay by the scruff of the neck and they made haste to the wagon, scurrying around the back. Riss did not have time to ask what all that was about, but she hoped it couldn’t be that serious given nobody had been run through with anything sharp.
Up overhead, Torcha cackled. The three of them were having far too much fun without her. A suspicious amount of fun. Momentarily, Riss had a vision of herself as an overbearing mother, heavy eyelids and apron and squealing babies at her feet. Then Tarn was storming out into the yard and all introspection was shelved for the time being.
“Veslin!” he bellowed. “Have you at last rid my home of these bothersome mercenaries?”
Riss had to fight the smile off her face. To those who knew Tarn intimately, the smirk in his voice was unmistakable. She hoped his servants were not so familiar.
“Yes, Baron.” Veslin appeared at his side. “I caught the physiker in the servants’ tunnels. No idea what that is about. He’s fortunate he was already due to be evicted.”
Tarn crossed the yard with heavy footsteps, squaring off with Riss. “Let this be a lesson to you,” he said. “The leadership of my garrison shall go without question on our own lands. You were out of line. You’re lucky I haven’t run you up the gallows alongside the murderer Vosk.”
Riss bowed her head, the picture of contrition.
“You won’t see hide nor hair of me in these parts again, Baron,” she said. “We beg your mercy and leave you to administer your lands.”
Tarn flicked a hand through the air as though she were a gnat who’d flown into his face. A pissant of a problem he couldn’t wait to be done with. It would have stung were Riss not aware the measure was mostly charade.
“Out of my fucking sight,” he said. “I grow weary of having to look at you. Go before I change my mind.”
Riss gestured to her crew, hooking a thumb toward the wagon. “Let’s git,” she said.
They clambered inside. Calay and Gaz waited in the cargo hold already, hunkered down for the long haul.
Riss let Adal take over piloting duties for the time being. He hated the big lizards, but he was better at steering a wagon than she ever was. He glowered in distaste at the galania as he hauled up onto the perch, muttering something under his breath.
“What’s that?” Riss asked, situating herself onto the guard’s rest.
“I said ‘well this could have gone better.'”
She thought back to Torcha’s much more optimistic summation. Life was funny like that.
The wagon juddered into motion. Moments later, a series of soft concussive impacts spattered against the sides of it. Tarn’s people were pelting them with rotten fruit on their way out. Riss smothered a laugh, leaning back on her seat and putting a hand to the machete that dangled from her hip.
“So where to, boss?” Adal asked, peering down at her from above.
“The hells away from here,” Riss said. “South, maybe.”
“There’s a lot of south between here and the coast,” said Adal, speculative.
“Maybe Medao then.” Riss rolled a shoulder, finding that she didn’t have to fake the carefree nonchalance. “Or somewhere else, if we happen upon something interesting.”
They had a wagon. They had provisions. And most importantly, they had five guns to guard it all. They could go just about anywhere.