Chapter 68

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. 

“What’s this?”

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. 

<< Chapter 67 | Chapter 69 >>

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Chapter 67

Digging his hand into the interior pocket of his duster, Calay gripped his vial. But he did something uncharacteristic then: he hesitated.

A second shot shattered the warm midday air and the bounty hunter behind Gaz dropped, his neck a spray of red mist. Bystanders screamed. Gaz, quick on his feet, leapt aside from the bleeding body and swung an arm at the third bounty hunter, the woman. While she’d had the presence of mind to draw her sidearm, she wasn’t quick enough. Gaz clotheslined her viciously, sending her toppling backwards, boots in the air. Then he joined Calay and together the two of them rushed for cover.

Calay was glad for that moment’s hesitation. He couldn’t even let himself breathe as he and Gaz scrambled on their hands and knees, knuckles in the dirt.

If his ears were right–and his ears were pretty good–those shots had come from two separate guns. He had no idea where to seek cover because he had no idea where the gunfire was coming from.

He heard Tarn’s voice, a fierce bellow of orders to his men. The crowd seethed around them, bodies tumbling and flying every which way in disorganized panic. They had one thing on their side: this crowd was much much smaller than any riot Calay had ever been caught in before.

Bent low and holding their hands over their necks, they scurried for the nearest building. Their posture would afford them no protection whatsoever from long arms fire. Calay just had to have faith in the fact that thus far, the only heads that had been blown off belonged to the bounty hunters.

As if in answer to his own thoughts, a pistol shot pierced through the crowd. But it either missed its target or didn’t down them, because nobody fell.

Gaz dragged Calay down behind the corner of a building. No gunfire followed them. In fact, no further shots rang out at all.

Blood smell clogged Calay’s nostrils, the splash of it up his back nauseatingly strong. And it wasn’t even blood he could fucking use.

“Who in the hell–?” Gaz sounded like he intended to continue his question, but instead he just waved a hand. His face was a touch pale, the whites of his eyes visible as he scoured the rapidly-dissipating crowd.

“There’s no way they were Leycenate.” Calay was confident of that. “Bounty hunters. Had to be. Not particularly skilled ones.”

And now that he was no longer scrambling, now that his brain had time to catch up to his bone-deep instinct to run and hide, he was pretty sure he knew the identities of the shooters as well. Provided it wasn’t some rival bounty hunting crew swooping in to defend a prize they saw as theirs.

Beyond the wall they hid behind, the village green was silent as a crypt. Calay took a deep breath in through his mouth. That quiet wasn’t promising.

“Should we make a run for it?” Gaz gestured off down the road in front of them, which led down the hill toward the wagonyard. “We could wait at the bridge or the wagons until the Baron sorts this out.”

Calay shook his head. “No need,” he said. “If the Baron can’t sort this out from where he was standing, it’s the sort of trouble that’ll catch up to us before we make the bridge.”

Someone called his name. A male voice, accented wholly unlike that of the bounty hunters. A clean, crisp accent that Calay in his travels was starting to associate with the middle territories. Gaz’s shoulders slumped immediately with relief.

“Adalgis!” Calay cupped a hand to his mouth. “So tell me–were they trying to kill us or you?”

“I’m endeavoring to find that out!” came the reply. “Come on out and assist me!”

To his surprise, Calay levered up to his feet and stepped out from behind his cover without hesitation. He apparently trusted Adal’s word more than he’d put conscious thought to. He waited until Gaz too was up, then together they returned to the green, walking light-footed over the trampled grass.

The population of Adelheim had retreated to their dwellings. Two bodies–just the two bounty hunters–were facedown in the dust. Adal stood over one, his expression a narrow sneer of thought. Further afield, Tarn’s men stood with guns in a bristling semicircle, warding back curious onlookers. Riss crouched near a sobbing woman and child who sat in the shade of a gnarled tree.

And there, still swinging from his rope, was Harlan Vosk, dead for minutes now. Calay flipped a vulgar dockyard hand-sign toward the body but didn’t allow himself time to think any spiteful thoughts. He joined Adal in a hurry, his suspicions about the source of the gunfire thus confirmed.

“You and Torcha,” he said. “You parked her somewhere. Why?”

But Gaz had already figured it out. “Those fellas from the pub yesterday,” he said.

“Fellows from the pub?” Calay eyeballed him.

“Yes.” Adal crouched over the corpse, hands rooting through the pockets of its coat. The body was dressed in drably unremarkable clothes, but beneath the sack coat his armor was nicer than first glance implied–soft, flexible boiled leather with plenty of padding. Discreet and professional. Calay saw no Vasa insignias, but that didn’t surprise him. Specialists in covert work rarely tended to advertise.

But… fellows from the pub?

“So are you going to explain?” Calay asked nobody in particular.

“We swung by the hovel that passes for a bar here. Yesterday morning,” Gaz said. “While you were sleeping. Had a confrontation with some locals who said they were sick of northerners hanging about. I thought they just meant me, but…”

“Torcha and I decided to scout around town a little after someone took those pot-shots at Tarn,” said Adal. “The innkeeper said he’d had a lot of narlie traffic through lately, and it didn’t take long to suss out that they meant more than just you two.”

Calay took a moment to scan the low thatched rooftops. He didn’t see Torcha anywhere, but it was possible she’d already abandoned her nest once the shooting tapered off.

Adal saw him looking. “Second floor of the inn,” he said. “Through the window. We rented a room.”

Calay grunted. “Clever.”

“Yes, well, we didn’t know it was you they were here for. We assumed they were here to cause trouble for Tarn. Right place right time, I figure.” At that moment, he let out a soft aha and withdrew something from an inside pocket of the corpse’s waistcoat. A rolled-up tube of parchment tied with ribbon. Calay and Gaz both fell silent at the sight of it. The ribbon was pale blue woven through with bands of indigo. Copper threads fringed the bottom.

“I take it this means something where you’re from,” said Adal.

“Signatory ribbon of House Talvace,” Calay said. He saw no point in attempting to conceal the truth from Adal–he was about to learn a lot from the contents of that scroll. Internally, Calay braced himself. He reminded himself that Adal already knew the worst secret. The rest would land as a soft blow by comparison. He hoped. An expectant lump caught in his throat at the realization that Adal of all people might take more personal offense to his crimes than some, being a member of a Landed Family and all. But–

Adal untied the ribbon, unfurled the scroll, and read it.

“Mm,” he said. “You’re in some elite company. Your name’s here on the bottom. Higher up than Liolinde but lower than Nuso and Anvey Rill.”

A rough, surprised laugh eked out of Calay’s mouth. The scroll wasn’t a personal dossier on him, then–it was just a copy of Vasile’s most wanted list. Liolinde was a famous thief who hadn’t been heard from in years, widely presumed dead. The Rill Brothers were perhaps the most notorious outlaws on the Continent–one ran a band of highwaymen and the other had attempted to overthrow the Vasa Leycenate years back. Anvey Rill had caused the riots that nearly burnt Calay’s clinic to the ground.

“They say anything juicy about me?” Calay asked.

Adal flipped the scroll around to show him. The paragraph bearing Calay’s name and a hastily-sketched likeness said only that he travelled “with a large companion”–ha–and that he was wanted for the deaths of sixteen persons of both noble blood and employ. Most interestingly, it said not a word about his sorcerous inclinations.

“I wonder how they arrived at twenty-eight thousand as the bounty,” Adal said. “Honestly, that’s a tad lower than I’d have expected.”

Calay cocked his head sideways. “Should I take offense to that?”

“What about the woman?” Gaz asked, suddenly interjecting. “There was a third bounty hunter. A woman. I don’t see her among the dead or injured.”

Adal’s expression flattened. “I saw her,” he said. “Couldn’t give chase in the crowd. I tried once and missed.” He breathed out and looked toward Riss for a moment. “I hope you understand, in a crowd like this it was–“

Gaz cut that off with a curt shake of his head. “Relax. I get it. You don’t need to apologize for not wanting to blow a hole through a bystander.”

Calay wondered for a moment if he would have shown the same reluctance. For a long time, the answer would have been no. But he’d hesitated to use his blood, hadn’t he? Was this the fabled restraint Gaz had been trying to teach him all this time? Had it finally become his first resort?

“It was inevitable sellswords of some stripe would catch up to us,” Calay said. “I’d have liked to interrogate her, but the reality of it is that if one company knew where we were, others won’t be far behind. One of them getting away isn’t going to be a difference-maker. They had to learn our location from someone, and that someone will send more.” There were so many possibilities. He hadn’t bothered to even commit the names of all his enemies to memory.

Beside all that, though, he noted Adal’s apology. Whatever bonds their time in the mire had forged, a few days of recuperating did not appear to have put the mercenary back into Riss’ mercenaries. Or perhaps he was just playing nice because Calay still had a flagon of his blood. He considered using his particular brand of verbal alchemy to transmute that into a favor–if he played it right, he imagined he could get Adal to ask Tarn to overturn every stone in town in search of that bounty hunter woman. Send a message back to her people, whomever they might be, that he wasn’t to be fucked with.

But the more he thought about that, the more pointless it felt. As much as he wanted to open up the throats of anyone who’d dare hold a gun on him and Gaz, the moment had a certain weighty inevitability to it. Rather like the moment they’d kissed. Odd as it was to do so while thoughts of kissing crossed his mind, he looked to the gallows. He watched the limp body of Harlan Vosk dangle there, removed of all animation, a husk that had once been a thing he loathed.

Life reduced itself to a series of if-thens in his mind, a series of computations like the basic mathematics Alfend had patiently taught him as a boy.

If they made it out of the swamp, then Vosk must die to preserve their secret in Adelheim.

If Vosk died, they were free to do as they wished in Adelheim.

If someone discovered them, they had to leave Adelheim immediately.

That those last two had happened simultaneously was just bad luck.

“I hope you weren’t too betrothed to the idea of staying here a while,” he said, eyes on Gaz.

Gaz heaved a big shoulder and turned his eyes toward the corpse as well. Just past where Vosk dangled, Riss and Tarn were engaged in an animated discussion. Tarn raised his voice. Calay heard the word ruckus. He’d always liked that word.

“I knew what I was signing on for,” said Gaz.

The words felt like they applied to more than just the latest leg in their run from the law. But now wasn’t really the time or place for that.

Riss finished her discussion with Tarn and spun in a circle, pausing when she caught sight of them. She approached with a heavy-footed, stomping gait and–much to Calay’s amusement–actually shoved the freshly-hanged corpse out of her path rather than divert around it.

She planted her hands on her hips when she arrived. “Well that was a shitshow.” A half-beat pause, during which she zeroed in on Adal. “You and Torcha have some explaining to do.”

Adal whiffed out a ghost of a laugh, as if he’d been expecting that. He lifted a glove, gesturing. “I know we–“

Riss cut him off, tut-tutting.

“Not to me. To Tarn. He’s shitting mad.”

Calay glanced between the mercenaries, keeping his mouth shut. He thought he had the power dynamics of this little unit all figured out, but throwing Tarn into the mix appeared to upset the balance. He took a step closer to Gaz. Together, they watched as Adal walked off toward Tarn with his proverbial tail between his legs.

Had they not told Tarn of their plan to stake out the hanging? That seemed unwise.

Riss muttered something about scoping out the wagonyard. Calay considered offering his assistance, but a better idea occurred to him.

“You go on ahead,” he said to Riss. “I’ll get these cleaned up and out of the way.”

He gestured down to the bodies congealing in the dirt. Perhaps they had some secrets yet to give up.

<< Chapter 66 | Chapter 68 >>

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Chapter 66

The last time Calay had been a guest of honor at a hanging, it had been his own. That meant that the festivities surrounding Vosk’s execution were already an improvement. Yet despite the fact that he stood firmly in the good graces of Adelheim’s ruler, he woke with apprehension stewing in his stomach and no good explanation for its presence.

The whole town was gripped by hanging fever, an excitement heard and seen as many furtive conversations and knowing glances around the castle grounds all morning. Adelheim hadn’t witnessed any executions since the war, one of Tarn’s staff had explained, so Vosk being run up a tree was an event for the whole population. Plus he’d been one of the Baron’s own men. An extra layer of intrigue!

“It’s an event for me, too,” Calay had said, showing off his bandaged arm. “He’s the bastard who shot me.”

Gaz had been less enthused. And his attitudes hadn’t changed over the last few hours, despite Calay’s attempts at cajoling. They’d spent the morning running errands, sorting through their payments from Riss and organizing laundry and mending and all the little domestic minutiae that Calay had forgotten completely about. Now, though, the sun was drawing close to its highest point and the hanging was nigh.

They sat in one of the Baron’s many sitting rooms, occupying a pair of plush brocade chairs. The small, high-ceilinged chamber was decorated with hunting trophies: great mounted boar tusks, racks of many-pronged antlers larger than Calay thought deer ever got, and finely-tanned pelts from creatures he didn’t recognize. Truthfully, he could have done without all the animal bits. They reminded him a little too freshly of the ordeal he’d just been through. A small frown tightened his mouth–he wondered how long it would be before he could set eyes on something that triggered memory of the swamp without feeling an instinctual twinge of revulsion. Were there some associations doomed to be tainted forever? He focused on the conversation at hand, determined not to let his thoughts stray too far inward.

“I can’t blame you for wanting to skip it,” Calay said. “Just as I’m sure you understand why I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Slumped back in the chair opposite his, Gaz ticked down a nod. “He almost killed you.”

It was so, so much more than that. He almost elaborated right then and there. But the words got stuck on the tip of his tongue. If there was anyone he didn’t need to explain himself to, it was Gaz. So instead, he decided to ask one last time.

“So that’s definitely a no?”

Wrinkles of visible discomfort edged in at the corners of Gaz’s eyes and mouth. He looked away from Calay, gaze climbing up toward an ornate matchlock rifle mounted on the wall.

“Don’t take this as an insult,” he said. “But I don’t think I need it the way you do.”

Calay fought back a reflexive scowl. Hellpits, what was that supposed to mean? There was a time when he would have violently rankled at the idea of being told he needed something. Would have seen it as an unbearably patronizing notion. Now, though, he had to concede that perhaps a person finally knew him well enough to say such things. Still discomfiting.

“You’re right,” Calay said after some silent consideration. “I don’t know if need is quite the right word, but it will make me comfortable and put me at ease to see him dead.”

“You annoyed you won’t be personally slitting his throat?”

“Eh.” There was a time that he was, back in the swamp. Now? The vindictive had been set aside in favor of the practical. “It mattered a great deal to Riss, being able to march him back to her Baron. More advantageous for us to help her succeed than to piss in her porridge for the sake of a personal grudge.”

Oddly, Gaz smiled.

“What?” Calay prodded.

“Nothing.” His smile turned thoughtful. “Just… it’s interesting, how people change.”

Calay tilted his head. His friend could be awful puzzling at times. For all his lack of education and his unpolished accent and his beat-to-shit face, Gaz had a brain that was full of little observations Calay never bothered to make. He saw things Calay never paid attention to. And that made Calay deathly curious as to what exact ‘interesting’ changes he’d undergone. Precisely what aspects of his behavior were on the pedestal here?

“For the better?” he asked, self-indulgently.

“Yeah.” Gaz’s smile was lazy, a little smug. “Suppose.”

At that moment, the door swung open and Riss strode in. She wore a new cloak, a handsome piece made of some durable, dove-grey fabric that held shimmering threads of embroidery in a tight, repeating key pattern. It looked like silk but less flimsy. Calay whistled and made an approving hand gesture. She glanced his way with a puzzled squint, then looked to Gaz as well.

“Either of you seen Torcha?” She sounded hurried.

“Not since breakfast,” Gaz said.

“She say she needed to talk to me about something?”

“We only saw her in passing,” Calay butted in. “She and Adal went off somewhere.”

Riss sighed and conked the heel of her hand to her brow. “Great,” she said. “I know they were both asking after me, but I have no idea where they are. I suppose we’ll see them at high sun.”

“Suppose so.”

She turned and stepped halfway through the door. “I’m heading out now,” she said. “You’re welcome to come with.”

Calay glanced back over his shoulder, tracking her on her way out. “Suppose I oughta,” he said. “I’d hate to miss it.” He heaved up out of his chair and stretched, rolling out his wrists and shoulders.

To his surprise, Gaz rose alongside him, falling into step and following him toward Riss.

“Change of heart?”

The sudden seriousness in Gaz’s eyes was just as odd as the cryptic smile he’d put on earlier. “Yeah,” he said. He did not elaborate. And since they were heading out of their private sitting room and into the endless, open-doored march of chambers that composed the castle’s second floor, Calay didn’t ask.Sound travelled easily in those vaulted halls.


A contrast to the high buildings and tiered seating that surrounded Vasile’s hanging tree and all the ages-old ceremony that went with it, Adelheim’s village green was positively provincial. The village green itself scarcely deserved the name–it was a flat, well-stomped square of scraggly, spiky grass just outside the inn, the town’s largest building. Calay hadn’t noticed the old wooden gallows on his first trip through town–it was worn and warped, built up against the fat trunk of a squat old tree that was just beginning to unfurl new leaves. It blended in, a seldom-used piece of wooden backdrop.

Now that he stood before it, though, he couldn’t tear his eyes away.

The crowd pressed in eagerly, a few hundred thick. Excited murmurs skittered past his ears, too far off and too numerous for him to pick out any words. Riss was spared the press of the crowd at least. She stood up front with Tarn and a dozen of his men, who graciously created a cordon with their bodies. Gaz hadn’t wanted to stand that close, so Calay had scouted out a spot at the very rear of the crowd, upon a little rise of hill that gave them a view over the masses.

Overhead, the sky was a gorgeous sapphire blue, not a cloud in it.

“Cracking blue sky that is.” Calay leaned in a little toward Gaz at his side. “Beautiful day to say goodbye to the asshole who cost me my arm.”

Gaz gave an affirmative grunt. He was watching the crowd more than the sky or the tree.

A pair of uniformed guards led Vosk down the hill, his hands bound at the small of his back. Calay watched him walk, soaking up the details: the scraggly hair, the sunken eyes, the disheveled face, the way he shrank in against his own body as if trying to disappear. The sight gave him a visceral satisfaction, a sense of final triumph.

Piercing the murmured conversation like a blade, a sharp cry rose up from somewhere in the crowd. A woman’s voice, low and distraught. Vosk’s head jerked up at the sound and his eyes searched the faces. Calay couldn’t see her, but he guessed it must be a wife, perhaps a daughter.

Beside him, Gaz breathed out hard. He averted his eyes from Vosk and took a step toward the fence that ringed the inn’s yard. Putting a hand to a fencepost, he picked at the wood, suddenly very interested in it. Calay felt the echo of that small frown returning to his mouth.

“Hey,” he said. “If this is going to be that hard for you to watch–”

Gaz shook his head, silencing the offer before Calay could even make it.

Vosk’s escort reached the gallows. They marched him up the steps and one of them unfurled a length of rope from a bag. He slung it up over the frame with a lackadaisical ease, as if running fishing line. The woman wailed again.

Tarn’s voice rose above the din. “You are all in luck,” he said. “I was not made custodian of these lands on account of my speeches.” Nobody laughed. But that didn’t stop him. “The man before you is a traitor of the lowest order. Apart from his role in the murder of my son, he wore the colors of my garrison while engaging in petty brigandage. He left his brothers in arms to die in that wretched swamp–men that you all knew.”

It was easy to see why Tarn had achieved such success in the army. His voice carried easily, buttressed with a natural commander’s charisma. He yelled without sounding like he was yelling.

His bad arm still bound to his torso with the sling, he lifted one glove toward the gallows. “To die by hanging is a kinder fate than he gave others. Harlan Vosk, your crimes are numerous and your sentence is death.” He intoned the words with little anger or ceremony, as if simply glad to be rid of the man.

Tarn addressed Vosk directly when he said that last bit, but Vosk gave no indication of having heard. He stared at the ground, tangled white-grey hair veiling his face from onlookers. A sneer twitched its way onto Calay’s mouth at the sight of him. Pathetic, the way he shrank up there rather than facing his judgment like a man. Calay recalled his own walk to the gallows, the measured calm he’d felt, the way he’d looked the guards in the eye.

Vosk was a weak man. It was a miracle he’d survived all he had. Calay was delighted to be the one who caught him in the end.

The hangman looped the noose around Vosk’s neck and tightened it. Calay’s heart quickened in his chest. Gaz had gone awful quiet.

Someone in the crowd lobbed a rock through the air. It struck Vosk in the temple, causing him to teeter sideways. The guard at his side caught him before he could topple over. One of Tarn’s other men bellowed a warning to the crowd to settle down. Others laughed.

A few stragglers joined the audience at the rear, closing in near where he and Gaz stood. Someone jostled Calay’s shoulder. He jostled them right back, used to having to jockey for space against those who saw his height as an invitation to body him out of the way. Gaz, who must have been suffering similar indignities, let out an irritated little growl.

Then something cut that growl abruptly short. He went quiet. A too-abrupt kind of quiet. Calay turned to face him–

–and immediately felt the press of something hard and metallic against his spine. Barrel of a pistol, unless he was mistaken. It wasn’t sharp enough to be a blade.

Gaz was in a similar position. He had his hands up at his sides and a short, stocky man crowding in close behind him. Calay couldn’t quite see his gun-hand, but the posture was telltale. The man holding Gaz up was paler than the norm around these parts, dressed in steel-studded leather and a heavy leather duster. He looked like he’d just hopped off a horse after a week-long ride. His cheeks carried a faint hint of sunburn.

“That’s right,” said a voice behind him. “You get the picture. No sudden movements.”

Someone up at the gallows was addressing the crowd, but Calay missed the words. He sought faces in the crowd nearby, trying to gauge how many assailants there actually were. A third person–a woman–lingered close to the man accosting Gaz. Her eyes were hard and her posture tense.

Three versus two. That’d normally be easy. But in a crowd this big, Calay would have to be smart. He had a vial of blood on him, of course–never left home without it–but all hell would break loose if he wove magick here. He could take three mercenaries–he was less certain about his fate versus an entire village of spooked, superstitious peasants. Not to mention Tarn and his men.

Slowly, Calay surveyed his surroundings. Plenty of peasant assholes close by, but they wouldn’t be any help. Riss was up front with Tarn, far too far away to see anything or assist. He couldn’t see Adal and Torcha–they were likely up front as well, but on the other side of the gallows where the crowd was too thick to see.

Gaz met his eyes. His expression balanced on the tightrope between apology and annoyance. Calay gave him a tight-mouthed smile.

“Just relax, big fella,” said the woman, eyes up toward Gaz. “The two of you are gonna talk a walk with us.”

The gun jabbed into his back. Calay figured that meant turn around and start walking, so he did. His faceless assailant marched right along behind. They were out of the crowd in moments.

“Here’s how this is going to go,” said the man behind him. “We’ve got a wagon in the yard, and you’re going to climb aboard it. If not, you’ll be loaded aboard it in a sack. Are we clear?”

Finally, he’d spoken enough that Calay could peg his accent. Vasa, without question.

But these three leather-clad twerps didn’t look like agents of the Leycenate. Nor did they look like Syl’s compatriots, the Cult of Charvell. Bounty hunters, then. He’d known they’d come. He and Gaz had made it further than he’d thought. Someone was bound to catch up to them eventually.

On the bright side, they were taking him to a wagon. It would be much easier to kill them all there.

Walking calmly, his eyes forward and his steps leashed by the prod of muzzle against his spine, Calay behaved himself.

Something wooden snapped in the distance behind him. A murmur rose through the gathered population of Adelheim. Vosk had taken his drop off the gallows, then. And Calay’s chance to watch it had been rudely yanked out from under him by these tough-talking idiots who didn’t even realize they were marching themselves into an early grave.

“I was hoping to watch that hanging,” he said with a sigh. “So tell me–how much does the Leycenate have on me, hm? Or is it House Talvace that sent you? House Bellecote?” Vain though it might have been, he was curious who’d ponied up the gold.

“Quiet,” the bounty hunter hissed. “We can make this less pleasant if you force our hand.”

Before Calay could speak another word to the man, gunfire ripped through the village green. A shot rang out and something warm and liquid splattered against the back of Calay’s neck. He leapt forward. For a single, insane moment, he had the terrified impression that he’d been shot and what he felt was his own brains, somehow. He touched the back of his head and his hand came away red. Stumbling and turning, he spun around in time to see the bounty hunter behind him fall to the ground, a limp and lifeless sack of meat clutching a dented matchlock in one hand.

He stepped in something soft. Bits of brain and skull decorated the grassy ground. The screaming started, first right beside him and then rippling outward through the crowd as if contagious.

By the time the second shot rang out, the village green had erupted into full-blown pandemonium.

<< Chapter 65 | Chapter 67 >>

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Chapter 65

The castle at Adelheim was much the same as the others in the region–at least the ones that weren’t heaps of rubble. It was older than the town itself, its basement levels built of entirely different stone. Walking down the corkscrew staircase into its depths was like a journey back in time, or a journey through the sediment of the earth itself. Riss could see the layers where old construction ended and new began. The whole stairwell reeked of damp stone and iron.

“Boy,” she said to Tarn’s back, trying to soothe the tension in her own stomach more than anything. “How many times you figure they’ve knocked this thing down and built it back up again?”

“Hopefully no more now that I live in it,” he said.

She thought back to the attempt on his life. He was so unfazed by it. Was this not the first time?

“Suppose the region’s always been a little unstable,” she said.

Tarn grunted agreement. “There’s a reason why Medao is the closest city of any note. Nothing large enough to constitute a proper port survives down here without someone or another attempting to annex it, even if it’s just the bastard with the next-largest plot of land down the road.”

At the termination of the stairs lay a heavy, iron-barred door. Veslin unlocked it and heaved it open, beckoning both Tarn and Riss inside. A pair of guards in the livery of Tarn’s garrison manned the hallway. Their expressions read boredly professional at first glance, but if Riss looked longer, she could spy the relief that snuck into their eyes upon the sight of their commander. They straightened as Tarn passed.

Only one of the cells appeared to be occupied, judging by the single guard stationed outside it. Despite the fact that logic told her no harm could reasonably come to her or Tarn in this situation, her hand wandered to the sheath at her hip. She hadn’t worn her machete, heavy as it was, but in a pinch she’d made quick work of a man with much smaller blades before.

Riss wondered how the soldiers were taking it, having to watch after one of their own. How Vosk was taking it, being imprisoned by people who were once his brothers and sisters in arms. She recalled the empathy she’d felt for him when they’d shared a fire, when she’d looked into his eyes and thought she’d seen the same loss she suffered. Her jaw clenched involuntarily.

There’s no threat here, she tried to tell herself, even through the wary goosebumps that rose on her arms. He’s going to get his.

“Baron.” The guard outside the cell door straightened.

Through the narrow slits in the wood, Riss saw only inky blackness. The interior of the cell was completely without light. Tarn peeked through, one thick eyebrow aloft, then glanced to the guard in wordless enquiry.

“He cries like crazy whenever we light the lamps,” the guard said, disdainful. “We grew tired of it.” Cruel, Riss thought, but understandable. She was relieved to see they appeared to rightly see Vosk as the traitor he was rather than a figure deserving of sympathy for having once shared their colors.

“Veslin says he’s been causing trouble?” Tarn glanced aside to his houseman now, who simply nodded. Riss felt like an unnecessary card on the table, not relevant to anyone’s hand. But Vosk could cause real harm if he’d somehow figured out a way to share what he knew.

Tarn instructed the man to open the door with a tick of his chin. Riss’ stomach tightened.

Crashing a fist against the door in a warning knock, the guard twisted a key in the heavy iron lock. The sound of it was refreshingly mechanical, secure somehow in a way that set Riss’ pulse at ease: click, scrape, creak. As the door swung outward, an immediate waft of foul air hit their noses. Tarn and Riss both coughed, though the guard did not. Perhaps he was used to it. The cell smelled–atop the usual damp earth and sour, metallic odor–of decades of human filth. Nothing new or fresh, but the persistent odor of neglect and suffering had been all but baked into the stone it was hewn from.

Behind them, the guard helpfully held a torch aloft, allowing light to spill into the interior.

Each cell was designed to house far more than a single prisoner. Sets of disused manacles dangled off the walls, splotched with rust. Straw-stuffed pallets lined one wall, but the bedding had been torn from many of them, scattered around the floor and resembling nothing so much as the floor of a stable. Straw crunched under their boots as they stepped inside, Tarn at the fore.

A lone figure slumped on the pallet in the farthest corner, distinctly human but only half-lit. It didn’t move when they neared, though they could hear the rasp of its breathing.

“He’s restrained?” Tarn and Riss realized it in the same moment, though only Tarn asked aloud.

Behind them, Veslin and the guard stepped closer. Once they did, their fire further illuminated the dark stone walls, which Riss only just noticed were shiny.

She craned her head back for a better view. Slick writing glistened on the walls, warningly dark even against the rock. Her breath caught in her throat. Tarn studied the wall above the pallets, its bricks similarly slippery. Each crudely-drawn character caught the light, gleaming still-wet. Reflecting the fire, the writing looked like molten copper.

The words were completely indistinguishable. Riss wasn’t sure whether that could be put down to the writing surface, the frenzied nature of the strokes that drew them, or unfamiliarity of the language.

The smell told her all she needed to know about what Vosk had used for ink: his own blood.

They stood over the man curled on his heap of straw. Crude bandagings wrapped his arms, and he hugged himself in a loose fetal position. Unlike the rest of the mercenary party, he hadn’t been offered a bath or a change of clothes upon arriving at the castle. He still reeked of the swamp. He didn’t stir when they drew close.

“You’ve sedated him?” she asked.

“Aye.” Veslin spoke behind her. “When they mentioned he was mutilating himself, I sent the house physician down. Once I checked in, I sent for you immediately. Things looked… unusual.” Turns out it wasn’t just Adal’s servants who had a gift for understatement.

Tarn made a sound like he’d just bit into a sour fruit. He beckoned for Veslin’s light, then swung it around, examining the bloodied characters strewn all over the walls. For a moment, worry seized Riss in a deathly-tight, clenching grip–had Vosk detailed her treachery here? Written about all Calay was capable of? But prolonged study of the markings revealed no new insights. She couldn’t make heads or tails of them. Judging by the blank expression on his features, Tarn couldn’t grasp them either.

“Anyone understand this gibberish?” he asked, glancing back to Veslin.

The houseman stepped into the center of the cell, turning his head this way and that. His mouth compressed as he studied the walls. Riss saw recognition flash in his torchlit eyes. She minded her expression, betraying nothing even as curiosity scratched at her innards like a rat in a trap.

“Huh.” Veslin made a soft sound of comprehension. He spun in a slow circle, studying the bloodied walls, then returned his eyes to Tarn and lifted a tight-shouldered shrug.

“It’s just one sentence in Sunnish,” he said. “Repeated over and over again.”

Riss felt an odd sort of relief–one sentence could cause a lot of damage, but it couldn’t reveal all of what she’d concealed.

“Well?” Tarn, impatient. “Out with it.”

Veslin folded his arms across his middle, hugging himself loosely. His voice was soft, reedy, reluctant to speak the words.

“Come unto the ground,” he said.

Though Riss hadn’t the foggiest idea what it meant, the words snuffed her relief like a breath to a candle. If asked, she could never explain precisely why they sent that frigid chill up her back. But now that she’d heard it, she wanted to be out of that basement. She did not want to be in, as Vosk had put it, the ground.

It felt like he’d beckoned them downward and they’d answered. Which felt like playing into someone else’s hands.

Tarn shared none of her worry. His eyebrows scrunched and he glanced back to the prone man in the straw.

“Means bugger all to me,” he said. He directed his next order at Veslin: “Have them call us me back when he’s awake. Restrain him further if you must. Can’t have him slithering free of the noose now.”

Riss was glad to step through the door, though the hallway was only marginally less oppressive. She thought of the heavy tons of earth that pressed in against the dungeon’s stones, had an insane moment of worry over whether the walls would be strong enough to hold it all back.

It was soil. It was completely inert. Shaking her head, Riss palmed at her face. With each step she and Tarn took toward the surface, she could breathe a little easier.

They reached an alcove in the narrow stairwell where light shone through a window. Aboveground again, then. Tarn waved Veslin on, then cornered Riss for a moment, gesturing for her to wait.

“Riss,” he said. He cradled his injured shoulder for a moment, then straightened.

“Yes, sir?” Again, she fell back on the sir. He let it slide.

“You’ve done me a great service.” His stare turned heavy, solemn. “Though the news wasn’t what we wanted, it was close to what I expected. Nobody expected you to retrieve Lukra from that marsh alive.”

Riss, who’d been so wound up in the character of the expedition and what it stood for, had scarcely thought of it in those terms since embarking. Less so since returning. Once they were knee-deep in the mud, the whys behind why she was out there had ceased to matter. Survival had come first. Survival and seeing Vosk brought to whatever justice they could manage.

“There were some close calls,” she said, unwilling to dwell on the details. “I’m pleased you found my conduct sufficient.”

“Never a doubt in my mind,” said Tarn. He released a breath that seemed to settle more of his weight upon his bearish shoulders. “The townsfolk here, they prefer their hangings at midday. They say the further you are from dark, the less chance of ghosts escaping and hanging around or some nonsense.”

Riss gave him a skeptical look, retaining her silence.

“We’ll hang him tomorrow and be done with this. If you and your company fancied remaining in Adelheim longer, I would certainly have use of you. For starters I’d like to track down the swine who did this.” He tapped the dressing upon his shoulder.

“I think Adal would be amenable,” Riss said. They’d have to circle the wagons and discuss it, but for the time being she had no business elsewhere. Adelheim was as good a center of operations as any.

“Thank you, Riss.”

Before returning to the courtyard, she paused and glanced up into Tarn’s face.

“No,” she said. “Thank you. I needed this. You knew I needed it. This is the last I’ll speak of the matter, but I appreciate what you did.” She couldn’t bring herself to say any more of it aloud, how she’d doubted herself and her capabilities. How she’d immersed herself in that wrong-headed, self-pitying thinking for lack of a better exit strategy.

“I chose you because you were the right one for the job,” Tarn said, ever willing to lend her plausible deniability.

“You offered me a drink, back when this all began.” Riss’ mouth curved in a short lived smile. “I believe I’ll finally take you up on that.”


It was halfway through her glass of wine, a viscous and pleasantly sweet concoction that glimmered gold in the sunlight, that the wrongness of come unto the ground returned. Riss sat at Tarn’s side, laughing at one of his long-winded recollections, and then the world around her seemed to still. Color seeped from the tablecloths, the sky, the booze-ruddied cheeks of her friends.

Riss had spent days in the field with Vosk. She’d spoken to him at length.

Vosk had never used the word unto. Come unto the ground wasn’t just an eerie beckoning to something that felt wrong, it was an invitation written in words the man who wrote them would never, ever use.

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