(See author’s note in the comments below!)
Tension sank its teeth into Riss. All the little muscles in her abdomen tensed, body bracing itself as though anticipating a physical blow. It was perhaps overkill. Nuso Rill was all the way on the other side of the pool, chatting casually to his comrades. When he did glance over toward Salka, his eyes passed over Riss without a moment’s pause. She was just part of the backdrop.
Yet she felt certain that he had somehow seen her. Somehow knew her purpose in Frogmouth. She calculated the distance to her discarded weapons, wondered just what the odds were that she and the others could fight their way out. How many of the people at the swimming hole were on Nuso’s payroll? And how many more would side with his people against an outsider? Would it all explode into chaos?
Nothing exploded, chaotic or otherwise. The children continued climbing up onto their perch and diving down into the pool. Others continued their lazy sunbathing. And across the swimming hole, Nuso trudged up out of the water. He shook himself dry like a dog, then wrung out his hair, left it dangling loose down his back. He stepped into a pair of sandals, yelled something to one of his crew, and then announced that he was going to get the grub.
Riss did her best not to stare, waving pointlessly at Calay just so she would look like she was doing something. Calay tilted his head in blatant confusion, then lifted his glove for a slow, tentative wave in return. Gaz and Adal both lounged nearby, the former in the water and the latter now on the shore.
They had no idea. Urgency bubbled up in Riss’ stomach like indigestion. Torcha had heard, at least. And Riss was fairly sure she’d fit the necessary pieces together. But fuck, the other three had no clue what was coming. No clue how careful they had to be.
“You all right?” Shit. Salka had noticed she’d gone quiet.
Riss blinked and rubbed at her brow, making a show of it.
“Yeah. I’m fine. Just getting over that sunstroke still. I get a little fuzzy-headed.”
“It’s a bastard.” Salka’s tone was sympathetic.
“So…” Riss groped for a thread of conversation. “Regarding those mosquitos. You know a place around here we could make camp where they won’t ruin our day?”
Salka scratched at her stubbly head, then peered up toward the clifftops. A few of the canyon-town’s rickety buildings perched overhead, silhouetted against the afternoon sun. Sunlight peeked through visible gaps in the boards. Perhaps camping out on the outskirts of town was a wiser choice, mosquitos or not. Riss wasn’t sure she could sleep in a glorified treehouse over a several-story drop. Or even worse, beneath said treehouse.
“Honestly?” Salka laughed. “Just about anywhere. Folks here are used to drunks falling over where they stand.” Her face scrunched up in thought. “Well, that is, the ones that don’t fall into the canyon…”
Riss had never before thought the phrase I’d prefer the thousands of scorpions, but when compared to sleeping on the open street in a town full of bloodthirsty opportunists where one wrong step would send a careless pedestrian plummeting to the canyon floor, the scorpions were starting to look like an attractive alternative. And that was without even throwing Rill into the mix.
“I’m sure we’ll find somewhere,” Riss said with an ease she didn’t feel.
Salka looked her up and down, then grunted approvingly. “You were in the service. I can tell. You’ve slept in worse places.”
Riss’ thoughts flashed back to campsites thick with mud, the serenade of otherworldly voices wailing in the night. The beguiling cries for help in the swamp, so clever, so convincingly almost human.
“Sure have,” she said.
Riss knew she couldn’t depart just after Rill did. That would draw suspicion. But at the same time, she felt antsy, uncertain. Hanging around in her togs without even a knife in hand had seemed a relaxing prospect mere hours ago. Now it felt like a bold, brash, award-winningly dipshit move and there was nothing she could do about it.
Torcha and Salka went back to their small talk. Riss let them. There were far too many people populating the swimming hole, at least some of which she knew to be affiliated with Rill. So swimming back to Adal and Gaz and explaining what she’d learned wasn’t an option.
In the end, she had nothing to do but the thing she’d gone down there to do in the first place: swim. Diving smoothly beneath the surface, Riss kicked hard, swimming back-and-forth lengths across the rock pool to burn nervous energy. She’d always been a strong swimmer, part and parcel of growing up in river country. In her early years, when the days were long and her father’s wrath was far-reaching and the frustration was a constant, never-abetting pressure, she’d swum off much of her teenage angst in swimming holes such as these. Or up and down the gentler forks of the Deel itself, fighting against the current.
She lost track of how many lengths she’d completed somewhere around fifteen, then kept going. Finally, she peeled off so as to not exhaust herself completely. The pleasant post-exercise blood buzz flooded through her like a strong drink, but the kind that left one refreshed and clear-headed rather than drunk.
Adal, seemingly inspired by her own efforts, took over her swimming spot once she hauled herself up and out of the pool. She stretched out on the sandstone, wringing out her underthings, and then let the sun do the work of drying them.
“Love a good swim,” Gaz rumbled from where he relaxed. “Brings back good memories.”
Riss perked open an eye, glancing curiously over at him. He did not specify the memories, but a hint of a smile inched up his broad mouth.
“I’d have figured the sea in Vasile was far too cold for swimming,” Riss said. “Or at least, you know, swimming for fun.”
Gaz laughed low in his throat. He made a little gesture with one hand, waving it up toward the sky, which was growing darker and dappled with fluffy little clouds.
“Yeah, no, not in Vasile. Too cold. And also kinda dirty. Have you actually been up there? Not sure you could pay me to swim in that harbor.”
“I haven’t,” Riss admitted. “Just heard stories.”
She found it interesting, the way Gaz and Calay discussed their hometown. Almost always, they discussed Vasile in terms of how crowded, dirty, and cold it was. Occasionally she’d hear them wax nostalgic about a particular person or a specific place, but those mentions were few and far between. Calay’s laundry list of crimes had certainly caused a falling-out between the two and their homeland, but Riss suspected there was a deeper conflict there. She suspected the emotional divorce had begun long before they were running from the law.
“You ever miss home?” she asked, stretching in the sun. She arched her back until it popped, then relaxed.
“Doesn’t everyone miss home a little?” Gaz asked in return.
“Sure.” Riss’ thoughts were free-flowing with details at the moment. Nothing she minded sharing. “I miss home all the time. The steppes. I miss how big the clouds get, these huge storm formations you could watch for hours. I miss… I miss how everything there is made of braided grass and flax. You never really see it outside of the Inland, never notice it ‘til it’s gone.”
“Oyster shell,” said Gaz. “In Vasile, lots of stuff is crushed-up oyster shell. Dried coral. Lots of copper, too. Big copper mines not far outside the city.”
“You miss oysters and copper?” Riss had to laugh.
Gaz chuffed. “No, not really miss them. But it’s like your grass thing. You notice their absence.”
“That you do.”
Adal emerged from the pool then, water trailing off down his sun-pink shoulders. He dripped some on Riss as he walked past. She cursed at him without much fire in it.
“Adal,” she said before he could wander out of earshot. “Come here for a minute. I have–”
A pair of tanned, lanky youths walked close by, carrying rolled-up blankets on their shoulders. The path took them just past the patch of sandstone where Riss relaxed, close enough that she could hear the discussion they were having on whether they thought there’d be girls at the cookout later that night.
Piss. There was just nowhere safe to mention Rill.
“Uh, yes?” Adal had stopped in his tracks, was staring at her now.
Riss glanced up at him, then fell short of words. She was struck momentarily by how the sunlight hit him, sparkling in the beads of water in his hair. His eyebrows lifted. He looked so real, so alive. Her heart stalled in her chest, shattered fragments of bone and broken teeth piercing through the mental veil she’d cast to repress the sight of them.
“Later,” Riss said, managing to cough the word out. “Just had a thought.”
Adal regarded her with skepticism but let it go.
By unspoken consensus, everybody began to pack up their things and tug their clothes back on. Swimming had worn out its welcome.
Just like when they’d first arrived, they spent the rest of the afternoon scouring Frogmouth for potential places to sleep. The sun fell, and Riss was unprepared for how chilly the wind turned. Locals who’d been wandering the paths in nothing but britches and sandals now wore more than one layer. Woolen ponchos seemed to be the local fashion of choice, proliferating the paths in brightly-dyed patterns and weaves.
Torcha, of course, took to them instantly. She asked a passing woman where she could get one of those “blanket-coats” and that set the company off on a whole new adventure. By the end of it, Riss’ thighs ached from all the hiking and the tips of her ears were numb from the wind. But it was a fruitful pursuit, for every single one of them now possessed their very own dyed wool poncho. She’d purchased a couple of wool blankets also, just in case their quest for beds brought them nowhere. All the while, she kept an eye and ear open, waiting for a chance when the crew might be completely alone. She needed to warn them, needed to explain to them that Rill was much much closer than they’d anticipated, but paranoia rattled her cage. What if Rill’s people saw her whispering in Adal’s ear? What if this shopkeep was an informant? What if the next shopkeep worked for them outright?
When a big, loud bell clanged out through the canyon, Riss initially froze with alarm. They were just leaving the wool shop, purchases clutched to their chests. Bells meant fire. Bells meant narlies breaching the perimeter.
Not in Frogmouth, it seemed. Many of the locals glanced up toward the rim of the canyon itself, over the top of all the ramshackle buildings and their dubious homemade walkways. But nobody panicked.
“Dinner bell,” Torcha said after a moment. “I bet that’s Salka’s dinner bell.”
Riss considered. The cadence of the alarm sure hadn’t been… well, alarmed.
They allowed themselves to be caught up in the general flow of foot traffic. Riss took the side of the path closest to the canyon, not even realizing that she’d positioned herself between it and Adal until they walked out of the danger zone. They crossed a creaky but sturdy bridge, ascending a worn path in the sandstone until they emerged from the shadow of the canyon itself up onto the top of a flat butte.
Clustered atop the butte were a few buildings, much sturdier-looking than the ones in the canyon. They were all wooden, but made of thicker planks. They had real roofs with tar and shingle as opposed to iffy thatch and gapped boards. And even more surprisingly, a big two-story wagon squatted beside them, no team currently harnessed to its yoke.
Outside the largest of the buildings, a deep firepit glowed against the purple evening sky. The split-log seats around it were rapidly filling up. People carried sling chairs down the wagon’s boarding ramp, making more seats by the fireside.
Heavy cast-iron tureens and casserole dishes peeked up through the coals of the fire, lurking like fish beneath the surface of water. Riss could only tell their presence by the occasional jut of a handle or a knob, but it was a sight to which she was well accustomed. Camp cooking at its finest.
“Oi! Torcha! Riss!” Salka’s voice rose up from the whisper of wind and the murmur of voices. She sat in a sling-chair close by the fire, a half-knitted sweater sprawled across her knees. Riss studied the crowd and spotted Mafalda not far away, laughing with one of the many tan-faced swimming hole kids.
It appeared they were going to be attending Nuso Rill’s cookout whether they’d intended to or not.
To a person who’d grown up as intensely, cuttingly alone as Riss, big communal meals and social gatherings were always more burden than anything. They meant putting on airs, remembering people’s names, acting interested. Riss excelled at those things, but they took significant concentration. Her mind always ached as much with the social hangover as that of the alcohol on the morning after.
That was part of what had drawn her to Adal, back in the service. They complemented one another, shored up one another’s weaknesses. She had an iron-clad constitution and never hesitated in matters of discipline or quick thinking in the field; he had an endless capacity for small-talk and buttering up their betters and the social skills to translate their reports into just what their Captains wanted to hear.
Riss tried to think of this particular dinner along those lines. Just another promotion ceremony, another commendation supper, another graduation formal. She had to be on her best behavior, no doubt, but she had more leeway with Nuso Rill than with the decorated brass of the Inland. Here, she could be a dusty mysterious outlander who kept to herself save for when she thanked her hosts for their hospitality. There would be no forced elbow-rubbing, no expected lines to recite. And there wouldn’t be any mandatory dancing.
There was also the small matter of the sorcerer. Regardless of Rill’s superior numbers and his sway in this town, Riss had three quick guns on her side as well as an ally who could poach Rill’s brain his skull like an egg if push came to shove.
All the same, she hoped it would not come to that.
And don’t you worry if you act a little cagey, she reminded herself. This is an outlaw town. Everyone here has something to hide. Everyone has their own reasons to keep quiet.
None of Gaspard’s many lessons had prepared her for anything like this.