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 | To Be Continued >>

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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.

<< Chapter 64 | Chapter 66 >>

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Chapter 64

Apart from the circumstances being less than ideal, Riss’ briefing went about as she thought it would. Tarn sat and listened, sipping from his flask as she explained the findings of their expedition: the decision that Vosk and Lukra made to betray the clothiers, the massacre, the trees setting upon them. It didn’t paint Lukra in the kindest light, but Tarn deserved better than a bullshit narrative that plastered over his son’s cracks.

“Vosk turned on us before we had him pegged,” Riss explained. “He killed Geetsha, the woman sent to guide us through the swamp. And he shot Calay here as well. Under duress, he confessed to the whole thing.”

Tarn’s shoulders slumped. He released a weary sigh. Calay had stitched and bandaged him up, one more scar to add to the many that lurked in the thickets of dark hair that shaded his arms. He’d complained fiercely when the physik had rigged his arm in a sling, but he was behaving for the time being.

“I’m pleased to see you got through it,” he said to Calay, who leaned against a table now, hand in his pocket.

Riss had to ask about one thing, now that she had the opportunity. It had been burning a hole in her pocket like an unspent coin.

“A few of our mercs met with Geetsha’s people,” she said, slow and thoughtful. “They spoke of an agreement you’d brokered?” Really, all she needed to know was that Tarn hadn’t sent them in there as fodder. Her gut told her that wasn’t the case, but that did little to assuage the worry of her brain, which was burdened by no such intuitions.

Tarn tilted his chin down, a slow nod. “Yes,” he said. “The Indefinite-Collective, they call themselves. Some sort of tribal presence deep in the marshes. Their territory butts up against mine. When I put out word about Lukra’s disappearance, they sent a representative. They said they’d assist in exchange for my men staying the hells out of their swamp.”

“That was all?” It sounded tidy enough. Believable enough.

“Mhm.” Tarn yawned and smothered it with the back of a hand. “Half my duty as chaperone over these lands is signing papers to agree to stay out of other people’s territory. The locals hate the place anyway. As far as I’m concerned, I lose nothing avoiding it.”

If he had any opinion–or any knowledge whatsoever–of the strange magicks the Collective used, whatever witchery they’d wrangled to locate Vosk in the woods, he didn’t voice it. Riss decided against pursuing it further. If the end goal was to avoid the place, perhaps they could avoid it in conversation as well.

As she related the last few days of their expedition, she felt Calay’s eyes on her, a hard stare that simmered at her back like hot coals. Gaz too watched her speak, though his own expression was considerably less severe.

She got to the part with the sheep. She said nothing of what she’d uncovered about Calay’s true nature.

Somewhere along the way, she’d simply decided not to.

While a distantly loyal part of her twinged in discomfort at hiding such a thing from Tarn, loyalty was a complex creature. She didn’t feel loyalty to Calay on the same level she felt it to say, Adal. But he’d saved Torcha. He’d brought Vosk back alive. He’d done the job she’d hired him to do. That he’d performed it all under false pretenses was not a thing she’d be quick to forget, but it was something she could understand, given what she’d learned of the man.

“Suppose that settles it,” Tarn grumbled from his bed. “You all leave me to an afternoon of rest, will you? We’ve got a party to throw and a bastard to execute, but I believe I need a nap.”

Calay rubbed a hand down his face across the room and mumbled something she didn’t quite catch.

“We’ll see you at supper,” Gaz explained.

She let them go. She saw no reason to keep anyone.

“Anything need doing?” she asked Veslin as they all filed out into the hallway. But no, he had no duties for her. As was to be expected. Tarn had a whole castle full of guards and bootlickers, no need for a hired hand.

Which meant she could spend some quality time in the library. Riss excused herself and wandered off to do just that. As she walked, she wondered whether it might be worthwhile to ask the house staff if they had any books that detailed the region’s history, anything about the swamp’s origins. But with each progressive footstep, that desire waned. As curious as she was, delving into the swamp even as an intellectual pursuit felt like inviting it back into her life.

###

The talk all throughout the Estate was of Tarn’s resilience, how impressive a man he was to put together a feast at such short notice. And after being set upon by highwaymen, no less! Riss kept her amusement to herself; clearly none of these hangers-on had served with him. Otherwise they’d have known this was a more or less expected Tarn reaction rather than some feat of bravery and constitution.

Still, the feast was an impressive one. Riss wasn’t sure what an evening meal typically consisted of at Adelheim’s castle, but tonight Tarn’s staff had rounded up a dozen suckling pigs and roast them until their flesh was blackened and split. Great wheels of soft white cheese and slivered slices of harder, sharper yellow stuff were heaped around the perimeter of the formal dining table. She had a whole bowl of bread dumplings in cream sauce. The only dish Riss didn’t sample was the platter of roasted mushrooms. When that was passed around, she politely abstained. So did everyone else who’d journeyed with her into the swamp, save for Torcha who chowed them down indifferently.

Riss and her company shared the head of the table with the Baron himself, honored guests. It was a tad less structured than other formal meals Riss had been forced to sit through at the hands of various nobility, which suited her just fine. Adal got to spend the night schmoozing, she and Torcha got to relax, and Tarn enjoyed telling the story of how he fought off the bandits on the road. It grew more heroic with every retelling.

After supper, people dispersed to the courtyards, which were strung with faceted-glass lanterns. A woman fingerpicked a guitar in a shaded corner and nimble servers flitted to and fro with flutes of wine. Servants set up smaller side tables in the shade, heaped with cheese tarts and roasted fruits.

Riss was far from an expert on plants, but she liked the landscaping in the courtyard. Big, red-leafed bushes left to grow a little wild partitioned the courtyard off, decidedly different to the regimented shrubbery common in the Inland. Of course, where Riss had grown up, nobody’s homes were close enough together to need shrubs to delineate property boundaries. She found intentional landscaping a curious, intriguing thing regardless of what plants were used.

Gaz found her like that, wineglass in hand, watching the crowd.

It was funny, seeing a person completely removed from their usual context. When the accords had been signed and the war was well and truly over, Riss and several others in the Fourth hadn’t been so quick to shed their uniforms as others. She wondered if on some level they were worried they wouldn’t be able to recognize one another without them. That the sense of kinship they’d developed would evaporate the second they lost their trappings and accessories.

Seeing Gaz at a party holding a wine flute was kind of like that. Were it not for the fact that he still towered, she might not have recognized him.

Mindful of his glass, Gaz eased down onto a long stone bench, his back to the wild red-brown shrubs. He looked up at her, making pointed eye contact.

“Thanks for what you did back there.” He didn’t have to specify.

Riss lifted a shoulder, casual. “It’s nothing,” she said. “You two were invaluable out there.”

Gaz turned the wineglass, the little crystal thing dwarfed by his too-large hand. “We’ve been invaluable before. You should have seen how they repaid us.”

Riss tilted her own glass down towards his, offering a cheers.

“Well I’m not them.”

An expression of half amusement half disbelief flickered over Gaz’s face. She’d never noticed it before, but he was younger than she’d initially thought. The scars, the crooked nose, the rough texture of his skin–they were all signs of life’s little hardships built up, but years weren’t among them. He and Calay both couldn’t have been thirty yet. Younger than her, at any rate.

Gaz clinked his glass to hers, smiling. Removed from the context of muck and blood, she could see now that he had a kind smile. Kind eyes, too.

“You two are an odd pair, if you don’t mind my saying.” She spoke candidly, sipping her wine after. It was a tangy, citrusy white, the kind that danced along the tongue.

When Gaz sipped, he sputtered a little. An odd, abashed look crossed his face and he looked back up at her with a shallow cough.

“Pardon me,” Riss said with round eyes.

“Oh, wasn’t you.” Gaz cleared his throat. “Just… uh, funny way of phrasing. What makes you say that?”

Riss levelled a wordless look at him.

“Fine, fine.” He huffed out a single breath of laughter. “Suppose we’re pretty different, yeah. But I could say the same for you and Torcha.”

Riss searched the courtyard for Torcha and didn’t see her. She did however spy Tarn sitting at a small table, chatting Calay’s ear off. Calay slouched in a seat catty-corner to him, watching Tarn over the brim of his wineglass, his expression inscrutable. She hadn’t warned him about how long-winded her old Captain could be when he got on the sauce. His loss.

“Torcha’s an interesting case,” she said, ever opting for the understatement. “Adal and I kind of look out for her, I suppose. The world’s hard for kids like her.”

Gaz didn’t say anything, but the slight tilt of his head and the way he kept his interested eyes on hers bade her to continue talking.

“I’m sure you know what I mean.” She sipped her wine. “Tough for folks my age too, but tougher on the young ones. They grow up in the midst of all this conflict, fight or flee at a moment’s notice. That becomes normal for them, so when they encounter real-normal they just don’t know what to do.” And she hadn’t even touched on the things Torcha had done before Riss and Gaspard had encountered her on that strange first night. Nor the people the girl had trained with.

Gaz’s fingers twitched a little on the stem of the glass he held. “I get that,” he said. “Better than most who ducked the war, I think. Vasile didn’t even dip its toes in, but…”

The way he and Calay fought, they’d gone through something. Riss didn’t know the details, but there were skills one simply didn’t acquire unless one lived a certain type of life.

“Conflict is conflict,” she said. “I get the sense you’ve seen your share.”

“So yeah.” Gaz fiddled with his glass again, then sipped the last of it down. His hands seemed more fidgety than usual. “It’s a little odd, stepping out of that and into a whole other life.”

Riss recalled Discharge Week and all the bittersweet feelings that had come with it. Gaspard pacing like a caged beast or eating sweet rolls by the dozen at his desk. The rambling, pages-long letters she’d penned to Adal while he recuperated. The vague sense of guilt she’d felt that she wasn’t happier. The war was over; peace was an objectively good thing. But Riss had felt like an outcast among her own men, an odd duck in the barracks who had no wife at home, no kids who’d missed her, not even a job to return to. She had only a father who’d willingly given her up for conscription and written not a single letter.

The Fourth, in its own disjointed and irregular way, had given her structure and purpose.

“My mentor,” she said to Gaz, a little foggy-eyed. “He put it best, I think. After they signed the accords, we mostly just kicked around stress-eating sticky buns and spinning our wheels.”

“Half of that doesn’t sound too bad,” said Gaz.

Riss chuckled and stretched out her arms, lifting her shoulders. After a moment’s consideration, she sank down onto the bench at Gaz’s side. “He likened it to being a horse. Said with these old warhorses, they often cause a ruckus and aren’t good for fuck-all during peacetime. They get so used to how crazy it is, to the constant noise, that you take ‘em home and they’re too wild for the plow. He said that’s what happens–you get home and you just can’t work the plow anymore.”

Gaz absorbed that in silence for a time. When he finally spoke again, he looked down at the glass in his hands.

“Yeah. You get it.” A pause. “We had a good thing going back home. I’m just trying to get us to a place where we can find that again. Do the thing we’re good at.”

Questions tingled on the tip of her tongue. Despite the candid moment they were sharing, Riss wasn’t sure he’d answer if she asked them.

“You have to know how hard that’s going to be.” She said it without judgment, kept her voice low and her wording vague. “With what he is. No matter where you end up…”

“We’re always going to be running, yeah.” Gaz said it matter-of-factly. He knew. He was under no illusions.

When Riss said the two of them were different, what she’d really meant was that the more she learned about Gaz, the stranger it was that he’d hitched his wagon to someone like Calay. He lacked the cutthroat instincts, the viciousness. Not that she doubted he was capable of vicious things–she’d fought alongside him, after all–but capability did not equal inclination.

A narrow figure scurried past her, moving quickly through the yard. Riss glanced up, spotting Veslin making a beeline for Tarn’s table. He dipped his head, interrupted Tarn and Calay, and said something that caused both to turn their heads toward him, smiles faltering on their faces.

Tarn exhaled wearily, then heaved up out of his seat. He encouraged Calay to stay put with a wave, then allowed Veslin to lead him back toward the castle. As he passed Riss’ bench, he gestured to her, ticking his chin up.

“Riss,” he said. “I hate to interrupt your hard-earned time off, but Veslin informs me the prisoner is causing a ruckus in the cells.”

Riss shot up to her feet immediately. How in the fuck was Vosk still capable of causing problems? As she followed Tarn inside, she tried to make a quick mental inventory of everything she’d left out of her briefing.

Namely the bits about Calay. And exactly how Vosk had lost his tongue.

<< Chapter 63 | Chapter 65 >>

Chapter 63

Staring down the hill toward the distant fields of sweet potatoes and the clumps of twiggy springtime trees, Adal tried to get a good look at what was riding toward them. Within a few seconds, he determined that it was a wagon. It looked like the one Tarn had rode in on a couple weeks back, though it was tough to say–who knew how many wagons called Adelheim’s wagonyard home.

“They’ve let the wagon cross the bridge,” he said to Torcha. “So it must be friendly. But the code they’re blowing has the locals rattled. I don’t think it’s an invasion, at least, but it can’t be good.”

Within minutes, the wagon was hurrying up the hill. The closer it got, the more the details solidified stones of sharp, crystalline concern in Adal’s gut: its team was incomplete, a horse missing from the lead pair. Once his mind shed the more fantastical threats–monsters and armies, which both seemed unlikely now–he worried that Tarn’s entourage might have fallen victim to the usual hazards of the road. Bandits, rivals, assassins, none of them less dangerous solely because worse things lurked off-road.

“Come on,” he said to Torcha. “I don’t think we’re in any danger, but we might be needed.”

She made a sound of quiet agreement, content to follow orders, and hurried after him. Rounding the fence, he jogged up the side of the road.

When the wagon caught up with them, rumbling crazily past, he had only half a moment to take it in. Slick, shiny black liquid oozed in streaks down its sides, glittering in the morning sun. The team was indeed missing a horse, its harness empty. The window shutters were drawn and bolted, so he had no idea what was happening inside. The more he saw, the less he liked.

They spotted Gaz a moment later. He’d acquired a forearm-long knife from somewhere and had it up and ready. He’d parked himself in the doorway of a smithy, looming there warily with his eyes on the road.

“Gaz!” Torcha hollered. “C’mon!”

Reluctant to step free from the doorway, he glanced over his shoulder. Adal realized he was talking to someone inside. He gestured a little with the knife, then nodded, his expression dark. When he stepped away, Adal caught a glimpse of a man and woman standing inside, squinting out toward the road in suspicion.

Please don’t tell me he decided to try to rob the fucking blacksmiths in the confusion, he thought. There’d be no coming back from that. No amount of explaining away could–

Gaz reached them. He walked right past Adal and Torcha and peered down the road.

“I don’t see anything!” he hollered, and it took Adal a moment to realize he was speaking to the couple in the smithy.

Finally, he looked to Adal, lowering the blade. “Any idea what’s going on out here?”

“Not a clue.” Adal gestured up the hill. “But the Baron’s wagon took off that way in a hurry, so we’re heading up to find out. I’d suggest you tag along.”

“Don’t gotta tell me twice.” Gaz looked down to the knife in his hand, then back toward the squat, low-roofed building he’d emerged from.

“Keep it!” shouted a woman’s voice from inside. Gaz shrugged and seemed to take that as answer enough. Adal didn’t stop to ask him what all that had been about.

Together, they hurried up toward the castle, following a trail of pitch-black droplets in the road.

At the apex of the hill, out of breath, they reached the gates. More guards than usual clustered around the outside, milling about nervously, and Adal took point in case anybody got over-cautious. Fortunately they had a good memory for faces, because they let him pass without a fuss. As he stepped into the inner yard, the heavy wooden gates shunted closed behind them, the earth momentarily trembling with the impact.

The Baron’s wagon was parked askew in the inner yard, attendants scrambling all over it like flies on a carcass. Gaz dropped to a knee in the road, touching his finger to one of the droplets in the dust.

“Pretty sure that’s lantern oil,” he said. “Looks like someone tried to light your Baron on fire.”

Adal glanced toward the castle’s front door. Surely Tarn had physikers on staff. But all the same, they had a damn good medic sleeping right upstairs.

“Get Calay,” he said. “Just in case.”

Gaz must have had similar thoughts, because he didn’t argue. He sprinted off toward the door, shoving past the throng of servants who were hurrying in the opposite direction.

At that moment, the wagon’s heavy passenger door thumped open. Tarn stomped out into the dusty courtyard, his face flushed and sweaty. Adal’s worry relaxed at first, the sight of the man relieving, but then he spotted the arrow shaft protruding from the Baron’s body.

“Unhand me,” Tarn bellowed at his many hangers-on, waving an arm. When he turned, Adal could see that the arrow was lodged in his left shoulder. Tarn was armored, but he’d gone without pauldrons, and it had cost him. He sputtered frustrated obscenities at anyone who got too near, then took a couple listing steps toward the door. It was then that he spotted Adal, his eyes going wide.

“Adalgis!” he boomed. “You’ve returned from the swamp!”

Adal bit back the urge to salute. Instead he just jogged to the man’s side, approaching him with alacrity. “Sir,” he said. “That I have. Riss is preparing her report now, but–” He glanced to the arrow shaft.

“I’m well aware,” said Tarn.

The Baron’s staff had ceased their attempts at intervention, letting Adal act as their representative until someone with more authority arrived. He cleared his throat.

“We’ve got a talented physik on our team,” he said. “The man saved my life on our expedition. I’m sure you have your own staff for such emergencies, but I feel duty-bound to offer his services.”

Tarn breathed in through clenched teeth. He reached up and touched the arrow shaft that jutted from his sleeve. Adal noted that he didn’t appear to have suffered any further wounds, which was a relief.

“And this, Adalgis.” Tarn tapped the cloth beside where the arrow pierced him. “This is why Lirette is still back home.” He sighed, hand dropping down to his side. “Fine. Fine. Show me to your chirurgeon.”

Adal had wondered where Tarn’s wife was staying. It made sense, her being back in Carbec until the political situation resolved itself. Adal stepped up and, unaware whether he was breaking any formalities or protocol, took Tarn by the elbow.

“This way, sir,” he said.

“You can stop that,” Tarn informed him. “You needn’t sir me in peacetime.”

Adal hadn’t spared it a thought. It had just come out. He nodded then, cheeks puffing out a little. “Right,” he said. “You’re a Baron now. Right this way, Baron.”

Tarn glared at him. Peace had softened that glare, though only a fraction. “Right,” Tarn said with a huff. “Right now I’m not a Baron or a Captain. I’m just fucked off.”

They blustered into the castle’s foyer, trailed at a distance by a dozen harried attendants who dared not get involved.

###

Adal had some regrets.

For starters, he thought perhaps he should have let Tarn’s own medical staff see to him. Recommending Calay had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now that everyone was gathered in Tarn’s bedchamber and the sorcerer was en route, Adal’s mind reeled with the sheer enormity of how many things could go wrong.

As it turned out, his fears were not misplaced.

The door swung open. Gaz stepped in, mid-sentence, and gave Calay a little nudge to encourage him all the way inside.

Since the last time Adal had set eyes on him, Calay had acquired a black eye and a swollen cheek. His hair was a tangled mess and the clothes he wore didn’t seem to be his own, a borrowed tunic and trousers that hung off him like the trappings of a scarecrow. Gaz had bandaged his arm again, but the bandages weren’t fresh.

“Baron,” Calay said with a deferential nod, not moving any closer.

Tarn, reclined atop his bed while a servant held a compress to his bleeding shoulder, glanced at Adal with a slow lift of his eyebrows. He didn’t say anything, but the look said it all: this is your world-class medic, eh? Adal spread his hands, conciliatory, and beckoned Calay closer.

“Ooh,” Calay said, sighting the arrow. “That looks nasty.”

Was… was he hung over? Adal took a deep breath. Fantastic. That explained why he hadn’t come down for breakfast.

Grunting thickly, Tarn sat up as best he could, the servant pausing in their blood-staunching duty to fluff his pillow. His staff had stripped his chestplate and leathers away, leaving him in a dark green shirt, the fabric pinned to his arm by way of the arrow.

Despite his messy appearance, Calay was all business when he crouched at Tarn’s bedside, inspecting him. “You’re lucky,” he said. “Looks like it’s only gone through the meat. There’s some important tendons and muscles back here…” He gestured with his left hand. “But so long as the head didn’t fragment, you’ll be in the clear.”

The door opened again. This time Riss, Torcha, and Veslin all piled in, the latter leading the others, all of them in a great hurry. Tarn’s eyes snapped up toward the doorway and he growled.

“Everybody out!” he bellowed. “If you weren’t on the marsh expedition and your name isn’t Veslin, out.”

The bedroom emptied. Veslin took over minding Tarn at his bedside while Calay continued his inspection.

Adal explained before Riss even asked. “He says they were set upon at the crossroads. Brigands. Locals who aren’t thrilled with the current distribution of lands and titles. Tried to set his carriage alight, and when that didn’t work they fired off a few and vanished into the woods.”

Riss sniffed, grimacing mildly. “Lucky for him nobody down this way can afford rifles, eh.”

“We’ve gotta talk when you get a second,” Torcha butted in. She glanced toward the door, her eyes narrow.

“One crisis at a time,” said Riss.

Behind them, Calay was busy trimming the sleeve off Tarn’s arm with a small pair of scissors. He worked slowly, Gaz looming behind him like the world’s most menacing nurse, passing him instruments and taking them back in silent intervals.

“Would you like a drink, sir?” Riss called.

“Damn your sirs!” Tarn hollered.

The Baron’s chambers were expansive, a long room with several attached sitting rooms and a massive, carved-basalt hearth. The fire was mere coals for the moment, but Riss walked toward it, seeking something out. The mantel was host to several strange objects: a large reptilian skull of some kind, a thick iron helmet with a dent in one side, a frame with polished medals gleaming inside. Trophies of Tarn’s career with the Inland. Just to the side of all that, Riss located a narrow cabinet. She opened it up and rummaged through it, eventually coming up with a small flask.

“I can give him something more potent than liquor,” Calay offered. He flexed a pair of tweezers in his hand.

“That’s up to him,” said Riss, passing the flask to Tarn without further word. Tarn took it, bit off the cap, and took a swig. He didn’t comment on the contents.

Riss pinched the bridge of her nose as she returned to Adal’s side.

“This is not how I expected to give my briefing,” she said.

Behind her, Tarn let out a hard, low-throated growl of pain as Calay yanked the arrow shaft free. Adal only watched out of the corner of his eye. He’d seen enough of that in the war, thanks. And regardless of how many questions Calay’s current appearance raised, he didn’t doubt the man’s abilities.

“Riss,” Tarn said, swigging from his flask. “You might as well get over here and get–rrgh–started.” Tarn grunted while Calay worked on the wound, digging around with his tweezers.

“I thought we’d begin when he was finished,” she said. But Tarn snapped his fingers, waving her over, and she went. Adal followed with her, Torcha lurking slightly behind.

“You didn’t tell me you had so many northerners on your payroll.” Tarn watched as Calay threaded a thin, curved needle.

“I hire the best people for the job regardless of their city of birth or prior affiliations,” Riss said.

“If I’d known my accent was going to get me constantly punched in the face down here, I might have carried on to Medao,” Calay mused as he began to stitch the Baron shut.

Riss unfolded some notes from a pocket of her coat, scanning over the parchment. She began to brief Tarn on all that had transpired in the swamp.

<< Chapter 62 | Chapter 64 >>

Chapter 62

Adal woke at some point in the night, fuzzy-headed and warm all over. He, Riss, and Torcha had all fallen asleep, the latter two atop the bed and him upon a folded sheepskin on the floor, his back to the frame. He knew by the vague tilt to the floor and the way his thoughts were slow to catch up that he was still nice and drunk, but even in that state he decided to be kind to his back and retreat to his own bed. After all, he was on the wrong side of thirty now. Aches and pains didn’t always vanish on their own anymore. The occasional twinge of pain still shot up his calf from where the rock creature had grabbed his leg–he’d tried not to think about it. Tried not to think about it still even as it flared up again.

He left the girls to their rest and slipped out into the hallway, making the short walk to his own chambers in silence. Days-old muscle bruises throbbed when he moved certain body parts, even through the drink, aches that wouldn’t quite go away. But as he settled in beneath the quilts and sheepskins upon his own bed, he found he didn’t mind the pain.

Rolling his foot, he felt the little twinges through his leg. Remembered how sharp it had felt, that wrench up his hip. Remembered even earlier in the mission that sensation of needlelike fangs piercing his skin.

All the little aches and pains of a body that had survived another campaign.

He rolled over onto his side and let his eyes fall closed. Loth, it was good to see Riss smile again. At her lowest, she hadn’t believed she could come out of this on the other side. But he’d had faith. And she’d proven his faith correctly placed once again.

He let the gentle rocking of the floor lull him back to sleep.

###

Breakfast on the grounds of House Gullardson was nowhere near as organized an affair as it was in the structured halls of House Altave. Tarn’s senior staff–who he could spot by their livery–and a gaggle of assorted guests all threaded in and out through the dining chambers, none lingering too long.

When people passed by his table, they slowed. He felt their gazes on his back, though no one commented. Were they simply wondering who these strangers were? Or had word of their expedition attained some dubious mythology in the hamlet?

Gossip around the castle said the Baron was due back around midday. Adal listened but did not care to speak, happy to find a chair at a side table and munch down fruit tarts with great, heaped spoonfuls of thick eggy custard. He ate ravenously, like his body had forgotten what bread was and immediately decided it was experiencing a dire shortage. Torcha and Riss sat catty-corner to him, their table otherwise empty. None of the passers-by who stopped to ogle the three of them were brave enough to stop and strike up a conversation.

A half-hour into their meal, Adal spotted a familiar lumbering silhouette skirting the very edges of the dining hall. Gaz walked like a man hurrying through a room full of sleeping babies. When Veslin, the housemaster, cornered him, he said few words and nodded a lot. Veslin directed him toward Adal and Riss’ table, and Adal lifted a hand to guide him over.

Interestingly, Gaz was alone. Adal swept a look all around the dining chamber and didn’t see his partner in crime.

Gaz seemed moderately flustered by all the activity around the tables, the servers swooping in and asking did he take tea and if so how. He sat too-straight in his chair, eyes a little wide, and looked relieved when the interrogation was over.

“All well?” Riss asked, teacup in hand.

Gaz scrubbed a palm over his freshly-cut hair. His answer took a moment. “Yeah. Think so.” When Riss glanced pointedly to the empty seat beside him, he followed the look and then went ah. “… He’s sleeping.”

“Can’t blame him,” said Torcha. The two of them shared a look between them, then a subtle nod. Adal was a little lost.

“I think we all needed a bit of rest,” said Riss, doing her best to be diplomatic.

Gaz located a bowl of boiled eggs atop the table, then dragged it a little closer to himself. He plucked up a couple, then set about attempting to peel them with fingers that were far too large for the task. He fixed the egg in his hands with an intense stare while he worked, to the exclusion of all other subjects at the table.

Something was definitely up. He didn’t seem as relaxed as a man who’d just survived a death march through that hell-swamp should have been. But if Riss wasn’t going to pursue that line of questioning, Adal sure wasn’t going to bother either.

Adal took another cup of tea when Veslin offered it. Down this way, the tea of choice was a blood-red root of some kind, shaved thin and dried and boiled. It had a pleasantly earthy flavor with a hint of sweetness to it. Little by little, the tiny pleasures of civilized life were revealing themselves once more, chipping away at the layers of tiredness and desolation and anxiety that had gripped him for days. Rather like Gaz determinedly chipped away at that eggshell.

It felt like coming back from the war all over again. Only this time, he’d come back to the people he chose rather than the family he happened to be born with.

He watched as Gaz stuffed an entire egg into his mouth.

Well, he’d chosen some of the people.

The next time Veslin drifted by, he and Riss shared a few quiet words. Riss downed the last of her tea, snatched up an apricot for the road, and gestured off down the hallway.

“I’m going to prep for our briefing with the Baron,” she said. “When the horn sounds, consider yourselves wanted back here, but until then you’re off-duty. Take advantage of it. That’s an order.”

When she rose up, she plucked the napkin off her lap and folded it. Then she adjusted the drape of her jacket–a threadbare green linen thing with golden embroidery that Adal hadn’t seen on her in some time. It was a little odd, seeing everyone out of their arms and armor. Their bodies looked strangely small and vulnerable.

“You’ll make sure Calay makes it down for the briefing?” Riss glanced down to Gaz, who was busy picking the crust off a roll without eating it. His hands paused when she addressed him.

“Will do,” he said. “And I’ll make sure he’s…” He gestured to his right arm. “Y’know.”

Riss made an agreeable sound and headed off, housemaster in tow.

Torcha speared a sausage off a platter and chewed on it, watching the crowd as it began to thin. “I still can’t believe these people all work for Tarn,” she said, sounding vaguely mystified.

Adal, who’d grown up in a household full of his own maids and servants and hangers-on, didn’t comment on that. Yawning, he too folded his napkin and set it upon his plate. He’d forced himself to curb his appetite–too much bread after living on field rations for days tended to have a soporific effect. The last thing he wanted was to nod off mid-briefing on account of a bread nap.

“I’ve got to return our bird to the stockyards,” he said. Glancing to Torcha, then to Gaz, he lifted a palm. “If either of you felt like tagging along.”

“Why not,” said Torcha.

Gaz rubbed the back of his neck, then glanced off in the direction of the staircase. “Suppose,” he said. “You know if there’s a decent leatherworker in this town?”

Adal rose up and shrugged his coat back on. “I can show you one. Can’t promise he’s decent.”

“Good enough.”

They thanked Tarn’s staff for their hospitality, then hit the streets of Adelheim.

###

The man who ran the stockyard was not impressed that Adal was only returning one bird. He prattled on about how expensive it was to rear them into adulthood, how he could have worked a good ten thousand australs out of the lost one over the course of her life.

“Well, you can take that up with the Baron,” Adal said, not in the mood to argue. “Simply bill it to the garrison. It was a hazardous expedition.”

He couldn’t bring himself to pay full attention to the vitriol being thrown his way. A new acquisition in the yard had stolen his eye, a beast that hadn’t been there when they’d first embarked.

Lurking in a large pen all to itself, across the dusty yard and segregated away from the rest of the stables, a massive galania sat immobile as a spider. The quadrupedal, low-bellied lizard was the size of a carriage, its tail twice as long. Its scales were the same dusty deep red as Adelheim’s claybricks; its hide looked as thick as the castle walls, too. As he watched it, the thing flickered its tongue in and out of its mouth, tasting the air.

He hadn’t seen one up close since the war. And now that he had, he found he didn’t dislike them any less. Big reptiles unnerved him on some sort of childhood-instinct level. You couldn’t gauge them by their body language like you could a horse or a dog. He’d been given the opportunity to attend Cavalry Academy in training, but he’d have sooner licked wet paint. Cavalry wasn’t just horses anymore, not since the war-wagons took over.

Beside him, Gaz let out a low, amused heh.

“What?” Adal glanced over at him, tilted his head.

“Oh, nothing. Got in a scrap with one of those, back in the day.”

Adal waited to see if he’d continue, eyeballing the man with blatant curiosity.

“Just weird.” Gaz shrugged, his voice quiet with contemplation. “After the last couple weeks, a big bastard lizard doesn’t really strike fear into the heart anymore, does it.”

Speak for yourself, Adal thought. But Gaz had a point. They’d faced down worse. If you shot a galania in the face, it would probably die. Still, he preferred not to find that out the hard way.

“You want to buy it or are you just gawking?” asked the stockman, butting in.

“Look, I’m sorry about the bird–” Adal tried to be diplomatic, but Torcha cut him off. She stepped between he and the stockman and flipped up a rude two-fingered hand gesture.

It was about time they got going anyhow. Adal dragged Torcha out of the yard by her shoulder. Gaz followed along behind them. The stockman yelled something at their backs, but Adal didn’t catch it and he didn’t particularly care. For lack of a better option, he steered Torcha across the road and up the hill toward the pub.

Only the pub didn’t prove a more peaceful alternative.

Outside, the usual assortment of loiterers and smokers were relaxing, a loosely-gathered handful of them. It was the middle of the workday and there they stood, pointedly not seeking gainful employment. They relaxed in the shade of the building’s sagging porch, and all their conversation dried up to a trickle and then silence as soon as Adal neared them.

At first he wondered if Gaz or Torcha had antagonized these gentlemen prior to today, but the group didn’t seem to be singling either of them out. The trio all drew the same level of wariness, a sort of edgy, tight-lipped quiet like the kind that gripped Privates when a notoriously hard-nosed Sergeant was on the prowl for a whipping boy in the drill yards.

Gaz didn’t approach the building any closer. Behind Adal, he cleared his throat.

“Gonna go find that leatherworker,” he mumbled, avoiding the crowd. One of the men on the steps must have heard his accent, though, because he spat in the direction Gaz walked off.

“That’s hardly necessary,” said Adal. He felt a little spark of defensiveness, which surprised him. Gaz wasn’t even around to see Adal defend his honour, but by Loth he felt compelled to.

“Speak for yourself.” The spitter in question was a tall, too-thin man with ruddy cheeks and loose-hanging clothes. He squinted at Adal from beneath a straw hat that was on the verge of fragmenting to pieces, loose-woven grass jutting brokenly from the brim. “We’ve had enough trouble with these narlanders kickin’ around. Then you lot roll in.”

“We’re not here to cause any disturbances,” said Adal, polite but also not retreating. Torcha took a step closer.

The man threw his head back and laughed, cradling a hand to his head to keep his hat in place. “A man pokes his nose in every cursed schowe and weald he comes across, but he doesn’t want to cause any disturbances.

Adal straightened. He hadn’t left the castle with the intent to deck a man in broad daylight, but he wasn’t about to let himself be used as a pincushion for a peasant who’d had a bad week.

Torcha jutted up her chin and murmured a few low words at the men in a language Adal barely recognized. He forgot she spoke Sunnish sometimes, as little as they’d ever had to use it in the field. Hideous language, with all those strung-together vowels. No crisp diction in it.

Whatever she said, the words hadn’t had an ameliorating effect. The man in the hat flung a hand up, making a warding gesture at her. Adal couldn’t understand the words he spoke back, but he knew what beat it looked like in any language. Torcha did not step back.

“Torcha,” he warned her. She gave him a stiff little shrug, unapologetic as ever.

Before Adal could get another word in, the bellow of a distant horn cut through the tense quiet in the yard. All heads turned toward the drawbridge at the base of the hill. The Baron’s party was returning, then.

The horn kept bellowing, though. It was a different pattern to the one Adal had heard before, the single drone to announce the incoming entourage. He shot a quick look toward the locals, whose faces all bunched up with concern and confusion at the sound. Some sort of emergency signal, if he interpreted their expressions correctly.

All business, he looked back to the man in the hat, hoping recent events were enough to put the past five minutes behind them. “Shall we arm ourselves?”

“Do whatever the fuck you like,” the man said, shoving past.

Adal let him go. The street didn’t quite empty entirely, a few curious onlookers remaining in doorways. But mothers shooed their kids inside. The guards up on the ramparts stiffened and more guards arrived behind them. Adal and Torcha made for the fence that ringed the pub, the best available cover.

“You packing?” he asked, aware that all he had on him was a bootknife.

“Is the sky blue?” Torcha grumbled and reached for her belt, though she didn’t draw yet.

They watched in tense, breath-held silence as a plume of dust rose up from the road beyond the bridge. Adal noted that the soldiers at the guard tower hadn’t raised the drawbridge yet, which meant whatever was approaching wasn’t an enemy army or some monster crawled out of the swamp to drag them back. He checked a glance up toward the castle. Even if he and Torcha legged it, they wouldn’t make the gates in time.

He hoped Gaz had the good sense to put himself somewhere secure. Riss and the others, at least they had the keep to retreat to.

Whatever was happening, he and Torcha would have to face it as they were.

<< Chapter 61 | Chapter 63 >>

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Chapter 61

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.

“Mhm.”

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.

Gaz, though.

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.

<< Chapter 60 | Chapter 62 >>

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Chapter 60

Thrones, Calay’s knuckles ached. And so did his face. When the servants arrived and filled his bath, his first order of business once they’d gone was to snuff every last light and climb into the tub in utter blackness.

He sank into silent, meditative dark, water lapping at his shoulders. The bandages unwound themselves from around his arm; he left them floating there, not giving a shit. Time passed. Who knew how much. His heart gradually slowed. He slouched back into the bath until the waterline neared his nose. As a child, he’d sustained a break to the jaw once. That old pain throbbed to the surface now, causing him to grit his teeth.

Footsteps approached his room. The latch creaked, then the door swung inward ever so slightly, a crack of orange light beyond. He might have reached for his pistol, but he knew those footsteps anywhere.

“Thought I might find you here.” A pause. “Didn’t expect the bathtub in complete darkness, though.”

Gaz stepped in without asking permission, his big silhouette blocking out most of the light he let in.

Calay wasn’t sure quite what to say to that. He knew it must look odd. But he didn’t much care what it looked like.

“I stopped by the pub.” Gaz’s expression was only just visible, a furrow to his thoughtful brow. “Heard you caused a scene.”

“And what?” Calay rolled the knuckles of his good hand. “You expect me to be penitent?”

“Nah.” The sound of something scraping. A match flickered, then a lantern glowed to life. Gaz lit the small bedside lamp but left all the others untouched, allowing Calay to retain some measure of his darkness.

He walked over to where the bathtub sat in the middle of the floor, then sagged down beside it, resting his back against the copper. Calay took a moment to look him over. He’d bathed and changed clothes, wearing a loosely-draped shirt with loose sleeves that must have been on loan from the Baron’s estate. He’d shaved both his face and the sides of his head.

“Well aren’t you looking fresh,” Calay said, not disapproving.

“Had to occupy myself somehow while you were off picking fights.”

Irritation scorched through him like a rash. He shifted in the warm water, slouching against the opposite side of the tub with a scowl.

“Yes,” he deadpanned, “how unreasonable of me to feel angry after losing my arm. Poor form, I know.”

Gaz clunked two knuckles to the tub. Calay couldn’t see his face from his newfound slouch, and maybe that was for the best. He could somehow hear the eyeroll, though.

Grabbing up one of his little cakes of soap, Calay started to scrub it through his hair, lathering up one-handed.

“Why are you even here?”

“Wanted to make sure you hadn’t had your face bashed in.”

He had to fight the urge to keep his right arm submerged, twenty-eight years of muscle memory informing him that washing one’s hair took two hands.

“You and I both know there isn’t a single peasant in this rat-spit town who could get one over on me.”

“I’m aware.” There was an undercurrent of something to Gaz’s voice, something he couldn’t quite pinpoint.

“So what then?” Some dim corner of his mind was aware that needling like this was cruel, unnecessary. But spite was a tempting vice.

“I’m not worried some yam-digger is going to whoop your ass. I’m worried about how you stormed outta here, got blasted drunk, picked a fight with one arm, and are now taking a bath in the dark. After how careful we’ve been to keep our heads down…”

Below the water’s surface, his bladed hand clenched. He felt a shift, a crack beneath the surface of the bark. Felt claws tickling at their sheaths for any excuse, any reason whatsoever. Thrones, he was tired. He didn’t have it in him for anger. Not anymore.

Stiffly, he cupped water over his hair, washing away the soap.

“Well I won’t do it again, if that’s what you’re so concerned about,” he spat. “Your cover is safe.”

“You make it hard to look out for you sometimes.”

“I don’t recall asking you to.”

Every time he spoke, Gaz was getting quieter. “You’re doing a hell of a job of minding yourself if that shiner is any indication.”

Finally, a little spark of that fury seized him so hard he couldn’t stand it. He smashed his taloned hand against the copper and it rang like a gong, the strength behind the blow unearthly. Gaz flinched and sat up, glancing over his shoulder like he trusted the structural integrity of the bathtub no longer.

“What would you have me do?” Calay hissed. “What the fuck expectation of yours am I failing to meet? I lost an arm, Gaz. I got sucked into that tree and I felt every person who’d ever died in it. I felt it when Torcha blew the grove to shit. I felt–I felt–”

A wrench and twist and pop of ligaments and joints, roiling nausea, terror so profound it whited out the rest of the world–

I felt you do it, Gaz. I felt you rip my arm off. I felt it through you. How bad it fucked you up. I’ve been outside myself and inside myself and I don’t know whose horror is whose anymore.

Swallowing, he picked up the pieces of that sentence before it could careen down a deep, maudlin hole.

“I can’t even shave,” he laughed instead. “Can’t hold the razor right all cuddywift. Tore the button-holes on my trousers after taking a piss.”

Gaz tactfully sidestepped everything that came before that.

“So let me,” he said. “How hard can it be to shave someone else’s face? Ain’t cut off my own nose yet.” A pause. “You’re on your own with the pissing, though.”

Gaz dragged the lantern along the floor, then rose up. He returned a moment later with Calay’s satchel, dropping it onto the floor and digging through it. Calay watched him, brows knit.

“Hey,” he said. “I got private stuff in there.”

Eventually locating it, Gaz withdrew a leather-wrapped toiletries kit and unfurled it. He sorted through it and extracted the razor, touching at the blade and letting out an appreciative grunt.

Calay sat up slowly in the tub, draping his good arm over the rounded lip of it. He rested his chin atop his knuckles.

“You’re actually going to do this,” he said.

“I have this theory that if you look less like shit you’ll behave like less of a shit.”

He wasn’t about to sass a man with a straight-razor in his hand, so he merely flicked a few disdainful drops of water in Gaz’s direction.

“Either lather up your face or pass me the soap, would you?”

Calay wrinkled his face in annoyance. “I’m not an infant,” he said. “I can lather my own damn face.”

He reached down and snatched the brush from the shaving kit, then sought his forgotten bar of soap. Cupping it in the palm of his ruined hand, he was able to work up a frothy lather just the same as if he’d had a human palm. He lathered up his cheeks, then his jaw, sniffing. The soap had an evergreen tickle to it.

“How should I sit?” he asked. I guess I’m fully committed to this idiocy.

“Beats me.” Gaz searched a look around the room. “I told you I’ve never done it before.”

Gaz shoved up again, then returned a moment later with a short footstool. He plopped himself down upon it and stretched out the leather strop over his knee. He certainly looked like he knew what he was doing.

“Chin up,” he said, and Calay scooted forward as best he could, angling his face upward. Looking at the ceiling in the murky lampglow had an oddly soothing effect. He let his eyes relax into the woodgrain.

Fingers grabbed him by the chin. Calay flinched back, his momentary relaxation evaporated in an instant.

“Whoa there.” Gaz gave him a look.

Sniffing again, Calay cleared his throat. “You could have warned me.” He felt childishly defensive. Hadn’t been aware his reflexes were so twitchy. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m not used to being grabbed by the face.”

“Yeah, well,” Gaz leaned forward, gesturing for him to sit back up again. “Comes with the territory. Sorry.”

Squinting his eyes closed, Calay gestured. On with it.

This time, when Gaz took him by the chin, he stayed still. He felt rough-textured fingers prodding at his cheek a moment, then retracting. Gaz thumbed near his right eye-socket, then rested the blade against his skin. That sensation sent all kinds of horrible itches through Calay’s fingertips. Never in his entire life had he let someone hold a blade to his face. It felt like trying to breathe underwater, wholly wrong on every possibly level. He’d have had better luck telling his body to swim open-mouthed through Vasile’s Grand Canal.

“I know this’ll be tough for you,” Gaz said as he started to rasp the razor down, “but try not to talk.”

Calay didn’t dignify that with a response. He sat immobile as instructed, trying to will away the alarms ringing at the base of his skull. It’s Gaz, he told his nerves. But regardless of who the hand belonged to, it was still a hand holding him by the head while someone scraped a razor down his face. He tried to divert his thoughts off toward something calming, something pleasant. He ran through the preparations of an herbal poultice in his mind, reciting ingredients.

Gilea sap. Dartweed leaves. Blackgrass boiled in water and reduced to paste. A spread of honey over the wound before application. He pictured the preparations in his mind’s eye: the mortar, the pestle, the honey dipper.

Soon, he’d relaxed however much he could. Gaz dragged the blade down his cheek, shaving with the grain, hands commendably gentle. He steered Calay’s chin side to side with his fingers; Calay let him.

Gradually, at some point he couldn’t determine, the sensations themselves became the source of his relaxation rather than his medicinal meditations. His shoulders loosened. He puffed out a long-held sigh. Gaz’s fingertips were point of cool contrast against his bath-flushed face.

“See, there we are.” Gaz sounded like he approved of this turn of events. “Isn’t going to kill you.”

Squinting his eyes open, Calay peered obliquely toward the razor that hovered near his lip and hmphed.

“Chin up,” Gaz instructed. “Let me get your neck.”

That reluctance crept back in. “I’m sure it’s fine,” he said. But Gaz had a way about him. He could persuade with a look where Calay took hours to argue the same point. He did as instructed and further lifted his chin.

Like a sawbones seeking a pulse, Gaz put a hand to the side of his neck. That sent a twitch through the fingers of his good hand. Gaz dug his thumb in a little, drawing the skin of his throat taut, and his fingers curled around against his nape and wait, wow, wait–

“Shit, sorry, you okay?”

Calay swallowed dryly. “Uhm?”

“You flinched. I thought I nicked you.”

Blinking hard, Calay opened his mouth and gulped in air like a fish on land. He hadn’t noticed, but Gaz was right–he’d tensed up. He was clutching the lip of the bathtub so hard the pads of his fingers hurt.

“Nah,” he said.

“Well settle down, then. Almost done.” Gaz slid the razor over the strop, then reached for him again.

This time, when Calay felt a hand at the back of his neck, he tried to take a mental step back. Tried to obtain some distance from himself. But he found he couldn’t. Every little scrape of razor and brush of fingertips shushed his thinking brain into submission.

This feels nice, he thought. Nice like laying on a road: all warm and strangely appealing, but a terrible idea and not a habit to grow accustomed to. But Gaz had nice hands. Big hands. Warm hands. He found himself struggling to string together words any longer than four letters. Everything was big and nice and warm and now.

Then the hands were gone, and Calay was extremely disappointed. Gaz dipped a cloth into the lukewarm water, then dabbed the rest of the lather off his cheeks. Calay watched him with wide, owlish eyes, tracking his hands with interest.

“How’s it feel? Miss anything?” he asked, shamelessly angling for a little bit more of that… whatever it was.

Gaz hiked up an eyebrow but then relented, dragging the back of a knuckle along Calay’s cheek to check for rough spots. But it wasn’t quite the same. It wasn’t quite good enough. Calay turned his head sideways and nuzzled his whole face into Gaz’s palm the way a hound might greet its keeper.

“You’re in a mood,” Gaz said, his voice unreadable. But he didn’t draw his hand away.

Calay reached up, grabbed him by the wrist. He moved like a man in a knife fight, on blind instinct and proprioception. With a demanding jerk of his arm, he pulled Gaz forward over the bathtub, splashing water all up the front of his clean new shirt. Calay’s brain had approximately half the time necessary to formulate a thought of I want this, yes, okay before the rest of him was acting more or less without his brain’s permission. He surged up and crushed his mouth to Gaz’s, steadying himself on his claws to prop them both up.

Gaz faltered but didn’t quite fall in. He stuttered out a halting grunt of surprise against Calay’s lips. But then he slid a hand around the back of Calay’s head, fingers threading through his damp hair.

Calay heard the razor clatter to the floor. It sounded a thousand miles away.

Strictly physically, kissing Gaz felt just about how one would expect kissing Gaz to feel. His mouth was broad, his lips were chapped. But there was a certain cozy familiarity to it somehow, despite the fact that they’d never kissed before. It felt like walking down a long road to a familiar destination. Gods, he hadn’t kissed anyone in a while. He’d forgotten all the little ways in which it was pleasant.

Gaz kept his fingers wound through Calay’s hair, then snaked his other arm around behind, half-holding Calay upright. Calay relinquished his wrist and relaxed into his grip. Might as well let the one with two fully functional arms do all the heavy lifting.

When their mouths finally parted, Gaz exhaled hard. His basso grumble came out a little breathless.

“Are you…” he started to say. But Calay shushed him, putting a finger to his mouth.

“Unless you’re speaking up because you absolutely don’t wanna do this, can we…. not?”

“Not what?”

He dragged his thumb along the seam of Gaz’s lips. “Talk.”

This time it was Gaz who swallowed dryly. Calay heard his throat click.

“There is one thing we’ve got to work out.” Gaz grazed a knuckle over the ridges of his lumbar spine. He shivered. “Am I climbing in there with you or are you climbing out?”

Calay looped his arm around Gaz’s neck by way of an answer, standing only half under his own power. Their feet tangled as Gaz half-walked half-carried him across the chamber, leaving a trail of sodden footprints on the cool stone floor toward the bed. Deprived now of the warmth of the water, Calay was quick to burrow into the bedcovers. He pulled Gaz down atop him, unwilling and unable to stop now, trailing kisses up the underside of his jaw. He bunched handfuls of Gaz’s shirt, enjoying the way his shoulders moved beneath it, then–

A hiss of pain in his ear.

In his excitement, Calay had grabbed Gaz’s back with both hands. He’d raked Gaz’s shoulder with the bone-shard tips of his bad hand’s fingers, each sharp as a filleting knife. Chastened, he released his grip and let the claws fall to the mattress.

“Shit, shit shit shit, I didn’t mean to–”

Gaz wrapped one big hand around his right hand’s wrist, leaning down against him with a calming, claiming pressure that Calay found particularly enjoyable.

“Shh. You said no talking, remember?”

Calay shut up.

<< Chapter 59 | Chapter 61 >>

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Chapter 59

It was over.

It was finished.

Riss was running out of synonyms.

Freshly bathed and clad in a borrowed tunic and soft leggings, Riss perched on the edge of her big, stupid bed. She ran her fingers through the soft wool of one of the sheepskins piled upon it, combing idly. The mattress would have taken up half the floor space in her childhood cottage. It was just stupid big. She laughed as she petted it.

Harlan Vosk was sequestered, grey and silent, in the castle dungeons. Adal and Torcha were safe, warming by the hearths in their respective rooms, all three of them returned to a place where walls were secure and mattresses were stupid-big and blankets were soft and food was plentiful.

Tarn would return shortly. She’d brief him on their expedition. She’d pass on her sincere apologies that the news about his son wasn’t good. And then they’d watch the man responsible hang by the neck until he died.

Other spectres crowded in the rear of her mind, of course: what of the sorcerer and his friend? What of the magick that corrupted her body? And what exactly came after all this?

But she found that even when she tried, she simply could not force herself to give a shit about all of that now. For now, peace settled on her like freshly-fallen snow. When she breathed in deep, she swore she could almost smell it: a clean, fresh scent. Sunlight baking fresh rain off stone. Drying laundry.

A knock at the door jarred her out of her thoughts.

“Come in,” she hollered.

When Adal stepped in, she wasn’t surprised. An easy smile lifted her mouth. Any lingering anger she’d felt toward him simply wasn’t worth clinging to, not anymore.

He too had bathed, and now he wore a set of his own civilian clothes: an open-chested linen shirt and fine black trousers. Riss was dressed like a stablehand by comparison. She barked a laugh when that thought came to mind, and Adal laughed too, whether he understood why or not.

“I had one of Tarn’s men fetch our things from the inn,” he said. “In case you were missing your own woollies.”

Riss stretched her arms overhead, the billowy sleeves swooping with the motion, and then fell back onto her back on the mattress with a soft fwump.

“I could not care less,” she said. “I’m reveling in being clean even if I’m dressed like I should be offering to brush your horses.”

Adal grabbed the chair from the desk and dragged it over, spinning it to face her. He sank down into it with a relaxed sigh, then lifted his left hand to reveal what it carried: a long-necked bottle crafted of glimmering, translucent brown glass.

“I don’t know about you,” he said. “But I think a toast is in order.”

Outside the watchful eyes of their company, relieved of the burden of command and all the reputation that implied, Riss did not sit up. Instead, she oozed over to the side of the bed, dangling her head over the edge of the mattress. She stared at Adal upside-down, her hair a dark curtain that dangled nearly to the floor. When she let her arms drape down, her knuckles brushed the rug.

“Toasts can wait for the wake,” she said.

Adal tilted his chin to one side, observing her.

She expected him to make some crack about how ridiculous she looked. To chide her for her immaturity or at least get in a dig about how it was good to see her let her hair down, literally.

Instead, he merely watched her for a moment, and the edges of his eyes tightened in that funnily identical way that sometimes foretold a smile and sometimes foretold tears.

“What?” She flicked her knuckles at him, impetuous.

“I missed this you,” he said, his voice muted with gratitude.

That surprised her. Shoulders twitching a little, she sat up just enough to stall the flow of blood to her face.

“I’m the same me I’ve always been,” she said, but even as she said it, that felt like a load of crap.

“You’re relaxed,” he said. “Really relaxed.”

He didn’t say the rest of it, but she heard it in her mind anyhow. He meant she was relaxed in a way she hadn’t been since Gaspard died. And it was the truth. At some point, when Riss wasn’t looking, the heavy shackles of her grief had fallen off her ankles. Or perhaps she’d simply stepped out of them.

She could still conjure the old hurt when she consciously thought his name, of course. She imagined she always would. But that quiet fresh-snow feeling, the cool calming peace like sips of minty tea, that was a sensation she hadn’t felt since losing him. Somehow, she smelled pine trees. The scent of needles in frosty air.

The snow had fallen. And when it melted, she’d discovered something. He was still dead. Nothing was ever going to fix that. But the parts of herself she’d thought she’d buried with him, they weren’t gone.

She put out a hand toward Adal, sitting up some.

“Actually,” she said. “Fuck it. How about that toast, Second.”

He twisted the stopper free of the bottle and gave the contents a sniff.

“Hum.” He swirled the dark liquid inside the bottle, then looked back to Riss. “I swear I had something quite poetic and profound for this. But it’s slipped through my mind and out my ear.”

Riss smirked and tapped a finger to her chin, waiting.

“To getting through,” he finally said. “And getting out.”

He passed the bottle to her first, those six words apparently enough.

There wasn’t much else to say beyond that. The bottle’s contents turned out to be a rich, complexly-flavored Talvace brandy. They passed it back and forth. Soon they were laughing, snorting, recounting old anecdotes from years that had previously been too painful to revisit.

Torcha found them like that, laughing uncontrollably, a half-hour later. She trudged into the room without knocking, wearing a night-shift that fell to her skinny ankles.

“You two fixing to raise the dead in the family crypt?” she groused, palming at her face. Her hair was unbound now, a crazy bird’s nest of tangles around her cheeks.

Adal cleared his throat. He’d been in the process of relating to Riss a story about some moron lieutenant who’d crashed a war-wagon down a ravine.

“Hey.” Riss objected with a wave of her hand. “Hold up. He wasn’t done yet.”

Torcha marched up to Riss’ bed, her flat feet thumping, and then sat down at the foot of it.

“Yeah, Adal,” she drawled. “By all means.”

So Adal started over from the beginning. He passed the brandy down so Torcha could have a swig, and she in turn passed it back up to Riss. They traded wartime escapades, wry observations, and increasingly giddy laughter.

Riss wasn’t even that drunk. Sure, a pleasant warmth buzzed through her veins, but it was more the cathartic act of cutting loose that had her laughing like a child.  

The conversation did one of those funny things: everyone’s laughter all sort of petered out at once, like all three of them were responding to some subtle cue. Riss glanced toward the door, used the moment of silence to listen for any sounds down the hall. The thick walls kept their secrets. The silence revealed nothing.

“Hey.” Adal cleared his throat.

“‘Hey?’” she echoed. “You are drunk.”

Adal let that roll off his back. He stretched out his arms, slouching further forward, his chest to the back of the chair.

“At any rate. I was going to say… just leave it. Leave it for one night. We’ll figure out what to do with them in the morning.”

“Them?” Riss knew who he meant the second she said it.

“I thought you were considering checking in on our guests from the north,” said Adal.

Riss hadn’t consciously planned to be. But perhaps if she’d heard something. Or perhaps she’d done it out of habit, used to her headcount. Whether that had been some subconscious intent or not, Adal was right. She could leave it for a night.

Torcha spoke up before Riss could reply. “They don’t mean us any harm.”

Adal and Riss both glanced at her sidelong. She currently had the bottle in-hand. She gestured with it, hand visibly wobbly.

“I felt it. Y’know. When Geetsha’s people tinkered with our brains. Couldn’t really describe it at the time. Or now. Not in a way that makes sense. But either way. Calay and Gaz, they ain’t gonna fuck us over unless we fuck them first.”

Tinkered with our brains. Riss slid her tongue over her teeth. She was either far too drunk for this or nowhere near drunk enough.

“You reckon you know this for sure?” Riss entertained her for now.

“I do.” Torcha’s expression changed subtly: her mouth and eyes drew further closed, like her features themselves were withdrawing under scrutiny. Her voice grew quieter. “The Collective, Geetsha’s folk. When they touch you, you see things. I saw things, but not like shit-that-wasn’t-real things. I saw… it was like I dreamed some dreams through their eyes.”

“And their dreams told you that they’re… what, good fellows deep down?” Adal sounded skeptical. Riss couldn’t blame him.

“Nah, nah.” Torcha shook her head and brushed a sloppy red curl from her eyes. “Not their dreams. It felt like a dream to me, but I’m pretty sure what I saw was just their lives. Shit they’d been through.”

She took another swig from the bottle, then passed it back to Riss.

Summarily, as if she were stating a fact about the weather, or informing Riss that dirt was brown, she said, “All those two care about is gettin’ through the next day and makin’ sure the other one doesn’t die. If we let ‘em be, we’ll probably never see ‘em again.”

Torcha made it sound so simple. Riss took the bottle and swigged deeply. The way she’d phrased it–all they care about is getting through the next day–struck a familiar place in Riss’ heart. Gods knew she’d felt that way more than she cared to admit. All the crazy bullshit about feeling their feelings and living their memories aside, Torcha seemed serious. The girl didn’t always have the calmest head or the most sensible judgment, but Riss trusted Torcha to never lie to her. Whatever weird shit she was saying, she believed it to be true.

“Well,” said Riss, passing the bottle to Adal. “I promised not to betray them.” Like every single person in the room wasn’t aware she’d been considering doing it anyway, promise or not.

Adal had fallen strangely quiet. Drunk Adal normally spoke even more than sober Adal, but he’d lapsed into thoughtful silence, sipping and watching them.

“What’s your read on all this, Second?” Riss asked.

Again, Adal’s silence was pointed. He tapped his finger against the neck of the bottle, a quiet little rhythm, then finally answered. “The more I think on it, the more I think Torcha’s right.”

He seemed nervous, but Riss wasn’t going to chase him for the reason. They were all coming down off their various nerves; perhaps he just needed to smoke something potent and sleep for a week.

It was so strange, the idea of doing what Torcha suggested: just going about her business like she’d never learned the truth of Calay’s nature. Was it possible to simply step back into everyday life once you’d met a sorcerer? Once your body had been knit back together, dragged back from the brink? Was it possible to return to her old routines knowing such beings still existed, that history wasn’t quite so far in the past as she’d believed?

Tarn had Vosk to blame. He’d have the truth of what had happened to Lukra. Would keeping a teensy card or two to her chest really count as betraying his trust?

“Suppose we can see what they plan on doing,” she said. “If they plan on moving on… no reason we can’t just let them move on.”

To say nothing of the new, tangible awareness that bit in like a pebble in the bottom of her boot: now that she’d seen the whole of what Calay was capable of, who the hells was she to fuck with him? They all saw what he’d done to Vosk.

“Tarn would gut us. If he knew we knowingly let a sorcerer sleep in his home, he’d hang us by our own entrails.” She had to say it. Had to have some token objection on the record.

Incongruously, Adal cracked up laughing. He laughed hard, resting his forehead to the back of the chair, and then wheezed out a snicker as he tried to contain himself.

“Oh for Loth’s sake,” he laughed. “You say that like we didn’t spend an entire war sneaking around doing shit our commanders would have gutted us for. Like ‘Tarn would kill us for this!’ isn’t the second most common combination of words to ever fall out of your mouth.”

Riss couldn’t help but catch his laughter. She lurched forward and grabbed for the brandy bottle, swinging her arm out. He let her catch it.

“Fuck off,” she said quickly, around a grin. She yanked the bottle from Adal’s hand. “Wait, what was the first?”

In the same instant, Adal and Torcha both put a finger to their mouths and went shhh. Riss glanced between them, squinting.

“Forgive me for wanting our recon unit to be quiet in the field,” she muttered.

She took a deep swig from the brandy. It had a note of dried apricot in it, somewhere deep down, and the drunker she got the more she liked it.

“Tell you what,” Torcha said. “It’s almost like Gaspard never left us. You transformed into an old man before our very eyes.”

And wouldn’t you know it, Riss laughed. It still stung a little, in a far-off way, but she laughed.

<< Chapter 58 | Chapter 60 >>

If you’ve enjoyed the read, we’d love a vote on TopWebFiction. Thanks!

Author Update – New Discord server, upcoming prequel serial, and some fantastic art

Hi, guys! A couple people have commented asking if I’d be keen to start a Discord server. That’s a thing that never occurred to me before, but why not? You can now join the Into the Mire Discord here.

As promised in the one year anniversary post, I’ve got a lot of neat stuff lined up for the coming months. I’m especially excited to announce that Patreon subscribers on any level will soon have access to early drafts of a prequel serial featuring Gaz and Calay’s adventures in Vasile. This will roll out in May, so if you aren’t subscribed now and want to be, you’ve got plenty of time.

I’m very passionate about not locking content behind a paywall forever though, so if money is tight, don’t worry–everything posted on the Patreon will be public eventually. I just want to reward my supporters by letting them read my terrible early drafts. Seems more like a punishment than a reward, doesn’t it?

Lastly, I want to show off this amazing fanart done by cynthpop over on tumblr! I am blown away by her interpretations of Gaz and Calay, and since I’m already talking about their prequel book, it seemed like an appropriate time to show these off. 😀

 
 

Thanks so much for the fanart, wonderful comments, emails, and just being a reader for all this time. Every morning I wake up and find these things in my inbox it brings a smile to my face. I hope you all stick around after Book 1 wraps up and we start to swing into the real crazy shit next adventure!

Chapter 58

Calay’s hackles rose as he stepped into the vaulted hall of the castle. Though the reddish blocks that comprised it resembled nothing of the cold, ancient grey of the Vasa dungeons, the walls evoked a similar sensation. Thick, insulating. The type of walls designed to keep a man in or keep his screams contained. He kept his ruined arm tucked carefully within the folds of his duster as the attendant led them to their rooms.

Riss and Adal disappeared into theirs almost immediately. Torcha started some sort of scuffle with one of the servants.

Cracking the door of his room, Calay surveyed it from the hall. His stomach had that leaden quality to it, the way it felt when he was certain he was walking into a trap. Was there something to be wary of here–beside the usual? Was he picking up on some subconscious warning, or had the swamp gotten his reflexes all haywire?

He stepped into his room long enough to survey the furnishings. Timber bed. Wardrobe. Shelves. Wash basin. Low dresser. A high-arched window that overlooked the courtyard. The room was by no means a cell, but once he was inside it felt like one.

The basin was empty, but he couldn’t stand the thought of waiting for the Baron’s servants to draw a bath. So he emptied his canteen and waterskin inside. Shallow, but enough. Beside the basin sat a couple folded towels and small pressed bars of soap, a pattern of creeping ivy embossed upon their surface. He made a mental note to nick those later. Soap like that was expensive, good for barter on the road.

He wet a cloth and scrubbed at his face, awkwardly grasping with both hands before he remembered to keep his right hand clear of his eyes. The sharp, malignant growths that jutted from his arm now resembled more or less a hand, though with spikes of bark upon the knuckles and blades of fresh white bone where fingers should have been. He stared at it dumbly for a moment.

That thing was going to be attached to him for the rest of his life?

It was awkward, working up a lather with his one good hand, but he managed it. He washed his face, scrubbed the flakes of blood from his neck. By the time he’d finished drying his face, Gaz was standing in the doorway to his chambers.

Calay looked to him in the mirror’s reflection, eyebrows lifting. “Yes?”

Gaz lifted a shallow shrug. “Seeing how you were doing.”

Calay rubbed his jaw with a knuckle, consulting his own reflection. His eyes seemed deeper-set than they’d been just two weeks ago. His brow seemed permanently tensed. Several days of scruff darkened his cheeks and jaw in unkempt patches. He wasn’t sure what to say on the subject of how he was doing.

Sweeping a hand through his hair, he stepped away from the mirror, finding its contents thoroughly depressing.

“I don’t… I don’t think I can stay here, mate.” Fingers dragging down his face, he breathed out hard and tried to shake off those nervous shivers. He hated it when Gaz saw him like this. Better Gaz than the others, but better nobody at all. “I think I’m gonna head back to the bunkhouse.”

Gaz gave a doubtful grunt. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“It’s stifling in here.” Calay looked toward the window, peering through the bubbled, half-opaque glass. “Too much like the cells.”

Lifting a hand, Gaz gestured to his right shoulder, then made a little sweeping movement. “At least in here nobody’s going to be asking you about that. Big risk, sleeping in a public house with that hanging off you.”

Anger sparked in him like when flint struck steel. He ground his jaw. Gaz was right. He knew Gaz was right. As always, he was ever the mindful presence, an eye trained toward their long-term survival.

“What if they mean to hand us over?” he asked. “Or if we draw suspicion?”

Gaz levelled a look at him. Calay got the distinct impression that he wasn’t buying any of that bullshit.

“If that was the case, the bunkhouse wouldn’t be safe. Baron Tarn owns this whole town. If his people come after us, you won’t be any safer at the pub.”

Calay knew that too. But he couldn’t just relent. Couldn’t relent. The slow-stirring restlessness in his body was building like steam in a kettle. He was the boy who’d dragged himself to Alfend Linten’s doorstep again and again, each time more broken than the last, because he did not know when to lie down and admit enough was enough.

“Fine,” he spat. “I’ll sleep here. But I won’t relax here.” He heaved his satchel up, slung it over his shoulder. Adjusting the strap so that it pinned his ruined arm to his chest, he carefully straightened the drape of his duster. “I’m going out for a drink.”

“Dressed like that?” Gaz hadn’t budged from the doorway, intent on making an obstacle of himself.

Calay glanced himself over. Caked-on mud and flaking gore and strange-smelling ichors had become the new normal. He looked like shit, but he felt like shit so surely there wasn’t anything wrong.

“Here.” Gaz’s voice was gentle. He stepped in and held out a hand. “Let me.”

He wanted to object. Wanted to give the man a fight. But he was being sensible again. Even if the peasants never saw a glimpse of his arm, his appearance alone would warrant questions. Obediently, he stayed put while Gaz lifted the strap of his satchel off, then eased the duster down off his shoulders. He felt lighter without it, but also exposed.

Gaz sorted through his bag and found a shirt that was marginally less filthy. He tossed it to Calay, who caught it against his chest. He changed, then sat still as Gaz unpacked some lengths of bandage from the satchel and wrapped his right arm up and out of sight. He couldn’t help but notice Gaz was careful not to touch it, mindful of the bark, securing it away from view. They fashioned a simple sling out of some rags, and Calay adjusted it around his neck, trying it out.

“There.” Gaz seemed content enough with his work. “Now you’re just an old soldier returned from the road, with all the same wounds all the other ones got.”

Calay thinned his lips, not thrilled with that description. “Good idea,” he said. “Thanks.”

“I still think a bath would be helpful, especially before hitting the town.”

“I think I’ll take mine just before bed,” Calay said. “I like the idea of falling asleep clean.”

Which was true, but it wasn’t the whole story. He wanted nothing to do with his arm at the moment. Or his sunken, tired face. He felt unfamiliar in his own skin. He didn’t want to look at himself.

A knock came from the other side of the door. One of the Baron’s servants informed them the water was ready. Gaz cast a questioning look to the door, then back to Calay.

“I’ll be all right.” Calay squared his shoulders, snapping up his coinpurse from his bag. “You enjoy your bath. You’ve earned it. I’m sure you’ll find me.”

Visible hesitation pinned Gaz to the doorway for a moment, his hand lingering on the frame. But he nodded and slipped off, too enchanted by the prospect of a hot bath to argue. Calay couldn’t blame him. On another day, were horrifying things not growing out of his body, he’d have shared the sentiment.

Instead he took leave of the Baron’s big, expensive jail and strolled down the hill, intent on obliterating himself.

###

The village that held it may have been a speck on the map, but Adelheim’s public house was a structure Calay approved of. It looked older than the rest of the buildings, he reckoned. Its hearthstones were dark grey, and much of the clay was too, unlike the red stuff that composed most of the recent construction. That was life, wasn’t it. Layering new crap atop old ruins.

He was on his second drink and already navel-gazing about the architecture. Boy, the local spirits didn’t kid around. Alongside the usual ales and ports and a rancid-smelling cider, the pub served a sweet potato vodka that Calay found agreeable. It went down butter-smooth with a hint of lingering sweetness, very little burn.

Slouched at the bar, he immersed himself in the sound of background noise. Human chitchat, the crackle in the hearth, dice rattling on a back table, glasses thunking onto wooden tables. After so long in that dreary, silent swamp, this was what he needed: the everyday mundane noise of humans existing as a crowd. A reminder that the world was still out there, waiting for him to step back into it.

Sometimes, on the road, it was easy to forget that. Vasile felt far away, and with it the crew they’d lost. Sylvene, Nesdin, Karcey. He wondered if they’d found a new normal yet. If they’d achieved a new business-as-usual in his absence. He hoped so.

“Another one of these, my good man,” he said, sliding his cup across. The barkeep snatched a bottle off a high shelf and topped him up.

Calay felt eyes on him. He rolled his shoulders, peering down the length of the bar. He had empty stools to either side, but a few stools down, a big grizzled man in dingy wool was giving him the shit-eye.

Tilting his chin, Calay sipped from his refill, making pointed eye contact with the stranger. At first, his mind leapt in paranoid directions: bounty hunter? Agent of the Leycenate? But he didn’t look either type. Too ill-equipped. Too old.

“Problem, pal?” Normally he’d keep his head down, try to maintain a low profile. But that prowling restlessness itching in his gut was getting tempting.

“Interesting accent you’ve got,” said the old-timer, still staring. And ah, was that all it was. Geographical post-war cock-waving.

“Boy,” he said, “nothing gets past you, does it.”

The old man drowned his tankard, then sniffed, regarding Calay through bloodshot eyes.

“Big words from a little man with a broken arm.”

So that was how it was going to be, then. Calay too downed his drink, which burned when gulped so quickly. He slammed it down on the bar and swivelled to face the ornery peasant with a sharp, eager grin.

“Yeah, if I broke the other it might be a fair fight.”

Shooting up to his feet, the old-timer almost knocked his stool sideways. He rolled up the cuffs of his dirty undershirt, taking a menacing step forward. The barkeep said something in a pleading tone, but Calay didn’t hear it. He was spoiling for a fight and a bit of collateral damage wasn’t about to stop him.

The old man had burly, bearlike shoulders, and he swung a massive fist straight for Calay’s face. Feinting back, Calay evaded the slow strike easily, though he stumbled a bit and had to re-orient his feet. He was drunker than he thought. It was a quick adjustment, though.

Spinning back to face him, the old man hunched down, readying himself. Calay leaned his weight in through his toes, beckoning him forward. Eager murmurs rose up from the crowd. A couple patrons slunk off, not wanting to get involved, but those seated at their tables straightened up for a better view.

Calay was gonna give ‘em a show, all right. He flexed the fingers of his good hand, mindful not to move his bad arm beneath the bandages.

When the old man charged, Calay leapt in to meet him this time. He watched for the telltale twitch of muscle, the betrayal of the strike as telegraphed by the shoulders. Kella had taught him to always watch the shoulders and the feet, and while he couldn’t say the Captain of the House Talvace guard was a career bar-brawler, surely the principles were the same.

A fist sailed past his face. Calay leapt in and drove his fist into the old man’s stomach, connecting solidly. He couldn’t quite peel back as quick as he wanted, though, and took a glancing blow on the temple for his trouble.

It felt great, though. He felt like a kettle at full boil. Something had to release all that steam.

The backs of his calves bumped up against the overturned barstool. He glanced down for a moment, had to duck another swipe. Gods, the oldster was almost out of breath already. Calay had hoped it would all last a little longer.

With a whoop and a howl that was more excited than it was aggressive, he threw himself at the man in earnest. He jabbed with his left hand, missed, but connected with his elbow on the way back. Crowding his opponent up against the bar, Calay drew back and aimed an uppercut at his chin. He was just a little too slow though, all that sweet potato softening his edge. He leaned too far forward, fell, and was rewarded with a strange and splintering crash that exploded against the side of his face.

A moment after the sound exploded, pain exploded also, flaring up his face and momentarily blanking his vision. He felt frothy beer trickling down his hair and jacket. Touched his face, felt blood. When his eyes refocused, he caught the guilty party: the barkeep himself, still clutching the handle of the mug he’d shattered on Calay’s face.

“That’s hardly fair–” he started to say, but then the old man was on him, grabbing him by the back of his neck. He tried to haul Calay back, but Calay spun and wriggled free of his grasp.

He slugged the old man straight in the nose, felt it give beneath his hand with a satisfying crunch. Then a roar rose up from the crowd, who pressed in closer now, and a whole other fist belonging to some whole other bloke collided with his eye. Gasping, Calay staggered back, clutching his face in one hand.

“Fucksake,” he growled through his fingers.

When he lifted his head, the lamplight trailed funny little streaks. He blinked hard, couldn’t quite focus. It was more than just the vodka this time.

He only just noticed that he’d knocked the old man to the floor, where he was currently propped up in the arms of a much younger man who tended his gushing nose with a rag.

Calay’s pulse throbbed in his ears. He wanted to dive back in, wanted to keep going, wanted to tear through this pack of fuckers like a bullet through a deer. But when he clenched his fist anew, he hesitated.

“I reckon that’s enough,” said a voice at his back. “You’ve made your point.”

Calay glanced over his shoulder without turning all the way around. He wasn’t surprised by the presence of the pistol in the barkeep’s hand. His eyes lingered on the barrel for a moment. He recalled how badly it had gone the last time someone had aimed one of those on him at gut level.

Shoulders stiffening, Calay raised his good hand and stepped away from the bar.

“He started it,” he couldn’t help but say as he stepped over the toppled barstool and out toward the door.

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