Calay’s final year in Vasile had been one of exuberant highs and disastrous lows. Before he’d fled the city in the aftermath of his own would-be execution, he’d been a valued contractor of the Landed House Talvace, taken under Lady Rovelenne’s wing and fluttered through the vaulted halls of their Estate, their vineyard, even the city’s Leycenate House, where laws were ratified and kids from Blackbricks rarely got to tread.
Talvace was the city’s penultimate Landed family, second in wealth and power only to Ambarro. In a city that stressed egalitarianism, that promised its subjects they had no kings, where thrones was a curse for a reason, Rovelenne Talvace’s word had still carried royal weight.
But before all that, before the veil had been pulled from his eyes, before he’d been kicked to the curb, paid the thieves’ toll with so many of his own fragile tendons, Calay had been a believer. He hadn’t trusted Lady Rovelenne as closely as he trusted, say, Gaz. Didn’t trust her with his life like he did Sylvene. But he’d gotten all wrapped up in her legend. Gotten swept away on the swell of her knowledge of history and procedure, which seemed infinite. He’d gotten carried away on the currents of his own daydreams about what doors she could open.
And before he’d been a believer, he’d been a guest. Lady Rovelenne had invited him into her personal retinue for a day, asked if he wanted to see the halls of the Leycenate, where the Landed and the Common both worked together to regulate the swaggering economic juggernaut that was Vasile during wartime.
Vasile’s Leycenate House loomed prominently in the city skyline. Its ancient grey stones were each half Calay’s height, a foundation so solid that all the earthquakes and all the great waves and all the coastal storms that had ravaged the city over the centuries had barely even discolored it. Moss eked out a tenuous existence in the grout, but even it was dutifully scraped away by city workers when it dared poke its fuzzy head out where Landed eyes might see.
Inside, the building smelled of old stone and ghostly wakes of perfume left behind when prominent citizens passed through. Its high windows let in diffuse, mist-muted sunlight, each frame a tall archway with a little peak on top.
Though its lines were elegant and every facet of its decor–thick carpets, runners on the stairs, sparse white marble patterned with slate across the floors–was built to last, the building didn’t radiate wealth like Calay expected it might. Apart from the city insignia tiled over the doorways and impressed in relief beneath the light sconces, there was little distinguishing it as a civic building. It might have been a monastery for some well-heeled anonymous cult. A union hall. It was austere, an ageing yet venerable eagle perched by the side of the road.
This was intentional, Lady Rovelenne explained when he voiced these thoughts.
Leycenate House was the building where the Landed worked for the good of the people. If the city splashed out heaps of australs on gilt and stained glass, that wouldn’t be a responsible use of public funds now, would it? Responsible use of public funds was a phrase oft on the lips of the Landed since Anvey Rill’s riots.
On the second floor, though, there were drawings. Out of all the impressions he took back from his tour of that building, it was the drawings that registered most prominently in his memory. They were en route to House Talvace’s offices, which were up many flights of steps, occupying prime upper floor ground where the heat rose and the ground floor damp couldn’t reach.
By Landed standards, the sketches were simple. Later on, Calay would glimpse colorful works of art at Talvace’s actual properties. But the sketches displayed in the hallways of Leycenate House were the first artistic masterworks he’d ever seen up close. They depicted the story of Vasile’s founding told in serialised panels, each rendered in charcoal on the purest, most crisply white paper Calay had ever seen. Paper that looked like it had been milled by some fae spirits, the grain was so fine.
The first panel depicted a ship at sea, its sails full of wind. Rays of sunlight pierced the high, fluffy clouds that stretched over a frothy, lifelike ocean. Which meant the second panel was of course the shipwreck. Even Blackbricks kids with no formal education knew the story of the Far-Leaper, the first vessel to explore the far northern coast.
The next few panels portrayed a clean, idealized version of the Far-Leaper survivors’ story: washing ashore, gathering debris, building a shelter in the shoreline caves. And then the arrival of the dogs. Their tall, high-eared silhouettes prowled around the survivors at first, sketched in black. It was the dogs, historians said, who protected the settlers from the Things Below, the hard-shelled creeping evil that once kept the Vasa bays to itself. First the dogs were sketched in shadow, then in negative space, a cool-toned white, their color evolving as their status shifted from threat to friend.
The human mind was a funny thing.
In all his anatomical training from Alfend, Calay had never really covered it beyond the basics: how to recognize signs of concussion and dementia and bleeds in the brain. How to wiggle little chips of skull free from a head wound without causing further damage. He knew, though, that there was a line between the brain and the mind. The brain was the spongy stuff inside your skull. When crushed, it snuffed a man’s life out even quicker than a bolt through the heart. But how that lumpy, boiled-cauliflower looking thing worked, how it animated an inert lump of flesh and bone into a person… that was a mystery he was unsure he’d ever know the answer to.
All of that was to say Calay had no earthly idea why he was reminded of the artwork in Leycenate House as he watched the lizard rear, flip the wagon onto its side, and drag it into the ravine.
The human mind was very, very funny.
Rooted into place on the salty ground with the force of his shock, he sprung into motion embarrassingly late. Running flat-out, he dashed through peals of soul-rattling thunder and skidded to a stop near the ravine’s edge. Riss, who’d been on the other side of the galania, arrived at his side a split second later.
In the chaos and noise, it took them both a hesitant moment to agree, eyes roaming in all directions, that Adalgis was not present.
Neither were Torcha and Gaz, because they’d been in the wagon.
It was not until that exact moment, until he thought he words in the wagon that the full implication of that statement punched its way into Calay’s head. He dropped his eyes to the jagged darkness of the ravine. The wagon rested down–far, far down–on the sandy floor, pitched forward at a steep angle amid a halo of shattered wood and glass that fanned out in all directions. Its back wheels turned in a slow, useless wobble, dangling above the ground. All the wreckage was swallowed by shadow.
When lightning next lanced across the sky, Calay used it to survey the ravine floor. His eyes took it in, a brief flash: the lizard’s crushed body, no sign of anything moving.
Riss was saying something. Either the storm muted her or his brain simply didn’t care enough to register the words.
The walls of the ravine were more craggy than sheer, well eroded by wind, riddled with nooks and crannies for a determined climber. His eyes traveled a path down the wall, searching out the more promising handholds, measuring their prominence against the wall–too long, too long, it would simply take too fucking long.
Ducking a hand into the stash pocket inside his coat, he snatched up one of the three precious vials hidden inside. He didn’t dwell on the fact that the rest of his supplies were gods-knew-where in the wreckage. Didn’t dwell on the fact that it might not be prudent to waste blood when there might be two people down below who needed it. His mind touched on those thoughts like a stone skipping across the surface of a lake: barely there, passing through to other, more important places.
He did not have time to climb.
Popping the vial open with his thumb, he tugged the neckline of his shirt open, dashed blood against his skin. His feet were already moving as his fingers sketched the glyphs, symbols he’d memorized from Alfend’s old journals: density, weight, stone.
He flung himself off the edge, hands not quite done yet.
When he fell, he fell quickly. The canyon wall sheered past. He understood why his memories had conjured those images from Vasile: in the flash of lightning, life almost seemed to move as a series of still pictures. Magick sizzled and flickered; his body greedily absorbed the blood and with it the instructions he’d written.
He hit the ground, formed a small crater. But his bones were sturdier now. He stumbled up and out, toward the wreckage, fighting through the wave of dizziness generated from the impact. His skeleton held.
The bottom of the ravine felt too quiet compared to the windy chaos above. The comparably still air, the sand instead of salt, it was like he’d fallen through the crust of the earth and into another world. He jogged toward the wreckage, stepping through the puddled blood of the crushed galania. In a pinch, he could use it. The effects would be weak, growing weaker still as the magickal properties dissipated as it dried, but at that quantity at least he had a lot to work with–
Torcha climbed out the frame of a window, balancing lightly on her feet. She did a double-take when she spotted him, then glanced up toward the ravine’s edge.
“I took a shortcut,” he said. And then: “Where is he?”
“Dunno yet.” Torcha wiped her hair out of her eyes, stepping away from the wreckage. “I’m callin’ for him, but he ain’t…” She took a moment to collect her thoughts. “He was inside when it crashed. Headed for upstairs.”
Well, best make use of the charms he’d put on himself while they were active. He’d been sparing with the blood; the spells wouldn’t last long. Calay stomped up to the shattered wagon, heaved its crooked, leaning door aside, and climbed in. The cargo hold slumped at a high, awkward angle, but from inside, it was evident that the rear of the wagon wasn’t in terrible shape. Unfortunately, the central corridor with all the ladders and hatches to the second floor was buggered. Cursing, Calay peeled planks and overturned furniture out of his way like it weighed nothing. The giddy high he normally felt when the fun kind of magick was coursing through his blood was nowhere to be found.
Thunder grumbled distantly. The storm was whipping past, off to terrorize another patch of salt. Something nagged at him, something he couldn’t quite place, something he would definitely come back to later but it was not a priority now.
Finally, after shoving heaps of debris aside, he found a trapdoor to the second floor. Its frame was warped, squished into a thinned diamond and bowing visibly with the weight of the wagon’s structure atop it. Climbing through that would be stupid; if it collapsed it could slice him in half…
But it was the quickest way up. And he was clever with his hands and careful where to put his feet. He pulled himself up and through, into the listing wooden-walled barracks.
Everything not nailed to the floor had come loose. Chairs, supplies, the contents of their cargo nets, some of the nets themselves, all but the big meeting table which remained bolted down. The barracks looked like it had been hit with one of Anvey Rill’s bombs.
“Gaz?” His voice came out quieter than anticipated, less that of a confident rescuer and more a man cautious of waking a sleeping dragon. He cleared his throat and tried again. Everything was such a mess. He had no idea where to begin looking.
A rough, cough-rattled groan answered him from somewhere in the wreckage. Calay tried to zero in on its source, walking carefully on the steeply-pitched floor. He skidded and slid a couple times, gradually nearing the wagon’s bow and the biggest heaps of debris. It felt like walking through a shipwreck, treacherous corners and jagged wood snatching at his clothes with every step.
“I’m here,” he said, watching where he put his feet. “Just gotta–rgh–find you!”
There came a knock to his right, then another, deliberate. Turning and nudging a precariously-balanced crate out of his way, he picked through the wagon’s wreckage like a vulture at a carcass. Finally, when he began to shift a rolled-up carpet away from the wall, he heard a wheeze from beneath. Gripping the carpet by the edge, Calay lifted and shoved in a single motion. He could feel the effects of the blood sorcery ebbing; it was harder work than it would have been merely minutes ago. But still he managed.
Tangled in the wreckage, red in the face, was Gaz. He’d fallen onto the wall directly overhanging the pilot’s bench, then been showered in debris when everything had come loose. He was conscious, and though he was beaten moderately to shit and the proud owner of numerous shallow cuts and bruises, he didn’t appear hurt hurt. His eyes fixed on Calay with a groggy slowness. His eyebrows lifted.
“What took you so long?” he grumbled, spitting out a wad of dust and grit.
Now that his arms were free, he reached down, attempting to shove the cracked frame of a dresser off his legs. Calay stooped down and pulled on the opposite end. Thrones, it was heavy. Actually heavy. The legs scratched and scraped along the floor, catching on every gods-damned thing as they moved it, but finally the two of them were able to wrench it aside enough for Gaz to sit up. He winced as he did so, a hand immediately going to his thigh.
Calay leaned down, way ahead of him. He looped Gaz’s arm over his shoulder and stumbled up the incline, not providing as much leverage as a taller person might have but still capable enough.
“You good until we get outside?” Calay asked, wary that the wagon might collapse under its own weight if left too long.
“Yeah,” Gaz muttered. “I’ll live.” He sounded tired, but he could walk. He limped along as Calay shuffled them both sideways.
Rather than deal with that dubious trapdoor sans magickal protections, Calay kicked out a window. He climbed out first, then helped Gaz through, and together they navigated the wreckage in a careful climb, emerging into disorienting sunlight. The storm had blown past.
Gaz collapsed into the dirt, hissing. Calay fell back beside him, exhausted. Torcha scurried over and found them both just lying there, catching up on breathing.
“Tadivach’s tits, Gaz. Your leg.”
Calay lifted his head, propped himself up to look down.
A shard of wood as long as his forearm protruded from Gaz’s thigh. Calay’s stomach turned to look at it.
“The fuck!” He rolled up into a sit, reaching into his jacket for his vials. “Why didn’t you say something?”
Gaz–who, come to think of it, did look a little pale in the sunlight–let out an awkward, pained wheeze of a laugh. He tried on a reassuring smile which came out looking more like a grimace.
“Nothing that couldn’t wait,” he said through his teeth. “But… yeah… please fix that now.”
He had enough blood for that. But first he’d have to yank the thing out, and that wasn’t going to be pleasant. And once they got Gaz all fixed up, there were bigger problems to confront. Such as the rest of Calay’s supplies being lost somewhere in the wagon. And the hundreds of thousands of scorpions they now had to outpace on foot.
One disaster at a time. Calay put his hand on Gaz’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze.
“Afraid this isn’t going to be pleasant,” he said.
Gaz closed his eyes. It was admirable, the amount of effort he put into trying to look calm. “Just like pulling out a big splinter,” he said.
“You’re all right,” Calay said, and all at once the relief caught up with him just as the exhaustion had. A crack in the dam, the moment before the flood. He directed Torcha to help him, readying a cloth that he wished was a little cleaner.
Thunder ran its drumroll off over the Flats. Something about that storm, he thought again. But then Torcha yanked the shard free and Gaz yelped and Calay held tight on the compress and the weather was the last thing on his mind.
Putting pressure on the wound, he nodded his thanks to Torcha and readied the vial. He felt useful again, felt like he was salvaging some control from this clusterfuck.
Noise exploded across the sand, a stampede of footsteps and yelling. Riss rushed over to where they sat, telling him to stop, stop, hold on, don’t use the blood yet. Her face was a color he’d never seen before; she hadn’t gone that pale even when she’d nearly died.
Adal still wasn’t with her.
<< Book 2, Chapter 16 | To Be Continued >>