Mafalda could almost taste the crunchy-fried fish wraps, the crisp fresh cabbage, her mother’s famous sweet potato and shrimp boil-up. It wasn’t right, working so far away from the sea for so long. A girl could only subsist on venison and beans and eggs and flatbreads for so long. Where was the flavor?
Reclined back in a hammock aboard their little trundler wagon, Mafalda and Blitt swapped daydreams about the city and the coast, trading homesick anecdotes back and forth while passing around a bottle of Beddo plum wine.
“What’s the first thing you’re gonna eat when we hit the coast?” Mafalda asked, taking a swig of the thick, sweet wine. She peered across the cargo bay to Blitt, who relaxed in a hammock identical to hers. Only he just about spilled out of his, on account of not being as conveniently-sized as Mafalda. The sight of him gave her a shoulder-shaking giggle, though she conceded at least part of that might be due to the wine.
Blitt lurched over and swiped the wine from her hand, a grin crinkling up his ruined face.
“Crab fritters,” he said, gravely. “I’ve tried making them myself, but–”
Mafalda spoke in unison with his last few words:
“But they never turn out like Jacilla’s.” She rolled her eyes at him good-naturedly as she mimicked the line he often repeated around camp. “You know, most fellas at camp jerk it to thoughts of their wives’ bodies, not their food.”
Blitt went red as a beet, at least the parts of his face which weren’t all melted with scar tissue. That just shoved Mafalda overboard into laughing anew, and bless him, Blitt knew she didn’t mean it, because he was laughing too, and the others playing dice at the hold’s small table were laughing, and it was going to be amazing finally being home again. If Maf closed her eyes, she could smell the sea breeze already.
The pilot hollered for her, an unmistakable three-syllable bellow.
Leaning upright, Mafalda shoved some errant dark curls out of her eyes, glancing aside to Blitt. He shrugged. She shrugged back. It took her a couple moments to find her feet and trust them enough to heave up out of the hammock. She wobbled a little with the wagon’s motion, bare feet scuffing along the dusty planks of the floor. It was a short walk across the cargo trundler’s hold, then a climb up one short ladder and then another. The wagon was built almost more vertically than horizontally, a towering thing that crept across the flat desert terrain like an ambling townhouse when in motion.
Mafalda reached the roof, knocked the trapdoor open, and hauled up beneath the sunshade. She then dropped down onto the pilot’s perch from above, landing with the fluid grace of the intoxicated beside Nuso’s best driver, Wiggen.
“Morning Wigs,” she said, even though the sun was well past that point in the sky. “To what do I owe the honor?”
Wiggen, a wiry Meduese fellow with a smattering of dark freckles across his arms, pointed out toward the horizon. When Mafalda followed his pointing finger, she spotted a dark smudge across the featureless expanse of salt. Given the distance and the waver of heat off the salty ground, she couldn’t make out much detail, but she guessed the dark spots might be tents.
They’d spied smoke in the distance the day prior. Nothing too unusual about that most of the time, but it had piqued her interest a little given the time of year. Anyone with half a head’s worth of sense was quickly moving on from the Flats to ensure they didn’t become a scorpion pincushion.
Mafalda rubbed at her chin.
“Does it look like they’ve moved?” she asked. “Or is that roughly the same position as the fire yesterday?”
Wigs rolled a narrow shoulder and consulted the horizon.
“Tough to say,” he said. “But my guess is it’s the same. Like someone’s stuck out there and they ain’t moving.”
Mafalda had traveled the length of the Flats for many a season. She could probably guide a wagon from the Teags to Esilio with her eyes closed.
“They’re on the ravine route, aren’t they.”
Wigs nodded, already catching what she was getting at with that comment.
“Aye,” he said. “We could turn back that way, investigate, if it pleases you.”
They were headed inland, leaving the ravine and the coming scorpion horde behind. But the tentlike smudges in the distance were close enough that it wouldn’t put them in any danger to sniff it out.
“It isn’t about what pleases me,” said Maf, clapping the pilot on his shoulder. “We’ll vote on it. The boys might not be feeling the raiding spirit. Everyone just sort of wants to get home and sleep in their own beds and eat some fish and catch up on lost time with their partners.” She paused, scritching a hand through her hair.
Wigs made a noncommittal hum in the back of his throat, though he agreed to the vote nonetheless.
Mafalda called it out through the hatch, explaining the situation: camp on the horizon, didn’t appear like the inhabitants had moved for a time, possibility it was anything from a caravan in need of rescue to a lawman’s trap. Only Blitt voted in the negative, surly old sod that he was. He took his being overruled in good spirits.
Regretfully, this turn of events meant that more wine was off the cards. Mafalda cracked open a fresh cask of water, determined to sober up before the gang descended on the campsite. When representing the Continent’s most infamous band of outlaws, it would not do to show up drunk and giggly.
Any possibility of raiding these travellers for coin evaporated as soon as Mafalda got a good look at their campsite. Even the word “campsite” was a stretch. A pair of ragged lean-tos slouched half against one another, the posture of their struts defeatedly saggy. Deflated-looking leather rucksacks and a few canvas bags littered the ground nearby. Were it not for the fact that they’d seen fire less than a day ago, Mafalda might have assumed the camp to be deserted.
Still, as sorry as it looked, there were precautions to be taken.
Maf and Blitt headed up a small recon party, dismounting the wagon and approaching on foot. Back in skinnier times, when they’d needed to be creative to fund their digs, Nuso had pioneered more than one variety of roadside explosive. The charges didn’t have to be enough to destroy a wagon, just cripple it. Mafalda was glad those days were behind them, but Nuso’s tricks had been replicated now. They were out there in the world. No wagons close to any roadside bags. Ever.
“Ahoy there!” she called out, approaching the tents unarmed. She knew Blitt had a rifle trained over her shoulder, and that was to say nothing of the six others on the wagon and the second wagon loitering just behind her own.
“Shit,” Blitt muttered behind her. “Look at you. Nuso would have a fit.”
Mafalda twirled around to face him, struck a pose, and stuck out her tongue. “Shame he isn’t here!”
The time for playful banter came to an end when movement shuddered up one of the tents. A darkly-tanned woman crawled out from inside. Once she freed herself of the tent flap, she crouched in eerie, unmoving silence. She had pin-straight charcoal hair and wore a deep green cloak, though hair and cloak both were stiff with salt and tousled by wind. Her deep-socketed stare and the visible sinew on her neck looked like a textbook case of water-lack.
She stared at Mafalda in a silence that seemed even more total thanks to her lack of movement. Sat there like a wild animal caught in the crosshairs, she made no move to reply to Maf’s friendly greeting.
“It’s all right,” Maf said, and something in the woman’s stare twitched. She sniffed the air.
That wild animal look, it wasn’t doe or rabbit. It was more like a boar. She wasn’t spooked; she was sizing Mafalda up.
“You’ll have to forgive me.” When the woman finally spoke, it was deep-voiced and articulate. “We’ve been alone out here a while. You spooked me.”
She stood up fully, stretching, and swept the drape of her cloak back over one shoulder, revealing a loose-fitting linen blouse and a pair of wide-legged trousers, sashed at the waist in the far southern style. She was almost a full head taller than Mafalda, with a competent and broad-shouldered build. Even in her visibly dehydrated state, she looked like what Nuso might call an ass-kicking sort.
“We?” Mafalda asked, glancing toward the tent. She wondered how many there were with her.
Nodding stiffly, the woman took a step toward her. She didn’t seem deterred by Blitt’s rifle.
“Four others,” she said. “My friends. Two of them are in a bad way.”
Hooking a thumb through the belt loop of her trousers, Mafalda slouched her weight on one foot and studied the woman’s calm, dark eyes.
“Not surprising,” she said bluntly. “You’re insane to be out here on foot this time of year. Scorpions get them?” She doubted it; there would be screaming if so.
Intriguing how this stranger hadn’t introduced herself yet. She had seven kinds of foreigner wafting off her–Meduese slacks, Carbecer steppe accent, cluelessness about the ins and outs of Salt Flats travel.
“I’m Mafalda,” Maf said, saluting off her brow with an empty hand. “Why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself and your friends and we’ll see what we can do to help ‘em out.”
The woman’s eyes tracked her hand. She swept one of her own palms across her chest at shoulder-height, a gesture of greeting. Maf had seen it before in riverfolk types.
“Well met, Mafalda. I’m Riss Chou.” She pronounced Maf’s name with an Inland flattening of the vowels. More like Mefalda. But Maf held her tongue. She was dehydrated all to hell and looked a little lost.
The woman–Riss–turned toward the tents and tilted a little nod.
“Inside is my Second, Adalgis of House Altave. And my gunner, scout, and medic. We’re armed but we certainly won’t raise them at you without provocation.” Her chapped lips tweaked up in a brief smile. “We know when we’re outgunned.”
“Where you bound for?” Maf asked, taking the nod as an invitation to stroll over toward the camp. She passed the remains of the fire, the scent of ash mingling with salt on the air. “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you there’s nothing out here for miles.”
At that, Riss gave a low grunt. “We’re bound for Frogmouth,” she said. “Up in the canyons. And no, you needn’t tell me that. We were traveling by wagon but suffered a bit of misfortune en route.” She spoke in a measured meter that immediately lulled Maf’s sense of bandit’s wariness. A calming presence. It was easy to see why she was in charge of this operation, even if her Second had a fancy name.
Mafalda broke the bad news.
“You won’t make Frogmouth on foot,” she said. “Not before the migration. And possibly not at all, given your water-lack.”
At that, Riss’ smile grew weary and resigned around the eyes.
“Well then we’re lucky you wandered by. We can pay handsomely for escort out of the Flats. Doesn’t matter which way you’re headed. We’ll take what we can get.”
Mafalda appreciated her pragmatism. It wasn’t the first time she’d come across wanderers lost in the salt. Certainly wouldn’t be the last. Code was if you saw someone in distress this deep in the salt, you helped them. You never knew when it might be your turn next. This Riss, she was coping with it better than most others Maf had rescued, to such a degree that it invited begrudging admiration. While Maf watched, Riss slipped into the closest tent, murmured something inside it.
“My crew’s coming out now,” she said.
“Her folks are coming out!” Maf called over her shoulder to Blitt. “Rifle away. They’re no threat to us.”
“You’re playing this awful casually,” Blitt warned her. But Maf waved him off. If Riss was lying about the contents of those tents, if her crew were bloodthirsty marauders, if Riss herself suddenly and inexplicably transformed into a giant snake, their riflemen on the wagon would take care of it. Maf’s faith in her crew was unwavering.
A skinny girl with frizzy orange-red hair crawled out first, locking eyes with Mafalda in a challenging glower. Riss put a hand to her shoulder, said something under her breath to shush her. The girl huffed, her cheeks puffing out, and Mafalda saw then that she wasn’t quite as young as she appeared–just short and thin, clothes hanging off her like they were borrowed from an older sibling.
“So what’s your business in Frogmouth?” Mafalda asked. Nobody went to Frogmouth for above-board business. The cover stories were always entertaining.
Riss considered her through narrow, pensive eyes. “We’re mercenaries,” she finally said. “We came into possession of that wagon of ours and I’m told the fences in Frogmouth can work wonders.”
That sparked Mafalda’s interest.
“What happened to the wagon?”
At that moment, a blond man slipped out into the camp, peeling the tent flap back. He was about Riss’ height once he stood, with sun-kissed skin that bore only a few superficial scars. Mafalda pegged him as the Second immediately; the elements had sanded off his fine-bred edges a little, but there was no mistaking the hair and skin and general hale quality of someone who’d had a privileged start at life. He’d settled into working life by the look of his traveler’s garb and tan, but this specimen would always be easy on the eyes.
“This is Adalgis,” said Riss. “And regarding the wagon, well…” She turned her eyes toward the jagged dark chasm that cleaved the flats in two. “It’s down the bottom of that gulch, I’m afraid.”
Mafalda cupped her chin in a hand. “Unfortunate.”
Yes, this mercenary was definitely new to the Flats. She didn’t seem to know that a wagon crash, while not quite common, was not the game-over catastrophe she seemed to think it was. Gears began to turn pleasantly in Mafalda’s mind. The crew could always use another wagon. And this one might come at the bargain price of zero if she played her cards right.
“You left it where you dropped it?” she asked, eyebrows perking.
Riss blinked. “There’s only five of us. Repairs did not seem to be an option. That and the galania…”
“Didn’t make it,” Adalgis said.
“Splat,” said the redhead.
Mafalda had to swallow a grin down. She couldn’t believe her luck. They’d just left it there. Hadn’t even thought to send an outrider to Frogmouth for a tow. Unless the thing was shattered to absolute smithereens, even the broken shell of a galania-sized wagon was priceless. Waiting lists for new frames were years-long. Something about how they specially treated the timber, the builders said, how they processed it to toughen it up to withstand the cannon mounts and recoil. Axles, wheels, interior walls, the peripherals, those could all be rebuilt. But if the body was intact…
There was only one downside. One major, major downside.
“I’m afraid I’m just coming from Frogmouth,” Mafalda said. “I’m headed west. We’d just turned off the ravine route when we spotted the smoke from your fire.”
The line of Riss’ pursed mouth faltered. She looked disappointed for a half-second.
“I’ve been looking forward to my mother’s home cooking for weeks now,” Mafalda said. “I’ve got to be blunt with you, miss Chou: it would take a lot to convince me to turn back.”
Riss rolled her eyes. “We can pay,” she said. “I promise you that. We’ve got accounts at Meduese Imperial. Which I’m assuming you’re familiar with, by your accent.” She paused. “And we’ve got a cache of small-batch Beddo wine back on the wagon. It’s yours if you get us to Frogmouth.”
Inside, Mafalda was less conflicted than she pretended to be. The wagon that had made up her mind. The wine, well, the boys would appreciate it at least.
Still. She felt a pang of regret in her stomach. Home. Some damn thing always seemed to get in the way. Dig schedules, lawmen, scorpions. A big, big wagon was getting in her way now. Big enough to haul more workers and more artefacts. To carry more supplies back to their dig site when the scorpions cleared off.
Gods damn it.
Tapping a finger to her cheek, Mafalda put on a show of sighing in resignation.
“All right,” she said. “We’ll take your folks to Frogmouth, Miss Chou. You’d best pack up quickly.”
Only once they were dismantling the tents did the final two members of Chou’s mercenary crew emerge out into the sunlight. A big, tanned man ducked out first, stripped down to a singlet and breeches. He had a freshly-shaved and freshly-sunburnt scalp and a raggedy strip of multicolored cloth binding one of his legs. The man that crept out after him was smaller in every way: short, pale, wan, sickly, and silent, with his arm in a sling and a haunted quality to his eyes.
They introduced themselves at Riss’ prodding, along with the redhead. They were called Torcha, Gaz, and Calay.
She had to be careful not to pause a beat when she heard that last name. She introduced herself with a smile, unoffended that the unwell-looking man didn’t offer to shake her hand. She observed him for a while, watched the way he leaned on his big friend, followed him like a pale and wary shadow.
Calay was a common first name in Vasile. Common enough that her momentary flash of familiarity might have been misplaced. But the longer she observed him, the more she was certain she’d seen those haunted eyes staring out at her from a wanted poster.