They slept rough that first night in Frogmouth, bedrolls down on a patch of scrubby grass atop the butte. They used the leeward side of the big general store for shelter from the wind. Apart from that, they had naught but their blankets.
But Mafalda had been right—it was a patch of grass blessedly free of mosquitos.
The swimming hole, their inadvertent brush with Rill’s gang, the strange man at the cookout… hard to believe it had all been a single day. No wonder Adal fell asleep immediately.
And when he awoke to the first rosy touches of light upon the red rocks, he almost didn’t mind the crick in his back.
He believed he’d roused before the others at first, surrounded by still-sleeping bodies. But despite the fact that he’d had to fight swollen, heavy eyelids and limbs that felt leaden, he’d risen with that damnable certainty that further sleep would elude him. One knew it in the gut. So he peeled his covers off, knocked his boots together to check for scorpions, then slipped his feet in and shoved up. Several cartilaginous bits and pieces inside his body cracked and grinded in protest, but he ignored them. This too he knew in the gut: the body just did that when you slept on bare ground in your thirties. Woeful.
Mid-stretch, he discovered he was not the only one awake.
Calay sat on the very edge of the butte, his back to Adal, his stare directed downward into the canyon. His spine was a slumped c-curve, shoulders drawn in a hunch that could read as protective, secretive, or perhaps just cold. He cradled a long-stemmed pipe in his gloved right hand, a trail of smoke slithering out of it in an ever-widening fan, diffused by the breeze.
Adal might normally have left him to it, but the wagon ride they’d shared had opened a little space between the two of them. Odd, considering they’d spent it mostly silent or sleeping. But when he shrugged his old Recce jacket on and wandered over, he could tell he wasn’t imagining it. Calay had dropped some unseen gate that had previously barred him, and in turn Adal no longer viewed him on first reflex as sorcerer, weirdo, think he still has a bottle of my blood somewhere that we keep politely not discussing.
He sat, knees akimbo, and Calay tilted the pipe toward him in both greeting and offer.
“You’re always smoking something,” Adal glanced at it, sniffed the air. “Or drinking something.”
Calay’s mouth twitched at the corners, a smile that hadn’t quite woken all the way up yet. His pale eyes were similarly sleepy.
“Smoking things and drinking things has a way of regulating the body’s processes,” he said. He toked on the pipe, then released a gauzy trickle of bitter-smelling smoke. “You wouldn’t like me with my processes un-regulated.”
After exhaling, he perked up a bit. His shoulders loosened. A trio of swallows darted overhead, deftly swooping and racing after one another, and Calay watched them with a slow turn of his head. He smoothed his thumb along the mouthpiece of the pipe. Adal had spent enough mornings camping alongside him to guess the pipe was packed with a pick-me-up of some sort, but the slow way he moved and the heaviness around his eyelids hinted that this wasn’t quite a usual morning.
He hazarded a guess.
“You haven’t slept.”
“Tch.” Calay made a face like a housecat kicked out of a favored patch of sun. “… A little. Here and there.”
“How are you not exhausted?” Adal felt as though his body was only just recovering from the trial he’d put it through in the alkali flats. He could have slept for days.
Calay’s sour expression deepened. “I am exhausted, you pretty, well-bred idiot.” The words lacked the venom he might have laced them with earlier on in their relationship.
“So why not sleep? Or use one of your many substances to put you to sleep? Why stay up all night toking this stuff?”
Sighing, Calay smudged a thumb beneath one eye. He stared down at the pipe for a time. Adal eventually stopped watching him and turned his eyes on the sunrise instead. The low, impossibly-flat basin of the Salt Flats stretched all the way out to infinity. Proper sunrise was still a while off, but the featureless landscape meant nothing stood between them and the steady procession of light across geography. And when the sun finally hit something other than salt, it warmed the sandstone with a healthy, invigorating glow. It wasn’t like watching dawn. It was like watching spring erode winter. Like watching a dormant landscape come to life after some period of frozen stasis.
“I only started smoking this when I knew you lot would be getting up,” Calay confessed. “I had my sleepytime tea at dark. It just… didn’t work.”
“Mind unquiet?” Adal asked.
“More than the usual.”
By the time Calay had returned from treating Eber Hanley’s man, the crew had already bunked down. Adal hadn’t noticed anything out of order, save for the fact that Calay had been quiet. But it was late. Quiet was normal that time of night. They’d all fallen into their patch-of-grass bunks at more or less the same time. It scratched at him, bothered him in a splinter-under-the-nails kind of way that he hadn’t noticed anything amiss.
Calay puffed on his pipe again. The embers within the bowl glowed.
“I don’t know what Riss’ plan is,” he said. “But things have the potential to get real, real ugly in this town. Eber Hanley is up to something and I think it’s worse than whatever Rill’s been up to.”
Adal kept quiet. Calay slid a look side to side, studying the sprawl atop the butte. Scattered tents littered the ground near Rill’s wagon and others camped closer to the strip of shops and buildings. None were within earshot. Still, he re-hunched his shoulders and lowered his voice, as though he were speaking to Adal in a crowded room full of eager, hungry ears.
“I took a snoop around Hanley’s wagon,” he murmured. “Or at least best I could. He’s doing something fucked up in there.”
Wonder what it takes for Calay of all people to consider something ‘fucked up.’ Adal refrained from voicing that thought.
“What did you see?”
Calay gave his head a curt shake. “Not what I saw. What I heard. I had to be careful. It’s…” Tension rose along his jawline. “Some sort of cult shit. I don’t know. He’s keeping kids in there. He told me the kid I worked on had taken a vow of silence, y’know, for religious reasons. But I’m not so sure…” He spoke slowly, skeptically, as if still trying to organize his own thoughts.
“I’ll explain more when Riss is up,” he said. “No sense telling the same story four times.”
While that made sense, Adal did not like the idea of waiting. The way Calay had phrased it worried him in a way that mere words rarely did. Adal was a cautious man, but he wasn’t nervy. The horrors of the southern marshes had of course terrified him, but those had been real flesh-and-blood constructs—or worse, sometimes fleshless and bloodless—that had nearly flensed his skin off his bones.
It was natural and sensible to be horrified by such things. The purity of the terror he’d felt in that place had been novel.
Yet this cold, creeping fear that subtly clenched him from the throat to the stomach to the balls was not a sensation he was used to feeling from words.
He’s keeping kids in there.
Was it possible they’d stumbled upon a place where the Continent’s most wanted bandit wasn’t the threat that should worry them most?
One of the inns in town still had seats for breakfast, so they clustered around a small table and filled up on ham and lentils. Adal ate with vigor, having partaken of little at the bandits’ banquet. He’d had trouble working up an appetite surrounded by all of Rill’s men. Now, he shoveled his food down quickly, as though by speeding that part up, he could get them out of the building, back to a quiet patch of butte, and get Calay talking again. Mornings tended to be slow and full of distractions whenever he really had his mind set on something, so he expected an arduous wait. Fortunately, luck was on his side. Nobody seemed in a mood to dawdle.
After breakfast, they sought directions to the closest well, and luck continued to favour them: there wasn’t anyone else thirsty at the moment.
“All right,” Adal said as they gathered ‘round the well. “You tell Riss what you told me about last night.”
Calay did an odd thing then. He did tell his tale, starting back to when he agreed to check out Eber Hanley’s wounded fellow on Riss’ orders. But as he did it, he took up the water bucket in his hands. He turned it over a few times as though examining it, then lowered it carefully down into the darkened ring of stones, loosing a bit of its lead at a time. As he watched the bucket descend, he described how he’d worked on Hanley’s boy, who had an infection in his tooth. How Hanley had breathed down his neck the entire time he was aboard the wagon, and only when Calay had snuck some charms onto himself had he discovered that there were dozens of silent people inside the wagon. People he swore he could tell were children, based on the sounds of their breath and heartbeat.
He pulled the bucket up, hands still moving with uncharacteristic hesitation, and ladled water into his canteens. He passed the bucket sideways to Torcha without looking at it.
The whole time he spoke, he never once made eye contact. Never once looked up from the well and its dark water.
“However bad Nuso Rill is, we can’t ally ourselves with that man to get at him.”
There was a softness in his voice that Adal couldn’t pin down. Like the sheer weight of the disgust he felt rendered him incapable of raising it further.
Riss had stood silently throughout the story, moving only when Torcha passed her the bucket.
“I’ll talk to Mafalda,” she said. “See if we might try to broker some deal yet. Maybe lead them to the contents of the busted wagon, if nothing else.”
Calay’s eyebrows crept up in surprise. He regarded Riss for a moment’s silence, then wiped a splash of stray well-water from the back of his good hand.
“Really? That’s it? You’re not going to…?”
“To what?” The bucket continued its way around. By the time it reached Adal, however, it was empty. He sent it back down the well. Wood scraped on stone, dredging up fleeting ghosts–wellwater, reaching hands, foul smell, the flit of an arrow past his ear.
Calay was still talking. Adal left the past in the past.
“I don’t know. I thought you’d… look into it further? Ask me questions? Just surprised you agreed so quickly.”
Riss’ thin mouth lifted in a smile so subtle it might not have been there.
“Well,” she said. “You gave us your word that’s what happened. This man’s got a wagon full of children that he claims have taken a vow of silence, but your gut says that doesn’t feel right.”
Calay did not look soothed by Riss’ words. If anything, he looked more confused.
“Yes…” he said, trailing off. Adal recognized that yes from his Academy days. It was the voice of a resigned pupil awaiting correction, someone expecting to be told they’d fucked up.
Instead, Riss put the conversation to bed.
“That’s enough evidence for me,” she said. “We salvage what we can of the original plan. Hanley’s out.”
With that, she announced her intentions to knock on Rill’s door and see what deals could be made. Torcha asked to tag along, leaving Adal with Gaz and Calay. Together, they watched the women go.
“Huh,” Calay said. “I’m a little…”
“Surprised she trusts us that much?” Gaz asked, his eyes squinting at the corners with a sort of kind-hearted mockery.
“Must you phrase it so overtly?” Calay kicked a clump of weeds as he departed the well.
Adal checked that he’d filled the last of his canteens and waterskins, then left the half-filled bucket balanced atop the ring of stones. They’d paid the innkeep for two full buckets, but finding a spare skin for the remaining water was far down his list of priorities. Call it a modest kindness to the next thirsty soul who stumbled across it.
“Wonder if Rill’s people know anything.” Calay unwrapped a sliver of something from his pocket and tucked it in between his teeth.
“About Hanley and his wagon? Quite possibly.” Adal recalled the confrontation at the fire. “They’re two of the biggest players in this town, if not the biggest altogether. And neither strikes me as the sort who doesn’t do his research.”
“Hmph.” Calay rolled his jaw. When he turned his head next, Adal caught side of a frond-tipped reed dangling from his mouth. He wondered what effect chewing that had on the body. Probably helped wake him up or put him to sleep or regulated his pissing or some nonsense.
“So what now?” asked Adal. “I thought I might stretch my legs and see what’s what around town. Not much to do until Riss returns from her meeting.”
Adal didn’t like not being there, but he trusted Riss’ read on Mafalda. Rill’s people would be paranoid, as all bandit types were. Crowding them with numbers would almost certainly be a mistake.
“I feel like we saw almost every nook and cranny in town in our search for a bed yesterday,” Gaz muttered.
Adal strayed a look toward a meandering, ragtag line of propped-up tents that spread from the general store’s doorstep like a rash. Frogmouth really was overrun. He’d wondered whether they might have better luck finding a softer place to sleep that night, but had anyone actually left? The tents didn’t seem to have thinned at all.
“Well, there’s one thing you can count on anywhere there’s a high enough concentration of bandits,” said Calay. “I’m going to find wherever the locals play cards.”
Which was how, some time later, Adal found himself crammed into a crowded, noisy watering hole known only as The Jug, strangers’ knees pressed in against him on all sides, watching Calay throw dice.
Or at least he was watching Calay attempt to throw dice. For the rules of whatever game was common to Frogmouth differed from whatever he was used to. A shrivelled old local who appeared as though he’d been pickled by drink from the inside out was busy giving him lessons. Adal wasn’t sure how Calay could even hear him. Some would-be entertainers were banging drums in a corner of the establishment, and it was far, far too early for drums.
“This is horrendous,” Adal muttered, leaning over toward Gaz solely because sharing Gaz’s personal space was a more attractive alternative than sharing it with a complete unknown.
“Aw, it’s not so bad.” Gaz gave him a little grin, then pointed toward the goings-on on the tabletop, where Calay’s instructor was explaining the etchings upon the little ivory dice.
“The dice here don’t even have pips,” he said. “I’m enjoying trying to figure out what all the little sketches mean.”
Calay must have heard him over the clamor, because he snorted. “Afraid I’ve got some sad news for you, mate.” He tapped one of the dice upon the table. “My tutor here informs me that every dust-bitten tribe in this whole region has different rules for the etchings. And half the folks here play dice with different pictures altogether.”
“I had no idea he took it so seriously,” said Adal.
“It’s less the gambling than it is the rules,” said Gaz. “Rules make things predictable. Make games quick to learn. A half-dozen people all playing by a half-dozen different rulebooks on different sets of dice makes it tough to…”
Adal tuned him out for a moment as a thought occurred to him. Gaz was right. This had nothing to do with the gambling. And certainly nothing to do with winning coin, for Calay had proven he had ways of acquiring that when he needed it.
Like Gaz said, this was about rules. This was about knowing systems and manipulating information and probability to produce a desired outcome. Hopefully a favorable one. A winning one.
Whatever Calay had heard in that wagon, he was dying to have control of something back in his own hands.
After that, Adal fell quiet. He leaned in at Gaz’s arm and watched the dice clatter across the sticky, knife-scratched tabletop. He cheered silently for Calay, not because he gave even half a shit about anyone winning a purse, but because he too longed to regain some semblance of agency.
When Riss finally turned up at high noon, they were up a good hundred and twenty-austral between the three of them. Adal resolved to ask Calay later which of his little tricks he used to bend the dice in his favor.
Though their moods had improved somewhat, the news Riss brought with her set everyone on edge all over again. She’d come to an agreement with Mafalda and Nuso, it seemed. They were willing to entertain buying the contents of the wagon, shattered to shit though it may be. But there was, as always, a catch: they required Riss and her people to journey back into the Flats and assist with the recovery effort.
Instead of hunting Rill down, they were about to work for him.