Riss watched, dumbfounded, as certain death turned around and limped away.
The moments since the bizarre, otherworldly screaming began passed as a series of disjointed, sequential images in her mind, as if seen through rapidly-blinking eyelids. Hanley poised over Mafalda. His face when the first shriek rang out. His jerky, stalking footsteps back into the screaming darkness of the loading ramp. The wailing was so loud it carried over the Flats with ease. It throbbed like Riss’ own pulse in her temples.
How many people were on that wagon? A whole chorus of voices sounded from it, all shrieking in synchronised agony.
Blink. Hanley disappearing. The wagon, troublingly inert. Nuso by her side, then not. Footsteps thundering across the roof where she huddled. A different kind of thunder sounded, more distant, the rumbles of a storm on the horizon. She couldn’t place it at first until sense, slowly, beat-by-beat, drummed itself back into her brain.
Wheels. Big, man-sized wheels. Hanley’s wagon had turned tail and rolled off.
Beside her, Rill and Mafalda were caught mid-embrace, his arms around hers, his hands splayed across the backs of her shoulders. He clutched her tight, fingers digging into her shirt. She muttered something in Meduese that Riss didn’t understand, then winced as Rill daubed at her cheek with a rag. Hanley had only hit her once, but it had left a shallow gash across her cheek.
Rill turned his head, about to speak, then caught Riss watching. He coughed forcefully and stepped back, giving Mafalda’s forearm a squeeze.
“You’ll be right,” he said.
“I know,” she answered, like that wasn’t ever a question.
More than just about anything Riss had witnessed of them in Frogmouth, the moment humanized them. It was one thing to tend to your friend in their time of need, to express that concern, to fret over them, to patch up their scrapes and ensure they were well. It was another, more relatable thing entirely to be embarrassed by it. The tips of Riss’ ears burned for having witnessed it. She recalled herself crouched over Adal, holding tight to his shoulder, scooping his teeth back into–
Riss bit down on her own tongue, grinding her molars down to anchor herself.
Nobody atop the wagon spoke. It was difficult, in the passing of all that chaos, in the alleviation of all that threat, not to hold one’s breath. Riss squinted across the distance, sought out Adal and Torcha atop the other wagon’s roof, but she couldn’t quite spot them amid the sun-shades and little wooden ramparts.
Finally, Nuso Rill said what they were all thinking.
“Anyone have a gods-damned clue what that was?”
“Sure don’t, boss.” Salka glowered doubtfully at the departing hulk of Hanley’s craft. “But forgive my cowardice if I don’t wanna stick around long enough to investigate.”
Surprisingly, he looked to Riss next. “What do you think?”
Riss, still reeling, did not have the mental fortitude to give a helpful response. She could have paused a half-second, thought through what to say, what sort of impression she’d like to make. Her quarry was asking her a question. This was an opportunity to earn trust. To reel him in.
Instead, she shook her head and spit over the side of the wagon, a superstitious gesture that she almost never felt compelled to perform. She wiped her mouth and tried not to think of screams and teeth.
“No clue,” she said. “And I think Salka’s right. We’d be foolish to call Fortune’s bluff here.”
Since descending into the horrors of the southern swamps, Riss had learned a thing or two about the many ways in which life itself could turn profane. The ways reality could warp, either in corruption-pitted pockets of nature or wielded in the hands of dark artists like Calay. There was a time when sunlight, a faint breeze, the presence of calm fellow humans, and the slow, lumbering passing of the weirdness as it had rolled away would have been enough to convince Riss that danger had passed. That unseen meant unextant. With all she’d seen and learned in the last year, she could no longer prop those beliefs up with conviction.
The screaming may have receded with the wagon that contained it. But that did not mean whatever caused it could be constrained by walls.
Rill sent a runner down to the ravine camp. Lookouts passed words and gestures back and forth.
The two crews below abandoned their worksite, swarming up over the ravine’s edge. Adal arrived from the other wagon, then Torcha next. Riss spotted Gaz’s hulking profile as soon as he hauled up into view, and a moment later he helped Calay up to the surface. Riss only relaxed once they all were safe within her sight, and though she was immeasurably glad to have them all returned to her, she could not summon the guts to express that relief until they were far the fuck away from the Flats and their curses.
Twice this stretch of salt had almost claimed her, claimed her people. She would not allow it a third attempt.
There was a certain kinship borne from survival. Anyone who’d set foot on the southern front—and likely veterans of any other conflict—could tell you that. In her darker moments, Riss wondered if perhaps she had no other way of bonding with people, no other way of relating to her peers that didn’t involve shared trauma and hard-won trust earned under fire.
Riss had not been attempting to engender this kinship with Nuso Rill’s people, but that appeared to be what was developing, for upon their return to Frogmouth, most of Rill’s gang greeted her with the smiles of allies. People swapped hearty back-pats and nervous, relieved laughs, the universal bonds woven through exhaling in unison and muttering bullet dodged, ey?
Not everyone was quick to relax, of course. Those who’d been aboard the wagons, who’d heard that disembodied choir of screams, had more on their minds than budding camaraderie. And Riss’ own people were of a mixed mind. Adal seemed inclined toward unwinding. Torcha, too, though more warily so. Gaz and Calay were quiet, the latter barely exchanging two words with her.
Riss suspected he had something to do with what had transpired, but interrogating him in the midst of Rill’s crowd was out of the question.
They rolled securely back into Frogmouth, the trip uneventful, and when they arrived they found Hanley’s hulking wagon absent from the yard. Rill’s pilots decided to occupy the yard themselves rather than rolling further up onto the butte, presumably as a signal to Hanley that he could fuck right off again if he dared return. Before, she might have winced at such a brazen display, worried that pissing on Hanley’s front doorstep to mark territory would only blow things up in Frogmouth yet further, but squabbling outlaws fell so far down Riss’ list of present concerns that she could not summon the energy to give a single shit.
Before Riss could slip away and debrief her crew, Rill cornered her. Well, “cornered” was a misnomer. He approached her in a friendly, open-ended, perfectly-relaxed fashion that her nervy mind leapt to interpret as cornered. She met him with a smile, knowing her reserve likely came off as tiredness and fine with that.
“Big day,” said Rill, lounging against the wall of the cargo hold. Riss stood on the ramp, watching some of his laborers unload empty barrels and crates.
“I’ll say.” She’d let him make the overtures. Clearly he wanted something.
“Your folk handled themselves well out there.” He gave an appreciative little upnod, one professional to another, and Riss paid him back with a guarded grin.
“Veterans to a man,” she said. “I don’t travel with dead weight.”
“I see that now.” A barely-there whistle of laughter snuck out from the corner of his mouth. “Funny, considering you folks washed up in here like half-dead driftwood after Maf fished you up out of the salt.”
All the sea metaphors seemed odd, given the desert. But then she recalled: the Rill brothers, Nuso and Anvey, they were Vasa-born, weren’t they?
“That was a worse-than-average week for us. I hope the wreckage gave you something, at least.”
Rill lifted his shoulders. “We’ll hire some hands and send them back around. Long as Hanley keeps his distance, the wagon itself looked in good enough shape to winch out and repair.”
Riss couldn’t keep the shock off her face. She’d assumed it was meant for parts.
“There are good repair crews here,” he said. “Part of how the town keeps itself afloat during the lean seasons. And if you think winching it up ain’t possible, you clearly haven’t seen what a team of six galania can do instead of two.”
“Oh, I believe you. Just… surprised you’re going to bother, I suppose, given how badly it’s munted.”
A light wind, chilled with the advent of evening, slithered its way into the cargo hold. Rill began to roll down the cuffs of his sleeves.
“Munted we can fix, provided the whole thing ain’t in pieces.” He glanced off to the side, then back at her. “You river folks may not be aware—the bodies on those things, they go for as many australs as an Altave riverboat. And the waitlist is just as long.”
She got it then. Their client really had been generous with that bonus. Not that her crew would be seeing much of it now.
“I suppose you’ll be deducting the cost of all this labor from our price, hm?”
Rill’s smile was pleasant, disarming. “It has been an expensive operation,” he conceded. “But I think it’ll still be more than worth your time.” A slight hesitation caught him then, snagged between his words. She wouldn’t have picked up on it if she hadn’t been watching him so carefully. He cleared his throat to cover it up, let out a dusty little cough. “And there’s other business, you know. Beyond wagons.” Again with the smile.
Like the tumblers of a lock falling into place when a key was turned, something clicked in her brain. She could see it plain as day across his face, in the slight crease between his brows. That hesitation. His expression. He was about to offer her a deal, and he was about to offer it in a particular way that a particular type of man brokered deals with women.
“Soon as the crew’s got the wagon under control, we have business calling us away out of town,” he said. “Your folks showed up when it mattered earlier. If you’re looking for your next contract, I’d like to make an offer.” That smile edged up fractionally, razor-sharp. “And I’d love it if you’d do me the honor of making that offer over dinner.”
Trying to predict the moves of an exiled terrorist-turned-highwayman (turned apparently black market archaeologist?) might have been a tall order, but predicting the moves of a man whose hands lingered a little long when he passed her a spyglass, who wanted to have a meal together after a brush with death by cannonball? That she could do.
“I’m not exactly hurting for work,” she demurred. “But now that I’ve sampled your crew’s cooking, I’d be silly if I didn’t at least hear you out.”
Rill stretched and shoved up out of his slouch. He ambled down the boarding plank, pausing briefly at the top of it. Riss was conscious of his positioning–he was blocking the exit, his broad frame filling the doorway.
“It’s a sensitive job, I’m afraid,” he said.
“Aren’t they all.” She narrowed her eyes, hoped her smile looked playful.
“Then you’ll understand I’ll need to be a little selective about our dinner guests for the time being.” He backed off down the plank, freeing up her exit. “Just the two of us to start.”
Riss followed him down the plank, taking one step down for every one he backpedaled.
“I can do that,” she said.
He slipped her a conspiratorial wink, then slung his rucksack over his shoulder and began to amble off with no further words of parting. And no plans for where to meet, she noted. But in a place as small as Frogmouth, everybody all elbow-to-elbow with everybody else, she figured he’d be able to find her easily enough.
Adal was not going to be happy. And Calay likely wouldn’t be thrilled either. But this was an opportunity too juicy to pass up. Riss hadn’t counted on impressing Rill that much. They didn’t need to follow him to the next job site, not completely. But if they knew where he’d next be making camp? Above and beyond what Léonor had asked for. There’d be bonuses in a result like that. And sincere appreciation from one of the Continental Post’s most decorated carriers.
All of that was worth Adal and Calay mother-henning over her. And she could soothe their ruffled feathers easily enough.
Hesitating on the boarding ramp, she watched Rill stroll out into the night. He moved so loosely, so sedately, like the trouble on the Flats had already rolled on off him like water off a duck. Out of sight, out of mind, she supposed. Riss looped her thumb through her belt and tried to borrow a little of that swagger on her way out. If only her memory could be so short.