Book 2, Chapter 34

Nuso Rill took his privacy seriously. She had to admire that. As Riss expected, one of the gang’s runners had sent for her that evening, guiding her down one of the long, rambling red-dust trails that skirted around the edge of the canyon. He’d led her down a smooth-worn sandstone formation scuffed by years of passing feet, then through the bush to a path beside the river. On the way, they passed two pairs of idling guards, and every last one of them made it clear with their up-and-downs and their lingering, skeptical eyes that they weren’t convinced that her presence at the riverside was necessary.

Riss wasn’t sure what she was expecting. An underground lair of some sort? A cave stocked with plundered trinkets? Perhaps a fortified bunker, the gang’s true headquarters, the wagons having been a misdirection all along?

Whatever she’d anticipated, a bare-bones campsite beside the river was not it. And really, it wasn’t even a campsite–there was no tent. Rill sat on a scattering of threadbare cushions, checking something in the fire, and as far as Riss could see, beyond the presence of two more distant guards and a real shoddy-looking fishing pole, that was it.

Rill brightened when he spied her, waving a hand. “You’re nice and early,” he said. As though she’d had any choice of arrival time.

“Thought I’d offer to set the table,” she said. When she looked to thank the youngster who’d let her down, she saw him already scarpering back into the bush.

“Don’t mind him,” said Rill. “When I tell the lads I want alone time, they know I mean it.”

A soft sizzling could be heard from the fire, and when Riss stepped closer, she could pick out the aroma of roasting fish, some sort of spicy undercurrent playing second fiddle beneath the meat. She dropped onto a cushion not quite directly across the fire from Rill. Putting the fire between them felt a little too unfriendly, but she also didn’t want to sit close enough that he got any incorrect notions. If he wanted her to sit beside him as a friend, he’d have to work a little harder than simply paying her on time, promising a second job, and swearing not to kill her.

“You’re in luck,” Rill said as she settled. “You rolled into town just as the walleye are heading upriver. They tend to come and go with the scorpions.”

“That what I smell in the fire?” She glanced toward the fishing pole. There were depressions in the mud on the riverbank. The signs of someone squatting and gutting their catch? Could have been.

“Yup. Shouldn’t be too long before it’s ready. Can’t stand undercooked whitefish.”

Well, if he wanted to sit around and talk about fish, that was his prerogative. Riss drummed her fingers on her thigh, allowing her host to walk her through the conversation at his own pace. After a few days of close contact with Rill, she felt she was on the cusp of acquiring a certain knowledge about the man, divining the ability to peel away the layers of legend and gossip built up around him to observe the truer things beneath.

What was that mythology, anyway? While Rill tended the fire, she ran through a quick, no-bullshit list of the commonly accepted facts. Nuso Rill, along with his brother Anvey, hailed from Vasile, Calay’s hometown. They worked together for an indeterminate amount of time on Anvey’s various failed attempts at fomenting revolution in the city’s slums before Anvey was jailed and Nuso went on the lam. Riss hadn’t dug far enough back to know all the ins and outs of that; she cared far more about Rill’s career as a road bandit. He’d made a name for himself wreaking merry havoc on the Continent’s major thoroughfares in the chaos caused by the war. Rumours were he had a network of eyes and ears that stretched from coast to coast, as he always seemed to know how to duck patrols. His wagons never seemed to cross paths with the war-wagons of the era, so no one knew how much heat his people were actually packing. (Riss wondered, privately, whether or not the crazy sonovabitch had actually been telling the truth with his zero guns aboard statement. He’d seemed truthful enough at the time, but the concept seemed so frankly bonkers.)

Rill disappeared and surfaced at odd intervals, leading some to believe he had a second source of income, perhaps secret controlling interests in some legitimate front or another. Others still believed he was tiring of life as a highwayman, driven more by boredom than anything, and they wondered what he’d turn to when road crime got old. Others still said he was bankrolled by Zeyinade.

The man sitting before her, once stripped of his legend, seemed hardly so mysterious.

“Not a big talker, are you?” Rill asked, finally looking up from his fussing over the coals and fish.

Riss tilted her head, considering that statement. “Can’t say I’ve ever thought about it one way or the other,” she said. “Whether I’m a ‘talker.’ I think, like most people, I talk more around folks I know. I reply to things when asked.”

“You asked questions in the field,” he said, casually observant.

“Best way to get useful information,” she countered. “Sort of like you’re doing now.” Only he preferred leading statements to direct questioning, it seemed.

“You caught me.” Again, that disarming smile. When he smiled it, the edges of his eyes tilted up. His cheeks lifted. He smiled with his whole face. “Suppose it comes naturally in my line of work.”

“Mine, too,” Riss said, not unkindly. “I take no offense.”

Rill carefully extracted their meal from the fire. He’d roasted his catch the same way Carbecers did back home, by wrapping it in water-soaked leaves. It smelled different to the campfire cookouts of Riss’ childhood, though. She smelled honey and spice in the glaze, and there were big chunks of some white root or tuber as a bed for the fish.

“It’s a strange landscape out there these days,” Rill said as he dumped their dinner into two flat-bottomed wooden bowls. “A man’s got to be selective about his help.”

“Like I said,” Riss took her bowl. “No offense taken. And thanks. This smells fantastic.”

The food brought with it an unspoken detente. Neither of them spoke as they ate. Riss tried to let hers cool enough so as to not absolutely savage the roof of her mouth, but once she’d had her first bite, that was a task requiring more willpower than she had. However else he’d picked up his varied skills of the road, whomever had taught Rill to cook deserved a medal.

“I guess it makes sense you’d have a knack for this,” Riss said, gesturing with a forkful of fish.

Rill paused in his chowing-down to perk his eyebrows at her. “Why’s that?”

“Growing up in a port town and all. Vasile’s where a traveller goes for seafood, isn’t it?”

Rill seemed to catch on that for a moment. He paused, a bite of whitefish hovering halfway to his mouth, hand stilled. “Reckon so,” he finally said. “Riverfish and seafish are a whole different…” He trailed off, mouth furrowing in a faint grimace.

Riss laughed, sudden and unwitting. It just sort of bubbled up out of her.

“You were about to say a whole different kettle of fish, weren’t you?” She grinned irrepressibly.

Rill just gusted out air through his nose, not deigning to reply to that.

“That does bring up something I meant to ask you,” he said, once they’d finished.

“Go ahead.”

“I noticed you’ve got a couple Vasa boys on your crew. How long they worked for you?”

Riss didn’t flinch at the sudden change in subject. As a wanted man hailing from Vasile, Rill would have kept an eye on Gaz and Calay. That was just good business practice.

“A year and a season-ish,” she said. “Though not exclusively. Calay, the medic, he has a few side jobs in Medao. And he temps around sickhouses from time to time.”

“You trust ‘em?”

That, again, was to be expected. But the question caused a weird little twist in Riss’ stomach nonetheless. Because it led her to the fact that at some point, she had begun to trust Calay much more than she used to. She couldn’t even pinpoint when the shift had occurred, so gradual had it been.

She, of course, did not speak all that aloud.

“They’re mercenaries, Nuso,” is what she said instead. “I trust them to the extent that every time I’ve hired them for a job, they’ve turned up and done it and caused no trouble.”

Well, apart from that first job, where they memorably lied about fucking everything, she couldn’t help but think.

“You’ll forgive me–this is the point where I have to admit I looked into them,” said Rill. And that funny twist in Riss’ stomach wrapped in and around itself and became a full-on knot. She tipped her bowl to her mouth, taking a sip of leftover sauce, waiting.

“I looked into all of you,” Rill admitted. “Can’t be too careful with the folks up north. Now that the war’s over, Vasile can flex its claws again, y’know?”

What, she wondered, had he found?

She’d been aware of how precarious this meeting place was from the get-go, so far from her friends and allies, diverted down so many isolated paths that the sounds of any altercation wouldn’t reach the town proper. She’d been aware, also, that she was outnumbered, and while Rill hadn’t made her check her weapons, he wasn’t lax enough to have come unarmed. Despite all those awarenesses, how conscious she’d been of it all, she still felt it in that moment, how far away she was from help.

She hoped her face looked like that of a woman who had nothing to hide.

“I’d expect nothing less of you.” Paired with a tiny twitch of a smile. “I’m sure you’re already aware of who I fought for. Possibly even who I fought under.”

Rill’s chin ticked upward a fraction, a little upnod of respect. “I am,” he said. “And if you’re curious, I don’t think I found anything about your Vasa boys that you didn’t already know.”

“They’re freelancers,” said Riss, over the thunder of her own heart. “Long as their business prior to me doesn’t interfere with their business in the present, it can stay their business.” She chanced it, then, a little reassurance. “As will yours, if we come to some agreement tonight.”

She scanned his face for any tells. Was he withholding anything about Calay? She was confident that if he knew her history with Léonor, she’d be dead already.

Rill leaned forward, pawing through a canvas sack beside the pillows. He extracted something shiny from inside, and despite her best efforts, Riss’ breath hitched and slowed. She held it until she could see both his hands again. She glanced down, saw that he was carrying a flask, nothing more.

And when she looked back up, she found his eyes locked on hers. He looked real, real interested.

“You seem tense.” His voice was neutral. His hands spun the cap off the flask.

Riss exhaled a rattle of nervous laughter. She shook her hands as if to dry them of her anxiety.

“You’ve got me in a very compromised position,” she said. “Cut off from my team, all the way down in this canyon, asking a lot of questions, then you reach for something I can’t see…”

She tried to paste over her nerves with playful challenge, going so far as to lean forward and put her elbows on her knees. She propped her chin in her hand and stared Rill down. She weighed the risks, then forged on, adopting a tone of lively faux-admonishment.

“You also have a reputation that precedes you. For your connections, your adventures, and your cruelty. But yes, do go on pointing out that I’m feeling justifiably, obviously cautious. Maybe you’ve got a reputation as a master of deduction, too.”

Rill lifted the flask to his mouth to take a sip, but when she got to that last bit, he sputtered a fine spray of droplets all over his own face. The sound he made was half-choke, half-guffaw, and he continued cough-laughing until she felt genuinely prompted to pat him on the shoulder and ask if he could breathe. Though, prompt or not, she did no such thing.

“Founders, gal.” He wheezed. “All right, all right, my bad.”

For all the isolation, the darkness, and the shine of the firelight had contrived to paint him as a threat deserving of his reputation, it was hard to fear him while he was snickering at his own expense. Riss took the opportunity and reached into her pocket. She withdrew the purple scarf he’d given her in the gulch, then leaned forward across the pillows.

“Here,” she said.

Another little risk weighed in her head. Another chance taken. She leaned forward into his personal space to pass the cloth along. Rill snagged it from her hand, then smeared it down his cheeks and jaw, wiping away his ill-spent booze. Whatever the drink was, it smelled sweet, now that she was leaning in so close.

“Appreciate it,” he said. And then: “Suppose I earned that.”

“You did.” She smiled, unapologetic. A hesitation of her own. “I think we understand each other.”

Rill had a squinty, hard-to-read look in his eye as he passed the scarf back her way. She canted her head, perplexed, and reminded him that it was his. He then countered that it looked better on her, and she took that compliment with a breezy smile before suggesting they get down to business.

Which, eventually, they did. But not before they got down to rum.

Nuso briefed her on the basics: that his laborers were working on a dig site out in the desert somewhere. He was predictably circumspect. He’d welcome her crew as additional security, especially Torcha and-or Adal as lookouts. And of course another medic was always welcome, heat stroke and scorpions and whatnot expected to be the usual hazards.

Riss cut in, then, at the mention of ‘usual hazards.’

“Come on,” she said. “We’ve been down here for hours now. You’ve flattered me with talk of my competence and fed me rum.” And disarmed me thoroughly, she didn’t add. “But cut the crap. You want us there in case Hanley follows you.”

Rill had shifted onto his side, stretched out on the pillows, propped up on an elbow. His eyes were naturally heavy-lidded, the sort that, when combined with his reclined pose, lent him a certain sleepy quality. But he ticked his head up, wide awake again as soon as she said those words.

“Not just in case Hanley follows us,” he half-corrected her. “But yes. Were you in my position, wouldn’t you?”

Riss leaned forward and, daringly, plucked the flask right out of his hand. She took a swig of the dark, sweet-spicy rum within, but was mindful to keep it shallow. Rum had a way of sneaking up on her.

“Of course I would,” she finally answered. “What’s the history between you two, anyhow? He seems…”

“Insane?”

“Overconfident.”

“Cannons will do that to a man.”

Rill snatched the flask back for a sip of his own. “Hanley and I don’t have history so much as we just happened to roll into Frogmouth around the same time. I got here a little earlier. I don’t know what exactly his business is, only his family’s. They have a big farm up in the northeast. Religious types, attract wayward souls from all over. But my sources say he hasn’t been home in years, so I don’t think they’re close.”

Perhaps his family had discovered he had a wagon full of children. Riss wasn’t sure when might be the best time to bring that up. For now, she kept those cards close to her vest.

“Anyhow, he was looking for a town where he could park up and be King Swinging Dick, but I already had the run of this place by the time he tried. It didn’t go great for him.” Hells, the humility once he had a couple drinks in him. “The folks here are rightfully creeped out by him, and his worker boys are poorly-socialized little animals that cause all sorts of trouble.”

“Like the one whose tooth Calay fixed.”

“Mhm. He couldn’t hold his liquor, got mouthy with some of the local kids. One of my diggers rearranged his face and sent him on his way.”

“He wants that wagon.” Riss stated the obvious.

“He sure does. And more than that, I think it’s symbolic, to him. He wants to take me down a peg. He seems like a man who’s used to surrounding himself with meek, shrinking folks who hop to it every time he says jump.”

And Nuso didn’t see himself that way, naturally.

“How long do you think this dig of yours will take?” she asked.

“Reckon that depends on what we find.” He nipped from the flask, firelight twinkling in his eyes.

“What do you suppose you’ll find?” she asked, not expecting an answer.

“Desert’s a funny place.” He rolled over onto his back, plopping down in his nest of pillows. From there, he considered the night sky, or at least the thin ribbon of it that was visible between the vague, looming darkness of the canyon walls. “Stuff gets buried in a desert, it stays preserved for so long. Tough to wrap my brain around it. Vasile’s damp as all hell.”

Riss had no idea what to say to that. She recalled the Beddo woman’s story, glittery-jointed creatures and labyrinths beneath the salt.

“I’ve heard stories,” she finally said. “From some of the nomads who pass through the Flats.”

After Adelheim, she paid more attention to local tall tales than she used to. Most of the time, they were the generations-exaggerated cautionary tales of ranchers who wanted their children in by dusk. But not always.

Nuso was silent for a long while, observing the sky in his sleepy-eyed way.

“Oh, you know,” he finally said. “I’m looking for gold shit. Silver shit. Something valuable. Good black market for artifacts if you know the right collectors.”

Between that hesitation, that vagueness, and the too-blunt deflection of oh, you know, money, Riss knew without a doubt that he was bullshitting.

Well, fair enough for him. She was certainly withholding a few tidbits of her own. Both of them relaxed there by the fire with their secrets, passing drinks and small talk back and forth until the flask ran dry, after which Rill whistled for one of his handymen to escort Riss back to her camp. She had a pleasant buzz going when all was said and done. And she’d had a nice dinner. And the conversation hadn’t been awful, nor had the quiet afterward.

All told, theirs hadn’t been an uncomfortable silence, all the lies aside.

<< Book 2, Chapter 33 | To Be Continued >>

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