Chapter 11

Calay couldn’t quite bring himself to get worked up over the fate of Vosk’s dog. And given that he only called for the thing for ten or fifteen minutes, it appeared Vosk couldn’t get too worked up either.

Once the morning’s drama, human and canine and reptilian, was well and concluded, they got moving again. Calay was glad for it. He appreciated the opportunity to make himself useful, but he couldn’t help feeling agitated. Had Geetsha been spying on them? Was he going to have to worry about her? Not that she seemed to have any clue as to his identity or his nature, but a naturally inquisitive nose-about was problem enough.

“Damn dog,” Vosk muttered as he hoisted tents and bedrolls back up onto the birds. Calay grunted noncommittally. He wasn’t a fan of animals; they seemed to have a preternatural ability to sniff out his kind.

“Maybe he’ll turn up,” Calay offered, willing to put on a show if nothing else.

“Perhaps.” Vosk tightened the last of the cargo straps. “Or he’s off in search of his actual owner. He belonged to one of the fellows who didn’t make it back.”

“We had watch on all night,” Calay offered. “He must have run off on his own during Adalgis’, ah, commotion.” A quick smile. “I can guarantee nothing stole into camp in the night and ate him.”

Vosk rolled his big shoulders in a shrug, as if to say he’d already put the matter to rest. The dog clearly wasn’t some cherished pet. Animal life in these parts was cheap.

Adalgis was sluggish on his feet when they began walking again, but he didn’t complain. Riss parked him up front, presumably to help set the pace, and Calay volunteered for rear watch. He wanted distance between himself and the frog-voiced girl. And now that he thought about it, distance between himself and Torcha was probably smart, too. As much as he enjoyed talking to her–that was genuine, she was a hoot–it occurred to him that asking him too many questions about her homeland and the war might reveal a little too much about what he himself didn’t know. He didn’t want anyone making assumptions by subtraction.

Of course, that meant he and Gaz skulking around together, separate from the others, and that was its own type of ill-advised. They were going to have to mingle just enough to look normal.

Gaz was eager to hang back. He’d been staring holes in the back of Calay’s head since the snakebite incident. Calay could imagine what he was about to ask, but better to let him ask it.

Their slower pace meant that Calay had more time to study his surroundings. Camping so close to dark meant he’d seen little of the deeper swamp by full daylight, and it was… interesting. Thick swathes of spiderweb and moss alike bridged the upper trees. Everything was gauzy, draped in the stuff. The trees looked like brittle bones beneath aged skin. Like the hands of some arthritis-gnarled old man.

The swamp had a particular aroma, too. Deep and earthy and–if Calay admitted to himself–not entirely unpleasant. Growing up deep in the urban heart of Vasile, he was new to such earthy smells. The depth of it fascinated him.

The longer they walked, the wetter things seemed to get. Calay had the vague sensation of walking at an angle, the slightest downward slope. The trail they took was hard-packed dirt, obviously manmade, or at least man-assisted, free of the muck and packed at a slight elevation to avoid the seeping mud. It appeared well-maintained enough. Geetsha’s people, he presumed. Or perhaps more loggers like Vosk and the Baron’s men.

Calay took a couple quicker steps, until he was walking beside Gaz rather than behind him.

“So,” he said. “I get the impression you need to talk.”

Gaz peered down at him sidelong and huffed, amused. “Just wondering how prepared I gotta be for a potential shitstorm.”

“Potential shitstorm? This entire contract is a potential shitstorm.” Calay smiled sweetly. “You’ll have to specify.”

Gaz rolled a big shoulder and pointed none-too-subtly toward the fore of the group, where Adal and Geetsha walked the pair of moa along.

“That whole thing.” One of Gaz’s thick eyebrows hiked up. “Was that your genuine medicinal quick wits or did you scribble up a cure for him?”

Ah. So it wasn’t quite what Calay had expected him to ask. He’d expected Gaz to be equally curious as to how Geetsha knew what type of snakebite to treat. Of course, when he thought about it longer than five seconds, he realized Gaz hadn’t been privy to all that. It was easy to assume Gaz just knew everything he knew and shared all his suspicions, joined at the hip as they’d been since fleeing the city.

“I most certainly did not.” Calay reached up and gave Gaz a quick one-two pat on the shoulder. “I would never risk our cover for something so minor.”

“He seemed… really weirded out by you, is all.”

Gaz had a point. Calay had picked up on an air from Adalgis that wasn’t entirely friendly.

“I think he’s annoyed the others all like me so much,” Calay said without a shred of irony.

Gaz’s laugh thundered from the rear of their little caravan. He laughed so hard he slapped himself across the chest.

“Sorry!” he called when the others all cast inquisitive looks their way. “Sometimes my friend here is unintentionally hilarious.”

Calay was midway through preparing some smart remark when a shriek rang out through the marsh, loud enough that Gaz physically startled at his side. Everyone stopped moving. Up ahead, the moa snapped their heads upward, feathers rustling, sharp and alert.

The sound did not come again, and in the following silence, Calay shifted his eyes up to Gaz’s, wordlessly questioning.

Gaz swept his attention left; Calay looked right. They took inventory of the swamp around them: rotten logs, patchy and sodden holes in the earth, cobwebs. Nothing looked out of place. Of course, Calay wasn’t certain what native to the swamp could have made a sound like that.

The hairs on the back of his neck rose. He reached up, rubbing at the back of his collar. His fingers felt goosebumps.

Nobody moved for quite some time. The silence was palpable, thick, broken only by murmured chatter from up ahead, too quiet for him to make out the words. Female voices. He spared a glance toward the fore, where Riss and Geetsha were conversing lowly, but he didn’t take his eyes off the trail behind them for long. Gaz’s hand lingered on his belt.

By creeping, relieving degrees, the sounds of the swamp returned: insects began to buzz again. One of the moa chirruped. Calay exhaled a breath he hadn’t noticed he was holding. The swamp seemed to resume its breath in the same instant, a great release of tension, the way the sea might swirl and churn when something massive has just passed through it, unseen.

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