Riss sank down onto her bedroll, cross-legged on the mossy cave floor. By the time ass met ground, she was fading. Sleepless days and nights on the march were nothing new to anyone who’d been with her in the Fourth, but circumstances being what they were, there was more weighing on her frayed nerves than merely sleep deprivation. Little flickers of motion played at the corners of her vision, merely tricks of tired eyes, but out here that couldn’t be dismissed with a shake of the head. Out here the phantoms stood too good a chance of being real.
Stretching out on the thin mat, Riss assessed the camp one last time. The early afternoon sun shined warmly into the cavern, bright enough that it chased a lot of her wariness away. She knew it was bullshit false comfort, but human minds were like that, weren’t they. Gaz was, like her, borderline too tired to walk. He’d conked out a few minutes earlier, already dozing with his back to her. Torcha slept on Riss’ other side, snoring into the crook of an arm. Vosk sat further back in the cave’s shallow recess, still bound. And their first watch of Adal and Calay sat at the cavern’s mouth, silhouetted by sunlight.
Riss didn’t quite miss Geetsha. Wasn’t exactly grieving her. But as her eyes strayed toward Vosk one last time, a fleeting regret passed through her. Tarn and Geetsha had some sort of agreement. Would her people retaliate once they learned she’d been killed? Were her people even people? Was there something worse to fear out in the swamp than mimics and monsters?
Fortunately, fear was rather like grief. Riss simply didn’t have time for it. And in the rare moments she had time, she was too tired to dwell on it for long.
Waking to commotion was starting to become a habit. Riss blinked awake to the sound of a scuffle, bodies rising up off the ground. Yet as her senses asserted themselves and she surveyed the camp, the scuffle seemed to be more one of curiosity than an immediate response to danger.
“Something’s splashing around outside,” said Calay, eyes trained off toward the boulders that largely blocked the clearing from view.
“It doesn’t sound like a large something, for a change,” added Adal. And my, didn’t the pair of them seem chummy. Adal even gestured to Calay to follow him as he rose up from his seat, readying his pistol. Gaz, who had also awoken, lifted a questioning look to Calay, who gave him a tiny headshake.
“We’re only poking our noses out,” he said.
They crept off to investigate. Riss held her breath, opening her mouth slightly to train an ear toward the wilderness, an old recon trick. She heard two pairs of human footsteps, one much lighter than the other. And a few little splashes that sounded as though they were coming from the pool at the forest’s edge.
A moment later, she heard a most peculiar sound: surprised and jubilant laughter. Adal had a warm, deep laugh that she’d have known anywhere. The muted chuckle that followed must have been Calay.
Despite the fact that Torcha was still asleep, she couldn’t resist calling out.
“Everything all right out there?”
“Better than all right!” Adal answered. “We’ll be right over!”
Turning a look toward Gaz, Riss gave her head a skeptical tilt. Gaz, similarly befuddled, gave his bullish shoulders a roll.
“Calay seem all right when we went to sleep?” she asked him. “Neither of them seemed…” She wasn’t even sure what the word was. Delirious? Was there a chance either of them had actually cracked? Paranoia prickled up the back of her neck. Had Calay done something somehow? Some trick he could play without blood?
“They just sound happy,” said Gaz, in the tone of voice of a person who understood just how fucked up that was given the status of things.
They sat there dumbfounded until Adal and Calay slipped back between the boulders. They carried something strange and shiny in their arms. Something so incongruous that Riss needed a minute before her brain clicked on what the objects actually were: thick-bodied, silvery-scaled fish.
“They were leaping for the midges,” said Adal.
“How did you catch ‘em?” Gaz rubbed a hand over his scalp.
Adal clucked his tongue. “I’m a Deel boy,” he said. “If you can’t learn to spearfish they pack you to a raft and send you downriver to the potato farmers.”
Riss exhaled a faint gust of laughter. “It’s true,” she said. “You should see him with a polearm.”
She trailed off and turned a look from face to face. Any further laughter died in her throat. Don’t get too familiar, she warned herself. Calay and Gaz weren’t crew anymore. If she forgot that, if she let her caution lapse, she knew without a doubt that Calay would take advantage. He and Gaz were in it for themselves, their own survival. Riss wouldn’t be their stepping-stone to escape.
Adal cleared his throat, the sound spiking through the tension.
“At any rate,” he said. “They appear to be regular silvergills. Nothing mutated or horrific about them. I say we fillet them up and see how they taste.”
“Vosk and Calay can test ‘em out.” Torcha piped up from her bedroll, where she rested with her arms behind her head.
That wasn’t a half-bad idea.
Adal got the fish gutted and cleaned. He’d claimed with much swagger that his touch with a filleting knife was legendary, back the first time he and Riss had been in the field. His work lived up to the hype. Soon the fish sizzled with promise in the cookpan over the fire, everyone crowding around.
Riss and Torcha sorted through their provisions, putting together a rudimentary broth of sweet potatoes, salt, and the last of their mushrooms. Fine cuisine it was not, but it smelled more hearty than anything they’d nibbled on in the last two days.
“I can’t believe you two can still eat sweet potatoes,” said Adal, watching them while occasionally minding the fish.
“Pardon you.” Torcha ticked her nose in the air. “I could eat sweet potatoes every day ‘til the day I died.”
“Lucky for us that might end up being roundabout, say, tomorrow.”
Riss cocked her brow at Adal. “Dark,” she said.
Gaz, who had sequestered himself away somewhat with Calay at his side, regarded them curiously from his side of the fire.
“What’s wrong with sweet potatoes?”
Torcha finished chopping a fungus and dumped it in the pan, then leveled the blade of her small knife Gaz’s way.
“Absolutely nothing, that’s what.”
“When we were in the field, we ate a lot of them,” Riss explained. “The area near Torcha’s hometown is full of sweet potato plantations. It was easier to dig ‘em up most nights than to carry our own provisions.”
“Easier plus we were thieving from the Narlies.” Torcha sparked a grin, then tidied her things, folding up into a slouch against the cavern wall. “We didn’t all get the luxury of going home halfway through the war to our estate full of chefs.”
Adal pursed a small frown. “I had a collapsed lung,” he said.
“A collapsed lung and endless excuses.”
“Nasty business,” said Vosk from Riss’ opposite side. “I popped a lung once. Took a while to recover.”
Adal merely grunted. Things had shaken out in a way that Riss found mildly surprising: Vosk seemed on thinner ice than Calay where the company’s temper was concerned. But then again, she supposed she could see a certain logic in it. Calay had, thus far, merely hidden something terrible. Vosk had sabotaged their mission from the get-go, and whatever the story had been with Geetsha, he’d still killed her.
His hands were bound. Calay’s, for the time being, were not.
In these quiet moments, when things felt close to normal, that was when Riss found herself missing Gaspard the most. During their long days and cool, damp nights spent on the march, the Fourth’s forward scouts grew close. Gaspard had a way about him, a talent for setting restless soldiers at ease. He always had a story, a way to pass the time. If Riss closed her eyes and focused, she could still hear the muted twang of his gut-string guitar, often strummed quietly beside the fire while they made camp.
Adal took over cooking duty, dumping the deboned fish in with everything else. He seasoned it with a little pinch of something from his belt, then left it to simmer. Riss saw him slip a sliver of the white meat into his own mouth to test it first.
The aroma drew a straggler out from the treeline: the shaggy-furred hound that had trailed them on and off. The dog sniffed around the entrance to the cavern, wary of stepping inside until Torcha invited it with a soft, beckoning whistle. It crept closer, caution evident in its lowered ears and raised tail, until she coaxed it close enough to stroke its muzzle.
Notably, the dog didn’t approach Vosk at all. Riss sighed, rubbing at her face.
They ate in weary silence, portioning out a bit of fish and potatoes for the dog. The stew had a fortifying, steadying effect. As long as they had it in themselves to create a proper meal, they weren’t losing it. Cooking was a little nook of civilization they could carve out for themselves.
“So.” Riss forked a bit of sweet potato up to her mouth and took a bite. While chewing, she levelled a long look at Vosk. They’d untied his hands so he could eat, and his wrists were rough and rope-bitten.
He grunted acknowledgment and kept eating.
“Now that we’ve got all our cards on the table, this’ll be easier. What’s the fastest route out of here and how long do you estimate it will take?”
Vosk bristled at the question. He seemed annoyed. Tough shit. He explained that there was a route out that would take about two days on foot if they kept up a good pace. Riss nodded along, listening.
“All right,” she said. “Once you’ve finished your supper, you’re gonna show me where you stashed those traders’ belongings.”
Riss trusted Adal and Torcha to keep the peace at camp. She let Vosk lead her off on her own, mindful to keep enough distance between them that he couldn’t spin and advance on her easily. She didn’t like the idea of cutting him down before he could be brought back to Adelheim to face proper punishment, but she’d do it if she had to.
He led her to a smaller cave in the rear of the hole-riddled hillside, this one cramped enough that they had to crouch to duck inside. As promised, several canvas rucksacks were stacked up in the rear of the cave, their drab brown color a near match for the wall. As far as camouflage went, it couldn’t have worked better if it had been intentional. Riss imagined Vosk’s ill-gotten gains could have gone undiscovered for some time.
“Awful convenient how you were the only witness to make it out alive,” Riss said, neutral. She untied the top of a sack and peered inside. Bolts of deep red silk woven through with shimmering golden thread were folded within, as well as a small suede pouch of pearls.
Vosk’s brows drew together as he watched her. “I had friends on that expedition,” he said. “I’d been on that crew for months. It was not convenient. It was horrifying.”
She remembered those earlier moments, when the crew had first set out. How she’d sensed in Vosk a sort of old soldier’s kinship, the shared understanding of loss. Now, Riss was too tired to sift through whether or not that was bullshit.
“It’s been hard times in the valley,” Vosk said, continuing to try to justify himself.
Riss lifted her armored shoulders. “I bet,” she said. “Plenty of folks turn highwayman when times get desperate. I’m not judging you, Harlan. At least not for that. Your troubles now lie in the fact that a woman is dead and my crew has suffered our own hardships on a snipe hunt due to you.”
He didn’t have anything to say to that. She continued inventorying a few more bags. There were twelve in total, plenty to make the trip worthwhile, as well as some bundled limbs of dark-veined wood stacked in a corner. Silk, pearls, assorted gemstones, a sack of australs stamped with the insignia of a Meduese bank she recognized. Likely more than one bird could haul out.
“Riss.” Vosk’s voice was strained. His eyes had a sunken desperation to them. “You’re a reasonable woman. And the Baron’s a cheapskate. Name your price.”
She thought back to that evening in Tarn’s sitting room. The pang of camaraderie in her guts. The trust he’d put in her. The way he just knew how important this job was, an opportunity for her to right herself, to get the crew pointed in a good direction again. The trust. And then the risk–not to her own self, but to the few people on the Continent she’d ever been close to.
“You can’t meet my price, Vosk.” She tied up the bags, dusting off her hands. “You’re probably going to hang for what you did. Life’s rarely so tidy, but sometimes a man comes face to face with his consequences.”
And she was happy to help facilitate that.