One hundred and forty-nine. Including chambers, passageways, and antechambers, that was the grand total of how many “rooms” Mafalda’s expedition had mapped at Moetta Cave. And each was somehow more boring and empty than the last.
After five weeks, Maf’s notebook was an encyclopedia of failure.
She tried not to think of it that way, of course. She was still learning. Though her maps portrayed nothing more than empty caverns, they were still improving in the sense of technical skill–tighter lines, clearer pictures. And Professor Banno’s geomorphology lessons unveiled a lot about how Moetta Cave and other big whitestone caverns were formed.
There was no glory to be had, but she told herself she was still getting her tuition’s worth.
And at least she still had one thing to entertain herself between lengthy sessions of depressing boredom spent sketching in an empty cave: Celio’s regularly scheduled interruptions. He didn’t get a lot of free time with the work he did, but every few days he’d manage to sneak off into the bowels of the cave to sit beside her and talk. He’d taken I don’t know you as a challenge to be conquered, a peak to ascend and plant a flag upon.
He had yet to mention the silver buckle since that very first day.
Mafalda was privately glad of that. Knowing it existed, knowing it was just sitting there burning a hole in his pocket while they toiled away in banality… that was rough.
She tried not to think about it at all.
“So do you have any siblings?” Celio asked, munching on a sweet roll. They sat beside a murky, shallow pool in one of the lower caverns, snacking and tossing bits of bread to the pale, eyeless guppies that flitted and curled in loose-knit schools throughout the puddles.
“Nah.” Maf flicked breadcrumbs into the water. The pink-white fish made little ripples across the surface with their seeking mouths. “You?”
A small, fond smile appeared on Celio’s face and disappeared just as quickly, a match for the short-lived ripples. “Yeah,” he said. “I’ve got a brother. I don’t get to see him often.”
“He back up north?” She had yet to ask where he came from. She assumed he’d tell her when he felt comfortable.
“Mhm.” The corners of his mouth twitched downward. “He’s… in prison, actually.”
Mafalda hadn’t been expecting that. She sat up a little straighter, her eyes widening. “Oh.” She’d never known anyone who’d been in jail before. Or had a family member there. Her hometown didn’t even have a jail. She couldn’t remember anyone committing serious enough crimes to need it. “I’m sorry,” she finally said. “That… must be hard.”
“It’s tough not knowing how he’s doing.” Celio’s eyes went distant, his mind on someone hundreds of miles away. “I write to him sometimes, but he’s never answered.”
“Maybe they don’t let him?”
“That could certainly be it.”
She wanted to ask what for, but that felt like an impolite question. Instead, she offered a bit of empathy. Someone wouldn’t mention an incarcerated family member unless empathy was what they were looking for, right? Just someone to talk to. Someone to relate to. Someone to bounce words off of in a dark, lonely cave.
“You’re right about how it’s tough,” she said. “My parents live in Tantuela. It’s a village on the coast. Takes about seven or eight hours on horseback from Medao.”
“That doesn’t sound so far away,” he said, only a little judgemental.
“If you own a horse, maybe.” Maf turned her head sideways and gave him a look. “Plus my father’s a fisherman. So unless we set a date weeks in advance, I don’t know whether he’ll even be ashore when I make a trip home.”
“What kind of fisherman?” He seemed interested now, his lunch forgotten.
“Crabs during crab season, whatever else the rest of the year.”
“On a big ship? Or…?”
Mafalda snorted. “There aren’t any big ships in Tantuela.”
“Yeah, I suppose not.” Celio’s teeth flashed in a grin. “My father was a fisherman when I was growing up. Then he got promoted, started working for the fishmonger’s union. I saw him more often back when he still had to go to sea.”
“Fishmonger’s union?” Maf had never heard of such a thing. Medao had unions, she knew the concept. But who on earth needed one to sell fish?
“It’s a Vasa thing,” Celio explained. “There’s a union for everything. And there’s all this disputed water. Captains squabbled for territory and fishing rights all the time. It was only once the Leycenate established the unions that people stopped shooting each other up with cannons over it.”
So he was from Vasile, then. That explained the accent. That was impressively far north. She’d always imagined Vasa folks as paler, more… well… she glanced down toward the murky pool. She’d expected people from the far north to be the color of those cave fish, so pale it hurt to look at them in bright light.
“Everything I’ve heard about Vasile makes it sound painfully complicated,” she said, grinning. “You glad to be down here?”
Celio stretched out his hands, reclining back on the sandy ground. “Well we get more sun down here…”
The personal questions lapsed away into talk of field work and gossip-swapping. Gossip was a hot commodity at Moetta, for lack of anything else for the students to get up to. Maf wondered if anyone gossiped about her and Celio. If people assumed they were knocking boots instead of relaxedly bullshitting.
She stole a glance at him, took a moment to appreciate how the cavern’s shadows danced across his jaw. He had intelligent eyes. A kind laugh.
Hells. He was pretty cute. If people were gossiping about the two of them, it would help Mafalda’s reputation.
With the cave as uninteresting as it had been, Professor Banno had grown lax with his schedule. Most mornings, Mafalda slept in until she woke naturally, no need for an alarm. They were only working to a schedule in the barest sense of the word, so even the Professor indulged in sleep-ins.
Normally, she woke to the sounds of a camp coming to life: crackling fire, clinking cups and kettles, the yawning of her fellow archaeologists, birdsong scattered through the trees. It was slow, pleasant, luxurious.
So when she awoke the following morning to distressed yelps and authoritative shouting, it was disorienting. For a half-second she considered whether it might be a dream, but a sudden shudder through her tent’s walls dispelled that notion.
“Get up!” Professor Banno hollered. “And get dressed. The Port Authority are here.”
The Port Authority? As in… customs? Blinking blurrily, Mafalda wriggled into some trousers and pulled on a shirt, buttoning it with sloppy, slow, half-asleep hands. She twisted her hair back, clipped it, and groped around the cluttered tent floor for a pair of clean socks, the only part of her wardrobe that she even bothered to sniff-check. Such was field life. Stepping into her boots without lacing them, she ducked out of the tent and into the campsite, which was chaotic with scrambling bodies, everyone’s early morning routines disrupted.
Brown-uniformed soldiers of the Medao Port Authority crowded along the side of the camp closest to the road, a little formation who spoke among themselves. One of them, an officer Maf presumed, was speaking to Professor Banno by the fire. Students and porters gradually stumbled out of their tents, congregating by the stove. At least one kind soul had had the presence of mind to put a percolator on, and Mafalda tightly folded her arms while shuffling into the queue for coffee and tea.
“What’s all this about?” someone asked, saving her the trouble. It was unusual. They were pretty far inland for the Port Authority to care about their business.
The officer, a dark-complected man with an unreadably stony face, stepped aside from Professor Banno and addressed the crowd.
“Good morning,” he said, his voice the scratch of a lifelong smoker. “We apologize for the intrusion. The last thing we want is to upset the Universitat’s work, so we will be as brief as possible.”
Mafalda noticed that in the background, the soldiers had spread out. They were searching the tents, although not particularly thoroughly. They merely flipped entry flaps open and poked their heads inside. Not looking for stolen goods, then.
“We have reason to believe a dangerous fugitive has passed through this way,” he said, reaching into the satchel that hung at his side. Unfurling a sheet of paper, he showed off a wanted poster to the gathered crowd. A few quiet gasps rose from the students closest, then a murmur of recognition raced through the camp.
Her breath tight and stifled, Mafalda knew whose face would be on that poster before she got a good look at it. The sketch didn’t do him any favors. His features were kinder in real life, the line of his brows less harsh. His hair was longer, too. But there was no mistaking that the sketch was Celio.
The litany of reasons she’d given him for staying at Moetta replayed through her mind like a song. I don’t know you. I don’t know your employer. I can’t just leave. We’re almost done here anyhow. Even if I’m bored, I’m still learning. I can’t just run off the first time someone waves a job offer in my face–sometimes you have to put in the shit-work to get the glory.
And, most importantly, the reason closest to her heart:
You have no idea how hard my parents worked to send me here. I won’t throw that gift in their faces.
A cold chill grabbed Mafalda by the shoulders and wouldn’t let her go. She stood silent and immobile as the Port Authority men inspected her tent, then moved on. They searched the entire camp, overturning sleeping bags and peeking into every nook and cranny.
Maf swallowed. She dared not look at the faces of her classmates. Had any of them seen her and Celio together? Did anyone wonder about them? Were they now wondering about her?
She’d known something was off with him. From the moment he’d pulled that silver from his pocket, she’d been unsure. That it was something illegal, some smuggled artifact he hadn’t actually dug up on his own, hadn’t occurred to her. But in hindsight it was obvious. It made more sense than strange employers and mysterious private land deeds.
The Port Authority searched the camp for a while longer, but soon it was evident that Celio was nowhere to be seen. His tent, a small one at the very edge of the encampment, sat empty. The Port Authority confiscated its contents, then packed up to leave. They left a copy of the poster with the Professor, who promised he’d share it along. Mafalda paid it barely a glance, only long enough to discover that the man she knew as Celio went by at least a dozen other names. That lie somehow hurt more than the rest.
Professor Banno couldn’t find it in his heart to make them work that afternoon. They sat around showing off maps and writings, quizzing one another on excavation techniques and trying not to wonder too hard about the criminal that had slept in their midst. The lawmen had called him a dangerous fugitive but not elaborated on his crimes.
Though he was long gone, Celio’s presence hung like a dark shroud over their camp for the rest of the excavation. In the end, Professor Banno called the whole thing off early. They’d mapped all they needed to, he said. Better to get back to the Universitat and get a head start on second-season’s classwork.
Gradually, as she worked out the remainder of her second year, Mafalda ceased to think about the awkward, bright-eyed young man and his warm smile and his secret silver. She thought about Celio less and less, pouring herself into her studies with determination. She hadn’t lied when she told him that her primary motivation for staying in school was doing right by her parents.
She was not going to graduate with anything less than the highest honors, not after all they’d gone through to get her there. She was proud of herself for avoiding that temptation, for not derailing her life.
Graduation came and went. It was, you know, nice. A big dinner. A final presentation on her third-year research concerning tissue preservation in differing burial methods. Professor Ines invited her to do a secondary research certificate with a focus on mummies. Professor Banno gifted her a bottle of wine.
At the ceremony, they bestowed upon her with great ceremony a practitioner’s license and a deep blue cloak with ermine trim, embroidered with the Universitat’s colors. She shrugged it on, enjoyed the way it made her feel, then found it dreadfully sweaty by the end of the evening.
It was, without a doubt, the best night of her life. But of course, like all best nights of people’s lives, by the morning she barely remembered half of it. The whole day was a charming blur, familiar smiling faces and words of encouragement and warm fuzzy feelings of accomplishment that all bled together like watercolors on too-wet paper. She remembered hugging her parents outside their hotel room, the warm glow of pride.
She woke in the morning with a smile on her face. Indistinct as the memories might be, she glanced to the coat-rack and saw her cloak hanging by the door and knew it was all real.
Despite graduating, Mafalda retained her room in the boarding house where she’d spent her student years. There was no sense moving somewhere more expensive when she was likely to be sent away on a dig within weeks. So when she rolled out of bed to make herself a morning cup of tea, she had to walk down the hallway to the kitchen to do so.
And when she arrived in the kitchen–a cramped but brightly-tiled space stuffed with drying herbs and big glass jars of pickled vegetables–she was in for a hell of a fright.
Celio sat at the kitchen counter, flipping through a book while casually sipping cream tea.
There was no mistaking him. If she hadn’t recognized him on sight, the way he looked up at her and immediately smiled confirmed it. He closed the book, its pages snapping together audibly, and spread his arms as if to hug her.
“I hear congratulations are in order,” he said.
To which Mafalda answered, “Why the fuck are you in my house?”
Celio laughed a little. “Well, I wanted to talk to you. Your landlady knocked on the door, but you were out cold. Which makes sense, now that I think about it. Big night you must have had. I ought to have called later in the day.”
Mafalda ran a hand through her hair–which was unbrushed, a crazy tangled mess. She wondered if she might be dreaming.
“Tea?” asked Celio, rising and moving to the stovetop. He checked the fire, then checked the kettle boiling atop the iron potbelly. He moved like he was familiar with this place, like he was so at home in her personal space. And yes, even though she shared it with eight other people, she still felt territorially defensive of the house. He wasn’t supposed to be in it.
“You have some explaining to do,” she said. “The Port Authority ransacked our camp the day after you disappeared.”
Celio fixed a cup of tea without looking at it, spooning leaves into the strainer, his eyes on Mafalda.
“If I’d warned you, you would have had something to hide,” he said. “Better to not put you in that position.”
Mafalda narrowed her eyes. She drummed her fingers on the countertop. “Dunno if that should be your choice to make.”
“It was all a misunderstanding anyhow.” Celio passed her a teacup, one of the brown-glazed things the landlady provided to her charges by the dozen. Stiff with shock, Mafalda took the cup and stared at it.
“So you stalked me all the way here and now… what exactly? You want to apologize?”
Celio’s lip twitched in a pout. “Stalked is a harsh word. I wanted to check in on a friend after her graduation.”
How was she supposed to react to that? Had they really been friends? Friendship was built on foundations of trust and mutual understanding. Based on what the Port Authority had shared, much of what he’d told her at camp had been a lie. If not all of it.
“I promise I wasn’t up to anything unseemly.” Celio skirted around the counter and re-took his seat. “I merely remembered what you said.”
“What I said?”
His bright, curious eyes found hers. As he spoke, his mouth lifted in an irrepressible grin, like a street magician about to pluck a coin from her hair.
“Two years ago you told me that you had to stay in Medao. That you owed it to your parents because of the sacrifices they’d made so you could graduate.”
Mafalda’s eyes widened. She laughed a single time, a hard bark. The volume surprised her.
“Are you serious?” she asked. “I’d sooner shit in my hands and clap.”
The turn of phrase seemed to catch him off guard. Instead of reacting to her rejection, he threw back his head and let out a startled laugh of his own. It took him a moment to get himself under control. Throughout the entirety of said moment, Mafalda glared at him.
“You lied to me,” she said before he could get a word in. “You lied about everything. This job of yours, it probably doesn’t even exist.”
Celio, looking wounded, grabbed his book off the countertop. He held it out to her, a small leather-bound peace offering.
“I wouldn’t say ‘lied.’ Everything I told you was true. I just left some details out. There really is a dig, Mafalda. And I really did find that silver there. And–this is the part where I admit something a little embarrassing–I held off on excavating further. Because I want you there.”
Were it not for the silver, Mafalda would have thrown him out on his ass. But that buckle, it had haunted her dreams. In all her third-year field work, in all her studies, in all her visits to the city’s museums and caches, she’d yet to see anything like it.
She snatched the book forcefully from Celio’s hand, flipping it open.
The book wasn’t a book at all. It was a leather folio with a pocket on either side and a collection of documents housed within. She recognized the documents immediately: several maps, a shipping manifest, an order from an outfitter’s shop, and a contract detailing excavation rights. The second half of the folio was home to a few sloppy sketches of rock outcrops, more maps and trails and–
She reached the back of the folder, drawing out a thin square of parchment. It was a rubbing taken in charcoal, detailing some engravings on a circular pattern. It was far, far larger than the buckle, taken from perhaps a shield or a plate or some other round metallic object. The individual characters were clear and crisp, a sign of quality workmanship given their age. Just like the buckle, they were Low Sunnish, the ancestral root language of the tongue Mafalda had grown up speaking.
“There’s more,” Celio said, quiet. “So much more.”
Again, Mafalda felt that pull. Like gravity itself were drawing her along this path, toward these ancient objects and their buried, untold stories.
“There’s nothing to guarantee this is even real,” she said. “You lied about everything. Even your name. I’d be an idiot to trust you now.”
But already she was making excuses to herself. Telling herself that she’d worked for untrustworthy bosses in the past. That her second dig in third-year had been a borderline criminal enterprise. And most importantly, reminding her that in the interest of uncovering something big, she hadn’t given a shit about that part.
Mafalda was all too aware that her hunger for discovery overruled a lot of the ethical concerns that tied her peers down. Somehow, Celio had spotted it way back when. And she’d known he’d spotted it, too. Otherwise, why had she let herself befriend him? Why hadn’t she reported him to Professor Banno? Why hadn’t she voluntarily come forward to the Port Authority to tell them what he’d shared with her?
She hadn’t exactly protected him. But she hadn’t sold him out either.
Because that would mean selling out the silver.
“You’re thinking it over,” he said, grinning cheekily. “I can see you’re thinking it over.”
Mafalda closed the folder, then ran her fingertips across its cracked, aged leather surface. Her gut was telling her to go. Her gut was a silly, girlish thing given to whims and daydreams. But slowly, it was convincing her brain.
She’d learned a lot in the last two years. She could protect herself.
“If I was even to consider going with you,” she said. “I’d need to choose my own team. You’ve proven you can’t be trusted. And this site’s a long way from civilization.”
Celio’s smile shone like the first sun after a long rain. “Choose your assistants,” he said. “Your security. You know better than I do about that sort of thing anyway.”
There’s got to be something he’s getting out of this, she warned herself. Something more than an archaeologist.
But she was young and freshly-graduated and full of piss and vinegar. Turning the folio over in her hands, Mafalda regarded her guest with a skeptical expression.
“And most importantly,” she said. “You come clean. I want the real story–why were you at Moetta? How did you know to run? And what’s your actual name?”
That last bit was a test. The Port Authority poster had listed it, among his many aliases. If he told her anything other than the truth now, she’d walk.
“Well the first one’s easy,” Celio said. He clambered down off his chair, then stretched. Taking a single languid step toward her, he started to hold out a hand…
… then retracted it, remembering his faux-pas in the cavern.
Choosing instead to comb the hand through his long, well-kept hair, he smiled at her. It was a shy smile, but beneath it was a certain confidence. She wondered how she hadn’t seen it before, that sly edge to his mouth and eyes.
“My name’s Nuso,” he said. “Nuso Celio Rill.”
And didn’t that just beat all. He was telling the truth.