Gaz couldn’t quite decide between the Edendunne mint and the silverstem. He wasn’t quite so picky about his tea as Calay was, but he enjoyed both a great deal. Mint was refreshing, a good early morning pick-me-up. Silverstem was herbier, less sharp, more of a bedtime beverage. As much as he enjoyed a cup while preparing for slumber, he couldn’t remember the last time his life’s circumstances had allowed a quiet cup of tea before bed. Half the time expecting a bed to sleep in at all was asking for too much.
Before he could make his selection, shouting drew him out of the teaseller’s tent and back into the market yard. Torcha’s sharp, rough-edged voice, volume cranked up in agitation. She was calling someone a…
“Did she just say vulture?” Calay asked at his side. The two of them peeked around the corners of a few tents, searching for the source of the clamor.
They found Torcha in a junk shop on the fringes of the market, a low-ceilinged tent with a hangdog look about it. Both the outside and the inside looked like they’d seen better days. Calay stifled a sneeze as they ducked inside.
At the counter, Torcha stood with her hands on her hips. She was squaring off against a short, pale-faced man with wisps of brassy hair. He lounged against the counter, posture slack with indifference, his expression that of a man untroubled by his circumstances. Whatever fuss she was kicking up, it was water off a duck’s back to him.
“Why don’t you fetch me a bucket,” Torcha muttered, one eye narrowed at the shopkeep. “I’ll flay my arm open and pay you in a pint of blood while I’m at it.”
Gaz coughed into his palm, then tried to peek around Torcha to see what exactly they were haggling over. A dusty guitar sat on the counter, half-polished and looking about as shabby as the tent and its owner.
“Something the matter?” Calay shined an easygoing smile toward the pair.
“This ingrate jacked up the price on this guitar the second I expressed the faintest interest in buying it,” Torcha grumbled. “How much you reckon a piece like this is worth?”
Calay glanced down at the guitar, then twitched a shrug. “Haven’t the foggiest. I don’t play guitar. Couple hundred? It’s beat to shit.”
“Hey!” The shopkeeper interjected. “I’ll not have my merchandise insulted. The guitar is an antique, made by a renowned luthier. It isn’t in pristine condition, no. But that’s why it costs six hundred instead of three or four thousand.”
Six hundred australs. Gaz blew out a low whistle. For much of his life, six hundred australs outnumbered what he made in a year. He was no musician, but he didn’t think guitars usually cost that much. He took a step closer, gazing down at the instrument. It was glossy, expensive-looking in a way he couldn’t pinpoint. Its strings were a little frayed, but beneath the dust it looked nice.
Calay reached over and gave Torcha a pat on the shoulder. “You know how it is in stopovers like this, gal. Everyone here is selling Meduese relics and historied antiques with no proof and no providence. They’re just hoping a traveler will wander by who’s bored or stupid or loaded enough to pay the price.”
The merchant slammed an open palm against the counter. The resulting impact was strong enough that a stand of painted water gourds jiggled and swayed on its display. Dust motes twinkled in the air.
“All three of you,” the merchant growled. “Out. If you’re offended by my prices, no one’s holding a knife to your throats.”
Gaz ducked out first. Wary of his size and unpolished appearance, he found that those who didn’t know him frequently took his very presence at an altercation as a show of hostility or an escalation of force. The last thing he wanted was to cause trouble. He exhaled in relief when Calay dragged Torcha out. She was still scowling.
“The fuck’s your problem?” she asked him. “We could take him.”
“Yes,” said Calay. “If we were brigands.”
“He’s a profiteering prick.”
That was sort of the entire purpose a man became a merchant, wasn’t it? Gaz didn’t think that would add anything constructive to the discussion. Then his thoughts drifted sidelong toward a brief observation of his friends. It sure was something, the way Calay and Torcha had recognized one another in their rage. The Indefinite-Collective had built a bridge between them. A very angry bridge. He seemed to come to her when she was angry now. Or maybe it was the other way around.
Maybe they’d use it to help one another. Hopefully they wouldn’t use it to feed one another. Otherwise, Gaz worried, the poor guitar-selling asshole was a dead man.
Instead of saying all that, Gaz cast a curious glance Torcha’s way.
“I didn’t even know you played guitar,” he said.
“I don’t.” She laughed, anger shaken off as easy as it had mounted. “But it might be a nice way to pass time when we’re cooped up all day. Gives me something to do.”
“Can’t argue with that,” he said.
“Ah, piss on him.” Calay dismissed it all with a wave of his hand. “Come on. Maybe there’s a tent in here that sells something fun to smoke.”
Sleeping in the wagon was a complicated balancing act. It wasn’t meant for five fully-grown humans to stretch out comfortably. But they managed, to the small extent that it was manageable. Almost everyone slept in the spots they’d initially staked out upon leaving Adelheim: Gaz and Calay in the rear cargo hold, Torcha up top in the luggage loft. Riss and Adal slept on the benches in the passenger’s chamber. It was likely a more comfortable arrangement than the spot Gaz had chosen, but the cargo hold had a door that granted at least the illusion of privacy.
Cramped as the cargo hold was, Gaz knew the moment he awoke that he was alone. There was no telltale knees or elbows prodding against his lower back. No snoring in his ear.
He hauled on his boots and slipped out for a piss. Too much silverstem tea before bedtime. Once that matter was attended to, he took a moment to consider the dirty, moonlit silhouette of Wishes.
There was something quaint about it. Something that might have been charming with a second coat of paint. Or… okay, even a first.
Hooking his thumbs through his belt, Gaz leaned against the exterior wagon wall. Inside, he could hear the others breathing. No sound whatsoever emanated from inside the rickety buildings. He listened for the caws of distant birds, the sound of wolves on the hunt, anything. Instead, only silence greeted him.
Silence was an odd, disquieting thing. He was too city-born for it. Too used to noise to ever grow comfortable in a place like this.
By the time he heard Calay’s familiar footsteps crunching up toward him, he was grateful for the sound.
“Thought I’d find you here,” he said, squinting into the dark. Calay had likely augmented his eyes, but Gaz could barely see shit. There was barely a scrap of moon and the stars were veiled by thin, dust-streaked clouds.
“Did I wake you on my way out?” Calay matched the low pitch of Gaz’s voice, sounding chagrined.
“Nah.” Gaz peered toward the drape of Calay’s coat, trying to see beneath it in the gloom. “You nicked it, then?”
Calay pivoted on a heel, leaning against the wagon with a soft thud. Gaz caught a brief glimpse of the guitar cradled against his side, wood and lacquer flashing telltale in the moonlight. Gaz exhaled the ghost of a laugh through his nose. As soon as he’d realized Calay was gone, he’d guessed.
He couldn’t resist the temptation to rub it in a little. “Careful. Once she figures out you’ve gone soft, it’s all over. She’ll be ordering you around by month’s end.”
As they crept toward the cargo hold’s door, Calay gently clotheslined him, thwacking a forearm across his neck.
“I haven’t.” He hmphed. “I just miss it sometimes. Getting in people’s way. Being a regular, trouble-causing Jackass of the Road. Doing one over on pricks who think they’re better than us.”
Careful with the guitar, he levered himself up into the wagon hold, then scooted back on his ass, making way for Gaz to climb in after him. Though Gaz did his best, it was not a quiet or subtle embarkation. He banged his elbow on a crate, then nearly fell over on his elbows when his boot snagged in a cargo net.
“Founders’ tears,” Calay hissed. “You trying to wake that pasty bastard up? Get the whole town after us?”
Gaz muttered a half-formed obscenity and felt about for his blanket and pillow, determined to get comfortable again. Instead, he felt something repeatedly prod him in the ribs. Something blunt and leathery and–
“Is that your foot?” A sigh. “Why?”
“You’re on the trapdoor,” Calay whispered. “Scoot.”
Picking himself up and shoving himself against the wall, Gaz began a complicated half-crawl half-scoot over their cargo, until he found a hard-edged crate and was able to climb atop it. Couldn’t Calay at least light a match or something? He didn’t bother voicing a complaint, but he made his displeasure known in the dramatic sighs and slow dragging motions that composed his climbing.
Something creaked and squeaked. Calay unhinged the trapdoor, then secured the guitar down belowdecks.
While Tarn’s wagon wasn’t quite a smuggler’s jobby, the floor of the cargo hold was shallow enough that belowdecks storage had proved to be impressively discreet. Discreet enough that Gaz and Calay had slept atop the trapdoor for two nights before they’d noticed it. Even if the pasty pawn shopper came looking, Gaz was confident their transport would stand up to scrutiny. The trapdoor clicked quietly shut as Calay lowered it down.
“Well?” he asked a couple moments later.
“Aren’t you going to climb down?”
Gaz leaned down off the crate and felt along the wall in the dark until his hands encountered a pillow. He grabbed it and dragged it over regardless of whose it might be. He stretched, orienting himself. If he rested his head near the passengers’ door and his feet near the loading bay, he had enough room to stretch out entirely.
As he did so, he felt Calay nestle up comfortably against his back. He draped a blanket over the both of them, though it wasn’t quite long enough to cover Gaz’s feet.
“There we go.” Calay sounded pleased with himself. “You can’t tell me you didn’t miss it at least a little. Thieving.”
“If that’s what you’re telling yourself.” Gaz smiled into the dark.
He couldn’t begin to explain how it felt, the strange way that being in the swamp had touched them, had connected them. Calay had been wrestling with it ever since, unwilling to talk about it then raging against it then giving in to it in equal, unpredictable measure. He threw fists in a tavern then dragged Gaz to bed with him. He’d kissed him one night, then pushed him away the next morning, then apologized by noon. He’d sat up with Torcha long into the night, laughing and reminiscing about the gang back in Blackbricks. Then today he still insisted that the favor he did her wasn’t a favor. He’d just missed thieving.
Gaz rolled onto his back, getting comfortable. He eased an arm behind Calay’s neck, curling it around his shoulders and drawing him in a little closer.
“You know,” he started to say. “It’s okay to–”
A sudden shriek of fright cut him off. The single yell, a woman’s voice muffled by planks of pine, came from the passengers’ compartment. A moment later, soft voices followed, too low to be understood through the door. A man, the cadence of his words low and soothing.
Gaz’s words died in his throat. Calay too went silent. They listened through the door as Adal roused her from her nightmare, then quietly talked her down. Not that either man strained to hear the words. Gaz felt a perverse sense of voyeurism, like he was witnessing something he should not. He tried to avoid making out anything said.
None of them talked about the nightmares. It wasn’t always Riss. They carried on, blazing their trail away from Adelheim. Distance eased the strange psychic tug on Gaz’s mind, the way he swore he could sometimes feel that connection again, like someone breathing on the back of his neck. They didn’t ask Riss what she dreamed of. She didn’t ask them what it felt like to have their hearts flayed open and peeked into by innumerable nameless beings.
It’s okay to give a shit, he’d wanted to tell Calay.
But he knew why Calay persisted.
They were all just trying to pretend they were the same. That the swamp hadn’t changed them.