Salem couldn’t prove it, per se, but Mason’s third vomit in less hours was a good indicator that she’d never seen him that drunk before. The last thing they did last night was hitch their horses onto their caravan, and the first thing he did when he awoke mid-afternoon, was celebrate. Salem would’ve stopped him, but having been asleep for an hour longer made it hard to tell just how much he’d had, and by the time she got around to adding up just how much ale was missing, Wolfgang was already holding Mason’s dirty blonde, matty hair back as he puked out the back of the wagon. If she had a less empathetic stomach she would’ve been as amused as the men, but instead every time something splattered below Greenidge, Redwood dry-heaved.
“Every time you do this, you regret it,” Wolfgang mused as his friend spit the remnants out.
“Ever’ tim ah doo ths, ah fuhgit.”
Mason’s eyes were fluttering as the largest of the Ravens pulled his head back inside the wagon. Bits of bile dotted his jaw, but Wolfgang was able to dab them away with a cloth while Adam unfolded a sheet of paper. “Everyone getting the usual with their shares?”
“Doont fuhgit ah ga ht. Tws!”
“Twice?” Crossing his arms, Wolfgang eyed Mason as he swayed back and forth without his aid. “Are you counting when I pulled you?”
“I’ll give it to you.” Adam squinted at the then wrong numbers he drew up last night. “Alright, now don’t hold me to this, but that’s going to make it 18,000 Tsion a peice. An-”
“-Yes, except you, Mason. But no one wants anything special? Half of Wolfgang’s to his sister, a shitload of ale for Mason, and individual exotic arrows for Salem-” Adam shot her a look, “Waste of money, by the way.”
“You miss less if the shots you take are fucking expensive.”
The sailor shrugged before folding the paper and sliding it back into his pocket. Leaning against the massive quilt that composed the inner lining of their transport, his body looked even more triangular against its grid than usual. Where Wolfgang was a massive mass of muscles, Adam looked like he was carved from a hunk of limestone, his dark blue eyes popping against his ghostly pale skin that refused to tan, unburdened by any hair other than his eyebrows. Probably at least, Salem had never done a thorough investigation.
Seeing her bronze eyes on him made another thought strike Adam, however. “Hey, Salem?”
“I’m surprised you didn’t object to the mission considering your…” His wrist rolled while Salem cocked an eyebrow. “...Superstitions.”
“Like the crypt,” Wolfgang jumped in, “Or the catacombs before it.”
“Evn herlu-harla-hurlu-?” Mason gave Adam a pleading glance.
“Even heirlooms freak you out.” His arms crossed as he rested his eyes. “It was only a month ago that the queen burned at the stake. What changed? I doubt it’s just the money.”
“I just don’t think any ghosts are gonna care about this one. If any are haunting the castle, then they know the king’s a dick.”
“But you’d invoke the wrath of a witch?”
Salem scoffed. “There’s no such thing as witches, but if the shade of Queen Liara herself saw us steal it, I think she’ll be glad to see it delivered to her sister in the Eastern Isles. We’re more likely to be blessed than cursed.”
“But you believe in cu-”
“I mean actively helped or fucked with.” She shrugged. “Seabound's a name from there, isn’t it? That’s Fiona’s people?”
“Yeah. You can't tell from her accent?” Adam cracked an eye, “She wanted to come with me to make the sale this time. I imagine there’ll be some people she wants to visit, so it might take another day or so for us to get back. Think the three of you will manage?”
Wolfgang glanced at Mason, already curled up in a ball on the verge of passing out. “We might lose someone,” He joked.
“He’s got the right idea though,” Redwood shrugged, “Wake me when we get to Shatter Woods, will you?”
Sleep proved to be more elusive than Salem had initially suspected, body running off the high of a huge score and fighting against the very concept of being still. She squirmed for the better part of several hours, which she was only able to estimate through Mason’s slow sobering and the setting sun. Fiona’s shift had ended during one of her rare naps, and while Salem gave up on getting another, she felt a gentle smile creep up on her face upon seeing her friend tucked into a ball on top of several blankets. Even though she was the last to complain of the cold and first to bring up the heat, the concept of not covering with a blanket remained alien for Redwood. Fiona had bunched up her hip-long, nearly platinum blonde hair onto the arm her head rested on like a makeshift pillow, despite several lying around unused.
“Ya know Red,” Mason scooched a few inches closer as Salem blinked out of her trance, “You keep looking at her like that, but you never do anything about it.”
“I taught her how to use a bow.”
“Sensually. I guided her hands through it, spoke softly and shit. It’s just that-” She shrugged. “I’ve seen how she looks at Adam.”
“Who stares at Wolfgang when no one’s looking, who’s been celibate since his bitch of a wife left him.”
Salem nodded, it’d been over a year, but she still remembered when Mason tried enlisting her help for Wolfgang’s surprise party, only to catch the back end of a broom for his efforts. He claimed to have walked in on her packing up everything valuable she and her husband owned, and when she left, she didn’t even leave a note, sentiments be damned. The pair was such a happy couple the weeks before, then Wolfgang was gone a week for a job and Marsha passed him on the road like he was no one. With most of her hair lobbed off, he didn’t even think it was her until he caught up with Mason, still picking the splinters out of his face.
“We’re a love pentagon made up of arrows and dotted lines. Go with them, see if you can fill some in.”
Salem let out a sigh but shook her head. “I think I’ll stick to tradition. I’d hate to be seasick during Fiona’s reunions.”
“Tradition’s off the table, actually. Wolfgang has plans.”
“Do I now?” Having been seated in the wagon’s open curtain to keep watch of the road behind them, Wolfgang had to twist his body to look Mason in the eyes. “And what would those plans be, exactly?”
“A day of debauchery,” Greenidge smirked, “After you make Mrs. Peoples a Miss once more.”
A moment of denial paused Wolfgang, letting Salem’s blurting words beat him to the punch. “You found her? How!”
“Bribes mostly,” Mason shrugged, “And I’ve paid a lot of forgers to make copies of her old self-portraits, to the point that almost every merchant, fence and innkeeper I’ve crossed has one. Someone finally found her in Oakcliffe. Hell, hired her even.”
“Who?” Mr. Peoples leaned forward, but his brow furrowed with his follow up, “And how long have you known?”
“I found out on the way to the capital, but didn’t want to freak you out before a massive job.” Greenidge paused a moment. “Thaddeus Turner at The Pouring Spirits. Cost me 100 Tsion for that, but I’m stealing it back from Marsha, or if it’s not her, Turner himself.” His fingers tapped a moment. “And she’s going by Zoie Meadows now.”
“My wife took a dead kid’s name? Did she at lea-”
“Spelled it the same.”
The cart rolled to a slow stop while Wolfgang sat appalled.
“If you want support, I’m there for you, but I figured-”
“I need to do this alone.”
“Yeah, that.” Mason nodded slowly as Salem awoke Fiona and helped her to her feet. Having read the room, Fiona needed a brief rundown, which Redwood regretted giving prematurely when she had to repeat everything for Adam once their cart had stopped. As per usual, the wagon was parked outside the Inn & Out’s Stable, and all but Fiona and Adam led their mares inside, greeting the stablehand, setting them up inside their stalls and seeing them fed before departing.
“We’ll find something for your divorce on the way back,” Adam smiled as he helped Fiona onto her saddle, “You’re a good man, Wolfgang, you deserve better than what happened.”
“Thank you, but don’t hurry back for me.” Turning to Fiona, he added, “Tell your family that we’d love to meet them if they ever come to the mainland.”
“That’d enjoy that,” The Eastern Isles maiden wore a broad smile and spoke like a staccato scale, her syllables short but in a jolly pitch, “Take care, my friends, may your nights be wild and mornings tranquil.”
Three hands waved as two horses galloped towards the sea.
Something about an official end to a once blissful marriage had made a wild night difficult for Wolfgang. After sharing dinner with his friends, he managed to slip out of the inn and resign to the wagon, Mason already too drunk to stop him and Salem distracted by trying to figure out which waitresses might respond to her flirtation. Wolfgang Jasper Peoples had a solid hour to himself before anyone walked through the curtain, a full sixty minutes to mull over the last weeks he saw his wife.
Unless he’d repressed memories, she was in bright spirits before her abandonment. They’d seen plays together, heckled jesters, shared tender moments and danced. She painted and tended to the garden, and he trimmed the trees around the house and replaced some rotting wood in the furniture. Masha was asleep in his arms the night before, a soft smile spreading her cheeks and they shared breakfast that morning, cracking eggs and squeezing oranges. Wolfgang couldn’t see any signs, because there were no signs to see.
He could, however, spot Redwood’s hand waving in front of his face. “Sorry Salem, I’m not in the mood for cards.”
“Didn’t think you would be.” Having gained his attention, she sat beside him. “Just thought I’d check up on you. Do you want some company, or just space?”
A sigh rolled out of Wolfgang.
“Do you want to talk about it, or do you just want me here?”
“I want to hear your voice so I don’t hear my thoughts.”
Salem nodded, fingers tapping for a moment as she thought of what to say. “Green didn’t stop talking about how he was gonna get the two of us laid after you left, by the way, which pretty much guaranteed I’d be coming home alone. It’s hard to get someone’s last name when your partner makes you sound so cripplingly alone.” She flashed a faint smile. “He means well though, even if my dry spell is mostly his fault. Does he offer to treat you to the brothel too? I swear he shouts it louder than he has to, and only when whoever I’m making progress on is within earshot. So maybe he doesn’t mean well?”
The girl leaned back, grinning slightly. “He’s actually been there for a little bit now. Maybe… ten minutes? I wanted to see if I still had a chance with Heather after he left, but that ship’s sailed. Think you’ll join him after tomorrow? Apparently it’s the only place any of us get laid, and a little action might do you some good.”
Wolfgang nodded. She knew him well enough to know that meant ‘I’m still listening’ more often than ‘yes’, but he was a bit closer to content than before, and feeling a little proud of herself, Salem let her mind wander aloud. Her topics spanned from the various times Mason had fucked over her sex life and her own mistakes that kept her from getting lucky, which led to conversations of luck in the traditional sense before spiraling into ramblings of ghosts.
In each moment, Wolfgang knew Salem attributed each unexplained sound that either rescued or damned a heist to spirits, but he was unaware that she was keeping a mental log. They were always matters of fortune to him, a rat knocking over a pan at the wrong time, a dead tree branch finally falling between themselves and their pursuers, but to her, they were all times that they’d incurred the wrath of the dead, or tickled the mischievous nature of a spirit. She’d rattled off eight instances in their first three years working together, back when they were Crows, before something in the distance stopped her. Her eyes went wide and skin paled while Wolfgang snapped to his feet, their eyes locking only a moment while they blurted their fear in unison, confirming it with a shared chill.
Greenidge could always take a punch, so hearing him cry out, especially so loud crashed horror on the duo, Wolfgang already sprinting out of the wagon while Salem desperately searched for the unnailed plank that hid the band’s loot and weapons. In her panic, it took nearly five seconds, but it felt like each one that passed was cackling at her, crouching low to deliver the sound straight into her ear, echoing as it traversed the canal. In another two, she’d dislodged the wood and quiver over her shoulder and bow in hand, she was off sprinting after Wolfgang, who was already vanishing into the crowd that had spilled out from the bar before the brothel, a full eighty yards from the stable.
She was a bolt of lightning after her giant friend, but his long strides kept her from closing the distance, vanishing inside before she even made it to the mob. Bodies too packed to wedge between, Salem’s shoulder slammed between who she eyeballed to be the weakest links, forcibly shoving and pawing past the sea of onlookers. The commotion was too loud for her demands of a clear path to cut through, and her slender frame slowed her progress, but she quickly discovered people parted when they were jabbed with the back of an arrow. Halfway to the door, the body of someone swimming against the current collided with her, but the stranger’s journey had left a path in her wake, and barely taking a glance at the woman, Salem sprinted for it.
Her arms brushed the sides of strangers, and once she made it to the door, she didn’t stop to grab its handle. Notching an arrow, she earned herself a new bruise when her shoulder slammed the entrance ajar, staggering in while she pulled the bow back, ready to fire. Startled by the sight, however, her blood ran cold and fingers slipped, thunk in the wall from her arrow eliciting fresh screams while she ran to a man, collapsed on his back in front of an open door. Strong as he was, there was nothing Wolfgang could do to keep from bleeding, scarlet spluttering between his fingers as they desperately tried keeping his throat closed. His black beard was already crimson by the time Salem made it to him, her shaking hands trying to assist him as well, but only succeeding in getting soaked.
Tears began welling in the girl’s eyes as she begged him to hold on and screamed for the onlookers to get help, but as blood gurgled from Wolfgang’s feeble attempts to speak, it was clear nothing could. Redwood’s entire body began to quake as she felt the man go weak beneath him, her hands the only thing holding his in place while the blue of his iris faded. She’d never seen the light leave someone’s eyes before, but the sight froze her, Wolfgang’s limp palms finally sliding from his injury, revealing a singular slice that scratched his spine through his throat. Blood continued pouring through the wound, but without a heartbeat, it had stopped spraying. Salem’s however, seemed to pound for them both. It felt like her organ was ramming against her ribs while her trembling fingers reached out to close her friend's eyes, but without the muscle to keep them shut, they simply reopened, hauntingly staring back up at her.
Salem’s vision was so blurry that she could barely see a foot in front of her, but on weak knees, she forced herself up, staggering towards the open door before her. The girl felt ill, having to use both the wall and her longbow to stay standing, and seeing another still figure on the bed, she had to dig deep to find the will to advance. The colors it wore matched what Mason had on when they split up, but the closer she got, the more apparent it became that the only blood in the room was what was dripping off of her. What… whatever had happened to her friend to make him cry out in agony, didn’t make him bleed.
Standing fully over him, Salem dabbed her eyes before gazing upon him. His nearly brown hair was still a mess, and his clothes were all intact. There was slight bruising on his neck and minor scratches on its side, but only rough enough to leave a white trail where only a layer, two tops, of skin were dragged off. His throat didn’t look purple enough to have been strangled, and the sound she and… Wolfgang… had heard didn’t line up with being unable to breathe. Lifting his shirt, Mason looked predominantly unscathed, and running an open palm over his skin didn’t find anything broken. Clamping her eyes, she forced her welled tears to trickle down her cheek so they’d open to a less blurry world. Still shaking, her index finger and thumb surrounded his left eye, and spreading it open, she watched his pupil shrink from the candlelight above them. Moving her hand down, she could feel a steady, natural pulse on his neck, and she watched his chest rise and fall as he breathed.
Hesitantly, she pulled her hand back before hovering it next to his face. Gently, she tapped it twice, trembling as she spoke.
“Green? Green, are you alright?”
She repeated the motion but struck a little harder.
“Are you there, Green? Wake up,” Her voice broke, “Please. I need you to wake up…”