Rasa currently clocks in at around 250,000 words. It has six “chapters” so far, and if I could gauge roughly where I am in the plot I would say I’m about…twenty to thirty percent done? And that’s just Rasa–I have plans for Albumere, and things related to Albumere, that go far beyond this story. I cannot emphasize the sheer SCOPE of the epics that are working together in my head; if plans continue to percolate at the rate they are now, it is entirely possible that I will not finish within my natural lifetime. (And I’m 18 years old. That’s not ambitious, that’s just stupid.)
And the thing about all this is, Rasa didn’t start that way. It has evolved and grown as I have written it, with so many developments unfolding behind the scenes, and I have loved watching it become what it is now. But I think it’s time to take a step back, breathe, and start to cut the blubber off of this thing. I’m currently plowing forward writing manuscripts for more traditional publishers, planning how these works will all be linked, and, to be frank, getting my shit together. (Because, again, I’m 18 years old. Growing up is hard, I don’t know how people do it.) I don’t have the time or inclination to torture a story out of something that’ll end twice as long as War and Peace.
So, to anyone who comes this way now or in the near future, let it be known that I’m re-planning and re-writing Rasa. (Yes, cling to the hope that the curse of “indefinite hiatus” doesn’t grab this poor story.) The new Rasa will be leaner and meaner, a significantly smaller portion of it will be written at two in the morning, and, hell, it might even go traditional instead of serialized; we’ll see what the beast looks like after it’s been born. I’ll need time to plan, write, and edit, and of course other projects will be going on at the same time, so the relaunch of Rasa is definitely a long-term objective. The end result might look very different from what’s on the site now, so assume nothing. To everyone who has read and supported the story, thank you! Watch this space; if you’re interested, I might update you on my progress or how other projects are going. I’ll be back.🙂
“Do you think they’ll write books about me?” asked Mazzia, as he clambered over the rock face. The summit was still a long ways away yet, but Mazzia did not mind. It gave him more time to talk. “Will the scribes of Hak Mat Do write my story for ages to come?”
“No,” said the Lady Fall. “The scribes of Hak Mat Do will not last for much longer. Look to your home instead.”
Mazzia made a face. “The plains? All the electors do is collect the books. There are no writers in Shira Hay.”
“There will be, for as long as it lasts.” The Lady Fall flapped her great bat-like wings, hovering over Mazzia’s head. “The time of emperors is ending. The time of kings shall soon begin.”
Mazzia bowed his sun-browned face, adjusting his scarf, as he walked along the mountain pass. There had been news, of course, that the men of the Mokesh Valley had been reconquered by the Stronghold, but they were weak and their grudges old. And this talk of a king, and a city at the center of the world… “They really are going to do it, then? Conquer all of Albumere?”
“Albumere cannot be conquered. Not by men.” The Lady Fall landed, her wings folding behind her back. Mazzia supposed she had seen all she had to see. “But, yes, the great cities will fall. Like clockwork, one after the other. Even the Stronghold.”
Even from the Lady, whose cryptic words Mazzia had grown used to, that sounded too strange to be true. “The Stronghold will fall to the Stronghold?” asked Mazzia.
“Yes. Even they shall bow, to the king they raised.”
Mazzia snorted. “Taking the mountains, I can understand,” said Mazzia, shaking his head. “The valleymen have no great city, just their cult religion and a few scant villages. But surely Jhidnu, and the Temple, and the winter clans will hold?”
The Lady Fall shook her head, forlornly. “You, and the rest of Albumere, underestimate what the Stronghold will gain by taking the valley. It will be ages yet before they build their great tower, and you will be long dead before they do, but then mankind shall see for themselves the gift of the First Smith.”
Mazzia rolled his eyes. “There’s going to be more?”
“Many more,” said the Lady Fall, her eyes twinkling. “As many as the stars innumerable. They shall forge blades of steel, and boats with iron hulls, and the empty husks of man and beast that you will mistake as your downfall but will truly be your salvation.” She paused. “But that will not be for a while yet. Do not concern yourself with smiths for now.”
“All that, the martyr taught them?”
“A martyr, not the martyr,” said the Lady Fall. “His is jade, not iron.”
“Sometimes, I feel like you just say things. Am I supposed to understand this?” said Mazzia, shaking his head. “How do you know this will happen? How do I know you know this will happen?”
He heard the rustle of wings once more behind him, and he stopped as she took to the air again. Even under the harsh glare of the sun, the Lady Fall shrouded herself in layer upon layer of thick black cloth; Mazzia could see only the glint of her eyes beneath the cloak. In that way, she was the exact opposite of her sister, the Lady Spring, who walked across Albumere unashamed of her nakedness.
The Lady Fall threw her wings open and levitated before Mazzia, a harsh wind building around the both of them. She hovered above him, a terrible blot upon the sky, blocking out the sun, consuming the world in whispers and shadows. “I am the Muse of Quiet, the Moon that is the Eye, the Painter of the Wind. I looked upon you when you stumbled, bleary-eyed and crying, from the hollow tree, and I shall look upon you again when you stumble, bleary-eyed and crying, into your grave. I am a god,” boomed the Lady Fall, her normally quiet voice resonating around Mazzia. “Is that not enough?”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” said Mazzia, matter-of-factly, and the shadows shrank away. Light returned to the world, and the Lady Fall landed beside Mazzia. They walked on.
“I taught you too well,” she said, once again folding her wings behind her.
“I find that my faith in the gods has been utterly shaken by knowing one personally,” said Mazzia, nodding. “I’m sure Raggon and Gahhay would have a lot to say about that, but they’re the kind of people of who ask nothing but questions, and right now I want answers. The truth, please.”
“You would ask for truth from the goddess of lies and secrets?” The Lady Fall tittered.
“The Lady Winter is the liar. She tells the lie of compassion, and mercy, and the painlessness of death. No, I say, who better to ask for truth than the goddess of secrets? A secret’s no good unless it is true.”
The Lady Fall nodded approvingly. “It seems you paid attention when you last visited the libraries. Debate has honed your words like a whetstone to a sword.”
“A what to a what?”
“If only you had paid that much attention in the valley where there is yet no tower,” sighed the Lady Fall. “I thought it would be interesting to you.”
“But you were wrong,” said Mazzia, grinning. Then he realized what she was doing, and shook his head. “Enough misdirecting, honestly. Answers, now. How do you know? What makes you so certain?”
The Lady Fall did not answer for a long time. Mazzia was beginning to wonder if the Lady Fall was going to answer at all when she at last said, “I know what will happen because I will make it so.”
Mazzia laughed. “So it’s just over-confidence? You don’t know any of this is going to happen, do you?”
“For all your criticism of the electors, you are just like them,” said the Lady Fall. “Always with questions.”
Mazzia’s response was cut short when he heard singing from down the road. He craned his neck, peering around the sheer walls of rock around him to get a better look. A man, with a wizened, graying beard and the coonbat cap that marked him as a native of the high mountains, sang boisterously as he walked along the path. It was a wonder Mazzia hadn’t heard him earlier, although talking to a goddess had a way of distracting a man.
“We are men of the mountain, my son, my son,” he sang. “Together we’ll climb to the top of Mont Don.”
He came around the bend, and winked at Mazzia. There was no one else with him—at least, no one Mazzia could see.
“The slope is steep and the steps are high, but on top of Mont Don we’ll touch the sky! We’ll hear the flap of the thunderbird’s wings, and on top of Mont Don our voices shall sing! The song of the mountains, of rock and of stone! For on top of Mont Don, you are truly alone!” He passed by Mazzia, and stopped. “You’re alone now my son, but don’t be afraid. I know that you’ll find your very own way. I’ll see you again, my son, my son, on top of Mont Don, on top of Mont Don.”
Mazzia applauded, and the wayward traveler bowed.
“You’ve an excellent voice, but I must ask, is it wise to sing so loud?” Mazzia asked, cocking his head. “You walk alone, and there are wild children about.”
The man shook his head, and the limp wings on his cap dangled about his ears. “I’ve nothing to fear from children or from loneliness,” he said, grinning. “Sing, and even if you have no one else to listen to you, the mountain will hear!”
Mazzia just nodded, and smiled, as the man wandered away, whistling merrily as he walked unseeing through the Lady Fall.
“I see it,” said the Lady Fall, after the man had walked away.
“See what?” asked Mazzia, continuing up the pass. They were getting closer now, although Mazzia’s mouth grew dry at the thought of having to climb the steep slope ahead of him. He rolled his shoulders, and cracked his neck. No one ever said climbing the tallest mountain in the world would be easy.
“Doubt,” said the Lady Fall, as Mazzia began his climb. She flew by him, offering no assistance, watching him with her eyes beneath her shadowed veil. “It is the constant of all things.”
A bit of rock crumbled beneath Mazzia’s hand and he froze, arms tense, heart in his throat. He didn’t respond. There was a time for banter, and a time for concentration. “On top of Mont Don…,” Mazzia muttered, the words forgotten but the tune remembered.
“Doubt is silence,” whispered the Lady Fall, flying so close that Mazzia could feel the beat of her wings on his face. He blinked, clearing dust from his eyes. “But silence can be deafening. Even now, you wonder, you doubt my existence.”
Mazzia climbed higher. Bright spots danced on his eyes in the harsh sunlight.
“Perhaps those long days in the plains truly drove you mad. How else would you be worthy enough to hold discourse with a goddess?” The Lady Fall’s gloved hand traced Mazzia’s cheek, wicking away the sweat trickling down his face. “You are just a man. A slave to the chains that bind you.”
Mazzia knew better than to answer. The Lady often spoke this way, in words that were half-soliloquy, half-poetry. There was no use in interrupting her.
He hauled himself over the lip of the rock face, and sat on the ground, catching his breath. The Lady Fall watched from above, as always, her expression illegible beneath the shadows.
“Then tell me. Why me?” asked Mazzia, finally. He swallowed, licking dry lips. “Why do you show yourself to me?”
The Lady Fall cocked her head. “Do you think you are the only one I reveal myself to?”
Mazzia pursed his lips, then shook his head.
“We use what tools we have, to sow what we can,” said the Lady Fall, and her eyes grew distant. “You must know fear, and doubt, and death, before you may know power. I have whispered in the ears of a thousand heroes whose names now only I remember. I have guided the steps of a thousand children, telling them, this is how you will live, and I have led the way of as many emperors, telling them, this is how you will rule. Because that which will happen, I will make happen.”
A chill passed over Mazzia, and he tightened his scarf around his neck. The Lady confided in him infrequently, but even then Mazzia wished she didn’t. It was like watching a man play at Wwa Ta, or any other dice game. The stakes were high, and though the gambler was so sure of his victory, no one could ever know for sure.
“Why me?” asked Mazzia, again. “You never answer my questions the first time.”
The Lady Fall’s eyes crinkled in a smile. “Some questions I never answer at all. Now, will you climb this mountain or won’t you?”
Mazzia rose to his feet, groaning, stretching his arms behind his back. There was a fighter rising to prominence back home, by the name of Kennya, who could hop over walls and run across rooftops like other men trudged along the narrow streets, but Mazzia had not become his noni—his student—and had no intention to. That could be left to younger men.
All the same, as Mazzia began to climb again, he wondered if maybe just one or two lessons would have been a good idea.
The way was easier, now, though. Roots as thick as an elephantbull’s legs, grown into the side of the mountain, provided easy surfaces for Mazzia to hold onto, and his raw and bloody hands were glad of a reprieve from the harshness of the stone. He squinted up, but regretted it at once as the blinding white sun shone in his eyes.
From what he had seen, glancing upward, there had been no trunk, no branches, no leaves. Wherever these roots led, it was deeper, inside the mountain.
As always, the Lady Fall flew beside him, watching with those careful eyes. She was the patron goddess of travelers, and artists, and spies: the first Mazzia was, but the second and third he had never been. He was just a nomad of the plains, who had wished to see all the wonders Albumere had to offer.
Mazzia had walked to far Jhidnu, and sailed as far out into the sea as the sailors had dared go. He had walked to Sivnag and Gurnag, and eaten summer boar with the Wilder Clans. He had gone to Albumere’s lowest point, the Teeth of the Abyss in steaming Moscoleon, and now he would go to Albumere’s highest, the summit of Mont Don.
If ever anyone wrote a book about him, as the Lady Fall promised they would, it would be a long book indeed.
“Do you remember going north?” asked the Lady Fall. The summit was not far now. Mazzia was nearly there.
Mazzia grunted an affirmative. The fall beneath him was a terrible one.
“What was the question you asked me there, which I would not answer?”
His head pounded as he tried to think back to his time walking the icy battlements in the frigid cold. The air was thin up here. It made it hard to think. “Why build a fortress here, when there is nothing to defend?”
“And do you remember Kazakhal? What did you say there?”
“How strange it is,” muttered Mazzia. “This swamp, where there should be none.”
“Do you remember the pyramid of Raj Mal Azu, and how I forbade your entrance?” asked the Lady Fall. “Do you remember the Greenskull mines in the valley, and how the farmers whispered that death itself lurked within that darkness?”
“Yes. And yes.”
At last, the ground began to level out. Mazzia strained, and tumbled onto flat ground, the wind screaming and rushing around him. He laughed, pumping his fist into the air, staring at the blue sky above him. Though the air was bitingly cold and the wind doubly so, there was no snow here, only gravel and bare rock. And, of course, the roots, twisting and snaking their way through the ground.
“Rise,” said the Lady Fall. “Come and see the last of the martyr’s court.”
Mazzia blinked. What more was there to see? Staggering to his feet, wrapping his scarf even tighter around him so that it would not flap so violently in the wind, Mazzia walked forward. The Lady Fall was standing over a hole in the ground—the entrance, Mazzia realized, to some sort of cavern.
He looked up at the Lady Fall, questioning, but when she said nothing. Mazzia knelt at the edge of the darkness. He could hear something breathing, down there.
He not become the most traveled man on Albumere by ignoring that which made him curious. Mazzia swung over the side, and dropped into the pit. His hand grasped at the side of the cavern as he slid, down, into the darkness, using only that little circle of sunlight to penetrate the shadows and see what lay within.
Suddenly, something sparked. Like lightning, an arc of blinding white energy burst from the shadows and for a second illuminated the entire cavern, in all its enormity. Mazzia sucked in a sharp breath.
The silhouette of something monstrously huge slumbered beneath the mountain, its great head tucked away beneath wings so large that each individual feather was larger than Mazzia himself. The entire inside of the mountain must have been hollowed away just to fit this beast.
“What is it?” breathed Mazzia, edging closer. Again, sparks flew from the monster, crackling violently though the beast slept still.
“A misbegotten attempt from a bygone age,” said the Lady Fall.
Mazzia stood before it, his breath catching in his throat. Never before had he seen, in the flesh, an animal so great and so huge. His fingers curled into fists. “Does it have a tabula?” he asked.
The Lady Fall laughed, light and airy. “You’re standing on it.”
Mazzia looked down, but could see nothing for the darkness and the bright spots dancing on his eyes. He backed away and knelt down, sweeping at the dirt and dust, but he could feel nothing.
“There is nothing to gain from finding it, though,” said the Lady Fall. “He would kill you the moment you touched it.”
“The beast?” asked Mazzia.
“No,” said the Lady Fall. “The beast’s master.”
She walked away into the darkness, and lightning flashed again. Mazzia saw the shadows it threw against the wall, and rose, stumbling towards the largest hollow tree he had ever seen, its desiccated branches hanging limply, as if begging for water and sunlight.
Mazzia’s footsteps echoed as he walked up to it, and with the sound amplified the way it was, Mazzia did not miss as he stepped on something that was not stone.
He looked down, and through even the darkness saw a glint of amber. He bent down, to trace it with his hand.
“Wait until I show them this,” Mazzia breathed, his eyes widening at just the thought.
But before he could move any farther, he felt a cold, sharp pain in his back, and heard the crack of his tabula as it began to split. “You will tell them nothing. Your book will include many things, but not this.” The Lady Fall withdrew her knife from Mazzia’s back, and he collapsed, his blood trickling into the thirsty roots of the great hollow. “I know this will happen because I will make it so.”
Mazzia stared at the Lady Fall, the metallic taste of blood in his throat, and his vision shifted. He looked at his own dying body while his gloved hand drifted over his broken tabula, and his bat-like wings stretched out behind him. He felt the whisper of a thousand dead souls beside him, felt a single will, her will, overpower them all. Then he was himself again, dying, watching the Lady Fall rise into the air.
“First fear. Then doubt. Now death,” said the Lady Fall, and she clenched her fist. “Then, you may know power.”
This might be what the main characters looked like! (Then the big guy would start ~singing~!)
I don’t quite have a bonus chapter ready for today (well, I do, but I figure it’s better to let the backlog recover a little), but I did these a while back for practice and I figured I might as well share them. They clash so horribly with the story’s tone and style, I know. But they were very fun to draw, and the dissonance amuses me.
Also, I know I’m not the best at actually giving my characters unique physical descriptions, so maybe this will help you see how I visualize them. If you had an image of Chaff and Jova that these illustrations completely shattered, whoops, sorry! Your interpretation is probably equally valid, because I am of the opinion that the nuances of a character’s physical appearance should be left to the reader and rarely matter (except when they…do). Might do more as I continue to practice, although the writing comes first, as always. Hope you enjoy them!
Zur Gozrimaw’s iron mask sat heavily on his face, but he did not bow his head. Instead, he held his chin high, his back straight, his gaze unwavering. If the other members of the Grey Table could see his expression, it honestly would not have been too great a difference from the mask: it was steely, calm, collected. There was a time for burning coal, and a time for cooling waters. Such was the word of the First Smith.
“We do not allow outsiders into the Irontower,” said Thun Doshrigaw, from the supplicant’s position at the center of the table. The other members of the smithsworn council ringed him, watching him, judging him, as the First Smith was judged by the marblemen. “Our law is clear.”
“Our law states that no man or woman born of Fallow tree beyond this valley may set eyes on the secrets of our tower,” said Arron Caoimgharaw, of Steel Wrought. He wore no mask: instead, he wore at least one ring on every finger, myriad things made of copper and bronze and iron and even gold. His bare chest shone with sweat, and he wore a steel choker around his neck: a reminder of the First Smith’s sacrifice. “Only those brought here by the hand of the Ladies may inherit their blessings.”
“A dull knife is useless, Arron, for it has no point,” growled Thun. Zur narrowed his eyes, although the rest of his body did not move. Thun had spent too much time outside the tower, fraternizing with the baymen, breathing their rusting sea air. That was no way to talk to a revered forgestoker.
“The girl is blind,” said Arron, a faint smugness to his voice. “She has no eyes with which to set.”
“Arron Caoimgharaw, what mockery do you make of the First Smith’s edicts?” shouted Thun, and even from behind his mask Zur could see the man’s livid expression. “Our law is iron. It does not bend.”
One of the sitting members of the Grey Table chuckled, shoulders shaking despite the constant impassivity of his mask. Jak Surramow: a good-humored man, well-liked among the apprentices, less so among his peers. “You have worked with brittle metal too long, then, Thun,” he said. “Steel folds.”
Thun bristled. “Are the teachings of the First Smith a joke to you, Jak?”
“Not as much as you,” said Jak Surramow, and the disdain was evident in his voice. “Listen to yourself, prattling on about a cripple girl like she were some marble warrior come to slay us all. You shame us, Thun Doshrigaw.”
“You are setting a dangerous precedent, Arron,” said Thun, ignoring Jak. “Allowing outsiders into the tower so freely.”
“You grasp for gold in an exhausted mine,” said Arron, heavily. “Precedent has already been set. Did not Nal Kershiwaw allow outsiders into the Irontower, when he invited the clansmen to plan his ascent to the throne?”
Zur smirked. Arron’s knowledge of the tower’s history was near encyclopedic; it was rumored that he never forgot a word of what he read, and would spend hours staring at the ceiling, flipping through the annals of the First Smith without ever so much as touching a page. Those rumors were true, of course, but for a different person.
A small blade cut as deep as a large one, so long as it was hidden. Such was the word of the First Smith.
Even if Arron didn’t have Zur’s prodigious memory, the forgestoker had a respectable one nonetheless. And if he ever needed help, Zur would provide it, although he did not like to speak at these council meetings. Better for the Grey Table to forget that he was even there.
Zur could actually see Thun changing tact, see the cogs in his brain working as he rounded on Surramow: an easy opponent, for an emotional argument. “She is not just some cripple girl. Do you think Han Luratah decided to make the First Smith’s sacrifice without warning? She even has the two older ones in her thrall. She has no tabula. She has no soul.”
Jak sat up, evidently about to protest, but Arron raised a hand. For good measure, Zur looked Jak’s way, and though neither could see the other’s face beneath their masks, Jak slumped visibly.
“You would do well to remember who you are supplicating to,” said Arron, dryly. “Han Luratah, may the Ladies Fall and Summer forge his soul, died in a battle among wild mercenaries and skilled Hag Gar Gan warriors. You would have us believe that, among all these great fighters, this twelve-summer girl killed Han? Furthermore, neither of the two adults have been ensorcelled by the girl; they have adopted her, to fill a void in their lives. We know of this happening, among the child havens beyond the valley. And if you had actually been convinced by the bayman plutocrat’s auctioneering prattle, then we may yet send you back to the apprentice’s quarters tonight, Thun Doshrigaw.”
Thun spluttered and gaped.
“For each radical piece of evidence you proffer before us, there is an alternative, reasonable explanation. Furthermore, your conduct has been shameful, and unworthy of one who walks the smith’s path. You have failed in the mission for which you left the Irontower, and you have spent too long among the baymen and their licentiousness.” Arron drew himself up, raising his voice. “For these reasons, I deny your plea, and confine you to the lower levels of the tower, until the Lady Winter departs and you have seen the error of your ways.”
“You did not see her!” shouted Thun, standing, spittle flying from his mouth. “You did not see the way she crushed him underfoot! You did not hear the way she screamed!”
Zur moved quickly. He pushed his seat out as he stood, heel twisting against the floor before he launched himself over the table and vaulted towards Thun. His arm wrapped around Thun’s neck, and he brought the man low, locking him in a chokehold as strong as steel.
“Take him away,” said Arron, dismissively.
“Enough!” Thun wrestled his way free out of Zur’s grip, and brushed his robes off. “I shall see myself out. I can retain that much dignity, at least.”
Thun stalked away, his footsteps echoing throughout the chamber as Zur quietly resumed his seat. The other members of the Grey Table rose and shuffled away, whispering amongst each other in low voices. Zur did not participate. Gossip was rust upon the honed speech of honorable men. Such was the word of the First Smith.
Arron beckoned him over as he rose. The two of them walked together, to the opposite side of the chamber. These stairs led up. The others led down.
Zur admired the staircase as he walked. It twisted clockwise as it went up, so that if any invader happened to come, they would find their right hands impaired, while defenders coming down from the top would have the longer swing. It was a small, clever thing. The Irontower was full of small, clever things.
They walked, Arron jingling with every step, Zur silent. He had yet to take off his iron mask. It was almost more comforting, to have his face obscured by the grim metal visage.
“Do you believe him?” asked Arron, as they climbed.
“Regarding the girl?” Zur pursed his lips, although Arron could see none of that while Zur still wore the mask. “I have seen wild children kill grown men. It is no great feat, even if it were true.”
“But a man in our armor? Wielding our sword? It does not reflect well on us.”
Zur shrugged. “Shall we send her into the Greenskull Caverns, then? The men of the valley grow more skittish every day. They would be grateful that the Ladies had sent a warrior to slay the evils within that cave.”
“Hmmph.” Arron did not look at Zur, and Zur did not look at him. There was nothing to see, either way. “And her tabula? She has yet to produce it, and yet her master has not called her back yet.”
“That speaks to nothing,” said Zur, curtly. “Tabula are best kept hidden. Even under the threat of death, I would not produce mine.”
Arron put a hand on Zur’s shoulder, and the towerman stiffened. “You are not ready to follow in the First Smith’s footsteps, yet,” said the forgestoker. To Zur, his tone sounded almost patronizing. “Martyrdom may be honorable, but too often it is also forgotten. We forget easily the names of the dead.”
Zur did not say anything. Lives were petty things, compared to the secrets of the tower. Such was the last word of the First Smith.
“There is the matter of the adults,” said Arron, slowly. “The…parents, as it were.”
“Where are they?” Zur’s hand drifted to his belt, where he kept his knives. It was always better, to know where one’s enemies were.
“I hear they are camping outside the Greenskull Caverns.” Arron chuckled. “An imprudent decision.”
“I concur,” said Zur, flatly.
“There is…” Arron paused. “There is some resemblance. The girl has the woman’s sharp features, the same lithe build. She has flaxen hair, like the man. And the tone of her skin is a mix between them.”
“We have seen this in the gardens,” said Zur. He didn’t mean gardens near the Irontower, no, not even gardens that still existed today. The books had taught him this, and he remembered. “Tall sprouts and short sprouts shall produce a middling offspring. The seed of flowers with red petals and white shall have pink petals, or white petals spotted red, or red and white petals alternating. The essence of the parents is inherited by the children.”
“Hmm,” said Arron.
“Hmm,” agreed Zur.
Arron’s step faltered. He stood before an open window, staring out the Irontower from their lefty perch, so high above the rest of the valley. Chill winter air blew here, so frigid that Zur felt his mask might freeze to his face. Impressive as the metal sheeting of the tower might have been, it didn’t help much with insulation.
“Do you think the doorkeeper was right, to allow the child entrance?” asked Arron, staring at the window, seemingly unfazed by the chill even though his chest was bare. They said that the fires of the furnaces burned forever in the hearts of forgestokers. They, of course, were the voices of the dead, still whispering to Zur through the annals of the past.
“He has cause undue trouble for us. Made us brittle, when we should be strong,” said Zur, standing by the window, gazing out at the valley as well. It was dry and barren, but it was theirs. Beyond the mountain pass, the rest of Albumere laid.
Zur’s hand tightened around the hilt of his knife. Soon, that would be theirs, too.
“The doorkeeper acted on his conscience,” said Arron. “Would you have left the girl in the cold?”
Though a towerman’s hands must be sheathed in steel, his heart must burn strong enough to melt it. Such was the word of the First Smith. “It is good that he took pity on the girl. Less so that he did not think it through. She was not alone. She had a good chance, to survive the wilds, even in the winter.”
“Strange, for her to seek refuge in the Irontower. Technically, we still own her.”
“You cannot own that which has no tabula. A man that has slain a marble soldier may take his hammer. A man that has slain a Hag Gar Gan rider may take his saddle. When the hammer and the saddle are broken, the man who holds them feels no pain, sees no glimpse of the next world. He cannot call them back when they are lost, and as such they are not truly his. These are things with no soul, which change hands by the will of the Ladies.”
Arron wrinkled his nose. “A Treatise on Slaves and the Holy Hollows, by Ik Yor Gat?”
“Yes,” said Zur.
“Hmm,” said Arron, nodding. He paused. “So you truly do think that the girl has no tabula?”
“I did not say that.”
“I did not ask you what you said.”
Zur did not reply.
Arron sighed, and turned away from the window. “In the grand scheme of things, she matters little. She will leave soon, I hope.”
“Was that a statement, or a request?” Zur did not leave the window. Through his mask, which was so cold it felt like it had melded to his face, so cold that the mask really was his face, he saw the rest of Albumere, beyond the tower.
He had memorized every book in the Irontower’s prodigious library. He had counted every stone in it, every step leading from the bottom to the top. He had embraced the teachings of the First Smith, then rejected them, then rediscovered them. The tower had been his whole life.
He wanted what laid beyond it, so badly.
Zur did not move from the window, bathed in harsh winter sunlight. Arron stood in the shadows above him, and though Zur wore the mask, it was the forgestoker’s face which could not be seen for the darkness.
“We have word from our friends in Jhidnu,” said Arron, at last. “Thun Doshrigaw did that much for us, at least.”
“Will the east stand with us?” asked Zur.
“The plutocrats still chafe at the loss of their trade routes, but they are an indolent people, prone to softness of will. They will not send soldiers.”
Zur sneered. He was not surprised, but he was still disappointed. “We did not ask for soldiers.”
“The Seat of Winter is prepared to back our claim. The Stronghold will no doubt oppose us, but they will be glad to see Ironhide dead.” Arron put a hand on Zur’s shoulder. “I must warn you, Zur, that once Albumere has one less a king, I can guarantee nothing. The citizens of the Seat may not even recognize a new claimant.”
“Good steel cuts once and cuts deep,” said Zur. “Such is the word of the First Smith.”
“They will not recognize the First Smith, either.”
“Then they will be untaught, and their ignorance shall make them weak.” Zur turned to face the revered forgestoker, and slowly, delicately, removed the mask. His voice sounded strange to him, when it was not muffled by a plate of steel. “I am prepared for what is to come. I will do what I must do.”
“Then here is where we part ways, Zur Gozrimaw,” said Arron, his hand resting lightly on Zur’s chin. Zur’s skin tingled at his touch. Was it the heat of the forgestoker’s hand, compared to the cold of the smithsworn’s face? Was it simply the fact that his face had not felt a human touch for a time longer than even Zur could remember? Something else entirely?
Zur looked up, eyes shining. It was finally happening. Everything he had dreamed of, come to fruition.
“Goodbye, and good luck, old friend,” said Arron. “May the Lady Summer guide your hand.”
“And may the Lady Fall watch your step,” said Zur, bowing. “Goodbye, Arron Caiomgharaw.”
They turned away at the same time, Arron higher into the tower, Zur deeper. It was a long way down from where he stood, but Zur moved quickly. His robes flapped around his feet as he strapped his mask back on. He would need more practical clothing, soon. Silent clothing.
He walked through the council chambers, now deserted. From there, he walked down the spiral staircase, past the masters’ forges, where he could hear the forever ring of hammer on anvil, see the forever glow of the red fires. He walked past the library levels, where all the stored knowledge of the Irontower was kept. This was not Shira Hay, where the nomads stored any semi-legible tripe they could find in a library open to all: not Shira Hay, where they wandered the world and let ignorance poison their minds. The towermen knew the power of secrets. Only the most dedicated among them were allowed access to the libraries.
Zur Gozrimaw walked on, deeper and deeper, closer and closer to the ground, his heart thudding in his chest. He passed the journeyman’s quarters, and the women’s chambers, and the cheap iron forges, and the place for apprentices, which had no name and deserved none. Zur reached the bottom, and straightened himself.
He entered the doorkeeper’s room.
The towermen were not allowed worldly possessions. Their work belonged to the Irontower, and for it, they were given food and clothing and shelter. The coin their metalcraft earned went to the good of all. Tools were given according to rank and seniority. Zur’s hand drifted to his knives. Those counted as tools.
The doorkeeper kept the supplies. Any man who wished to leave the Irontower had to go through him first.
Zur paused. “Where is the doorkeeper?” he asked, to the girl sitting on his bed. The Irontower had no guest chambers; he supposed this was where she stayed, while she stayed. Her legs swung restlessly from where she sat, although her hands were folded neatly on her lap. She scratched her chest, and cocked her head, not looking at Zur. There wouldn’t have been much of a point.
“The door opened, but it sounds like you’re still talking behind it,” said the girl. She clicked her tongue, and, despite himself, Zur flinched. “But you’re inside the room.”
Zur looked around, but he saw no sign of the doorkeeper within the room. Was someone else demanding entrance to the Irontower? How many more strangers sought to steal their secrets?
“You’re wearing a mask,” said the girl, suddenly. “U-ha did it once, I remember. For a ritual.”
“Where is the doorkeeper?” Zur asked, again.
“He said he’d be back soon.” The girl stood, and though the blindfold was wrapped tightly around her head, she walked with surprising confidence towards him. “Are you going somewhere? Outside?”
“Yes,” said Zur, curtly. He did not like talking to this girl. For some reason, it felt like his mask did not protect him here.
“If you go, could you…could you check on my friends, please?” The girl wrung her hands together. “The man and the woman who came with me. Could you see if they’re OK?”
“I could,” said Zur. He squinted. There was a resemblance. He had only caught a brief glimpse of the other two—the woman had been yelling as the girl walked into the tower, causing such a ruckus that all the apprentices had come swarming to see—but he could see it, nonetheless.
Was the girl really their natural-born daughter? There was no precedent for this, as far back as Zur could remember, in all the books that he had read.
There was a shuffling from behind him, and he turned to see the doorkeeper stride into the room. His features were…average. As much as Zur prided himself on stealth, he could never have matched the doorkeeper’s innate ability to appear completely, utterly forgettable. His hair was cut short in the style of the apprentices, his robes were clean and nondescript, and he had the air of someone who would keep on plodding on no matter what one said or did to him. Even as the doorkeeper turned away, Zur found himself forgetting what his face looked like.
“Going somewhere?” the doorkeeper asked, mildly.
Zur straightened. The doorkeeper and the girl were both inconsequential, compared to what was to come. He had no time to waste, puzzling over them. “Yes,” he said. “I need supplies, and new clothes.”
“Enough to reach the Seat of the King.”
Names stuck. He had known it as well as Tattle, although he hadn’t cared quite as much. Tattle, of course, had styled herself off of one of her childhood heroes: a girl from some fairytale, who lived on a world that didn’t exist full of people who could do things that weren’t possible. It was nonsense that he had never had much patience for. People could call him what they would, and he couldn’t care less.
But there was a reason why they called him Hurricane. And so the whispers grew, and the name stuck.
Hurricane had sat in the dark, waiting, biding his time, a storm building inside of him. It had been so long since he had been in Alswell, so long since he had to squat in the slave huts, waiting for the call of the foremen in the morning. Not that it mattered, really. The past was the past. It meant nothing and did not bother him.
What did bother him was the fact that he was here, again. He went by the name Lonwal among the fieldman, a name he had thrown away, a name that stuck no matter how hard he tried to get rid of it.
Between Hurricane and Lonwal, he preferred Hurricane. People were scared of Hurricane. No one was scared of Lonwal.
So, in the moment before he killed Hook, Hurricane roared, “You ‘member who I am?”
Hook whimpered, his grimy face screwed up in such a pathetic expression that Hurricane was tempted to crush him on the spot. Beside him lay two corpses, though only one was Hurricane’s work.
“We was gon’ save you,” snarled Hurricane, lifting Hook even higher. The boy began to gasp and choke, his mouth opening and closing like some river fishtoad. “Get you out with Veer. And you sell us out.”
Hurricane stepped over the first body. It was another one of the Shira Hay urchins, caught in the riots by the fieldmen—Hurricane couldn’t even remember his name. Shin or Shitty or some nonsense like that. It had hardly mattered when he was alive, and it meant nothing at all now that he was dead.
The urchin in Hurricane’s hands blinked tears from his eyes. “I save, I saving you,” said Hook, shaking his head. “Can’t fight ‘em, Hurricane. You can’t!” His feet dangled limply as he struggled to get out of Hurricane’s grip, but slavery had sapped all his strength. This boy, this squirming weaselrat of a boy, got his strength from food, and water, and a long night’s sleep. Hurricane’s strength was his hunger, his anger, his bruises and aching bones.
“I did,” growled Hurricane. He stepped over the second corpse.
It wasn’t until today that Hook had managed to persuade an alsknight to listen to him. That same alsknight lay on the ground now, his neck broken, his lance buried in the other urchin’s gut. That was how Hurricane got him. Alsknights, he found, enjoyed their killing too much.
Tattle had been brooding for days. The advancing armies from the Seat had been getting closer and closer to Greeve’s plantation with every passing hour, but instead of creating chaos and an opportunity to escape, as she had hoped, they had pressured the fieldmen into tightening their security. Day and night, the alsknights stood watch over the tabula of the slaves, and without those Hurricane could never hope to free his crew mate. Tattle had spent weeks trying to figure out a way around them; she had never realized the greatest danger was from one of their own.
“Who else?” asked Hurricane, pressing Hook against the mud wall of the slave hut. “Who you tell, huh?”
“Just tell-and-tell ‘em you sorry,” said Hook, shaking his head, his eyes bright but unseeing. “You big an’ strong. They keeps you, I know it. Tell ‘em you sorry.”
With a grunt, Hurricane tossed Hook onto the ground. The boy bounced, convulsing, his back bent at an odd angle. He was trying to say something. Hurricane didn’t pay attention. He picked the skinny urchin up again easily, and threw him once more onto the ground.
That was why they called him Hurricane. He tossed people around. It was an urchin’s kind of humor, really. It wasn’t as if Hurricane was blessed by the Lady Fall, not as if he had some kind of special power to command the winds. He was too practical for that.
Hurricane killed Hook, and straightened, wondering what there was to do next.
The slave hut was empty; it was too far in the outer fields to watch effectively, and the slaves had long ago been evacuated and herded closer to the inner manors. Hurricane had been using it to meet with Tattle, sometimes Veer, and up until now the two dead ones. The traitor must have led the alsknight here to catch them all.
Pursing his lips, Hurricane looked around. He didn’t see the girls, or their bodies. Their blood did not soak the dirt, and he did not see their hasty graves. They weren’t dead—or, at least, they hadn’t died here.
Hurricane thought broader, picturing the surrounding area in his mind. He had done the same thing often in Shira Hay; it helped, when he was running from the electors or other street gangs, to map out the weaving streets.
Alswell wasn’t like the other nations of Albumere. The “nation” of Shira Hay had just one city, surrounded by harsh wilds that the plainsmen could technically call their own. The same went for most of the other nations. But Alswell had tamed its land, long ago. The manors of the farmers dotted the fields, separated by vast tracts of farmland.
Easy and spacious living it might have been, but it hadn’t been much use when King Banden Ironhide’s armies had come marching.
This plantation belonged to the farmer Greeve—a name, Hurricane noted, worth remembering. It was one of the last plantations standing, while the rest of Alswell burned.
Hurricane inhaled deeply, feeling his chest and shoulders expand. He had to focus. The whole inner complex was due west; most of the slaves, including Veer, were quartered in the huts on the south end, while the amber box that contained her tabula was kept on the opposite side.
He had to get that box. He held his own tabula, and so did Tattle, but Veer didn’t. All of this would have been for nothing, if they didn’t get Veer out.
Hurricane began to walk, striding out the hut and through fields of dry, broken stalks. There hadn’t been time to bring in the harvest, not with an army marching down on them, and between Ironhide’s men raiding the food stores, Greeves’s men burning them down, and the breath of the Lady Winter, there was hardly anything left.
Hurricane didn’t mind. As long as there was a bite of food left, it was his to take.
That was his mind. Practical, straight forward, without doubts. Hurricane had never hesitated in making his next decision.
How singularly uninteresting.
Hurricane froze. He lowered his stance, looking through the open fields, but there was nowhere for anyone to hide. His eyes flickered across the dry and broken stalks, his hands half-curled into fists. There was nothing but the whisper of the wind around him, and yet he had heard something.
It felt like talking to himself, every word forced but his own. Except, they weren’t his own. Hurricane furrowed his eyebrows, catching only brief phrases that his own mind seemed to be thinking. Sister…three of them…move quickly, before we lose their essence…
And then a crystal clear thought, that came unbidden from within him. His strength marks him as summerborn, but his resolve is so reminiscent of my eldest sister. Stubborn and unyielding, but he knows himself well enough to know when he is listening to thoughts that are not his own.
His hands were full fists now. Hurricane waited. He was patient. Whatever sorcery this person was using, it would not affect him.
Just as silent, too.
Hurricane shook his head, blinking dust from his eyes. It swirled in his face, along with the dried detritus of the abandoned harvest. Hurricane turned his head slowly, still alert, still-.
Hurricane, Hurricane, Hurricane. That is not his name. He is LONWAL.
“Tha’s enough,” snapped Hurricane, speaking at last. He was immediately struck by how different his own voice sounded from the voice in his head. He could feel his voice reverberating in his throat, feel it rattling in his chest, but this other voice was just the phantom of sound. “Tattle, that you? You trickin’ naw?”
He has such faith in that girl. She’s not even particularly original. The wind picked up around Hurricane, so strong that he stumbled back, arms covering his face. She is a summer fly to a star. She knows nothing of TRUE genius.
The field flattened around Hurricane, pressed down by a wind that grown from nowhere. Hurricane widened his stance, refusing to back down.
He heard laughter—his laughter—inside his head, although that was the last thing Hurricane felt like doing. Yes. He’ll do nicely.
“Can’t make me do no-thing, bitch,” snarled Hurricane, his feet still planted firmly in the ground. “My tabula’s mine. Ain’t nobody taking it.”
He mistakes me for the enemy. I have no need for amber.
And then Hurricane felt something bop him lightly on the nose.
His head snapped up immediately. The wind had died away, and he could just make out…something, moving through the fields, too hard to see amid the swirling dust still clouding his face. He paused only a second, the sheer impudence of the gesture registering with him, before he set out at a sprint, pummeling his way towards the figure, murder in his chest and on his breath. That kind of insolence could not be tolerated. To be strong, he had to appear strong. First rule of the streets.
And the voice, the thoughts that sounded like him but were not his, continued to speak. His is anger. He has never doubted himself. Hurricane squinted, trying to make out the figure dashing ahead of him, hands clawing uselessly at the blasted cloud of dust around him. It both moved impossibly fast and did not seem to move at all, always dancing just ahead of him, just far enough so that Hurricane could not even see what it was.
Does he feel it? Doubt?
Hurricane shook his head. What had he been doing? Where did he need to go? He couldn’t remember. All he knew was the blinding rage in his heart, the fire burning in his gut.
He can’t fight it. To merely exist is to be unsure. Doubt is life, Lonwal.
Even when he had been a slave in these damned fields, his head had been his own. This being had invaded his most sacred place. He would make it pay.
And now he thinks of what comes after. The voice never stopped. Even when Hurricane’s breathing became labored, even when his head buzzed so loud that he could hardly think himself, the voice continued, cool and collected. I soun’ like you. I know err’thing ‘bout you. How will he ever know what thoughts belong to himself ever again?
Hurricane roared, and his voice echoed through the deserted fields.
The shadow figure veered suddenly, and Hurricane slipped as he tried to match its agility. He sprawled in the dirt, spitting grass out of his mouth, and slammed his fist onto the ground just once before setting off in pursuit again. Hunger was his strength. He would not be stopped by one fall.
Uncertainty is the law of Albumere. But he shouldn’t blame me. I didn’t make this world the way it is. Hurricane shook his head. It was so hard to tell from a voice with no sound, but it seemed to be more distant now. No, that wasn’t it. It was starting to sound less like him.
And more like a woman’s voice.
Does he still believe in the gods? Has Hurricane, who never doubted himself, ever doubted us? Hurricane blinked, as he crested a small hill. Was that the compound? How had he run so fast? It should have taken him hours to clear the fields.
And yet, how could he doubt the gods? He has seen one. Heard it. Felt its power. Called it bitch to its face. The voice sounded amused.
Hurricane stumbled to a halt, blinking sweat out of his eyes, inhaling greedy breathes as he looked around. He stood before Greeve’s plantation, watching the figure pass through, actually pass through, one of the closed gates. His eyes widened as the gate swung open. He wasn’t shocked—Hurricane was never really shocked—but he was mildly surprised.
Any ordinary person would have been dumbfounded. He didn’t question it. The door had opened. It didn’t matter how or why, only that it had.
I suppose I cheated. The voice sounded mournful. It’s not my turn. The warden might notice, and we’re so very close to winning this game. But, then again, he cannot see here. I must thank the fieldmen, for walling in all his seed.
A shadow rose behind Hurricane, and he stumbled and twisted, heart thudding in his chest. By the time he had turned, nothing was there.
He knows there are no guards around the amber box. At least, there won’t be.
And then a pressure lifted from Hurricane’s mind, and he gasped out loud as the fog seemed to lift from his brain. Hurricane staggered, clutching his forehead, his heavyset brow creased in thought.
His eyes flickered towards the open gate again. It wouldn’t stay open for long, not without the alsknights so jumpy and the farmers so scared.
He walked on. Hurricane had never hesitated when the next step was clear.
Tattle, he decided, would be much more interested in his encounter with the divine than he was. If Lookout was still alive, she would have been raving about the “implications” or something like that. As far as Hurricane knew, a thing had happened and now the thing was over. It wasn’t his concern anymore.
He strode beneath the wall, tense, but it seemed this entire stretch of the perimeter was unmanned. Was that the work of the Ladies, too?
Hurricane looked over his shoulder, at the open gate. He had heard only rumors that the king’s men were marching in from the north. Greeve’s plantation had stood for so long because he had more stored food and more alsknights than any other farmer in Alswell. He would hold, if the king’s men came, so long as the walls were not breached.
Hurricane opened the gates a little wider, for good measure, and walked on.
The amber box was kept in a locked shed, on the north end of the inner compound. Hurricane walked, and the path was clear. No one moved to stop him, because no one was there. He could see the smoke of the alsknights’ fires beyond the manor, could even smell the stink of the slaves on the south end. But no one was here, the most important section of the compound.
He smirked. For all their schemes, all their plots and all their plans, it seemed that it had been the work for the Ladies Four that had cleared the way for Veer’s freedom. Tattle wouldn’t have liked it. She would have called it a cheap twist.
Hurricane called it an opportunity, and one he would not pass up.
Normally, there were at least four alsknights stationed at the front entrance of the shed, two more at the back. Thick locks and chains straight from Irontower were always wound around the door, to which only Greeve had the key, and there was at least one beast prowling around the shed at all times, ready to spit summer or winter’s breath on anyone foolish enough to approach.
There was none of that, now. It just looked like a sad little shack.
The door swung loose on its hinges, broken by some unseen force. The lighting was dim, but sunlight through the open doorway was enough for Hurricane to see by. The box sat on its marble pedestal, made from polished hollow wood, innocuous if Hurricane hadn’t known the power it contained.
He picked it up with one hand. It was heavier than he had expected, and rattled when he held it.
It was one of many boxes, Hurricane knew, but it had to hold the tabula of at least forty people. The souls of forty people, right in his hand, gifted from the Ladies…that was the fortune of a lifetime, for a Shira Hay urchin.
And for the first time in a long time, Lonwal hesitated.
He had not been born into slavery, but he might as well have been. That was the nature of the Fallow. He had grown up to be a big, strong boy, one the taskmasters could work harder than a mulebull. There had always been the work. Never question the why or the how, only do the what. He had never raised his head until she found him.
Let’s go south, she had said, after that first crew fell apart. (Thieving was hard, after all, in the fields. There was nowhere to hide.) South and east, to Shira Hay. People wander in there all the time. We can start new lives. Be new people. Have new names.
They’d made a good crew, the two of them, but Beets and Gazzahar didn’t stick around, and they lost Walls and Lookout in the end. Bull and Veer had been good kids, but unexperienced. And the only good thing Hurricane could think to say of the aristocrat was that he ran fast when trouble came.
Hurricane missed that time. His face darkened at the thought of who had taken it from him.
The fieldmen had stolen his first life. They’d stolen his second. But Hurricane would make sure they would not take his third, ever.
He strode from the shed, the amber box in his hands, purpose in his step. He was not afraid.
He had never really worshipped the Ladies. He’d believed in them, as any god-fearing man should, but he had never seen why they were worthy of his respect. He still didn’t.
But he thanked them for this chance, nonetheless.
Hurricane walked towards the hut where he knew Veer lived. She had grown quiet ever since the fieldmen had taken her. Her constant smile had been eroded by the slavers, and her laughter silenced. Hurricane grimaced.
They would pay for what they had taken.
He thought of the new king, that distant king, the king who was no king. Hurricane had never paid much attention to his rhetoric, but now he felt just a glimmer of kinship with this Ironhide. “No kings. No queens,” Hurricane muttered. “We will never be slaves again.”
He felt a hand on his shoulder, heard some alsknight try to stop him, and without pausing jabbed the alsknight in the neck and threw him on the ground. With a single heavy kick, he broke the alsknight’s nose, and kept walking.
Distantly, he registered other guards—not knights, not as heavily armored—rushing around him, but he paid them no heed. The hut was close.
He stepped inside, to the shouts of the guards swarming outside. Indecisive. Unsure. Pathetic.
“Hurricane!” shouted Veer, standing up. It was a wonder she could stand at all, on those emaciated legs. “What’s the what happening?”
Hurricane thrust the box out at her. He didn’t bother with the lock; with a single thump of his fist, he cracked the lid apart and tossed the broken shards away. They landed amid the sleeping slaves; Hurricane was all too familiar with the dead relief that came from knowing he could sleep away a day with no work. With the fields abandoned, most of these slaves had slept whole days away, dreaming of better lives, he supposed.
“You find yours?” asked Hurricane, curtly.
Veer nodded, her hand drifting over the arrayed golden disks before she seized one that, to Hurricane, looked just like the others. It was the same way a child after Fallow could pick out his tabula out of a hollow full of them.
The girl cradled her tabula, blinking shining eyes. “What’s the what we do now?” she whispered, as if she didn’t dare believe what was happening.
“We wake ‘em up,” he said, and he threw the box of tabula into the crowd, where the new masters slept.
He couldn’t forget the way she had screamed.
Like one of the Ladies themselves, she had stood over Han Luratah—a man Darpah had seen dismember scores of fighters in the pits—and she had screamed. The blessing of steel hadn’t save him. And when Darpah had edged close to look, he had seen chips of white on the red grass, and nearly fainted from queasiness.
The way she had stood over him…
The ends of her blindfold had been trailing in the wind, as had the bandages around her hands. Blood had been dripping down her face and down her arms. And the screaming had gone on and on. It had scared him.
It had inspired him.
Darpah could feel the anger inside him, righteous and hot. The screaming still rang in his ears. It made him want to drive nails into his hands and feel that pain again, and fight with bleeding palms and bleeding eyes. Just the thought made his heart beat a little faster.
The little man shook his head, curling up on his cot. That wasn’t a proper way of thinking. He would be punished for that.
They do not know your thoughts, said a treacherous voice in the back of his head. In here, you are free. Darpah shook his head, holding his hands over his ears. No, no, he was a slave, a good slave. He would never be free. He wasn’t meant to be.
Darpah curled up on his cot, fetal, hugging his knees to his chest. He admonished himself, silently. He was a grown man, driven to quaking and shivering like a child by just the memory of what he had seen. This just wouldn’t do. There was work to be done: productive, worthwhile work that would make the master very pleased.
All the same, Darpah could not find the strength in him to rise just yet. He sat on his cot, breathing heavily. He needed to rest before he could work. Yes, this was all in the master’s best interest. A little rest and he’d be much more productive.
Darpah buried his head in his hands, and although he shed no tears, his breath came in short, ragged gasps. What was happening to him? He used to be such a good slave.
No, whispered the treacherous voice, the evil little voice that Darpah simply could not silence. You used to be such a good man.
The man ran his hands through his hair, curling up tighter in himself, trying to contain his sobs. If he was too loud, the other slaves would wake up, and then master would know something was wrong and Darpah would have to tell him, Darpah would have to tell him.
Unless you had your tabula.
Darpah shot to his feet. He didn’t care if he woke the other slaves, as he stepped over his cot and across the straw flooring of the slave room. He pulled his robe roughly over his head, trying to occupy himself with the morning rituals that would banish the voice of dreams and fancies. He wouldn’t listen to the voice. He was a slave. There was only one voice he listened to.
He does not suspect you. You manage his affairs so closely, whispered the voice, as Darpah stepped into the sunlight, folding his hands into his sleeves. He sees the thief in Dandal. He sees the fighter in Chetan. He sees neither in you. But they’re there. You are both thief and fighter.
Other slaves had left a tub of water outside the quarters for them to wash with. Even in the gloom of dawn, Darpah could see that it was dirty and murky, but as he dipped his hands he thanked the master that it was cold. He washed his face, hoping to quiet the voice of rebellion that had haunted Darpah ever since he had been ripped from his parents’ arms into the master’s.
The voice had fallen silent. Darpah dared a nervous smile. He had long ago equated silence with bliss, and as he let the water drip down his chin he reveled in the simplicity of his thoughts. Nothing was wrong. It was very simple, what he had to do.
Darpah walked along the corridor, watching the sea sparkle like jade through pillars. He had the master to thank for that. Without him, he would not have the beauty of the sea, or the breath of the air, or the comforts of this house. He owed it all to the master.
Sovar-l’hana did not make Albumere’s seas. Nor does he rule its skies. He is a small man who casts a long shadow and thinks himself a giant.
“And I cast no shadow at all,” muttered Darpah, to himself. “I am nothing and no one.” A couple attendants, sweeping the hallways and trimming the shrubbery, glanced in Darpah’s way as he passed, but none of them said anything. He knew he talked to himself and they knew it, too. The master’s fidgety little assistant wasn’t worth more than a glance, though.
A little part of him grew angry at the thought, but anger was no emotion for a slave. He bit it down, bowing his head and moving on.
With the departure of Jova the blind, Darpah had thought that perhaps the voice would quiet. It had always been there, it was true, ever since Darpah had been a child, but when Jova had arrived it had gained new strength and conviction. There was something inspiring about the girl. Perhaps it was the way she bore herself, or perhaps it was simply the fact that she had made it so far without a tabula.
Running his fingers through his hair, Darpah shook his head once more. This simply would not do. Jova was inspiring, yes, in the same way a demon of the deep was inspiring. She tempted him towards treachery and chaos, and he would have none of that. He needed to be his best, after all, in the presence of his master.
The doors to the master’s private quarters were impressive, to say the least. They had the same white gleam as the rest of the compound, although they were made of polished oak, and were accented with red paints highlighting the inlays. There stood the proud Ab Ha Al, who founded the city in the days of the desert empire. And there, a passage from the Jade Shanty. Gorgeous. All by the work of the master.
A carpenter made that door. An artist painted it. The historians remembered Ab Ha Al, and the sailors sang the Shanty. Even the wood came from the strength of a lumberjack’s ax. Sovar-l’hana made none of that. He has no right to it.
Darpah knocked softly, and coughed. It was the least offensive way he had of introducing himself.
“Come in and get me dressed,” said an irate voice, and Darpah scurried inside.
The master sat on his bed, naked but for his smallclothes. His gut dripped over his waist, and his cheeks were flushed ruddy. The sheets were a mess, although the baywoman pleasure slave Darpah had escorted to the master last night was already gone. As Darpah approached, he could smell wine.
A bit early for that.
“Shut up,” growled Darpah. He jumped, as he realized he had said it out loud. “M-master! I didn’t mean- I wasn’t talking to- I was…”
“Ha!” said the master, standing and holding his arms out. Darpah slipped a shirt of fine silk over the master’s shoulders, even though his cheeks were red with shame. “My mad dog. It’s a wonder I trust you with anything.”
“I thank you for your trust, master,” said Darpah, pulling the master’s trousers up. He’d have to ask the tailor for a bigger pair. Again. His eyes flickered over the room, looking for other things that needed doing. A good slave did his master’s work without prompting. “Shall I fetch you more parchment? You’ve run out.”
“No more letters for me,” said the master. He lowered his arms with a heavy sigh. “They’ve done what they had to do. Irontower, Ironhide. They’re all so obsessed with that damn metal, ha! Iron rusts. Real blades are made of paper, real poison made of ink. Words are weapons, and this is war.”
“Very wise, master.” Darpah began to make the master’s bed, as the master himself stepped out onto his balcony to survey the city. Like a god.
When will you learn? He is no god.
“You are sure our friends in Irontower received my missives?” asked the master. He didn’t look back, but Darpah knew him well enough to know when he was worried. This was the fourth time he had asked that question.
“Thun is well on his way,” said Darpah, bowing. “He is well protected.”
The master clicked his fingers. “Bring me the tabula. I want to see.”
You see? He thinks nothing of you. Use that. Darpah’s hands hovered over the lacquered box, as a mix of emotions so conflicted that he could not tell them apart bubbled in his gut. It was temptation, it was salvation, it was both…
The master would not be so careless as to leave Darpah’s tabula in the very box Darpah had been sent to retrieve. And even if he was, Darpah could not betray his trust like that. The master was like a god. To him, Darpah owed everything.
The soldier’s tabula hummed as the master whispered, “Show me.” The tabula in the box rattled too, although that was just Darpah’s shaking hands. Take all of them. Unleash them. The power is yours, wield it.
The master put the disk back and closed the box shut. The clasp clicked with a kind of dread finality, and half-relieved, half-disappointed, Darpah put the box away.
“It was convenient Dal Ak Gan came when he did,” mused the master, staring out the balcony. Darpah stood at attendance, ready to act if he needed to. “I hope La Ah Abi knew of his arrangement with the pyramid lords. Correspondence with them might be difficult if she did not, and I hate to think that they never find out I killed a man for them.”
“It would be most unfortunate,” said Darpah.
“Ha! Unfortunate? It would be heretical! I’d have done something for free!” The master turned, resting his elbows on the rail as he leaned back. Suddenly, his face screwed up in an expression of consternation and anger. “What the hell are you still doing here?”
Darpah was used to his violent temperament, and so for once did not quake or mumble. That would only invite more abuse. He bowed his way out of the room as the master watched him go, his potbelly poking out from his shirt. He was right, of course. Darpah had been lazy to spend so long in his presence.
There was so much to be done. Contracts needed to be drafted for the trade deal with Ashak-g’hopti, and the caravans from the west had fallen silent again. The master could not be bothered with petty affairs such as these. Darpah would have to arrange all that. Too much, too much work to be done.
It only made his nerves worse, then, when he found himself stopping in the garden. All the same, he couldn’t help himself. It was too curious a sight to see.
Chetan sat on the marble bench, feeding his mothsnake the rat half of some creature he had caught. There was a gentleness to his expression that Darpah did not often associate with that gnarled face: too often it was twisted in pain as he limped along on that gnarled leg.
Normally, Darpah would have just passed him and moved on. It wasn’t inappropriate behavior: Chetan could care for the master’s animal like soldiers cared for their army’s swords. Darpah had no reason to stop.
But stop he did. He twiddled his thumbs together. He took a step forward. He took a step back. Then he took another step forward.
“Watch where you walk,” rasped Chetan, his voice even more hoarse than usual. He must have just woken up. “Darpah? You hear me? Watch where you step.”
Darpah mumbled an apology, staring at his feet. In the dirt of the garden, a few ladybugs crawled. He edged around them, taking delicate steps. He hadn’t known Chetan to be particularly religious, but Darpah supposed no one wanted to earn the ire of the Lady Summer.
“Sovar want something from me?”
Before he could stop it, a little gasp emerged from his lips. To use the master’s name—his old name, his common name—without the honorific attached to it bordered on sacrilegious. “No, I- I just wanted t-to walk in the garden,” said Darpah, unable to contain his stutter. “The master does not-.”
“Use his fucking name.”
Now, that was inappropriate behavior. Chetan was even more irritable than usual today, but Darpah knew how to deal with him. The master was the master, and should be addressed as such. It was an honor to serve him, and defiance would only merit them pain.
Darpah couldn’t say any of that. The words just wouldn’t come to him. All he could think of, for some reason, was the screaming of Jova the blind.
“May I sit?” asked Darpah, finally. Chetan’s nod was so small that Darpah might have just imagined it, but he sat anyway. The mothsnake turned its head toward him, forked tongue flickering out under vacant, compound eyes.
“Sitting’s no task for slaves,” wheezed Chetan, leaning back and stretching out his legs. Darpah tried not to look. It made him queasy. “He’ll be wroth if he sees.”
“He’s been drinking,” said Darpah, his voice barely above a whisper. “He won’t see.”
“Hmm,” grunted Chetan, and fell silent. They sat together, watching the bare branches sway in the wind. The ladybugs disappeared into the mulch. It struck Darpah as odd that they would emerge so late into winter, but the pontiffs did say that they were warmed by the Lady Summer’s fire.
Darpah felt no such fire. He bent over, stuffing his hands in his sleeves. The rising sun did little to warm him.
“Word on the street is that the Waves are rising,” said Chetan. He didn’t look at Darpah.
The slave attendant blinked. The Waves, the city of light’s commoner class, were not ones for raising their heads. The Waves went where the Wind blew, as the saying went. But recently…
“The master makes me read his letters to him,” said Darpah. He bit his lip. Why was he saying this? He didn’t give himself time to doubt himself. “Banden Ironhide has been sending letters to all the plutocrats. He won’t allow any bayman caravans over the spice road until the slaves are freed, he said. Wh-which is ridiculous, of course. I- I would have no home if I was freed. No work. No safety.”
Chetan coughed, his whole body shaking as he hacked out a mouthful of phlegm. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Aye. We’d be in the streets. We’d have nothing.”
You’d have yourself! You’d be free!
“But the Waves are rising,” said Chetan, again. “And with King-not-a-King Ironhide to lead them…they may drown this city yet.”
Darpah shuddered. Just how many had heard the screaming of Jova the blind?
“Will you take me to Sovar-l’hana, now?” asked Chetan. He shifted, preparing to rise. “I’ll be glad of it if you tell me first. These old bones need to know before they have to spend a night under the streets.”
Darpah stared at the dirt, where the ladybugs had gone. He wanted them to come back, wanted to watch them scurry through their simple, little lives and lose himself among them. But they were gone. “I- well, I don’t want to…but…I’m supposed to tell the master when…” Darpah couldn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t know where it was going.
“We’re not his dogs, you know. No matter how much he tells us we are,” said Chetan. It was the most rebellious statement Darpah had ever heard him say. If the master knew, he would be furious. He would punish them. Just the thought made Darpah whimper.
Chetan watched him, and the scars over his mouth stretched as he laughed. “Ah, the Ladies know me. Of course we’re his dogs. And no dog wants to be a bad dog, even if they all want to be wolves.”
Screams, and waves, and wolves, and little voices that might have just been dead thoughts rising again. It was too much.
Darpah started to cry. Great, fat tears rolled down his cheeks as he sucked in breath, but it felt like his chest was collapsing, felt like someone had put needles in his blood and they were poking at him, all over his body. He felt, dimly, Chetan’s hand on his shoulder—awkward and clumsy, but there nonetheless. Darpah did not know how long he cried. A shamefully long time. There was work to be done.
And when he had at last regained control of himself, when at last his eyes were dry, he asked, softly, “Which street?”
“You said the w-word on the street was that the Waves are rising,” said Darpah. He sniffed, and rubbed his nose. “Which street?”
Chetan looked at him for a long time. “I’ll show you, if you like. Another day, when there’s more time.”
“Thank you, Chetan,” said Darpah, and he rose. For the first time in a long time, he noticed how heavy the collar on his neck was, noticed how empty his belly was and how bent his back was. “Excuse me. Sovar-l’hana has much work for me to do.”
Darpah began to hurry away, but not before Chetan made one last remark. “You didn’t say it,” he wheezed. “You didn’t call him master.”
No, Darpah realized, with a start. He hadn’t.
And it felt good.
The cut in Uten’s side had grown infected. The molebison’s flesh was hot to the touch, and Jova could hear the carrion flies buzzing around her. Da said the blood was black and lumpy.
“Come on, girl,” whispered Jova, trying to pull the molebison forward, but Uten would neither move nor answer. Fighting back tears, Jova slapped the molebison’s sensitive nose, a move that, on any other day, would have earned a panicked grunt or push. Uten just slumped further, breathing heavily.
Jova felt a hand on her back, and jumped. It would be a long time before she stopped doing that.
“It’d be a kindness to give the beast to the Lady Winter, Jova,” said Ma, softly. “It’s suffered enough.”
Hot tears began to spill across Jova’s cheeks, and she bit her lip in shame. She thought she’d done enough crying, lately. Jova tried to think of a reason to stop her, a way to save her last reminder of Roan, but in her heart she knew Ma was right.
“I’ll do it quickly. Painlessly. I promise, my little Lady.” Ma knelt down to hug Jova close, although Jova did not return it. She just nodded, and turned away, and tried not to listen as Ma let go and walked to Uten’s side.
The molebison shuddered once, and then her labored breathing stopped. The tabula in Jova’s hand split, and cracked, and Jova shuddered as she felt a great chill run through her body that had nothing to do with the cold.
It seized her, suddenly. Jova heard the wind howling around her ears, and clutched her chest as her heart began to burn with a searing pain. The ground shook beneath her, and a woman so tall she blocked out the sun stood above her. Where her face should have been, there was only a slab of marble, cold and impassive.
The vision passed. Uten was dead. Their link had been broken.
Jova bowed her head, giving a silent prayer to the Lady Winter that she would take care of Uten. The pontiffs didn’t have much to say about the souls of animals, but Jova had known enough of the beast to know she had one.
She rubbed the wooden badge in her hands as Ma walked her back to camp. Uten was not the last reminder Jova had of Roan.
“It still doesn’t make sense,” muttered Jova, as she sat on the coarse, short grass of the Hang Mountains. Irontower was not far: technically, they were already within the nation’s holdings, although Da had always described Irontower as more of a cult than a nation.
“What doesn’t make sense?” asked Ma, sitting beside her. “Just ask, Jova. We’ll tell you everything.”
Jova pulled her knees up to her chest. It was strange, how quickly she had become accustomed to traveling on the road again. Just the three of them, and Mo, sleeping on the worn bedrolls as they traveled along the side roads. The only difference was that they were going north, instead of south.
“Why weren’t you there?”
“We told you, Jova,” said Da, sitting on the other side of her. Their beaten, iron pot bubbled as dinner cooked. “We couldn’t be in the city. The plutocrats wouldn’t let us.”
That was what they had told her, yes. They had come looking for her when Pontiff Zain had told them that she had gone to Jhidnu; why he had lied, Jova didn’t know. Ma and Da had spent weeks searching for her, until the plutocrats had expelled Ma from the city—for what reason, they wouldn’t say, although Jova suspected it had something to do with her mother’s temper. And, in her experience, men with power on Albumere did not merely expel. From then on, they had stayed in the outskirts of the city, until…
“When did Roan find you?”
“Later. The same day that Mo found you,” said Da. “Your mother was going to storm the city, guards be damned, but then Roan came. Riding out past the walls on his horse, war paints on his face and chest like he really was one of them. And then…”
“He told us about his plan,” said Ma, picking up the story. “Said we’d wait until you were sold. Said he’d sneak you out on the road once you were past the walls. If only we’d known what they were doing to you.” There was a dark anger in Ma’s voice as she held Jova’s still healing hands, an anger that Jova now recognized. She truly was Anjan’s daughter.
She’d heard it all before. Roan had wanted Jova to have protection when she escaped. It was why he had been so angry when Bechde had left without her.
But Roan hadn’t been willing to be the protection Jova needed. And now, he never would be.
What was it Chetan had said? Everybody had a story. While Jova had been sneaking around, trying to accomplish something, plans had been in motion around her. People had been taking action. She might never fully understand what Roan had—or hadn’t—been doing to secure her freedom.
“We were waiting by the towermen camp,” said Da. “We’d follow you until night fell, then Roan would sneak you out. But when that killer woman took the sandman leader, he had to act fast before—well, before they took you.”
How long had Roan been working towards Jova’s freedom? The whole time? Since the desert? After Hak Mat Do? Why the ruse? He had always wanted to return to the Hag Gar Gan, but he must have been too kind a man to abandon Jova.
And that kindness had killed him.
“Are we still going to Irontower?” asked Jova.
Jova knew when Ma and Da were exchanging looks behind her back (not that they needed to). Eventually, Da said, “I think not, Jova. We have to stop in the valley for supplies, but then we’ll go to my home. The Stronghold. It’ll be safer there.”
There was a time when Jova would have just nodded and followed in her parents’ trail. But something now made her pause. “Will they let you back in? You were a slave when you escaped.”
“Oh, it’s been long enough. No one will remember a runaway from the black caste,” said Da. His tone betrayed his fear, though. He had to have at least killed his master unawares to take his tabula back. Jova could not imagine they would forget so easily.
Jova bit her lip. “Is it really going to be safe?”
“Of course it is,” said Da, wrapping his arm around Jova’s shoulders. “The Marble Stronghold is the safest place on all of Albumere.”
“What about when it’s at war?”
Silence. “The marble soldiers will protect us,” said Da. “Trust me.”
“OK,” said Jova. She laid on the ground, wincing as she stretched out her back. “I’m really tired now.”
“Of course, Jova,” said Ma, getting up, as Da rose with her. “Get some rest now. Supper will be ready soon.” Jova listened to her footsteps tread away, before they stopped. “Jova…I know Roan was very close to you. If you want to-.”
“I’m tired, Ma,” said Jova, and she rolled on her side, curling her body so that her back faced her parents.
Ma didn’t say anything else, and Jova felt a pit open in her gut. She shouldn’t have said that. The Ladies had given her a miracle! Her parents had come back for her! She was with her family again, free and safe and happy. Except, Jova was beginning to doubt that she was any of those three things.
They had been moving fast. Ma had done her best to cover their trail, but there was no way they could outrun a clan of Hag Gar Gan riders. If, as they hoped, they chose not to pursue, then all the better, but it never hurt to be cautious.
And then, of course, there was the matter of the towerman.
He was heading the same direction, no doubt. Perhaps he would stay in Jhidnu long enough to voice his complaints, perhaps he would simply head straight for Irontower. His smithsworn warrior was no longer with him—Jova had seen to that—but that didn’t mean Thun Doshrigaw was alone. The Hag Gar Gan could still be with him, and if they weren’t, there were always more mercenaries to be found in the city.
Thun Doshrigaw. It was too strange a name to forget. His name Jova remembered, but his voice she couldn’t. She had heard it too few times for it to stick.
As she laid there, Jova made up her mind. At Irontower, she would wait for Thun Doshrigaw.
She could imagine the conversation in her head. You’re not the first man whose skull I’ve crushed. Your man wasn’t either. Nothing pops, you know. The blood leaks out of your eyes first. Then the rest of the skull just cracks and crumbles, and whatever’s inside just dribbles away. Jova shuddered. The imagined dialogue both thrilled and horrified her, and she was horrified that she was thrilled.
She curled up tighter. The air grew colder the further north they went. It also grew colder the higher they walked, through the mountain pass that led to Irontower, and it also grew colder the more the winter dragged on. There’d be snows, soon: the first snows Jova had ever seen.
Odd, how it could snow so heavily in the Irontower when never a flake so much as touched its neighbor Jhidnu. Another one of the strange ways the Ladies had cobbled Albumere together, she supposed.
Can’t expect more from a half world, a voice seemed to whisper in her ear, and Jova twitched, although her limbs seemed suddenly heavy and her body weary. Her ears couldn’t hear anything; it was just her thoughts, echoing inside her own head. Can’t expect more from a place that’s at war with itself.
And then another voice spoke, in a breathless moan. You didn’t bury me. Was that Uten? Or was that Roan? Perhaps the ghosts of Ya Gol Gi and Copo had come to haunt her, too. You let my essence spill free. Now they’ve taken my life from me.
Jova almost opened her mouth to protest, but it felt like her teeth were glued shut. She could hear them, moving in dizzying circles around her, about her, inside her. They were not louder, for how could they be louder? They were as loud as silence. But they grew more angry and demanding.
Why didn’t you bury me? Ladies have wings, not roots. Can’t go under. You were there. Under the street. Deep, dark, dank places. Bad place for the living. Good place for the dead. Who cares about the seasons down there? Why didn’t you bury me? Jova, Jova, Jova. Why didn’t you bury me? JOVA. JOVA.
“Jova?” Ma shook her shoulder, and Jova sucked in a breath of bracing, cool air. “You dozed off. Supper’s ready.”
Jova sat up, massaging her temple, and clasped tight the wooden badge in her fingers. It was such a small thing, smooth but for the lines etched in its surface. She tried to make sense of the carving by touch alone, but it was too hard to tell.
She trudged the few steps she needed to sit by the fire, and squatted down as Da passed her a bowl. She took it, letting the steam waft into her face. It dampened her blindfold, but her blindfold had been plenty damp for quite some time.
There was a joy to it though, to hot food and Mo rubbing himself on her knees and Ma and Da sitting beside her. “Thanks,” she muttered, quietly, so quietly she wasn’t sure if her parents could hear her.
“There’s no need for that,” said Ma, kissing Jova on the forehead.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Da. “I’m the one who cooked it, and I rightly enjoy it when I get some appreciation.”
“We spent too long with those fieldmen refugees in the woods, their accent grew on you,” grumbled Ma, as she drank the soup. “And that’s not a good thing.”
Jova didn’t quite smile, but she drank. It was thin, the flavor weak, but it tasted better than anything Jova had eaten in days. Food in her gut, rather than shame and anger, was a nice change.
“What’s on this badge?” she asked, holding it out. Da’s calloused hand took it first.
“Well, where’d you find this, little Lady?” he asked, and Jova heard him tapping it with a fingernail. “There’s a crescent moon on it, and a cloud across it, all curves and spirals. Finely made little thing.”
He put it back in Jova’s palm, and she held it tightly. Had Roan mentioned the symbol before? She couldn’t remember. It had to do with the Dream Walkers, she was sure of it, although she imagined their insignia to be…different, somehow. Why a wooden badge? Of the Dream Walkers she knew, one had been a merchant, the other a pontiff, and the last an ambassador. She had somehow imagined them with golden chains on their neck, silver rings on their fingers, and ivory bands on their wrists. A wooden badge so small that it hid when she closed her fist seemed underwhelming.
She felt hands on the back of her head, but before she could act she realized it was just Da, braiding her hair. “You ate quickly,” she said, bowing her head as Da untangled her hair, which by now had grown long and wild.
“It was excellent cooking!” Da declared, and Jova heard Ma snort into her bowl beside her.
Jova drank slowly, enjoying the warmth as she felt it trickle down her throat, into her gut, through her body. The fire teased her with its heat, dancing closer, then farther, with the capricious wind. “The marble braid, Da?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said. “Marble soldiers are all warriors like you, my little Lady.”
For the first time in her life, when Da said that, it scared her. She didn’t want to be surrounded by warriors like her.
Ma must have noticed the expression on her face. Jova felt her embrace, and this time, she returned it. The scent of sweat and earth lingered around her, but to Jova, it was as sweet as any plutocrat’s perfume. “We’re so proud of you, Jova,” Ma said. “For being so…so strong and so brave while you were gone. And we’re so, so happy you’re back.”
“Me too,” said Jova. It was all she could think to say, but it was also everything she needed to say.
They spent the rest of the night there, huddled together, until Jova dozed off again. Ma must have carried her off to her bedroll, where Jova dreamed once again. This time it was of wooden clouds passing over the hooded eye of the Lady Fall, and a wooden man pointing at the orange glow of the sun on the horizon, although she could not tell if it was rising or setting.
Then she woke, and it was time to go.
Jova’s mind wandered as she walked; she didn’t have to pay too much attention to where she walked, with Ma holding her hand the entire way. At the Irontower, tell them: let the dead rest. Those were Roan’s instructions. Yet, how was she to let the dead rest, if they were the ones seeking her?
“This one here is Mount Mokesh,” said Da, with his running commentary as they walked. “Tallest of all the ones in the Hang, taller even than Mason’s Peak. The towermen believe the Lady Fall and the Lady Summer gave the First Smith the secret to steel-magic at the very summit of that mountain.”
Jova’s foot slipped on a loose rock, but Ma caught her before she fell. “Careful now,” said Ma. “Don’t pay too much attention to your da’s rambling if you can’t concentrate on where you step.”
“I’ll be fine, Ma,” said Jova, holding her arms out to keep her balance. They were walking uphill, toward a pass that lead to the Irontower valley, and the skeletons of shrubs clawed at her ankles and legs as she walked through them. The rocks wobbled when she stepped on them, but for the most part did not budge.
“On the other side is Fogenlaw,” said Da. His voice sounded distant, ahead of them, or perhaps that was just the wind. “They say it spit fire and molten rock before the Irontower was ever built, but it’s quiet now. Has been since before the time of kings.”
“I understand your knowing Moscoleon back to front, but how in the name of the summer-burnt wastes do you know so much about this place?” shouted Ma, as she led Jova around a square boulder, its edge keen and cold under the winter sun.
“The marblemen hated it!” Da sounded like he was running out of breath. “Partly because we used to own it, mostly because they’re better at doing what we did than we ever were. What would you rather have, a marble hammer or a steel sword?”
“I’d rather have the tabula of tigerbear, thank you,” said Ma, as they caught up with him. “Almost at the top of this hill, Jova. It’s down from there, into the valley, so don’t go too fast, OK?”
Da coughed. “Alright, then, let’s ask someone who’s not a savage wildling. What say you, Jova? A hammer or a sword?”
“The Lady Summer wields the Sunhammer,” said Jova. She felt a twist in her gut as she remembered the story she had told Chetan. It had been foolish to think of Roan as the champion from a story; even if they somehow came true in real life, Roan had never been a man to crush small things. Except, perhaps Jova. He had crushed her for nothing. “None of the Ladies have swords, though.”
“Oh, Anjan, we’ve ruined her! She’s a templechild, through and through.”
“Don’t listen to your father, dear, we need someone who can stay in the Ladies’ good graces. Careful, now, careful…”
“I’m fine, Ma,” she said, and stepped forward.
“There it is,” said Da. “The Irontower. It shines in the light, so, Jova. Come on, we’ll get so close you can touch it, my little Lady.”
They descended the slope, Mo scampering about their feet, Jova stepping slowly so as not to slip. Da kept talking, as they approached. “Not everyone can be a smith. This whole valley is full of farms, and there are miners up in the Greenskull Caverns. There’s some local tale about Greenskull, but I forget it…”
Deep, dark, dank places. Why didn’t you bury me? Jova flinched, thinking about caves. She had nothing to fear from them, she knew: after all, what did a blind girl care if a place had no light? But her hands still throbbed, and she could still feel the fire of the torch, so close to her skin it felt like she was burning.
There had been good caves, too, she reminded herself. Roan had trained her in the Teeth of the Abyss, those limestone tunnels near Temple Moscoleon. But Roan was gone now, and Moscoleon was barred from her. It was painful to think about it.
He was not all gone. He had one last instruction for her. At the Irontower, tell them: let the dead rest.
The ground evened out beneath them. Jova found herself walking a smooth, dirt path, which was a good deal easier on her bare feet than the pass from before. The valley around her felt oddly empty; Jova could hear the low moan of the wind, felt the dust around her ankles. She supposed the harvests had already been brought in for the winter.
“It’s creepy,” said Jova, and she gripped Ma’s hand a little tighter. “I don’t hear anyone.”
“They must all be inside,” said Anjan, squeezing Jova’s hand.
Irontower did not take kindly to strangers, Jova knew, but they had little other choice. It was either stop in the valley and trade for supplies, or let Jova walk through the Hang Mountains barefoot, in her ragged slave clothing, with nothing but a wood badge and a broken collar in her hands.
“Tell me what it looks like,” said Jova, as they drew closer. She could feel its shadow on her now. If she clicked her tongue, it was there: a solid mass, huge and imposing, in the center of an otherwise empty void.
“It’s tall, Jova,” said Ma, her voice filled with wonder. “Taller even than the Stone Ladies outside of Moscoleon. I don’t know how they could build it so tall without the wind knocking it over.”
“Is the whole city inside it?” asked Jova.
“As much as it can be called a city,” said Anjan, although she sounded hesitant. “Is that right, Ell?”
“The forgestokers never leave the tower, and all the forges are located inside,” said Ell. “But, to be honest, I don’t know. They need farms on the outside, and there are mining camps scattered throughout the mountains, but even the farmers and miners don’t really know what’s inside that tower.”
Jova clicked her tongue, and she heard it. The ring of the metal, soft and pure, responded to her. She walked forward, all the way forward, until she could put out her hand, and touch the Irontower. The metal sheeting on its side was frigid and cold.
“The merchant isn’t in the tower,” said Ma. “He’s on- Jova? Jova, where are you going? Jova!”
The girl felt the door handle, laid her palm flat against the entrance to the Irontower. She closed her hand into a fist.
Then she knocked. Four times.
Jova felt Ma’s hands around her waist, pulling her away, just as the door began to creak open. Before Ma could say anything, before even the towerman on the other side could speak, Jova raised the wooden badge.
“Let the dead rest,” she said.
There was silence. Ma had stopped moving, although she still held Jova tightly. Jova could hear the echoing inside the tower, the dim sounds of hammers on anvils and steel being drawn somewhere far above her. Then, the man who had opened the door said four simple words.
“Not here, Dream Walker.”
Jova had heard a peckerbeetle once in her life. It had bored into the side of the tree near her house in Moscoleon and had spent the rest of the day knocking its beak against the trunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. The incessant rhythm had been enough to drive a seeing man to madness, but to Jova it had been near torture.
Sovar-l’hana’s writing was worse. Scribble. Scribble. Scribble. Dip, tap-tap. Jova wasn’t sure if she had ever heard Sovar-l’hana without the constant scratch of his quill.
He wasn’t even writing contracts, for Jova’s sale or anyone else’s; from Darpah’s neurotic mutterings, Jova had learned that the slaves prepared those, and “the master” just signed off on them. By extension, Jova had learned that Darpah could read, write, and apparently understood Jhidnu trade law. It was odd, how a man like that could be so educated and yet so servile.
Jova shook her head. It wasn’t odd, with a tabula. She had never known the terror of having her soul held by another person. Who was she to judge?
She flexed her fingers. She was in some position to judge. Her palms were far from healed, but they no longer leaked blood, which Jova supposed was a good thing. Darpah had just changed the bandages a few hours ago, starting half-conversations with Jova while stopping and admonishing himself the whole time, but her hands were still grimy and slick.
The master tapped his knuckles on the desk, and the air rippled. So quick was the summoning that Jova barely heard the hum of the tabula.
A part of her wished she had met Sovar-l’hana under different circumstances. A man like him must have known everything there was to know tabula. Perhaps even something that would have helped Jova.
“It’s done,” said Sovar-l’hana, and Jova cocked her head. Which dog had he summoned this time? “Give him the girl, and this as well. If the seal breaks before it gets where it needs to go, both the intended recipient and I will be very displeased. And you know how I am when I’m displeased, ha!”
“Ay,” muttered the man. Too subdued to be Dandal. Too insolent to be Darpah.
“Good morning, Chetan,” Jova muttered, as the slave limped to her side.
“How is it good?” he growled back, and yanked on her chain. Jova stumbled after him, doing her best to follow without knowing where he was leading her. She resisted the urge to claw at the collar around her neck. As she had laid there in the slave pens last night, she had realized something: everyone wore the chains, but only she had to follow them. Like an animal that couldn’t be reasoned with, she had to be pulled and tugged where she needed to go.
Was this what Ma had meant, that bad people would hurt her if they knew her secret? That they would no longer treat her as a person?
Jova stumbled down the steps of Sovar-l’hana’s mansion, her head bowed. She had never been treated as a person. These men treated her like beasts, it was true, but Ma and Da, as loving as they had been, had handled her like a fragile object that could be broken at any time. Arim had used her as a path to a better life. The Hag Gar Gan had seen her as an amusing pet at best.
Rho Hat Pan had lived some kind of redemptive fantasy through her. She had been a convenience for him, nothing more.
It dawned on Jova that no one, in her entire life, had ever acted as if she was her own person, and she didn’t even have a tabula for them to hold. That was just how people were.
Chetan, as direct and business-like as he was, walked slowly. Sometimes, Jova would stop, and he would have to tug and pull on her chain to get her moving again. When he did, he would wince and stumble, and Jova took some small pleasure in that. It was her rebellion, as little as it was.
She stopped doing that, after nearly half an hour of walking, though. It must have been hard on him, with his limp, and it had quickly turned from rebellious to cruel. Was he really taking her all the way to the city limits?
It must have been so convenient, summoning and all the ways it could be exploited. One tap of the finger and Chetan had been whisked from Ladies knew where to do his master’s bidding. There were so many ways it could be used, if only people were a bit more trusting. If only, Jova thought, they could afford a bit more trust.
Jova scratched her chest. She never had the chance to try, but after everything that had happened, perhaps it was better that she hadn’t.
It was slow progress. A couple times, as she followed the sounds of his steps, Jova nearly passed Chetan. She settled for walking beside him, listening to his unsteady gait and the clink of her chains.
She didn’t know how much longer she had in Jhidnu. If they truly were leaving, then she had not long at all.
She wouldn’t miss the city much. She had been so young when she left, so afraid and so confused, that it hadn’t felt like home in the slightest. But Mo was here, and she had hoped to find her parents, to at least speak to them before she was taken away…
“I’m going to ask you a question,” said Jova, as they walked. “Is that all right?”
“Harder to break than you seem,” growled Chetan. “You’re bought and paid for. Ask your question if you want, but mind your tongue around master Doshrigaw.”
“Where did you get your limp?”
Chetan didn’t answer her. He just hobbled on, and Jova followed him. She didn’t mind the breaks in the conversation; she was used to them. Finally, as he pulled her down a street corner, he spoke. “There’s a story behind it.”
“Then tell me a story,” said Jova. She bit her lip. Was that too impudent?
“You’re surrounded by stories, girl,” said Chetan. “City’s full of them, and they’re all tragedies. Darpah’s got a story. Dandal, the arrogant sod, he’s got a story. Sovar has two stories, before and after he earned the name l’hana. Everyone you know has got a fucking story.”
“You’re the only one I know with a limp.”
“Really? You’re not the only blind girl I know, or the only zealot, or the only one who’s missing her tabula, even.” Chetan’s grip loosened on Jova’s chain. His tone grew wistful. “There’s no point in knowing my story, girl. What do the names Jetta and Krish and Kal Matushew mean to you? You’ll just forget. The only story that matters is your own.”
The city of light grew more subdued, quieter and less rank, as they walked further and further from its center. Jova could no longer hear the moans from beneath the streets. “Is that what you tell yourself, when you’re nailing our hands to the walls?” asked Jova.
“It’s the truth, little girl,” said Chetan, although it was without his customary growl. He sounded tired, not angry.
“The truth is that all people have stories. You tell yourself that they don’t matter.”
Chetan wheezed. It almost sounded like he was laughing. “Little girl, you are too wise to be a slave.”
“As are you,” said Jova. “I just wish you were kinder.”
“And I wish you were crueler. There’s all kinds of pain on Albumere. It makes people swell with all manner of sin, until there’s no room left for kindness.”
They lapsed into silence, as Jova wondered about the mystery of Chetan’s limp.
“Could I tell you a story, then?” she asked, as they walked.
“Speak, if you will. I shall not stop you.”
“It’s from the scripture of Moscoleon,” said Jova. She furrowed her brow; her memory was foggy, but she could remember it well enough. It had been one of her favorites, when she had sat at the feet of Pontiff Zain and listened to his booming voice. “It’s about the Lady Summer, and how she earned her wings.”
She didn’t miss Chetan’s derisive grunt. They did not hold the goddesses in particularly high esteem, in Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, but they held to them, nonetheless. What other gods were there to worship? The walking trees? The demons of the Deep?
“She, the youngest and least of the Ladies, called to them. ‘Come, sisters, I have a new game!’ she said. They flew down to meet her, and her heart grew sick with envy, for she could not yet fly. ‘See the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs? Whoever smites the most shall be the winner.’”
“‘What is the wager?’ said the Lady Fall, who cared not for the game but wished to know more of her sister’s heart.”
“‘I do not like this game,’ said the Lady Winter, who was gentle and loving. ‘What have the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs done to wrong us?’”
“Nothing, said the Lady Spring, for her sister was not yet worthy to speak to.”
“The Lady Summer had a plan, from the start. ‘If I win this game,’ she said, ‘then the loser shall give me their wings. Spring, you bear the wings of the lady bird. Winter, you bear the wings of the owl. Fall, you bear the wings of the bat. You have all had them for so long, while I have had none. It is only fitting that we share.’”
“The Lady Spring nodded, and her sisters agreed in turn. Though her sisters were swift in the air, the Lady Summer looked upon the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs, and burned them with her light. She crushed them with her hammer, and delighted in her slaughter, for though she could not fly, she felt no need to as a titan among lesser things. She won by a great score, and returned to her sister’s full of pride.”
“But the Lady Winter looked upon her with sadness, for she had not slain a single one of the antbeetles, or the flies, or the wandering bugs, but put them in a long sleep with her breath. And the Lady Fall looked upon her with knowing, for she had listened to the secrets of all those who had curled in the shadows to die before taking their small lives. And the Lady Spring looked upon her with no feeling on her face, and spoke thus: ‘You have won your game, and for this we shall not give you our wings, but make you new wings, wings of your own.’”
“The Lady Summer’s joy lasted for but a second, for then the Lady Spring turned her into a beetle, with wings dyed the color of the blood she had spilt, with dark spots like all the bodies she had crushed, and the sun no longer shone and the first night came. The Lady Summer fled into the world, and hid, for though she had wings, now she was a small thing. She saw the Lady Spring wander the world, and with Summer’s fire restore life to the flies she had crushed, and thus were born the summer flies, who still light the way by night, and the Lady Summer saw a great beauty in the things she had killed.”
“She saw their beauty, and yet did not dare to follow it, for in the dark of the night all manner of things that could kill a little beetle still lurked. For the first time, the Lady Summer felt pity.”
“The Lady Spring restored the Lady Summer on the first dawn of the first morning, but left her the wings: a lady bug’s wings, red, dotted with black. ‘Take you your hammer,’ said the Lady Spring. ‘And with it, lend strength to the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs, for you know both the minds of the hunter and the hunted.’”
“And the Lady Summer wept, for this was the first time she had seen her sister smile, and she joined her sisters in flight, for now she was worthy. Every night, when the suns dips below the horizon, the Lady Summer becomes a lady bug again, and is led by the summer flies, to remember what it is to be small.”
Jova stopped. The images—the light of the summer flies, the fluttering of the beetle wings, the Lady Summer’s great marble hammer—danced in her mind like a dream long forgotten.
“Well told. Perhaps in another life you could have been a pontiff,” said Chetan, his voice very hoarse. “But it is a story for children. I do not see what it proves.”
Jova reached out, feeling for Chetan’s hands, and he did not resist when she put her ruined palms over his. “Take you your hammer, and with it lend strength to us,” she said. “For you know both the minds of the slaver and the enslaved.”
Chetan’s wheezing grew harsher, until he was bent double with hacking coughs. “I am no champion,” he said, when he had gathered the strength to speak. “Kindness ill fits me still, little girl.”
Jova let his hands go, and bowed her head once more. She wasn’t sure why she had said that to him, this man who had driven nails into her hands. Perhaps it was because it pained her to know a good man did such terrible things. Perhaps it was because he was not a good man at all.
“Go. Take these letters, and deliver them to your new master. He is waiting,” said Chetan, giving her a push in the right direction. It was some kind of encampment, by the sounds of it, well beyond the limits of Jhidnu-by-the-Sea. “I will not see you again.”
“And I have never seen you,” said Jova, as she shuffled away. “But despite what you think, I will remember you, and the little part I played in your story.”
“Farewell, little girl,” said Chetan, firmly, and he turned and limped down the path, back to the city of light.
As Jova walked, clutching the two rolls of parchment in her hands, towards the sound of people packing and preparing for the trip to Irontower, she realized why she had told Chetan the story of the Lady Summer’s wings.
He had, in his own, twisted way, treated her like a person. No one tortured an animal. And he’d listened to her, even if he still disagreed. He’d said she had a story.
Odd, how the Ladies worked like that.
“Slothful Sovar-l’hana is too fat to come himself,” droned a voice, almost bored, in a nasal monotone. Jova had heard it before, but had trouble placing it. “I should have expected as much.” The voice drew closer to her, and she felt hands take the letters out of her grip.
“Letters for Thun Doshrigaw,” said Jova, keeping her head low. She didn’t know much about the towermen. No one did. Until then, she would expect the worst.
“Then he is ever so pleased to have received them,” said the man, and she heard the sound of the seal breaking. “You, there! Take her with the rest.”
“Yup,” said a female voice. Heavy. Low. This one Jova recognized.
“Dock?” she hissed, as someone else took her chain. It was disconcerting, being pushed and pulled by so many people at once.
Something was pushed into Jova’s hand, something wrapped in cloth with a handle and a hard surface beneath. “Don’t talk,” said Dock. “They ain’t seen me yet.”
“Don’t talk,” Dock repeated. Simple, blunt, matter-of-fact. “Only two towermen. Rest are Hag Gar Gan, contracted as guards and escorts. My job, or it should have been. And slaves. Remember our deal?”
Kill Dal Ak Gan. Earn your freedom. Jova nodded, keeping to Dock’s “don’t talk” rule.
“We walk past. You stab. He dies. I get you out,” said Dock. Jova could smell the manure of horses, the Do Yash spices that the sandmen liked so much. “Mounts can’t follow us into the city. You ready?”
Sweat began to break out on Jova’s brow. The knife, wrapped in cloth, felt like it would tumble out of her clumsy hands. A question came to mind, but she bit it back. She wasn’t to talk, or say Dock’s name. But, like the question of Chetan’s limp, she couldn’t help but wonder: why couldn’t Dock do this herself? Didn’t she own her own tabula?
Everybody had their own story. Jova had met so many people since she had left Moscoleon, and she had barely scratched the surface of what those stories were.
“On your left,” said Dock. “Get ready.”
Jova’s grip tightened. Why did Dock need her? Why did Dock want Dal Ak Gan dead so badly? Obviously the mercenary had been wronged, but Dock was in far more danger than a simple grudge demanded.
It didn’t matter. Jova would kill Dal Ak Gan, and she would earn her freedom. She could return to Jhidnu, and continue the search for her mother and father, and she would never again have to bow to the likes of Sovar-l’hana and his cabal of slavers.
Chetan was right. This was a cruel world that left no room for kindness.
But even as Jova wrapped her fingers around the handle of the dagger, she knew she didn’t believe that. Those other men she had killed had been out of fear, necessity, panic. And right now she knew that no matter what she chose to do, she would live either way. Dal Ak Gan would not. She didn’t need to do this.
“Do it now,” whispered Dock. “Do it.”
Where was Alis? What good were Dock’s promises to her?
Jova was just a knife to her. Not a person. What did it say about the world, that the only time Jova felt she had been treated as a person was when she was being dragged by a chain through the streets?
Dock’s probably going to kill me, Jova thought, almost as an afterthought, as she dropped the dagger. It rolled out of her hands, tumbling out of the cloth, and that was when the chaos started.
The mercenary did not scream out a protest or howl in frustration. She merely shoved Jova aside and reached for the ground. Jova heard it, detail by tiny detail. The crunch of dirt as Dock stepped forward and swept the dagger up, the rush of air as Dock flipped it a hair’s breadth from Jova’s face, the concentrated grunt as she plunged it into Dal Ak Gan’s back.
A horse screamed, and there was a crack like a bone snapping. Dock was knocked onto her back, skidding across the ground. The sandmen shouted, the hum of tabula beginning at once all around her. Was that La Ah Abi shouting? Was that Dep Sag Ko, mounting his eelhound? She heard barking, harsh and fierce.
Strong hands gripped Jova by the arm, and she was lifted bodily into a burly man’s arms. The rhythm of horse hooves was familiar to her.
“Anjan! Ell! Now is the time!” screamed a voice that Jova had never been so happy to hear in her entire life.
“Rho Hat Pan?” she whispered, as Stel reared and nickered. “…Roan?”
“Lies are not becoming me, Jova girl,” grunted Roan, and there was a crack of a whip as the shouting grew louder, angrier. “You see how all things are falling apart when the truth is not told? Why, in the name of the Ladies, were you part of that harebrained Dock’s schemes?”
Jova still did not understand. She clutched Roan’s chest, too shocked to make sense of the sounds around her, too confused to care. Before she knew what she was doing, Jova hit him in the chest. “You told me the truth was a shield!” she shouted, unable to hold back tears that were equal parts relief and anger. “You- you told me…”
“Zat, zat, Stel!” shouted Roan, and the horse galloped hard. The bouncing nearly jostled Jova from her seat, but she clung onto Roan even tighter. “Sometimes shields must be being lowered, Jova girl. And sometimes…I am making mistakes. Anjan! Ell!”
The barking grew louder. It was no eelhound that was making that noise.
“My little Lady,” sobbed Ma, and she clutched Jova close as Roan let her down from his horse. There was still shouting from behind them, and Roan quickly turned, shouting in the imperial tongue and snapping his whip.
“You came back to us,” said Da. He sounded sickly and hoarse, but happy.
Jova was speechless. Nothing made sense anymore. Minutes ago, she had been preaching to the man who tortured her, she had been about to become an assassin, and now people who betrayed her had always been loyal and people who loved her had never left. “I never got the chance to say goodbye,” said Jova, and she hugged her parents tightly.
“And you’ll never need it,” whispered Anjan, holding Jova close. “Never again.”
“Anjan! Ell! Remember yourselves!” shouted Roan. “Clear a path! Jova—upon Stel. There is little time for explaining. Take this.”
As Mo’s barks turned from happy to vicious, as she heard Da draw his knives and heard Ma’s vicious scream, Jova clambered behind Roan. It felt somehow right to be there, again.
Roan pressed something into her hand, as he kicked Stel into a full gallop. Jova felt it, struggling to maintain a hold as Stel bounced beneath her. It was two things, actually: a tabula, still warm from Roan’s touch, and what felt like a wooden disk, about the same size but with a rougher surface pockmarked with cuts.
Jova heard the men and women in front of them scatter as Roan snapped his whip. For a moment, it sounded less like a whip and more like the marble hammer, and the pack on his back felt like the shell of a lady bug’s wings. He remembered what it was to be small. Perhaps he had always remembered.
“Roan,” Jova said. This time, she knew the question to ask. She opened her mouth to speak…
And someone else cut her off. “Stop and return to your people,” said the man she knew as Thun Doshrigaw. “Now.”
They did not slow at all. “He is unarmed and unarmored,” muttered Roan. “We will ride past him.”
Jova began to speak, but something held her tongue. A feeling, in the pit of her stomach.
Then something slammed into Stel so hard that it sent both of the horse’s riders tumbling into the grass. Dimly, Jova heard the humming of a tabula, and the presence of another man, where previously there had been none. Jova heard a clank of metal, and a chill ran down her spine. Her stomach dropped as she realized what had happened. All the ways summoning could be exploited…
A man in full armor would never have been able to catch a man on horseback. But a man in full armor could very easily stand in his way.
She scrambled to her feet, still clutching the tabula and the disk in her hands. “Roan! Roan!” she cried, clicking her tongue. He was a distance ahead of her, lying on the ground, struggling to sit upright.
“At the Irontower, show them the badge. Be telling them: let the dead rest.”
And if Jova had been afraid before, she was terrified now. “Roan, what do you mean? Am I still going to Irontower? Why do I-?”
Stel screamed for one soul-wrenching, blood-curdling moment before something cut her screams short. A sound, like meat being sliced.
The ground beside her exploded in a shower of dirt, and Jova realized with a start that the tabula in her hands was humming. The energy of her fear and shock must have translated into it, and now Uten stood, huffing in distress, beside her.
“Come on, Roan, let’s go!” Jova shouted, pulling on Roan’s arm, but she had not the strength to pull him up. When she tried to adjust her grip, she cried out in pain as her palms opened up again, and blood began to trickle down her fingers. And the rattle of armor grew closer, slowly, steadily, inexorably.
“Let the dead rest, Jova girl. Do not mourn me,” said Roan. He pushed Jova away, his stumps of legs unmoving. “I will tell Janwye you still think of her.”
Jova moved automatically, clambering on top of Uten, gripping the molebison’s fur and trying to point her towards the smithsworn warrior. She would fight him off, she would…
And then she heard the thud of the broadsword. Like meat being sliced.
Her whole body tensed. Jova screamed, and whatever rational, human part of her remained shrank back into the dark corners of her mind. The tabula hummed until it felt like the whole world was shaking with her, and a different blindness settled on her. Black became red, and all was forfeit to her rage.
The smithsworn raised his sword to prepare a defense, cutting Uten along the side, but that was all he managed to do. Uten slammed into him with a blow that would have flattened a lesser man, Jova still screaming on her back. The molebison slammed her paws on the man’s helmet, again and again, and Jova felt each blow viscerally through the animal. It wasn’t just the shudders of the impact, it was as if she was the animal itself.
She felt everything. Felt the man’s skull shatter inside his metal helmet. Felt his blood oozing out through the cracks. Felt a sorrow that threatened to overwhelm her as she realized that no matter how much of this man’s life she took away, she would never get Roan’s back.
Chaff bounced in his seat as the prayer song droned on, craning his head to get a better look at the frozen pool of water at the altar. It was abnormally cold in the House of Winter, compared to the rest of Moscoleon, and Chaff shivered as the gathered sang.
“The winter has come and the snows have now fallen; we’ve locked all our doors and now we are walled in,” they sang. “So be ready to gather, to pray, and to bless; for now we are more even though we are less.”
At the head of the congregation a man in another one of those funny hats lead the singing, standing precariously close to the frozen surface of the altar. He hadn’t let Chaff bring the big guy in, which disappointed the boy to no end. This was the one building he had ever been in that could fit the big guy.
“Be gentle, show mercy in these troubled times; for a cruel world is the one world where one can be kind. Glory in her, and her shining face! Pray for a quick end in the owl’s embrace.”
Chaff looked down quickly as the pontiff passed, and it was just his luck since everyone else bowed their heads then too. They did that often, at these congresses of the faith, although why escaped the boy.
He sneaked a look at the Lady Winter, made of marble, standing at her frozen altar. Maybe she was supposed to do something while everyone was looking away, but she stood still and motionless, little beads of condensation dripping down her wings. Chaff turned instead to the bowed heads around him.
He didn’t see the girl.
It had been like this all day. Chaff had gone to every House of the Ladies he could find, and not one had her in attendance. He had gone to sunrise prayer, morning prayer, and now high noon prayer, but no matter how hard he had searched he had not found her. Perhaps this time he would actually pray, just to see if it worked.
The pontiff passed again, and Chaff ducked his head.
The singing at last ended. From the corner of his eye, Chaff saw the pontiff throw his head up, saw the stark lines etched on the base of his neck. He wondered how they had gotten there. Once, when he was young, he had carved a picture of him and the big guy into the side of a thorn tree. Perhaps pontiffs were the same. Perhaps someone made those marks when the pontiffs were made of wood, before they had become men.
His speech was concluding. “…and in this game of worlds, may fortune be with you.”
“May fortune be with you,” the congregation echoed.
“Fortune,” said Chaff. A greater power than kings or gods.
He walked against the flow when the others began to trickle out, towards the Lady Winter instead of away. She stood before him, wings outstretched, her face kind but her features skeletal.
The Lady of death waited as Chaff approached her.
A pair of sandals stood by the altar, the leather faded from the hundreds of feet that had worn them. Chaff slipped them on and stepped gingerly across the glassy surface of the ice. His thin pants were scant protection from the cold as he knelt before the statue.
“Tell me where she is,” said Chaff, holding up the girl’s tabula. He traced its single crack, waiting. Was this how prayer worked? “Do you know where she is?”
The Lady Winter had no answer for him, just as all the other Lady Winters in the city had no answer for him. Chaff ground his teeth. Where would the goddesses talk to him, if not the holiest place in Albumere?
“Jova,” said Chaff, staring at the Lady Winter’s face. There was no one left in the House now, except a child servant taking a broom to the floor behind him. “Her name is Jova.”
His gaze drifted down from the statue to the altar, to the ribbon of red laid across the pedestal. He wondered who had left it there.
The House was mostly silent now, but for the scrape of the broom’s hairs and the ambient whispers still echoing across the House’s high dome. Was that Chaff’s own voice bouncing above his head? Or were those the voices of prayers past, still asking the Ladies for answers?
Chaff clasped his hands together. He cleared his throat. “What about Sri?” He put the tabula back in his belt. “I never meant to…I just wanted to say goodbye, yeah? Where is she? Is she OK?”
The Lady Winter just smiled. A sad, resigned smile.
“Hadiss?” asked Chaff.
“Veer, and the rest of them?”
Chaff stared at the ground for a long while. He couldn’t bring himself to say it, but if he wouldn’t say it here, in the holiest place in Albumere, where would he say it? Chaff blinked rapidly, and looked up at the statue of the Lady Winter. Arms outstretched, like Duarch Fra Henn, in the plaza that Chaff had thought, however briefly, was his home.
“What about Loom?” he asked. “Is she…are she and Vhajja…are they with you?”
Just a smile.
The boy bowed his head. He wished the big guy could come in here with him. He felt awfully lonely. “Could you tell what she’s like, at least? Jova?” said Chaff. “If you don’t know where she is?”
“She laughed a lot,” said a voice behind him, and Chaff nearly smashed his face into the ice as he turned to look. The cleaning boy stood, leaning on his broom, watching Chaff with a half-wary, half-bemused expression. “She never spoke ill of anyone. She could tell a dull rock from a shiny rock just from the sounds they made.” The boy looked down to hide his smile. “She’d get up every morning before work to help me train with the zealot’s spear and she’d kick my ass every time.”
Chaff slid forward from the altar, until he was walking on solid stone again. He took off the slippers without looking down, transfixed on the boy. “Tell me more,” he said, clutching the altar wall as he stepped down the stairs. “Tell me more about her.”
A pendant around the boy’s neck bounced as he looked up. His eyes were watering. “She’s dead,” he said.
The next thing Chaff knew, he was kneeling over the boy and his fist had drawn back for another swing. “You’re a liar!” he shouted, and his voice echoed through the House. “Liar! Liar! Liar!” screamed the echoes.
The broom in spun in the boy’s hands and Chaff felt a sharp pain in his chest as the boy jabbed him with the handle. Chaff fell back, but before he could find his feet the boy had put the handle of the broom on Chaff’s neck, right under his chin. “It’s true,” said the boy, breathing heavily. “A patrol of zealots found the bodies on the road. Hag Gar Gan horde riders ambushed them.”
Chaff gripped the tabula in his belt. Cracked, but not broken. “That’s not true,” he snarled, from his position on the floor. “Not true.”
The boy’s eyes followed Chaff’s face to his hand, and the broom handle pushed a little harder against Chaff’s throat. “Who are you?”
What could Chaff say? A boy from the grasslands? A traitor to his friends?
“A martyr,” said Chaff, and he batted the broom aside. He gripped the cleaning boy’s collar as he rose. “Now, where is Jova?”
Chaff felt a sharp pain in his wrist as the boy slammed the wooden handle on his hand. “She’s dead,” said the boy, his wooden pendant dangling from his neck. “Let the dead rest.”
“Where is she?” Chaff grabbed the boy’s collar again, but was rebuked just as quickly.
“You’re going to hurt her,” said the boy. “If she’s still alive. If you find her. I don’t know who you are and I don’t know what you want, but I know you’re going to hurt her.”
“You know where she is, yeah?” said Chaff. “You gonna tell me where she is.”
With a hollow crack, the broom hit Chaff over the head. Chaff had no defense against the assault; this boy’s skill as a fighter far surpassed Chaff’s in every aspect. Years of pretending to be Kennya Noni started to come back to him. He needed to be fast, on his feet, get away…
Don’t run. Not this time. Don’t run.
Here, now, he was going to stand and fight. No more running away. Chaff struggled to his feet, even as the staff hit him squarely on the back. No one was here to help him. No one was here to save him now.
“You’re not welcome here anymore,” said the boy, grabbing Chaff by the arm, but Chaff fought and struggled and kicked, and if he couldn’t win at least he could stand his ground. “Leave!”
“She’s going to hurt you too. If you find her dead or alive, it doesn’t matter. You’re going to hurt and she’s going to hurt you back four and four times over.” The boy hit Chaff in the jaw, and Chaff tasted blood in his mouth. He wasn’t trying to beat Chaff away anymore, he was just trying to beat him, but Chaff would not stand down. “You call yourself a martyr? Fine! You’re going to die for her and she’s going to watch.”
The broom broke over Chaff’s head. His ears were ringing and his forearms were already turning black from his bruises. Blinking stars from his eyes, Chaff struggled to stand. One foot before the other, that was all he had to do. Put your feet beneath you. Stand.
“Now,” he said, wiping the blood from his chin with the back of his hand. “You gonna tell me where she is?”
The boy bent down and picked up his broken broom, the jagged wooden splinters stark in the chill light. He tensed, like he was going to stab. Chaff closed his fists and waited, ready.
“Arim!” shouted a voice from above. The man in the funny hat opened the door to a spiraling stairway, his robes askew. He held his hands up in a placating gesture. “What are you doing? You were to clean the floor, not beat this boy half to death.”
“He was asking about Jova,” said Arim. “Wants to find her.” He glared at Chaff, but lowered his weapon.
The pontiff raised his head and turned to Chaff. “The girl named Jova is dead.”
Chaff said nothing. “Liar, liar, liar,” the ceiling still echoed. He glared at the both of them.
Arim and the pontiff exchanged a glance. What were they thinking? Was it finally time for the truth? “Jova,” said the pontiff, very slowly. “Was last seen going to Jhid-.”
The double doors slammed open. When Chaff saw who it was, he couldn’t help but smirk. Lookout loved her dramatic entrances.
“You look like crap,” was the first thing she said. “You really couldn’t go one day without getting the shit beaten out of you? I get the feeling this happens every time.”
“I think we meet up later, yeah? How’d you find me?”
“Who else is dumb enough to bring a fucking camelopard to every House in the city? You’re easy to track.” Lookout grabbed Chaff’s wrist. “We found someone who knew her. Come on, let’s go.”
Lookout’s owlcrow squawked as Chaff drew back. The boy looked pointedly at the pontiff and his servant boy.
“She leave a mark here, too?” asked Lookout, glancing at the two.
The pontiff cleared his throat. “She was last seen going to Jhidnu.”
Lookout stared at him for quite some time. Chaff watched her eyebrows furrowed, watched as her head cocked slightly to the side just as the owlcrow’s turned, heard the hum of a tabula just barely audible even while he stood so close to her.
“Excuse my language, pontiff, sir,” said Lookout, finally. “But you’re a fucking liar. Have some decency. You’re in a holy House.”
And she took Chaff by the hand and led him away. The pontiff folded his arms across his chest, his sleeves embroidered with crescent moons glittering in the narrowing line of light as the boy, Arim, closed the doors behind them.
“Big guy!” shouted Chaff, as the camelopard cantered up to greet him. The camelopard had been eating if not healthier, then more than he had on that ship. He seemed happy, about that.
“Tired of liars,” said Lookout, as she climbed on the camelopard’s back, behind Chaff. “We’re surrounded by them, Chaff. In front of our faces, behind our backs, even inside us. They’re everywhere, and don’t you forget it.”
Chaff just nodded, adjusting in his seat. The big guy still had no saddle, despite Wozek pointing out a few nice and allegedly religious ones as Chaff had roamed the markets. The camelopard would never take one, and Chaff would never impose such a thing on his friend. “Where?”
“Forward, now,” said Lookout, gripping Chaff’s shoulders. Sinndi took to the air with a raucous screech. “Turn when I tell you to turn.”
The boy watched the streets as they rode. He didn’t talk much. His wounds drew a few questioning stares, but there really wasn’t much to it after Chaff had wiped away the last of the blood from the corner of his mouth. It wasn’t much. He had been through worse, and he felt that the people of Moscoleon had seen worse, too.
Lookout was directing him toward the center of the city. He got the impression that he was going up the closer and closer he was to the great temple for which the city was named, and when he turned to look, the poorer slums of Moscoleon did, in fact, slump beneath him.
“Keep going, Chaff,” said Lookout, tapping his shoulder. “He’s neighbors with the Keep, this one.”
Chaff made a face, and stared at the glossy streets ahead of him. “How do you find him?” he asked. He couldn’t imagine wandering into such an upper-class neighborhood without knowing exactly who he was looking for.
“I didn’t,” said Lookout, darkly. “But Wozek’s just popular with everyone, isn’t he?”
The boy didn’t like Lookout’s tone. Wozek had brought them this far, hadn’t he? And now Chaff was so close to finding her. It was thanks to him. Could it have just been his imagination that Lookout bore such animosity towards him?
“I don’t trust him, Chaff.”
Nope. Definitely not his imagination.
“And you shouldn’t either,” said Lookout. She kept looking around her, as if she was convinced Wozek—or one of his people—was watching. “I’m serious. Powerful men don’t get to be powerful by giving away more than they get. He wants something from you.”
Immediately, Chaff’s hand rested on his belt. All three tabula were there, safe and sound. They would stay that way.
“Not that,” said Lookout, rolling her eyes. “Chaff, if I’m going to be honest with you, no one wants that girl but you. Understand?”
That gave Chaff pause. He felt halfway between offended and relieved.
“He wants you. He wants to know what you are, and truth be told, I do to. You and your little friend.” Lookout pointed towards one of the more ostentatious Houses of the Ladies. It had black and white banners flapping from the sides, and lines inscribed in the shape of an eye over a doorway so tall that even the big guy could fit. “Look at that. This city is the most educated, most holy place in the world. Someone has to know.”
“I thought Shira Hay was the most educated place in the world,” said Chaff, as they passed.
Lookout flicked him on the head, and Chaff squirmed. “You’re missing the point, patriot,” said Lookout. “This is an opportunity for answers. Let’s get them.”
“Is the girl here?” asked Chaff.
“Well…no. Word says she isn’t. And, Chaff, that’s another thing. There’s something about her you have to know. She’s-.”
“Not here,” finished Chaff. “Let’s find her, yeah? Find her first. Then you do what you do, and I follow. But first we find her.”
The humming from Lookout’s pocket stopped, and the owlcrow flapped down from the skies. It turned its squashed face toward Chaff, and gave him an almost pitying look. “We’ll talk more later,” said Lookout. “With less ears listening. We’re here.”
The walls of the estate rose high around them; a stark contrast from the red brick of most of Moscoleon, these were the polished white of marble. Formed from hundreds of porcelain shards inlayed in the stone were the marble legions of the Stronghold, hammers ready while the sun shone above them. Their enemy was less recognizable. Chaff hopped off the big guy and knelt, tracing the carving.
“This one looks like the poltergeist!” said Chaff, pointing and grinning. “From the marsh!”
Lookout turned away. “I don’t need reminding,” she said. “They’re the demons of the deep. They represent sin or some shit.”
Some shit was extravagant. Chaff followed the carvings, and the epic battle that they told until he reached the black-iron gate of the compound, and peered through to the gardens. Slaves clipped the hedges while a dirt walkway led to a somewhat less grand house within. It was still one of the richest houses Chaff had ever seen, with grace and aplomb and all the trappings he associated with richness, but all the same he felt somewhat disappointed. A pompous exterior for a measly interior.
“The home of Latius,” said Lookout, folding her arms. “Excuse me, Prince Latius of the Stronghold, proud servant of King Cecis the Third.”
“But he’s dead,” said Chaff, flatly. “Banden killed him.”
“Don’t tell him that, I don’t think he’s realized yet,” said Lookout, with a smirk. “Go on, Chaff, Wozek and that brusher, Prav, are inside.”
“You don’t come with me?”
“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll man the walls with the big guy,” said Lookout. Her fingers drummed on the mosaic. “You go. You’re the runaway guy, after all.”
Chaff nodded, and pushed the gate. It opened without resistance. “Watch out for her,” Chaff mouthed, once he was behind the walls, although he had a feeling Lookout had seen him anyway. She saw everything.
The slaves didn’t make eye contact. They backed away as he approached. Apparently, the wild child in the elector’s scarf had been expected. He followed the murmur of voices, until he stepped around the side of the house to see Wozek and an unfamiliar man drinking mulled wine by a wicker table. Prav the brusher, standing at attendance behind Wozek, gave Chaff a stony nod when the boy approached.
“There he is,” said Wozek, smiling. “The boy with the quest.”
The man Lookout called Latius watched, and Chaff watched back. His hair was fair, his build muscular. His features might have once been handsome, but his nose was crooked like it had been broken a long time ago, and when he opened his mouth to speak Chaff saw that some of the teeth on the left side of his mouth were wooden.
“Your Jova,” he said, his hands folded around his goblet of wine. “Has gone to the Seat of the King.”
Chaff waited. For what, he wasn’t sure. A caveat. A condition. A fight, even. But Latius met his eyes, and there was no lie in them. Even Chaff could tell that much.
“She went with the fieldmen emissaries who came here some months ago,” he said. His gaze never left Chaff; his eyes were blue and cold. “Off to beg the false king for peace. They never made it, I hear, but the patrol counted only a quarter of their number among the bodies. I am not so fortunate that she should be among the dead. The sinful live on, while the righteous suffer for them.” Latius took a long drink. “It’s a pity Alswell didn’t put up more of a fight, though.”
“Their friends were scattered then,” said Wozek. “But we have come together, one by one.” He raised his cup in a toast.
As both drank deeply, Chaff scratched his head. Things had flipped. “Wozek, I thought you liked Banden-.”
“You look terrible,” said Wozek, loudly, cutting him off. Latius was still drinking. “What happened?”
“Got into a fight.”
Wozek mussed Chaff’s hair. “Your plainsman running tricks didn’t help then, I take it? I’ll teach you how a kazakhani fights on the road to the Seat.”
“I’m finding her first, Wozek,” said Chaff, shaking his head, remembering Lookout’s advice. “I’m not going with-.”
“Oh, but you are. We’re sharing the same road. You’re going to the Seat of the King to find this girl. I’m going to the Seat of the King for my people. And Prince Latius here, well, we’ve been talking and he’s thinking of going to the Seat of the King too.” Wozek turned to Latius, and his gaze never wavered. “The last of the marbleman princes, coming out of hiding to stir up the loyalists waiting in the capital.”
Latius leaned back in his seat, and nodded. Chaff didn’t know what was safe for him to say. If he hadn’t known better, he never would have guessed that Wozek was lying, but Chaff was Chaff and not a prince whose job it was to tell when people were lying.
“He wants to put a hammer in Banden’s head,” said Wozek. “And we…well, we’ll bring goodman Latius straight to him, won’t we?”
Latius raised his cup once more. “To better times.”
“To better times,” echoed Wozek.
Chaff began to walk away, to tell Lookout of the news, but Prav stood abruptly in his path. “This Jova,” said Latius, as he put his cup down. “Is not to be trusted. I hope you understand that, boy. She’s as clever as she is evil. She killed one pontiff and turned another. And once you’ve finished with her…”
Latius reached down. Chaff heard the stone scrape as the marbleman lifted his hammer from the ground beside him, and hefted it in his lap.
“I’ll put a hammer in her head, too.”
The boy gripped his hands into fists. His first thought was that he wouldn’t run anymore. He would fight for her.
His second thought was that he couldn’t beat a cleaning boy with a broom. How was he to triumph against a prince, trained in war?
“We’re all in agreement, then,” said Wozek, clapping his hands together. “We all want what’s best for each other.”
Chaff stared at Wozek, and decided right then that when Wozek had run with his bayman circus, he must have been the knife juggler. Only that kind of man would dare something like this.
How many knives, Chaff wondered, did Wozek have in the air? How many knives did Chaff have yet to see?
How many knives were falling towards him?
The thing that bothered Jova the most was the damp. She hadn’t felt properly dry in ages, her clothes constantly stained and dirty with rainwater, seawater, and other more foul things that dripped down from the grate above her.
But the cruelest thing about Jhidnu’s penance cells, Jova realized, was the sound. The music, the festivities, and the merriment aboveground was just loud enough to carry down below, and Jova could but sit and wait and listen to the echoes. Since Dock and Darpah had come, no one had bothered to visit her. Except…
One night, while Jova slept, she awoke to the feeling of hot breath on her face. She held very still as she flexed her stiff fingers, listening to the panting right above her. “Mo?” she whispered, and the weaseldog barked, the sound echoing all throughout the cells.
She sat up, and scratched the back of his head behind his ears, although the chains were stretched taut for her to do so. “How the heck did you get down here?” Jova whispered, to Mo’s happy whines. The cells maintained no real guards—after all, who would pay for them?—but she still didn’t want to risk Mo being found and caught.
The weaseldog just panted, his warm body curled at Jova’s feet.
“Is this where you’ve been hiding?” asked Jova. “How’d you end up in a dump like this, huh, Mo? Why don’t you go home? Why don’t you go back to Ma and Da?”
As always, Mo didn’t answer. Jova didn’t expect him to. She leaned back, stroking his fur as she waited for more time to pass, and after an hour he slipped out from her grasp and trotted away. Then Jova was alone again, listening to the sounds of freedom beyond the bars of her cell.
Jova had strange dreams in that dank darkness. She felt a presence reach out to her, beating at her, beating like waves against the shore at the high cliffs of her very consciousness. She dreamed of the cursed pyramid and the man made of wood and a voice older than the u-ha’s that rasped in a tongue Jova had never heard before.
She lost track of time, in the cells. The sun only barely shone through into her cell, and sometimes at night it got far hotter when someone dropped a torch over her grate or a summer animal stood above her and she had to roll aside to avoid the drifting cinders.
Then, one night, she woke to the sound of the leather boots stepping on the floor and labored breathing. She felt heat on her face, much closer than if an errant torch had been dropped above her, and held up a hand to shield her face from the heat.
“Slave is awake?”
Jova rattled her collar chain as she sat up. “Is it time to go?” she asked.
“Slave is alert.”
She felt rough hands haul her up, and Jova gagged as the collar strained on her neck. “Who are you?” she rasped, struggling to speak around the ring pressing against her throat.
More leather manacles were wrapped around her wrists and ankles, so that Jova was held taut between chains on all sides. She couldn’t move at all. Whoever had spoken to her was working away studiously, from the sounds of it. His breath whistled as if from a tube. It sounded painful.
When he spoke again, his voice was nasally and ragged. “Do you know of Banden Ironhide?”
Jova wasn’t sure what to say. It was as if she had been asked if she knew who the Ladies Four were. “Of course I do,” she said, and with her throat pressed tight against her collar her voice sounded just as raspy. “Everyone does.”
“Hrm. Have you heard of his hounds?”
At this, Jova shook her head. The rusted iron links rattled.
“They say he has three. Candidos, the winter hound, whose bite will kill a man slow.” The man tightened the chains holding Jova’s arms, and she winced as they stretched painfully above her head. “Viridos, the fall hound, whose ears hear the tread of all spies that sneak around our new king.” Suddenly, a leather glove gripped Jova’s chin, and sweat began to break out on Jova’s brow as she felt breath against her cheek. “Aurudos, the summer hound, whose coat burns with his passion.” The fire of his torch came close to Jova’s face, and she could not turn away as her skin tingled, then stung, then burned.
The man pulled the torch away, and Jova gasped with relief. The cool damp of the cells felt suddenly good. “Who are you?” Jova asked again, as her head hung and dirty, unkempt hair fell around her face.
“Banden Ironhide, the king who is not a king, keeps three hounds,” said the man. “Sovar-l’hana does the same.”
Jova shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“Darpah, the simpering pup, helps the master with his business. Dandal, that vicious mutt, he helps the master with his business.” Jova heard a scraping, like something being drawn from a sheath. The sound was too short for it to be a full length sword, more like one of Da’s knives…
Then something was driven into her palm, and Jova screamed. Every chain holding her down rattled as her body jerked and twisted, but Jova was fully immobile. She heard the man’s wheezing breath terribly, terribly close to her ear.
“I, too, help the master with his business.”
Jova felt blood run down her palm, and cried out as the blade or the spike or whatever it had been was removed. She tried to move her fingers, but the pain was so blindingly sharp that she could not even tell if her hand was responding. Jova wouldn’t be able to hold a staff for weeks.
She heard footsteps, as the man moved from one side of her to the other. “No,” she whispered, shaking her head, trying to move away, but she couldn’t. “No, no, please, no…”
“The journey was a long one, I hear,” said Sovar-l’hana’s third dog. “Across the Barren Sands twice, from Moscoleon to Hak Mat Do, from Hak Mat Do to here. You suffered some losses, no doubt. People died. And you, well, you have gone through some suffering yourself, haven’t you?”
The tip of a nail traced lightly across Jova’s sensitive face, and she cringed. The nail painted across her face a line of blood—her blood—that stuck to her skin, and she could not rub it away.
“You think you know pain? The world is still full of horrible things yet, little girl. You don’t know the half of it.”
Jova howled as her other palm was impaled. Her whole forehead was covered in sweat, the pain bouncing like echoes through her body, or maybe that was her screaming, echoing through the underground cells.
“I learned- I’m sorry- I’ll be a good…a good slave…” gasped Jova, sucking in breath even as she held back her screams.
“You’re impudent. Demanding. Righteous. You’re not a slave. Not yet.”
Jova’s whole body tensed as the man, Sovar-l’hana’s nameless hound, held the torch up to her once again. This time, he held it up to one of Jova’s bleeding hands, so close that she could feel her flesh melting, feel it roasting.
The man coughed, hacking phlegm out as he tried to speak. “Where is your tabula?”
“I don’t- I don’t know,” gasped Jova, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Please, if you just stop, I’ll-.”
The burning end of the torch pressed hard against her palm, and Jova didn’t know what she was feeling anymore. A hard hand slapped her cheek as her head rolled, and her ears rang as the man said, “Do you think you are in any position to offer me anything? I stop when I choose to stop. Where is your tabula?”
“It’s- it’s…” Jova gulped, her limbs trembling. “It’s in Moscoleon. I’m a zealot, it’s in a House of Spring, with the pontiff C-Copo.”
The heat left Jova’s one hand for one throbbing second before the other was set ablaze as well. “Where is your tabula?”
“I told you! D-didn’t I tell you?” Jova screamed, her voice high and plaintive. She wasn’t the blind zealot of Moscoleon anymore, she wasn’t any mercenary’s assassin, she wasn’t a devil with no soul. She was just an eleven year-old girl, and she was burning.
“Where is your tabula?”
“In, in, in the jungle, the Moscoleon jungle,” she stuttered, her mind racing. “I l-lost it, when the tribe attacked. I lost it in the fighting, I swear I did, I lost it!”
The torch fell aside, and Jova tensed, waiting. Where would he burn her next? What would Albumere take from her this time?
“I will return in the morning,” said the man, and Jova heard his limping footsteps padding away. He did not untie Jova’s new chains. He did not say anything else as he was leaving. The wounds on Jova’s hands had been burned closed, cauterized by the torch, but that was hardly a comfort to her.
Before he left, though, he did say one other thing.
“I am Chetan,” he said. “Since you asked.”
Jova did not reply. She slumped, her tears drying on her cheeks. That night, she dreamed of nothing but iron spikes and fire.
A bucket of water dumped over her head woke her in the morning, and she felt her stiff limbs fold under her as the chains were unlocked and she fell to the floor. Shivering violently, she curled up for warmth, but someone grabbed her under her armpit and hauled her to her feet. Jova gasped as her dress was wrenched off of her, but her limbs, thin from days of disuse, were too weak to fight back.
She wrapped her arms over her chest and bowed her head, preparing herself for the worst, but rough hands grabbed her forearms and made her hold her palms out. Jova turned away.
Cloth wrapped around her hand, and Jova dared to relax her arm. “The other one,” rasped Chetan, and Jova held out her other hand, while still trying to hide her nakedness as best she could.
She drew breath. “You’re not going to…to…”
“Torture you?” wheezed Chetan. “No, little girl. I just wanted to ask you a question.” Jova felt something wrap around her eyes as another dress was pressed into her hands. She slipped it on once her new blindfold had been tied, though her skin was still wet and cold.
Chetan gripped her very suddenly by the collar. “Inconvenient, though. No tabula. Rush job. This is not the cleanest way to do things, but…” Chetan pulled her in closer. “If you shame Sovar-l’hana with your new master, then, well, back here you come. It will last longer than one night.”
Jova nodded. Her hands throbbed, and she didn’t dare try to push Chetan away. She did, however, summon the courage to ask one question. “New master?”
“You’re being sold,” said Chetan. He coughed, and it seemed to shake his entire body. “Rented, I should say, really. Whoever buys you only has the four years. Look pretty, make it worth it.”
He led her away by her collar, and Jova stumbled behind him. Blind, hands crippled, barely able to walk. Her stomach rumbled. Sitting there in that cell, it had been easy to forget how few the meals were, but now that she was up and walking again the hunger pangs hurt more than even her hands.
She shrunk back from the heat of the sun as they began to walk up the hewn stone stairs leading back aboveground, but Chetan pulled on her collar and she followed after him.
The auction house was not far. Jova could feel its marble steps under her feet, could hear the soft mutter of attendants and the quiet murmur of the buyers within. She had seen them before, years ago: not gaudy like the Jhidnu show houses, but with a subtler sophistication. These were places of business. She hadn’t been allowed in, of course, but the great auction houses of the bay were hard to miss, even from the street. Jova had pretended they were palaces, when she was little.
Chetan took her around the back of the palace. Jova expected it to be rotten and filthy, like the cells beneath the city, but it…well, it wasn’t. It was barren, yes, but clean. Professional. The sliding wood panel in the back slid open almost soundlessly, and inside Jova heard no voices speak, only the shuffling of feet and the scrape of chains. Beyond some curtain or panel, Jova heard Sovar-l’hana’s bark of a laugh.
“Wait,” said Chetan. “You’ll be called.” And he limped away, past the curtain that separated Jova and the livestock from the actual people.
Jova flexed her fingers. The motion made her hands scream out in protest, but she needed to do something besides stand here, mill around, and wait to be handed off to someone who was in the right place at the right time when a richer man died.
Something touched her arm, and Jova flinched. The touch was light, though, gentle, and furtive. “Jova?”
“Alis!” Jova said, and she turned quickly, hiding her hands behind her back. She didn’t want the girl to see her as more of a cripple than she already was.
When Alis spoke again, she sounded hurt. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No, Alis, no, I just…” Jova reached out, putting her hand as lightly as possible on Alis’s shoulder. “You see the bandages on my hands?”
Jova felt Alis’s shoulders move as she nodded. “They’re red.”
Jova withdrew her hand, after that. “They’re…well, they’re like my eyes. They’re hurt and I have to cover them up.”
“Forever?” asked Alis.
“No, not forever,” said Jova, and she smiled for the little girl. “I hope,” she added, as an afterthought.
Jova felt a soft hand grip her wrist, carefully placed just above the wrap on her palm, and for a moment the seething anger inside her left. “Where were you?” Alis asked, and Jova wrapped her arm around the little girl’s head and held her close.
“In a cave for demons,” she said. “Sneaking around, right under your feet.”
“Dandal said you were in the sewers,” said Alis, plaintively.
Jova smirked. “Oh, he was down there, too. He lives there. That’s why he’s so stinky all the time, didn’t you know?”
Alis giggled. “What about-?”
And then she froze. Her hand fell from Jova’s wrist; she didn’t even push Jova’s hand aside as she turned around and began to walk away. Outside, Jova heard the hammer of a gavel as the last slave was sold and the hum of a tabula as the next was brought out.
“Alis!” she hissed, as the little girl stumbled away. “Don’t be afraid.”
The girl did not respond. She just kept marching away, outside, to be sold, and this time Jova could not save her. She couldn’t even save herself.
She turned her head to listen as Sovar-l’hana began the sale of Jova’s last companion. Everyone else had gone. Alis was the only one that Jova had left, and from the sounds of it, she was going to be sold off for a bag of Da’atoa salt.
An anger, white hot inside her, burned from a place in Jova that she did not know existed. Her lip curled in a snarl. Any person on Albumere was worth more than a bag of salt, and here the plutocrats were, trading them around like livestock. It wasn’t right.
But what could she do about it? She had no eyes and, right now, no hands. There was no fighting back.
So when Chetan came to retrieve her, she bowed her head and followed and said not a word. There was murmuring outside, blocked out by the curtain separating the slaves from the buyers. Chetan stood by, waiting and wheezing, coughing as Jova listened.
“A rare and exotic treat from the far south,” said Sovar-l’hana, not quite shouting but not quite quiet either. “I give you the blind zealot of Moscoleon!” Jova stumbled out, Chetan dragged her chain, to utter silence. It wasn’t unexpected. She wasn’t sure how much fanfare she really deserved to receive anyhow.
“She’s a little girl,” said a male voice, disdainful and exasperated.
“Well, if I were trying to get you interested, Ashak-g’hopti, I would have brought a little boy. Ha!” said Sovar-l’hana, and that earned a few chuckles.
“You brought her out on a leash,” said the plutocrat named Ashak-g’hopti, as Chetan let the collar dangle behind her back and limped away. “A leash! Is this some scam?” Jova stood, listening to the sounds echo. It was a big room, with many people in it. Most of them were silent. She and Sovar-l’hana stood on a stage above the rest of them, and if Jova strained her ears she could hear the bought slaves filed in a line in the back.
“I bring it out on a chain because it is not a girl, or a boy, at all. It is something unnatural, something you will only ever have the chance to see but once in your whole lifetime.”
“You lost the cripple’s tabula and you’re trying to push her onto us,” snorted Ashak-g’hopti. “Enough tricks, Sovar-l’hana, show us the real merchandise.”
Sovar-l’hana cleared his throat. “Jova, walk to me.”
For one frozen moment, Jova considered disobeying, but then she heard the sliding sound of a nail being drawn from a leather pouch, and her heart stopped. Was it real? Was it a memory? It didn’t matter, so long as she didn’t face that again. She wouldn’t lose her hands, too.
She clicked her tongue, getting a better feel for the room, before stepping forward towards the plutocrat. She had to avoid the pots and pans laid out on the stage, as well as the foodstuffs in the burlap bags (she smelled peaches from the north) and the sacks of tin coins strewn on the ground. As she walked, she heard a murmur from the crowd, and paused.
“Keep going,” said Sovar-l’hana, and she took a few last steps until she was standing right next to him. Her heart was in her throat. She couldn’t fight him in her condition, but if she unwrapped any of her bandages and choked him, this smug man, this slaver…
“Not a step out of place!” Sovar-l’hana said, as Jova bowed her head and waited. “An exquisite piece! A rare opportunity! And she has been broken, too. Jova, do you recognize your master’s voice?”
“I’ll always remember your voice,” said Jova. She meant it.
“And you will obey any order that voice gives? Ha!”
“Just give me an order.” And see what I do with it.
Ashak-g’hopti spoke. “A carpet from Maaza Parsi, in Shira Hay. You see the weave? A western style, near the Cove. Exquisite.”
“Fish,” said a foreign voice that boomed like thunder. “The biggest spring tuna we have caught in months.”
“A broadsword from Irontower,” said a third voice. “Master’s work, not an apprentice’s.”
“I’m a merchant, not a warrior,” said Sovar-l’hana, chuckling. “Ha! What would I need with a sword, Thun Doshrigaw?”
“Plate armor, then,” said the man from Irontower. “It will be made to fit and sent to you at once.”
A carpet, a fish, a sword. That was what these men thought Jova was worth. Her eyebrows furrowed. Theirs was an evil trade. Only Dal Ak Gan’s life might buy her freedom, but they all deserved to die.
“Armor. Ha! Everyone needs armor,” said Sovar-l’hana. “To Thun, then, unless anyone has anything better.”
There was no answer.
“Mahashma, Thun Doshrigaw. Off you go then, girl,” said Sovar-l’hana, as he scribbled away on his parchment. Someone tugged on her collar chain, although she did not know who. “You’re going to Irontower.”