Seek (Chapter 2 Part 1)
Jova nodded. She had heard the sounds already, but had doubted if they were from the city or just from a busy road. She edged forward, gripping her mother’s hand, her feet sliding more than walking just in case something was in her way.
“It’s going to be alright, Jova dear,” said Ma, sensing her hesitation. “I’m right here for you.”
It had been a long journey. At times, Ma and Da had carried her, but Jova had insisted that she at least try to walk by herself. For three days, she had managed; for some reason, she hadn’t once felt tired. Da had repeatedly called her swift recovery miraculous.
But, today, the fatigue had come back, a crushing weight that made Jova’s steps hesitant and short. She didn’t know where it had been or why it had returned, but in a way she was glad of it. She had to rely on herself, and only herself, if she wanted any hope of living life as normal again. Whatever had taken the pain away hadn’t been her.
It was a sobering thought, and one that made Jova edge even slower as the family approached Temple Moscoleon.
Ma gasped. “There’re statues, Jova. One for each of the Ladies Four. They’re huge! The one closest to us is the Lady Winter. She’s…well, she’s got these long robes, and she’s holding a child in her arms…”
Jova nodded, allowing her imagination to take the place of those visions. Try as hard as she might, though, she couldn’t feel the same wonder she had when Rituu had told her his stories. It seemed an irony that the daydreams she had conjured when she could still see the real world now appeared distant, watery, and blurry without anything tangible to compare them to. They were just daydreams. They were all in her head. They didn’t matter.
She heard the rattle of a wooden cart, the clip-clop of hooves, the chatter of people. She wriggled her toes, and felt bare, beaten dirt under her feet where before the path had been carpeted with the forest litter.
“We’re on the main road now,” said Da. He had been giving her a constant narration all along the trip. Jova squirmed. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate it, but she didn’t want to have her father’s voice explaining the world to her secondhand for the rest of her life.
The space around her eyes- or, where they used to be- throbbed. It was hot and irritated and prone to bleeding. Jova wondered what she must have looked like to all those people she could not see. Did they think her a cripple? Did they even notice her, or did they pass without comment? What of the looks in their faces? Disgust, annoyance, pity?
It was something she would never dare ask her father, something that she would never know.
“We can touch the statue,” said Ma, leading her on. Jova stumbled as Ma moved to the side, but did her best to hide it as they continued to walk down the busy road. Pilgrims from across Albumere jostled around them; Jova felt the press of their bodies around her as they streamed together towards…something.
The cluster of bodies grew denser and denser as they walked on. Jova hunched her shoulders, trying to make herself smaller. With no faces to associate with them, no sky to look to, no indication at all where open space was, the experience was intensely claustrophobic.
Jova’s hand closed tight around Ma’s, her only anchor in this violent, dark world. Ma gave her a reassuring squeeze and led her on.
“Here,” Ma said, taking Jova’s hand and stretching it out. Jova waved her fingers until she found rock: smooth, hewn, cool to the touch. “Oh, it’s amazing, Jova. So high I can’t even see the top from here. It must have taken ages to build something like this.”
“Or one strong man with a lot of tabula,” Da remarked. He wrapped his arms around Jova’s shoulders, as if shielding her from all the other people vying for a chance to touch the great statue of the Lady Winter.
Jova’s hand fell to her side. She would give them that chance. To her, it was just rock. It didn’t matter how tall the great statue was. It didn’t matter that Ma couldn’t see the top when Jova couldn’t even see it at all.
Ma’s voice was low, but Jova could still hear it over the noise of the crowd. “You look sad.”
It sounded obvious, almost painfully so. Jova found not sadness inside her, but anger. But…
What else was there to say? Her parents were trying to help. They were doing their absolute best, in the only way they knew how. She couldn’t have done much better in their position. She couldn’t blame them for that.
She smiled, with all her teeth, even though her heart was breaking. “It’s wonderful, Ma.”
How were Ma and Da reacting? Did they suspect her facade? Were they satisfied with it? More than anything, Jova regretted that aspect of her blindness. People had become a mystery to her, their once open faces now closed forever.
She kept smiling, the same way her parents kept pretending that everything was fine. Maybe if they all pretended long enough, it would be true.
“The walls are big and tough,” said Da, as they walked in. “Not as big as the Marble Stronghold’s or Irontower’s, but they’re defensible.”
“Of all the things you choose to talk about, Ell,” said Ma, exasperated, and for a moment she sounded like herself. Jova laughed, genuine.
“The real advantage is the jungles, though. No army can march through that without getting seriously worn out,” said Da, his voice carrying a hint of smugness. Jova felt a cool shadow pass over them. Were they under those same walls now? “No one’s going to be attacking the Temple soon with those kinds of natural defenses.”
“This is also sacred ground,” said Ma, dryly. “Jova, remember this: men like your father can come up with all sorts of fancy theories, but it’s the Ladies who hold the power in the end.”
“Yes, Ma,” said Jova, smiling.
“It didn’t stop Keep Kago,” said Da, as the shadow passed. “When the barbarian lord marched on the Temple, he treated it like just another city.”
“Oh, spare us the history lesson, civilized man,” said Ma.
They walked on. Jova wiggled her toes. There were stones under her feet, now, no longer dirt. Various squishy things squelched under her feet at times, but the frequency that Jova stepped on said things was much lower than in Jhidnu (and she had been able to see where she was walking, then).
The idea of a city with clean streets was even more unfamiliar than a statue so tall the top could not be seen, but then again, it was a holy city. Perhaps the Ladies swept it from the cobblestones with their divine power.
“What do the buildings look like?” she asked.
She heard Ma sniff. “They look brown. And red,” she said, in fragmented pauses. “A lot of them are short. But there’s a few that are tall. Erm.”
“They’re made from red sandstone and adobe bricks,” said Da, taking Jova’s other hand. “We’re walking through one of the residential districts- that’s a place where people live. There’s a bazaar up ahead, with stalls in all sorts of colors. Reds, greens, blues, on dyed weaves they use to keep the sun off. Even further up ahead there’s a step pyramid, with corners pointing to where each of the four statues of the Ladies are standing. It’s made mostly of sandstone, too, but the cap at the top shines like gold; the Holy Keep sometimes makes sacrifices there when the sun is at its highest and there are no shadows at all, which is why it’s called the Solar Altar.”
Ma made an annoyed sound, to the side.
“Anjie, we have been tromping around the wild for eight years,” said Da, a mock severity in his tone. “Teach our little Lady how to sniff out a blueberry from a mile away later; it’s my turn to impress our daughter.”
“Don’t listen to him, Jova,” whispered Ma. “I can teach you to sniff out a blueberry from three miles away.”
“There’s a reason we left your brute out in the woods, wild woman,” said Da, now haughty. “There’s no place in the city for animals like him or you.”
“I’m tempted to summon Mo right now and show you just how much of a brute he can be,” said Ma.
Jova giggled. Her parents’ banter felt natural, and normal, and good. “Tell me more about the city, Da.”
Ma faked a swoon. “Oh! She’s abandoned me!”
“Well, let’s see.” Da paused. Jova could almost see his face pursing in thought. Perhaps her imagination had not left her, after all. “They didn’t teach us much at the Stronghold about the other cities except military history, to be honest. Even the marble slaves had to know that. A good general learns from his mistakes, Jova, but a great general always learns from his enemy’s.”
“Just in case you ever happen to lead an army, Jova dear,” Ma quipped.
“We learned about guerilla tactics when we discussed Moscoleon,” said Da, ignoring her.
Jova laughed, remembering Rituu’s story about the bearmonkeys. “Gorillai tactics, Da?”
“Guerilla, my little Lady,” said Da. “During the time of the First King, the zealots of the Temple fought like nothing else against the Seat’s armies, stinging like vulturewasps before melting away into the jungle. Just like that!”
Jova shrieked as Da poked her in the side.
“The zealots are still here in this city today,” said Da. “My mentors at the Stronghold told me that they were passionate, but undisciplined. The pontiffs can hardly control them, and the Holy Keep can never prod them too hard less they turn against him.”
“Pontiffs?” asked Jova.
“They’re like priests,” said Da. “There’s one right over there. He’s collecting tax from a resident. You can tell he’s from both the House of Fall, because of the tattoos on his forehead and around his eyes, and the House of Summer, because of the tattoos on his arm.”
Jova concentrated, trying to pick out the pontiff’s voice from the ambient noises of the city. It must have been some grand, magnificent voice, she imagined, but she heard no such thing. She sighed, but remembered her resolution. She had to smile. A silly thing like not seeing the pontiff shouldn’t have changed that.
“How do you know so much about this place, Da?”
“I’ve been wanting to come here ever since I was your age, Jova,” said Da. “From the stories they told us…it seemed like a good place. A holy place. A safe place.”
Da paused for only a second. “Yes, Jova. I think it is.”
“Where are we going now?”
Ma spoke this time. “We’re going to find somewhere to stay. This is a chance for us to start new, Jova dear. No more traveling from place to place. And if anyone ever finds out our secret…” She paused. “Well, it’s a big city. Isn’t it, Ell?”
“It is,” Da said. “We could just move to the other side and no one would know any better. And there are people here who could tell us things no one in Jhidnu ever could.”
The secret. Jova had almost forgotten. Her blindness was one thing, but her parents still believed that bad people would hurt her for her secret and not for her inability to see? How bad could not having a tabula be?
But she just nodded and said, “OK.” She wasn’t going to question Ma and Da, from now on.
“We can take jobs,” said Ma, an unfamiliar emotion in her voice. Jova cocked her head. She hadn’t realized how few times Ma had sounded this hopeful. “There’s plenty of game in the jungles for Mo and I to hunt. It won’t be that different from the bay. Ell can do all sorts of jobs from the things he knows from the Stronghold, and you…Jova, we could find someone to teach you all the history your Da knows, all the history in the world. There are schools here, monasteries for people to learn. They’d be free, Jova. Can you imagine? They could teach you math, music, reading…” Ma stopped, realizing what she had said.
Keep smiling, Jova thought. Don’t let them down. “Maybe not the reading?” she said, keeping her voice light.
“Yeah,” said Ma, softly, the hope dying slightly from her voice. “Maybe not the reading.”
“There’s a tenement up ahead,” said Da. Jova could tell from his voice that he was trying to change the subject. “Shall we go look at it?”
“Alright,” said Ma, her tone light too. She adopted Da’s accent. “We shall.”
Keep smiling, Jova thought to herself, as they turned the corner. Pretend long enough and it might become real.
The sounds became softer and dimmer, and Jova felt cool shadows over her face again. Had they gone inside a building? She had heard no indication of a door being opened. Perhaps they had just walked down a smaller, more compact street. The mystery was maddening.
“It’s just up ahead,” said Da. “There’s probably a pontiff who we’ll have to talk to; he’ll lend us one of the smaller houses to live in, so long as we pay tax in food or goods. I’m not sure what they’ll be like. From here, it looks like they’ll have about two rooms-.”
“A pontiff?” Jova leaned her head quizzically. “I thought they were priests?”
“They are,” said Da. “But the pontiffs run everything in the Temple. It’s just the way things are.”
“We’re here. Watch your step,” said Ma, slowing down. Jova matched her pace, like Mo on the road. A well-trained pet, Jova thought, bitterly. Mo won out in that regard. He had eyes and a tabula, while Jova had neither.
Ma let go of Jova’s hand, and Jova flexed it. It was cramped and sweaty. She hadn’t realized how tightly she had been holding on.
Jova reached out with her free hand, feeling out the frame of the door with her hand. It was cut straight, to an exacting degree, but the material was rough and grainy.
“He’s from the House of Winter. You can tell from the tattoos on his neck and chest,” whispered Da, as they walked in. It was slightly cooler inside the building than on the outside, although not by much when Jova was standing in the doorway.
“You stay with Jova, Ell,” said Ma. “I’ll go talk with him alone.”
“What? No, we can all meet him together,” said Da, confused and just a touch indignant.
Ma’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I just want to take slow steps before sprints, Ell. What if he asks to see her tabula? We have to at least see how this city works before we get rooted out.”
“Now why would he ask to see her tabula?” asked Da in a soothing tone, although he kept his voice low too.
“I don’t know, it doesn’t matter why,” said Ma. “She might be an escaped slave, or- or…”
“It may seem unfamiliar to you, Anjie, but escaped slaves don’t stay escaped for very long.”
“Just give me this one, Ell? Please?”
There was a pause. Jova imagined Ma looking at Da, the pleading look in her eyes even as she stood tall and firm. At least, that was what Jova thought was happening. She couldn’t really know for sure.
Finally, Da sighed. “Come on, Jova. We’ll let Ma take over the business while we have a look- while we take a walk around, alright?”
“Alright,” said Jova, quietly, as she heard Ma’s fading footsteps. She leaned her head, trying to catch what she was saying to the pontiff.
Jova caught the words in fragmented chunks, as Da led her away. “We’ve come a long way… if you would… a place to stay…”
The pontiff had a loud voice, one that he projected around the small room. “How wonderful… new pilgrims are always… welcome men and women of the faith…”
“I didn’t realize how many folks came to the Temple,” said Da. “I think I saw a group from the Seat of Winter, and even Irontower. Most will only be here for a couple nights, finishing their pilgrimage. I don’t think many people come here to stay and live like us.”
“I see you have… rest assured…” the pontiff was saying. “Crippled in body but whole of soul…”
“Jova? Are you listening to me?”
“What? Oh, sorry,” said Jova, trying to refocus on Da. It was hard to keep up with two conversations at once. She wondered if she had ever had the same trouble seeing two things at once. She had honestly never noticed.
“There’re some carpets for us to sit on.” Jova felt Da’s hand shift in her grip as he lowered himself to the ground. “All the way from the west. They’re nice and soft.”
Jova nodded. She ran her fingers through the threads as she sat down. She was thankful that Da hadn’t mentioned how beautiful the designs were or how intricate the weave was. Soft was something she could still appreciate.
There was a sudden, hollow, knocking sound to Jova’s left. Her head snapped up, and her ears turned instinctively to listen.
“Both peasants and lords shall dine together: together, together, in Mos-co-le-on,” sang Da, a tuneless little ditty. “It really is true.”
Jova’s eyebrows furrowed out of thought. That knocking sound was like hooves on the road, but she had been hesitant to call them that when they were in-doors. She heard no accompanying patter of feet. Was the newcomer riding inside the small hut?
“Well, the Lady Winter take me,” said Da. “He’s talking with the pontiff; he really is living here. On our level.”
“What’s he like?” asked Jova. What kind of a man would ride a horse into a building? One with shoes so fine he would not sully them with the bare dirt, perhaps, or maybe one who was used to always being just a bit taller than everyone else. She imagined his features: long, angular, with high cheekbones and a haughty stare.
“I’ll tell you once he’s gone,” said Da, whispering conspiratorially with Jova. “I don’t think he’d like overhearing what I have to say.”
Definitely a proud one, then. Jova wondered how many slaves this newcomer had, waiting outside the door. She wished she could stand and look.
“But he’s living here, with us,” said Da, raising his voice again. “This place, Jova, it really is great. It’s a new beginning.”
Jova hung her head. A new beginning, perhaps, but not one that Jova had ever wished for, all those years trekking to this fabled city. And speaking of that fabled city…
“I’ll have to take your word for it,” said Jova, under her breath.
“What was that?”
Jova shook her head. “Nothing, Da.” Keep smiling. Pretend long enough and it might become real.
Posted on September 8, 2013, in 2.01, Chapter 2 (Hide & Seek) and tagged adventure, Anjan, creative writing, Ell, fantasy, Jova, novel, original characters, Roan, Stel, story, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, writing, Zain. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.