Seek (Chapter 2 Part 3)
The house, Jova felt, had been built as if to maximize its exposure to the sun. She sat in the doorway, trying to keep cool where the air was freshest, although the fact that the air was also baked to boiling didn’t help.
Jova’s hand traced the walls, her fingers coated in chalk. The adobe walls had a thick layer of lime on their surface, presumably to reflect the sun’s heat, but as far as she could tell it wasn’t doing a great job.
She dragged her toes in the loose gravel base of the house. The stones were both smooth and rough, tiny little rocks that caught between her toes. If she dug just below the surface, the pebbles were cool to the touch.
Jova sighed, and banged her head against the doorframe. It hurt, but she didn’t care. This was what she had been reduced to, identifying the surfaces of walls and counting pebbles on the ground.
She stood, using the walls as support, flexing her legs to try and get the kinks out. If she held out her hands to the doorframe and aligned herself just right, she could walk in a straight line all the way out into the central compound, towards the pontiff’s house, where…
Where she would probably just count the rocks on the ground again until she decided it was time to go back.
Mo whined beside her, the rhythmic thump of his tail setting gravel loose. Jova could tell by the minute sounds of rock skidding on rock, by the belabored breathing of the weaseldog. It had been agony for Ma and Da to leave her alone, but ultimately they both had to go out and find work soon or else all of them would go hungry. Ma had insisted that Mo stay behind to watch over Jova, though, and as far as Jova could tell Mo was doing a top notch job. Absolutely nothing had happened to Jova. At all. For the whole day.
Jova put her chin on her hands and groaned into her palms. She had actually insisted that Ma and Da leave her behind. In her mind, she thought she could practice. Practice what? Being blind? It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but where in the absence of opportunity there had been an infinite realm of possibilities, now that she had the freedom of privacy Jova found herself with a troubling dearth of things to do.
She flicked a pebble with her finger, and tried to listen to the sound of the rock bouncing on the ground. Maybe she would spend so long listening that she would be able to tell the sound of a dull rock from a shiny rock, or be able to hear a flygnat’s buzzing wings from ten meters away. Maybe she would spend so long listening that she would be able to hit a flygnat from ten meters away with a dull rock or a shiny rock, and be able to tell the difference.
Jova buried her face further in her hands, and groaned even louder. Even her fantasies had grown tepid.
She perked up. There was a crunch of feet on gravel, at a steady pace. Jova furrowed her eyebrows. It was too frequent to be just one person on a stroll, but somehow too consistent to be someone running or jogging. She shifted, sliding back into the shadows of the house as she tried to single out the sound.
A clip-clop, like hooves. The sound had been distorted by the gravel, but now that Jova heard it, it was impossible to dismiss. Another pilgrim, coming in to live in the compound?
The sound of hooves stopped abruptly, close to her. Jova slid back, trying to make herself smaller. What was happening? Her hand brushed Mo’s silky hair. He didn’t seem too worried, although Mo was never worried until the trouble actually started.
“Who are you?” said an imperious voice, and Jova shrank back even further. It was the man on horseback, the man who had ridden into the pontiff’s building.
Jova searched for the right words, unsure of who she was talking to, and found no help in the silence. She stammered, as the man on horseback said nothing, moved nowhere, and made no sound.
“I’m just Jova, sir.” She bowed her head as she said it, mumbling into her lap.
There was more silence. Whatever the man was riding didn’t even seem to make a sound.
She scratched at the sides of her head, where the bandages were tied around her ears, and looked away, as if she could somehow hide the ugly truth.
Finally, the man spoke. “Are you a slave, just Jova?” His voice was neither high, nor low, a middling baritone that rang out like a brass trumpet at a Jhidnu street fair. It echoed around the empty courtyard, which was deserted save for those two.
It was a simple question, and yet Jova found herself floundering for an answer. “No.”
Another critical pause. If Jova could just look the man in the eye, she would have been infinitely more comfortable with him. It hadn’t been like this with Rituu, or the innkeepers, or any of the thousand strangers Jova had met on the road. Now, all of a sudden, Jova was completely at this stranger’s mercy.
She wondered if he would hurt her.
“Show me your tabula,” he said.
Jova wondered if she should just try to run now, but there was no way a blind girl could outrun a mounted man. “I don’t have it,” she said.
“If you are a free girl-.”
“I don’t have it,” whispered Jova, resorting to the truth. It was the only defense she had. “But I’m not a slave.”
“What business do you have with the couple, then?” said the man. “Why are they carrying around a blind beggar girl like you?” It was less of a question and more of an accusation.
This was the forbidden territory of conversation that Ma had warned her so much about. For the first time, Jova felt real fear of another person. Why was it that she finally suspected that those bad people were here, in the city, when she had never on the wild roads?
She didn’t know how to respond. She just gripped the scruff of Mo’s neck, her head bowed so low it was almost in her knees.
“Are you scared, just Jova?”
“Yes,” Jova whispered.
“Hmmph,” said the man, and Jova heard the hoof beats again. Her shoulders slumped and she exhaled.
She petted Mo on the back. “Hey, maybe-.”
“What are you scared of, just Jova?” The man was back. Perhaps he had never really left. The hoof beats continued, but no matter how hard Jova focused she could not pinpoint where they were or where they were going.
Jova looked down, trying to find an answer.
“Give me the truth, girl.”
“You,” muttered Jova. Her mood darkened as she said it.
“I asked for the truth.”
Almost indignantly, Jova looked up. “I am scared of you! You sound cruel and arrogant and you tricked me and you keep asking me these questions! I don’t know who you are or what you look like or why you’re bothering me!”
The hoof beats stopped. Gravel shifted for a second as the riding man came to a halt again. “What is the couple doing with a blind girl like you?”
Jova growled. Perhaps the man was right; she wasn’t afraid of him. She was angry at him. Why couldn’t Mo see that he was a threat? That he was hostile and intrusive?
“Does the man have some kind of fetish?”
“No!” snapped Jova. “He’s-.” She paused.
“You have a secret,” said the man. “It is not good, to keep secrets from those who live beside you.”
“Why are you asking me all these questions?” Jova stood up, although she had to inch her hand up the wall for support to do so. “What do you want from me?”
“I come to my new home after a long and troubling day with people who I would rather not be meeting,” said the man. “And I see you. And I ask myself, why would a strong, healthy, young couple keep a useless girl like you? I think at first that you are a slave. Perhaps they intend to sell you cheaply in the large city, but you say you are no slave. Perhaps they keep you for pleasure, but you deny that as well. Perhaps you have some secret art, perhaps they keep you to beg. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.”
The man paused. Jova wondered what his point was.
“But now, I remember. This is the Temple Moscoleon. The city of miracles! Where a man with no tongue can sing again, where a man with no legs can run again, and where a girl with no eyes can see again. So I am thinking that I am done. My questions are answered. Good day to you, blind girl.”
As the hoof beats began to fade, Jova stamped her foot. She felt Mo perk his head beside her, rubbing his cheek against her leg, questioning the sudden movement. “Wait!” she shouted.
The hoof beats stopped. The man said nothing.
Jova couldn’t bear the silence anymore. “Do you have somewhere to be? Are you going anywhere?”
“Away from those who would wish me harm. Towards? Only where the life is taking me,” said the man. He still had not moved.
“Then I would like to ask you some questions.”
There was a crunch of gravel again. Towards her, not away. Jova found herself ignoring the midday heat, her heart pumping quite fast in her chest. The pontiff had given her a cursory blessing; the men in the street had passed without comment. No one had cared enough about her to notice, except for this imperious lord. Why?
He said nothing, so Jova spoke instead. “What miracle did you come to Moscoleon for?”
There was a pause, as Jova waited. She heard a single, rueful laugh. “You are sharp, blind Jova.” He did not answer for a while again. The wait was agony. “I am thinking that this shall be my secret. I will not tell you it until you tell me yours.”
“Fine,” said Jova. “Who are you?”
“I am Roan. Once I was called Rho Hat Pan, a mighty lord of the steppes, greatest of the Hag Gar Gan and bane of the Hak Mat Do.”
Jova giggled, despite herself. “Hot Pan? That’s a silly name.”
The man’s tone seemed almost sheepish. The contrast was remarkable. “I was a silly man.”
Jova smiled. Even she could not see his face, she realized, it did not mean he did not have one. And for her, his face was in his voice. “Do you have a trade, Roan? Or do you just ask questions of little girls all day?”
“I teach men and women how to ride,” said Roan. “Zealots who want an edge in battle, or rich apprentice-heirs with a taste for the grand. It is profitable work.”
“How to ride what?”
“Horses, such as this one. She is Stel. She is mine.”
Hesitantly, Jova reached out a hand. “May I?”
There was no reply from the man, but soon Jova found a wet nostril pressed against her palm. She laughed again. “You control her so well.”
There was silence, for a moment. “You have a gentle touch,” said Roan. There was no thanks, although Jova felt as if she had just been traded a compliment for a compliment.
“Is she a bearhorse?” Jova asked. “An eaglehorse? A fishhorse?”
“Just a horse.”
“Summer, winter, spring, fall?”
Jova leaned her head in confusion. “Really?”
“A presumptuous blind girl as well,” said Roan. Jova felt the warmth leave her palm, as the horse backed away. It nickered. “Stel thinks that a girl with no eyes is also, as you say, weird.”
Jova flinched. Her smile vanished.
“What? Are you ashamed of what you are, eyeless girl? This is truth. Truth does not care for your shame. You can be no more ashamed of the truth than you can be ashamed of a stone or a rock. Hold the truth up, blind Jova. Use it as your shield.”
Jova held her elbow, her head hanging low again. He sounded like Rituu, with his foreign accent and proverbs. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you are a sad, eyeless girl, who sits in the shadows and does not smile.” The horse began to pace. “Because I am remembering again. This is the Temple Moscoleon! Where sinners come to be saved. I shall make you smile, blind Jova, because you are the most pathetic thing I have seen in this city, and only in this city may a creature like you receive kindness and not cruelty.”
Jova wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She took a step forward, with half a mind to reach out and strike the man, the other to thank him. Neither seemed entirely fair. “Even if I’m a stranger?”
“Because you are a stranger,” said Roan. “Because you know me only as the man I am, and not the man I was.” Jova stumbled back as the horse began to trot away. “I see your owners, blind Jova. I am thinking I have questions for them.”
“They’re not my owners!” Not knowing where he was, Jova shouted in his general direction. “They’re my p- my friends.”
Roan did not respond, although Jova heard his voice distantly, talking with her “friends.”
“What a strange man,” Jova muttered, sitting back down. “Do you think he was strange, Mo?”
The weaseldog whined, and began to thump his tail on the gravel again, as the sun crawled ever higher and higher in the unfathomable sky.
Jova heard Ma’s high, false laughter, and Da’s lower, more soothing tones. There was a brief pause, punctuated only by the horse’s heavy breathing.
“Jova, are you okay?” Ma’s worried voice was close, although Da still sounded distant. She held Jova’s hand as she led her back inside. “Oh, I knew we shouldn’t have left you alone. Was he bothering you? What was he trying to do?”
“I was just talking with him,” said Jova. “I was just…making friends.” She had made quite a lot of adult friends. She wondered if she’d ever have a friend her age.
“Come inside, come inside,” said Ma. Jova followed her, back into the mustier confines of the two-room hut. “Did he ask you any questions? Did he try anything suspicious?”
“He asked a lot of questions…” Jova paused, unsure how to continue. She still didn’t know what exactly Roan had wanted from her.
From the rhythmic sounds of her footsteps, Ma was pacing. “By the Ladies Four, Mo, you’re the worst guard dog that’s ever lived,” groaned Ma. “Jova, get your things together. We might have to move soon, and fast. Men like that will lash out at you. Given half an excuse, they will hurt you.”
“Ma, don’t you think you might be overreacting?”
The pacing stopped. Jova waited and listened, wondering what was going through her mother’s head.
“We’ll wait for your father to get back,” said Ma, finally. “Are you hungry, Jova? I caught some game in the jungle. I’ll start preparing supper.”
“Can I help?” asked Jova. She stared in what she thought was Ma’s direction.
A soft hand adjusted her chin. “You can help eat,” said Ma, her tone cheerful, although Jova in her voice heard an unspoken statement. You can’t help.
Steps through the door. “Da?” Jova asked.
“Hello, my little Lady,” said Da, hugging her. “You keep making odd friends, don’t you?”
Jova felt Ma stand. “Did he want anything?”
“Nothing, he just wanted to ask some questions. You know how those sandmen are,” said Da, dismissively. Jova listened to the uncomfortable silence that followed. “Anjan, it’ll be OK. He’s new here, just like us. He probably just wanted to see who he was living with.”
There was silence still, although Jova heard Ma moving.
“It’s what people do in the cities,” said Da, letting Jova go. She got the sense that he was following Ma. “It’s not the same as the wilds. People are friendlier here.”
“I met a group out at one of the sinkholes,” said Ma. There was the rough scrape of something being cut. Mo panted, and slid away from Jova’s reach. She felt strangely afloat, as if she was a barge and all her anchors had left her. “A group of what-do-you-call-them…zealots. They didn’t seem so friendly to me.”
“It’s a general trend, not an absolute,” said Da.
“Meaning people are still going to be people, no matter where we live.”
Both fell silent, working without comment. Jova edged forward, drawing arcs in the gravel with her toes, careful not to bump into anything. Mo slipped under her hand, and she thanked him. The weaseldog led to her to the central space of the room, where her parents were working. “Did you find somewhere to work, Da?” she asked.
“I was just talking about that with your Ma. It’s…well, it’s complicated.”
“I promise I’ll understand,” said Jova. I’m blind, not stupid, a rebellious voice whispered.
“There’re jobs, alright. The pontiffs need people to maintain the temples. Cleaning, repair work, things I used to do at the Stronghold. It’s just…” Da sighed. “So many people are willing to do it for free, and when the faithful aren’t there then they have slaves. It’s hard to find work with decent pay.”
Jova listened, taking it in. Ma had run into resistance in the jungle, and Da was having a hard time getting pay. What was she doing? Sitting alone at home, playing question games with foreign strangers?
“There was one temple, under the House of Fall, that I might be able to work under,” said Da, quickly. Had he seen Jova’s pensive expression? “It’s decent, even if the pontiffs insist on all these taxes. They wouldn’t pay me with food, either, they’d have this thing called currency.”
“Currency?” The word was strange on Jova’s tongue, although she had heard it bandied about with the plutocrats in Jhidnu once or twice.
“Yeah, feel them.” Da held Jova’s hand and poured three or four smooth, round objects into her palm. She rolled them between her fingers. They were pitted and curved, and rattled as she shook them. “I ran an errand for one pontiff, and he gave me all these little shells. They’re like…oh, how did he put it…” Da paused. “They’re like tabula, but for objects. They sort of represent food and clothes, if you have enough of them.”
Jova furrowed her brow. It was a hard concept to wrap her head around.
“Is this enough to get us food?” asked Jova.
“Maybe one meal,” said Da. He took the shells back. “For one of us. With Ma’s help, maybe we could get enough for a meal a day for each of us.” He sighed, and then laughed. “Well, that’s how we ate in the Stronghold. How about that, Jova? Want to eat like a marble warrior?”
No matter how much he tried to hide it, Jova could hear through his voice the weight on his shoulders. Ma had been stressed not just from fear for Jova, but fear for…what? What had the zealots done, out in the wild jungles?
“I could work,” said Jova.
“No,” said both Ma and Da. They began to talk over each other, but Jova shouted over them.
“You told me once that other kids half my age had to watch out for themselves! I’m old enough!” Jova stood up suddenly. “Let me help!”
Ma tried to make her sit back down. “It’s not your age, it’s…”
Jova waited. She waited for Ma to say it, but she waited for nothing.
“Because I don’t have eyes?” said Jova, and she felt her voice shake as she said it. The truth is a shield. You cannot be ashamed of it.
“We’re so thankful, Jova. The fact that you’re still alive…” Jova felt Ma’s hands on her shoulders. Angrily, she pushed them off.
Jova didn’t know what to say. She wanted to scream. She wanted to rip the bandages off her eyes and let the whole world see the ugly ruin underneath. She ground her teeth and took a step back.
And she heard hoof beats outside.
“I can find a job. I can help,” she said, backing away, holding onto Mo for support. “And I can prove it to you.”
She turned and stumbled forward, hands reaching out to find the doorframe as she half-walked, half-ran. Hands reached around her side, pulling her back. “Jova, what are you doing?”
“Roan!” she shouted, ignoring her mother. “Rho Hat Pan!”
The hoof beats grew louder, more insistent. The hut had no door, and Jova felt the sunlight blocked just as she heard the horse whinny. Roan said nothing, just waited.
“What are you still doing here?” spat Ma, her arms tightening around her daughter.
“I am eavesdropping,” said Roan, and the response was so frank and so sudden that even Jova was taken aback.
She took a deep breath. Only the truth would work with this man. “You said you taught people how to ride horses?”
“Yes.” His steed, Stel, stamped on the ground, as if to prove a point. “The horses are requiring much care,” said Roan. “I find it difficult to take care of them on my own, but…a small one could work with them. One with a gentle touch.”
Jova wormed her way free from her mother’s grip. She turned her face as best she could toward Roan’s voice. “You said you wanted to help me?”
“Yes, blind Jova.”
“Let me work for you.”
Ma almost snarled. “I can’t let you,” she said. Jova wasn’t sure if she was talking to her, or Roan. “I’m sorry for wasting your time, sir, but I can’t let Jova-.”
“Jova told me a truth,” said Roan, cutting her off. “Jova told me that you were just her friends. You have no right to say what she can or can’t do. She is far too old to be coddled by her friends.”
He knows, Jova realized. He knows the secret.
All her life, Jova had been told to run from people who even suspected their secret, but this time she had no choice but to stay with him. It would have been futile, after all. How could a blind girl outrun a man on horseback? If Roan ever came after her, Jova would never be able to get away.
Ma’s voice seemed to echo in her head. “Men like that will lash out at you. Given half an excuse, they will hurt you.”
Jova hoped to every Lady that Ma was wrong, because there was no turning back either way.
Posted on September 15, 2013, in 2.03, Chapter 2 (Hide & Seek) and tagged adventure, Anjan, creative writing, Ell, fantasy, Jova, Mo, novel, original characters, Roan, Stel, story, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.