Seek (Chapter 2 Part 6)
Jova turned her waist, feeling the leafy skirt twirl around her legs. “What am I wearing?”
“The dress of a templegirl, which they are calling coza,” said Roan. “It is your clothes that mark you as one from Jhidnu. You are safer as long as you are looking like them. Soon you shall be speaking as them, acting as them, believing as them. They will come to accept you.”
“Really? Did that go well for you?” muttered Jova, darkly.
Roan did not say anything.
Jova smoothed out the strips that made up the skirt. They were thick and waxy, and felt odd brushing against her legs. “Does my m- does Anjan approve of this?”
She would have asked herself, but Ma had already left. The family separated most mornings as soon they woke, although Ma never left without kissing Jova on the forehead and Da always made sure to say goodbye.
“Your Anjan approves of very little.”
Jova scratched her chin, not sure how to respond. It may have been one of Roan’s jokes.
There was a sharp hollow sound, as Roan tapped the head of a crate. “Will you eat as we ride?”
Jova held her hands out until she felt the hot steam from the morning’s meal under her palms. She lowered her hands until she felt the edges of the plate, and then pulled it towards her.
“The Lady Summer bless us, we give you thanks,” Roan began, as Jova started to eat. She pushed the bowl away quickly. “May we be strong, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
“Fortune be with you,” Jova repeated, and began again.
Jova supposed it was kind of him. Roan gave Jova the same bean gruel every morning, the same cornbread and tomato stew every afternoon. He sent her home with supper for the whole family, too, although he never ate with them.
“Ride?” asked Jova, coughing as she swallowed a mouthful that was too hot for her. She did her best not to stain her new skirt as she wiped her chin with her hands. “Am I not cleaning and feeding them today?”
“Today is a holy day,” said Roan. “We shall have no customers today.”
Jova traced the rim of her bowl. “But I’m still working?”
“Yes. Will you eat as we ride?”
Jova’s fingers curled at the same time as her stomach. “I’ll finish quickly,” she said, under her breath, and did her best to gulp down the rest. She used her fingers to wipe up the rest; Ma had told her off for it, once, but it was the only way she had of making sure she ate all of it.
Roan waited patiently while Jova ate. She wondered what he did in those periods of silence. He did not speak or move (not, at least, in ways she could hear).
With a sigh, Jova put the bowl down. “Done,” she announced.
Roan did not waste time with a reply; Jova found he rarely did. He clicked his tongue, instead. “Here, Uten!”
Jova walked forward. Her steps were longer now, although she still kept her hands up like a lizardant’s antennae. “Hey, old girl,” she said, brushing Uten’s side. The molebison was amicable enough if properly fed, and among the three Jova spent the most time with her.
There was a scrape, and another tap on the wooden crate. “Stand, Jova.”
Jova did as she was told, and a moment later Roan’s hands around her waist lifted her onto Uten’s back. Jova felt her gut clench, but did her best to keep her face straight.
She had ridden Uten twice so far, both times under Roan’s careful instruction. The rest of the time, she preferred to simply walk around the edge of the ring as she led Uten on her daily rounds. One hand on the wall, stumbling, shambling, barely making any progress- it was still better than this.
The girl bent down and hugged the molebison close. She felt the steady breathing of the beast under her, felt the heat radiating from her body. The skin under her blindfold suddenly itched and stung, and Jova’s breathing quickened.
There was nothing to anchor onto. Jova’s only reference point was Uten, and as the animal moved she felt a dizzying sense of vertigo. Very quickly, Jova lost sense of how far away the ground was.
“How are you, Jova?” Roan’s voice was cold, and distant.
“Adjusting,” said Jova. “Easy, Uten, easy.”
“We shall be going then. Just be holding on. I will lead the way.” Jova heard the clink of tabula from Roan’s direction.
“The other animals?” asked Jova.
“They will not be coming with us. Only Stel and Uten, today.”
Jova shifted, trying to get into a more comfortable position around Uten’s back hump. Uten rolled her shoulders, disgruntled as she always was by pressure or loud noises, but a sharp click from Roan made her stop.
“Where are we going, Roan?”
“Where the life is taking us, Jova.”
That was all the answer Jova was going to get. She hugged Uten even closer, and tried not to think about how much the animal swayed as she walked.
As they rode, Jova listened. The sounds of the city were familiar to her, by now, although as they entered the main pilgrimage routes Jova had to concentrate to parse the different noises. A woman’s voice drifted past; then, the hesitant muttering of wild children entering the city; the low hum of a zealot, concluding his morning prayer.
Jova cocked her head. A pontiff was speaking, to the soft scribble of quills on papyrus, so quiet that perhaps only Jova could hear. Scribes?
The sinking feeling in Jova’s gut distracted her too much to keep listening. Her fingers tightened on Uten’s fur. She tried to tell herself that it wouldn’t have done her much good, anyway. Reading wasn’t something she saw people do often. She wouldn’t have needed it.
It stung, all the same.
Uten came to a halt, so suddenly that Jova nearly toppled over her head. “Roan?”
“Quiet, girl,” said Roan. “I am making a purchase.”
There was a pocket of silence to Jova’s left. She reached out, hesitantly, and found that perhaps after reaching arms-width in the air was noticeably cooler. The shade under a trading stall?
A clatter of shells indicated the exchange. Jova still wasn’t quite sure about the concept of money, but Roan had promised, after many lengthy silences, to keep her pay restricted to more concrete things.
“Here,” said Roan, and Jova found a hard slate pressed into her hand.
“What is it?” asked Jova, turning it over, as they began to move through the street again. They rode side by side to talk, although some chafed at the blockage in the road.
“A woodcut of the Lady Winter. You are winterborn, no?”
“Oh,” said Jova, feeling the etchings with her thumbs. The sinking pit in her stomach grew. “Yes, I am. Um, thank you, Roan. I’m sure it’s…very beautiful.”
“Come, blind Jova,” said Roan. “The life is taking us somewhere else now.”
Jova flipped the woodcut over in her hands. What had Roan meant, by giving it to her? Was it another reminder of his sacred truth? Jova’s grip tightened.
The woodcut must have been colored. Dyed blue and white, the colors of the Lady Winter. She traced the lines, trying to picture in her mind how the woodcut must have looked, but ultimately it was pointless.
Jova bit her lip and gripped her blindfold. She wanted to rip it off and show the world what she would never see.
She held the woodcut so hard she thought it might snap. The anger built inside of her, boiling until Jova felt it stream out of her eyes like lava.
She didn’t notice how quiet it was until Roan said, “Stop.”
Jova sniffed. The air was musty and stifled, and the sounds of the city had faded to a muted hum. Without even seeing, Jova felt a stillness around her. She opened her mouth to ask Roan where they were, but closed it quickly. She didn’t feel ready to talk.
Roan wasted no time. He snapped his fingers, and Jova listened to the echo bounce off the walls. He grunted in approval.
“Uten, come.” As the molebison shuffled forward, Jova rubbed her eyes and listened. Where were they? What kind of work did Roan have for her here? He had said it was a holy day. Was this another Moscoleon ritual, like the strange chants and dances of the pontiffs? Jova dangled the woodcut from the tips of her fingers, trying not to ruin it with her sweaty palms.
Roan’s hands grabbed her wrists, and she nearly shrieked. “Hold it to your face, like so. Do not slant it such.” Roan paused as he guided Jova’s arms up. “You were crying.” A statement, not a question.
“Yes,” said Jova, anyway. She turned her head, doing her best to hide it. “Sorry.”
“Do not be sorry. There is nothing to be ashamed of.” Roan coughed. “I formally apologize for any offense I have given you.”
Jova lifted her eyebrows. “No, I…you don’t have to…” She shook her head, and smiled. “Do not be sorry. There is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Hmm.” Roan tilted the woodcut forward, and let go of Jova’s hands. She heard Stel move away, although nothing of what Roan was doing.
“Ell says that,” said Jova, trying to keep the mood light. Her arms were starting to feel stiff. “The formal apologies.”
“True, it is a marbleman tradition.”
“I thought you said you were from Hak Mat Do?”
“As was Des To Hem, when he first saw Mason’s Peak,” said Roan. “But then he went on to build the greatest fortress Albumere has ever seen. Snakes are biting their own tails, but horses are riding straight- I left the south many times before coming to Moscoleon.”
“Is that where you learned to fight?” asked Jova.
There was a dangerous silence, and then Roan said, “Some ways. Jova, if you-.”
“I only asked because Ell learned there, too,” said Jova, quickly. She rolled her shoulders, still holding the woodcut up to her face. “He’s- he’s really good with a knife.”
“Is this truth? The weapons of the marble soldiers are the hammer and shield. Knives are for slaves to cut their master’s meat.”
“Well, he learned there. I don’t know how much they meant to teach him.”
“Hmm,” said Roan. He did not inquire further, but Jova could have sworn he was amused. Hmm was as close to a laugh as she was going to get.
“Roan,” Jova said, finally. “What are we doing here?”
“Hold it to your face, Jova. Make this sound, shhh.” Roan blew air out through closed teeth. “Shhh, like that. Shhh.”
Jova would have thought that Roan had gone crazy if she didn’t know better. She shook her head, letting the woodcut fall. “What’s the point of-?”
“You are working for me. This is truth,” said Roan, grabbing Jova’s wrists and forcing the woodcut back up. “Do as I am saying, blind Jova, eyeless Jova. Shhh.”
“Shh,” said Jova, hesitantly, holding the slate in front of her face. “Shh.”
“Move it away from your face, like so,” said Roan, pulling on her wrists. “Keep making the noise. Shhh. Move it back to your face.”
Teeth clenched to make the sound, Jova could not make any protest.
Roan let go of her wrists. “Do it yourself, now. Listen closely. Listen to the way it changes.”
Jova moved the slate back and forth in front of her face, feeling stupid. She furrowed her eyebrows. As long as she had to do it, she might as well try to follow Roan’s instructions.
The difference was subtle, an odd flux to the sound as it moved towards her, and a reverse as it moved away. Jova paused, catching her breath. Roan took the slate gently out of her hands.
“Shh, remember, shh. I will move it now. When it comes close to your head, duck.” Jova’s hands curled in front of her chest, and Roan pushed them down. “With your ears only. No hands.”
“Roan, I…” Jova turned her head. “I appreciate it. But this is…”
“This is Moscoleon. 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.” Roan clicked his tongue at Stel and Uten, who had been growing restless standing still. “Come, Jova. You are working for me. For this, you will be paid.”
Jova set her teeth together and blew air out through them. She did her best to listen, but the slate came at her so fast that when she tried to duck she ran her head straight into the wood.
“Again,” said Roan. “I did not expect you to succeed on your first try.”
Jova shifted on Uten’s back, tense. She couldn’t sit much straighter or move any quicker without fear of slipping off.
She waited, and waited, but Roan seemed to be trying to catch her off-guard. She paused to breathe, and at that moment felt a sharp pain on her forehead.
Hands clenched on her temple, Jova growled. There had been some warning, but only some, as she felt the heat reflect from the slate back onto her skin, but how by all the Ladies Four was she supposed to hear it coming?
“Again,” said Roan. “Listen closely. Listen for the subtleties of the sound.”
“Where did you learn this?” asked Jova, nose wrinkled. “In-between old legends about pyramids and riding to the Stronghold?”
If she listened closely- really listened- there was…something. That little wave in the sound, although whether the slate was moving towards or away from her Jova could not tell. Roan wasn’t just holding the woodcut still or moving it straight forward; he was waving it back and forth, back and forth.
Before Jova realized what she was doing, she had ducked. The slate clipped her forehead as it passed, but it hadn’t slammed into her nose like before.
There was a pause. “I did not expect you to succeed on your third try, either.”
Jova felt a hand on her hair. A single pat. She couldn’t help but smile. From Roan, that was like a hug and a kiss.
“We will practice more like this. Then, from the left and from the right. Prepare yourself, Jova.”
Jova was so concentrated on listening that she didn’t realize how much time had passed. She felt self-conscious sometimes, and then her attention wavered. It wasn’t as if she could walk around all day saying “shhh,” but sometimes…sometimes she saw it. Knew where it was without reaching out to touch it or asking Roan or holding it herself.
The feeling would flit past in her mind, and dance out of reach before she could grab it, but it was there.
“Click now,” said Roan. “Like so.” Like when he signaled for Stel to move, Roan clicked.
Jova tapped her tongue on the top of her teeth, and clicked. Her lips felt sore from shhing so much, anyway, although she wasn’t sure how clicking would work.
Suddenly, she felt Roan’s hands around her waist, and she dropped onto the floor, wheeling her arms for balance. “Click again,” said Roan. “Listen to the way it sounds.”
It sounded like a click, just a click. Jova breathed deeply through her nose. It would do no good to get frustrated.
Roan held her hand, and pulled gently. “Count the steps. Tell me when we reach ten.”
Jova nodded, whispering under breath. “…eight…nine…ten.” She tugged on Roan’s hands to get him to stop.
“Click again. Face that way, face the wall, it’ll be easier. Click. Listen.”
Was it supposed to sound different? Jova’s click sounded like a click. There was no other way to describe it.
“Gentle, now. Easy.” Jova only just realized how Roan’s voice sounded different. He spoke to her like he spoke to Stel or the other mounts. His voice was softer and kinder. “Take your time. Click. Listen. Walk.”
Jova would have said something, but between all the clicking and walking she couldn’t find the focus to put together a sentence.
“Practice now, Jova. I must go, but I will be returning. Uten will stay. Call for her in case you…in case you need to reorient yourself.”
Roan left before Jova could respond. She listened as the hoof beats faded away, and then slumped and sighed. She rubbed her ears. Jova didn’t know if it was possible for ears to be sore, but they certainly felt that way.
Click. Listen. Walk. The pattern made it easy, but the lack of results made it much, much harder. Jova shuffled backwards and forwards from the walls, slowly turning her head while clicking to get a full view. She bent low, imagining she was like Gopal’s bathawk. Click. Listen. Walk. Click. Listen. Walk. Click. Listen.
Jova heard voices, followed by a low growl. Her heart skipped a beat. Roan’s enemies?
“You swear you saw him come in here?”
“How could I miss him? Rode in here with that little blind shit, you know.” The voices were distant, but getting close. Jova clicked before she remembered to stop herself, and clapped her hands over her mouth, horrified.
“You hear that?”
“Yeah, I heard. Any idea what it is? Burn it all, it’s dark in here.”
“Like a fucking batsnake or something.”
Jova slowly lowered her hands from her mouth. Roan was right, there was no way she could fight them off on her own, not the way she was now.
But Jova had an idea.
“Come on, let’s just find the horse freak and get this over with. I’m sick and tired of putting up with all this.”
“Treats the brute, right, you know? Parading around the city like that. I got bruises, Deid, they’re swollen and shit.”
“Fucking Lady Spring, what the hell was that?”
“It’s just rats with wings, Izca, calm down. What’s wrong with Fang?”
“He’s scared, that’s what. Rats with fucking wings, my ass. I’ve half a mind to just call out to the horse freak. Hey, s-!”
There was a sound of scuffling in the distance, followed by the splash of bodies hitting water. Just where had Roan taken her?
“He’ll bolt, you idiot. Keep quiet.”
Jova edged forward, until her hands found Uten’s warmth. “Gonna need your help in a bit, girl,” she whispered, petting her like she petted Mo.
“Hey, hey, Deid, look…what lives down here?”
“Catbirds that spit rainbows when you pet them, now stop being such a jumpy fallborn and get your ass-.”
“Deid, Deid, it’s getting closer.”
Faintly, Jova heard something whine. “Now, Uten,” she whispered, wiping her mouth. “Say something for me.”
Uten rolled her head and, after a moment, obliged.
The molebison, normally so quiet, didn’t have a thunderous roar. It was wheezy, almost breathless, and yet somehow that made it that much more terrifying as the sound slithered and crawled around her. Jova shivered involuntarily.
She smiled, nonetheless, at the sounds of swearing and fading feet.
It was not long before she heard horse hooves pounding past outside again. “Jova!” Roan shouted. “I saw the boys running out of here. Are you-.”
“I’m fine,” said Jova.
“I took care of it.”
There was a pause. “They looked…petrified.”
Jova just smiled.
“You are a frightening little girl,” said Roan. A statement, not a question.
“I do my best,” said Jova, patting Uten. She chose to enjoy the silence that followed.
“I found a pillow,” said Roan. “Braided, finely made. Come, Jova. I shall hold up either the woodcut, or the pillow. Shh or click, whichever you are comfortable with. Soon you will tell one from the other.”
Jova moved towards Roan’s voice, doing her best to take full steps and not edge forward. “Roan…” she said, and she was smiling. Her heart was pumping fast; she felt almost giddy. “You said you wouldn’t teach me anything.”
“I will not teach you how to fight,” said Roan, imperiously. “But you, sad little girl, may learn to see. You may learn to smile.”
Jova nodded. “Thank you, Roan. Honest.”
Roan’s pause followed. “Come, Jova. We have barely begun.”
Posted on September 26, 2013, in 2.06, Chapter 2 (Hide & Seek) and tagged adventure, creative writing, Cual, Deid, Fang, fantasy, Izca, Jova, novel, original characters, Roan, Stel, story, Uten, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.