Hide (Chapter 2 Part 7)
“Assassination! Assassination, in the Seat of the King!”
Chaff listened from the big guy’s back, eating an onion while the crier circled the plaza. “Revolution in the capital of Albumere! The marble king is dead!”
“Sensationalist,” sneered Loom, but she stopped to listen anyway.
“Word has just arrived from the duarchs themselves! Ask any elector and they will confirm it!” shouted the crier. “Banden, called Ironhide, has rallied the people of the Seat! The High General and the White Table threaten to march and reclaim the capital!”
“Should we be worried?” Chaff had never heard of half the names the man was spouting. They seemed like fairytales, unreal- certainly less real than his onion, which was delicious but getting smaller by the second.
“If the king’s dead, then fuck him,” said Loom, simply. “Didn’t even know his name. He certainly never did shit for me, why should I care?”
This seemed an exceedingly practical and Loom-ish viewpoint, and Chaff agreed. Kings ranked somewhere with gods, and under trees, for him.
The man shouted on. “Assassination! Assassination in the Seat of the King!”
Loom had to whistle for Deppash to shove their way through the forming crowd, although the winter ox had to be careful with the wagon rolling behind him. “What are the duarchs going to do about it?” shouted a voice from the back, as the crier stood atop the dry fountain of Fra Henn to be better heard.
“The duarchs are deliberating,” said the crier. “They convene with the arbiters even now to discuss the next step!”
“I told you, kid,” grunted Loom, as she shouldered the man who’d asked the question out of the way, to an indignant cry of protest. “The duarchs are fat old men who haven’t done shit for Shira Hay in years. You wait, by the time they decide what to do the marble soldiers will have arrived and the revolution will be over.”
Not many seemed to share Loom’s cavalier attitude. An anxious whispering rustled through the crowd like wind through the grass; Chaff saw concerned faces and dark expressions as he passed (although there were quite a number of pained expressions as well, as Loom had started using her fists to clear a path).
“This is no big, yeah?” asked Chaff, edging past to catch up to Loom and Deppash. He felt vulnerable without the big guy beside him, but Loom had insisted that the camelopard stay in the stables with the amount of attention he brought when he came out. “Kings die all the time, yeah?”
“Sure they do,” said Loom. “We got a lot of them, don’t worry about it.”
Chaff pursed his lips. He wasn’t very good with people, but he was certain this many worried faces was not a good sign. Another crier walked further up the street, screaming, “Betrayal! Betrayal! The usurper Ironhide takes the capital! The throne is empty!”
“No good,” Chaff muttered to himself. “People dying, no king, no good.” He bit his lip, his curiosity getting the better of him. “Hey, shouting man! Hey!”
Chaff had to wave his arms to get the crier’s attention. “Why’s there fighting, huh? What’s going on?”
“Chaff, what are you doing? Get over here, stop talking to him!” Loom shouted.
The crier looked from Chaff to Loom. “If it’s anything like here,” he said. “I reckon they’re fighting because they’re angry, and hungry. Now get going, child, you don’t want to your master to get angry.” He stood straight, continuing down the street, shouting, “Assassination! Betrayal! Chaos in the Seat of the King!”
“She’s not my master, yeah?” Chaff shouted after him, but his voice was lost in the noise of the streets. He turned his head and ran to catch up with Loom, wrapped hands clutching his three tabula close. She wasn’t his master, Loom had said so. Both Chaff and Loom were free, weren’t they?
“Come on, keep up,” said Loom, as Chaff squeezed his way through to the bubble of space that surrounded Loom’s wagon. “I don’t want to waste any more time than I have to, let’s get this over with.”
They made their way to the river, as the shouts of the criers echoed around them. “They’re noisy, yeah?” Chaff whispered. “Really noisy.”
Chaff felt out of place as they reached the riverside near the Libraries. There were no shouting criers among the flocks of electors, and for once the scholars of Shira Hay were quiet, muttering in low voices in groups scattered along the street. Chaff adjusted the collar of his shirt, wondering if he shouldn’t leap into the river and give himself another wash.
“Just typical,” snarled Loom, as they approached a golden barge floating on the river. “Deppash, stay here. If anyone tries something funny, rearrange their fucking ribcage. Come on, kid, come with me.”
“In there?” asked Chaff, staring open-mouthed at the ornate golden decorations lining the hull of the boat. A wooden carving of the Lady Fall, inlaid with gold, emerged from the prow, a hand outstretched as if to tell Chaff to stop where he stood.
“Where else? It’ll keep floating when you step on it, come on.”
Despite Loom’s reassurance, Chaff held his breath as he edged onto the barge over the wooden plank bridging deck to dock. A thin, sallow-faced man with an embroidered white tunic watched him from the barge; had he been expecting visitors?
His face split in a greasy smile. “Dearest Loom,” he said, clasping his hands. “Well met. If I may inspect your, er, merchandise-.” His voice sounded oddly familiar.
“Not now, Kharr Ta.”
Chaff’s stomach turned to ice. Kharr Ta, the slave trader? His foot slid back, as he got ready to bolt. He had only summoned the big guy, once, under Loom’s supervision: he wasn’t sure if he was ready to do it again…
“You said you were interested in the carpets? Take a look. West weaves, east weaves, fabrics and cushions and pillows from all over.”
Chaff stopped. Loom sold carpets, not slaves, he reminded himself.
Why was he here, then?
Kharr Ta’s smile wavered. “My interest in your other wares was nominal, miss Loom.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“Meaning I was only being polite.”
Loom’s fists tightened on the sides of the barge with an audible creak. “There’s good…stuff, in there,” she said, and her voice shook. “You should at least give it a look.”
“Even if your wares are remotely vendible, they are far from enough to pay for my healer’s services. In fact, your other products may not be quite so fit either. There’s been some unrest in the capital,” said Kharr Ta, running a finger through his oiled hair. “Just in case you haven’t heard the news.”
“Of course I’ve heard the fucking news, you think I’m an idiot?”
Kharr Ta straightened his back, and walked straight up to Loom until they were almost nose to nose. His fingers traced the tabula displayed openly in his belt. “I could ask the same of you,” he muttered, in a low voice. “To think that you could hock your wares at me like a common street peddler, to openly insult and degrade me, and then to push your cheap garbage on me and pretend it’ll be worth a marshman’s shit; you must think me an imbecile.”
Chaff’s eyes darted from Kharr Ta to Loom. Who else was with them on this boat? More to the point, who could Kharr Ta bring? What kind of summer lions or tigerwolves had he tamed with those tabula?
There was nothing for it. Chaff leaped from the side of the boat and landed heavily on the dock, the planks rattling as he fell. Both Kharr Ta and Loom looked up at the sound, and Chaff rose to his feet, shouting, “Mister Kharr Ta! Over here!”
He dashed to the wagon, and before a surprised Deppash could so much as react Chaff was inside. He licked his lips, inspecting the sparse rolls and bundles.
There! A red and gold pillow, one that Loom hadn’t even brought with her from the plains; it had been from Vhajja’s house.
He scrambled back out of the wagon and back onto the barge. Kharr Ta rolled his eyes. “If you think a child’s appeal will change my mind, you are sorely mistaken,” he said, to Loom.
“Feel it,” said Chaff, breathlessly. “It’s soft.” He looked up at Kharr Ta’s penciled features, meeting his eyes. “Please?”
The slave trader’s silky hand brushed the golden tassels.
“It’s comfortable, yeah?” said Chaff, offering it. Loom stared at him, although with what emotion Chaff could not tell. “You could sleep on it for a week.”
“Really, now? Have you?” said Kharr Ta. He lifted his nose and looked down at Chaff, but at least he was smiling.
Chaff bowed his head. Kharr Ta seemed to like that. “Yes,” Chaff said, without blinking. It was true.
“Hmm.” With a flourish, Kharr Ta plucked the pillow out of Chaff’s hands, and smiled without parting his lips at Loom. “For the purposes of good business,” he said, greasily, and glided away. “Come. Let us discuss out of the sun.”
Loom stormed into Kharr Ta’s open cabin, and after a moment Chaff followed.
A canarycrow screeched at him as he entered, its mottled yellow feathers shimmering brightly, its beady eyes even brighter. Kharr Ta languished on a stark white couch, his thumb passing over one of the many tabula in his belt as he clucked for an attendant.
Loom and Chaff stood, as a girl in a similarly white smock entered. Chaff stared openly at the glass cup of honeyed wine as she gave it to Kharr Ta. The slave girl gave one small look at Chaff, met his eyes, and bowed her head before scurrying away. Loom and Chaff kept standing, watching Kharr Ta drink.
After a long sip, Kharr Ta spoke. “As it stands,” he said. “For you, I’d be willing to honor the trade we discussed. The remainder of your merchandise, and any other assets.”
“I’d have nothing left!” Loom snarled, taking a step forward.
“I suppose you could just let dear old Vhajja die,” said Kharr Ta, and his grin made Chaff’s stomach curl.
Loom looked away, flexing her fingers. Chaff touched her arm, and Loom looked at him in surprise. Her hands relaxed.
Chaff took a deep breath. Loom was his friend, and he would stand by her.
“Recent developments must, of course, be taken into account,” said Kharr Ta, swilling his wine. “A new king in the Seat? Neither the High General nor the Marble Stronghold will stand for this. There will be blood, before the eye of the Lady Fall closes.”
He leaned forward. “Do you understand what I am saying, Loom? A healer’s prices will spike because of old Ironhide’s revolution. I may wish to conserve my medicines for men with…a bit more to pay with.”
Chaff shrank behind Loom as Kharr Ta rose. “My offer stands until tonight. Do it now and it will give me time to put my inventory together. Any later and I might change my mind.”
“I’ll be in touch,” said Loom, hoarsely, and she pulled Chaff away. The canarycrow screeched and turned its head smugly as they left, as if it was laughing at something it knew and they didn’t.
Loom didn’t talk much as they returned home, the wagon creaking behind them. The crowds had since dispersed, and without them the city seemed quieter, somehow. Tense. Chaff held his breath. It felt like the plains again, except now he couldn’t see his enemies coming.
Chaff wished they could hurry up, just a little. He wanted to get back to the big guy as quick as he could.
He ducked past Deppash to get into the stables, and Loom didn’t stop him. He found the big guy seated on the ground, eyes hooded, chewing a piece of charred wood. “Loom says that’s bad for you, yeah? Come on, spit it out,” said Chaff, trying to pull it out, but the camelopard would not let go. The big guy flared his nostrils, and Chaff could sense the threat that he would spit something out.
“Fine, fine,” said Chaff, letting go and sitting in the concave that the big guy’s body made. “You win, yeah? Yeah.”
Chaff yawned. Somehow, these short walks through Shira Hay were more tiring than days on end of traveling the plains. The city seemed to have no end of things to hit him with. Kennya Noni fighters, slave traders on boats, distant assassinations of kings…
The boy sighed, and turned over, nestling his head in the big guy’s fur. Life had been simpler in the grasslands.
He had barely closed his eyes when he heard something shatter from the inside.
Chaff sat up immediately, ears pricked. He crawled forward. “You pull me out if I get in trouble, yeah?” he asked the camelopard.
Neck stretched, eyes wide, the camelopard inclined his head in what could have been a nod.
“Thanks, big guy,” muttered Chaff. He leaned toward the back door to listen, but paused. “I trust her,” he said, under his breath. “I trust her, I trust her, I trust her.”
He opened the door. Loom stood over Vhajja, breathing heavily, a shattered bowl and spilled gruel at her feet. She stood over Vhajja, fingers clenching and unclenching. The old man himself was bent double, wheezing and hugging his stomach. He coughed, and Chaff saw flecks of red land on the now bare floor.
Chaff’s eyes followed Loom’s fists to Vhajja’s prone figure. He shifted his feet. He wasn’t sure whose side he was on.
“Get up, come on,” said Loom, a steadying hand holding Vhajja up as she lead him to the bed. “You can’t even hold a fucking bowl, you need to rest.”
Vhajja shook his head, mumbling as Loom laid him done. He kept tracing the rim of a tabula in his hands, and when Loom touched him he croaked in a thin, reedy voice, “Am I dead yet?”
“Not yet, you old vipercrow,” said Loom, lifting him bodily and laying him to rest. Chaff edged around the mamwaari, watching.
Loom made to stand back, but paused. Her hand drifted towards the tabula clutched in Vhajja’s fingers. Gently, she made to take it out of his tense grip.
The moment she touched the amber disk, Vhajja screamed. His eyes bulged as he sat upright, a horrible moan coming from between toothless lips. Loom flinched visibly, snapping back and withdrawing her hand.
“Is he OK, Loom?”
“What the fuck.” Loom backed up to the wall, reaching for Deppash’s tabula, breathing heavily. When she saw Chaff, she slumped, clutching her head. “By the Lady Summer and Spring, you scared me, kid.”
Vhajja had stopped screaming. He lay in his bed, staring vacantly to one side, all the while muttering, “Am I dead yet? Am I dead yet?”
“He’s OK, yeah?” asked Chaff, voice shaking. He bumped into the wall and realized with a start that he, like Loom, had moved as far away from Vhajja as he could.
“He’s…fine,” said Loom. “He’s just old.”
Chaff gulped. “Wouldn’t it be better to just kill him?”
Loom stared at him, and Chaff wondered if he had said something wrong. He had never been one to let his hunts squirm, and Vhajja was his friend. He looked like he was in pain.
“No, we won’t fucking kill him,” hissed Loom. “We can fix him. Don’t worry about it.”
Chaff nodded, although he did not quite understand. Vhajja wasn’t bleeding or broken. What kind of city magic would they have to use to fix someone who was broken on the inside?
Loom looked out the broken window. “I think I’m going to stick around for a few more hours. Make sure he stays…fine. There’s no point, no one’s going out now, anyway. A king dies and everyone thinks the Lady Summer is gonna let the fucking sky fall,” she said, sitting on the ground and massaging her forehead. “We’ve got some greens left, don’t we? Salted bush meat, all that?”
Chaff checked the earthenware pots where Vhajja kept his various stores of food. “Yeah,” he said. “There’s dried, er…meat. Some kind of meat, yeah? Jerky.”
“Toss me some,” said Loom. “I need something to chew. Gotta get my fucking head in the right place.”
Chaff walked over, two strips of jerky in hand. He gave Loom and sat next to her, chewing the other.
Loom took it silently. “There’s no carpet for you to sleep on anymore,” she muttered. “You alright with roughing it for tonight, kid?”
“Course I am,” said Chaff. He scraped his heel on the dirt. He honestly hadn’t expected the luxury of a soft carpet for very long. The dirt floor wasn’t much worse than the more prickly grass beds he had made for himself in the plains. “Hey, Loom?”
They ate together in silence. Neither of them needed to say anymore.
Outside, Chaff heard the distant voice of the crier once more, screaming, “Assassination! Betrayal!” Beside him, Loom got up.
“Wish the fucker would shut up,” she muttered, pacing across the small hut. She kicked dirt over the spilled gruel on the ground and set to picking up the broken pieces of the bowl. Chaff rose to help, but Loom waved him off. “Be careful where you step, there’s broken bits everywhere.”
Chaff puffed out his chest. “I’m not scared of them!”
“You should be, you’re not wearing any shoes. They’ll cut your fucking feet open.”
“You’re not wearing any shoes either,” said Chaff, reproachfully.
“I am an adult, I have immunity,” said Loom. She looked up. “You want to be helpful, go and put some more of this slop in another bowl. It’ll be cold now, but the old man needs some food in him.”
Chaff did as he was told, edging his way around the shattered clay fragments. He watched as Loom gathered the shards in her palm and, after looking around, tossed them in a corner. She kicked dirt over them for good measure, and turned to see Chaff staring.
“What? Don’t give me that look. Just remember not to walk over there,” she said.
Chaff stuck out his tongue. “I’m a stupid kid, yeah? I don’t remember nothing.”
Loom grumbled and placed a pot over the makeshift garbage corner. “So I remember for later,” she muttered. “And are you fucking done yet?”
Chaff held out the bowl, but as Loom made to take it he heard a strangled groan from Vhajja’s bed. The old man shook his head fitfully, waving his hand as if slapping something away.
“How are you feeling, old man?” asked Loom. She did not move any closer to him.
“No food,” Vhajja muttered. “Can’t eat properly.” He coughed, a wheezy, wracking cough that came from his chest. He spat over the side of his bed, groaning. “Make the sale soon.”
“That extortionist Kharr Ta wants it tonight,” growled Loom.
“Then do it tonight.”
“He wants everything. Everything! What’ll we have left?”
“We will have our lives,” said Vhajja, and his tone was dangerous.
“How long do you think you’ll survive out there, in the gutters, like a common wild child? You won’t last a day.”
Vhajja slammed his fist into the bed, and the effort made him double-over in pain. Through gritted teeth, he snapped, “No one’s going to take an extra mouth when there’s war in the capital. Take Kharr Ta’s deal, because by all the Ladies Four it’s the only one you’re going to get.”
“Go to sleep, old man,” snarled Loom. She looked at Chaff, and said, softer, “You, too. It’s getting late.”
Chaff hesitated. “Loom…you’re my friend, right?”
Loom stared at him without moving. Finally, she just said, “Go to sleep, Chaff. Things will be all sorted out by tomorrow, I promise.”
Chaff nodded, and headed out back towards the stables. He would spend the night by the big guy, like he had in the plains. It was comforting, a return to the familiar.
The big guy flicked his ears, still waiting to pull Chaff out in case he got in trouble. Chaff rubbed his neck and smiled. “Thanks, big guy.” He yawned. “Yike, I’m tired. Sleep now, yeah?”
He slumped into the camelopard’s side, and took out the girl’s tabula. He considered it for a moment, and gave it a kiss for good luck. He closed his eyes and snuggled into the big guy’s fur with the tabula held firmly in his hands, like Vhajja.
Whoever Vhajja held, Chaff thought, he must have loved that person very much.
Chaff’s dreams were dark. He saw someone who looked like Hadiss, and a man riding a horse, both walking away from him, before the world became so dark he could not see a thing. He heard a steady drip, drip, drip, and a rustle like rushing wind, that turned into hoof beats. The hooves grew louder and louder, until they were so loud that Chaff thought they must have been riding right over his head.
He woke, squinting. There were hooves, yes, coming from somewhere near him. He looked up, rubbing his eyes, and saw that Deppash and the wagon were gone. Loom must have gone with them, then. Chaff smiled. He was still there.
He began to thank the girl for her luck, but his stomach lurched. He froze.
He sat very still, staring at his hands for what seemed like an eternity.
The girl’s tabula was gone.
Posted on September 29, 2013, in 2.07, Chapter 2 (Hide & Seek) and tagged adventure, Big Guy, Chaff, creative writing, Deppash, fantasy, Kharr Ta, Loom, novel, original characters, story, Vhajja, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.