Ebb (Chapter 6 Part 1)
“I never notice before,” breathed Chaff, staring. “Can I touch it?”
“No, you cannot.”
“But look at it! It’s so big, yeah? How you keep that in your pants?”
Chaff reached for the spiderwhale’s tabula again, but Wozek slapped his hand away. “I just wanna see!” Chaff whined, looking hurt.
Wozek rolled his eyes. “I let you hold it once, wasn’t that enough?”
“That was just for a little bit, yeah? I wasn’t even paying attention, then.” Chaff steered the big guy a little closer to the spiderwhale, craning his neck to get a better look. “How come it’s so much bigger than yours? Mine’s as big as the big guy’s, yeah?”
“Really, now? I would like to see that, goodman Chaff.”
Chaff reached for his belt before he froze and paused. He narrowed his eyes and glared at the marshman.
“Exactly,” snapped Wozek, once he saw Chaff’s expression. “That’s what it feels like to have people pry at your tabula, boy. Not good, right? Intrusive. Invasive.”
“I just wanted to see…” grumbled the boy, but not loud enough for Wozek to hear. Before he could say anything further, Wozek held up his hand, and the spiderwhale came to an abrupt halt.
“Wozek!” shouted Prav the brusher from the top of the hill up ahead. “You’ll want to see this!”
“Budge aside, you old lug,” said Wozek, swinging over the spiderwhale’s side. He didn’t say a word to Chaff as he left to join the brusher to scout ahead, up over a hill framed by the tilted pines.
Chaff watched him go, and sighed forlornly. “He important, yeah?” said Chaff, reining in the big guy. “Ain’t got no time for us at all.”
The camelopard flicked an ear, as if he didn’t mind at all that Wozek had no time for them.
Chaff looked back. He had ridden ahead to talk to Wozek, but now that the marshman no longer had the patience to host him, Chaff was left with no one to talk to. “No point in going back,” said Chaff, adjusting himself. He laid on the big guy’s back, staring at the sky. “Just like the old days, yeah?”
A cold but bright winter sun shone overhead. It didn’t snow this far south, but Chaff’s toes still throbbed from when he had crossed the frost-crusted wet lands further north barefoot. He lay in the warmth, pretending he was in the plains again, surrounded by the softly waving grass.
It would take more than that, though, to bring the boy back to the old days. The grass had changed, and so had the chaff.
Chaff furrowed his eyebrows. Everything he had done to get here…had it been for the better? And if it was, why did he feel so guilty about it?
He craned his head up, but the long muddy road was empty as far as he could see. Wozek and Prav had gone quite far ways ahead of the rest of the group, although Chaff supposed that was what leaders and brushers did.
He wasn’t sure where he fit in there, for he wasn’t a leader or a brusher, but here he was.
Chaff reached for his belt, and held her tabula up in front of him. It had been a long time since he had looked into it. It had been a long time since it had answered.
The tabula formed a single circle of shadow over Chaff’s face as the sun shone overhead. The birds were silent, and the bugbeasts had all burrowed inside their dens to sleep the winter away long ago. He was alone.
It buzzed at his lightest touch, as if eager for him to use it. And yet…
He slipped the disk away in his belt. It didn’t feel right, not when he felt so twisted up inside. Chaff had seen what happened to the big guy when he was distressed and he used the camelopard’s tabula; he didn’t want to load all his bad feelings on her.
“What you think, big guy?” he asked, staring at the sky. “What you think it’s like when we meet her?”
The big guy didn’t answer.
“Jova,” said Chaff, eyes glazing over. “Jova.” He wondered what it meant.
The camelopard moved. He walked away to go browse on the pine needles, and Chaff had to hold tight onto the big guy’s back to balance himself. Chaff sat up as the big guy ate. “You sure you eat that?” he asked. “What if it make you sick?”
The big guy snorted and glared at Chaff.
“Yeah, OK,” said the boy. “Not a lot to eat lately. I gets it.”
He paused, watching the big guy chew placidly.
“Hey, big guy, lemme try some,” he said, standing up and tearing off a handful of rubbery green shoots. The last time he had tried camelopard food, he remembered it had not gone well, but…well, this was different camelopard food.
He bit and chewed and gagged all in one fluid motion, and rolled over to spit it out and clawed at his tongue to get the taste out.
The supplies from Wozek’s village had lasted long enough to get them here, although they had not stayed there long. There had barely been twenty people among them, but Chaff still had difficulty remembering all their names and faces.
He sighed. He had been traveling with them for weeks now and he could only really tell apart a quarter of them. There was mudmaker Armand, who didn’t talk much and wore face paint like he had stitched his mouth shut. Then there was the couple, Bori and Sevra, and their unnamed child, who still had a Fallow coming for him. The rest…well, the rest were a complete blur.
What Chaff had found most interesting about all the marshmen, though, was how they listened to Wozek. One stern talk from him about the dangers of the Quiet Marsh and the coming winter, and they had unanimously decided to leave. It wasn’t much they were leaving behind—a few ramshackle huts with roofs made of woven reeds and soggy fireplaces—but leave it behind they did, without question.
“He doesn’t even need tabula,” said Chaff, as he waited. “Just words, yeah?”
Chaff wondered what it would be like, to speak words with such power. Vhajja had been able to do it, and he was an old man, weak and frail. Hurricane had done it, and he had never needed to use those big muscles in their place.
A dark blot flapped across the sky, and instinctively Chaff flinched. Sinndi he had grown used to, but up there wasn’t Sinndi. The owlcrow had been recuperating and hadn’t flown for some time. Lookout wouldn’t let Chaff try to fix her; she said it would draw attention. Wozek hadn’t said anything either to his people, and Chaff supposed that if two smart people thought he should keep it a secret, then he would keep it a secret.
It was frustrating, not being able to do anything.
A sudden screech cut across the sky. Chaff flinched again, nearly falling off of the camelopard as Jiralla dived, snatching the dark blot out of the air like it was a piece of low hanging fruit. The bathawk wheeled with a limp form in its claws, feathers shedding from the corpse and fluttering back down to the earth.
Chaff looked around. The rest of them must have been close.
Lookout was, of course, the first to see him. “Chaff! There you are,” she shouted, jogging up the road to him.
“You surprised?” asked Chaff, grinning.
“Pssh, no,” said Lookout. “I knew where you were. I could see the big guy from half a mile away.”
The camelopard held his head up high, as if he was proud of that.
The rest of the group was not far behind, talking and laughing and living. Chaff waved to Sri, who clung to Gopal’s side as they approached, and gave her an encouraging smile.
“Wozek’s up ahead?” said Lookout, hands on her hips. It was more of a statement than a question.
“Yeah, him and the scout-man brusher.”
“Then what are you doing waiting here, you dummy?” Lookout clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s get going.”
“Hup, big guy,” said Chaff, squeezing the big guy’s sides. “Lookout says go, we go.”
The camelopard’s hooves sunk into the soft dirt as they climbed. “What do you see?” asked Chaff, craning his neck. He stood on the camelopard’s back, swaying precariously as he clung by one hand to the big guy’s neck.
“Careful, Chaff, you’re going to fall,” said Lookout.
“I just pick myself up then,” said Chaff. “I can-.” And then the big guy crested the hill, and whatever the boy was going to say faded on his tongue immediately.
It was the second city Chaff had ever seen in his life. On top of that little hill, he saw it all: Kazakhal, spread across the bay. The houses stood on rickety wooden stilts, just feet above the water, while its citizens drifted past on rafts and canoes. It was like an antmole-hill that Chaff had once seen, a complex network of channels and waterways that wove around each other in one huge organic sprawl. Despite the winter chill, marshmen sat shirtless on their porches, feet dangling in the still waters while out further into the bay fishing skiffs and great aquatic beasts prowled.
The whole place smelled like fish and smoke, which set Chaff’s belly rumbling. He jumped off the big guy’s back and dashed down the hill, trying to get closer to the city, but Lookout held out a hand.
“Easy there. Look,” she said. She pointed down the hill, to where Wozek and Prav were talking at the wooden pier that led like a road into the rest of the city. A mudmaker with hoop earrings as large as Chaff’s hands stood before them, arms crossed, leaning on a staff with his leg in a splint. While he talked he kept looking straight at Chaff and Lookout.
“Goodman Wozek,” he said, in a loud voice, meeting Chaff’s eyes. “You and your people are of course welcome to the Maw. But you know our laws. Those two are not kazakhani. They are not allowed here.”
Wozek looked behind him, and beckoned for Chaff to come over. “No need to hide and skulk, boy, just face him.”
Chaff met Lookout’s eyes, and together they edged forward.
“I was wary at first, too, Vizdak, but this boy has proven himself a true friend of Kazakhal,” said Wozek, putting a hand around Chaff’s shoulder. It was oddly tight, and the runner in Chaff wanted to squirm free. He held himself back, meeting the mudmaker’s painted face warily. “The girl, too, I can vouch for.”
“Vouching or no vouching,” said Vizdak, shrugging his bare shoulders. Black and white spirals had been painted along his shoulders, and they flowed into shapes like tongues of flame on his arms and the backs of his hands. “It’s not a matter of what they’ll do, but what we’ll do. You know how it is with foreigners.”
“They’re children,” said Wozek, and Chaff had a moment of déjà vu as he remembered Gopal using the same argument not too long ago. “What harm can they cause?”
“Ask the gargani wild child who broke my leg and sent me moaning off to guard duty.” Vizdak tapped his cane on the dock. “I always say, if they’re old enough to live on their own, they’re old enough to kill on their own.”
“Alright, alright,” said Wozek. “But they’ll be under my watch and my people’s the whole time. Prav here has the sharpest eyes of any man or woman in Kazakhal, don’t you, Prav?”
The brusher didn’t say anything, although his smirk was answer enough. Beside him, Chaff saw Lookout make a face. “You’ll get that title back once I leave Kazakhal, Prav,” she muttered, darkly, under her breath, and Chaff couldn’t help but giggle.
“He’ll catch them before they even have the chance to stir something up. We’re here two days at most. We’re finding a boat, and then we’re leaving, all the way to Oldsea Strait. No fuss, no trouble.”
Vizdak adjusted his stance. He pursed his lips, and looked from Chaff to Lookout to the big guy and Sinndi. “One day,” he said. “And the beasts stay out here, where I can see them, until you leave.”
“Perfectly reasonable,” said Wozek, giving the mudmaker a firm handshake, careful not to smudge his paints. He turned to his brusher. “Prav, go and tell the others. The animals stay here.”
Prav nodded and went jogging back, just like that. “Doesn’t even need a tabula,” muttered Chaff, as Vizdak hobbled aside and let them past.
“You stay, big guy! Relax a little!” Chaff shouted, and the camelopard dipped his head as if nodding, although that might have just been him trying to get Sinndi off of his head. Chaff turned to Wozek as they, with Lookout, walked down the dock. “Why don’t we just shove him away and run by?” he asked, once he was sure the mudmaker guard was out of earshot. “He can’t fight back at all, with that leg, yeah?”
“Only use force when you absolutely have to. Most of the time people just need a little talking to before they see sense,” said Wozek, shaking his head. “Besides, he was a mudmaker. He’d poison you dead before you even thought of running past him.”
Chaff hopped as he walked, listening to the hollow thunk of the wooden boards beneath his feet. “Yeah, OK,” he said. “Why he trying to stop us then? What’s that all about?”
Behind them, Wozek’s people were filing onto the dock, clutching their belongings to their sides and staring around the city with nervous, apprehensive looks. Wozek looked back on them, his eyes scanning over them, before he turned back to Chaff. “You are not one of us. Not kazakhani.”
“What are we then?” asked Chaff.
“Shiralhane. The lonely people.” Wozek pointed towards Gopal and Sri. “Them? They are jhidnai. You are both just…different kinds of people. Kazakhani don’t like different.”
Wozek fell silent, then, and Chaff did too. He stopped hopping on the planks, and the awe he had first felt when he had first seen Kazakhal was being subdued by a growing sense of fear.
The people here had pouting, swollen faces, and stomachs distended by hunger. Their clothes were grimy and tattered. There was no sense of grandeur here, nothing like Shira Hay with its libraries and its fountains and its statues. As Chaff fell behind Wozek and Lookout so that they could all fit on the narrow walkway, he stepped lightly and carefully: he felt like the whole thing might collapse at any moment, as the hut beside him sagged on its stilts. As he passed the open window, a pair of hooded eyes watched him go from deep within the shadows.
This city was barely surviving.
Something cracked underneath him, and Chaff yelped. Before he could fall into the muddy waters, though, Lookout caught his arm.
“I knew you were going to fall,” she said, pulling him up. “Just a matter of when.”
“I get up, don’t I?” said Chaff, brazenly, although his hands were shaking.
“Shouldn’t have been jumping around so much,” said Lookout.
“I wasn’t jumping. Not that time at least.” Chaff walked on, staring at his feet. “Why do they all live here, Lookout?” he asked, finally. “There’s dry land, just over there. It’s better living there, yeah?”
“It’s home,” said Wozek, before Lookout could answer. “It wasn’t always like this. See that, out there?” He pointed to the waters where the fishing boats sailed and the turtlesharks swam. “We call it the Maw of the Deep, and every year it gets a little bigger and a little hungrier. People just…got used to it. Inertia keeps them here. They don’t know what’s good for them.”
“In-er-sha,” repeated Chaff, slowly. “That some kind of monster?”
“Close enough,” said Wozek, and he stopped. “Here, we are.”
This hut was larger than the others. It smelled of cooking fires and alcohol, and next to the entrance of the doors (which, unlike many others Chaff had seen, looked functional), something was scrawled in large, ugly letters.
“What’s that say, Lookout?” he asked.
Lookout squinted. “F…” she began. “Fuck King Ironhide.” She coughed, and looked away.
Wozek crossed his arms. “Like I said,” he growled, darkly. “People don’t know what’s good for them.” He opened the door for Chaff and Lookout. “Sit in the back, please, we don’t want to cause any trouble.”
It was dark and smoky inside. The low buzz of chatter didn’t change as Chaff and Lookout walked in, but they drew glares and odd looks from the tables they passed. “I didn’t realize the philosophers let them in so young,” said a balding, yellow-toothed man. He batted at Chaff’s scarf as he passed, and he shied away. “Plainslords think little kids are smarter than us, eh?”
“Don’t have to be smart,” muttered his drinking partner, eying his mug morosely. “Just got to be willing to stick a knife in an alsval back.”
“Oaf,” snarled Lookout, and she pulled Chaff away.
Chaff felt more on edge than usual. Being among this many people felt like being tossed into a pit full of hungry piranhawolves. “Let’s sit by the window, Lookout,” said Chaff, trying to avoid eye contact with the other patrons.
“Sure, this place is stuffy enough as it is.”
Chaff eyed the rippling waters as he sat on the bench, wet with damp, and twiddled his thumbs. He wasn’t sure what else he was supposed to do in this place, besides wait. “Can you swim, Lookout?”
“It’s not going to come to that,” said Lookout, peering out the little square of light and air. “We’re not going to have to jump into the bay to get away from these people.”
“Yeah, but can you swim?”
“Sure I can,” said Lookout, although her fingers had begun drumming on the table. She looked at Chaff and raised an eyebrow. “You can swim?”
“I don’t remember,” Chaff admitted.
“You don’t remember how to swim?”
“I don’t remember if I can or not.”
Lookout stared at him for a full ten seconds. “That’s comforting,” she said, finally, and slumped with her chin in her palms and her elbows on the table, watching the door. Wozek’s other people were trickling in—sitting, Chaff couldn’t help but notice, on the other end of the room.
“What’s he doing?” Lookout muttered, as Wozek finally came in. The marshman began talking with a man in clothes stained with grease, who seemed to own this little shack. As he did so, people Chaff had never seen before kept shaking Wozek’s hand, giving him little two-fingered salutes, or calling at him from across the room.
“He that important?” whispered Chaff.
Lookout didn’t respond. She was staring intently at him, a rigid expression on her face. “Remember when he was talking to that guy with the earrings?” she said. “How did he put it? We’re finding a boat. We’re leaving in two days.”
“Maybe he wants to come with us,” said Chaff. He smiled at the thought. He rather enjoyed Wozek’s company, even if Wozek didn’t very much seem to like his. The man always had interesting things to say. “Maybe he can help us find her.”
“Maybe,” said Lookout, distractedly. “But…why? He took us this far already. He got his people where they needed to go, and they seem happy enough. What’s his game?”
Chaff didn’t say anything. He didn’t know. Also, he was hungry, and he was wondering if he might be able to steal a bite of salted fish while the man sitting next to them wasn’t looking.
At last, someone acknowledged them, sitting in their corner. It wasn’t Wozek, though.
Gopal sat heavily on the bench on Lookout’s side, while Sri sat next to Chaff. She kept looking over her shoulder, as if she was scared someone might attack them from behind.
“All the foreign folk, shoved into a corner, eh?” said Gopal. Sri gave him a pity laugh, while Chaff stared blankly at him. It took him a few seconds for him to realize Gopal was trying to be funny.
“Well,” said Gopal, clearing his throat. “I guess this is it. Here we part ways. You’ll be off to Moscoleon before the day is out, and we…won’t.”
“You’re staying here?” said Chaff, surprised. He hadn’t expected the two other foreigners in Wozek’s group to spend a second longer than they had to in this crumbling city.
“We’ve spent our fair share of winters here. We’ll be fine.”
Chaff stared at his thumbs for a while, as the talk and chatter continued around him. His belly rumbled. “Meet up one more time before we go?” he said, to Sri. “I gotta say goodbye the proper way.”
Sri ducked her head, and the hair fell around her face. “Okay. We’re not saying goodbye yet. Let’s…let’s share a meal first. The Shira Hay way.”
Chaff nodded, and smiled.
“I’ll go check with Wozek to see if he can get us some food,” Lookout said, rising. She walked away quickly, brushing past Gopal in her haste.
They sat there for a little while, not saying anything, just watching the light play on the water outside. Finally, Sri spoke.
“There’s something I don’t get about you,” said Sri, as they sat there, together. “All this time, we’ve been traveling together…I’ve never once seen you pray. Never once seen you use the Ladies’ names. Never once seen you acknowledge them at all. Why are you going to Moscoleon, if not to find the gods?”
“I’m not going to find the gods,” said Chaff, shrugging. He had thought that was obvious. “What’s gods and kings to me? I’m going to find her.”
“The Jova girl.”
And though the buzz of talk did not stop, there was suddenly a deathly silence.
Posted on April 13, 2014, in 6.01, Chapter 6 (Ebb & Flow) and tagged adventure, Big Guy, Chaff, creative writing, fantasy, Gopal, Jevra, Jiralla, Lookout, novel, original characters, Prav, Sinndi, Sri, story, Vizdak, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, Wozek, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.