Ebb (Chapter 6 Part 2)
Chaff didn’t know what he said wrong. He looked from Gopal to Sri, his mouth very dry. Suddenly, there seemed to be too many people in the tavern. It was too hot, too noisy, too confined. He wanted to be back in the plains again, with nothing but the grass around him. He didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want to watch their faces turn from shock to confusion to anger.
“Say that again,” said Gopal, and the soft wood of the table was beginning to splinter and crack under his white knuckles.
“I don’t know what it means,” said Chaff, quickly. He looked to Sri for help, but he couldn’t even see her eyes for the hair that had fallen around her face. She seemed dark, now. Brooding. Dangerous. “I just-.”
“Say it. Again.”
“The Jova girl,” whispered Chaff, meekly. “I wanted to find the Jova girl.”
“Is this some kind of trick?” hissed Gopal, standing up. The bench scraped against the floor as he stood, a long wooden moan, and heads began to turn. “Some kind of joke?”
“I’m not- I’m not smart,” Chaff babbled. “I don’t know what it means, yeah? If-.”
“Are you mocking me?” Gopal grabbed Chaff’s scarf and pulled him close by it, so that if Chaff tried to move he would just tighten it around his neck. He blinked rapidly, his eyes misting over. “We save you. We guide you. We walk together for weeks and today, you- you dig this out of the past?”
“Sri, tell him!” said Chaff, trying to keep his voice steady even as it cracked with panic. “Tell him I don’t know what any of it means!”
“I never told you her name. I haven’t said that name in three years,” said Sri, slowly. Her voice didn’t change pitch at all. “Chaff, why are you going to Moscoleon?”
“For the girl, to find the Jova girl! I have- I…” Chaff couldn’t bring himself to say it. Lookout had spent a long time earning his trust, and even then her seeing the tabula had been mostly accidental. To just tell someone? After Loom and Vhajja had nearly ripped her away? He couldn’t risk it.
“Jova girl,” said Gopal. “That was what Rituu called her. Why are you calling her that? Who are you?”
None of the marshmen in the tavern were talking now. Chaff could see Lookout trying to push her way through the clustered tables and people out of the corner of his eye, but he didn’t dare break eye contact with Gopal. He was too afraid to.
“Rituu was the better man among us,” said Gopal. There was a look in his eyes that reminded Chaff too much of madness. “He was the thinker. The traveler. The storyteller. I was the brigand. The thief. The killer. And the Ladies left me, and sent you, so where does that leave us?”
His fists tightened around Chaff’s throat, and the boy gasped as he began to struggle for breath.
“Goodman Gopal,” said Wozek’s steadying tone, and he was smiling despite the obvious tension in the air. Marshmen had risen from their seats, hands resting on their weapons or their tabula. “Let him go.”
“Not until I get answers,” growled Gopal, his hands shaking even as he pulled Chaff up and out of his seat.
“Jhidnai! Remember yourself! This is not the place for you to get them,” snapped Wozek.
“Are you in on this?” Gopal let Chaff fall, heaving, onto the table, while his eyes darted around the room. “Are you all in on this?”
“Gopal. Be reasonable. Sit down,” said Wozek, his voice calm and steady.
“Not until you tell me who this shit is and how the hell he knows- how he knows…” Gopal looked around, breathing heavily. “Did you tell him? Did you tell him who killed Rituu? What are you doing, Wozek, why are you-?”
Wozek put a hand on Gopal’s shoulder and he fell silent immediately. “Sit. Down.” He turned around, his smile jovial, his shoulders relaxed. “Everyone, go back to your meals! There’s no need for fuss.”
And the marshmen obeyed, just like that.
But Gopal would not sit down. “Who is he? How does he know that girl’s name?”
“Obviously someone must have told him,” said Wozek, the epitome of reasonableness. “Now you’re just getting yourself more worked up the way you are. Sit. Food is coming, and-.”
“Then why,” said Sri. “Does he want to find her?” She turned to Chaff and looked straight at him. Her soft and gentle eyes were ablaze with anger, and coming from her Chaff felt his very bones tremble with fear. “Why does he want to find the girl who killed my dad?”
Chaff didn’t know what to say. He was lost and confused and didn’t know what Sri meant. It was only as he searched her eyes for an answer did he remember her story. “The girl on the road to Moscoleon? She’s…Jova?”
Sri nodded, once. Her fists were tightening. Chaff didn’t know a lot about people, but even he could tell her patience was shortening.
“But you said it wasn’t anyone’s fault,” said Chaff, shaking his head. He was remembering Sri’s story correctly, wasn’t he? “You said you didn’t blame anyone anymore!”
Suddenly, Chaff’s head was knocked to the side. He sat, gasping, his cheek stinging as Sri drew back her palm to slap him across the face again. “I don’t know who to blame anymore! I don’t know what’s going on!” she screamed. “Chaff! Why are you going to Moscoleon?”
Chaff could only shake his head. He recognized the look in Sri’s eyes; he recognized the pain, and the regret, and the fear. It was as if…
As if someone had brought up Loom in front of him. That was what he was seeing.
Just what exactly had Jova done?
“Chaff, you can’t just- you can’t just say something like that and not answer, you can’t just…” Sri’s hands gripped tight around Chaff’s scarf, pulling him forward. “Chaff, answer me! Chaff?”
The boy stared blankly at the ceiling, lost within his thoughts. Why was he going to Moscoleon? Why was he trying to find her? “That’s my name. That’s me. I’m Chaff,” he finally croaked. “I’m the part that no one wants. I’m the part you throw away. You want answers, yeah? I don’t got none. I’m dumb. You gotta find her and ask her, like everyone else.”
Sri hit him, hard, with nothing held back. She wasn’t the friend Chaff had spent weeks coming to know. She was the girl in the marsh, prepared to kill a stranger on her turf. Chaff’s head snapped back as he tasted blood on his lip, and he tensed, getting ready for a fight.
Before he could move an inch, Sri let go. Lookout stood over the fallen girl, her back to the window, her face a mask of shadows.
The bench fell and scraped on the ground as Gopal jumped to his feet. “Don’t touch her,” snarled Gopal, and before anyone could stop him there was the hum of tabula.
The table broke clean in half as the bathawk burst from the darkness beneath it, screaming. It was nothing but wings and fanged teeth, flapping and screeching as its yellow eyes sought out Chaff. At last, they found him. They focused, and narrowed.
Talons planted themselves on Chaff’s chest, pinning him to the ground. They raked slowly across his chest, then caressed his face as Jiralla looked at him with evil, yellow eyes. Chaff’s vision swam. This had happened to him before, but it hadn’t happened to him. He knew the part that came next. The pressure, and the piercing…
Fwip! Something flitted through the air so fast and so sudden that every head in the tavern turned to look. Fwip! Fwip!
And then Jiralla collapsed over him even as Chaff dug a feathered dart out of his thigh.
“You vouched for them, Wozek,” said the mudmaker with the large earrings. “And see where that got us. I should call you oathbreaker and expel you from the city.”
“You came here fast, Vizdak,” was all Wozek said in reply.
“You didn’t go far,” was Vizdak’s curt answer.
Chaff blinked. Bile began to bubble in the back of his throat, as his vision dissolved into runny colors, like sunlight on the water. He tried to stand, but he could hardly tell up from down.
“I hope you didn’t kill them,” said Wozek, his voice as calm and reasonable as always.
Chaff wasn’t conscious long enough to hear Vizdak’s answer. He collapsed onto his back, the weight of the fallen bathawk heavy on his chest, the vomit dribbling out of the side of his mouth as he dreamed.
The marshmen’s leering faces glared at him. He was sitting in the center of the tavern, surrounded by people that hated him, and he spun, searching for an escape. He saw Loom’s face in the crowd, then Vhajja’s—then Hadiss, and Veer, and Lookout, and Sri. They all turned to strangers in the end, though. They were all strangers in the end.
The faces began to hiss and spit like summer snakes, and as Chaff closed his eyes and covered his ears they glowed and glowed until he saw them behind his eyelids, burned on his pupils. They became the night stars, spinning and twirling and cackling as an old man laughed, “She doesn’t want you. She doesn’t want you.”
Chaff rose to run, but the stars caught him with barbed whips of golden light, and he could not move at all. “Let me go!” he screamed. “Let me go!”
And the bark-made man stepped up to him, grabbed his chin, and whispered, “Never.”
Chaff woke up rocking, like he was in a mother’s cradle, except he had long since forgotten who his mother was. He was lying in a straw mattress, and the fibers clung to his hair as he tried to sit up. His pounding head wouldn’t let him, and he fell back, groaning. There was still dried puke on the corner of his lip.
He turned, and saw Wozek sitting in a corner, watching, unmoving. “Heal yourself, boy,” he said, watching, arms crossed.
It took a great effort to speak. Chaff breathed heavily, holding back another convulsion as his stomach twisted. He shook his head. “Can’t.”
Wozek rose, and began to walk away.
“No!” Chaff said, sweat breaking out on his forehead as he reached for Wozek. “Don’t go.” His arm fell, and the boy closed his eyes, trying to collect his thoughts. “Where?”
Wozek waited until Chaff opened his eyes. “We found a boat,” he said, simply.
Chaff shook his head. “Where are they?”
“Gopal and Sri have gone their own way. I had a feeling they would want to…leave all this behind,” said Wozek.
The boy slammed his fist on the side of his bed’s wooden frame. “Where?” he spluttered, and he reached for his belt, where he kept his tabula.
At last, Wozek understood. “Goodwoman Lookout is fine. Same condition as you, but fine. And…your beast is on the ship. Unhurt.”
Chaff slumped into his bed, relaxed at last.
“I will let you rest,” said Wozek, and he walked away.
The boy stared at the low ceiling of the room, trying to let his breathing subside. What was this, a sick bay? An animal pen? He doubted they would afford a foreign street urchin the luxuries of a private room.
As Chaff laid there and let himself breathe, it hit him that Gopal and Sri were gone. They had left. He hadn’t gotten a chance to say a proper goodbye. He blinked back the tears. All he had wanted to do was say a proper goodbye. The Ladies never gave him the chance to say a proper hello. Couldn’t they let him at least say goodbye?
“Goodbye Gopal,” he whispered, to no one. “Goodbye Sri. In Shira Hay, we give each other departure gifts, yeah? It’s a promise we meet again someday. I was going to get you one, but I didn’t- I didn’t have the time to find one ‘cause you left so soon…”
It was no use. They had gone. What were the chances they’d appear a second time?
And they had known her. That made Chaff’s eyes widen. They had known the girl. They called her Jova. Chaff gripped his pounding head, trying to remember every detail he could of Sri’s story. The girl had been traveling to Moscoleon; she was in Moscoleon. Except, Sri had been traveling to Moscoleon, and she wasn’t there, was she?
It didn’t matter. It was a start. It was the right direction. It was forward.
But there had been more to the story. She had nearly died. Chaff took out her tabula and looked at it, tracing a finger down the crack. She couldn’t be dead. For once, this wasn’t just wishful thinking: if she was dead, then the tabula would have broken. She had nearly died. She was still alive.
And for the first time in his life, Chaff thanked the Ladies, for saving her.
The door opened, and Chaff heard Lookout’s frustrated voice shouting, “Look, I see him! He’s not dead. Now go back up the stairs! You’re not even going to get your fucking neck below decks, stop trying, you’ll just make it worse!”
There was the unmistakable sound of hooves, and Chaff sat up.
“Big guy, I’m good!” he shouted. “Get going, shoo! You a camelopard on a boat! Never been a camelopard on a boat before, yeah? Enjoy it!”
Beyond the door, something snuffled, snorted, and stomped away. Lookout stepped into Chaff’s pen, looking frazzled, the owlcrow on her shoulder equally so.
“Hey, Lookout-,” Chaff began, and the girl turned on him.
“Why the hell are you speaking SO LOUD?” she screamed, breathless already.
Chaff gaped, unsure if she was being serious.
Lookout promptly slid onto the floor, grabbing her head. “Fuck this place. Fuck mudmakers and their poisons. Fuck Kazakhal. I am so glad we are leaving.”
“Are you even supposed to be in here?” asked Chaff, blearily.
“No,” said Lookout, bluntly. “But fuck the kazakhani. And fuck their bigotry, and fuck their rules, too.”
They sat there in silence, as the boat rocked beneath them. Chaff wondered how they were going to fit a camelopard up there without the boat sinking. He wondered how they were going to feed the camelopard.
“Well,” said Lookout, her eyes still closed. “That trip into the city was an unmitigated disaster, don’t you agree?”
“Yeah,” said Chaff.
“We didn’t even get our food,” she snorted. “I really wanted to try their winter snail bread. I hear it’s cool, like peppermint.”
“You’re very energetic, yeah?” said Chaff. As Lookout’s eyebrows furrowed and her forehead creased, Chaff added, quickly, “I like energetic! I…need energetic now.”
The boat rocked. It reminded Chaff of the swaying grass, and he felt a little closer to home. Lookout said, finally, “I’m just glad we’re leaving this place behind. Lot of unpleasant memories, if you know what I mean.”
“…Yeah,” said Chaff.
Lookout scoffed. “Course you do,” she muttered. There was a pregnant pause between them, as neither of them spoke. Then Lookout said, stiffly, “Now…I know it’s not my place, and if you want me to shut up then just say it, but…” She sighed. “Chaff, what did you say to them that made them so angry?”
Chaff turned his head away, and fell back into the straw.
“They looked real upset,” said Lookout. “Whatever you said…I mean, we gotta make sure it doesn’t happen again, right? That was a close one.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Chaff,” Lookout said, shaking her head. “Listen to yourself. How do you ever expect to get closer to where you want to go, if you’re always running away?”
Again, Chaff had no answer.
Posted on April 17, 2014, in 6.02, Chapter 6 (Ebb & Flow) and tagged adventure, Big Guy, Chaff, creative writing, fantasy, Gopal, Lookout, novel, original characters, Sinndi, Sri, story, Vizdak, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, Wozek, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.