Flow (Chapter 6 Part 8)
The thing that bothered Jova the most was the damp. She hadn’t felt properly dry in ages, her clothes constantly stained and dirty with rainwater, seawater, and other more foul things that dripped down from the grate above her.
But the cruelest thing about Jhidnu’s penance cells, Jova realized, was the sound. The music, the festivities, and the merriment aboveground was just loud enough to carry down below, and Jova could but sit and wait and listen to the echoes. Since Dock and Darpah had come, no one had bothered to visit her. Except…
One night, while Jova slept, she awoke to the feeling of hot breath on her face. She held very still as she flexed her stiff fingers, listening to the panting right above her. “Mo?” she whispered, and the weaseldog barked, the sound echoing all throughout the cells.
She sat up, and scratched the back of his head behind his ears, although the chains were stretched taut for her to do so. “How the heck did you get down here?” Jova whispered, to Mo’s happy whines. The cells maintained no real guards—after all, who would pay for them?—but she still didn’t want to risk Mo being found and caught.
The weaseldog just panted, his warm body curled at Jova’s feet.
“Is this where you’ve been hiding?” asked Jova. “How’d you end up in a dump like this, huh, Mo? Why don’t you go home? Why don’t you go back to Ma and Da?”
As always, Mo didn’t answer. Jova didn’t expect him to. She leaned back, stroking his fur as she waited for more time to pass, and after an hour he slipped out from her grasp and trotted away. Then Jova was alone again, listening to the sounds of freedom beyond the bars of her cell.
Jova had strange dreams in that dank darkness. She felt a presence reach out to her, beating at her, beating like waves against the shore at the high cliffs of her very consciousness. She dreamed of the cursed pyramid and the man made of wood and a voice older than the u-ha’s that rasped in a tongue Jova had never heard before.
She lost track of time, in the cells. The sun only barely shone through into her cell, and sometimes at night it got far hotter when someone dropped a torch over her grate or a summer animal stood above her and she had to roll aside to avoid the drifting cinders.
Then, one night, she woke to the sound of the leather boots stepping on the floor and labored breathing. She felt heat on her face, much closer than if an errant torch had been dropped above her, and held up a hand to shield her face from the heat.
“Slave is awake?”
Jova rattled her collar chain as she sat up. “Is it time to go?” she asked.
“Slave is alert.”
She felt rough hands haul her up, and Jova gagged as the collar strained on her neck. “Who are you?” she rasped, struggling to speak around the ring pressing against her throat.
More leather manacles were wrapped around her wrists and ankles, so that Jova was held taut between chains on all sides. She couldn’t move at all. Whoever had spoken to her was working away studiously, from the sounds of it. His breath whistled as if from a tube. It sounded painful.
When he spoke again, his voice was nasally and ragged. “Do you know of Banden Ironhide?”
Jova wasn’t sure what to say. It was as if she had been asked if she knew who the Ladies Four were. “Of course I do,” she said, and with her throat pressed tight against her collar her voice sounded just as raspy. “Everyone does.”
“Hrm. Have you heard of his hounds?”
At this, Jova shook her head. The rusted iron links rattled.
“They say he has three. Candidos, the winter hound, whose bite will kill a man slow.” The man tightened the chains holding Jova’s arms, and she winced as they stretched painfully above her head. “Viridos, the fall hound, whose ears hear the tread of all spies that sneak around our new king.” Suddenly, a leather glove gripped Jova’s chin, and sweat began to break out on Jova’s brow as she felt breath against her cheek. “Aurudos, the summer hound, whose coat burns with his passion.” The fire of his torch came close to Jova’s face, and she could not turn away as her skin tingled, then stung, then burned.
The man pulled the torch away, and Jova gasped with relief. The cool damp of the cells felt suddenly good. “Who are you?” Jova asked again, as her head hung and dirty, unkempt hair fell around her face.
“Banden Ironhide, the king who is not a king, keeps three hounds,” said the man. “Sovar-l’hana does the same.”
Jova shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“Darpah, the simpering pup, helps the master with his business. Dandal, that vicious mutt, he helps the master with his business.” Jova heard a scraping, like something being drawn from a sheath. The sound was too short for it to be a full length sword, more like one of Da’s knives…
Then something was driven into her palm, and Jova screamed. Every chain holding her down rattled as her body jerked and twisted, but Jova was fully immobile. She heard the man’s wheezing breath terribly, terribly close to her ear.
“I, too, help the master with his business.”
Jova felt blood run down her palm, and cried out as the blade or the spike or whatever it had been was removed. She tried to move her fingers, but the pain was so blindingly sharp that she could not even tell if her hand was responding. Jova wouldn’t be able to hold a staff for weeks.
She heard footsteps, as the man moved from one side of her to the other. “No,” she whispered, shaking her head, trying to move away, but she couldn’t. “No, no, please, no…”
“The journey was a long one, I hear,” said Sovar-l’hana’s third dog. “Across the Barren Sands twice, from Moscoleon to Hak Mat Do, from Hak Mat Do to here. You suffered some losses, no doubt. People died. And you, well, you have gone through some suffering yourself, haven’t you?”
The tip of a nail traced lightly across Jova’s sensitive face, and she cringed. The nail painted across her face a line of blood—her blood—that stuck to her skin, and she could not rub it away.
“You think you know pain? The world is still full of horrible things yet, little girl. You don’t know the half of it.”
Jova howled as her other palm was impaled. Her whole forehead was covered in sweat, the pain bouncing like echoes through her body, or maybe that was her screaming, echoing through the underground cells.
“I learned- I’m sorry- I’ll be a good…a good slave…” gasped Jova, sucking in breath even as she held back her screams.
“You’re impudent. Demanding. Righteous. You’re not a slave. Not yet.”
Jova’s whole body tensed as the man, Sovar-l’hana’s nameless hound, held the torch up to her once again. This time, he held it up to one of Jova’s bleeding hands, so close that she could feel her flesh melting, feel it roasting.
The man coughed, hacking phlegm out as he tried to speak. “Where is your tabula?”
“I don’t- I don’t know,” gasped Jova, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Please, if you just stop, I’ll-.”
The burning end of the torch pressed hard against her palm, and Jova didn’t know what she was feeling anymore. A hard hand slapped her cheek as her head rolled, and her ears rang as the man said, “Do you think you are in any position to offer me anything? I stop when I choose to stop. Where is your tabula?”
“It’s- it’s…” Jova gulped, her limbs trembling. “It’s in Moscoleon. I’m a zealot, it’s in a House of Spring, with the pontiff C-Copo.”
The heat left Jova’s one hand for one throbbing second before the other was set ablaze as well. “Where is your tabula?”
“I told you! D-didn’t I tell you?” Jova screamed, her voice high and plaintive. She wasn’t the blind zealot of Moscoleon anymore, she wasn’t any mercenary’s assassin, she wasn’t a devil with no soul. She was just an eleven year-old girl, and she was burning.
“Where is your tabula?”
“In, in, in the jungle, the Moscoleon jungle,” she stuttered, her mind racing. “I l-lost it, when the tribe attacked. I lost it in the fighting, I swear I did, I lost it!”
The torch fell aside, and Jova tensed, waiting. Where would he burn her next? What would Albumere take from her this time?
“I will return in the morning,” said the man, and Jova heard his limping footsteps padding away. He did not untie Jova’s new chains. He did not say anything else as he was leaving. The wounds on Jova’s hands had been burned closed, cauterized by the torch, but that was hardly a comfort to her.
Before he left, though, he did say one other thing.
“I am Chetan,” he said. “Since you asked.”
Jova did not reply. She slumped, her tears drying on her cheeks. That night, she dreamed of nothing but iron spikes and fire.
A bucket of water dumped over her head woke her in the morning, and she felt her stiff limbs fold under her as the chains were unlocked and she fell to the floor. Shivering violently, she curled up for warmth, but someone grabbed her under her armpit and hauled her to her feet. Jova gasped as her dress was wrenched off of her, but her limbs, thin from days of disuse, were too weak to fight back.
She wrapped her arms over her chest and bowed her head, preparing herself for the worst, but rough hands grabbed her forearms and made her hold her palms out. Jova turned away.
Cloth wrapped around her hand, and Jova dared to relax her arm. “The other one,” rasped Chetan, and Jova held out her other hand, while still trying to hide her nakedness as best she could.
She drew breath. “You’re not going to…to…”
“Torture you?” wheezed Chetan. “No, little girl. I just wanted to ask you a question.” Jova felt something wrap around her eyes as another dress was pressed into her hands. She slipped it on once her new blindfold had been tied, though her skin was still wet and cold.
Chetan gripped her very suddenly by the collar. “Inconvenient, though. No tabula. Rush job. This is not the cleanest way to do things, but…” Chetan pulled her in closer. “If you shame Sovar-l’hana with your new master, then, well, back here you come. It will last longer than one night.”
Jova nodded. Her hands throbbed, and she didn’t dare try to push Chetan away. She did, however, summon the courage to ask one question. “New master?”
“You’re being sold,” said Chetan. He coughed, and it seemed to shake his entire body. “Rented, I should say, really. Whoever buys you only has the four years. Look pretty, make it worth it.”
He led her away by her collar, and Jova stumbled behind him. Blind, hands crippled, barely able to walk. Her stomach rumbled. Sitting there in that cell, it had been easy to forget how few the meals were, but now that she was up and walking again the hunger pangs hurt more than even her hands.
She shrunk back from the heat of the sun as they began to walk up the hewn stone stairs leading back aboveground, but Chetan pulled on her collar and she followed after him.
The auction house was not far. Jova could feel its marble steps under her feet, could hear the soft mutter of attendants and the quiet murmur of the buyers within. She had seen them before, years ago: not gaudy like the Jhidnu show houses, but with a subtler sophistication. These were places of business. She hadn’t been allowed in, of course, but the great auction houses of the bay were hard to miss, even from the street. Jova had pretended they were palaces, when she was little.
Chetan took her around the back of the palace. Jova expected it to be rotten and filthy, like the cells beneath the city, but it…well, it wasn’t. It was barren, yes, but clean. Professional. The sliding wood panel in the back slid open almost soundlessly, and inside Jova heard no voices speak, only the shuffling of feet and the scrape of chains. Beyond some curtain or panel, Jova heard Sovar-l’hana’s bark of a laugh.
“Wait,” said Chetan. “You’ll be called.” And he limped away, past the curtain that separated Jova and the livestock from the actual people.
Jova flexed her fingers. The motion made her hands scream out in protest, but she needed to do something besides stand here, mill around, and wait to be handed off to someone who was in the right place at the right time when a richer man died.
Something touched her arm, and Jova flinched. The touch was light, though, gentle, and furtive. “Jova?”
“Alis!” Jova said, and she turned quickly, hiding her hands behind her back. She didn’t want the girl to see her as more of a cripple than she already was.
When Alis spoke again, she sounded hurt. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No, Alis, no, I just…” Jova reached out, putting her hand as lightly as possible on Alis’s shoulder. “You see the bandages on my hands?”
Jova felt Alis’s shoulders move as she nodded. “They’re red.”
Jova withdrew her hand, after that. “They’re…well, they’re like my eyes. They’re hurt and I have to cover them up.”
“Forever?” asked Alis.
“No, not forever,” said Jova, and she smiled for the little girl. “I hope,” she added, as an afterthought.
Jova felt a soft hand grip her wrist, carefully placed just above the wrap on her palm, and for a moment the seething anger inside her left. “Where were you?” Alis asked, and Jova wrapped her arm around the little girl’s head and held her close.
“In a cave for demons,” she said. “Sneaking around, right under your feet.”
“Dandal said you were in the sewers,” said Alis, plaintively.
Jova smirked. “Oh, he was down there, too. He lives there. That’s why he’s so stinky all the time, didn’t you know?”
Alis giggled. “What about-?”
And then she froze. Her hand fell from Jova’s wrist; she didn’t even push Jova’s hand aside as she turned around and began to walk away. Outside, Jova heard the hammer of a gavel as the last slave was sold and the hum of a tabula as the next was brought out.
“Alis!” she hissed, as the little girl stumbled away. “Don’t be afraid.”
The girl did not respond. She just kept marching away, outside, to be sold, and this time Jova could not save her. She couldn’t even save herself.
She turned her head to listen as Sovar-l’hana began the sale of Jova’s last companion. Everyone else had gone. Alis was the only one that Jova had left, and from the sounds of it, she was going to be sold off for a bag of Da’atoa salt.
An anger, white hot inside her, burned from a place in Jova that she did not know existed. Her lip curled in a snarl. Any person on Albumere was worth more than a bag of salt, and here the plutocrats were, trading them around like livestock. It wasn’t right.
But what could she do about it? She had no eyes and, right now, no hands. There was no fighting back.
So when Chetan came to retrieve her, she bowed her head and followed and said not a word. There was murmuring outside, blocked out by the curtain separating the slaves from the buyers. Chetan stood by, waiting and wheezing, coughing as Jova listened.
“A rare and exotic treat from the far south,” said Sovar-l’hana, not quite shouting but not quite quiet either. “I give you the blind zealot of Moscoleon!” Jova stumbled out, Chetan dragged her chain, to utter silence. It wasn’t unexpected. She wasn’t sure how much fanfare she really deserved to receive anyhow.
“She’s a little girl,” said a male voice, disdainful and exasperated.
“Well, if I were trying to get you interested, Ashak-g’hopti, I would have brought a little boy. Ha!” said Sovar-l’hana, and that earned a few chuckles.
“You brought her out on a leash,” said the plutocrat named Ashak-g’hopti, as Chetan let the collar dangle behind her back and limped away. “A leash! Is this some scam?” Jova stood, listening to the sounds echo. It was a big room, with many people in it. Most of them were silent. She and Sovar-l’hana stood on a stage above the rest of them, and if Jova strained her ears she could hear the bought slaves filed in a line in the back.
“I bring it out on a chain because it is not a girl, or a boy, at all. It is something unnatural, something you will only ever have the chance to see but once in your whole lifetime.”
“You lost the cripple’s tabula and you’re trying to push her onto us,” snorted Ashak-g’hopti. “Enough tricks, Sovar-l’hana, show us the real merchandise.”
Sovar-l’hana cleared his throat. “Jova, walk to me.”
For one frozen moment, Jova considered disobeying, but then she heard the sliding sound of a nail being drawn from a leather pouch, and her heart stopped. Was it real? Was it a memory? It didn’t matter, so long as she didn’t face that again. She wouldn’t lose her hands, too.
She clicked her tongue, getting a better feel for the room, before stepping forward towards the plutocrat. She had to avoid the pots and pans laid out on the stage, as well as the foodstuffs in the burlap bags (she smelled peaches from the north) and the sacks of tin coins strewn on the ground. As she walked, she heard a murmur from the crowd, and paused.
“Keep going,” said Sovar-l’hana, and she took a few last steps until she was standing right next to him. Her heart was in her throat. She couldn’t fight him in her condition, but if she unwrapped any of her bandages and choked him, this smug man, this slaver…
“Not a step out of place!” Sovar-l’hana said, as Jova bowed her head and waited. “An exquisite piece! A rare opportunity! And she has been broken, too. Jova, do you recognize your master’s voice?”
“I’ll always remember your voice,” said Jova. She meant it.
“And you will obey any order that voice gives? Ha!”
“Just give me an order.” And see what I do with it.
Ashak-g’hopti spoke. “A carpet from Maaza Parsi, in Shira Hay. You see the weave? A western style, near the Cove. Exquisite.”
“Fish,” said a foreign voice that boomed like thunder. “The biggest spring tuna we have caught in months.”
“A broadsword from Irontower,” said a third voice. “Master’s work, not an apprentice’s.”
“I’m a merchant, not a warrior,” said Sovar-l’hana, chuckling. “Ha! What would I need with a sword, Thun Doshrigaw?”
“Plate armor, then,” said the man from Irontower. “It will be made to fit and sent to you at once.”
A carpet, a fish, a sword. That was what these men thought Jova was worth. Her eyebrows furrowed. Theirs was an evil trade. Only Dal Ak Gan’s life might buy her freedom, but they all deserved to die.
“Armor. Ha! Everyone needs armor,” said Sovar-l’hana. “To Thun, then, unless anyone has anything better.”
There was no answer.
“Mahashma, Thun Doshrigaw. Off you go then, girl,” said Sovar-l’hana, as he scribbled away on his parchment. Someone tugged on her collar chain, although she did not know who. “You’re going to Irontower.”
Posted on June 2, 2014, in 6.08, Chapter 6 (Ebb & Flow) and tagged adventure, Alis, Ashak-g'hopti, Chetan, creative writing, fantasy, Jova, novel, original characters, Sovar-l'hana, story, Thun Doshrigaw, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.