Category Archives: Chapter 1 (Reap & Sow)
Loom shouldered her way through the thick Shira Hay crowds, ignoring the angry faces and indignant shouts as Deppash plowed his way through behind her. Behind even him, the kid’s freak horse stepped awkwardly through the crowds, to the stares and leers of many. It’s the only city in the biggest nation in the world, Loom thought, irritably. And it has the smallest streets in Albumere.
The fellow merchants peddling their wares eyed Loom. They were like hyenavultures, the whole lot of them: almost sycophantic in the presence of their betters, but jealous and territorial of others of their own kind.
They didn’t have anything to worry about from her, anyway. In their current state, her wares could not rival even the most meager peddler’s stock.
Loom swore as a scrawny cathound leaped over her feet. She eyed it for a moment, but ignored it. The amount of meat on that thing was not worth the effort of catching it. She shoved it out of the way with a leather boot, and the creature hissed at her before a snort from Deppash made it bound away.
“Men, women, beast!” shouted the closest peddler. He was holding a lacquered box of tabula high up for display- high enough, Loom noted, that none of the urchins could grab at it without significant effort on their parts. “Give me one chance to show my wares and you will be astounded by what you see! See here: a tiger from the Seat of Winter itself. Give me an open space and your attention and I promise you will be amazed!”
It was a familiar song, one that had taken some time to get used to but now rang of home. She wondered how the kid would appreciate them.
Loom shook her head, shooting a murderous glare at an indignant young couple as she shoved by. They passed without comment, ducking their heads when they saw her expression. Thinking about the kid and slaves in the same sentence rang a sour note, and made her stomach churn.
“Come all!” the peddler continued to shout, his voice fading in the squabbling noise floor of the Shira Hay bazaar. “Gentlemen who prefer anonymity, we may conduct business in private! I have beautiful springborn here from Da’atoa to Jhidnu, Hak Mat Do to Mont Don! I guarantee for the cheapest of prices that they will provide a night of unforgettable pleasure!”
Loom shut him out. Home it may have been, but she was beginning to remember how much she fucking hated home.
The street opened into a thankfully spacious plaza, the cobblestones ringed with the designs of the masons of the Twin Libraries. A stone fountain stood at its centerpiece, the fluting design graceful, yet bone dry. The dry season this year had been a harsh one, and even now there were whispers that the Ladies Summer and Spring were not gratified by the latest Sun Festival, which had been denounced by the electors as an archaic tradition.
Damn electors. Loom tugged hard on Deppash’s reins as they made their way across the plaza. She could see a few in the dark and smoky bar across the way, shouting and screaming, their ceremonial scarves and cloaks in disarray. Their “debate” would come to blows soon; the scholarly types of Shira Hay were well known for being loud, boisterous, and always willing to defend their point of view by any means necessary.
“Home at last,” Loom muttered, under her breath, and caught herself. Her attempts to become civilized had been strict and merciless, and civilized folk did not talk to themselves. It was a bad habit from her…inferior years.
The thoughts continued to bounce around Loom’s head, formless and shapeless without a voice to articulate them. Loom shoved those thoughts away, and looked around. She could never recognize the street where the old vipercrow lived. It was perfectly generic, just the way he liked it.
Loom spat into the dry fountain and walked on. A little red flag over the alley entrance, the Twin Libraries standing just to their right: that was how she remembered. By all the Ladies Four, she hated that fucking flag.
She wondered how Vhajja had fared while she was gone. He certainly wasn’t dead yet, that much Loom could tell. The old man was spiteful and would have hung on just to see her come back a failure.
It didn’t seem possible, but the alleyway was both empty and a tighter fit than the street before. The wagon scraped against both walls as they walked in, and Deppash moaned in distress.
“Hey, easy, Pash,” said Loom, tugging on his reins. “I’ll get you a treat once we’re home.”
The winter ox tossed his head in annoyance, but walked on, even as behind him the big guy got tangled in a line of laundry and shrieked in surprise as wet and dirty clothes flapped around it. Loom snorted. The thing was insultingly easy to spot and ate too much for its own good. The kid should have dumped it when he had the chance and gotten something better.
A puff of icy breath blew on Loom’s back. She looked back to see Deppash had paused, to pull out a sparse crop of weeds growing in the shade between the stones. His mouth slid sideways as he chewed, and he looked at Loom as if daring her to object. She sighed. She really couldn’t blame the kid for making the same mistake she had.
Eventually, Loom came upon the house. It had been months since she had been there, but it hadn’t changed at all. Then again, there wasn’t very far to go from rock bottom.
Shira Hay was not the wealthiest of Albumere’s twelve nations, nor was it the grandest of its thirteen great cities. It was small and weak, and its duarchs held very little sway in the conventions at the Seat of the King.
Yet, even that was no excuse for the sorry state the old house was in. Loom tried the door; it had somehow swollen with rot despite the fact that it was the driest summer Shira Hay had experienced in years. Splinters came off as she threw her shoulder against it, and she swore openly and loudly as she tried it again.
Ultimately, she gave up and went in through the single, broken window, if it could even be called that. She push at the frame leaning against the hole in the wall, and it flopped onto the floor on the other side with a glass tinkle. Loom opened the small fence leading to the smaller back lot, and ushered the animals in with an impatient wave of the hand.
She stopped Deppash when the wagon came close, though. She’d unhitch it later, but for now there was something in the back she needed to get.
It took a bit of rooting under the burned canvas to get the boy, who had been tucked neatly in-between the least soiled of the carpets. “Hey, lady!” shouted a voice, from outside. “Get a move on, will you?”
Loom emerged with the boy in her arms. The animals were blocking the road, and even though it was a small alley with nothing of import down it, someone else had still chosen that exact time to go in. “I’ve had a long day, asshole,” she yelled back. “If you could wait thirty fucking seconds, it’d be really fucking appreciated.”
Deppash plodded away into the backyard (well, it wasn’t so much a yard as the broken down ruin of the building adjacent, with a conveniently ox-shaped hole where the wall had once been), but the freak horse seemed hesitant to go into such an enclosed space.
“Oh, fuck off,” shouted the voice from the back. She couldn’t even see him for the freak horse’s girth. “What the hell are you doing bringing animals like this so far into the city, huh? Did you just come out of the hollow or something, bitch?”
“Get in there,” snarled Loom, pushing on the big guy’s haunch, and the freak horse nickered and ducked inside, its neck bent awkwardly to fit. She looked at the man waiting behind him. Thin arms, puffy cheeks. Fat. “You want to say that to my face?” Loom snarled.
The man met her eyes, and then shook his head. “Wasting my time anyway,” he muttered, flicking his hand in her face as he passed. Loom bristled. “Not even worth it.”
“Try a different way next time, fucker,” Loom snapped, and she hauled herself in through the window, careful not to bump the boy’s head as she made it through.
The interior was just as bad if not worse than the outside. Molded furniture, poor lighting, dirt and grime across the floor. The civilized world, as far as Loom was concerned.
She could see the candlelight before she saw the candle. Vhajja sat in his yellow sheets, reading some dusty book. Despite the fact that it was broad daylight outside, he had wooden boards across the windows and a tallow candle beside him. Old man liked ruining his eyes, Loom supposed.
“I would appreciate it if you didn’t antagonize all of my neighbors the first thing you do on coming home,” said Vhajja. He looked up, and Loom was surprised despite herself. The man had seen better days. His sunken eyes and quaking hands gave him away, and his skin had taken a gray tone. Loom found herself wondering just how old the man was. She wouldn’t have been surprised if he was going on a hundred.
“If you didn’t want me to do it, you should have come out and stopped me,” she muttered, laying the boy down on the floor’s carpet. The boy did not stir, as his eyes stared blankly at the ceiling and fingers wrapped tight around his tabula. Not his tabula, Loom corrected herself- the girl’s. The one the stupid kid held onto without using. Selling the thing would have given him enough to money to get a real life started in the city, but instead he toted the thing around like a fancy bauble.
Vhajja’s eyes followed him, but the old man made no comment.
“Feh,” snorted Vhajja. “That’s the sort of consideration I get from you, ungrateful child.” He put his book aside. “Well?”
“Well, what?” asked Loom, sitting down on the floor and taking out her water skin. She wouldn’t have trusted the water in this place even if Vhajja had any.
Vhajja’s tone grew dark. “I’m a patient man, girl, but you are severely testing that patience. Don’t make me ask again.”
“The shipment’s trash,” Loom said, simply. “We’re going to need something else to trade with.”
With a disappointed snort, Vhajja leaned back into his musty pillows. He didn’t seem surprised. Loom eyed him. He still made no comment about the boy.
“You’re bruised,” said Vhajja. A simple observation, but said in a way that almost sounded accusatory.
Loom stretched her back and laid on the floor. The carpet was from western Shira Hay, near Alswell; Loom knew because she had traded for it herself. It was thick and plush, made for resting and comfort. She laid next to the boy, watching him. Loom had given him food and water as best she could, but the boy hadn’t moved for two days. It wasn’t like Loom to be in hysterics over the health of other people, especially a stranger wild child she barely knew, but she was starting to get worried.
“You’re bruised,” Vhajja repeated.
“Some fuckers jumped me on the way here.”
“Civilized people do not swear,” Vhajja snapped, a bit of his old fire flaring again. He snapped his book shut. “Be specific.”
“Some slavers jumped me on the way here,” Loom growled.
Vhajja sighed, looking with rheumy eyes towards the cracks of light in the boarded windows. “Are these slavers still with us?”
“Haha,” said Loom. “You’re funny.”
“Pity,” said Vhajja. “They might have been friends.”
“They were upstarts. You wouldn’t have known them, you’re too old.”
Vhajja raised an eyebrow. “Correction: they might have been taught by friends. You die or you go broke, but you never get out of the game.”
“Give them your condolences the next time you drink honeyed milk and old man’s tea together,” she grumbled, turning over. It had been a long journey, and for now she just wanted to rest. She didn’t need the vipercrow’s wheedling rattle to keep her up. “I’m certainly not going to apologize. They should’ve known better.”
“My condolences?” Vhajja wheezed as he laughed, the sound squeezing out of his chest as if through a thin tube. “My condolences? I think I’m going to brag about it the next time I see them. See the looks on their faces when I make a crack or two about their dear old dead students.” His smile revealed toothless gums. “What did they look like? What tabula did they have?”
“Three in the crew. One woman, two men. Some kind of cockatrice and a summer lion. Sound familiar at all?”
Vhajja pursed his lips. “Well, I-.”
“Oh, wait,” said Loom. “I just realized something.”
“I don’t give a shit.” She rolled over and closed her eyes, trying to ignore the smell.
“Your cheek is not appreciated, girl.” Vhajja spat yellow phlegm. “After all these years, you still have the manners and respect of a wild plainschild. Have I taught you nothing?”
Loom exhaled through her nose, her cheeks red, doing her absolute best to tune Vhajja’s voice out. She didn’t have to put up with him like that. With what little strength he had left, what would the old man do?
There was silence, and then the click of a cane on the floor. Loom opened one eye in surprise, looking back at the bed to confirm. She hadn’t realized that Vhajja still had the strength to walk. Her heart quickened. Perhaps the old man still had some left in him.
He walked at a snail’s pace though, leaning heavily on both the wooden cane and the cracked adobe walls. Loom waited for him to approach, making no move to help or assist him. Vhajja didn’t seem surprised by that, either; she was his destination, anyway. The old man stood over her, back hunched, knees shaking, but eyes bright in the dim light.
“Get up,” he said, his voice like the steel of an Irontower sword. Chilly, sharp, and dangerous.
She did not move.
“Get up, girl,” Vhajja growled, “Or I will make you.”
Loom hauled herself to her feet, holding her arms open as if daring the old man to assault her. “I’m up,” said Loom, irritated. “You have something you want to say?”
“Look at your elders when you’re talking to them,” Vhajja said. “And don’t use that tone with me.”
Loom just rolled her eyes. Vhajja turned and hobbled away, bending to pick up a chipped clay pot and light a fire in the stove. Loom shifted her weight, watching.
She snorted and walked to his side to light the stove for him, before grabbing the pot from his hands and pouring from her own water skin into the kettle.
“Tea, I find,” said Vhajja, as he dug a musty old packet of tea leaves from one of his many pockets. “Helps with my digestion.”
“See if I fucking care,” growled Loom, in a sullen, low tone, not looking at him.
Vhajja sighed, leaning on his mamwaari as he squatted on the cushions around it. The low wooden table was covered with a thick blanket, which he tucked over his legs despite the sweltering heat. “You are more abrasive than usual, Loom, even though I find that difficult to believe. Would you like to tell me why?”
Loom said nothing, just stood and watched the fire burn under the kettle. She glanced over her shoulder, just in time to see Vhajja give the boy a cursory look.
“Did you get raped while I wasn’t looking?” said the old man.
Loom twitched. “That’s not funny.”
“Feh,” said Vhajja. “I thought some low humor would get past your low mood. Evidently I was mistaken.”
Loom did not grace him with a response.
“May I ask who he is?”
Loom rolled her shoulders, trying to work out a kink in her back. “Just someone I met on the road.”
“Just someone…I see.” As he should. Loom had heard him say those same words to his business friends so many years ago. “And his affliction?”
“Dunno,” said Loom.
“Don’t use filler words. Be specific when I ask you a question.”
“He came down with something two days back. Ran off for a bit and when I went looking for him I found him on the ground. Won’t let go of that tabula. I reckon that has something to do with it.” Loom checked the kettle. How long did it take to boil?
Vhajja prodded the boy with his staff. The boy did not look, move, or respond in any visible way. He just laid there, stiff, staring at the ceiling, his mouth slightly open, his hands frozen in place. “Is the tabula his?”
“No, it’s someone else’s.”
Vhajja looked at her, an eyebrow raised. “Someone?”
“She’s not with him,” said Loom, exasperated. “Stupid kid won’t summon her for some reason, hell if I know why. He has an animal of some kind, too. It’s waiting out back with Deppash. Speaking of which, I should go check on them.” She made for the back door.
“Stop,” said Vhajja. “The animals can wait.”
Loom’s steps slowed. She stopped.
“If you’re planning to use the boy instead, he won’t sell for much. If he truly has some sickness, you won’t be able to hide it from anyone who would give you-.”
“He’s not a slave,” snapped Loom. “He’s just…someone I met on the road.”
“You come home with nothing but wares that you can’t or won’t sell,” sneered Vhajja. “I should have known this would have been a waste of time.”
Loom stood in the doorway, anger bubbling inside of her. She clenched her hand and turned around. “I’ll find another way.”
“What other way? The medicine is expensive, and a healer’s touch more expensive still. The only way to get something of worth is to pay with something of worth, and you are clearly worthless.”
“Shut up,” Loom growled. She found herself moving towards the man with balled up fists, even though she knew it was a mistake. “I said I’ll find another way.”
“There is no other way,” said Vhajja. He did not look as Loom advanced on him.
“Then you will die.”
“And I will take you with me.”
Loom roared, and raised a fist to strike. It did not matter that the old man was frail and sick. She wanted to hurt him.
Loom’s hand froze in the air. Tears of frustration ran down on her cheeks as, despite all of her greatest efforts, she found that she could not move.
The hum of a tabula was loud in the sudden quiet.
“I made you,” said Vhajja, his voice low and shaking. “I gave you everything. I gave you a home. I gave you an education. I gave you a name. I gave you your life. It is mine to take away.”
Vhajja stood, and the ease with which the man both maintained his hold on the tabula and summoned the strength to rise was extraordinary. It was a slaver’s strength, one that even age could not erode. “I gave you a chance to save me,” he said, through gritted teeth. His breathing was labored, tinged with a desperate fury. Loom could not see his face. “I gave you a chance to pay back your debts.”
Loom just stood. She could barely even breathe.
And then Vhajja’s voice grew sharp. “Move to the counter.”
Loom did as she was told.
“Open the drawer.”
Loom did as she was told.
“Take out the knife.”
Loom did as she was told.
“Put it to your throat.”
Every instinct inside her rebelling, every inch of her soul screaming for control, Loom did as she was told. The knife had been kept sharp. It glistened, tracing a thin red line against Loom’s neck.
Click, click, click, went the staff. The kettle whistled and screamed as it boiled. Loom felt Vhajja’s warm breath close to her ear, but was powerless to strike out against him.
And suddenly, the world was bliss. Loom felt warmth well up inside of her, a blessed peace, even as a fading voice screamed against it. She might have moaned from delight. This was happiness. This was joy. Nothing else could even compare.
The warmth vanished without warning, leaving Loom cold and empty and sickened by herself. “Never think to run, or hide, or fight back,” whispered Vhajja. “The moment my heart stops, I will make you cut your own throat. I will make you love it.” His wrinkled fingers traced her wet cheek. “Ah, me, you lost little girl. I’m not asking for much. Just a few more years, for all the years I gave you, and I may be tempted to change my mind.”
Click, click, click, went the staff. Loom felt Vhajja move away from her. She did not turn to look. She couldn’t.
“You will find a way to pay back your debts,” said Vhajja, hobbling back to his bed. “Or I will take away everything I have ever given you. You know me. I am a man of my word.” And the humming came to an abrupt stop.
The knife dropped to the floor with a clatter, just as Loom fell to her knees. She was free to move now, but did not. She just knelt, trying to hold back the tears.
Jova fell back, screaming, covering her face with her forearms. She gasped as the beast withdrew claws from her side, and rolled over, struggling to reorient herself.
The beast paced around the forest clearing, bristling in agitation, screeching at anything and everything that moved.
One hand clutched her wound, trying to stem the bleeding; the other scrabbling forward on the dirt, Jova tried to drag herself forward. Somewhere in the midst of the dizzying pain, she found room for a plan. Who was closer? Rituu and Sri, or Da and the camp? There was no way she could out-speed that thing by crawling. She tried to stand, but her entire torso seemed to have gone numb.
Could she hide? That didn’t seem an option either. She was too clumsy, wounded, a trail of red already dripping into the dirt. She had lost a lot of blood. That should have worried her.
Options. Other options. The thoughts came in fragmented bursts, now, difficult to string together in coherent ideas. She cast her eyes about, and something glinted from the underbrush.
The tabula! She had dropped it when she had fallen over. If she could just reach it, there was hope.
She hauled herself up on her elbows, crawling forward to get the tabula. Her fingers scrabbled at the edge, and she tried to give it the same energy she had before. Was there some kind of unsummon command? Some way to send the creature back?
The tabula did not even budge. It stayed still to the touch, and Jova felt her heart leap to her throat. She didn’t know how else to use a tabula. She had just wanted to bring the animal here and show it to Ma, she was never supposed to do anything else. Her hand pressed on the tabula so hard that she forced it into the earth. A dismissal command, a pacifying command, anything at all that could help her.
The screeching thing had finally turned its attention back on her. Jova blinked, taking it in. A colorful bird’s head, streaked with long feathers, on the body of some lithe predatory cat, sleek and black. The contrast was stark, almost beautiful, if it had not been for the crazed, angry look in its yellow eyes.
“Ea-easy there,” Jova stuttered. It was what she said to Mo when he was upset, although she harbored doubts that it would work on this one. Mo was twisting curves and docility; this was sharp lines and anger. “Easy, now. Don’t be afraid.”
The creature opened its mouth and shrieked, louder than the bathawk, a more brutal, razor edge to its voice. Jova shrunk back, breathing hard. The advice was more meant for her than it, in a way.
She clutched her stomach again. The pain in her gut was growing too large to ignore. She looked up at the creature, wordless, pleading.
It paused, pacing, considering her. That was good. Any time at all it spent not killing Jova was time someone could hear, someone could come and help. It was making enough noise, surely someone had heard. Da would be worried that she hadn’t come back yet, or Rituu would be heading back to camp, or Ma would have-
And then the creature leaped forward and grabbed Jova’s skull.
She screamed. It was the only option left to her. She pushed and shoved and screamed, but despite all her efforts there was nothing she could do. She felt her head jerk backwards as the creature closed tight claws around, felt blood drip from wounds that felt like hot knives sinking into her flesh.
Pushing the creature back was like trying to push back a boulder; no matter what Jova did she could not seem to even make the creature budge.
It looked at her, its eyes intelligent and malicious. Its claws traced Jova’s face, slowly, purposefully.
She moaned, her struggles faltering, as the claws came to a leisurely rest over her eyelids.
“Please,” she gasped. “Please, no…”
She shut her eyes tight, as the pressure over them increased.
And then the claws pierced.
She lurched, her screaming coming to an abrupt halt, her mouth frozen open as a soundless gurgle came out. Blood like hot tears streamed down the sides of her face. In that moment, Jova wanted to die. She should have died.
But she didn’t.
It was not a blessing. Jova did not want to think, did not want to feel. She prayed to each of the Ladies Four for an end. And for a moment, it was there, a painless, sweet bliss. For once in her life, Jova just felt like falling asleep.
And then it was as if someone lit a fire inside of her. The pain flared inside of her, pain that hurt so much it went out the other side into numbness. She felt her heart pick up speed, felt strength return to her muscles.
Her hands found the creature’s neck. It snapped and shrieked, but she would not let go. She pushed. There was no hidden reserve of strength in her body, but this time she ignored the pain. She kept on pushing, and pushing, and pushing.
With a wet squelch, Jova felt the pressure removed from her eyes, to be replaced by a dull, hot throbbing. She choked, her stomach turning over, but somehow she kept the nausea at bay. Her whole body hurt, not just her face: the beast had torn her belly, shoulders, and legs. Yet the pain, as insurmountable as it was before, somehow seemed manageable.
Manageable in the loosest sense of the word. Manageable in that Jova was no longer frozen to the ground.
She had something to prove.
The beast snapped and bit, stretching out its head to get at Jova’s vulnerable neck and chest, but she kept it at arm’s length. She did not let go. If she did- and this thought came with a crushing feeling worse than any pressure the physical world could put on her- if she did, she would not know where the beast was any longer. She would be blind.
She was blind.
Claws raked against her thighs, as Jova felt the animal thrashing under her hands. Something inside her swallowed the pain, pain that seemed somehow separate from her. She could almost see it in her mind, white hot, compressed into as small a space as possible, waiting.
The animal stopped shrieking, its voice descending into a reedy whistle, gasping for air. How odd, that suddenly every other one of Jova’s senses felt more acute. She could feel the silky whisper of the feathers under her hands, could hear the thump-thump-thump of her heart in her chest. Jova’s hands twisted, and she felt the pop of every bone, muscle, and sinew.
And with a crack, the beast’s neck snapped in her hands. It was not sudden, but slow, slow like the waves beating at the shores or the wind eroding the sea-side cliffs. It seemed to take ages.
When it was done, the pain returned. Jova slid to the ground, her body crying out for rest. The blood on her face, was that from her eyes? Or her mouth? Was it even her blood?
She heard screaming distantly. You did this, the voices seemed to say. You did this.
She had done it, to herself. Ma needn’t have worried. The bad people would never get a chance to hurt her if Jova kept this up.
She dreamed of open spaces. She saw more stars than she thought could fit in the sky, and when she reached up to touch them they whirled and rippled like leaves in a pond. Constellations formed and galloped, strange creatures she had never seen before: bulls with long tusks and wide, fan-like ears, engorged monkeys with silver backs and stern faces, horses with necks as long as she was tall. She looked around her and saw no trees, no roads, no looming cliffs or stoic ocean. She could go anywhere she wanted, anyway she wanted. No more hiding, not even if she wanted to.
Then the fires came. They leaped up and roared around her, consuming the dry brush in an instant. Jova raised her hands and screamed, and heard her mother and father shouting at each other, running through a burning door, fighting their way out of the flames, until they emerged in a crowd of children with leering faces, each waving their tabula in front of them in some kind of toddler’s game.
The flames surrounded her, a crackling heat beating at her face. The rest of her body felt oddly cold, but her face felt like it was burning. Jova reached up to it, but found that her arms would not move, as if they were pinned down with leaden weights. She struggled, immobile, while her face kept burning, swelling up with heat, inflamed, distorted, twisted.
Jova woke to the most complete darkness she had ever known.
She turned her head, and heard the rustle of the fabric under her, felt the rough scratch of her clothes. The sound felt somehow wrong, too sharp, too detailed. It was textured in a way Jova had never noticed before. The dissonance made it feel both close and far away.
Jova breathed deep. She was outside; that she could tell from the smell of the air, crisp and fresh. She was in the shade, though, lying on her sleeping roll. Occasionally spots of heat danced on her skin. Under a tree? The breeze was gentle, but to Jova’s too sensitive skin she could feel it coming from her right, a susurrus, a whisper. It felt so odd to feel the breeze, but to not see anything move.
There was cloth over her eyes. It itched. Jova avoided the other thought. She felt as if a great pressure was pressing against her from every side. She reached up to the bandage, her fingers slipping under the cloth but not pulling it away.
Something clattered on the ground. Hollow, like wood. The splash was probably water. “Oh, by all the Ladies,” whispered Ma, and the rustling became louder. “Jova. Jova, dear, are you awake? How do you feel?”
Jova croaked. Her mouth was dry.
“Here, here, here,” said Ma, and Jova swallowed greedily. Ma held her head up as she drank. When she was done, Jova felt suddenly guilty. Coddled, like a baby, like a cripple. She reached up, trying to find the cup, but her hands grasped at empty air.
Ma pressed the cup into her hand, and as Jova took it she felt her mother’s hand shaking. She drank it all in one gulp, water dribbling out of the corners of her mouth. Jova tried to hand the cup back, but found that she did not know where to offer it.
Her mother took the cup back, just as gently. Jova let her hand fall. She hung her head, staring at nothing. The pressure was in her chest, now.
She choked back a sob.
“Oh, my little Lady,” said Ma, and she hugged Jova close. The sudden movement made Jova’s wounds twinge, but the warmth of her embrace more than made up for it.
Despite herself, Jova began to cry. Tears streamed from empty eyes, and she began to gasp for breath as she hugged her mother close. “I’m so sorry, Ma,” she managed to say. “I’m so sorry.”
“No, no, no,” said Ma, rocking her back and forth. Her voice was steady, even as she pressed a wet cheek against Jova’s forehead. “Don’t be sorry. Don’t be sorry. It wasn’t your fault. You were so strong. So strong, my little Lady. You don’t have anything to be sorry for.”
But Jova couldn’t stop. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
She heard a gasp behind her, a strangle intake of breath. “Jova,” Da said. “Anjan, is she…? Jova, are…”
“Our Jova is just fine,” said Ma, still rocking her daughter. “She turned out just fine, didn’t she?”
Jova felt a second pair of arms wrap around her, and she began to cry even harder. “Our little Lady’s just fine,” Da repeated. He kissed her on the head. “You made it. Oh, Jova, you made it. We thought you would die. You- you should have, but now we know you’re made of stronger stuff, eh?” The cheeriness in his voice sounded forced to Jova’s ears.
They sat there for a long time, until Jova found she could cry no more.
“Rest now, Jova,” said Ma. “We’ll take care of you, don’t you worry.” Jova nodded. She let her hands guide her back down to the ground, and lay there, not moving. She didn’t sleep, though. Some old habits, it seemed, died hard.
“How long has it been?” Jova asked.
There was silence. What were her parents doing? What were they thinking? Not knowing was frustration beyond belief. “Four days,” said Ma, finally. “Four days and four nights. We watched over you the whole time.” She whistled, and Jova flinched. She heard soft padding on the ground. It was just Mo.
“You must be hungry,” said Da, and Jova concentrated. There was a very low crackle. A small fire? “Do you want to eat now? We’ll wait, if you don’t. Just tell us when, Jova.”
Her throat was still dry. “I’ll eat now,” said Jova, and it surprised her just how weak her voice sounded: it was thin and feeble. Like she was, she supposed.
“OK,” said Da, and the cheeriness had faded. “I’ll tell you when it’s ready.”
Jova nodded, although she did not know if Da could see. She curled up on her mat, trying to listen. Her eyelids kept opening to see only darkness, and the bandage itched around her face. It more than itched, it felt wrong.
It was no great mystery what was wrong, but Jova had no context to describe it. She doubted many people did.
Of course, there was pain, and that pain became more apparent as she lay there. It was whispering in her wounds, in clumsily bandaged scratches and cuts. Jova concentrated, trying to focus on anything else besides herself.
She heard a low whine, felt the heat of the weaseldog’s body. “Hey, Mo,” she said, although she did not reach out to pet him as she normally did. “How you doing?”
A wet snout found its way under her palm, and she did her best to smile. “Good Mo,” she whispered, brushing his snout. He was part of the family, too.
It took only a short time for the meal to be ready, and Jova felt her stomach rumble.
“Mushroom broth,” said Da, smiling. “It’s your favorite. And we have bread, too, and cheese. There’s not much, but we’ve been saving it for when you woke up.”
Jova felt hands on her side again. “It’s just me,” Ma said into Jova’s ear as she helped her up. Again, Jova felt that surge of guilt, guilt for being useless, a burden.
“Careful, it’s hot,” said Da, putting the chipped wooden bowl gently in Jova’s hand. “Doesn’t it look- smell good?”
His little slip of the tongue made Jova’s heart sink even lower. She had meant to prove herself stronger to her parents. This was the opposite. She held the bowl carefully in her lap.
“Do you need any help?” asked Ma, her concern evident in her voice.
“No!” Jova took a deep breath. “No, Ma, it’s OK.” And she brought the bowl up, shaking, to her mouth. A little soup sloshed out of the sides as she did, and a little more came out of the corner of her mouth. Was that because of her disability, or was she simply noticing it now?
She ate, her parents huddled in pensive silence around her. They seemed at a loss of words to say.
And finally, Jova worked up the nerve to ask something that had been bothering her since she had woken up. “Where are the others? Where’s Sri?”
Again, the long silence that Jova could no longer read. She sat and waited, as the possible answers slowly grew worse and worse in her head.
“I sent them away,” Ma said, finally. “They shouldn’t have done what they did to you.”
They didn’t do anything to me, Jova thought, morosely.
This was all my fault.
The boy tried to get up, but before he took even one step he felt lightning.
Pain like nothing he had ever felt coursed through him, and he was powerless to stop it. He seized up, twitching with violent spasms.
Suddenly the pain was gone. A sore aftershock remained, making his entire body one aching bruise.
And then the big guy screamed.
While before his friend had screamed in fear or in shock, this hoarse, animal sound was infinitely more horrible. The boy could barely stand, let alone help. His dizzy mind groped for rational thought. Where had the pain come from? What was happening? Did the slaver have another tabula-bound creature?
The slaver. The boy’s mind slogged through a bog of pain, reaching in the dark. The slaver. He was the source. He…
He had his tabula.
The boy charged, reaching out, but his whole body crumpled into itself as the pain surged back. He fell onto the ground, laboring just to breathe. His brain was shutting down, incapable of functioning any longer under such conditions.
His body had other plans. The boy moved like a puppet on strings, each one slowly being cut. He staggered forward blindly, an array of confusing and conflicting thoughts ricocheting through his head.
The slaver had hurt the big guy. The slaver had hurt his friend. And he didn’t have just their tabula in his hand, he had hers. He could hurt her just as badly. Worse, he could bring her here, and the boy still did not know how to send her back.
He couldn’t let that happen.
“What the fuck?!” the slaver shouted, as the boy’s hand found his throat. He beat him away, shouting, as the lion roared and leaped forward. The boy gasped. In a sudden blissful moment, the pain was gone. Had the slaver been too distracted? Had he let go?
And then darkness swallowed him.
It was worse than shadows, worse than blindness. It was empty. He stumbled backwards, chest heaving, not knowing anymore, too confused and too scared to move. The big guy, Loom, the wagon- it had all disappeared. He was alone in a dark space. Completely, utterly, totally alone.
He reached for his waist, for his most precious belongings, but of course they weren’t there. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He didn’t even have her face, anymore. There was no escape, no fantasy to believe in, no wild hope to entertain. The emptiness of Shira Hay yawned around him, moving ever so slightly that it could trick his mind into thinking that he was moving, even when he stood perfectly still. It was enough to drive anyone insane.
And then the emptiness broke, and the boy was back, back among the burning grass and the gloomy dusk and the pain. He tried to move, but found that he couldn’t. Nothing held him down, nothing restrained him; he just couldn’t, like the connection between his brain and the rest of his body had been severed.
Who was that? Who was shouting?
“Get the fuck away from him!”
Loom. It was Loom.
She had a rock. It was almost funny.
Loom punched the slaver in the gut, knocking him over so that she could raise the stone in her other hand and beat down, once, twice, three times, until the boy heard bone split and saw red splatter onto the grass.
The summer lion roared, the fires of its mane swelling to nearly twice its own size. It snarled and leaped- and found itself on the receiving end of Deppash’s horns. Hot steam sizzled from the wounds in its gut as Deppash shook it free, and louder than the crackle of fire was the crackle of ice, slowly spreading over the punctures until the flesh was raw pink and white and frostbitten.
Deppash pawed the ground, snorting, as the lion moaned and died.
“Come on,” said Loom, trying to drag the boy to his feet, but his legs could not, or would not, support him. “Come on, kid, do you want to get burned alive?” She pressed his tabula, all three of them, into his chest. “You’ve got them, let’s go!”
The boy stuttered incoherent words, sweat beading down his forehead.
Loom slapped the boy across the face as the fires continued to spread around them. The lion may have died, but his fires certainly had not. They leaped from dry brush to dry brush greedily, burning hot, bright, and large. “You can do it, come on. Do it for her! Do it for the fucking girl in the fucking tabula! Do it for the freak horse, do it for your friend! By all the Ladies Four, damn it, do it for me.”
The boy’s eyes widened. He was not alone. Not anymore.
He stood with Loom’s help and staggered to the big guy’s side. The camelopard looked at him, nostrils flaring, but he seemed calm enough at least to ride. “Over and out, yeah?” the boy muttered, hugging his neck. “We get out of the fire.”
The camelopard might have nodded. It was hard to tell with all the shaking as he started to run.
The big guy did not leap over the fire; he galloped straight through, screaming at the top of his lungs, a desperate forward motion. The boy thought might have actually been dying as they burst through the inferno, but then they were clear, clothing and fur alike singed hot red. If it hadn’t been for the pain the slaver had brought on him, the boy might have felt it.
Deppash’s icy breath washed over them as they ran clear of the fire, and the wind and the cool night did the rest. The boy felt his breathing slow, and when it did his chest ached like nothing else. He slumped, and exhaustion claimed him.
He woke from his not quite sleep to the sound of Loom swearing. Somewhere in-between riding the big guy and getting here, wherever here was, he had fallen to the ground. He lay in the soft grass, waiting for the hurting to stop.
“Fucking bandits,” snarled Loom, stomping around the wagon. “Ruined my shit.”
The boy groaned. “Your carpets, yeah?”
Loom held a hand to the back of her neck, surveying the damage. “Yeah. My carpets. These won’t trade for shit.”
“We made it,” pointed out the boy, still waiting for the aches to go away. His head started to pound.
“Yeah,” snorted Loom. She stared at her carpets, stained with blood, torn from the fight, and blackened with soot. “Yeah, we fucking made it.”
“Why did they attack us?” asked the boy. “Why did-?”
“Kid,” said Loom. “Shut up.”
And the boy fell silent.
Loom slouched, her hand in her hands, and sighed heavily. “Fucking shit. Fucking dammit.”
She had been angry at him for not getting up, but now she seemed angry at him for just being there. The boy hugged the big guy close. It was only a day, the boy reminded himself. A day in four years did not make him an expert with people. He did not want to do anything wrong.
He huddled in the grass, rubbing his tabula with the edge of his new shirt, which Loom had given him. The fire had scorched the edges and blackened the soft fabric. It was still far nicer than his old rags, although they did just about as good a job at cleaning his tabula.
It was a nervous habit. The familiar action helped soothe the boy’s nerves, and its repetitiveness pushed his headache away. “You OK, big guy?” he asked, as he scrubbed the big guy’s tabula, inspecting it for damage. “He hurts you bad, yeah?”
The camelopard flicked an ear. He did not make a sound, just stared up at the sky, letting starlight wash over him.
“Don’t worry,” said the boy. “I check. No bleeding, no bruises. Hurts a lot but it doesn’t leave anything behind.” Except memories. And even though his collection of those was paltry, the boy wanted nothing to do with the pain of a few hours ago.
“I don’t get it,” the boy said. “We were strangers. Why’d he want to hurt us so bad? We don’t do anything to him. We never did.” He huddled close to his friend. He didn’t like the idea of a world full of strangers who hated him.
Loom was still taking full scope of the damage, pulling her carpets out of the back of the wagon, inspecting each of the weaves in turn. “Fuckers probably didn’t even want these,” she muttered, under her breath. “One slave would have been worth more than my entire fucking inventory.”
“Is not so bad, yeah?” ventured the boy. “They’re just carpets, yeah?”
“Just carpets,” echoed Loom, shaking her head as she inspected yet another, so burned that parts crumbled to soot in her hands. She tossed it aside with a scoff and glared into the night. “They’re my living, kid. This is what I do. Electors, baymerchants, posh people, they all trade for the carpets. Good deals, and I needed them. You understand? I needed these trades.”
The boy searched for words. Trade was unfamiliar territory, a concept that Loom had barely been able to explain to him. “You can get other carpets?” he suggested. “From the same place you got them before?”
“Traded supplies for them,” said Loom. “Even if I did my circuit with the weaving villages, I wouldn’t have anything to give them. I’d have to go back to Shira Hay, resupply, wait out the worst of the summer, travel back around…and by then I’d be out of time.”
“Well, maybe if you-.”
“Your fault,” said Loom. It was whispered, but in the quiet of the night it seemed to ring.
The boy stuttered to silence, hoping against hope that he had misheard. “What?”
“I knew there were bandits the closer you got to the city, I knew it,” she whispered, her head hanging down. The boy could not see Loom’s face beyond the veil of hair hanging around it. “The fucking race. We got carried away, made too much noise. And you and your fucking freak pet, you’re just too easy to spot.”
He didn’t know what to say.
Loom’s hand clenched and unclenched. She scraped her hands against her head, her entire body stiff. In the starlight, the boy just noticed how much blood had dried on her arms.
“Kid,” Loom whispered, and her voice broke. “I need to think. Just go away. Please.”
The boy backed away, and nodded. “OK,” he said. “OK, I go.”
And he clambered onto the big guy’s back, whispering encouragement into the camelopard’s ear even as he felt his own heart sinking. He looked at Loom, but she didn’t even notice as he began to ride away.
Perhaps it was better, for the both of them. People like them had spent far too much time alone to enjoy the company of others. The boy bit back tears. He wanted to be with people, he had wanted to think that he wouldn’t be alone anymore, but every experience in the past four years and especially this last day reinforced only one thing: people brought him hurt. The boy had survived for this long by avoiding things that hurt him. It was a hard instinct to shake.
He reached for his tabula, but just the thought of them made him draw back. He had been going to ask Loom how to use them. He had been going to ask Loom to help him find her. Who was going to help now?
Your fault. The words rung in the boy’s head, try as he might to forget them. Why was it that the bad memories always stuck? Why couldn’t he remember the warm grove, the shared meal, the exhilarating race?
The boy tugged the camelopard’s mane, and they came to a stop. They hadn’t gone far. No doubt he could have seen Loom and the wagon if he looked back, but he didn’t want to.
He did remember. And somehow, their parting made his sweet memories bitter.
“What’s the plan, big guy?” the boy asked, egging the camelopard to walk on. They moved at a measured stroll, a practiced pace to conserve energy. It wasn’t as if he knew which way to go. “What do we do now?”
The big guy said nothing. He never did. He just walked on. Maybe…
Maybe the camelopard was just a dumb beast, after all, his entire character dreamt up to keep him company, an imaginary friend that could never disappoint him.
The boy shook his head. It was a treacherous thought, one he did not even dare contemplate. He didn’t think he could handle the outside world if his own head worked to destroy him, too. Thinking that way brought the slaver’s emptiness just a step closer.
“Does he show it to you, too?” asked the boy, hugging the camelopard’s neck. It was warm and soft. “Do you see it?”
The camelopard grumbled. The boy could feel the vibrations, and looked up as he felt the big guy’s neck tilt under him. He had turned his head, bending back to give the boy a doleful gaze with his wide, black eyes.
“Yeah,” said the boy, and despite himself he smiled. He shouldn’t have when he was so miserable, but it was hard to stay that way with a creature as ridiculous as the big guy staring at him. The boy flicked one of the bone nubs on the camelopard’s head. “He doesn’t leave anything behind. He can’t hurt us.”
The big guy yawned, lips pulling back to reveal square teeth and a black tongue, before turning back and facing forward.
“It’s all in our head,” said the boy. “It shouldn’t matter if it’s in our head. It’s only…it’s only the real stuff that matters.” Even now, Loom became a memory. She wasn’t real anymore. She would slip away, like the rest of them. She didn’t matter.
The boy held his tabula close to his chest, and couldn’t help but feel that he was wrong.
“It can’t change anything,” he said, looking at the big guy, justifying himself. The big guy flicked a dismissive ear. “The stuff in our heads is fake. It’s all imaginary. It doesn’t…”
And he hugged his tabula even closer to himself. That wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true.
“Where to now, big guy?” he asked, changing the subject. With it came a palpable relief. It was good not to think about things that hurt him. If he avoided them, he would stay safe. “Where do you think we should go now? Want to go back to the grove? We see if we catch up with it, yeah?”
The big guy snorted, and shook his neck. Hair rippled in the boy’s face.
“Yike, don’t be like that,” said the boy. “You think we can’t? Trees are slow, big guy. You slower than a tree? I don’t think trees are faster than Deppash and Loom, and you sure beat-.”
The boy paused. The big guy stopped. It took several moments for the boy to compose himself.
He took a deep breath. “Yeah, maybe we don’t go after no trees. Think we find water? Think we find a river? A big, big river, just like the one she- we just find a big, big river, is what I say.”
The idea was appealing. The boy had never seen a big, big river. He was sure it would be wonderful. He knew there was one in the city, but at the moment the thought of the city didn’t appeal to him. There would be too many people, and all those people weren’t worth all the stuff in the world.
They were forced thoughts, thoughts that were trying perhaps a bit too hard to be true.
“Yike, big guy,” the boy muttered, lying against the big guy’s neck. “How long do you think it’s going to take to forget?”
The big guy turned and stared at him.
“I don’t want to wait another four years neither.”
The boy felt a rumble, the big guy no doubt sighing in agreement. But the rumbling continued even as the big guy walked on, showing no signs of heavy breathing, no change of pace or extra movement. The boy moved his arms from his chest, and saw that one of his tabula was quivering. It wasn’t his, or the big guy’s. It was the girl’s.
The boy’s entire world seemed to dim around him. He shouted at the big guy to stop, grabbing the tabula, fumbling with it with both hands. He looked at it from every angle. What was wrong? What had he done?
The shaking was becoming more violent, more extreme than ever before. This wasn’t just his tabula responding to a simple command, it was something else entirely.
It was breaking.
The boy shook his head, trying to figure out what to do. He squeezed the amber tight, as if he could somehow hold it together, but when a thin crack appeared along its surface he immediately eased the pressure for fear of breaking the already fragile disk. What could he do? What was there to do?
And so the boy did the only thing he had ever known how to do with the tabula, and he concentrated.
Perhaps it was the fatigue from his escape through the fire, or perhaps it was the disk’s unnatural behavior, but the weakness from pouring his energy into the tabula hit him harder than it ever had before. He felt like a sledgehammer had just been pounded into his chest. He collapsed, sliding off the big guy’s back and falling on the ground with a heavy thud. But he did not stop concentrating. At that moment, right then and there, the girl’s shattering tabula was the only thing that mattered.
The boy tried to draw in breath, but he couldn’t. It was as if his lungs were deflated, collapsing in on themselves. He held the tabula even tighter, his grip stiff but as gentle as it could possibly be. The camelopard ran circles around him, rearing and screaming in distress. The boy could barely make out his friend’s silhouette. His eyes were watering, yes, and his focus was elsewhere, yes, but there was something else. Like a black and red shadow, flickering over his face.
A bout of nausea overcame him. He fell onto his knees, retching onto the grass.
And then someone picked him up.
His first instinct was to run, but with all of his focus on the tabula he could barely tell where the ground was in relation his feet, let alone try to escape. “You’re easy to track,” snarled a voice, and the boy’s heart jumped. A slaver had survived, and tracked him down.
Except, it wasn’t a slaver. It was Loom.
“What the hell did you run off for? What’s wrong with you, kid?” snarled Loom, but as she took in his frozen expression, his stiff body, her expression turned to concern. “Kid? Kid, what’s wrong? Hey, freak horse, what’s wrong with him?”
The boy forced in a shuddering breath, all of his effort still focused on the tabula. It shone in his mind. Everything else was dark, and the amber disk, always cool to the touch, suddenly felt like hot coals, like a glowing ember in his hands.
Confusing imagery flashed through his head. He saw treetops, long talons, and then the night sky of Shira Hay again, and then different talons, belonging to a beast from an even more terrifying night so many years ago, and then a watery mixture of white and red and black that whirled and spun until it was a single bloody color.
“I’m not always going to be looking out for you,” muttered Loom, and the boy felt her pick him up in her arms. “By every single fucking Lady, how the hell did you survive out here so long without me?”
The boy writhed. He felt his arms grow weak, felt phantom scars all over his body.
The big guy followed him, bending down to rest his neck over the boy’s chest. It was meant to be affectionate.
The boy continued to pour every ounce of willpower he had into the disk. He would have given up long ago if not for the same simple fact that had pulled him out of that fire.
He was not alone. It gave him strength.
And right now, the girl needed it.
“Up here, Jova girl!”
Jova bit her tongue, concentrating as she clambered up to the next branch. The further south they went, the more flexible the trees got, and Jova had already fallen once when a whippy branch bent a little too much.
“Look at you two,” said Rituu, smiling, his head craned up to watch. “Like little mothmonkeys.”
Sri just swung her knees from her perch on high, while Jova turned to look at Rituu. “Mothmonkeys?” Jova was as familiar with his tall tales as Gopal and Sri by now; unlike them, she still liked them. It was a game between her and Rituu to see if she could tell the fibs from the truth.
“Scary things,” said Rituu, with a straight face. “Big eyes, white fur all over, wings under its arms. I saw a couple in a marsh forest in Kazakhal called Sorzova.”
“Truth for the mothmonkeys,” said Jova. She clambered a little higher. The branch bent precariously as she grabbed it, but held as she hauled herself up. “Lie for Sorzova.”
Rituu cocked his head. “Oh, really? Are you sure? I’ve never mentioned either of them before.”
“Absolutely positively,” said Jova, a wide grin on her face.
“What do you think, Sri?”
The dark-haired girl looked up, shielding her expression from view. “I agree with Jova girl,” she said. Jova snorted. Sri had picked up “Jova girl” from her dad- well, Jova thought of Rituu as her dad, although Sri never called him or Gopal that.
“Why do you think that, Sri? Don’t say it’s just because Jova thinks so. I want you to think for yourself!”
“Don’t I get to explain myself?” said Jova peevishly.
“Shush, you. Sri?”
“I’ve seen winter moths before,” said Sri. She spoke so quietly. Jova had no idea how Rituu managed to hear down on the ground; she could barely hear Sri and they were almost on the same branch. “And you’ve talked about monkeybears before.”
“Educated men call them gorillai now,” said Rituu. “But do go on!”
“I think mothmonkeys make sense,” said Sri. “Even if they do sound a little…weird. But you never talked about Sorzova, and I’ve never heard about it either. And it sounds like a made-up Kazakhal name, not a real Kazakhal name.”
Jova stared. She had just picked at random. Even though they were the same age, Sri was so much smarter than her.
Or, perhaps, Jova reasoned, she just had the patience to think things through.
“Well done, my little Sri,” said Rituu clapping. Jova began to clap too but stopped when she nearly fell off her branch. She stopped, and looked around. Rituu had told them to climb, but to what end?
“You are correct on one and might be correct on the other.”
Jova laughed and glared at the same time. “Might be? You don’t remember?”
“They say plainsman memories are like leaky pots, which is why we write everything down,” admitted Rituu. “But that is not the reason. No, you might be right because I never knew in the first place. Fib about Sorzova, yes.”
“A-ha!” Jova couldn’t help herself. She pumped a fist in the air. She liked winning.
Rituu’s face crinkled in a smile, as did Sri’s. “But mothmonkeys, I don’t know.”
“So that was a lie too?”
“A lie, a truth. I do not know. I have never known!” Rituu looked happy about that, for some reason. “But after listening to little Sri’s profound argument, which, must I say, would rival the greatest debates of all the electors of the Twin Libraries, then I am convinced that perhaps there are some mothmonkeys in the world, flapping around with their big wide eyes.”
“But you’ve never seen one,” said Jova.
“Knowing without seeing is believing,” said Rituu, sagely.
“Sounds like lying to me.”
“We always believe. You would think everything I say is a lie if you did not believe! We believe that there is more world to Albumere even though we cannot see it, we believe that the stars are still there even when we cannot see them for the light of the sun, we believe that there is tomorrow even if we cannot see the future.” Rituu’s voice became grand and mighty, and his chest puffed out with self-importance. “We believe because we are men, the children of the Ladies Four and the most superb of animals!”
“You’re lecturing again,” said Sri’s soft voice.
Rituu just grinned. “And you believe that there is something up there and I didn’t send you to climb a shit- a stupid tree for no reason even though you can’t see anything, right?”
“My Da says that we always get paid for our belief,” said Jova, raising an eyebrow. What she didn’t mention was that he always said that when the pay was not apparent, so personally Jova found the adage a little difficult to swallow. Rituu’s reasons for leading them up there, though, were hopefully a bit more concrete.
“Oh, sometimes our faith is not always rewarded,” said Rituu, and he walked away down the trail.
“Hey! Hey, wait, no!” shouted Jova, moving to clamber back down. Sri just shook her head and sighed.
Rituu popped his out from behind the bend in the path. “And other times, Jova girl, we just need to believe a little longer.”
Jova crossed her arms and leaned back against the trunk of the tree, her patience wearing thin. “You talk too much, Rituu.”
“I thought you liked my stories,” said Rituu, feigning hurt. He still didn’t seem to be approaching the point of their excursion anytime soon.
“I do,” said Jova. “But this isn’t one of your stories, this is one of your lectures. And I hate those.”
When Rituu laughed, Jova wasn’t surprised. Sri’s quiet chuckle made her look up, though. Was it something she had said?
“You are both very forward for a stranger, Jova girl,” said Rituu, “And very earthy for a pilgrim. Your reason to go to the Temple, I feel, is not the same as your, er, guardians’. What business does a girl like you have in Moscoleon?”
“The tree, Rituu,” snarled Jova. “Tell me why I’m in a tree.”
Leaves fell in a sudden shower around Jova. She tensed instinctively, but it was just Sri. Her mouth was open in surprise, her arm outstretched as she reached for something on the other side of the tree. “Whoa!” she said, balancing precariously as she leaned over. “Look at this!”
“One asks for a reward for her faith,” said Rituu. “The other has faith to sustain her, and understands that it is its own reward.”
“You act really differently from how I first met you,” said Jova. “You were angry and swearing and stumbling through the dark. Where did this philosopher come from?”
“One should never be too quick to judge,” said Rituu. “People are like onions. You must peel away layer after layer-.”
“I’m going, I’m going!” Jova hauled herself up to the next branch, trying to get a vantage on whatever Sri was looking at. She looked at the girl. “Is he always like that?”
“He’s gotten better,” said Sri. She paused. “Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to him.”
Jova sat on the edge of the branch, and peered. Sri was reaching inside a hollow indentation in the center of the tree, her hands reaching into the dim shadows.
Jova’s heart skipped a beat, her squabble with Rituu forgotten.
There must have been hundreds of tabula stacked in the hollow. Jova hadn’t realized how high up she was; the canopy was just above them, and beyond that bright, unbroken sunlight. It played on the tabula, bright beams shining through gaps in the leaves.
Jova bent forward, reaching out nervously. Her grip so high was tenuous at best, but the veritable hoard of tabula held a kind of magnetic appeal. She just had to touch it, had to know that they were real.
Her fingers brushed against the disks, causing several to slip and slide off each other like a small avalanche. Her heart jumped. If one fell out and shattered…
But none of them did. She drew her shaking hand back. Her fingers were numb, and from more than just nerves. The piles and piles of tabula had vibrated softly to her touch, the effect compounded a thousand-fold as the vibrations spread throughout the collection.
Jova looked closer. Shattered fragments peeked out of the disks: the remains of wild animals that had passed the Fallow and left their tabula behind in the hollow. Sap lined the walls of the tree, and some patches had even begun to harden in half-formed ovals and circles. Jova’s hand drifted towards the walls, but she pulled back. It felt somehow sanctimonious to disturb the forming tabula; her impure hands would probably somehow taint the nascent disks.
“This is a hollow?” whispered Jova. It was the first one she had ever seen.
“I know,” said Sri. “Mine was so much closer to the ground.”
Jova’s mouth went dry. This was one of the things that her parents had warned her so many times about talking about. Bad people would hurt her if she mentioned her hollow- or, more specifically, the lack thereof. But Sri spoke freely and openly of it. What could be the harm?
“I thought the ones in Jhidnu were smaller than this,” said Sri. Wonder had apparently loosened her tongue. “But I guess that we aren’t quite in Jhidnu anymore, are we? Maybe they grow taller in Moscon…I wonder if hollows even know the difference between the bay and the peninsula. Maybe the soil is better here…”
“Or- or maybe…” Jova said, trying to join the conversation. Her knowledge of plants was limited to the fact that most were green. “Maybe it’s old,” she said.
Sri looked at her, and Jova felt her cheeks turn red. It seemed like a reasonable thing to say at the time.
“That might be right,” Sri whispered, her voice lowering again. She sounded like her ordinary, quiet self, but there was an excitement in her expression that Jova had never seen. “Could you imagine? A hollow this size could have lived for hundreds of years, since the age of High General Desdon. It could have been around when Keep Mist was alive, when the First Army marched on the Temple!”
Jova had absolutely no idea what Sri was talking about but the imagery was vivid nonetheless.
“How is it, girls?” shouted Rituu. “Enjoying the view?”
Sri nodded, although Jova doubted Rituu could see her head move from all the way down there. Jova chose the more direct method of shouting, “How did you know this was a hollow?”
“I can see you’re not from the south, then,” said Rituu, smugly, and Jova gulped. Had that been the wrong thing to say? Ma and Da probably would have been mad at her if they heard her ask that question. “The hollows of the coastal region never stop growing! They get taller and taller, and some would swear that they have seen them walk.”
“Lie!” Jova shouted.
“Truth,” Rituu replied. “This is about more than just admiring the hollow, though. There are things you have to learn, Sri, things I’ve neglected from teaching you. My eyes were opened last night, when goodman Ell gave me this little gift.” He rolled his shoulder and winced. “It’s about time you learned to defend yourself.”
Sri sat bolt upright, her eyes wide with surprise.
“What about me?” Jova shouted.
“Little Sri needs a sparring partner, doesn’t she, Jova girl?” Rituu clapped his hands together, his voice somewhat hoarse from shouting so much. “I could give you a couple lessons too.”
“I’ve had enough of your lessons!” shouted Jova. “But I’ll take a tabula!”
“Then take one! Who am I to give or deny you permission?” Rituu raised a warning finger. “But only one! This is a law of the Ladies, not men. Take just one from the hollow tree. It is bad luck to do otherwise.”
Sri’s hand darted out, quick and nimble, taking one disk without even disturbing the rest. Jova, on the other hand, groped in the hollow blindly, searching for a disk even though they all felt the same. “Do I just pick one randomly?”
“They say in the darkness of shadows, the Ladies Four will guide your hand-.”
“I don’t care what they say, Rituu, just tell me how I’m supposed to pick one!”
“Randomly is fine,” said Rituu, his laughter barely held back. “Just make sure it isn’t another person! We don’t need slaves for our lessons. Those we shall leave for their Fallow.”
Jova’s hand found a disk. She held up to her face, trying to see what kind of creature it was bonded to in the dancing reflections within, but all she saw was her own reflection staring back at her. Sri had already given her tabula the appropriate command; what it was, Jova had no idea, so she pretended she had said the right words and stuffed the tabula in her pocket so as not to be embarrassed.
The two clambered down the tree slower than they had ascended, stepping carefully on the bending branches. With the tabula on their person, it was as if they were escorting some precious treasure back down to the ground, where Rituu waited.
“Have you claimed them?” he asked.
Jova looked up in time to see Sri nod. She ignored Rituu, hopping down from the last branch and squatting to absorb the impact. “What’ll you teach us first?” asked Jova, a wide smile on her face. She imagined a fierce companion like Mo: friendly at times, with its own little quirks, but always strong and always dangerous.
Rituu took a deep breath (no doubt to launch into one of his monologues), but before he could speak a familiar shape came through the bushes. Ma looked from Rituu, to the girls, to the tree, and back to Rituu. “Just wondering where you had gone off to with the children,” said Ma. Jova watched her face closely. She could see by the furrowed eyebrows, the slight pursing of the lips, the narrowed eyes that Ma was worried. Jova’s stomach sunk. She would be receiving a lecture later, no doubt, and a full debriefing on what she had said to Rituu and Sri.
“Ah, goodwoman Anjan,” said Rituu. “I was just showing them a hollow I found on the path! Perhaps I should have asked for your permission first, but I meant it to be a surprise.”
Lie, Jova thought, automatically. Rituu had had no intention of telling her parents where she had gone, she was sure of it.
“Consider me surprised,” said Ma, laughing airily as she took Jova’s hand and tugged her away. “I need to talk with my d- with Jova now, though.”
Jova waved a little goodbye to Sri as she stumbled away. Sri’s hand waved from her waist, which was about as good as Jova was going to get, even as Sri’s bright eyes followed them as they walked away.
“I don’t want you running off like that all the time,” said Ma immediately once they were out of earshot. “And I don’t want you spending time with him, either.”
Jova felt a protest rising, but she bit it down. “He showed me the hollow,” said Jova, instead. Not quite an accusation, but nevertheless accusatory.
“I know,” said Ma, distractedly. She kept looking back over her shoulder.
“He let me take a tabula,” said Jova.
“I know.” Ma hurried Jova along, as they made their way back to the little glade where they had made camp. Da was preparing food over the fire, while Gopal was nowhere to be seen.
Jova fell silent. If Ma wasn’t going to listen to her, then she wasn’t going to say anything. The tabula in her pocket was like a glowing ember in Jova’s chest. It kept her spirits just a bit higher, to know that she had that kind of secret power in her pocket.
Ma turned Jova around and sat down with her. “Now I want you to promise me that you won’t do any more things with tabula around them, OK? Not any of the big ones, or even the little girl, OK?”
“They have names…”
“Promise me, Jova,” said Ma, and her voice grew firm.
Jova mumbled something that could be interpreted as an affirmative.
“Oh, my little Lady,” said Ma, and she drew her daughter in close, hugging her tightly. “I’m doing this to protect you. You understand that? I’m doing this because I love you and I want to keep you safe.”
The words rang empty in Jova’s ears. Rituu had said that Sri would learn to protect herself. Why couldn’t Jova do the same? Perhaps Ma would need a shock like last night to let her know; perhaps Da would be more willing to let Jova continue lessons with the other family after what he had been through…
Jova was horrified with herself. Manipulating her father when he was injured? What kind of person would do that?
Ma let her go and stood up. “You be a good girl, now,” she said, trying to be gentle. Jova could tell when Ma was making a conscious effort not to be harsh with her; her voice softened to a near whisper even as it climbed an octave or two. Her expression seemed genuine, though. “I’m going out with Mo. You help your father with the rest of lunch.”
Jova nodded, as Ma whistled for the weaseldog to come. Mo padded along to Ma’s side, giving Jova a friendly nudge with a wet nose as he passed. She traced the burn scars on his face. He looked fierce, but Mo was kind as could be. Perhaps if Mo approved of the beast in Jova’s tabula, Ma would be more willing to accept.
After a moment, Jova decided she felt a guilty for manipulating Mo, too. He was, after all, part of the family.
With all the guilt and the frustration and the anticipation pent up inside of her, Jova felt like she would burst. Her fingers tapped inside her threadbare pockets, but ultimately it would have been foolish to ask Da for help with a tabula now.
Da caught her eye, and waved her over, a large smile on his face. Jova drew her hand out of her pocket and skipped over to her father’s side. The tabula could wait for later.
He was bent awkwardly around the simmering pot, the wound on his chest making it hard for him to maneuver. Jova took the wooden ladle from his hand, as he sat gratefully back down. “Thank you, Jova dear,” said Da, eyes closed, although from relief or pain Jova could not tell. His hand rested against his heart, and he breathed heavily. “What would I do without you, eh?”
Jova’s brow furrowed, as she stirred the broth. It bubbled golden-brown, and smelled so savory that even if Jova wasn’t hungry already she would have begun to salivate anyway. This, here, was good. And yet…
“Sorry, Da,” Jova muttered.
Da looked up, his eyes open. He put a hand on Jova’s shoulder. “Sorry for what? You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.”
“Sorry about running out during the night,” said Jova. “Sorry about getting you hurt.”
“Getting me hurt? No, no, no. Little Lady, it was a big tough old bathawk that got me hurt.” Da thumped his chest, despite the rawness of his wounds. “Do you have talons, Jova? Do you have wings and fangs? You didn’t do this to me, an animal did.”
“But you couldn’t sleep and you tried to help some people,” said Da, cutting her off. “You can’t blame yourself for that. You didn’t mean to do anything wrong, did you? You didn’t mean to do anything bad, did you?”
“But I still did it!” Jova said. She felt more frustrated, now, not less. Would her father just stop talking and let her admit that everything was her fault?
“No, you didn’t.” Seeing that she wasn’t stirring, Da took the ladle back. “If anything, it’s my fault that I went rushing in headfirst like that. If you’re sorry, then I’m sorry, too.”
“Don’t be sorry!” Jova said, immediately. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry…for…” She paused, biting her tongue.
“How about this, then? If you promise not to be sorry, then I promise not to be sorry either.”
Jova opened her mouth. Then she closed her mouth. She felt like she had lost a game she hadn’t even known she was playing.
“So no more apologies,” said Da. “Now help me with this, your new friends seem to take their food very seriously.”
They sat together over the bubbling pot, as the forest whispered around them. Jova found herself tapping the tabula in her pocket again, despite herself. Perhaps now she could broach the subject with her father? How?
Jova spent a pensive minute mulling her plan of attack over in her head, but she had not yet even opened her mouth when there was a rustle in the path. Da turned suddenly, tense, but Jova was a bit calmer about it. It was just Gopal returning from wherever he had gone when they had made camp. He held one large bag over his shoulder and another smaller one in his hand.
“Lunch?” he said, nodding approvingly. He looked slightly breathless. “I found some herbs in the forest, they’ll be good for seasoning. And I’ve got some dried biscuits, too.”
“Ah, no doubt foraged in the forest as well,” said Da. “I didn’t know they had biscuit bushes in the south. Are they all dried here, or do they come sweetened and glazed like they do in the mountains?”
Gopal indulged him a smile. It seemed somehow false, though. There was still tension between them.
Jova looked down, trying to ignore the sudden quiet that had fallen over the camp. Da did not blame her for his wounds, she knew. But, then, who did he blame?
About as distant as he could get from them without being rude, Gopal laid down his bags. He did not explain where he had gotten them, nor why he was out of breath. “Will it be ready soon?” asked the burly man.
“Soon as soon comes,” said Da. “Jova, be good and see if you can fetch the others? We don’t want it getting cold now. I’d do it myself, but I think it’s best if I don’t move around so much.” He laughed and rubbed his chest, but he looked at Gopal as he said it.
He doesn’t trust him, Jova realized, but out loud all she said was, “OK. I’ll be back soon.”
She rose and jogged away, back down the little split trail where Rituu had taken her with Sri. Perhaps she could catch the tail end of a tabula lesson, she realized, with a smile. The smile vanished quickly, though. That would be going against what Ma had told her to do, though…
Her hand crawled back down into her pocket, where the tabula waited, warm and enticing. Jova looked over her shoulder. There was no one around, just the forest, its constant susurrus enveloping her comfortably. It couldn’t hurt, just to try it herself- just to prove to Ma that Rituu wasn’t bad, that Jova could watch out for herself, that she didn’t need to be worried.
Jova took out the tabula, and cupped it in her hands. She licked dry lips. What was the next step? Ma always closed her eyes when she summoned Mo, like she was concentrating hard. Jova did the same, concentrating with all her might on the amber disk in her hand.
It hummed, just slightly. Sweat broke out on Jova’s forehead, and she stopped, gasping. She felt so drained. The humming stopped as soon as Jova opened her eyes.
Jova blinked. She couldn’t stop now. She had to prove to her mother that she could do this.
The frustration and guilt and anticipation swelled up inside her, and Jova shut her eyes tight again. The tabula hummed fiercely in her hands, making her arms numb from the shaking, but she did not stop. She thought she felt something like a breeze around her, but with her eyes shut so tight they hurt Jova could not tell if it was real or imagined. She felt a prickling on her skin, became intensely aware of the trees and the wind and the noises of the forest.
It felt like eternity, but finally it was as if something broke. The tabula stopped shaking very suddenly, and Jova drew in a great gasp of air. She had forgotten to breathe the entire process, but now that it was over she felt her knees weaken beneath her. She opened her watering eyes, and her vision swam. She saw something, an indistinct blur of shapes and colors, but it was hard to tell after the summoning. She hadn’t expected it to be so tiring, and yet, she felt strangely elated. It hadn’t been that hard at all.
“Hey,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “I’m Jova. We’re going to be fr-.”
And then she felt claws sink into her belly as the thing attacked.
The big guy danced and nickered, swinging his massive neck from side to side. The boy clung onto his back, just barely holding on. Both were jittery with pent-up energy.
The sun set slowly behind them, as Loom reared on her ox. “You’ve got no chance, kid! Give up! You’ve got no power, you won’t cover any ground before I get you!”
“Long legs, long stride,” the boy shouted back. “We’re fine, yeah? You and Pash have the problem! Big fat thing can’t beat us, no way, no how.”
“Your pet’s got a long something, kid, but it ain’t legs,” said Loom.
The camelopard bellowed, impatient, and the winter ox bellowed back. “No more talk!” said the boy. “Any longer and I can’t stay on.”
“Well, you got to stay on your beast if you want to win,” said Loom, bending low.
“Big guy wins without me, yeah? No need for me to slow him down.” The boy scratched his mane, even as the camelopard shook his head and stamped his feet on the ground. “Go big, big guy. Go big, yeah?”
“On my mark,” said Loom. “Mark…GO!”
The big guy pounded forward, legs a yellow blur across the golden grass. They made a stark silhouette against the red sun slipping into the horizon: the gawky beast and the boy standing on his back.
Any sane rider would have at least sat down for the race, but not this boy. He whooped and shouted, clinging for dear life onto the camelopard’s mane while he rode the beast’s undulating back and shoulders like he was a Da’atoan surfer, the wind flapping at his new shirt and pants.
Long legs, long neck, long stride: there was no denying that when the big guy moved fast, his entire body moved with him, stiff rods swinging around greased joints. The big guy’s neck swung like a pendulum, and it took all of the boy’s concentration just to hold on.
“To the wagon, big guy! Beat her to the wagon!” the boy shouted, over the wind and the pounding hooves. He doubted the big guy could hear him; he could barely hear himself.
The boy’s senses blurred. Hearing, sight, touch: there was nothing but raw speed, as he pummeled on without any regard for what was around or in front of him. It had never been this way before. There had always been a chase, some prey to catch or some predator to escape. Loom’s “race” made the boy’s heart pump even more. It made his hands shake, his fingers quiver, his soul tremble.
He liked it.
Loom raced towards him at equal speed, her ox trampling the grass to flattened paste. The boy squinted, trying to keep his eyes open in the rushing wind. Was that ice?
The two converged on the wagon, which Loom had left in the middle of the field. The boy had been wary to leave such a valuable thing alone, but Loom reasoned that if anyone or anything tried to hijack it, then they’d be racing towards it already.
“Faster, big guy, she’s getting close!” the boy shouted. He couldn’t believe the speed at which Loom travelled; Deppash did not so much run as slide, hurtling forward like a meteor, a massive weighty thing that fell horizontally.
The big guy roared even louder, and sparks seemed to fly. The boy tumbled back, gripping onto the camelopard’s haunches as it chased down the wagon; there would be no more standing up for him, not at these speeds.
The two collided at the center, careening past each other and sliding across the ground until they came to a stop. The boy fell and rolled at least ten body’s-width away from his original destination, but when he sat up he was grinning from ear to ear.
“We get there first!” he shouted. The camelopard brayed his agreement, even as the lanky beast tried to untangle its legs, neck, and tail.
“How could you tell? You were upside-down half the time,” said Loom. She put a hand on her ox to steady herself, gasping for breath, until Deppash summarily keeled over. The boy swore he felt the vibration through the ground.
“We get there first,” he repeated, clambering up onto the back of the wagon as if to bask in his victory. “We win!”
“No, you didn’t, I did,” said Loom, pushing him off. “I won’t let you tell people that a dumb kid beat me in a race. I’ll never hear the end of it.” She wiped her running nose with the back of her hand, her cheeks red and eyes watering. “Now will you stop jumping around? It’s uncomfortable enough as it is.”
The boy turned to make a smart comment, but before he could his knees collapsed under him and he sprawled face first in the dirt. He hadn’t even ran and he felt exhausted. “Yike,” he mumbled. “Yeah. I stop jumping. You help me stand now?”
Loom’s laughter was harsh, vindictive, and oddly comforting. “Glad to see that we burned the energy out of you. I want to cover a lot of ground tonight, but you can sleep on the carpets if you want.”
He yawned. He wasn’t about to turn down an offer to rest, but the idea of moving and sleeping at the same time made him reconsider. How would he know where he was when he woke up?
The boy rubbed his eyes and clambered to his feet. “I stay up, yeah?”
“Tough kid,” said Loom. There was a hint of approval in her voice. “Dumb, but tough.”
“Are all Shira Hay races like that?” asked the boy. While Deppash found his feet, the big guy lay prone. He didn’t seem like he was getting up anytime soon, which was a relief for the boy. Even a few more seconds of rest while they were still stationary was much appreciated.
“That’s the gist of it,” said Loom, nodding. “The more people you can get, the better. And sometimes the kids get off and do a little running themselves.” She snorted. “That’s the easy way out, of course.” She tapped Deppash’s tabula. “Running takes only your stamina. Riding by tabula will take everything you’ve got.”
The boy looked down. Running himself? Easy? It could have easily joined one of the most exhausting things the boy had done by choice, but the idea that sprinting that hard and that fast was the beginner level was somewhat daunting. The other option, the one using tabula, must have been infinitely more tiring.
He felt an odd desire to try it out.
“Is that what you did?” asked the boy. “Is that how Pash managed to move so fast?”
Loom clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. Just know that you’ll be able to tell all the kids in the city that you’ve been in a Shira Hay race, and that’s good enough for most of them.”
“What else do kids do in the city?” asked the boy, watching the last few orange flares flicker away under the horizon. They had out-sped the setting sun: a little achievement, but one that made him proud nonetheless.
“Kids? I don’t know,” said Loom. “Run around and get under your fucking feet, I guess. Don’t worry about them, all they do is play adult games and lose. I wish I had my dice, I could show you Wwa Ta.”
“Wwa Ta?” The boy giggled, stretching out the curious word. “Wwa. Waawaaa.”
“You look like a fucking pigcow chewing cud,” she snorted. She shook her head. “What am I saying? Wwa Ta is a betting game. You won’t have a coin to your name to even buy in, so you can forget about that. But Kennya Noni, now, you could play that.”
“Kennya Noni?” So many new words. The boy had no idea there could be so many things in the world that had a name.
Loom gave him a solid whack on the shoulder.
“Ow!” The boy recoiled. Had he said something wrong?
“That is the basic premise of Kennya Noni,” Loom said. She seemed unapologetic about punching the boy so hard. Perhaps she did not know her own strength. “It’s a fighting style, see? Gutter boys are always practicing it. The trick is to hit your opponent in the side, where they’re not expecting it, and then duck away and run fast. Well, faster.”
“Like racing?” asked the boy, cocking his head.
“Like racing,” said Loom, nodding. “I’m shit at it myself, but maybe you’ll see a Kennya Noni fight or two. It’s not so impressive if you’re not running with them, you’ll just see two scrawny men chase after each other in the street. The best ones go for the roofs, though, and that’s fucking spectacular. The electors hate them for it, but what can they do? You can’t catch a good Kennya Noni fighter.”
Roofs. The boy was still having trouble with that concept. Apparently they were a kind of elevated floor that people could also live under, except when they did that it was called a ceiling. It was difficult to wrap his head around. He would have to see it for himself.
“Maybe I’ll show you a move or two,” said Loom. She winced, though, as she straightened her back, and rolled her shoulder with a pained expression. “Not today, though. Later.”
The big guy had found it in himself to stand up. They both paused to watch.
“It’s like…timber,” said Loom, staring. “Falling backward.”
The boy didn’t ask what timber was, but he had to admit the process was spectacular.
“Are we far away from Shira Hay?”
“Two days of hard travel, I’d say,” said Loom. “Assuming nothing happens and we don’t get lost.”
“I thought you knew the way!”
“I thought you did, too,” said Loom dryly. “I do. Problem is, it’s a hard enough even if you do know what you’re looking for. See all this?” Loom gestured to the plains around her. “Damn hard to find your way through here. Everyone thinks Shira Hay is the biggest damn place in Albumere but the truth is they’re all just walking in fucking circles.”
“We’re not walking in circles, are we?” asked the boy, quickly.
“I have absolutely no idea,” said Loom, with a straight face. “And if we are, I’ll spend the next few months begging for the Lady Fall to put us back on the right path.”
They did not speak for several moments. The boy watched, as the sky turned dark and the first stars began to glimmer in the sky. The pale shadow of the moon, dim in the blaze of day, became a bright disk, hanging low. The boy’s hand traced his own disks in his belt.
“Is that all it takes?” he asked, after a moment.
“All what takes?” Loom had been lying on the side of the wagon, eyes closed and body limp: not quite asleep, but resting.
“All it takes to find the right path,” said the boy. “You just beg?”
“Well, no,” said Loom, shifting. She looked uncomfortable. “It’s got to be to the Ladies Four. It’s how civilized folk do it. It’s called praying.”
“What’s the difference?”
Another stretch of silence.
“Ask a fucking priest,” said Loom, gruffly. “Hell if I know.”
The boy cocked his head. “How would a priest know?”
“Look, kid, it’s not my fucking job to-.”
“You know so much about everything already. No priest knows more than you, yeah?” The boy looked up at Loom, genuinely curious.
As she looked down, her hair fell around her face. Loom looked suddenly old, her back slouched, her forehead wrinkled. She gave a sidelong glance to the boy. “Oh, fuck me,” she muttered, and slid off of the wagon, pacing around to the front to grab Deppash’s harness.
The boy stared at her until the tarp blocked his view, and then looked at the big guy, and smiled. “Hey, maybe I get a wagon for you when we at the city. That’d be good, yeah?”
A hot ball of spit in the boy’s face summarized the camelopard’s thoughts on wagons.
“OK, OK, no wagon,” said the boy. “Too big to steal anyway. Hey, big guy, you got any idea on how we take the stuff in Shira Hay?”
The camelopard chewed placidly. What he had found to chew, the boy had no idea, but the big guy showed a blissful apathy about “the stuff” or means of acquiring it.
“You look like a pigcow chewing cud, big guy,” said the boy, snickering. “A fucking pigcow,” he repeated, lowering his voice, and then checked over his shoulder just to make sure that Loom was still tying Deppash back into his harness.
The boy laughed, for no reason at all other than he wanted to. His toes curled in delight. “Yike, big guy, you remember how today started? I remember. I remember every little teeny tiny thing about today for the rest of my life.”
His hand drifted back to the disks around his belt. “I tell her about today when I find her. Loom’s so smart, she can help me, yeah? All the people in the world live in the city, she has to be in there somewhere.”
The boy pulled the girl’s tabula out. He could tell which ones they were just by touch at this point; having only three possessions for four years did that for him.
“How does she makes it work so fast?” asked the boy. “Show me,” he said, and the disk hummed for just a moment before the energy bled away. “Show me!” said the boy, louder, and a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. Exhausted from his run, he could only make the disk shake slightly in his fingers before he ran out of energy.
How loud did she say the command? Did she even say it? The boy wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Maybe that was a secret of civilized folk that he could ask her. He poked his head around the wagon canvas. “Hey, Loom, can you-?”
A rough hand grabbed his mouth and grappled him to the ground. Reflexively, the boy lashed out and kicked, trying to yell out for the big guy’s help, before he realized that it was just Loom. His fist had nailed her in the cheek, and she reeled back, swearing.
“OW! Fuck! Shit!” she hissed, hands cradling her face. The boy squirmed back. Would she forgive him? Would he have to run? His heart pumped like he was racing again. He had only just met her today, but maybe she would forgive him…
Except when she looked up and glared, it wasn’t at him. Her gaze was focused on the distance, on the waving grass. The boy squinted. His first instinct was that it was a predator of some kind; he reached for the big guy, ready to leap onto his back and start running at a moment’s notice.
“Get back, kid,” snapped Loom, and the boy froze. “Don’t get up. Let them think we’re still in the wagon. We can surprise them.”
Them? And then the boy realized what- or, rather, who– they must be, with a sinking feeling in his gut.
This many people in one day was too much. He still didn’t have any rocks.
He saw with a little relief that Deppash wasn’t tied to his harness yet. Loom put a firm hand on the ox’s head, pushing him down so that his stiff ears and bright eyes did not alert the bandits or robbers or whatever they were.
The boy tried to do the same for the big guy, but the camelopard was just too tall to even try to hide. The big guy still looked at the world with half-hooded, lazy eyes, but the nervous flicks of his tail gave him away. He knew what was happening, but was doing his best to follow Loom’s instructions.
“Good guy,” the boy whispered, getting close to him, careful not to disturb the grass as he crept close to his friend. “Smart guy.”
The boy watched for the robbers’ approach. He hoped that they were as bad thieves as he was.
He held his breath. Perhaps Loom had just been paranoid. Maybe it was just some big cat or other animal, parting the grass as it moved. Perhaps they were safe.
And then the grass around them exploded.
A grown man dove out of the cover, a tabula thrumming in his hand. He wasn’t the only; two others on opposite ends of the wagon charged forward, all screaming. As the man roared, something leaped out of the grass, a mass that had no right to be there as it barreled out of nothingness.
The man hadn’t seen the boy; he was attacking the wagon. The thing from the grass though…
It sunk sharp claws into the camelopard’s side, too fast for the big guy to react. The boy screamed, pummeling his scrawny fists on the thing digging into his friend’s side.
The lion slipped off, not so much out of pain but annoyance. It had left long red gashes in the big guy’s side, and now turned its attention on the boy. The boy realized that he had just tried to attack a fully grown male lion with his bare hands.
“Yike,” he muttered, a little shocked. “That was stupid.”
And then the lion had knocked the air out of his lungs, pinning him to the ground. A claw traced lightly over the boy’s chest, and the lion growled, a low deep sound that rumbled through the boy’s entire body. A smoldering intelligence burned behind its yellow glare.
Through watering eyes, the boy saw the big guy raise his hooves. A well placed kick and-
And the lion’s mane burst into flame with a deafening whoosh, causing the big guy to stumble back, screaming hoarsely. The lion did not even spare the big guy a glance, still intent on the boy.
As the grass began to blacken and burn around them, as heated air billowed in his face, the boy took comfort in the fact that if the lion wanted to kill him, it would have done so already. Some comfort, anyway. It was hard to ignore the fact that the cloth wraps around his pinned feet were starting to smoke.
“There they were,” said a voice, over the crackle of the flames. “Pyrr, get off, he needs to be alive if I want to sell him.”
The lion snarled, but backed away, as the man stepped lightly out of the wagon.
“Don’t bother fighting, boy, your master’s already down. Just come quietly and I promise not to hurt y- ugh!” The slaver’s talk was interrupted as the boy ran headfirst into him. He didn’t even bother to punch or kick; he simply shot from the ground and slammed into the man’s gut with whatever part reached him first.
“Fucking-.” The man didn’t finish his swear, as a rock-hard hoof hit him in the head. His skull snapped back with a crack. The boy didn’t know if the man would get up after that. It didn’t matter. He had to run.
The big guy fell into stride beside him as the boy dashed away, but his progress was impeded by a sharp tug around his midsection. His belt! The boy turned around. The robber looked dead on his feet, but his hand was locked around the boy’s belt and there was a manic expression in his eyes.
The poorly tied knot came loose, and the boy tumbled forward, skinning his knees and elbows as he fell onto the dirt.
He heard a low chuckle, and his hands immediately went to his waist. The tabula- her tabula, where had it gone?
“Got you now, you little shit,” said the man, grinning.
Three amber disks glinted in his hand.
Ell was a blur with his knife. In that moment, Jova was reminded that Da was not just her father: he was also the slave who had fought his way to freedom in the arenas of the Marble Stronghold, the city of soldiers, with nothing but a broken shiv. And if ever she doubted Da’s stories of his journey to freedom, she did not doubt them now.
Jova felt a rough hand grab her as Ell pushed her back into safety.
Meanwhile, Rituu stumbled backwards, arms raised. From the ground, Jova saw Gopal reaching for his neck. She couldn’t make out what he was holding in the dim light- but she could guess.
Ell had forced Rituu to the ground, a knee on his chest while he raised his knife high, but before he could stab down a harsh shriek tore through the air. Dead leaves swirled in a violent ball around them, and when they broke a dark shape had materialized within. It flapped massive wings, beating gusts of air so powerful that Jova had to shield her eyes and look away.
The thing Gopal had summoned screamed, flapping up, breaking past the canopy. Leaves from the disrupted trees jostled around them, and through the newly made hole in the treetops Jova could see its silhouette, tucking in its wings- all four of them- close to its body, turning in the air, and plummeting.
At speeds Jova did not think possible, the creature dove directly towards her father. He moved to dodge it, but it was as if a rock tried to dodge the wind. The creature hit him squarely in the chest, raking his body with talons the size of Jova’s whole arm, biting forward with a fanged mouth.
A sleek form barreled into it from the side, snarling. Mo entwined himself around the beast’s wings, his burn scars glistening in the moonlight, preventing it from flapping to safety as he bit and snapped at the creature’s neck. Both rolled away, grappling in the dirt, but no sooner had that happened did Ma arrive on the scene, murder in her eyes.
The weaseldog disentangled himself from Gopal’s creature, just as Ma stepped up to it. The winged beast turned and hissed at Ma, baring sharp fangs. For its trouble, Ma seized its neck and slammed her fist squarely into its head. There was a sharp crack as the creature fell to the side, wings flapping helplessly, dazed but not dead.
Jova had finally gathered herself, and she stumbled forward, screaming. “Stop! Ma, Da, stop! They’re friends! I’m helping them!”
Ma, who had been about to crush the creature’s skull with her fist, froze, while Mo backed away, tail between his legs. Da forced himself to sit up, bleeding from his chest, while Gopal dragged the similarly bleeding Rituu away to safety. The little girl, Sri, surreptitiously dropped the heavy branch she had picked up after the bird creature had crashed through the trees. Two men were bleeding, debris was scattered across the now ruined path, and the local innkeepers were now stumbling out of the door in their nightclothes.
All in all, the fight had lasted about ten seconds.
“They’re my friends,” Jova repeated, breathless. She had not fought, yet her heart was still pumping so fast she felt she might throw up. She was no stranger to blood, but all the same she was grateful that the night was so dark. “They were just lost. I was helping them find the way.”
Da took off his torn shirt, wincing as he wrapped it around his chest to stymie the bleeding. “You disappeared in the middle of the night and next thing I know I see three strangers following behind you in the dark.” He tossed his knife aside and spat, as Ma bent down to help him with his wounds. “That makes a father worry, little Lady.”
“Mo was with me,” said Jova. The weaseldog was squaring off against Gopal’s creature, growling as they paced around each other. “He wouldn’t have been so calm if I was in danger.”
“Never mind that, Jova!” snapped Ma, and there was real anger in her voice. “Do you have any idea how worried you made us? Any idea, at all? Have you listened to a word we ever said? There are dangerous people out there- bad people that will hurt you given half the chance. Don’t ever, ever go away like that again.”
Jova felt her cheeks go red. She looked down, wishing she could hide but knowing that she was not yet dismissed. She had just wanted to go for a walk; she couldn’t sleep. She had thought her parents were still sleeping. It wasn’t my fault, she thought.
The fact that it was, though, made her angry.
And what exactly was her fault? Her parents, distraught. Rituu, bleeding from a stab wound in his shoulder. The glaring, mistrustful eyes of the girl who Jova had wanted so dearly to befriend.
“You did not tell me your parents were summerborn, Jova girl,” said Rituu. There was still joviality in his voice, although it was forced through gritted teeth. “Fierce, they are. Like tigerbeetles.”
“I formally apologize for attacking you,” said Da, stiffly, his upbringing among the marblemen coming back. “It was wrong of me to do so.”
“I apologize for my partner calling his bathawk to kill you,” said Rituu. “Speaking of which: Gopal, call it off.”
Gopal spoke quietly, in a low whisper that Jova could not hear.
“Gopal,” Rituu said, loudly. “Call it off.”
“Hrmph,” said Gopal, rising. He flapped his arms at the wounded bathawk, which shrieked again as it raised its wings. “Go, Jiralla! Shoo!” The bathawk flapped away, breaking a few more tree branches in apparent anger.
“It doesn’t like me,” explained Rituu. “Gopal is strong enough to control it, I think, but the rat with wings is clever. One day, I swear the thing will pick me up in my sleep and fly away to eat me.”
There was forced laughter, as both parties helped their own up. “Being scared of your partner’s beast,” said Ell, shaking his head. “I can relate, friend.”
Rituu beamed, his smile visible as they staggered back to the inn. The innkeepers squabbled in front of the door, one with a weapon in hand while the other tried to shove it out of sight.
They ushered the newcomer family in first. One of the innkeepers offered to fetch hot water and bandages for Rituu, who nodded gratefully. “They even heal your complimentary knife wound for you,” Jova overheard Rituu saying. “Told you this place was a good idea.”
Jova began to trail behind them, determined to at least say something– an apology, a greeting, anything- to Sri before the night was out, but she felt a tug on her shoulder.
“You, little Lady, are coming with us,” said Ma, pulling her up the stairs. “You are going to think about tonight, and then you are going to sleep because we have a long way to go tomorrow.”
They faltered on the stairs as Da leaned on the walls, trying to catch his breath as red stained the makeshift bandage around his chest.
“You go and get some help down there too, dear,” said Ma, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder as she guided him back down the stairs. Jova stood out of the way, watching. “Get it cleaned and fixed.”
Da nodded. He patted Jova on the head as he passed her. “Some friends you made, little Lady. I promise not to kill them.”
As reassurances went, it was the best Jova hoped to get. She followed her mother glumly up the stairs, and went to sleep for the remainder of the night with Ma’s arms wrapped tightly around her, Mo standing watch in front of the window.
The next morning came too soon. Jova woke up sore and groggy; she hadn’t realized how much she had been tossed around during the fight, or how late it had been when she finally returned. Ma kept protective hands on Jova’s shoulders, escorting her all the way downstairs to the dining table.
Jova sniffed. The smell of frying oil did a little to wake her up, and as she and Ma walked in she saw sausages sizzling in front of Rituu and his partners. What they were made of, it was best not to ask: the baypeople around Jhidnu were willing to cook just about any kind of meat into just about any form. It was an acquired taste, but one Jova had grown up with.
“Ah!” said Rituu, clapping his hands. He had been commiserating with Da, both of them drinking morning ale out of mugs. He was the only who seemed happy to see them; to Jova’s chagrin, Gopal’s and Sri’s expressions were still dark and unyielding. “Come, come, come! Eat with us, so that we may cement our bonds of friendship.”
Ma sat, one arm still around Jova as they slid onto the long wooden bench. Jova reached for a sausage, but Ma grabbed her hand. So far the food remained untouched. They had waited for them.
As the innkeepers brought in the last of the steaming meal, Gopal put his hands together and closed his eyes. Sri and Rituu followed suit, and with a jump Jova joined in the blessing before bounty.
Gopal made the sign of summer, tracing a circle on his left shoulder. “The Lady Summer bless us, we give you thanks. May we be strong, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
“Fortune be with you,” intoned the rest.
“-be with you,” said Jova, late. Her parents often didn’t say the blessing; there wasn’t much time for prayer when they ate quick breakfasts on the run, but today seemed to be an exception.
Jova reached for the sausages again, but Ma slid a bowl of porridge in front of her before she could. It was grainy and thick, but sweetened with honey and Jova was content with it for now.
“You can’t back out of being friends now,” Rituu said, happily. “The custom of my people is that once you share a meal together, you have forged an unbreakable bond.”
“Your people?” echoed Jova. She had assumed that Rituu was from Jhidnu, like the rest of them, from his style of dress. Some people swore they could tell where someone was from just by their skin tone; Jova didn’t put much stock in that. What could they do, tell how long the days were at home by the tan of their skin? Did that mean all the pale merchant lords of Jhidnu-by-the-Sea were from the Seat of Winter, and all the tanned workers in the fields of Alswell hailed from Da’atoa? Preposterous.
“Yes, my people,” said Rituu, his arms extending once more in theatrical gestures. Jova saw Gopal roll his eyes again beside him, but he was smiling, which was a good sign. Ma and Da were watching with interest; perhaps this would convince them that Rituu was a good person, and that he had meant no harm. Perhaps this would make up for last night. Evidently this happened quite often. “You see, I am not from Jhidnu.”
“You told me you were the apprentice-heir of a plutocrat,” said Jova, accusatory. “You told me you sold spices.”
“And I do,” said Rituu, winking. “But I have traveled far to make my own fortune on the coast of the east. I have begged on the streets of the Seat of the King. I have slept among the marshmen of Kazakhal. I have traveled far and wide from my homeland to reach this place!”
“I don’t like this one as much,” said Gopal, spooning his porridge. Jova stared. It was the first time she could remember him talking to her. “The story has no conflict and the fibs aren’t as interesting.”
“That’s because they’re true, which should make it the most interesting of my stories,” said Rituu. He shook his head. “Ack, if Gopal doesn’t like it, then piss all. I won’t waste time on the build-up. I’m from Shira Hay, Jova girl. When the plainspeople eat together, it is a sign of trust.”
Ma and Da were talking in hushed tones, but Jova was enraptured.
“Shira Hay? Where is that?” She remembered only once seeing a man who was visibly from Shira Hay; he had been wearing a long cloak and an even longer scarf despite the sweltering heat of that day, searching for books on the bazaar.
“Far to the west,” said Rituu. “My people are renowned for being travelers, nomads, and explorers. I’ve come a long way, true, but so do they all.” He laughed, drinking deeply from the mug. “What’s the saying? The first thing a plainsman does when he becomes a man is leave the plains. The people of Shira Hay are not very good at staying put.”
“Could you tell me how you got here?” said Sri, suddenly. She looked up at her father with wide, earnest eyes, and since she was interested Jova was interested too. “You’ve never told me that story before.”
“How I got here?” Rituu sniffed, his nose wrinkling. “As I remember it…”
Jova’s untouched porridge grew cold. Jova herself leaned forward, eager for more.
“Walking. Lots and lots of walking.” Rituu laughed at the crestfallen expressions on both the girls’ faces. “It’s a dull story and one I’ll tell you later. Give me time to think of a few good fibs and I promise you won’t regret it.”
Jova was beginning to like Rituu’s stories, even if some parts weren’t true. She didn’t see why Gopal was irritated by them. A little rebellious part of her whispered that Ma and Da never told stories like that.
“Now, Gopal here hadn’t walked a mile outside of Jhidnu-by-the-Sea when I first met him,” said Rituu. “Saw ships coming into the bay every single fuc- fuzzy day and never once thought about getting onto them. Ships from all over Albumere! Junks from Mont Don, reed rafts from Hak Mat Do, even spiderwhales from strange Kazakhal.”
“Spiderwhales?” whispered Jova.
Rituu’s voice grew low. “Oh, aye, spiderwhales. You’ve never seen one? I wasn’t lying when I said I slept in Kazakhal; with my own eyes, I’ve seen marshmen raise the beasts. Skin so slippery you can’t even hold them, black and white all over, with eight legs and eight eyes always moving. The biggest ones are the size of this whole inn! Monsters that can carry a dozen men and all their cargo across the sea, and when they reach the shore they just have to crawl up on the docks, no anchors or unloading.”
Jova leaned back in her chair, eyes distant. Perhaps one day she could see the famed spiderwhale. She looked to the side. Could Mo carry any of their packs, like these spiderwhales did? He probably could, but wouldn’t. Mo liked to run free.
“What was I saying? Oh, Gopal! Gopal had worked the docks for twenty years and never thought to leave them. Never even set foot on anything that wasn’t cobblestones or wooden planks.” Rituu grinned and slapped Gopal on the thigh. “When-.”
Gopal put a hand on Rituu’s shoulder. He glanced at the innkeepers in the kitchen, and then at Ma and Da, who were still talking quietly. “Maybe you don’t need to tell them about us, Rituu.” Gopal hadn’t touched his food either. He looked nervous. “They might not be…sympathetic.”
Rituu hesitated, and worry flickered on his face. It lasted just a moment, before he smiled and laughed. “Yes, well, that’s another story I’ll have to save, Jova girl.”
Jova cocked her head. They seemed to be hiding something (Gopal was, at least) but what, she couldn’t tell.
“Gopal and I found Sri just a little while later,” said Rituu, nodding.
“Some adventurer type was auctioning her off,” Gopal said. He spoke as if he was trying to keep the story on-course. “We traded for her with a Wilder longbow and a couple steel arrowheads.”
“Adventure boy didn’t need a kid, we didn’t need arrowheads.” Rituu ruffled the little girl’s head. “I always tell her she’s worth more than just a couple bits of steel.”
Sri looked away, embarrassed.
“I’ve been talking too much.” Rituu shook his head. “In Jhidnu, I learned that everything has a price! Go on, Jova girl. What are you, civil or wild? How did mister Ell and his lovely wife find you, huh?”
Jova opened her mouth, intending to say all that she knew: that Ma and Da had never told her, had never wanted to talk about it. Ma cut in at that moment, though.
“We found her in the wilds, alone. Poor girl was so lost, we couldn’t just leave her. It must have been just days after she left her hollow; she doesn’t even remember. Ell and I have been taking care of her ever since,” said Ma, looking Rituu directly in the eye, a half-smile on her face.
That was Ma’s lying expression.
Rituu nodded in understanding, although Jova saw Gopal looking at her, brow furrowed and eyes narrowed. They met each other’s gaze, and then Gopal nodded slowly. They both had secrets better left unsaid. Neither would pry into them.
“Jova girl tells me you’re going to Moscoleon? What do you plan to do at the Grand Temple, hmm?” Rituu grinned. It was an innocent question.
“Jhidnu has grown unsafe lately. The plutocrats are not guarding the roads as they should and there is a hostility to the air that was not there before,” Da said. “We go to Moscoleon for the protection of the Holy Keep and of the Ladies Four. Perhaps we shall find more spiritual protection there as well.” Again, it came out too quickly, like Da had rehearsed it.
“Ah! Wonderful!” Rituu looked at his traveling companions. “We go for the same reason. Gopal’s been going on and on about how the roads are unsafe, but perhaps if we were six and not three…” He trailed off, leaving the proposition unsaid.
“Jova, eat quickly, we should go soon,” whispered Ma.
“My chest is still a little uncomfortable,” said Ell, quickly. “I’ll be traveling slow for another few days. Really, we’d just hold you back.”
“Oh, no, you don’t get that excuse.” Rituu patted his heavily bandaged shoulder. “We’ll travel slow together. What do you say? We ate the meal together, we shared our trust. We will walk the same roads anyway, so why not go together?”
Jova couldn’t see the problem. She held Ma’s hand, and looked up, pleading.
Ma shared a glance with Da, and bit her lip. “The rest of the trip is short,” she said. “Perhaps we can travel together for just a little longer.”
Jova smiled. This would be her chance to talk with Sri. And this time, nothing would go wrong.
“What the fuck are you eating? Your breath stinks, kid,” the woman said.
The boy dug away near the water while the camelopard browsed on a nearby tree. “It’s the bulb grass,” said the boy, hands reaching underground to pluck out the tuber. “I like it and the rest of me stinks just as bad anyway.”
“Bulb grass? That’s not grass, that’s a fucking onion.” The woman put her head in her hands and groaned. “There’s too much damage done here. Next thing you know you’re gonna forget what wheels are again.”
The boy stared blankly at the woman.
“The round things on the bottom of the cart.”
“Oh. Right.” The boy turned back to his meal. He gave the bulb grass—onion, he mentally corrected himself—a cursory wash before biting in. It was sweet and sharp and wonderful, and with food in his mouth and shade over his head, the boy didn’t care much about wheels.
“You’re fucking hopeless.” The woman rose to her feet. “Why are you still here? I told you to leave me alone.”
“Only water on the way, yeah? We go same way, we drink same water.”
“I told you about the water. You wouldn’t even know about it if it wasn’t for me!”
The boy shrugged, taking another bite. “Doesn’t change that this the only water on the way. Same way, same water. No big.”
The woman slumped across from him, dabbling her bare feet in the watering hole. The boy did the same. Despite the woman’s yelling, it was nice under the grove. Patches of trees like these were rare in the grasslands: not because of their scarcity, but because they never seemed to stay in one place. Perhaps that was the long grass’s work, always twisting and turning and being deceitful.
It was peaceful. Overhead, the big guy chewed on leaves while the ox systematically mowed down all the grass around the tree. They seemed to be getting along better than their owners.
The woman wrinkled her nose. “Hey, kid, I got a name for you. Stink.”
Self-consciously, the boy looked at himself. He dabbled his hands, which he had wrapped with the remains of his shirt, in the water, and gave himself a few short, hard scrubs with the now damp rags. “I clean myself up. I smell better. No stink, yeah?”
“You still stink,” said the woman, flatly.
“I don’t like Stink. Stink isn’t a good name.” The boy shook his head. “And you still don’t tell me your name. You have a name? Is it a good name?”
“Civilized folk call me Loom. Loom the carpet merchant.” The woman looked in his eyes for some kind of reaction, but the boy’s face did not even twitch. “Ah, fuck it, you’re too stupid to get it.”
The boy thought about the name for a moment. Loom. It had a way of stretching out the lips. “I don’t like it,” he said. “It’s a stinky name.”
“What other names have you heard? That’s right, none. It’s the only name you’ve ever fucking known,” said the woman, more annoyed than indignant.
The boy held up his index finger. “I know one sun. Very hot. I know one camelopard. Very tall. I know one world. Very big. And now I know one name. Very stinky.”
“Well, guess what, in the real world you don’t get to choose your own name,” the woman, Loom, said, as she laid back onto the ground with a grunt. She rested, with her hands behind her head, staring up at the azure sky. “And since you’re not meeting nobody out here, it’s my job to give you a name, and I guarantee it’ll be at least as shitty as mine.”
“Shitty’s fine,” said the boy. “But not stinky.”
“Kid, do you even understand what shit is?”
There was a pause, as the boy pondered the question. “No,” he said, finally. “But I want a name that is shitty not stinky.”
“Well, that’s difficult,” said Loom. She scratched her nose and closed her eyes, but kept talking. “The two are close.”
“Close is not always.” The boy scrubbed his cheeks with his wet palms and rose. He watched Loom out of the corner of his eye as he walked to the two beasts. The camelopard had his head buried in the charred remains of a lightning-struck tree, staining his snout with soot.
“What’s he doing?” asked Loom, looking up.
“He eats the burned bits,” said the boy. “He likes them.”
“Shit’s bad for his stomach. Make him spit it out.”
“Naw, I can’t do that. Big guy does what he likes, yeah?” The camelopard ignored him, which the boy took as a yes.
Loom grunted. “Then both of you’s is dumb as fuck.”
The boy rubbed the camelopard around the neck, and the creature swished his tail. “Hey, big guy, want a name like his? Pash?”
The ox raised his head at the mention of his name, but seeing that nothing else was forthcoming returned to his meal.
“Deppash was the name of the duarch who saw Shira Hay through the Time of Broken Chains,” said Loom, from the side of the pool. “It’s a very scholarly name with honor and tradition behind it.”
The boy looked to the camelopard. “Sounds stupid, yeah?”
The camelopard nodded in agreement, although that may have just been him moving on to more verdant branches.
“Yeah. You just the big guy, big guy.”
The big guy seemed content with that.
With a grunt, the boy sat down beside the big guy at the base of the tree. The oasis refuges scattered throughout the grasslands were always a welcome respite; the wide thorntrees provided ample shade from the high sun, and water was always a commodity in a place so dry and so hot. The boy would have stayed put and lived in one all his life if he could have.
But there was a reason why they were called the walking groves, even if no one knew the precise method behind it. Staring up at the tall, stiff tree, the boy had a hard time imagining that it could move at all. Yet, time and time again, whenever the boy found one of the life-giving groves, it disappeared by morning, even the watering holes and the dead leaves on the ground.
Sometimes he would stare out at the grass and wonder if perhaps he was the one who had moved: if the waving grass had somehow just carried him away, like a gentle breeze, while he was asleep. Staring out at the ceaseless undulations, it seemed just plausible enough to believe.
“You remember the first one of these we ended up in?” said the boy, scratching the big guy’s side. “The one that brought us here?”
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Loom stir.
“Big tree. I came first, just popped up in the empty bit.” The boy wrinkled his nose, reaching back through his foggy mind. “Trees all around us, all bent in, like they were…like they were bowing or something to the big tree in the middle.”
“The hollow,” said Loom.
The boy jumped. He had spent so long talking to himself, and to the big guy, that he had forgotten that other people could listen in, let alone respond.
“It’s called a hollow,” she repeated.
“The big tree. And the empty bit in the middle, I suppose.” The boy saw for a brief moment a look of consternation on Loom’s face. “It’s a bit confusing, but that’s what city folk call them. Hollows. Hell, even wild men call them that. Hollows have hollows, see? It’s easy to remember.”
The boy edged a little bit closer forward, eager for more. After all those years talking to himself, just listening felt like something strange, exotic, exciting.
“Some people call them holy hollows. Think of them as little gods. They worship them and leave behind little trinkets for them.” Loom coughed. “Some people, anyway. Not civilized folk. Wild men that never heard of the Ladies Four.”
“…Who are the Ladies Four?”
“Ah, forgot who I’m talking to. Stupid fucking kid.” Loom opened her arms to the sky. “They’re the true goddesses. Makers of Albumere, divine watchers of the above, players of the game of worlds, all that bullshit.”
The boy chewed his lip. “Is the bullshit good or bad?”
“It’s…” Loom struggled to speak for several seconds. “Fuck it. Forget about it.”
The boy shook his head vigorously. “I don’t want to forget anything.”
“It’s a figure of speech, Summer burn it. You trying to piss me off or are you really that dumb?” Loom looked angry, although the boy was quickly learning that anger seemed to be her default state of existence. “Point is, the hollows are just a bunch of fucking trees. Don’t bother with them.”
The boy nodded even if he did not understand. The tree- the hollow- had brought him here to the land of grass. It had power, and from what the boy could remember of gods that made it worthy of worship. These Ladies had never appeared for him. They had not given him food or water or shade or the disks in his belt. He decided that trees made better gods, although he did not say it aloud. It would have made Loom angry.
He had other questions, though. “What is Albumere?”
“This is bullshit. Now I know you’re fucking with me…” Loom grumbled.
The boy’s eyes went wide. Loom had entered a rare talkative mood; he felt as if he had just scared off his next meal with a too loud step. “No!” he cried. “There is none of the fucking with you!”
Loom sighed and sat up. She seemed resigned to accept that she wasn’t getting any rest anytime soon, and glared at the boy for it. There was disgust in her eyes, but oddly pity, too. Empathy. Perhaps a touch of recognition, although that the boy was probably misinterpreting. He did not have much experience reading other people’s eyes.
“Don’t say that word.”
“The bullshit word or the fucking word?”
“Both of them.”
“But you say them all the time!”
“That’s cause I’m not a dumb fucking kid, you dumb fucking kid,” Loom said. “And to answer your question, so you don’t look like a complete idiot when we reach Shira Hay, Albumere is this.” She gestured all around her.
The boy looked at the trees. “This?” he asked, skeptically.
Loom followed his gaze. “No, no, bigger than that.”
“That?” the boy asked, pointing out towards grasslands beyond.
Bigger than the grasslands? The mere thought was inconceivable. The boy had spent four years walking them, and not even once had the horizon ever been broken by anything more than just…grass.
The boy scratched his chin. “Albumere is…the world?”
“And a little more than that, if you believe what the electors have to say,” said Loom. “Me, I don’t bother with it too much.”
While Loom seemed nonchalant, even bored, the boy’s mind buzzed. A world beyond the grass. He had given it thought, yes, but it had always existed as an abstraction, like a world beyond the sky. He reached into his belt, and took out the girl’s disk, wiping it with his thumb.
Four years searching, but he had never even come close to the golden vision in the disk…
He had resolved to find her. That much had long ago passed from a promise to simple fact. It would happen, and the boy did not even consider that it wouldn’t. But now he began to wonder, truly wonder: how big was Albumere? How long would he have to search?
Loom craned her head. “What’s that you got there?”
The boy jumped, and tried to hide the disk away. People were watching him now, too. He would have to be more careful about his disks with Loom, in case she tried to take them. Although…
A part of him wanted to show her what he had. It wanted to show off, to the first and only person who cared enough to listen.
“They’re my disks,” he said, pulling out his other two. “I found them in the hollow.”
The merchant took them one at a time, cradling them in her palms with care that the boy had not thought possible from her. She flipped through them, her critical eyes examining. The first, she held between her fingers, and muttered, “Show me.”
The disk vibrated to life faster than it ever had for the boy. His eyes widened, and he looked up at the woman in awe. Loom hadn’t even twitched, whereas whenever the boy did it he was covered in sweat and his sides ached. How had she done that?
The disk reflected an oddly pastoral scene. With a start, the boy realized he was looking at himself; it was difficult to see the fractured images at the wrong angle, but he could make out his silhouette, sitting next to Loom. He glanced up, wondering if he could catch the eye of the disk as it stared at him, but the air around him was void and empty.
Loom slid the boy’s disk to her other hand, and pressed the next one. “Show me.” This time the image was from above, looking down at the big guy’s placid face as he chewed on a leaf. Loom slid that one aside as well.
She furrowed her eyebrows as she pinched the third one, though. “You’ve been holding out on me?”
The boy shook his head, wondering what Loom meant.
“You got another tabula, you got another beast. Show me.” And the disk vibrated, and the girl was there. The boy stared. She was in a copse of trees, walking. She looked happy, and unconsciously the boy began to smile. He wondered if her trees ever walked away. He would ask when he gave the disk back.
For a moment, Loom stared at it, not understanding. “How long you had this?” she asked, holding up the girl’s disk.
“As long as the other two, yeah?”
Loom stared at the disk again. “And you never bothered to summon her?”
Despite himself, the boy remembered. Claws raking his face, harsh screaming, pain. “No,” he said, looking away. “I find her, I give it back. I don’t bring her here. Not here, not this place.”
“Give it…?” Loom trailed off. She shook her head. “Dumb kid. Extra set of hands, extra set of eyes. Would have helped, is all I’m saying. If you were worried about an extra mouth, you could have dumped her anytime you wanted to. Dumb as fuck. Who you gonna sell it to, anyway? You don’t meet anybody out here.”
Suddenly, the boy did not feel like sharing his disks with Loom anymore. He reached for them and tugged, but Loom’s grip was firm.
Their eyes met, and for a moment the boy felt his guts twist as he realized he would not be able to get those disks back no matter how hard he fought. But then Loom’s expression softened, and she let go.
“I’m gonna tell you something right now, kid,” she said. “And if you listen to one thing I ever say, listen to this, OK? Never give someone your tabula.”
The boy clutched his disks- tabula- close to his chest.
“Anyone who holds your tabula holds you, do you understand? You can’t hide from them because they’ll see you. You can’t run from them because they’ll bring you back. You can’t fight them because they can hurt you. And you can’t rebel from them because they will make you obey.” Loom looked him directly in the eye, earnest, not angry. “There’s one thing that people like us got that civilized folk never had: we’re free. Hold onto that freedom. Guard it. At the end of the day, it’s all you get.”
The boy nodded.
Loom leaned back, her intensity gone. She looked aside, searching for something else to say. “You’re not as dumb as you act,” she said. “Grabbing three tabula out of your hollow, that’s smart. Most kids only grab theirs, but then again most kids don’t make it.”
“Four,” the boy muttered.
“I got four when I left the hollow.”
A pause, and then a nod of understanding. “You lost one, huh? It happens. You move on.”
The boy frowned. Despite walking from place to place all his life, moving on was something he had never quite been able to do.
Loom coughed. “If you fetch a couple more sweet onions, I could put together a decent meal. We could share it, eat in the wagon while we wait out the heat.”
Behind him, the camelopard gave the boy an encouraging prod with a hoof. Numbly, the boy bent down to inspect the plants growing around the pool. The onions had been the first food he had when he arrived in the grasslands; they held a special place in his heart, and his stomach.
Hands squelching in the mud, the boy couldn’t help but stare as Loom brought out a bronze pot to boil water. Now, that would have been useful. It looked like it could carry so many things! And if Loom would let him handle it, he could see if it fit on his head…
The more the boy stared, the more amazed he was. His jaw hung openly, and he could not seem to tear his eyes away from the spectacle. How had they possibly shaped the metal in such a way? How was it so shiny?
“Are you rich?” asked the boy, as Loom dipped the pot into the water.
She snorted. “Hardly.”
“Do they have a lot of those in the city?”
“Tons. They’re a touch more expensive than the old clay pots, but I like these since they’re durable. One carpet could fetch me about three of them if I traded to the right person.” Loom noticed the boy’s expression. “Don’t gawk like that in the city, kid, people will notice how stupid you are. They’ll take advantage of you.”
“Does it have a name, this city?”
“Shira Hay,” said Loom. “Well, technically Shira Hay is the name of the city and the name of the lands around it.” She pointed around her. “All this.”
“But less than all this,” said the boy, opening his scrawny arms wide as he had when indicating Albumere, and smiling even wider.
Loom looked like she was about to laugh at that one, but she restrained herself to just a smile as she said, “Yes, less than all that.”
“So it is like a hollow inside the hollow, yeah? Shira Hay in the Shira Hay?”
Loom nodded. “At least you’ve got a good memory, dumb kid.”
The boy squirmed, not knowing what to say, and turned back to his work. He had almost forgotten that he was supposed to be gathering food now. After several minutes of labor, he had managed to uproot one of the vegetables, firm and cool. “Can you tell me about Shira Hay?” he asked, as he proffered it to Loom.
She took it with a single nod of thanks. “Shira Hay is next to a river called Gammon. Have you seen it?”
The boy’s face twisted as he tried to remember. “I think I see a river once. Lot of water going one way, yeah?”
“If you thought you saw a river, then it wasn’t the Gammon. It splits the whole city right in two. You want to cross it, you take the Rassay Bridge. The thing’s fucking massive. If you thought a shit old pot was impressive, the Ladies will drop you dead when you see Rassay.” Loom’s face brightened. “The Twin Libraries stand on both sides of the bridge. They’re chock full of books- I bet you’ve never even seen a book- but it’s full of them, full of people writing them, full of people reading them. The electors- those are the scholars- they’re all across the city, wearing their scarves and their cloaks. They study on the Rassay sometimes; whole classes of them, like flocks of birds, shouting and teaching and debating. And then, when you get to the outskirts of the city…”
Loom sighed. “I talk too much. I ain’t spoiling it for you. You should see it for yourself.”
The boy’s face fell as Loom turned away. “No, please! Tell me more!”
She shook her head. “No, kid, I’m no good with words. You just wait and take it all in without me ruining it for you.”
He was hungry, though, for more. Gammon and Rassay flickered like phantoms in his mind; he could not even begin to imagine the breadth of the river, or how many books the libraries allegedly contained. His appetite whet, the boy starved for details. “Please?” he begged. “Just a little more about the libraries, then, or the electors, yeah?” He crawled forward on his knees, muddy hands clasped together.
Loom snorted and shoved him away. “Relax, kid. You’ll see them when we- when you– get there.”
There was a pause, as the boy backed away and the little fire bubbled underneath the pot.
Then Loom said, “Tell you what. I’ll show you around Shira Hay, the full tour. But after that, you leave me alone, you hear me?”
The boy smiled. It was a start.
She traced a figure-eight in the dirt, the shadows and contours barely visible by the light of the fires inside the inn, shrouded in the shade of the night. Jova tapped her stick on the ground, shivering in the chill air. There was a vague, restless itch in her chest, but despite (or perhaps because of) the uncharacteristically cold air, she didn’t feel like moving.
“Jova, dear, what are you doing? Come inside now.” Ma stood behind the frame of the door, frowning. The light from the hearth inside illuminated her silhouette and cast a long, distorted shadow over the sand. “It’s time to sleep.”
Jova scratched her chest and stared out at the distant coast. She didn’t feel like sleeping. Recently she had begun to suspect that sleep was what Ma made her do just to keep her quiet. The eight-year old shifted from her squatting position and sat heavily on the ground, her back turned and arms folded around her knees: a small rebellion, but all the rebellion she had.
The shadow moved, and Jova felt her mother’s arms wrap around her. Jova let her arms fall to her sides, and relaxed. The brief anger she felt at her mother melted away, as quickly as it had flared.
“I’m sorry, little Lady,” Ma said, rocking her back and forth. Her embrace was clumsy, but warm. “But you need rest for tomorrow. We’ve got a long way to walk.”
“We always have a long way to walk,” said Jova, sullen.
“So it shouldn’t be a surprise anymore, dear,” said Ma, with hints of both exasperation and affection. “Come on, I’ll walk you back upstairs.”
Jova’s arm trailed up as she held her mother’s hand. “Where are we going tomorrow?” she asked, as they climbed the wooden steps of the inn. Firelight lit both the top and bottom of the stairs, but the middle was a stretch of inky darkness. Jova clung close to her mother as they ascended.
“We’re going south,” said Ma. “Following the coast. We’ve nearly left the bay and we’ll be at the peninsula, soon.”
Jova took the steps one at a time, climbing the stairs carefully. “Why’s it taking so long?”
“Because it’s a long way.” Ma laughed.
“But why do we have to take the long way?” Jova looked up at her mother, her eyes searching. “We’ve been on the big roads with everybody else before. They go so much faster than the little twisty ones we always take.”
“We take the twisty roads, Jova,” Ma said, as she opened the door, “For your own good.”
“How’s it for my own good if I don’t want to go on the twisty roads? I want to go on the big ones.” Jova made no move to get into bed.
“Sometimes what’s good for you isn’t what you want to do,” said Ma, reaching over and lifting Jova onto her knees. “There are bad people on the big roads, little Lady. Bad people that might want to hurt you.”
Jova paused, thoughtful for a moment. “Will they stop once I’m grown up?”
Ma tilted her head quizzically.
“Because you always say they want to hurt me. Not us. Me. Is it because I’m not grown-up yet?” Jova stared at her mother, her eyes wide and earnest and imploring.
Ma seemed to struggle with her next words. “I’m afraid it doesn’t matter whether you’re grown-up or not, dear. You’re very special.”
Jova laid her head down to rest. “When will I stop being special?”
“Never, my little Lady,” said Ma, kissing her on the forehead and lying down to sleep as well. Da snored and twisted, and the three of them lay together on the thatch, warm in each other’s company.
Never. Jova scrubbed her eyes. Her mother always said she was special, but if small roads and long walks were what special entailed then she wanted no part of it. Jova adjusted herself, trying to get into a more comfortable position, and whispered, “Will there be kids where we’re going?”
Again, the slight pause. “Yes, Jova.”
“Can I play with them? Or are they bad people, too?”
Ma sighed: a deep, long, heavy sound. “I don’t know, Jova. I hope you can. I hope they’re not. We’ll see when we get to Moscoleon.”
Moscoleon: the clandestine haven Jova’s family had been wandering towards for more than a year. Perhaps it had been their destination for longer than that, or perhaps it was a temporary stop just like this inn. Perhaps Moscoleon would just add to the long list of settlements and villages they had wandered through, searching for…something.
Jova scratched the strangely vacant spot on her chest again. It wasn’t actually empty, it just felt that way. “Will I see any kids on the way there?”
“I don’t know, Jova.”
“It’s just that I really want to see another kid like me. With a Ma and a Da. Do they have those in Moscoleon?”
A soothing hand brushed back her travel-worn, dusty hair. “Go to sleep, now, dear. We’ll talk in the morning.”
Jova fell silent, even though her mind still buzzed with questions. Ma was always exceedingly gentle with her, like she was some porcelain ornament that would shatter at the slightest touch, but when she became frustrated or tired, it was evident in her expressions, and that always made Jova feel just a touch guilty. The child laid in bed, and waited until her mother’s breathing slowed.
Then she slipped out of the straw bed, tiptoed to the open window, and hopped out. As agile as a fall monkey, she slipped down the side of the inn without trouble, her dexterous fingers finding handholds in the cracked wood. Isolated as the twisty roads may have been, they had no lack of high trees for a child to practice climbing.
Landing on light feet, Jova took a moment to catch her breath. Her fingers stung, and she sucked at the splinters that dug into them.
She looked back. The old inn was falling apart from damp and age, but at least they had clean beds and hot food. The innkeepers had been almost relieved to see Jova’s family stay the night, and had taken new clothes from the city and fresh meat gratefully in return for a one-night stay. They had all eaten together just an hour ago, and the innkeepers had retired.
There had been no children, though. There never were.
Jova stepped out a little further, opening her arms to feel the full rush of the sea breeze that rippled through the night. Situated on an overhang less than a mile from the coast, the little inn at least could boast an undeniable view.
The beach stretched on, unbroken, as the waves lapped gently against it, and overhead a crescent moon hung low in the sky. The drooping eye of the Lady Fall, Da called it: it watched over everything and everyone but for one night every month, when the agents of the dark could operate in confidence while the Lady looked away.
Jova walked out, alone, enjoying the cool air.
A low, deep growl rumbled through the darkness. Jova did not flinch.
“Hey, Mo,” she said, smiling and reaching out to the snarling beast slouching out of the shadows. “Hey, old fella.”
The weaseldog whined and wagged his tail. He didn’t seem to mind the cold.
Jova’s hand brushed the weaseldog’s back at a mechanical, regular pace, and she sat back down in the sand, just as she had been before her mother brought her back inside.
Jova traced patterns in the sand: a circle, an arc, two lines, flowing and twisting and moving through each other. Imaginary colors danced under her fingers, reds and greens and blues that flowered and spun. Once, Da had given her a bottle of red finger dye from the Jhidnu market; Jova still remembered the coloring with a smile.
After a time, she got up.
Mo raised his head, and after just a small whine of protest, slunk after her. Her feet took her down a road of dirt, one she had walked once already. The first time had been with her parents, though. This time she walked in the opposite direction, alone except for Mo.
The light dimmed on the dirt road as the trees closed in. Even the Lady Fall’s gaze, it seemed, could not penetrate the thick canopy as it closed above her, and the darkness grew deeper.
It unsettled Jova, but not enough to make her turn back. The itching in her chest was too insistent. The little girl felt compelled to go back; it was as if she had left something behind and she had to get it back.
The woods were silent as Jova walked the quiet trail back, but Jova preferred the world that way. She shared the silence with nature. It was said that the Lady Winter spoke through the howl of the wind; that the Lady Summer spoke through the crackle of fire; that the Lady Fall spoke through the snap of dry leaves.
The Lady Spring, however, spoke not a word. Speech was the domain of Lady Spring’s children, but never Spring herself, and haughty though she may be the Lady was content to listen.
Jova shared the silence with the Lady Spring, and smiled. It would be their little secret.
Ma said that Jova didn’t act her age, which Jova took for granted as true. She had never met someone her age, or at least not for very long. There had been some slave children, on the road, but Ma and Da never let her see them, let alone talk to them. As for the wild children, the timid ones always ran on sight and the bold ones always tried to kill her.
Again, Jova wondered what meeting another child would be like. How strange it would have been, how exciting: a truly exotic experience.
Her happy waking dreams were interrupted by the creak of breaking branches. Jova froze, and turned to Mo for help, but the weaseldog had already disappeared into the underbrush. Only by looking could Jova see the two black beads for eyes, hiding in the bushes.
With a grunt, barely audible but still the loudest thing in the night, Jova scaled the closest tree: a thick, stable thing that supported her weight easily, although she had to reach and sometimes jump to reach the next branch.
There was another crack, as something moved in the darkness- towards her. The sounds were loud and obtrusive; the creature moving through the night either did not know or care about the sound it was making.
Jova sucked in breath, and looked down. She hadn’t gained enough height to take her out of range of a lionbear or a giant jackal. She needed to keep going up.
Her current branch was thick and firm, but Jova nevertheless shook it gently once or twice to make sure it would hold her weight. Unsteadily, she rose to a standing position, her hands swimming through the air to keep balance.
The sounds were getting closer. Crack, crack, crack. Not one creature, but many. Jova’s mind spun through the possibilities. A bullwolf pack, a flock of winter geese? The possibilities were near endless. Fauna in Albumere were as widespread and diverse as its people; animals were no exception to the Four Year’s Fallow and were scattered to the winds as infants as well.
Jova shook her head, and concentrated. Whatever was coming from for her, the basic principle was still the same: get to higher ground. She swung her arms, and bent her knees.
Her fingers caught onto the bark, but loose and peeling it split. Jova’s heart jumped to her throat as her fingers scrabbled for purchase on the branch. She found it, but barely. Clinging to a rapidly splintering handhold, Jova kicked her legs wildly to try and swing herself back to safety.
Mo whined and shuffled in the darkness, but before he could come out and help, the source of the noise approached.
Talking, using the path. They were people. Jova’s heart lifted, and then sunk just as quickly.
They could be bad people.
Grunting with exertion but still trying to stay silent, Jova used what arm strength she had to lift herself up to the branch she was clinging to. She made it about half-way before she slumped, energy spent. Her arms strained with her weight, and if she fell it would be at least thrice her height. Why, oh, why had she felt the need to go higher?
“Can’t see for shit,” said a voice. Male, low, gruff. Jova had said that last word once and both Ma and Da had snapped at her. Was that enough to confirm these were bad people? “Lady Summer give us light, are we even on the path anymore?”
“Lady Summer gave us light, it’s just that someone decided to take a piss in it,” muttered a sullen voice. Also male, also low, but with a different timbre to it.
They cursed at each other for a good minute, even as Jova’s grip grew even more tenuous. She gave herself perhaps ten seconds before her stretched and red fingers could hold on no longer.
“Piss all, I knew this was a bad idea,” said the first voice, finally. “Why’d we take the forest road in the first place?”
“Because the plutocrats aren’t as on top of things as they once were, are they? Bandits and brigands on the main road. Jhidnu’s not policing the regular paths as much anymore, so we take the path none of the bandits will use, didn’t we?”
Jova’s hands slipped. She closed her eyes, preparing herself for a long fall. It wouldn’t kill her, but it would hurt…
The sudden feeling of vertigo made her stomach lurch. As she fell, somehow she heard through the pounding in her ears. “Are we lost?” Soft, female.
And young like hers.
The Ladies grant my wish after all, thought Jova, dreamily.
And then she landed with a painful thump in the underbrush and a shock ricocheted through her ankles and up her legs as she tumbled over.
The girl yelled in surprise.
“What was that?” hissed the first. “Gopal, check it.”
“Probably just nothing,” said the second voice, although the quiver in his tone betrayed his doubt. Through the pain, Jova could hear the slick sound of metal on metal. Weapons being drawn.
Immediately, Mo snapped and exploded out of the brush, curling protectively over Jova’s body. More screams, more tension. No, no, Jova thought. It was all going wrong.
The first voice swore. “Back off, I think it’s wild! Sri, get behind me, come on. Just walk away slow…”
They weren’t supposed to just leave! Dizzy, Jova forced herself up and found the blood rushing to her head. She had to say something, she had to make them stop.
“Are you going to Moscoleon?” It was the first thing she could think of to say, and even as she shouted them she felt stupid. The words slurred and her head spinning, Jova nevertheless climbed up and over Mo’s back to gasp again, “Are you going to Moscoleon?”
The first voice was very fond of cursing. “What the hell are you doing back there, girl? Are you hurt? Is that thing yours?”
“I’m going to Moscoleon,” said Jova, her smile tired and a touch giddy. “I can take you there. Out of the forest, I mean. Since you’re lost.”
A hesitant pause. “Yeah. Let’s get you checked out first, girl. You wild? You got a crew nearby?”
“My name is Jova,” she said. “I’m not wild. My parents are nearby, at a traveler’s inn just down the path. It’s better than camping out in the night. There’s a hearth and everything. It’s dark, but I know the way.” She smiled wider.
At the mention of the inn, the men both stood a little straighter, not quite as hunched and wary, and the girl shuffled out from behind the first man’s back. At that, Mo relaxed visibly, his fur flattening to a reasonable size, his teeth no longer bared.
“Her parents, Gopal,” whispered the first man. Not quite low enough so that Jova couldn’t hear, but low enough that she was not part of the conversation: talking as if she wasn’t there. “They could be like us.”
“I doubt they’d be quite like us,” said the second one- Gopal, apparently. There was an odd inflection in his voice when he said ‘us,’ a slight bitterness. “But if there are beds and hot food I say go.”
“What about if she’s lying to us?” said the girl, from the back, in a small whisper. “What if it’s a trap?”
Jova felt her stomach sink. Why did the girl suspect her? What had she done wrong? “I’m not lying and it’s not a trap!” she shouted, and all three jumped. “There’s really a rest stop down there and my parents are really there! I promise!”
The first man clapped his hands together. “The girl promised. I suppose we’ve got to take her word for it now.”
“Rituu, what if she…” The second man trailed off, eying the weaseldog with his hand drumming the hilt of the knife at his belt. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“Do you have a better one, Gopal?” Rituu tromped up the path until he was standing right next to Jova; he smelled of sweat, but Jova did her best not to shrink away. “We go with her or we turn the fuck around, and I doubt that we’d go the same way walking backwards than forwards, know what I mean?”
Gopal still looked hesitant, but he walked forward all the same, pulling the girl behind him.
Jova lead the way happily, skipping as she walked. “It’s not too far from here. I was just walking when I found you.”
Rituu craned his head to look up at the canopy of trees. “You take walks in very odd places at very odd times, Jova girl. Scared the shit- the, erm, crap out of me. Scared me a lot is what I’m saying.”
As he drew level with Jova, the girl noticed how much bigger than her he was. Doubt stirred in her mind.
“Not that I don’t appreciate it,” said Rituu, shouldering his travel pack. It was a worn, dirty thing, made from cheap cloth and leather, like the one that Da wore. “We’re lost and the Ladies drop a little girl out of the sky to find us? Well, I ain’t trading a hammer for nails.”
Jova giggled, at ease with the stranger even as his companions trailed behind them. Truth be told, she did want to fall back and talk with the other girl: there were just so many things she wanted to ask her, so many things she wanted to compare, so many things she just wanted to do. The other girl, however, kept her distance.
“You talk a little funny,” she said, suppressing a smile. “Where are you from? Why are you going to Moscoleon? How long did it take you to get there?”
“Easy, Jova girl. Ask any more questions and I might really think this is a trap.”
“A trap with questions?” Jova cocked her head. The idea seemed strange. “What kind of trap can you make with questions?”
“A trap not to steal your belongings or your life, but your secrets,” said Rituu, laughing. He clapped Jova on the back. “Everybody’s got secrets. People pay a lot for the important ones.”
Rituu turned around, gesturing to his traveling companions. “Come on, she’s not going to bite you. Gopal, tell her about my secrets! Sri, she’s about your age. Come and talk with her.”
Gopal just snorted and turned his head. The girl, Sri, shrank behind Gopal like she had with Rituu, trying to put as many obstacles between her and Jova as she could. Jova pursed her lips.
“Well, I’ll give you a little one for free, Jova girl,” said Rituu, bending low as he walked. He whispered conspiratorially, and Jova had to lean in to hear. “I am secretly the apprentice-heir of a mighty Jhidnu plutocrat.”
From behind her, Jova could hear Gopal say in exasperation, “Oh, not this again.” Jova ignored him, her interest piqued.
“He’s a famous spice merchant, you see. Why, he’s got a thousand personal spices in his vaults made of gold, from all across the south.” Despite the darkness of the night, Jova could see Rituu’s face light up as he crafted his tale. “Flavors like you couldn’t imagine, with herbs from Kazakhal and peppers from the peninsula. And to fuel his business he has a hundred ships.”
“A hundred?” repeated Jova. The number was dizzying. She had seen a Jhidnu trading junk far out to sea once, while she was walking along the bay, with its bright red sails and sweeping oars like tiny, fluttering wings. Just one had seemed impressive enough. A hundred of them, dotted across the ocean… The scene it painted in Jova’s mind was picturesque.
“Oh, yes, a hundred boats. He has them ride all the way to Da’atoa for the thunder spices of the saltmen, which they say grow only during the most violent storms of the Drum Cliffs.”
And Jova saw them in her mind, vibrant and vivid: stony cliffs against a bruised sky, lightning spiking down around the dark silhouettes of the dancing Da’atoan people.
“And I, Jova girl, am making my way to Moscoleon for some very important business,” said Rituu the lost traveler, with his ripped clothes and his worn travel pack. “But that is the only free secret you shall get out of me, now.”
“That secret was free?” Jova grinned, her mind aflame just imagining the secrets that had a price.
“Oh, yes, Jova girl.” Rituu turned around. “Are you sure you don’t want to come and listen, Sri? They’re very good stories!”
“We’re aware,” said Gopal, hugging the girl a little closer to him. “You’ve only told them about four hundred times.”
Everybody laughed at that, all four of them. Jova smiled. Perhaps she could ask Ma and Da if they could go with them, on their way to Moscoleon. They were going the same way, after all, and maybe she could talk more with Sri…
Suddenly, Mo barked. His fur flared again, his head snapped forward. The Lady Fall peered through the trees once more, as moonlight filtered through the now sparse canopy. Jova could see a figure standing in the night, disheveled, hunched over.
“Da!” she cried out. Ma was further away, but turned when she heard Jova’s voice.
“Jova!” Da said, running towards her. His gaze drifted from her to the man she was standing next to. His expression hardened.
Da drew his knife.
And before Jova could stop him, he used it.
The boy kicked as hard as he could, indiscriminately aiming at the shadowed silhouette under the blankets. His free hand scrambled for something to use as a weapon, anything at all, but found nothing.
He saw red. The boy bounced off the rolls of cloth, his head pounding from the impact as the silhouette pulled back a fist for another swing.
The boy scrambled out of the way, but he could not avoid the other hand that grabbed him by the collar and hauled him to his feet. The boy hammered his tiny fists on the hand that held him, but its grip was iron.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Another sharp crack, and the boy could hardly see anything but red and white. His head rolled on his shoulders, dazed. “You gonna give me an answer?”
Gasping for breath, the boy coughed and opened his mouth.
And sunk his teeth as deep as possible into the hand that held him.
There was a harsh scream, but he could barely hear anything over his own strangled chokes as the grip tightened around his throat. The boy sucked in air through his nostrils even as he bit down harder.
There was another sharp jolt. The two of them tumbled forward as the cart came to a sharp halt, although still the boy could not struggle free. His combatant seemed unperturbed, not even short of breath.
Both of them jumped when the cart began to tip over, though. All of its contents tumbled to the side, but even amid the scraping and banging the boy could register the bass bellow of the camelopard outside.
Canvas split, and then the boy was blinking in the sunlight, gasping for air. His shirt had torn clean in two in the fall, but neck red, chest bare, at least the boy could breathe.
“Good work, big guy,” the boy gasped. He looked around. “Big guy?”
The camelopard fell like timber snapping, a long, slow, but inevitable descent to the earth. The winter ox tossed its head, frost steaming in the air from its nostrils, hooves pawing the ground as it prepared to charge again.
“No!” The boy scrambled to his feet, not knowing what he was doing, but knowing he had to do something. A hand caught his tangled, grubby hair, and he yelled as it pulled at his head.
“Dumb kid,” the woman from the caravan snorted, tossing him on the ground. She wiped blood from a scratch on her face. “You’re going to fucking fight an ox, that’s what you going to do?”
“No, no, stop!” screamed the boy, flailing wildly as he tried to reach his friend. He rose to run to the camelopard’s side, but a heavy boot stopped him from getting up. “Let me go, let me go!”
“Relax, would you?” The woman whistled. “Deppash, back up.”
The winter ox snorted, but did not move. It kept its horns trained on the camelopard while he struggled to find his feet. With a contemptuous kick, the woman lifted her boot off the boy’s chest and turned to survey the damage.
“By the Ladies Summer and Fall, you broke my fucking tarp.” The woman ran a hand through her hair. She looked travel-worn, haggard, but clean. Far cleaner than him, anyway. “Come on, kid, get my carpets before they get any dirtier.”
The boy sat sullenly, glaring at the woman.
“Get my fucking carpets or your buddy’s insides are gonna turn into his fucking outsides, you hear me?”
The boy climbed to his feet and edged a little closer to the woman.
“And help me flip this thing back up, we got your buddy to thank for that, too.” The woman walked around to the front, untying the harnesses. “Deppash, over here, you pull and we push.” The winter ox strolled over languidly, giving the boy a dismissive flick of the ear.
The boy made eye contact with the camelopard, and took a step backward…
“If you so much as try to run away, I will hunt you down, reach down your throat, and rip out your stomach,” said the woman without looking up, as she re-tied the harnesses to the side of the cart.
The boy gave it consideration anyway, if only for a brief moment. He had never had his stomach torn out before and was sure that he could put it back given enough time, but it sounded painful.
He edged around the cart, eying the woman carefully. Finally, though, he bent down and dug his fingers under the cart, trying to get a good grip. The woman likewise moved around to the other end, glowering.
There was a moment’s pause, and without sound the woman and the ox began to force the cart up. The boy struggled to join, his heels digging into the ground, but his contribution seemed paltry.
Nevertheless, the woman gave him a satisfied nod when the cart at last landed flat, rocking from the impact. She brushed her hands on her hips and took one of the dirty carpets up on her shoulder, holding it with only one arm.
The boy glared at her. He had barely been able to drag the thing an inch inside the cart, and here she was flipping a box full of them and picking them up like they were grass stalks between her fingertips.
“Carpets aren’t going to pick themselves up,” grunted the woman. “Butterbugs are going to get in them if you don’t hurry up.”
The boy dragged his feet as he walked, and gave the closest carpet a non-committal tug. Only two or three had fallen out of the tear in the canvas; the rest had simply piled up on one side and had rolled back when they tipped the cart back up.
“By the Lady Summer and Fall, it’s a mess in there,” snorted the woman, as she pulled back the covering.
“S’ry,” mumbled the boy.
“What you just say, kid?”
“Sorry I broke your box.”
The boy stared at the ground, but after several seconds of silence he looked up. The woman was staring at him, and suddenly he felt very self-conscious about his skinny chest, his ragged clothes (or what was left of them), and the dirt on his face and hands.
He avoided eye contact with the carpet woman, but when he did look at her face he saw that her features had softened slightly.
It lasted only a moment. “Stupid kid,” she said. “It’s a wagon. A caravan. A fucking coach to the city for all I care, but it’s not a box.”
The boy turned away, his face twisted in anger. He had tried to apologize, hadn’t he? Dimly, he felt like that was the right thing to do.
A warm, moist snout nuzzled him in the side. The camelopard pulled back its long neck, hobbling slightly as he stood, and met the boy’s eyes.
Shoulders slumped, the boy gave the carpet another ineffectual tug, even as the woman began to pick up a second one. “Sorry I broke your wag-on.”
“It’s pronounced w- hrmph, never mind.”
The woman stomped away, as the boy dragged the carpet in the dirt behind her. In all probability he was getting it dirtier trying to help; he didn’t know why the woman insisted on his assistance.
“You’re a dumb kid,” the woman said, for what seemed like the hundredth time. “Don’t know anything at all. Don’t know a fucking thing.”
“I know some things.” The boy stopped to lean on his knees, breathing heavily.
There was no answer.
He looked up, annoyed. “I know some things!” he shouted, trying to get her attention.
The boy paused. “I know about grass.”
The woman didn’t laugh, but there was something like a wheezy snicker from the ox at the front of the cart. “What about grass?” the woman said, rolling her eyes.
“I know about…” The boy pursed his lips, as he set to pulling on the carpet again. “Long grass, short grass, tall grass, brown grass, green grass, white grass, blue grass, grass with bulbs, grass with seeds, grass with bits, grass that sticks, grass that bites, grass that cuts…”
“I get it.”
“Grass that only grows in the rain, grass that only grows in the summer, grass that only grows in the dark, grass you can weave, grass you can eat, grass you can’t eat, grass that makes you sick, grass that makes nice beds, grass that don’t make nice beds, sweet grass, fat grass, underground grass…”
“I fucking get it.”
Somewhere in his list the boy had managed to drag the carpet back to the wagon. With one short, sharp heave, the carpet merchant hauled the load into the caravan. She put her hands on her hips, surveying her work, looking to double-check if anything else had fallen out of the cart. The boy turned to look, too. Nothing had.
When he turned back, it was to a fist swinging into his face.
The boy had lost count of the number of times he had been hit in the head in the last hour. He skid on the ground and groaned, blinking the stars from his eyes.
“That’s for trying to steal my shit, stupid kid,” growled the merchant. She hopped onto the back rim of the wagon, bouncing as the caravan jostled away. “Don’t steal. Or, hell, be a better thief.”
The boy rubbed his bruised cheek, watching the cart go. The wagon, caravan, coach to the city.
Cities meant people. Despite the fact that his injuries, his wounds, and his bruised ego were all the result of people, the boy climbed onto the camelopard’s back and urged him to follow the person.
The boy made no attempt to hide this time. His fingers brushed his belt. The three disks were tucked safely away, his ragged pants were still hanging on, and his now ruined shirt was wrapped as a kind of pseudo-turban around his forehead. Without the shirt to buffer them, the disks scratched hard and cool against his skin. There wasn’t very much he could do about it.
All his worldly possessions prepared, the boy rode away.
“It’s because they’ve got stuff, yeah? People got stuff,” said the boy, wrapping his legs around the camelopard’s neck. “You should have seen her stuff, big guy. Should have felt it. It was nice. I bet they got stuff a hundred times better in the city, yeah?”
The camelopard’s head hung low. He made a tired groan, flicking his ears in a vain effort to fan his face.
“And water. I bet they get a lot of water in the city.”
The camelopard snarled, not satisfied.
“I bet she got water, too. With all that nice stuff like that, I bet she got water.” The boy looked around the camelopard’s neck. He could see the wagon clearly, rolling away. He could even see the carpet merchant sitting at the end of the cart, dangling her legs in the shade cast by the tarp. It wasn’t stretched as tightly now, with a tear in the middle.
The woman turned her head and met the boy’s eyes directly. “Look, it’s the dumb grass kid. What the fuck do you want? If you’re begging I don’t have anything to give you.”
The boy coughed, his throat dry. He talked often and frequently to his companion, true, but for some reason it was different with the woman. The difference wasn’t even in the fact that she could respond; the big guy responded just as often and frequently. It wasn’t the judgment, either. The camelopard’s baleful eyes had given the boy plenty of time to feel shame and rethink his life.
It was her face.
The boy did not remember any faces. He wasn’t even sure of what his own face looked like. There had only been one face in his life for four years, and that had been on the other side of the disk. Having more than one face in his life made it confusing and not entirely pleasant.
“We go to the city!” the boy shouted.
“The fuck we are,” said the woman. “You and your freak horse are going to attract every bandit for miles!”
Four years and two bandits didn’t seem like such a bad record, but the boy wasn’t sure how to say that. Instinctively, he looked away, but forced himself to meet the woman’s eyes as he spoke. “Not we we. Big guy and me. We go to the city.” The boy waved his hands in the air, suddenly ineloquent. “Separate.”
“We’re not separate if I can still see you,” said the woman, sliding as the ox clambered over a set of particularly large rocks.
“We go to the city,” repeated the boy, his features resolute. “This is the way to the city, yeah?”
“This is one way,” said the carpet merchant. “This is my way.”
“Now this is our way.” The boy folded his arms. “You try to make me go away and I reach down your throat and pull out your stomachs.”
The woman looked like she was about to swear again, but before she could speak she had broken down laughing, burying her face in her hands. “Oh, burn it all, Lady Summer. You got a name, kid?”
The boy shook his head.
“I should call you Grass or something, dumb kid. What do you call the freak horse?”
“The big guy don’t have a name. He don’t remember it. It’s in camelopard,” said the boy. The heat was not so noticeable, now, but his mouth was still dry with thirst. Perhaps there was a watering hole or a river on the path.
“The fuck is a camelopard? The long necked freak horse?”
The boy brushed the camelopard’s mane, and pursed his lips. “His neck is normal size, yeah?”
“Camelopard.” The woman had a similar expression of consternation on her face. “There’re camelbeavers in Da’atoa, camelturkeys in Hak Mat Do, and camel-fucking-hamsters in the Seat of the King. But camelopard? I don’t see it.”
“I remember it,” repeated the boy, insistently. “Camelopard.” Where the name came from and why it was there were unknown, but the boy hoarded memories like they were gold and loathed for anyone to say that they were false.
“Have you ever heard anyone else call it that?”
There’s been no one else. The boy didn’t say that. It seemed strange to say it out loud, like he would acknowledge some ugly truth. “I don’t need anyone else to say anything to know it’s true.”
“The electors at the Libraries would die of horror if they heard that,” said the woman. “They think truth is a democracy. How else do you know if you’re right?”
“I know a lot of things no one ever told me,” insisted the boy. “I know that the sun is hot and that water is cold. I know you should never let a prairie vole see you before you kill it, but that if you follow it back to its burrow there’s more inside and they got nowhere to run. I know that the big guy is my friend and he never told me that. I know I’m me.”
The caravan rolled away slowly, and the big guy followed at a leisurely pace. The woman did not say a word; she just put her elbow on her knees and her chin on her hand.
The boy hopped up and down on the camelopard’s back. His feet wiggled with anticipation. “Is the city a long way away?” the boy shouted, scratching the back of his neck. “Why you aren’t you going fast?”
“Moving slow, saving energy. It’s a long walk.”
“Oh.” That sounded familiar.
“Look, what the hell are you still doing here, kid?” The woman stood up, balancing without care on the edge of the rickety cart as it bumped and rolled along. “Get out, leave this place.”
“That’s what I try to do.” The boy squirmed. “But I get lost, yeah? So I go this way. Our way, your way.”
The sun was high and hot, but the woman did not move inside. She seemed torn, fingers drumming a pattern on her arms as she glared at the boy.
“How old are you? How long you been out here, huh?”
The boy sniffed. He remembered, but didn’t want to admit his age to the woman. Someone who was eight years old should have had more inside his head.
The woman massaged the bridge of her nose. “Yeah. Long enough.” She didn’t say anything else, just looked to the sky with her brow furrowed and her jaw set.
The boy traced the third disk in his belt, sighing. He hoped the girl wasn’t like the woman. There wasn’t anything wrong with the woman, it was just…the boy had imagined the girl whose face he had in his pocket differently.
They marched on and on, through grass gold-brown, waving ever so slightly. That woman’s face bothered him. There were deep lines in it, white hairs starting to grow around her forehead.
And yet, despite her age, when the boy looked into her face he felt like he was looking into his own.
The boy shifted, trying to interpret her silence. Maybe the fact that she wasn’t talking meant she didn’t mind him following her. “So I go with you to the city now, yeah?”
“No, fuck off.”
And the two walked on, arguing, not quite as alone as they had been an hour ago.
The boy rode at a measured stroll, a practiced pace to conserve energy. It wasn’t as if he knew which way to go. The plains stretched on before him, and whichever way he turned all he could see was brown gold grass, a hundred waving hands that could trick him into thinking he was moving even if he stood still.
The camelopard the boy rode walked on, black tongue rasping over flat teeth as he bellowed to the silence. Not even an echo answered him; the endless plains swallowed the sound, heedless to the protests of the hungry creature.
With luck, the two would find a grove soon. Tree leaves for the camelopard, budding greens for the boy, water and bush onions for both of them. And if they weren’t lucky…
Well, luck had kept them alive for four years. The alternative was obvious, if not preferable.
The camelopard bellowed again, and the boy leaning on his long neck shifted. “Shut up, big guy,” he muttered, eyes closed. “Nobody cares.”
They walked on, as the sun crept across the sky above them. The camelopard stopped, looking around like a guard in a tower, surveying his surroundings. The boy on his back sat up straight, his voice high and indignant. “What are you doing? We go forward, yeah? Always go forward, that’s right.”
The beast turned a baleful eye the boy’s way and snorted. Clip-clop, clip-clop. The camelopard’s hooves crunched on the dirt and the dry grass as he kept walking.
“I know,” the boy said, slumping. He traced one of the beast’s brown spots with a finger, his face half-buried in his fur. “Yike, we need water, yeah? Two days, no water, no good.”
Something hot and wet splattered his face, and the boy jumped back.
“You spit on me?” the boy said, wiping it away. He paused, and then for good measure rubbed it on his elbows and forearms to keep cool. Water was water, no matter where it came from. “Tricked me, big guy. Thought it was raining.”
The camelopard made a noise that could have been a snicker.
“Wasteful,” said the boy, reclining on the animal’s back. Anyone else would have slipped off the camelopard had they tried to ride him like that, but the boy was small enough, skinny enough, and experienced enough to stare at the sky while the camelopard marched on. “You’re really wasteful.”
The boy rubbed at his face with the bandages wrapped around his hands. They were rags at this point, but he doubted he would be finding anymore soon. He had stolen them six months ago from a campfire of people, and the walking trees knew people were something that didn’t show up often in the grasslands.
“You know something, big guy?” said the boy, talking aloud. “I can count the number of people I ever meet on my fingers.”
The camelopard ignored him. Between the two, this was an established fact.
The boy wiped his nose with the back of his hand as he tried to remember. “There’s that guy who tries to steal my food. I find that big horse thing sleeping and I bash its head in with a rock, remember that? And while I eat it, this guy tries to take it but I don’t let him.”
Flicking its tail, the camelopard strolled through a particularly dense thicket of grass, although most of the waving stalks were still too short to reach the boy. The beast made a sound indicating that he hadn’t really cared either way what had happened to the dead horse thing. Or at least, that was what the boy thought the big guy was trying to say. He was never quite sure.
The boy sat up. “Why don’t you eat meat, big guy? It’s tasty.”
No response. The camelopard kept walking, although for the good it did to the change of scenery they might as well have just stood still for another hour.
“But anyway,” the boy continued, lying back down, “I kill it and I eat it but before I’m done the guy comes and tries to take it, so I throw my rock at his face and run away.”
Satisfied with his story’s ending, the boy turned over. “Now the second guy I ever meet I think is trying to bash my head in while I’m sleeping, so I throw a rock at his face too and run away. You think he was going to eat me?”
The camelopard bellowed. Unsure as to how the animal had responded, the boy took it as a cue to keep going.
“There are a bunch of people the third time, but I count them as one person because they all move together anyway,” said the boy. “And this time I remember the first two so I don’t say nothing to them, I just take their clothes. Not the clothes they’re wearing! Just the clothes they had in a bag on the side.”
The boy picked at his ragged shirt. By this point it was so stiff with sweat and dirt that it crackled as it moved. “Comfy clothes, too. Wish I had more of them.”
The camelopard stopped to give the boy an accusatory look.
“Oh, and my mommy and daddy, I guess,” said the boy. “I count them as one person, too. I don’t remember much about them. You remember your mommy and daddy?”
The camelopard snorted and kept walking.
“Yeah, me neither.”
The boy fell silent. The camelopard made not a sound. Clip-clop, clip-clop.
“I don’t remember a lot of things,” said the boy. This, too, was an established fact. “Like my name. I think I had one, once, but I don’t remember it. I should give myself a new name.”
He sat up, and stuck out his skinny little chest. “I like Nighthunter. Or- or Doomeye. Or Death. Yeah.”
The camelopard spit at him again.
“Yeah, you’re right. Names are stupid.” The boy put his chin in his hands, fluttering his lips in boredom. “You ever have a name, big guy?”
The big guy did not respond, at least not in a way the boy could hear. The boy leaned back. “Yeah, you probably have your own camelopard name. ‘Tail flick, ear flick, spit’ or something. How do camelopards talk, anyway? What are they like? Actually, I don’t think we’ve ever met another one. Have we? Have you ever met one while I’m asleep? What do you do when I’m asleep?”
Tail flick. Ear flick. Spit.
He rubbed it on the back of his neck. “I don’t remember a lot of things,” the boy began again, and sniffed. “But I remember ending up here. In a big tree with a giant space in the middle. And there are a bunch of the little disks around me and I’m scared I’m going to break all of them but they’re actually really hard, and there’s all this sap on the walls and little disks that don’t look like they’re finished yet.”
The sun crawled just a little further up in the sky.
“So I grab my disk and a bunch of others and I fall out, and it’s in the middle of the night but I can see because there’re so many stars, and I feel so tired that I fall asleep for a long time and when I wake up the tree walks away. And I know it walks away because trees don’t just disappear!”
The camelopard’s head bobbed, as if in agreement. The boy nodded, feeling justified. Obviously, a walking tree made much more sense than a disappearing one.
“I still got them!” said the boy. “Well, most of them. I lose one, you remember. But I still have mine, and yours, and hers.” He dug in the folds of his dirty shirt and took out three amber disks just small enough to fit in his palm. “I bring you here. Do you remember?”
The camelopard gave him only a cursory look of acknowledgment.
The boy paused. He looked down.
“Do you hate me for it?” he asked, staring at his hands. “Did I take you away from your mommy and daddy, too? Because I’m just so scared and I can’t find anybody after walking for days and days and I’d send you back if I can but I don’t know how…”
The camelopard twisted his long neck and nuzzled the boy riding on his back. It was not the act of someone who hated him.
“OK,” said the boy. “OK. Thanks, big guy.”
He sniffed and rubbed his eyes. “So that’s why I’m not going to bring her here because she’s got a mommy and daddy and I’m still not sure how to send her back,” he said, rubbing the disk with the frayed ends of his shirt. It did not so much clean the disks as spread the grime around, but it comforted the boy as he tucked them back into the cloth belt around his waist.
After a pause, he pulled out the last disk again and considered it: the disk of the girl he had never summoned, the one he had carried for the last four years. He waved his hand over the surface and gave the only command he had ever given it. “Show me.”
The amber disk hummed, vibrating ever so slightly. The way it reflected the light seemed to change, as the shadows underneath its surface flickered. First, the hint of a shape, then colors, then depth, and then if the boy angled it just right he could see a picture under its surface.
He saw a girl, surrounded by green and gold, colors the likes of which he had never seen before or at least could not remember seeing. Bright dye was on her fingertips, and a brighter smile was on her face.
The boy stared. He wished that smile would never stop, that it could just keep on going forever and ever. It was beautiful. It was all he had.
At last, he stuffed the disk away in his belt. That slight exertion had left him out of breath, as it always did. In the beginning, summoning the camelopard had nearly knocked him out. “We find her one day, yeah?”
The camelopard snorted his agreement.
“Good. OK.” The boy licked his lips. “But water first.”
And the two walked on. The sun inched higher.
The noon heat grew oppressive, and the camelopard staggered. “Want me to get off?” yawned the boy, rubbing his eyes. “We walk a little more, see if we find some shade, sleep until night-time. Keep going after that. Good plan, yeah?”
The camelopard stopped and brayed an agreement.
His legs weak from disuse, the boy’s knees buckled as he slid off his mount. His bare feet wriggled in the dirt, delightfully cool in the shadows of the long grass. “Come on, big guy,” he said, patting the camelopard on the shoulder. “We got to go where the grass is taller.”
The beast had already folded his back legs under his body. He tossed his head, irritated.
“That’s not walking a little more, big guy!”
The big guy glared.
“Why? Cause you too big! Your head too close to the sun,” said the boy, laughing. “Let’s go over there, see? Good, tall grass. Might even find a drink if we dig down deep enough.”
He didn’t look happy about it, but he rose, slowly and laboriously.
The grass reached all the way up to the skinny boy’s chest, bristly seed-heads scratching and clinging at his shirt. He brushed the long stalks aside as he walked, even as the camelopard strode serenely over them. Buzzing fallhoppers and brown butterbugs cleared a path as the boy moved through them.
The boy’s hands moved to part the grass, but found nothing to part. He paused, his arms waving through air. The grass had been crushed flat in a straight line intersecting the boy’s path; the neighboring foliage had obscured the tracks from view from above, but the boy could hardly miss them now that he had stumbled onto them.
Instinctively, he dropped to his knees, shifting his stance so he could run at a moment’s notice. “Big guy, get d- oh, there’s no point.” The camelopard was too tall to hide. The beast, and by extension the boy, stuck out like lightning in the sky.
The tracks were recent. Even now, the springy grass was rising back up, but the boy could still see where they lead. What could have created lines like those? Nothing with feet, that was for certain. It was manmade.
One, two, three, four, and with this, five. The boy would have to start counting the number of people he had met with two hands soon.
“Yike, let me up, big guy,” said the boy, hauling himself once more onto the camelopard’s back, despite the animal’s protests. “I know, I know, we’re all tired. But we can’t let them get away, see? They might have stuff. Good stuff, yeah?”
Gripping onto his mane, the boy clung to the camelopard’s back as he egged him on. At first they moved at a slow trot, but the impatient boy pushed his steed on to a faster canter, then gallop. As the camelopard pummeled forward, the boy’s heart began to pump. His lips were dry from more than just thirst.
There was no chance that he could hide the big guy, but the boy himself was small enough to escape notice. Whoever they were after would be too busy watching the strange long-necked beast to pay any attention to the boy climbing off his back.
Or so the boy hoped.
He squinted, clinging close to the camelopard’s neck to avoid detection. He saw a tan shape moving through the grass, pulled along by a single winter ox, the two of them bright against the backdrop of dull grass. The tracks had been made by several wooden circles attached to the bottom of the vehicle, that helped the fabric-covered box trundle along as it moved forward.
“That’s new,” muttered the boy, as the camelopard slowed to a steady walk. The winter ox swung its white head to the side at the sound of their approach, and the boy slipped off and landed lightly.
“Shh, shh, he doesn’t see me,” he said, as the camelopard grumbled. “You stay here a bit, big guy, I go look at that thing.” He crawled forward a couple paces, before adding, as an afterthought, “You pull me out if I get in trouble, yeah?”
A grunt, as the beast turned away. It stared placidly at the sky, not paying attention to the boy.
“Good. OK.” The boy crept through the underbrush. His fingers traced the disks in his belt. Perhaps they could serve as weapons, but the boy couldn’t risk breaking a single one of them. Not his, not the big guy’s, and definitely not the girl’s.
Vainly, the boy paused to see if there were any handy face-hitting rocks to throw around him, but it seemed that he would be going into this one weaponless. That didn’t bother him much. In and out, quick as a prairie snake, that was his style.
The caravan plodded, despite the girth and strength of the ox pulling it. The boy paused and watched the ox’s muscles shift, rippling under its white coat. There must have been some great weight in the covered box for the bulky creature to be slowed so. The boy grinned. They wouldn’t miss it if he took just a few scraps, then.
With a jump and a grunt, the boy leaped onto the rear end, his foot finding purchase on the wooden base of the box and the axle on which the circles spun. Chest heaving, the boy anchored himself with one hand on the back of the vehicle, then looked over his shoulders and to his sides. There was no one in sight.
He parted the canvas just an inch, with one finger, and peered inside. Dim light filtered through, but he could see in the darkness heaps and rolls of furs, and what looked like cloth. His hand poked through the curtain and stroked one of the piles. He sucked in a sharp breath.
It was so soft.
The boy was inside before he had given himself a chance to think, his hands brushing over the fine fabrics as his toes curled with delight. He set to looking for clothes, but the bundles and rolls were far too heavy to pick up.
He stuck his lip out and pouted. What was the point of cloth all bunched up like this? He flattened out one of the rolls: it was soft on top, but underneath it was rough and coarse. Tassels hung on the end that the boy could weave his fingers through.
He gave that one roll an ineffective tug, but gave up. Even if he did manage to get it out, he wouldn’t be able to carry it away. Perhaps there were lighter materials that he could find and take…
A harsh bump in the trail tossed the boy up. The fabrics cushioned his fall, but compact as they were he still felt a sharp jolt through his bottom. He rolled to the side, groaning, and fell in a heap of thin sheets.
His face brightened, as he moved to pull the sheets closer for examination. Now, these he could use…
Then the sheets moved, and the boy froze.
A sudden rush ran over his body. He felt hot and cold all at once, and scrabbled backwards to get out, but before he could move any further a rough, gnarled hand grabbed him by the wrist.
“And what the fuck,” growled the voice under the sheets, “Do you think you’re doing?”