Category Archives: 1.03
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.