Category Archives: 1.04
“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.