Category Archives: 1.05
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.