Category Archives: Chapter 2 (Hide & Seek)
Roan reared in his horse, watching Jova as she clambered over the stalagmites in the damp cave. He did not move to help. The child would need to learn how to rely on her own strength, just as he had.
“Where are we now?” asked Jova, her voice echoing with the steady drip of water.
“In a cave the templemen are calling the Teeth of the Abyss,” said Roan. “One of many. The zealots shun it as a place for devil-spawn.”
“So why are we in it?”
“For the same reason they avoid it, I suppose,” said Roan.
Jova laughed, although Roan did not know why. He supposed she was just a happy girl. And yet, she insisted that her blindness was recent. Roan could only have dreamed of that kind of strength after his accident.
Stel tossed her head, prancing. Her hooves clipped hollowly on the stone floor of the cave, and Roan saw Jova perk up out of the corner of his eye. She turned her head from side to side at the sound, looking with her ears and not her eyes.
Jova stood straight, and clicked, turning her head slowly as the sound echoed off the walls. Roan nodded in approval. He hadn’t needed to remind her, that time.
“A good place to practice,” he said.
The blind girl scratched at her cheek, under the blindfold. “It echoes too much. It’s confusing.”
“The echoes are being loud and thus you are being able to hear better, no?”
“Says you,” said Jova. “Why don’t you try it? Have you ever done this yourself, before?”
The scars around Roan’s face stretched as he smirked. Truthfully, he couldn’t say he had. “No,” he said. “But I learned the method of teaching from one of the best.” He left it at that.
“Was your teacher another of your Hag Gar Gan shamans?”
“No,” said Roan, simply. He didn’t elaborate. His hand drifted to the badge pinning his cloak to his shoulders: painted wood, depicting a single cloud drifting across a crescent moon. Easy enough to destroy, should he need to, although he doubted it would come to that anytime soon.
“Now what?” asked Jova, standing so far back in the dark of the cave that Roan could barely see her.
“Now you walk back,” said Roan.
He could hear Jova stamping her foot. “What? What’s the point of that?”
“Without touching anything.”
“Oh.” Jova paused. “What if I stab myself on one of those rock things?”
“That would count as touching something.”
Stel shifted again, and Roan had to channel through the tabula to take away her fear. His vision swam for a moment, but when he was done Stel was calm and still. “Follow the sounds from here if you must,” he said. “And go slowly. I care less about speed and more about you not making mistakes.”
It was a simple exercise, and one Roan was confident he could guide Jova through, but he had to admit it would have been easier if he had the freedom to do it alone.
“What if she hurts herself?” whispered the woman, Anjan, as Jova made her way through the maze of stalagmites, clicking periodically to reorient herself. The girl’s arms were stiff against her sides, as she shuffled awkwardly towards them.
“Then she will learn to be more careful next time,” said Roan. He watched the darkness as Jova approached. Demon-spawn he was not worried about, but wolfbats and pale fall toads infested the caves. “If you will speak, speak louder. It will help her find the entrance.”
Anjan looked away, her brow furrowed. Roan’s gaze drifted to her hands, formed into fists, and kept a hand on Stel’s tabula, just in case. “But…”
“But I need a worker who can navigate my stables without crawling on the floor,” said Roan. From the way Anjan flinched, he could tell he had been too harsh.
“Yes…sir,” said Anjan. She still wouldn’t look at him. “I need to check back on Mo. Just…just make sure she stays safe. Please?”
“I will,” said Roan. He clicked his tongue and made Stel stamp her hooves so that Jova could hear, and paused. “Anjan?”
The woman paused as she made to climb out of the rim of the cave, back into the steaming jungles of the Moscon. “Yes? Sir?”
“I trust you have not told her?” said Roan, and this time he was the one to whisper.
Anjan looked Roan up and down, and said, slowly, “No. I haven’t. Neither has Ell. Like I said, mister Roan, we do appreciate all that you’ve done for us.”
“Hmm.” Roan looked over his shoulder at Anjan. He did not like how the woman seemed to affect a false personality around him. “Do you find me loathsome?” he asked, after a prolonged silence.
Anjan opened her mouth, and hesitated. She met his eyes. “No, sir.”
“I think…you’re very reasonable, sir. It’s good that you’ve found someone who…someone like her. I think, in your position, I would have done the same.” Anjan sighed. “I just wish it didn’t have to be Jova.”
“I apologize,” said Roan. He looked down. How much of that was a lie? All of it, none of it? Roan could never tell.
“May I go now, sir?”
“Yes,” said Roan. “Be careful. You are more than capable, but the world can be a dangerous place for someone who does not know how to defend herself.” He looked out at Jova, and clicked his tongue again for Stel to move.
He heard echoing footsteps behind him. One advantage of the Teeth, Roan had found, was that despite the near total darkness within, it was impossible for someone to sneak up on him.
“Roan,” said Anjan, and her voice rose. “We appreciate it. Whatever else you have planned for my- for Jova, thank you, but we don’t need it.”
Roan smiled. “So this is your voice when you speak truth. I prefer it.”
“Roan, please. Whatever plans you have, leave Jova out.”
“She burns to prove herself,” said Roan. He looked at Anjan, at the wild woman with her wide shoulders and angry face. “She submits to our authority but she is reckless when she thinks no one is looking. And I am sorry to say this, Anjan, but not even the Ladies Four will always be looking.”
Anjan almost looked like she was going to tear Roan off his mount right there in the cave. “You have no right to tell me how to raise my-.”
Roan glared at Anjan, and saw in her eyes barely restrained fury. “Why should it matter to you?” said Anjan, through gritted teeth.
He considered saying he needed an able employee, again, or perhaps that it was his duty as a man to give his charity. But, in the end, those would not be true. “I am selfish,” he said, simply.
Anjan looked away, her hunt apparently forgotten.
“I cannot teach her, but I know men who will, men whose faith in the Four is strong,” said Roan, turning away as well. “I will inform you if a decision is made.”
Anjan bristled. She stood next to him, breathing through her nose, as Jova approached.
“How’d I do?” asked Jova, a wide smile on her face. She did not quite look at Roan as she spoke, but he did not mind.
“You did great, Jova,” said Anjan, her voice warm. Stel tossed her head as a bit of Roan’s irritation leaked through to her, but Roan decided to let Anjan handle the praise. It was more effective, that way. He was not particularly good at it.
Jova grinned as Anjan took her hand, and then the wild woman looked at Roan. “We’ll come back later,” she said. “Let’s go check on Ell, huh?”
“But we walked all this way! Roan, is that it?” asked Jova, looking straight ahead.
Roan, to her side, nudged Stel forward. “I am not having the right to detain you if you wish to leave,” he said, and he met Anjan’s gaze.
Jova pursed her lips. “Alright,” she said. “But we’ll come back, promise?”
“I promise,” said Anjan, as she led Jova out of the cave. “Watch your step, now, it’s a bit tricky.”
Roan let them walk ahead before he followed, ducking his head to avoid hitting his head on the hanging stalactites as Stel climbed out of the cave.
The sentinel statues of the Ladies were still visible from the Teeth, and the jungle path was so trodden by the drunk and the foolhardy that it was not hard to find the main road again. Roan whispered a small thanks to the Lady Summer for sun and fresh air, and to the Lady Fall for showing them the path.
The sun made Roan sweat, and he could hear and feel Stel’s labored breathing. He rubbed her neck, as a silent means of encouragement.
As ever, the road was flooded with both pilgrims approaching the Temple and pilgrims leaving it. Anjan and Jova were already a far ways up ahead; Roan had to navigate around the pedestrians as he sped Stel up to a trot to keep up.
Once, he had, though, he rode a polite distance behind them.
Jova talked animatedly with Anjan, who smiled and laughed at all the right times. Roan watched from behind, his face betraying no emotion. In the end, what right did he have? The pontiffs spoke often of how two men could do the same thing, and for one it could be virtue while for the other it was sin. What was charity if it was done only for his own self-interest?
From the moment he had approached the blind girl sitting in the doorway, he had known he was indulging himself. Roan’s brow furrowed. It was weakness, not strength. True charity would have been to help one who could see and judge him, all of him.
Roan rolled his shoulders, sore from riding. One would think he’d be used to it by now, but Roan promised himself he could dismount and rest once they reached his hut at the compound. He blinked and shook his head. Idle thoughts, too, he would reserve for home.
He passed through the gates and breathed deep. Moscoleon smelled of incense and roasting peppers. He looked up at the great ziggurat, and for a moment he saw the great pyramids of Hak Mat Do again.
“Jova! Anjan! What are you doing here?” asked Ell. Jova took his outstretched hand and hugged him around the waist.
“It’s a holy day, after all,” said Anjan, sparing one glance back at Roan. “We thought we’d spend it with you.”
“With me and not the fine strapping lord?” said Ell. He, too, met Roan’s eyes, but Roan did not speak or move. “Well, I am flattered. Let me finish up these last few errands and I’ll be right with you.”
“Come on, it’s an open temple,” said Anjan, pulling Jova away. “Let’s have a look around where Ell works. The pontiff won’t mind.”
Jova nodded. She turned and waved, in the wrong direction. “Goodbye, mister Roan!”
Roan watched her go. He didn’t wave back, or say goodbye, or move at all. He just looked back up to the Sun Altar, but the illusion of the pyramids had been dispelled.
Roan sighed. The idle thoughts would have to be waiting for quite some time. Home, for him, was a long way off.
He clicked his tongue and directed Stel back towards the compound.
The ride was slow. Roan kept to the back roads, to better avoid the crowds. He told himself he had grown used to their questioning and sometimes revolted stares, that the expressions on their face no longer bothered him. He told himself that, at least.
Stel nickered as they squeezed their way through a cramped alley, and Roan traced her tabula and whispered into her ear. He closed his eyes, his head swimming. Every day, the commands grew harder. He knew he should have stopped, let both Stel and himself rest for a day or two, but he couldn’t. He had places to go, even if Stel was getting older.
He scratched the back of her neck. They were both getting older.
It was only when he returned to the compound did he notice his stomach rumbling. Roan closed his eyes. There wasn’t enough food to make a decent meal at the hut, and buying more would mean going back, out, into the crowds. Roan gripped his saddle tight. He was too tired for that.
He sniffed, and smelled freshly baked bread from the pontiff’s chambers. He sighed. “Come, Stel,” he said. “Let us go where the life is taking us.”
He walked in.
Zain did not look particularly surprised to see him. The winter pontiff and owner of the tenement bustled about, preparing flatbread in a stone oven. He gave only Roan only a cursory glance as he and the horse entered.
Roan coughed. “Does the afternoon find you well?”
“Well enough.” Zain scraped minced bell peppers and tomatoes into a bubbling stew and stirred. “Would you like to eat?” Before Roan could answer, Zain said, “In the name of the Lady Winter, I insist.”
“Thank you, brother,” said Roan. He did not get off his horse.
“Only those who have been sworn to the House of Winter may call me that,” said Zain, reproachfully, holding his hand over the tattoos on his chest.
“Have we not sworn deeper bonds, brother?” asked Roan.
Zain pursed his lips. “The Walkers are of men, by men. The Houses of the Ladies are more than that.”
Roan said nothing. He unclipped his cloak and looked at the badge of the crescent moon in his hand. This secrecy he could obliterate in a second, but Zain’s faith was etched onto his skin. Of the two, the truth of which was deeper could not be denied.
“Would you sit with me, then, Roan?”
The rider nodded. He shuffled awkwardly, trying to unfasten the various belts and buckles that kept him strapped to the saddle. Stel pranced, and Roan had to snap at her to calm down, unable to reach for her tabula.
Zain rose to help, but Roan waved him off. It was something he had to do alone.
“Crippled in body but whole of soul,” said the pontiff, and he undid the last strap despite Roan’s protests. Roan glared at him, but Zain’s gaze was cool and soft. “There is no shame in accepting help, even if you do not need it.”
Roan closed his eyes. This was true. He did his best to relax, although his limbs were still stiff as Zain picked him up and carried him to the table.
The stumps that were his legs dangled uselessly underneath him.
“Go, Stel,” he said, gesturing outside as Zain set him on the wooden seat. “Water and food, go on.”
The horse left at a leisurely pace, head hanging.
Roan hauled his legs over so he could sit in the seat proper as Zain walked around to sit opposite him. The pontiff put his hands together and closed his eyes. After a pause, Roan did likewise.
“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,” Roan repeated.
Zain split the flatbread and gave half to Roan. He dribbled the bell pepper and tomato sauce over it liberally, although Roan eschewed it. Even after all these years, he still could not stomach Moscoleon food.
“You know what I find most distasteful about summer?” said Zain.
Roan looked up but did not answer.
“As it is a time of bounty, so it is a time of strife. Of fighting, of competition, of anger. But winter? Winter is a time of scarcity. In winter, the only bounty we may find is within each other. Eat, Roan.”
Roan took a small bite. Zain’s hands around his sides had made his stomach clench, and for some reason it would not relax.
“How is the girl?” asked Zain, after a long silence.
Roan raised an eyebrow. “Why do you take an interest?”
“Because you take an interest. Because you no longer wash or shave, but every morning, afternoon, and night, you make sure the girl has a hot meal waiting for her. Because you are a specter of the man I once knew. The Lady Winter asks us to give,” said Zain, kindly. “But never to take. Not even from ourselves.”
“Is this truth?” asked Roan. “It seems an unlikely one. How can there be giving if no one will take it?”
“Give to the world,” said Zain. “For all the world’s possessions are yours, and all yours its.”
“Even in a world of strangers?”
“That is the only way.”
“What of me?” Roan had to grip the edges of the seat to keep from slipping as he leaned forward. “You give me your hospitality and yet I am no stranger to you.”
“That is because I am mortal, and have more than one allegiance,” said Zain. He tapped the crescent moons embroidered on his sleeve. “Brother.”
Roan drummed his fingers on the table. His thighs shifted and he felt the rest of his legs twitch even though they weren’t there.
“She wants to learn how to fight,” said Roan.
“I am telling her I will not teach her.”
“Why is that?”
“Because you will.”
Zain rolled his eyes. “If you are that interested in the girl’s security, hire a marble soldier and let it be done with.”
Roan grit his teeth. “You haven’t even given me a chance to discuss this.”
“That’s because there’s nothing to discuss,” snapped Zain. “Zealotry is a choice you cannot make for her. She must do it, through her faith, and her faith alone.”
“I have lied as the snakerat does to protect my secret. I am selfish. I am not proud of it,” said Roan. “I have seen that I have hurt her and I must be making amends in any way I can. She is strong. She learns quickly. And if the Ladies Four were to bless a blind girl with the ability to fight as well as any other man-.”
“If that were the case, Roan, I would be amazed to see it,” said Zain. He pushed his plate away, having apparently lost his appetite. “Your faith wavers, friend. You hold onto it only when it suits you. And, worst of all, you know it.” Zain rubbed the bridge of his nose. “What are you trying so desperately to prove, Roan?”
Before he knew it, Roan’s fist slammed onto the table. It shook, and Roan felt a sudden impulse to stand, but of course he couldn’t.
“That this is Moscoleon!” he shouted. “The city of miracles! Where a man with no tongue can sing again, where a girl with no eyes can see again, and where I with no legs can run again.”
“Calm yourself, Rho Hat Pan.”
Breathing through his nostrils, Roan looked away. “That is no longer my name.”
“Is it not? If you have thrown away the name, why are you so desperate to cling to everything else that man once was?” Zain’s voice rose until it boomed. “You call yourself Roan, but you are still Rho Hat Pan. You thirst, if not for blood, then glory. Chase not forgotten dreams, friend. The war is over. Let the dead rest.”
Roan nodded, touching the badge on his cloak. “Yes,” he muttered. It was truth. It was for the best. “Let the dead rest.”
Zain slumped. He coughed. “If you like, I could help you-.”
“No,” said Roan. He slid his almost untouched plate back to the pontiff. “Thank you for the meal.”
He turned away, and tried not to look at Zain as he whistled for Stel. He hauled himself onto his horse and struggled to swing his legs over her back. He knew the truth. The truth was his shield. He was not afraid of it.
But, at times like these, as Roan kicked like a toddler to get into position, he was ashamed of its weight.
The big guy flicked his tail, watching. The boy hadn’t moved all morning. He lay in the dusty dark, curled up and eyes closed. The big guy flicked his tail again. The boy should have been out, in the open air, in the sunlight, free and moving.
Something jostled past his leg, and the camelopard snorted. He didn’t like this place. There were too many moving things crammed into one space.
The big guy shook his head to ward off the gathering flygnats. He nudged the boy with his snout, but still he did not move. Worrisome.
“Shoo! Go on! Out of the way, you dumb animal!”
The big guy looked down at the man and snorted, but stepped out of the way nonetheless. He didn’t want to cause any trouble.
He rumbled, the sound vibrating from his chest, so low that it seemed to shake his whole neck. None of the humans reacted, although a chained elephantbear snarled at the sound. The big guy was calling for friends. For people like him.
The crowded streets drowned him out, and the camelopard was left to stand in the cramped alley over a boy who would not get up.
It had not been like this in the grasslands. The boy’s essence burnt hot; the big guy could feel its touch even when the boy laid prone, but when the boy lent him strength…
When the boy lent him strength, the big guy felt he could stand as tall as clouds.
The big guy ruminated. The cud lodged in his throat on the way up, but with an annoyed cough he spat it up and chewed on it thoughtfully. He looked down at the boy. It wasn’t sickness. It couldn’t have been, not when his essence flared so. Something else in him had broken.
The big guy bent to nudge the boy with his snout again. If he did something enough times, the camelopard had realized over the years, it was bound to work eventually.
The boy did not stir.
“Hey! Move!” shouted another voice, and the big guy looked back to see another man, waving his arms to get the camelopard’s attention. “Go!” The man jumped up and down and yelled a little, as if he could scare the big guy off.
The big guy shuffled around and bent to look down at the man. His nostrils flared, and he widened his stance as his neck stiffened.
The man walked away rather quickly after that.
A painful twinge came from the big guy’s side as he stood straight again. The cold one had only scratched him, but the area around the scratch had become swollen and numb. It annoyed the big guy to no end. He had barely been able to sleep because of it, and between that and the intensity of running last night, he felt so exhausted his knees might collapse under him.
The big guy swallowed his cud and glared at the walls next to him. If he stretched his neck he could look over the rim, but all the same the fact that they were both taller than him and not made of food was annoying.
His tongue rasped over tombstone teeth as he digested his meal for a second time, and he rumbled. For however long it had lasted, he had been the cold one’s herd-mate and shared food with him, but that was over now. The big guy didn’t mind much. Having a herd wasn’t all he had dreamed it would be.
The camelopard’s gaze flicked over to the boy, who he did not consider so much as a herd-mate but rather as a detachable part of his body. Like a fifth leg. Or perhaps a very talkative tail.
The big guy ruminated some more.
Finding food had been easy enough back home. They simply walked until they saw it, and then they ate it, and they moved on. Here in the clay place, with so many moving bodies around him, it was going to be a bit trickier.
The camelopard’s tongue scraped his gums, like a mouthful of sand. He bleated once, to let the boy know he was going, and strode out of the alley. Someone screamed as he stepped over a human’s head, but the big guy thought little of it. Hopefully the boy would feel better by the time he was done grazing.
He looked down as he walked. He had to, if he wanted to avoid stepping on people. The big guy put every foot in front of him with slow purpose, watching with hooded eyes as men scurried past like antflies. The big guy blinked, trying to avoid the light of the dusty morning sun. There weren’t as many people on the street, just cloaked men setting up their colorful shelters.
The big guy eyed one stall from above. He smelled crisp onions and cool lettuce, hidden under the shade. He bent down to bite…
“Shoo! Back off!” A shorn plank hit the big guy squarely in the face, and the camelopard backed away, bellowing. “Go back home, you dumb brute!”
“Animals running out of the stables…” he heard the man mutter as he walked away. “This whole city’s gone to shit.”
The camelopard rumbled, but no one heard. His stomach felt empty and his side still hurt.
He came across a plaza- not the plaza, but a plaza nonetheless. A stone bearded man stood on this fountain, his expression stern, but the fountain was the same: dry. The big guy stared at the dust gathering in the corners and snorted. A couple fall sparrows fluttered away as he approached. He glared at them as they rose over his head, and snorted. Annoying.
He flicked his tail and moved on.
Dumb brute, dumb animal. Contrary to what those men seemed to believe, the big guy wasn’t dumb. He looked down at the stalls setting up along the street, at the tired nomads stumbling back into the city with bush meat hauled over their backs. He looked down at everything. But if he raised his head just a little…
He saw everything, too.
The river was just ahead, its waters pale and sluggish. The big guy had avoided it for fear of meeting the cold one again, but this stretch of the bank seemed clear. He bent and drank, until his whole throat was full of delicious, cool water. His eyes, watching from the side of his head, looked for danger as he drank, but he saw only a group of human children playing in the mud. It seemed wasteful, to splash around like that.
The big guy rose and licked his nose. Then again, as he looked at the vast stretch of the river flowing before him, there seemed to be water enough to spare.
A red flash on the edge of his vision caught his eye. The big guy squinted. He had to look up to see it, even as it disappeared over the lip of a stone outcropping.
Buildings, then birds, now this. The number of things in this place that were above him was uncomfortably high, which was to say it was more than zero. The big guy strolled towards the road over the river. It made a strange image on the water, as if another road just like it was made for the crossing in a mirror world, but the camelopard walked towards it anyway. He knew a reflection when he saw one.
The only way onto the road was through a shadowed arch, which made the big guy stamp his feet and nicker. His hooded eyes searched for another way on, but the road had only two entrances, also eerie reflections of the other, mirrors upon mirrors.
The big guy bent his neck forward as he walked under the stone arch, feeling his heart speed up slightly as the sky slid out of view. Hunched old men scurried out of his way as he strode forward, ducking back inside the dim, musty doors on either side. When he emerged back into open sunlight, the big guy stretched his neck as far up as he could, shaking his head and whinnying.
His hooves made hollow sounds on the river-road. The big guy’s eyes slid over the crenellations and cobblestones, towards the men with red cloth wrapped around their necks. They were, to his great satisfaction, beneath him now.
He stopped at the center, where the path bent up at its highest. His ears pricked at the low murmur of the men around him, like wind through the grass, but as far as the big guy could tell they weren’t hungry and therefore weren’t a threat. He ignored them, casting his gaze upward instead. The sky was open here, thankfully, although the big guy was starting to prance nervously as he noticed the arches boxing him in on either side.
Where in the city would he find food? In the plains, it had been simple: he just had to look for things that were (nearly) as tall as him. He tried the same thing here, looking towards the fluted, bulb-like roofs of the massive buildings on either side of him. Perhaps there would be food there.
The big guy licked his nose as he strode toward the opposite end of the river. He couldn’t help but notice the rustling, pale slips the men in red were holding. They looked vaguely leafy. The big guy bent, lips peeled back to bite…
“No! No, no! Back, get back! This is very important! You can’t eat this!” shouted the man in a squeaky little voice, trying to hold the parchment out of reach. The big guy, not to be perturbed, snapped eagerly, curious as to why the man would want to hold onto it so much.
With a terrified moan that sounded like the big guy passing wind, the man scurried away with his papers clutched to his chest. The big guy flicked his ears dismissively, and walked on. It was all just trial and error, in the end.
His belly was silent, which worried him. A good, happy rumble meant he was digesting his last meal; if it was quiet, that meant there was nothing left. The big guy passed through the second stone arch, head drooping.
He circled around the great building, snorting and shaking his head. As far as he could tell, there was no way up. Like a cliff in the red lands: insurmountable, untouchable, alien.
The big guy shook his head. He didn’t like thinking about the red lands.
A great crack caught his attention immediately. The camelopard stiffened at once, prepared to make a run for it at the slightest chance that something was on the hunt. Few things had even dared to assault something his size in the plains, but in here, in the stone place, all the rules had changed.
“What do you think of anarchy as a legitimate means of societal organization now, you fucking cunt?” shouted a burly man, kneeling over a smaller male and punching him in the face. The small man’s head rolled on the ground and he mumbled feebly.
The big guy looked around. He couldn’t see the female they were fighting over.
Breathing heavily, the larger man rose, pushing his spectacles up his nose. For a brief moment, the big guy’s eyes widened. He recognized this man.
It was the annoying one from a few days ago.
The man had apparently seen him too. He squinted for a moment, and then rubbed his eyes, and then squinted again. “This is why I shouldn’t go for drinks in the morning,” mumbled the man. The smaller one beside him groaned, and he turned and kicked him in the ribs. “Stay down, you’re still an idiot.”
The man stepped forward and nearly fell over. He wobbled as he found his balance, and when he looked at the big guy again his mouth formed a little circle. “The young master’s jarraf!” said the annoying one. “No wonder, I was beginning to think I needed new glasses.”
The big guy did not relax. He still wasn’t quite sure whether he should run.
The annoying one bowed, and then tripped. “Good morning and felicitations on this serendip…” The man closed his eyes and smacked his lips. “Serendipitous occasion. To what may I owe the pleasure of your company, master jarraf?” He squinted again. “Where is your boy? Did he get that problem with his friend sorted out?” A sudden look of consternation flashed across his face. “He’s not dead, is he?”
The big guy aimed carefully and spat in his face.
“That,” said the annoying man, wiping at his face with the back of his hand. “Could be interpreted in many ways.”
Snorting, the big guy spat again, just to make his point clear.
The man clapped his hands together. “As fascinating as I find you and your, erm, varied forms of communication, master jarraf, I have a morning read I need to finish before they kick me out of the Libraries for, er, kicking him out of the Libraries.” He scratched his nose. “I suppose this is the real reason why I’m an ex-elector.”
He bent over the unconscious one, digging in his satchel. “If you can hold it, everyone else can piss off because it’s yours,” said the man, grinning, pulling out several squares of hard tack. “Enzaa Dey’s philosophy in a sentence.”
The big guy didn’t listen. He was too busy snapping at the biscuits in the man’s hand, which smelled terrible but smelled like food nonetheless.
The man twisted to get out of the way, although he stumbled over his own feet as he did so. The big guy found himself with a mouthful of red cloth, as the man staggered over the unconscious one’s prone body.
The camelopard chewed. It didn’t taste half bad, actually.
“Hey, now!” said the man, grabbing at his cloth, but even with its length the big guy was still too tall for him to reach. The big guy scowled at the annoying man as he leaped and jumped around him. “That’s very precious to me, you can’t eat that!”
The big guy ignored him- that was, until a sudden sharp pain made his knees buckle under him and the camelopard crumpled forward. He held his head up high and out of reach, kicking his legs indiscriminately as the man wrestled with him. “Would you kindly return my fucking scarf?”
Their eyes met for a moment, and the big guy’s gaze flickered to the biscuits in the man’s hand. The man followed the big guy’s eyes, and brightened.
“You want these? Come on, then. Come here, master jarraf,” said the man, waving the tack enticingly in the big guy’s face (or as close as he could get to the big guy’s face, at least).
The camelopard let the cloth slip out of his teeth as he licked up the biscuits. It was too hard to chew, anyway.
“There, now,” said the man. “We’ve reached a compromise like reasonable, erm, men.” He made a face as he picked up the soggy end of his scarf, and cast a forlorn look at the tall stone building. “If I come back tomorrow morning and it takes me another two hours to find Reed’s On Wild Minds, I’m blaming you,” he grumbled, as he made towards the river bank.
The big guy followed, if only because the man had a biscuit or two left and he was still hungry.
The man took off his shoes and rolled his pants up to his knees as he stepped into the water. He seemed intent on not getting his clothes wet, even as he scrubbed his scarf vigorously in the river. The big guy stood by him, enjoying the cool current against his legs.
“Phorro must have had a very different experience from me,” said the man, as he washed out the worst of the big guy’s drool. Personally, the big guy didn’t understand. It all came to be water in the end anyway. “His almanac describes your kind as being placid, gentle, and non-confrontational.”
The big guy stared away, not paying attention. Humans tended to say many things he could safely ignore.
“All better,” said the man, squeezing out the water from his scarf and standing straight to admire it. “I was worried you might have ruined the stitching. See here? This is for my journey into the border villages near Kazakhal. They taught me how to play pipes there. And this, this is for my time in the Seat of the King. Oh, and here- this is when I tried to encourage a little learning among an urchin child’s gang and they near killed me for my trouble.” For some reason, he smiled at that.
The big guy’s ears pricked at the last sentence. He looked at the man, the beginning of an idea forming in his head.
The man turned to show his cloth to the big guy. “Every elector’s scarf is different. Our whole lives are on here, and the more we learn the longer they grow.”
The camelopard flicked his tail. He decided.
“Oh, summer burn it all,” swore the man, as the big guy tugged the scarf out of his hands and waded out of the water. “You had to wait until after I cleaned it?”
The big guy splashed out of the river, ignoring him. The scarf clenched firmly in his teeth, he made once more for the bridge. More people were on it, gaping as he passed; skittish with the attention, the big guy galloped across the bridge at breakneck speed, sucking in air through his nostrils. It was harder without the boy, and his side wound was beginning to burn hot and cold all at the same time…
The man could very clearly see him, but the big guy waited at the other end of the bridge just in case. The camelopard wasn’t actually that much faster than men, but humans tired so easily.
When he was confident the man was in following distance, the big guy set off. He had no idea which streets he had to run to return, but the boy’s essence called out to him like a glowing beacon, hot and strong and bright.
It must have taken quite some time, with the distance it had taken him to travel, but to the big guy it felt like no time at all. When he was running, he was free. It was like the plains again, where the hours and minutes mattered less than the days and nights and seasons.
The big guy stopped in front of the alley, dropping the scarf over the boy distastefully. He felt like a common hyenalizard, prancing around with his latest kill in his jaws. It was beneath him, but desperate times called for desperate measures.
“Temperamental, impetuous beast, where are you going?” gasped the man, and he stumbled to a halt in front of him, looking from side to side for his scarf. He found it on the boy, who was curled up and shivering despite the heat of the rising sun. “Oh.”
He went to retrieve his scarf, and immediately the big guy stepped into the alley entrance, blocking the whole path.
“What do you want me to do? I’m no healer! Go back to your friend, let her-.”
The big guy stamped his foot and tossed his head.
The man paused. “So it didn’t work out. I suppose friendship does come after trusting, then,” he said, looking at the boy. “I have nowhere to accommodate him, master jarraf. You took my morning meal, but I’m afraid that’s all you’re going to get. I need the rest for myself.”
The big guy looked towards the scarf in the man’s hands, pointedly.
He considered it for a moment. “Kazakhal?” he muttered. “Seat of the King? The child’s…oh. Well,” he said, shaking his head. “They certainly wouldn’t take a recommendation from me, but if you needed my help in finding them…”
He met the big guy’s eyes. “Are you sure? I cannot emphasize the danger enough.”
The big guy did not move. He stood, resolute.
The man nodded, slowly, and bent to pick the boy up, feeling his forehead as he did so. “He’ll need time to rest,” said the man, as he carried the boy away. “There is no fever, but there is a sickness to him that does not bode well. He must not show weakness in front of them.” He made to walk away, but the big guy shifted into his path.
Their eyes met, again, and after a moment’s hesitation, the man put the boy on the big guy’s back. The boy shifted slightly, woken from his stupor by the movement. The big guy felt the boy’s arms wrap around his neck, and rumbled. All was as it should be.
“There’s a place you can stay,” said the man, beckoning for the big guy to follow. “For a day, maybe two. I’ll- I’ll propose your plan to him when he wakes. The Ladies play life as it comes, I suppose, after that.” He looked back at the camelopard, as they walked on. “I must not have sobered enough if I’m saying this, but you, master jarraf, seem to have more sense than all the electors of the Twin Libraries combined.” He smiled. “I must include that in Phorro’s Almanac, when I return.”
The big guy ignored him. He kept vigil for the boy as they walked, looking out over the whole of the street.
The boy shifted, and spoke, his voice bleary and barely above a whisper. “Do you remember your mommy and daddy?”
The big guy didn’t answer. He didn’t remember, and he didn’t need to. In the end, the big guy reasoned, everyone only had enough room in their lives to love just one other person.
He shifted to make sure the boy was comfortable and walked on, his heart warm and at peace.
Chaff wanted to puke. He staggered upright, his head spinning, grasping for support. He had let Loom take her tabula. He had let it happen.
He stumbled to the big guy’s side, clutching the camelopard’s tabula. The big guy sat up immediately, his eyes wide open and reflecting the sparse star light. An electric hum raced over the beast’s body that jumped through to Chaff as he sat astride his friend.
“Up, up, up,” he said, trying to clear his spinning head. This wasn’t the city, this was the plains. This was the hunt.
Chaff had survived four years by being on the hunt.
“Go big.” Chaff felt lightning in his hands, an energy that woke him to full consciousness. “Go big! Go big, big guy!”
Sparks flew as the big guy ran, the pounding of his hooves like thunder. Together, they were the oncoming storm.
Chaff leaned forward into the big guy’s neck, holding on tight as the tabula continued to writhe in his hands. His anger bubbled up hotter and brighter inside of him. How could he have been so arrogant? He was Chaff: the part that was thrown away. The part that wasn’t valuable.
Loom had never wanted to sell him. She had always been looking at the bigger prize.
Almost pulling hair from the big guy’s back, Chaff screamed. No one came out at the sound. A king had died and the sky was falling.
Chaff did not see Loom, but he could hear in the distance the steady rumbling of the wagon on the road. Chaff tensed, and the big guy blew past the statue of Fra Henn. The dead duarch’s outstretched hands gestured as if to command Chaff to stop, but it was nothing more than a statue in the end. It didn’t mean anything.
The big guy’s hooves cracked the cobblestone pavement as he landed, but he did not stop. Chaff heard, over the rushing wind, a sudden increase in the rumbling of the wagon. A second set of hoof beats joined the big guy’s.
They ran through the city with the smallest streets in the world, a Shira Hay race with nothing held back.
The big guy lurched; the boy clung on. Ice streaked the path ahead of them, a slippery frost that was already beginning to melt on the fringes. Wheel tracks in the ice indicated where Loom’s heavy cargo had slid on their sprint.
Towards the river front. Towards Kharr Ta.
“Come on, big guy!” Chaff shouted, pressing on his tabula. “Come on, let’s go!”
A fire surged through Chaff’s body, as the camelopard pounded on. Where his hooves touched the ice, it shattered, spider web cracks spreading from the impact. There was no magic to it, no summer tricks: it was raw strength, and strength alone.
Chaff didn’t feel drained from using the tabula. Giving the big guy strength made him alive. It made the stars brighter and the wind colder and his anger sharper.
The river emerged around the bend like the border to the end of the world. Beyond, pale lights shone behind the silhouettes of shadowed buildings. But on his side…
“Loom!” shouted Chaff, not slowing as he approached the wagon. Advantageous the ice may have been, but it had not made the burden of Loom’s wares any lighter. Deppash was slow and exhausted.
The big guy was neither.
They slammed into the cart, tipping it over. Chaff leaped off the big guy’s back as the camelopard skidded to a halt in front of the winter ox, bellowing. The boy landed on the spilled carpets, rolling onto the street and standing straight with his hands balled into fists. The repaired tarp on the wagon had been torn by the impact.
“Kid!” shouted Loom, getting off Deppash. She stood with her back to the ox, her eyes reflecting the light as they darted from the big guy to the boy. “What the fuck are you doing?”
“You took her,” Chaff grunted, chest heaving. “You took her!”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about-.”
“Give her back!” shouted Chaff, and suddenly he was running. He punched Loom as hard as he could, again and again, but Loom did not hit him back. “You took her, you took her, you took her!”
“Get off, kid, you’ll wake the whole fucking street,” snarled Loom, grabbing Chaff by the collar, trying to push him away. “By the Lady Summer and Spring, I thought someone was trying to raid me in the middle of the fucking city-.”
“You knew!” shouted Chaff. “You knew it was me, you knew I was coming, you knew because you took her!”
“Stupid fucking kid, I said get off me!”
Chaff’s head snapped backwards. He fell into the street, blood flowing openly from his mouth. It did not even come close to stopping him. He sprang upwards, punching and kicking any part of Loom he could find.
“She’s not yours to keep! She belongs to herself!” screamed Chaff. “How dare you-.”
“Alright.” Loom shoved Chaff away with a single foot, and held up a single amber disk. Her hands shook so much Chaff thought she was going to break it. “Alright, you fucking shit! I took your sweetheart’s damn tabula, OK? Now that you know, are you happy?”
“Give it back,” said Chaff, wiping blood from his lip.
“I can’t, I need this deal,” snarled Loom. “Pash, come on. We need to go if-.”
“It’s not yours to sell!” shouted Chaff.
Loom’s voice rose. “Then it’s not yours to keep, is it?”
“I’m going to give it back,” said Chaff. “I got to give it back.”
“Are you fucking for real, kid? You didn’t even know where a whole fucking city was and you think you can find one person in all of Albumere?” Loom grabbed Chaff by the shoulders, and her voice cracked with desperation. “Grow up, kid! You’ll never find her.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Chaff snatched at the tabula, but Loom pushed him aside and held it out of reach. “I got to give it back.”
“Are you even listening to me? I need this trade. If I don’t…” Loom took a deep breath. “If I don’t, I’m dead. I’m fucking dead.” She bent down on her knees, almost as if she was begging, or praying. “What’s more important, Chaff? A girl whose name you don’t even know, or the person who gave you yours?”
“I trusted you,” said Chaff. He blinked rapidly, but made no move to wipe the tears away. “I trusted you. You were my friend.”
“I still am,” said Loom. “Think about it, kid. Chaff. Once Vhajja’s fixed, we’ll…we’ll be a family.”
For a moment, he saw it. The three of them, eating tarts and touring the city and keeping the stables. It was warm and bright and wonderful.
She’s got a mommy and daddy and I’m still not sure how to send her back. Chaff shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “No, Loom. I won’t break a family to make one.”
“Well, then, fuck it.” Loom stood straight, and Chaff could not see her face for the dark of the night. “You think I need your fucking permission? Get back. Get back to the fucking house. Get back to the fucking grasslands for all I care, you piece of shit kid.”
There was nothing else to do. As Loom turned her back, Chaff leaped and attacked.
The harnesses tying the ox to the wagon stiffened and snapped. Deppash charged, bellowing, horns like winter icicles, cobblestones cracking from the cold under his hooves as he moved to defend Loom, but before he had stepped two paces the big guy swung his neck like a whip and slammed into the ox from the side.
Loom backhanded Chaff into the street, but Chaff had enough focus to roll out of the way as she made to pin him down. He leaped over the fallen wagon, still holding the big guy’s tabula in his hand. The vibrations shook his whole arm.
And then the big guy went big.
The camelopard kicked Deppash so hard that the winter ox was sent skidding into the river. Deppash bounced on water that turned to ice the moment he touched it, and stood unsteadily on a rapidly growing ice floe in the middle of the river.
Loom’s step faltered as she reached for her tabula, but she was distracted by Chaff as he darted past.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” shouted Loom, trying to grab Chaff’s collar. “Would you just listen to me?!”
Deppash began to charge across the river, freezing the water inches ahead of him as he barreled forward, his momentum reckless. The big guy reared and met him head on. Chaff shouted as the ox’s horns grazed the big guy’s underside; the flesh had steamed before turning raw pink and white. The boy ran to help, although how he did not know.
A mistake. A rough hand caught his collar and Chaff fell to the ground, squirming. “Now, you listen,” growled Loom. “I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to break your fucking heart, kid, because that’s just the world we live in. You gotta grow up some day, and better here than somewhere out there where you got no one to watch out for you.”
Chaff spit in her face. “I always got someone to watch out for me.”
And the big guy slammed into Loom so hard that the girl’s tabula went flying. Chaff stood to catch it, but Loom recovered quickly, tackling him to the ground. “No!” Chaff cried, as the tabula hit the street, but the hardy thing held and rolled with a soft clink.
Loom grabbed Chaff by the collar, looking from him to Deppash’s prone figure to the big guy and back to him. The big guy circled Loom, whinnying, unable to hit her without fear of hitting the boy, too.
“Now you listen,” snarled Loom. “I made you. I gave you everything. I gave you a home. I gave you an education. I gave you a name. I gave you your fucking life. It is mine to-.”
And Loom froze. She blinked. Slowly, her hands let go. She slid off Chaff, head held in her hands, breathing in great shuddering gasps.
Chaff rose to his feet, watching her. Hesitantly, he nodded to the big guy to back off.
Face buried in her hands, Loom didn’t say anything. Hesitantly, Chaff backed away. Loom looked so frail now. “I let it happen,” whispered Loom, shaking her head, staring at the ground. “I let it happen. Vhajja, what did you do? What did you do to me?”
He took each step carefully, and slowly, as if moving too fast would attract Loom’s attention. He found it lying to the side, a little thing, gleaming in the night. Aside from the single crack that had already been there, the girl’s tabula seemed unharmed. Chaff wiped it off and tucked it away, gently.
“Please,” said Loom, suddenly. Chaff turned. Her eyes were red, and she could barely speak. “Please. If you take her, you’ll kill me.”
She made no move to stop him as he clambered onto the big guy’s back. She looked too lost to move. Chaff searched for the right words to say.
“Sorry I broke your wagon,” he muttered.
As he rode away, he thought he heard Loom sobbing. When he could hear her no more, the night felt suddenly quiet.
He was alone.
He looked up. The camelopard had cantered back into the empty plaza with the dry fountain. He circled around the statue of Fra Henn. Its arms were still out-stretched, but now it looked to Chaff as if she was embracing him.
He turned away. It was just a statue. It didn’t mean anything.
“We can’t go back there no more,” he whispered, as the big guy made towards Vhajja’s tiny street. “Turn around, big guy, come on.”
The big guy tossed his head.
“I don’t know where we’re going to go,” said Chaff. He sniffed. “We go forward, yeah? Always go forward, that’s right.”
Chaff stared numbly at the tabula in his hands, slowly flipping it over as he rode. The exhaustion that he had staved off was coming back in waves, crashing into him until he felt so tired he would fall and just lie in the street.
For once, the boy did not feel like talking. He clung to the big guy in silence, watching the moon, watching the stars, trying to shut out the buzzing in his head.
His eyes slid down to a dark alley. “Stop here,” he whispered to the big guy. He slid off and stumbled inside, barely making it to the dank walls before slumping against them. “I know it’s cramped. But we got to get out of other people’s way, yeah?”
The big guy, for his part, did not protest. He trotted with his head down into the alley, and folded his legs underneath him without a sound.
The boy turned the tabula over in his hands, tracing the crack with his thumb. He had strength enough for this. Just for a little bit.
He focused on the tabula. “Show me,” he whispered, and the amber shadows danced.
It was still dark, still muddled. He could barely see her silhouette, in a place where he could not see the sky, with shadows shaped like teeth above and below her. His stomach turned. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This was his escape, his fantasy, his perfect world. The girl was in a place better than this.
He had to give it back. That was the only way to make things right. He had to find her.
“We found the way to the city, big guy,” he said, to the slumbering camelopard. “We found the only way, yeah? And now we got to find her.”
He leaned back into the wall, letting the sweat run down his face. “We’re going to look over the whole city. And if we can’t find her, we go on to the next city. And we keep going and going until we find her. We’ll go until we’ve gone over the whole world twice if we have to. That sound like a plan, big guy?”
There was no response.
Chaff turned over, letting fatigue claim him. He was going to find her. It was going to be worth it.
It had to be.
“Assassination! Assassination, in the Seat of the King!”
Chaff listened from the big guy’s back, eating an onion while the crier circled the plaza. “Revolution in the capital of Albumere! The marble king is dead!”
“Sensationalist,” sneered Loom, but she stopped to listen anyway.
“Word has just arrived from the duarchs themselves! Ask any elector and they will confirm it!” shouted the crier. “Banden, called Ironhide, has rallied the people of the Seat! The High General and the White Table threaten to march and reclaim the capital!”
“Should we be worried?” Chaff had never heard of half the names the man was spouting. They seemed like fairytales, unreal- certainly less real than his onion, which was delicious but getting smaller by the second.
“If the king’s dead, then fuck him,” said Loom, simply. “Didn’t even know his name. He certainly never did shit for me, why should I care?”
This seemed an exceedingly practical and Loom-ish viewpoint, and Chaff agreed. Kings ranked somewhere with gods, and under trees, for him.
The man shouted on. “Assassination! Assassination in the Seat of the King!”
Loom had to whistle for Deppash to shove their way through the forming crowd, although the winter ox had to be careful with the wagon rolling behind him. “What are the duarchs going to do about it?” shouted a voice from the back, as the crier stood atop the dry fountain of Fra Henn to be better heard.
“The duarchs are deliberating,” said the crier. “They convene with the arbiters even now to discuss the next step!”
“I told you, kid,” grunted Loom, as she shouldered the man who’d asked the question out of the way, to an indignant cry of protest. “The duarchs are fat old men who haven’t done shit for Shira Hay in years. You wait, by the time they decide what to do the marble soldiers will have arrived and the revolution will be over.”
Not many seemed to share Loom’s cavalier attitude. An anxious whispering rustled through the crowd like wind through the grass; Chaff saw concerned faces and dark expressions as he passed (although there were quite a number of pained expressions as well, as Loom had started using her fists to clear a path).
“This is no big, yeah?” asked Chaff, edging past to catch up to Loom and Deppash. He felt vulnerable without the big guy beside him, but Loom had insisted that the camelopard stay in the stables with the amount of attention he brought when he came out. “Kings die all the time, yeah?”
“Sure they do,” said Loom. “We got a lot of them, don’t worry about it.”
Chaff pursed his lips. He wasn’t very good with people, but he was certain this many worried faces was not a good sign. Another crier walked further up the street, screaming, “Betrayal! Betrayal! The usurper Ironhide takes the capital! The throne is empty!”
“No good,” Chaff muttered to himself. “People dying, no king, no good.” He bit his lip, his curiosity getting the better of him. “Hey, shouting man! Hey!”
Chaff had to wave his arms to get the crier’s attention. “Why’s there fighting, huh? What’s going on?”
“Chaff, what are you doing? Get over here, stop talking to him!” Loom shouted.
The crier looked from Chaff to Loom. “If it’s anything like here,” he said. “I reckon they’re fighting because they’re angry, and hungry. Now get going, child, you don’t want to your master to get angry.” He stood straight, continuing down the street, shouting, “Assassination! Betrayal! Chaos in the Seat of the King!”
“She’s not my master, yeah?” Chaff shouted after him, but his voice was lost in the noise of the streets. He turned his head and ran to catch up with Loom, wrapped hands clutching his three tabula close. She wasn’t his master, Loom had said so. Both Chaff and Loom were free, weren’t they?
“Come on, keep up,” said Loom, as Chaff squeezed his way through to the bubble of space that surrounded Loom’s wagon. “I don’t want to waste any more time than I have to, let’s get this over with.”
They made their way to the river, as the shouts of the criers echoed around them. “They’re noisy, yeah?” Chaff whispered. “Really noisy.”
Chaff felt out of place as they reached the riverside near the Libraries. There were no shouting criers among the flocks of electors, and for once the scholars of Shira Hay were quiet, muttering in low voices in groups scattered along the street. Chaff adjusted the collar of his shirt, wondering if he shouldn’t leap into the river and give himself another wash.
“Just typical,” snarled Loom, as they approached a golden barge floating on the river. “Deppash, stay here. If anyone tries something funny, rearrange their fucking ribcage. Come on, kid, come with me.”
“In there?” asked Chaff, staring open-mouthed at the ornate golden decorations lining the hull of the boat. A wooden carving of the Lady Fall, inlaid with gold, emerged from the prow, a hand outstretched as if to tell Chaff to stop where he stood.
“Where else? It’ll keep floating when you step on it, come on.”
Despite Loom’s reassurance, Chaff held his breath as he edged onto the barge over the wooden plank bridging deck to dock. A thin, sallow-faced man with an embroidered white tunic watched him from the barge; had he been expecting visitors?
His face split in a greasy smile. “Dearest Loom,” he said, clasping his hands. “Well met. If I may inspect your, er, merchandise-.” His voice sounded oddly familiar.
“Not now, Kharr Ta.”
Chaff’s stomach turned to ice. Kharr Ta, the slave trader? His foot slid back, as he got ready to bolt. He had only summoned the big guy, once, under Loom’s supervision: he wasn’t sure if he was ready to do it again…
“You said you were interested in the carpets? Take a look. West weaves, east weaves, fabrics and cushions and pillows from all over.”
Chaff stopped. Loom sold carpets, not slaves, he reminded himself.
Why was he here, then?
Kharr Ta’s smile wavered. “My interest in your other wares was nominal, miss Loom.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“Meaning I was only being polite.”
Loom’s fists tightened on the sides of the barge with an audible creak. “There’s good…stuff, in there,” she said, and her voice shook. “You should at least give it a look.”
“Even if your wares are remotely vendible, they are far from enough to pay for my healer’s services. In fact, your other products may not be quite so fit either. There’s been some unrest in the capital,” said Kharr Ta, running a finger through his oiled hair. “Just in case you haven’t heard the news.”
“Of course I’ve heard the fucking news, you think I’m an idiot?”
Kharr Ta straightened his back, and walked straight up to Loom until they were almost nose to nose. His fingers traced the tabula displayed openly in his belt. “I could ask the same of you,” he muttered, in a low voice. “To think that you could hock your wares at me like a common street peddler, to openly insult and degrade me, and then to push your cheap garbage on me and pretend it’ll be worth a marshman’s shit; you must think me an imbecile.”
Chaff’s eyes darted from Kharr Ta to Loom. Who else was with them on this boat? More to the point, who could Kharr Ta bring? What kind of summer lions or tigerwolves had he tamed with those tabula?
There was nothing for it. Chaff leaped from the side of the boat and landed heavily on the dock, the planks rattling as he fell. Both Kharr Ta and Loom looked up at the sound, and Chaff rose to his feet, shouting, “Mister Kharr Ta! Over here!”
He dashed to the wagon, and before a surprised Deppash could so much as react Chaff was inside. He licked his lips, inspecting the sparse rolls and bundles.
There! A red and gold pillow, one that Loom hadn’t even brought with her from the plains; it had been from Vhajja’s house.
He scrambled back out of the wagon and back onto the barge. Kharr Ta rolled his eyes. “If you think a child’s appeal will change my mind, you are sorely mistaken,” he said, to Loom.
“Feel it,” said Chaff, breathlessly. “It’s soft.” He looked up at Kharr Ta’s penciled features, meeting his eyes. “Please?”
The slave trader’s silky hand brushed the golden tassels.
“It’s comfortable, yeah?” said Chaff, offering it. Loom stared at him, although with what emotion Chaff could not tell. “You could sleep on it for a week.”
“Really, now? Have you?” said Kharr Ta. He lifted his nose and looked down at Chaff, but at least he was smiling.
Chaff bowed his head. Kharr Ta seemed to like that. “Yes,” Chaff said, without blinking. It was true.
“Hmm.” With a flourish, Kharr Ta plucked the pillow out of Chaff’s hands, and smiled without parting his lips at Loom. “For the purposes of good business,” he said, greasily, and glided away. “Come. Let us discuss out of the sun.”
Loom stormed into Kharr Ta’s open cabin, and after a moment Chaff followed.
A canarycrow screeched at him as he entered, its mottled yellow feathers shimmering brightly, its beady eyes even brighter. Kharr Ta languished on a stark white couch, his thumb passing over one of the many tabula in his belt as he clucked for an attendant.
Loom and Chaff stood, as a girl in a similarly white smock entered. Chaff stared openly at the glass cup of honeyed wine as she gave it to Kharr Ta. The slave girl gave one small look at Chaff, met his eyes, and bowed her head before scurrying away. Loom and Chaff kept standing, watching Kharr Ta drink.
After a long sip, Kharr Ta spoke. “As it stands,” he said. “For you, I’d be willing to honor the trade we discussed. The remainder of your merchandise, and any other assets.”
“I’d have nothing left!” Loom snarled, taking a step forward.
“I suppose you could just let dear old Vhajja die,” said Kharr Ta, and his grin made Chaff’s stomach curl.
Loom looked away, flexing her fingers. Chaff touched her arm, and Loom looked at him in surprise. Her hands relaxed.
Chaff took a deep breath. Loom was his friend, and he would stand by her.
“Recent developments must, of course, be taken into account,” said Kharr Ta, swilling his wine. “A new king in the Seat? Neither the High General nor the Marble Stronghold will stand for this. There will be blood, before the eye of the Lady Fall closes.”
He leaned forward. “Do you understand what I am saying, Loom? A healer’s prices will spike because of old Ironhide’s revolution. I may wish to conserve my medicines for men with…a bit more to pay with.”
Chaff shrank behind Loom as Kharr Ta rose. “My offer stands until tonight. Do it now and it will give me time to put my inventory together. Any later and I might change my mind.”
“I’ll be in touch,” said Loom, hoarsely, and she pulled Chaff away. The canarycrow screeched and turned its head smugly as they left, as if it was laughing at something it knew and they didn’t.
Loom didn’t talk much as they returned home, the wagon creaking behind them. The crowds had since dispersed, and without them the city seemed quieter, somehow. Tense. Chaff held his breath. It felt like the plains again, except now he couldn’t see his enemies coming.
Chaff wished they could hurry up, just a little. He wanted to get back to the big guy as quick as he could.
He ducked past Deppash to get into the stables, and Loom didn’t stop him. He found the big guy seated on the ground, eyes hooded, chewing a piece of charred wood. “Loom says that’s bad for you, yeah? Come on, spit it out,” said Chaff, trying to pull it out, but the camelopard would not let go. The big guy flared his nostrils, and Chaff could sense the threat that he would spit something out.
“Fine, fine,” said Chaff, letting go and sitting in the concave that the big guy’s body made. “You win, yeah? Yeah.”
Chaff yawned. Somehow, these short walks through Shira Hay were more tiring than days on end of traveling the plains. The city seemed to have no end of things to hit him with. Kennya Noni fighters, slave traders on boats, distant assassinations of kings…
The boy sighed, and turned over, nestling his head in the big guy’s fur. Life had been simpler in the grasslands.
He had barely closed his eyes when he heard something shatter from the inside.
Chaff sat up immediately, ears pricked. He crawled forward. “You pull me out if I get in trouble, yeah?” he asked the camelopard.
Neck stretched, eyes wide, the camelopard inclined his head in what could have been a nod.
“Thanks, big guy,” muttered Chaff. He leaned toward the back door to listen, but paused. “I trust her,” he said, under his breath. “I trust her, I trust her, I trust her.”
He opened the door. Loom stood over Vhajja, breathing heavily, a shattered bowl and spilled gruel at her feet. She stood over Vhajja, fingers clenching and unclenching. The old man himself was bent double, wheezing and hugging his stomach. He coughed, and Chaff saw flecks of red land on the now bare floor.
Chaff’s eyes followed Loom’s fists to Vhajja’s prone figure. He shifted his feet. He wasn’t sure whose side he was on.
“Get up, come on,” said Loom, a steadying hand holding Vhajja up as she lead him to the bed. “You can’t even hold a fucking bowl, you need to rest.”
Vhajja shook his head, mumbling as Loom laid him done. He kept tracing the rim of a tabula in his hands, and when Loom touched him he croaked in a thin, reedy voice, “Am I dead yet?”
“Not yet, you old vipercrow,” said Loom, lifting him bodily and laying him to rest. Chaff edged around the mamwaari, watching.
Loom made to stand back, but paused. Her hand drifted towards the tabula clutched in Vhajja’s fingers. Gently, she made to take it out of his tense grip.
The moment she touched the amber disk, Vhajja screamed. His eyes bulged as he sat upright, a horrible moan coming from between toothless lips. Loom flinched visibly, snapping back and withdrawing her hand.
“Is he OK, Loom?”
“What the fuck.” Loom backed up to the wall, reaching for Deppash’s tabula, breathing heavily. When she saw Chaff, she slumped, clutching her head. “By the Lady Summer and Spring, you scared me, kid.”
Vhajja had stopped screaming. He lay in his bed, staring vacantly to one side, all the while muttering, “Am I dead yet? Am I dead yet?”
“He’s OK, yeah?” asked Chaff, voice shaking. He bumped into the wall and realized with a start that he, like Loom, had moved as far away from Vhajja as he could.
“He’s…fine,” said Loom. “He’s just old.”
Chaff gulped. “Wouldn’t it be better to just kill him?”
Loom stared at him, and Chaff wondered if he had said something wrong. He had never been one to let his hunts squirm, and Vhajja was his friend. He looked like he was in pain.
“No, we won’t fucking kill him,” hissed Loom. “We can fix him. Don’t worry about it.”
Chaff nodded, although he did not quite understand. Vhajja wasn’t bleeding or broken. What kind of city magic would they have to use to fix someone who was broken on the inside?
Loom looked out the broken window. “I think I’m going to stick around for a few more hours. Make sure he stays…fine. There’s no point, no one’s going out now, anyway. A king dies and everyone thinks the Lady Summer is gonna let the fucking sky fall,” she said, sitting on the ground and massaging her forehead. “We’ve got some greens left, don’t we? Salted bush meat, all that?”
Chaff checked the earthenware pots where Vhajja kept his various stores of food. “Yeah,” he said. “There’s dried, er…meat. Some kind of meat, yeah? Jerky.”
“Toss me some,” said Loom. “I need something to chew. Gotta get my fucking head in the right place.”
Chaff walked over, two strips of jerky in hand. He gave Loom and sat next to her, chewing the other.
Loom took it silently. “There’s no carpet for you to sleep on anymore,” she muttered. “You alright with roughing it for tonight, kid?”
“Course I am,” said Chaff. He scraped his heel on the dirt. He honestly hadn’t expected the luxury of a soft carpet for very long. The dirt floor wasn’t much worse than the more prickly grass beds he had made for himself in the plains. “Hey, Loom?”
They ate together in silence. Neither of them needed to say anymore.
Outside, Chaff heard the distant voice of the crier once more, screaming, “Assassination! Betrayal!” Beside him, Loom got up.
“Wish the fucker would shut up,” she muttered, pacing across the small hut. She kicked dirt over the spilled gruel on the ground and set to picking up the broken pieces of the bowl. Chaff rose to help, but Loom waved him off. “Be careful where you step, there’s broken bits everywhere.”
Chaff puffed out his chest. “I’m not scared of them!”
“You should be, you’re not wearing any shoes. They’ll cut your fucking feet open.”
“You’re not wearing any shoes either,” said Chaff, reproachfully.
“I am an adult, I have immunity,” said Loom. She looked up. “You want to be helpful, go and put some more of this slop in another bowl. It’ll be cold now, but the old man needs some food in him.”
Chaff did as he was told, edging his way around the shattered clay fragments. He watched as Loom gathered the shards in her palm and, after looking around, tossed them in a corner. She kicked dirt over them for good measure, and turned to see Chaff staring.
“What? Don’t give me that look. Just remember not to walk over there,” she said.
Chaff stuck out his tongue. “I’m a stupid kid, yeah? I don’t remember nothing.”
Loom grumbled and placed a pot over the makeshift garbage corner. “So I remember for later,” she muttered. “And are you fucking done yet?”
Chaff held out the bowl, but as Loom made to take it he heard a strangled groan from Vhajja’s bed. The old man shook his head fitfully, waving his hand as if slapping something away.
“How are you feeling, old man?” asked Loom. She did not move any closer to him.
“No food,” Vhajja muttered. “Can’t eat properly.” He coughed, a wheezy, wracking cough that came from his chest. He spat over the side of his bed, groaning. “Make the sale soon.”
“That extortionist Kharr Ta wants it tonight,” growled Loom.
“Then do it tonight.”
“He wants everything. Everything! What’ll we have left?”
“We will have our lives,” said Vhajja, and his tone was dangerous.
“How long do you think you’ll survive out there, in the gutters, like a common wild child? You won’t last a day.”
Vhajja slammed his fist into the bed, and the effort made him double-over in pain. Through gritted teeth, he snapped, “No one’s going to take an extra mouth when there’s war in the capital. Take Kharr Ta’s deal, because by all the Ladies Four it’s the only one you’re going to get.”
“Go to sleep, old man,” snarled Loom. She looked at Chaff, and said, softer, “You, too. It’s getting late.”
Chaff hesitated. “Loom…you’re my friend, right?”
Loom stared at him without moving. Finally, she just said, “Go to sleep, Chaff. Things will be all sorted out by tomorrow, I promise.”
Chaff nodded, and headed out back towards the stables. He would spend the night by the big guy, like he had in the plains. It was comforting, a return to the familiar.
The big guy flicked his ears, still waiting to pull Chaff out in case he got in trouble. Chaff rubbed his neck and smiled. “Thanks, big guy.” He yawned. “Yike, I’m tired. Sleep now, yeah?”
He slumped into the camelopard’s side, and took out the girl’s tabula. He considered it for a moment, and gave it a kiss for good luck. He closed his eyes and snuggled into the big guy’s fur with the tabula held firmly in his hands, like Vhajja.
Whoever Vhajja held, Chaff thought, he must have loved that person very much.
Chaff’s dreams were dark. He saw someone who looked like Hadiss, and a man riding a horse, both walking away from him, before the world became so dark he could not see a thing. He heard a steady drip, drip, drip, and a rustle like rushing wind, that turned into hoof beats. The hooves grew louder and louder, until they were so loud that Chaff thought they must have been riding right over his head.
He woke, squinting. There were hooves, yes, coming from somewhere near him. He looked up, rubbing his eyes, and saw that Deppash and the wagon were gone. Loom must have gone with them, then. Chaff smiled. He was still there.
He began to thank the girl for her luck, but his stomach lurched. He froze.
He sat very still, staring at his hands for what seemed like an eternity.
The girl’s tabula was gone.
Jova turned her waist, feeling the leafy skirt twirl around her legs. “What am I wearing?”
“The dress of a templegirl, which they are calling coza,” said Roan. “It is your clothes that mark you as one from Jhidnu. You are safer as long as you are looking like them. Soon you shall be speaking as them, acting as them, believing as them. They will come to accept you.”
“Really? Did that go well for you?” muttered Jova, darkly.
Roan did not say anything.
Jova smoothed out the strips that made up the skirt. They were thick and waxy, and felt odd brushing against her legs. “Does my m- does Anjan approve of this?”
She would have asked herself, but Ma had already left. The family separated most mornings as soon they woke, although Ma never left without kissing Jova on the forehead and Da always made sure to say goodbye.
“Your Anjan approves of very little.”
Jova scratched her chin, not sure how to respond. It may have been one of Roan’s jokes.
There was a sharp hollow sound, as Roan tapped the head of a crate. “Will you eat as we ride?”
Jova held her hands out until she felt the hot steam from the morning’s meal under her palms. She lowered her hands until she felt the edges of the plate, and then pulled it towards her.
“The Lady Summer bless us, we give you thanks,” Roan began, as Jova started to eat. She pushed the bowl away quickly. “May we be strong, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
“Fortune be with you,” Jova repeated, and began again.
Jova supposed it was kind of him. Roan gave Jova the same bean gruel every morning, the same cornbread and tomato stew every afternoon. He sent her home with supper for the whole family, too, although he never ate with them.
“Ride?” asked Jova, coughing as she swallowed a mouthful that was too hot for her. She did her best not to stain her new skirt as she wiped her chin with her hands. “Am I not cleaning and feeding them today?”
“Today is a holy day,” said Roan. “We shall have no customers today.”
Jova traced the rim of her bowl. “But I’m still working?”
“Yes. Will you eat as we ride?”
Jova’s fingers curled at the same time as her stomach. “I’ll finish quickly,” she said, under her breath, and did her best to gulp down the rest. She used her fingers to wipe up the rest; Ma had told her off for it, once, but it was the only way she had of making sure she ate all of it.
Roan waited patiently while Jova ate. She wondered what he did in those periods of silence. He did not speak or move (not, at least, in ways she could hear).
With a sigh, Jova put the bowl down. “Done,” she announced.
Roan did not waste time with a reply; Jova found he rarely did. He clicked his tongue, instead. “Here, Uten!”
Jova walked forward. Her steps were longer now, although she still kept her hands up like a lizardant’s antennae. “Hey, old girl,” she said, brushing Uten’s side. The molebison was amicable enough if properly fed, and among the three Jova spent the most time with her.
There was a scrape, and another tap on the wooden crate. “Stand, Jova.”
Jova did as she was told, and a moment later Roan’s hands around her waist lifted her onto Uten’s back. Jova felt her gut clench, but did her best to keep her face straight.
She had ridden Uten twice so far, both times under Roan’s careful instruction. The rest of the time, she preferred to simply walk around the edge of the ring as she led Uten on her daily rounds. One hand on the wall, stumbling, shambling, barely making any progress- it was still better than this.
The girl bent down and hugged the molebison close. She felt the steady breathing of the beast under her, felt the heat radiating from her body. The skin under her blindfold suddenly itched and stung, and Jova’s breathing quickened.
There was nothing to anchor onto. Jova’s only reference point was Uten, and as the animal moved she felt a dizzying sense of vertigo. Very quickly, Jova lost sense of how far away the ground was.
“How are you, Jova?” Roan’s voice was cold, and distant.
“Adjusting,” said Jova. “Easy, Uten, easy.”
“We shall be going then. Just be holding on. I will lead the way.” Jova heard the clink of tabula from Roan’s direction.
“The other animals?” asked Jova.
“They will not be coming with us. Only Stel and Uten, today.”
Jova shifted, trying to get into a more comfortable position around Uten’s back hump. Uten rolled her shoulders, disgruntled as she always was by pressure or loud noises, but a sharp click from Roan made her stop.
“Where are we going, Roan?”
“Where the life is taking us, Jova.”
That was all the answer Jova was going to get. She hugged Uten even closer, and tried not to think about how much the animal swayed as she walked.
As they rode, Jova listened. The sounds of the city were familiar to her, by now, although as they entered the main pilgrimage routes Jova had to concentrate to parse the different noises. A woman’s voice drifted past; then, the hesitant muttering of wild children entering the city; the low hum of a zealot, concluding his morning prayer.
Jova cocked her head. A pontiff was speaking, to the soft scribble of quills on papyrus, so quiet that perhaps only Jova could hear. Scribes?
The sinking feeling in Jova’s gut distracted her too much to keep listening. Her fingers tightened on Uten’s fur. She tried to tell herself that it wouldn’t have done her much good, anyway. Reading wasn’t something she saw people do often. She wouldn’t have needed it.
It stung, all the same.
Uten came to a halt, so suddenly that Jova nearly toppled over her head. “Roan?”
“Quiet, girl,” said Roan. “I am making a purchase.”
There was a pocket of silence to Jova’s left. She reached out, hesitantly, and found that perhaps after reaching arms-width in the air was noticeably cooler. The shade under a trading stall?
A clatter of shells indicated the exchange. Jova still wasn’t quite sure about the concept of money, but Roan had promised, after many lengthy silences, to keep her pay restricted to more concrete things.
“Here,” said Roan, and Jova found a hard slate pressed into her hand.
“What is it?” asked Jova, turning it over, as they began to move through the street again. They rode side by side to talk, although some chafed at the blockage in the road.
“A woodcut of the Lady Winter. You are winterborn, no?”
“Oh,” said Jova, feeling the etchings with her thumbs. The sinking pit in her stomach grew. “Yes, I am. Um, thank you, Roan. I’m sure it’s…very beautiful.”
“Come, blind Jova,” said Roan. “The life is taking us somewhere else now.”
Jova flipped the woodcut over in her hands. What had Roan meant, by giving it to her? Was it another reminder of his sacred truth? Jova’s grip tightened.
The woodcut must have been colored. Dyed blue and white, the colors of the Lady Winter. She traced the lines, trying to picture in her mind how the woodcut must have looked, but ultimately it was pointless.
Jova bit her lip and gripped her blindfold. She wanted to rip it off and show the world what she would never see.
She held the woodcut so hard she thought it might snap. The anger built inside of her, boiling until Jova felt it stream out of her eyes like lava.
She didn’t notice how quiet it was until Roan said, “Stop.”
Jova sniffed. The air was musty and stifled, and the sounds of the city had faded to a muted hum. Without even seeing, Jova felt a stillness around her. She opened her mouth to ask Roan where they were, but closed it quickly. She didn’t feel ready to talk.
Roan wasted no time. He snapped his fingers, and Jova listened to the echo bounce off the walls. He grunted in approval.
“Uten, come.” As the molebison shuffled forward, Jova rubbed her eyes and listened. Where were they? What kind of work did Roan have for her here? He had said it was a holy day. Was this another Moscoleon ritual, like the strange chants and dances of the pontiffs? Jova dangled the woodcut from the tips of her fingers, trying not to ruin it with her sweaty palms.
Roan’s hands grabbed her wrists, and she nearly shrieked. “Hold it to your face, like so. Do not slant it such.” Roan paused as he guided Jova’s arms up. “You were crying.” A statement, not a question.
“Yes,” said Jova, anyway. She turned her head, doing her best to hide it. “Sorry.”
“Do not be sorry. There is nothing to be ashamed of.” Roan coughed. “I formally apologize for any offense I have given you.”
Jova lifted her eyebrows. “No, I…you don’t have to…” She shook her head, and smiled. “Do not be sorry. There is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Hmm.” Roan tilted the woodcut forward, and let go of Jova’s hands. She heard Stel move away, although nothing of what Roan was doing.
“Ell says that,” said Jova, trying to keep the mood light. Her arms were starting to feel stiff. “The formal apologies.”
“True, it is a marbleman tradition.”
“I thought you said you were from Hak Mat Do?”
“As was Des To Hem, when he first saw Mason’s Peak,” said Roan. “But then he went on to build the greatest fortress Albumere has ever seen. Snakes are biting their own tails, but horses are riding straight- I left the south many times before coming to Moscoleon.”
“Is that where you learned to fight?” asked Jova.
There was a dangerous silence, and then Roan said, “Some ways. Jova, if you-.”
“I only asked because Ell learned there, too,” said Jova, quickly. She rolled her shoulders, still holding the woodcut up to her face. “He’s- he’s really good with a knife.”
“Is this truth? The weapons of the marble soldiers are the hammer and shield. Knives are for slaves to cut their master’s meat.”
“Well, he learned there. I don’t know how much they meant to teach him.”
“Hmm,” said Roan. He did not inquire further, but Jova could have sworn he was amused. Hmm was as close to a laugh as she was going to get.
“Roan,” Jova said, finally. “What are we doing here?”
“Hold it to your face, Jova. Make this sound, shhh.” Roan blew air out through closed teeth. “Shhh, like that. Shhh.”
Jova would have thought that Roan had gone crazy if she didn’t know better. She shook her head, letting the woodcut fall. “What’s the point of-?”
“You are working for me. This is truth,” said Roan, grabbing Jova’s wrists and forcing the woodcut back up. “Do as I am saying, blind Jova, eyeless Jova. Shhh.”
“Shh,” said Jova, hesitantly, holding the slate in front of her face. “Shh.”
“Move it away from your face, like so,” said Roan, pulling on her wrists. “Keep making the noise. Shhh. Move it back to your face.”
Teeth clenched to make the sound, Jova could not make any protest.
Roan let go of her wrists. “Do it yourself, now. Listen closely. Listen to the way it changes.”
Jova moved the slate back and forth in front of her face, feeling stupid. She furrowed her eyebrows. As long as she had to do it, she might as well try to follow Roan’s instructions.
The difference was subtle, an odd flux to the sound as it moved towards her, and a reverse as it moved away. Jova paused, catching her breath. Roan took the slate gently out of her hands.
“Shh, remember, shh. I will move it now. When it comes close to your head, duck.” Jova’s hands curled in front of her chest, and Roan pushed them down. “With your ears only. No hands.”
“Roan, I…” Jova turned her head. “I appreciate it. But this is…”
“This is Moscoleon. Where a man with no tongue can sing again, where a man with no legs can run again, and where a girl with no eyes can see again.” Roan clicked his tongue at Stel and Uten, who had been growing restless standing still. “Come, Jova. You are working for me. For this, you will be paid.”
Jova set her teeth together and blew air out through them. She did her best to listen, but the slate came at her so fast that when she tried to duck she ran her head straight into the wood.
“Again,” said Roan. “I did not expect you to succeed on your first try.”
Jova shifted on Uten’s back, tense. She couldn’t sit much straighter or move any quicker without fear of slipping off.
She waited, and waited, but Roan seemed to be trying to catch her off-guard. She paused to breathe, and at that moment felt a sharp pain on her forehead.
Hands clenched on her temple, Jova growled. There had been some warning, but only some, as she felt the heat reflect from the slate back onto her skin, but how by all the Ladies Four was she supposed to hear it coming?
“Again,” said Roan. “Listen closely. Listen for the subtleties of the sound.”
“Where did you learn this?” asked Jova, nose wrinkled. “In-between old legends about pyramids and riding to the Stronghold?”
If she listened closely- really listened- there was…something. That little wave in the sound, although whether the slate was moving towards or away from her Jova could not tell. Roan wasn’t just holding the woodcut still or moving it straight forward; he was waving it back and forth, back and forth.
Before Jova realized what she was doing, she had ducked. The slate clipped her forehead as it passed, but it hadn’t slammed into her nose like before.
There was a pause. “I did not expect you to succeed on your third try, either.”
Jova felt a hand on her hair. A single pat. She couldn’t help but smile. From Roan, that was like a hug and a kiss.
“We will practice more like this. Then, from the left and from the right. Prepare yourself, Jova.”
Jova was so concentrated on listening that she didn’t realize how much time had passed. She felt self-conscious sometimes, and then her attention wavered. It wasn’t as if she could walk around all day saying “shhh,” but sometimes…sometimes she saw it. Knew where it was without reaching out to touch it or asking Roan or holding it herself.
The feeling would flit past in her mind, and dance out of reach before she could grab it, but it was there.
“Click now,” said Roan. “Like so.” Like when he signaled for Stel to move, Roan clicked.
Jova tapped her tongue on the top of her teeth, and clicked. Her lips felt sore from shhing so much, anyway, although she wasn’t sure how clicking would work.
Suddenly, she felt Roan’s hands around her waist, and she dropped onto the floor, wheeling her arms for balance. “Click again,” said Roan. “Listen to the way it sounds.”
It sounded like a click, just a click. Jova breathed deeply through her nose. It would do no good to get frustrated.
Roan held her hand, and pulled gently. “Count the steps. Tell me when we reach ten.”
Jova nodded, whispering under breath. “…eight…nine…ten.” She tugged on Roan’s hands to get him to stop.
“Click again. Face that way, face the wall, it’ll be easier. Click. Listen.”
Was it supposed to sound different? Jova’s click sounded like a click. There was no other way to describe it.
“Gentle, now. Easy.” Jova only just realized how Roan’s voice sounded different. He spoke to her like he spoke to Stel or the other mounts. His voice was softer and kinder. “Take your time. Click. Listen. Walk.”
Jova would have said something, but between all the clicking and walking she couldn’t find the focus to put together a sentence.
“Practice now, Jova. I must go, but I will be returning. Uten will stay. Call for her in case you…in case you need to reorient yourself.”
Roan left before Jova could respond. She listened as the hoof beats faded away, and then slumped and sighed. She rubbed her ears. Jova didn’t know if it was possible for ears to be sore, but they certainly felt that way.
Click. Listen. Walk. The pattern made it easy, but the lack of results made it much, much harder. Jova shuffled backwards and forwards from the walls, slowly turning her head while clicking to get a full view. She bent low, imagining she was like Gopal’s bathawk. Click. Listen. Walk. Click. Listen. Walk. Click. Listen.
Jova heard voices, followed by a low growl. Her heart skipped a beat. Roan’s enemies?
“You swear you saw him come in here?”
“How could I miss him? Rode in here with that little blind shit, you know.” The voices were distant, but getting close. Jova clicked before she remembered to stop herself, and clapped her hands over her mouth, horrified.
“You hear that?”
“Yeah, I heard. Any idea what it is? Burn it all, it’s dark in here.”
“Like a fucking batsnake or something.”
Jova slowly lowered her hands from her mouth. Roan was right, there was no way she could fight them off on her own, not the way she was now.
But Jova had an idea.
“Come on, let’s just find the horse freak and get this over with. I’m sick and tired of putting up with all this.”
“Treats the brute, right, you know? Parading around the city like that. I got bruises, Deid, they’re swollen and shit.”
“Fucking Lady Spring, what the hell was that?”
“It’s just rats with wings, Izca, calm down. What’s wrong with Fang?”
“He’s scared, that’s what. Rats with fucking wings, my ass. I’ve half a mind to just call out to the horse freak. Hey, s-!”
There was a sound of scuffling in the distance, followed by the splash of bodies hitting water. Just where had Roan taken her?
“He’ll bolt, you idiot. Keep quiet.”
Jova edged forward, until her hands found Uten’s warmth. “Gonna need your help in a bit, girl,” she whispered, petting her like she petted Mo.
“Hey, hey, Deid, look…what lives down here?”
“Catbirds that spit rainbows when you pet them, now stop being such a jumpy fallborn and get your ass-.”
“Deid, Deid, it’s getting closer.”
Faintly, Jova heard something whine. “Now, Uten,” she whispered, wiping her mouth. “Say something for me.”
Uten rolled her head and, after a moment, obliged.
The molebison, normally so quiet, didn’t have a thunderous roar. It was wheezy, almost breathless, and yet somehow that made it that much more terrifying as the sound slithered and crawled around her. Jova shivered involuntarily.
She smiled, nonetheless, at the sounds of swearing and fading feet.
It was not long before she heard horse hooves pounding past outside again. “Jova!” Roan shouted. “I saw the boys running out of here. Are you-.”
“I’m fine,” said Jova.
“I took care of it.”
There was a pause. “They looked…petrified.”
Jova just smiled.
“You are a frightening little girl,” said Roan. A statement, not a question.
“I do my best,” said Jova, patting Uten. She chose to enjoy the silence that followed.
“I found a pillow,” said Roan. “Braided, finely made. Come, Jova. I shall hold up either the woodcut, or the pillow. Shh or click, whichever you are comfortable with. Soon you will tell one from the other.”
Jova moved towards Roan’s voice, doing her best to take full steps and not edge forward. “Roan…” she said, and she was smiling. Her heart was pumping fast; she felt almost giddy. “You said you wouldn’t teach me anything.”
“I will not teach you how to fight,” said Roan, imperiously. “But you, sad little girl, may learn to see. You may learn to smile.”
Jova nodded. “Thank you, Roan. Honest.”
Roan’s pause followed. “Come, Jova. We have barely begun.”
“Were you being born blind?”
“No,” said Jova. “It was an accident.” She felt her way across the stables, her fingers combing through the long hairs of the animals.
“I am finding this truth hard to believe,” said Roan, the steady clip of Stel’s hooves close behind Jova. “Was it an illness?”
“I didn’t get sick, if that’s what you mean,” said Jova. She did not elaborate.
“Your eyes were removed?”
A delicate way of putting it. Jova nodded, although she was not sure if Roan could see her.
“Like a pontiff’s sacrifice on the altar,” said Roan. “Except most of the sacrifices lose their lives with their eyes.” Jova wasn’t sure if he meant it as a joke or no.
Jova paused. “I had help.” It was the first time she had admitted it to anyone, including herself.
Roan’s silence was pointed.
“There was…an energy,” said Jova. “Someone helped me.”
“Someone, and not something?”
“Someone, something, whichever you prefer. I misspoke,” said Jova, a little irritated. “This is the city of miracles, isn’t it? Maybe the Ladies Four chose to save me.”
“You speak as if that was a lie,” said Roan. “And yet if the Ladies Four had not saved you, then you would not be speaking to me.”
“So you really think it was them?”
“You are here, are you not? So am I. So are the rest of us. We are all being saved by the Ladies Four, every day.”
“You think so?” asked Jova.
“At times they are subtle,” said Roan. “At times they are more blatant. We are all facing such times.” He sighed. “Some of us more often than others.”
Jova’s hand stopped. The steady breathing of the creature under her palm indicated it was asleep. “Does we include you?”
“It does. I am owing my life to the Ladies. There are those in this city who detest my presence.”
It was Jova’s turn to be silent. She waited, trusting Roan to continue.
He did not. “This one is called Uten,” said Roan. “A good and holy name. She is a molebison, and prefers the dark and the quiet. You shall wash and feed her, and lead her on walks if she seems agitated.”
Jova blew air out of her lips. “How am I supposed to do that?”
“Do not worry so. You shall not need to walk any of the others.”
“What makes Uten any different?” asked Jova, rubbing the fur on the animal’s side. It was soft and plush and thick, and felt good under her fingers.
“Because she is as blind as you. You shall make do.”
Jova bit her lip. She moved her hand away from the molebison’s side, and crossed her arms. It made her feel adrift and unbalanced, but Roan needed to see that she was unhappy. “Do you mean to be cruel?”
“No,” said Roan. “The truth should not offend you, blind Jova.”
Jova turned her head and snorted.
There was a pause. “Perhaps, though…” said Roan, hesitantly. “I am being too forward with this truth. I formally apologize.”
He waited. Jova let her arms fall to her sides. “I forgive you,” she said, and did her best to smile. She tried to think of a change of topic as the stifling Moscoleon night swirled around them. Roan had promised Ma to escort Jova safely back when they both returned to the compound, but he made no move to turn back: at least, not in a way Jova could hear.
“You don’t have many mounts, for a riding instructor,” said Jova, innocently. She counted only three: Yora the staghound, Chek the fall mule, and now Uten the molebison. Four, perhaps, if she included Stel, but Jova doubted Roan would ever let anyone else ride his personal mount.
“Most bring their own. It does only little good to learn to ride one type of beast, and then ride using the tabula of another. Yora is for those newcomers who seek grace and beauty. Usually they are ostentatious and easily offended, but they pay well and for that I appreciate their business.”
Roan paused again. “Have I said something funny?”
“Do you tell them that to their faces?”
“I used to, but I am finding I keep more clients if I do not. This is truth that I am wishing is not true.”
Jova used the walls of Uten’s stable to find her way out. She reached out, and a hand took hers. It was rough and calloused, and its grip was so firm it hurt.
“As I am saying,” said Roan, as they began to walk away. Stel moved slowly, so that Jova could keep pace. “Chek is sturdy and persistent, for those who wish to see if a beast of burden is a good investment. And Uten is powerful and strong, and is much sought after by the zealots who wish new ways to spread the word of the Ladies Four. She is blind, but blindness is no issue with a good rider and a strong tabula, and she can endure blows that would fell lesser beasts.”
“Truth,” said Jova, automatically.
Jova shook her head. “Nothing, I’m sorry. It’s just…a game I played.”
“I will expect less frivolity from a child as grown as you. Games such as these are having no point.”
Especially not with you. It’s boring if there’s only ever one answer. Out loud, Jova just said, “Yes.”
They walked on, at a glacially slow pace. “Are you sure I can’t ride with you?” said Jova, helpfully.
Roan’s answer was immediate and flat. “No.”
Jova turned, hand outstretched, trying to grab Roan. “I could hold onto your waist and not let go. It wouldn’t be that hard.”
There was a scrape of cloth and leather as Roan shifted in his saddle. “No, Jova. We shall walk as we are now.”
Meekly, Jova drew back. “Sorry,” she muttered.
Silence flowed back in. Jova squirmed. She had been prepared to do anything to prove herself capable, but this was not the anything she had had in mind.
“You scratch your chest,” said Roan, suddenly.
“You scratch your chest,” repeated Roan. “When you are agitated. You are not noticing.”
Jova let her hand fall. She squirmed, tapping her fingers on her thighs. Was Roan telling her to stop or just making an observation? “It just itches from time to time.”
Jova was beginning to hate Roan’s lengthy pauses. She shuffled forward, waiting.
“You have a pet name, blind Jova. Your friends, they are calling you little Lady.”
The girl said nothing. She waited for Roan to reach his point.
She waited and heard only silence, as bleak as the darkness behind her blindfold. But then, ever so softly, so soft that Jova, as intensely focused as she was in listening, could barely hear it, Roan spoke.
“There will be four, and a fifth to come.”
A shiver went down Jova’s spine. She did not know why. Perhaps it was the tone of Roan’s voice: so quiet and distant, when normally it was stiff and forceful.
Roan said nothing else; he probably had not even intended Jova to hear in the first place. But Jova would not be assuaged.
“What do you mean?”
A blank silence. Roan did not acknowledge her, at least verbally, although Stel’s pace stuttered slightly.
“Four, and a fifth to come. What does that mean?”
“Nothing,” said Roan, quickly.
Jova tugged at his hand. “Lie.” Roan came to an abrupt halt, and Jova stopped too. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck tingle. Was Roan looking at her? The stern, narrow-faced man in Jova’s imagination had eyes as cold as ice.
“It means nothing.”
“I don’t believe you.” Jova paused. “Are you scared of the truth?”
“Never, blind Jova.”
“Then prove it. Tell me what you mean.” Jova felt strangely electric. In this situation, Ma or Da would weave some fantasy about Jova before telling her to sleep; Rituu might have leaped into some fable in his alleged backstory. But Roan…
Roan would not lie.
“Are you familiar with the pyramids of Hak Mat Do?”
Jova cocked her head. “What do those have to do with anything?”
Without warning, Stel reared. Roan shook Jova’s hand free, and began to trot around her as he repeated, more forcefully, “Are you familiar with the pyramids of Hak Mat Do?”
Jova shook her head, mutely.
“They are enormous. Far into the dry desert, beyond the bounds of the city, but still very visible even from so far away. Their construction predates even the Seat of the King; they are as ancient as the lost empire of my people.”
“In the time before the First Age, before the First King, the empire of the Hak Mat Do ruled Albumere.” Roan sighed. “It was centuries ago, and yet the pyramid lords still cling to their forgotten legacy.”
Jova pursed her lips. She had known Hak Mat Do was old, yes, but powerful? Never.
“If you must know, Jova, there is a fable, and the fable is saying this. The emperor who built the pyramids ruled Hak Mat Do at its peak. It was said that his fortune had been granted to him personally by the Ladies Four, and never was the empire being richer or more powerful.”
Dusty old Hak Mat Do? Jova shook her head. For its power to no longer even be a memory, it must have fallen far.
“This emperor had four sons. He is loving each of them dearly.”
“What happened when he lost them to the Fallow?”
Jova perked up. Had his sons been like her? “Did the Ladies let him keep them?”
“No.” Stel’s hoof beats came to a stop. “The day before each of their fourth birthdays, the emperor smothered them. He was spiteful, and would rather kill his beloved sons than give them away.”
Not like her, then. Jova hung her head, grasping her hands together.
“For each of them, he ordered the construction of a grand tomb: Sag Gar, Dosh Mi, Zut Hal, Ya En. Summerborn, fallborn, winterborn, springborn. With the death of the fourth child, he had cheated each of the Ladies Four, and none were left to vouch for him. It is said they struck him down with an affliction. His skin burned like fire, and every morn he would wake bleeding from a dozen places, as if knives were cutting at him from the inside.”
“As he lay dying, he ordered for a fifth pyramid, Ral Zu. Many assumed it was to be his tomb, but he insisted that it be completed before his death. It was far from the other four, much smaller. It consumed him; finishing it became his sole goal. And at night, he whispered again and again: there will be four, and a fifth to come. The fifth, he would say, in his lucid moments, would change Albumere forever.”
“But…” Jova said. “If the fifth would be the end, why did he want to build it so badly?”
“Who knows? Ral Zu was never finished. Travelers shun it. They say it is cursed, but only because of the words of a senile old man, warped by time and superstition. So you see, blind Jova, it means nothing.”
“Then why did you say it?”
Roan paused. “Because I hoped I was wrong. Because we are looking for something more than ourselves, and sometimes our imaginations take us too far. I was being foolish.”
“No, you weren’t,” said Jova, and she smiled in the direction of Roan’s voice.
Again, silence. “One cannot live on starlight and dreams. Come, Jova. You must rest. Work will be hard tomorrow.”
Obediently, Jova took Roan’s hand as they began to walk away once more.
“Does everybody in Hak Mat Do know this story?”
“I do not know,” admitted Roan. “A Hak Mat Do teller told it to me, and I remembered it. I had not heard it beyond my own tribe.”
“What about Ral Zu?”
“The unfinished pyramid is deep in one of the most inhospitable parts of the desert. Foolhardy grave robbers go there, perhaps, but they do not return.”
“Did you go into the deserts often?”
“No. I am Hag Gar Gan. My business was in the steppes, not the deserts.”
“And what was your business?”
There was silence. And suddenly, Stel reared. Jova felt herself being thrown aside, skidding on her knees across the dirt road. She crumpled, shouting more in shock than from pain, her hands automatically flying up to shield her face.
Something hard and heavy shattered on the ground, a deep whump followed by a sharp crack. Jova could only crawl away from the impact, hands outstretched for cover.
“Back, Jova!” Roan shouted. Stel screamed, a high hoarse sound, as something else crashed into a wall near Jova’s head. Jova shrieked, falling backward, as stone dust rained on her face and arms.
“Go back where you came from, sandman!” shouted a voice. It was male, a middling tone. A teenager?
“Horse freak!” shouted another voice, similarly male and mid-toned, but with a different timbre.
Their words were slurred and their voices dipped and rose erratically. Jova found the corner of the wall that the projectile had hit, and slid behind it, whimpering. She could hear Stel’s frantic hooves a short distance away, but they were punctuated continually by shattering rock and Stel’s screaming.
“You remember when I say there are those who detest my presence?” shouted Roan. “These are such people. Go now, Jova, hide!”
Jova’s hands tightened. Her temple pounded. Running and hiding and crying- what did that prove? That she couldn’t take herself, that she was weak and needed coddling.
Jova stood up and shouted into the darkness. “Hey! Back off!”
“Who the fuck are you?” shouted the first voice. Something barked and snapped near the teenager, and Jova flinched. The voice laughed. “It’s a whole troop of freaks here. You, too, baygirl! We don’t want cripples and foreigners at the Temple!”
Jova took a deep breath, steeling herself. “I said back off!” She jumped as a brick shattered near her feet, but stood her ground. “You don’t- you don’t want to tell your friends you got beat by a little blind girl.”
They laughed first- then one of them shouted in pain and the other swore loudly. Jova smiled. Even she could recognize the sound of a horse charging.
There was a slick whistle, and the thunk of wood. Roan made no sound as he fought, but Stel whinnied loudly and often. She snorted as Jova heard her hooves impacting flesh. The male voices swore and shouted, but soon enough their footsteps faded into the distance.
Jova edged forward, hands reaching out until Roan took one.
“We did pretty good, didn’t we?” said Jova, smiling.
“We?” Roan’s voice was low, and he was breathing heavily.
“Yeah! I distracted them, you-.”
A sharp slap across Jova’s face made her fall to the ground. Her hand gravitated towards her cheek as her lips quivered; she could taste blood inside her mouth.
“You put yourself in needless danger. Your deception was obvious, your inability to defend yourself even more so. Do not do it again.”
“I just thought I could help. With the two of us-.”
“They were drunk and angry. They would have had no qualms about brutalizing a girl such as yourself, even as young as you are, do you understand?”
Jova choked on her protest. “Who were they? I thought this was a holy city.”
“The Temple is holy. The rest of Moscoleon is just a city, no different from the rest of Albumere,” said Roan.
There was the silence that Jova hated so, broken only by Stel’s labored breathing. “I’m sorry,” Jova muttered. “I just thought-.”
“You did not think,” snapped Roan, and his even tone broke. “You are blind. You are young. You are a girl. You cannot defend yourself. This is truth. Accept it.”
“No!” Jova shouted. Her head was still pounding and her ears were buzzing. “No, I won’t! If it’s true, then I’m going to change it!”
Roan did not say a word.
“You- you fought them off. You could teach me.” The blindfold around Jova’s was damp and her voice was breaking. “Please?”
Silence. An endless silence, a stifling darkness, emptiness all around her.
“I hired you, blind Jova. I took you as a worker, not a pupil. Focus on staying as one, rather than aspiring to be the other.”
Jova stood there, numb, her hands shaking. She didn’t know what she had expected.
“Come,” said Roan. “Your friends will be waiting. Stay behind me, follow the sound of Stel’s footsteps. Do not talk.”
Jova followed. She did not talk.
And silence reigned in the eternal night.
“She thinks she’s being clever,” snorted Vhajja, as he ate. He wiped rice gruel from his mouth with a yellowed cloth and cackled, pink gums stretched wide. “Just like when she got her own name.”
Chaff squinted at Vhajja, trying to figure out what was so funny. He wasn’t quite sure about his new name yet, but he liked the way it sounded. Did it mean something?
“That’s enough from you, old man,” said Loom. “If you don’t stop talking soon I’m taking away your food.”
“Tasteless slop anyway,” said Vhajja, distastefully letting the gruel dribble. He looked at Chaff and grinned again. “Not that I have much choice. See this, boy? No teeth. It’s what happens when you get old.”
Chaff squinted even more, until his eyes were narrow slits. “You still have teeth, though, yeah?”
“And they’re more trouble than they’re worth,” said the old man, with a curmudgeonly grunt. “Can’t eat anything with them. Which is why I’m going to need someone to help me with this…”
Vhajja leaned back from his mamwaari and flipped open a wooden cupboard with his staff. A smell that made Chaff’s stomach roar wafted out, and he practically fell over himself to see what was inside. The crust was golden brown, laced with purple jam.
“You bought him a tart,” said Loom, flatly.
Chaff held the pastry like he was holding the bones of a saint, and looked at Vhajja with wide eyes.
“Well, go on, then,” said Vhajja, gesturing with his staff. “It’s for eating, not gawking.”
Chaff grinned from ear to ear, and plunged in. It was warm, and sweet, and filling, and delicious in ways that Chaff hadn’t even known food could be delicious. For this alone, he would take the city over the grasslands any day.
“You bought him a tart,” repeated Loom.
“I gave the baker’s lackey a copper cup for a month’s worth of bread and you came back early,” said Vhajja, adjusting himself in his seat as he resumed his meal. “I bought him more than a tart.”
Chaff dug a warm slice of plum out of the pastry. “I let the big guy have some of this, yeah?”
“Oh, no,” said Vhajja, putting his cane on Chaff’s chest to stop him. “That’s people food. It’s for you and you only.” Chaff sat back down, slowly, although his hand moved to put the plum in his pocket. Vhajja rapped him on the wrist. “Remember this, boy- you may treat your slaves kindly, but they are never your equals. Understand?”
Chaff looked to Loom for help, but the cane came up again, hitting him on the head and turning his gaze back towards the old man. “Yes, Vhajja,” he said, finally, looking down. It seemed contradictory that the big guy couldn’t eat people food.
“Good,” said Vhajja, smiling. He cackled. “You like it? I’ll ask the baker’s man for a custard one the next time he comes around.”
The boy nodded, his mouth full. As Vhajja looked away, he surreptitiously slipped the plum slice in his pocket. It squelched, but the big guy wouldn’t mind if it was a little out of shape. Chaff knew that Vhajja would be angry at him for getting jam all over his clean clothes, but Vhajja got angry at him for a lot of silly things.
“Sit like a civilized person,” said Vhajja, tapping the rug under the mamwaari. “And clean your mouth.”
Chaff scrubbed the jam off the corners of his mouth with the back of his hand, and then for good measure he licked it off.
“Feh. Hopeless.” Vhajja shook his head. “Utterly, utterly hopeless.”
The blanket tucked over him, Chaff folded his legs and sat. Hesitantly, he put his wooden plate on the low table, careful not to touch the cloth covering it with his sticky hands. It looked delicate. He wiped his hands off on his pants, instead.
“Why’s my name clever?” Chaff asked.
“Not another word,” said Loom, before Vhajja could speak. Chaff started. Loom’s face was usually in a permanent scowl, but now it was absolutely livid.
Vhajja shrugged and looked away, apparently unimpressed.
“Why’s Loom’s name clever, then?”
“Fuck this,” snarled Loom, standing up. “Gossip like ladybirds, whatever. I need some air.”
Chaff was confused. “There’s plenty of air-.”
“It’s too musty in here,” said Loom, heading for the door. It jammed when she tried to open it, and with a roar of frustration she stepped out of the window screaming, “Fix your fucking door, old man!”
Chaff watched her go, biting his lip. Loom had seemed happy enough when they were touring the city, but something had changed between going out and coming back. Was it Vhajja’s old house that bothered her so much? Or the prospect of going out to the city limits, where apparently the nomads and drifting travelers lived? Loom had said small-time slave traders lived out there. Perhaps she just didn’t fancy meeting them again.
“Loomer,” said Vhajja. “The street girls called her Loomer, when she was kid. She was a big girl, back then.” He laughed into his bowl. “Still is. Afterwards, she changed it to just Loom. It’s weaving terminology. Her way of spitting in their faces, I suppose.” Vhajja’s voice grew bitter. “She thought it was clever, but it was just stupid.”
Chaff waited, watching Vhajja’s sunken face. The old man’s eyes flickered over his decaying home, and he coughed, his body shaking. “Stupid like your name. Chaff is the part of the wheat you throw away. She doesn’t want you.”
The boy stood, backing away from the old man. Vhajja had said it almost casually, but the words stung like a physical wound. The old man had grown hunched and sullen, and Chaff began to automatically back away from him.
“I think I need some air, too,” said Chaff, haltingly.
Vhajja didn’t stop him. He just sat there, wheezing laughter squeezing out of his chest. “She thinks she’s being clever. She doesn’t want you.”
Chaff ran. It was an instinctive reaction, to run from that which hurt him. He ducked out of the back of the house, through to the makeshift stables. He picked his way over the rubble that made the ruined entrance, and past the crumbling walls with no roof.
Deppash raised his head and snorted when he heard Chaff’s approach, but aside from a chilly breath in his direction did nothing. Chaff edged around him, towards the big guy, who was sitting with his legs folded on the ground, neck curled around his body.
“Up, up, up, big guy,” he said, shaking the camelopard’s side. “We go forward, yeah? Always go forward, that’s right.”
The camelopard blinked slowly as he rose, unfolding at a languid pace. Chaff supposed it was his version of a yawn.
He was halfway up the big guy’s side, getting ready to ride, before he stopped to think.
The big guy snapped at the boy’s head, glaring. They weren’t moving. Chaff rubbed the camelopard’s head, around the little bone nubs, and whispered, “Sorry, big guy. I panic a little.” He offered him the squished plum slice, which seemed to placate the beast.
What had Vhajja meant, Loom didn’t want him? It seemed an evil goad. The old man was crotchety, yes, grumpy, certainly, but downright cruelty had seemed out of his reach until now. Chaff slipped off the camelopard’s back, sitting on the ground and hugging his knees. He had wanted to like Vhajja just he had wanted to like Loom, but those four words had made it impossible to do either.
Chaff slumped to the ground. He hugged his knees, his breath coming in short, hard gasps; his stomach felt like a rock and his head swam.
The bandana around his forehead made his skin itch and sweat. Chaff untied it with fumbling hands, letting the tabula slide out, onto his open palms. There was a snort, in front of him- not the big guy, but Deppash, staring at him coolly, still except for the occasional swish of his tail.
“What are you two planning?” asked Chaff, staring at the winter ox. The boy rolled his three tabula between his thumb and forefinger. He sighed.
The third tabula caught the light and glimmered. Chaff put his other two aside gently and cupped the girl’s in his hands.
“He gets me sweets,” said Chaff, to the tabula. “She gives me a name. They’re nice to me. They don’t hurt me.” He sniffed. “I don’t need to throw rocks at their faces, yeah?”
He flipped the tabula over in his hands.
“How’s she going to make her money back, huh?” Chaff closed his eyes and sunk down even further, shaking his head. “How’s she going to make her money back?”
He looked up at the big guy. “Maybe we help her, yeah? Get her some money so she doesn’t worry so much. We could do some trading.” Even as Chaff said it, he knew it was pointless.
Chaff stared at the way the tabula caught the light. He closed his eyes, and took the worry and fear and channeled it. He felt a sinking, crushing feeling in his stomach, and sucked in a sharp breath, sweat beading on his forehead. He had felt refreshed, almost invigorated, after a week gripping that tabula in his comatose state, and yet a few seconds of descrying threatened to knock him out. What was the difference?
Immediately, Chaff felt that something was wrong. His current troubles forgotten, he angled the tabula. The reflections under its surface were dim and murky, and Chaff had to squint just to see an outline in the amber shadows.
“What happened?” whispered Chaff. The girl’s world wasn’t supposed to look like that. It was green and gold and bright. It was happy. It was where Chaff went to escape, except in the darkness of the tabula Chaff could not see the girl’s smile.
His grip tightened, his thumb tracing the thin crack in the tabula’s surface. Had he done something wrong? He had thought he was helping, but Chaff felt with a sick lurch that this could have all been his fault. After all, what else had changed?
Loud swearing broke Chaff’s concentration. The shadows dispersed, and the boy felt a great pressure removed from his head. He staggered to his feet, blinking as the blood rushed to his temples. The big guy shuffled forward, letting Chaff lean on his torso as the boy found his footing.
Chaff looked up at the big guy, eyebrows furrowed. The camelopard snorted, tossing his head in the house’s direction. Voices drifted out from the thin walls.
Picking his way back out, Chaff sent one suspicious glance Deppash’s way before sliding out of the stables. To the ox’s credit, all he did was stare back. Not a sound, not a move, still as ice.
Chaff reached for handle of the door to go in, but he hesitated. He looked back to the big guy, who had followed him and clambered awkwardly out of the hole in the wall, and sighed.
Then, he pressed his ear to the crack in the door and listened.
“It’s such a pleasure to do business with an old friend again,” oozed a voice from within. Chaff bit his lip. It was a voice he did not recognize.
He knew Vhajja’s harsh laughter instantly, though. “Business, yes, but friends? Never. Don’t get ahead of yourself, Kharr Ta.”
There was a high pitched, affronted squeak. Chaff had almost thought it was a prairie vole’s warning call. “Aged you may be, Vhajja, but I still expect you to be mannered.”
“Piss on your manners.” That was Loom. She had come back inside, then. Her voice was low and surly, and Chaff had to strain to hear. “Do we have a deal or don’t we?”
“You understand, this is most unorthodox,” said the mystery man- Kharr Ta? “I don’t usually deal with children.”
Chaff stumbled backwards, eyes widening. He had misheard, surely. It hadn’t meant what he thought it meant. He scrambled forward on his knees, trying to listen in again without being obtrusive.
“-winterborn, by the looks of it,” he heard Loom say. “You know they sell well in this season. Good breeding, too.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” sniffed Kharr Ta.
Chaff heard a low rumble, and what sounded like Loom swearing under her breath.
“It’s a fair trade,” said Vhajja.
“It’s more than a fair trade, you’re fucking ripping us off.”
“Which is the only reason why I am even considering it,” said Kharr Ta. There was a distinct pause, and Chaff pressed his ear against the door, trying to listen. “…be that as it may,” said Kharr Ta’s voice, picking up again. “I’d need to see the product first.”
Chaff heard footsteps on the floor, and was just about to pull away when the footsteps stopped. Chaff froze, too, unable to miss a second more than he could spare.
“Now, if you please.”
“Well, I don’t fucking please.” Something hit the mamwaari very hard.
“If you don’t want to do business, Miss Loom, then there are a hundred other suppliers that I could be talking to who are both more pleasant and more profitable.”
“No, no, stop, I just…” Loom growled. “There’s just a little problem, OK? I’d need to…I’d need to talk to the kid for a few minutes.”
And that was when Chaff decided to run.
“Up, up, up,” he hissed, jumping onto the big guy’s back. He looked around, blinking watering eyes. The alley leading into the stables was small and cramped, but the big guy could fit if he squeezed. “Go big, big guy,” Chaff muttered. “Go big, come on.”
The camelopard did not pause or question him.
They rode through the narrow street, the big guy’s hooves loud on the stones. Chaff had to duck to get out of the way of low lying clotheslines, even as the big guy barreled through them. Out they stumbled, into the plaza with the dry fountain.
Chaff looked to the streets splayed out before him. Where to go? Where to run? He didn’t want to get lost in the urban sprawl of Shira Hay.
Lost? Chaff almost could have laughed. As much as he ran, he wanted to know the way back. He had been lost for far too long. And Vhajja’s home, as dangerous as it might have become, was still the only home Chaff had ever known- or, at least, could remember. He couldn’t run away from that.
The big guy trotted, pacing circles around the fountain. He seemed nervous.
With a start, Chaff realized he was still holding all three tabula in his hand. He tied them around his wrist with shaking fingers, and the big guy’s pacing stopped.
Loom was right; he was easy to spot. The big guy stood near twice as high as some of the lower buildings, and there was nowhere to hide if Loom was in pursuit.
Chaff looked over his shoulder. Loom…wasn’t. There was no one following him, no one chasing after him. He was alone.
It was both comforting and disappointing.
The boy slid off the big guy’s back, leading him on with a tug. He walked, but only out of habit than anything else. It felt strange, to have cobblestone under his feet instead of grass and dirt. He looked up, at the statue of Fra Henn. Had the duarch ever betrayed her friends? Would Loom?
He went forward. It was the only direction to go.
The big guy reared as a figure emerged from behind him, and Chaff nearly wet his pants. The boy raised his hands in defense, already backing up to run. Had the slaver sent his catchers out after him?
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said the man behind the big guy, holding up his hands behind his head. “Don’t run! I should have asked for permission first, I just wanted to touch him, that’s it!”
Chaff paused. The man looked strangely familiar. The red scarf dangling from his neck, the broad shoulders, the stained clothes…
“The elector from the pub?” he said, completely taken aback.
The elector smiled broadly. “You recognize me! That summoning really took me by surprise, I’ll admit, but felicitations, yes? A boon comes oft astonishing, like lightning in a cloudless sky. I’ve been trying to track you all morning!”
Chaff stared. He had somehow expected smaller words to come out of such a bulky man’s mouth. Big vocabulary from a big man seemed somehow unbalanced.
“Mine own eyes, I can’t believe it,” said the elector, reaching up for the big guy again. The camelopard tossed his head, backing away, but the elector’s touch was slow and gentle. “A genuine jarraf. Would you mind telling the good beast to open its mouth for me?”
“Will you leave me alone if I do?”
The elector grinned. “I won’t if you don’t. No guarantees if you do.”
Chaff patted the big guy on the side, trying to walk out of the way. The elector kept standing in their path, so that Chaff could not mount up and run.
The elector had an expression like he had just found a month’s worth of food when the big guy opened his mouth. “Phorro was incorrect! Black, not purple! Astounding, astounding.”
Chaff eyed him. The man seemed too giddy for Chaff to be properly paranoid. “Who are you?”
“I am Elector Hadiss,” said the man, adjusting his scarf proudly. “Well, ex-elector. Perhaps they shall reinstate me once I present this revolutionary correction to Phorro’s Almanac of Albumeran Species.”
“That the big guy’s tongue is black?” said Chaff, flatly.
Hadiss seemed to deflate slightly. “Well, perhaps I shall need a little more information.” He perked up, just as Chaff was about to edge around him, and stepped in his way. Chaff growled. Why were the streets so narrow?
“Would you mind if I tailed you until your jarraf defecates? I only need one sample,” said Hadiss, looking far too eager for his own good.
“Until it shits.”
“As long as it’s not stinky,” said Chaff, automatically.
Hadiss’s eyes widened, behind an odd metal and glass contraption on the bridge of his nose. “It doesn’t have an odor? Well, that is unorthodox.”
Chaff didn’t answer him. He looked around the nearby buildings, searching for something big enough to hide the big guy in. If the camelopard just curled up and slept, they might hide in something as small as those stables, but Chaff wanted to move.
His eyes fell on the biggest building in all of Shira Hay. Or, rather, buildings.
“They let you in the Libraries, yeah?”
“Well, yes. Even if I am no longer one of the elect, as long as I wear the scarf I may enter.”
“Good. OK. You get the big guy’s shit if we go there now, yeah?”
“A child, a barbarian, and a scholar,” said Hadiss, delightedly. “Perhaps I shall be taking samples from you next, young master.”
“What’s that thing on your face?” asked Chaff, unable to hold the question back any longer. He was curious. He couldn’t help it.
“These? Spectacles,” said Hadiss, adjusting them. Chaff didn’t know how “spectacles” were supposed to fit, but they looked a bit small on his wide nose. “Correctional lenses through which I may see the world in a state more pleasing.”
“It makes things look nicer? Yike, wish I had one,” said Chaff. He looked over his shoulder. He didn’t see anyone, familiar or unfamiliar, following him.
Hadiss, who had been ducking around other pedestrians to look at the camelopard from different angles, paused. He looked at Chaff. “Troubled, young master? If this is not a good time, I apologize- just seeing a jarraf has done wonders for my research. You may go if you wish.”
“We go, yeah? We go faster.” Chaff sped up his pace, although it did not help much as they entered denser crowds. Even now, the streets were packed.
“Perhaps,” said Hadiss. “We could be of mutual benefit to each other? Let’s solve problems the elector way. You give me your problem, and I give you mine.”
“What’s your problem?”
“Well, being an ex-elector is one of them,” said Hadiss, ruefully.
“You a special kind of elector?”
“An elector who once was, but now no longer is.”
“Oh. Why’s that?”
“Stirring up too much commotion,” said Hadiss, and his face grew dark. He rolled his shoulders and clenched his fists. “The electors shout at each other all day, but raise your voice against an arbiter? Freedom of speech, my ass. They pay more attention to silks and whores than learned scholars, and by the Lady Summer does that rile me.”
“Did you punch anybody?”
“I punched an anybody, some somebodies, and a little bit of everybody.” He sighed. “It is a fault of mine, I admit.”
“Is that why you fight this morning?”
“This morning was because Elector Yur Haa is a moron. He says, and I quote, that ‘a functioning republic can’t work in Albumere due to sheer size.’ And this is better? This nonsense with the apprentice-princes, the kings don’t care a thing for the state of the nation they’re leaving behind as long as they live their retirement in luxury. We’re putting bankers and merchants in charge of Albumere, with debts to a hundred marble mercenary companies and every plutocrat in Jhidnu! They’re not proper rulers!”
To Chaff, this sounded like a serious problem indeed. He nodded slowly. “You should punch him.”
Hadiss laughed out loud, and shoved a pair of ogling passersby aside with a meaty hand. “An elegant solution for a tangle of a problem, young master. Now, allow me to return the favor.”
Chaff looked at the banished scholar, wondering if he could trust him. The elector hadn’t tried to kill him and was friendly enough to talk to him, which put Hadiss miles ahead of most people Chaff had met in his life, but at the moment Chaff found such a quick trust hard to swallow.
Electors were intelligent, though. Hadiss would know what to do, and he had no reason to steer Chaff wrong.
“I have a friend…” he began, slowly.
“Ah, yes.” Hadiss nodded sympathetically. “Odd, is it not, that it is our friends that cause us our most difficult dilemmas, and not our enemies?”
“I don’t know,” said Chaff. “I don’t have very many friends. And this one never caused me so much trouble, did you, big guy?”
The big guy spat in Chaff’s general direction.
“Let it be written, that which I must show has been proved,” said Hadiss, grandly. “Please continue, young master.”
The Twin Libraries looked so far away. Chaff sped up his pace. “Well, my- my friend has been kind to me. I just met her, but she’s helped me. But she’s got money troubles, and I’m scared she might…use me.”
The flurry of Hadiss’s sudden arrival seemed to die away as Chaff said that. It had just been a week. What was a week in eight years? What was a week in Loom’s decades? What did Loom owe him that was worth more than trading him away?
But she had helped him. Loom had given him a name. She had taught him all about the city, promised to teach him so much more.
Educated slaves sell for more, whispered a sinister echo in the back of Chaff’s head. He squirmed. She wouldn’t.
“Where is your tabula?” asked Hadiss, and his voice was serious.
Chaff narrowed his eyes, but his hand moved toward the wrap around his wrist before he could stop himself.
Hadiss nodded. He patted his scarf. “In here, on the back of my neck. Most, but not all, electors keep it there.” Hadiss sighed. “It is good that your tabula is still yours. If it was not, then hope might have been lost already.”
“Hope to escape?” asked Chaff.
“Hope to trust,” said Hadiss. “If what you say is true, and if this friend truly is a friend, then you must trust her. For if you cannot trust your friends, who can you trust?”
“Can I trust you?”
“Am I your friend?” Hadiss smiled. “Oft is the sequence of such things befuddled.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean, she is not your friend until you trust-.”
And then Loom punched Hadiss in the face. Chaff fell backwards, looking back over his shoulders in disbelief. “Where did you come from?”
“Get the fuck away from him!” shouted Loom, giving a downed Hadiss a kick in the ribs. She turned on Chaff, red in the face. “What the fuck did you run off for, stupid kid? You need me to save your ass every time you leave my sight?”
“He wasn’t- I don’t-.” Chaff gaped.
“This is your friend? I’d certainly trust her to kick my teeth in,” said Hadiss, standing straight, clutching his side. He was a little taller than Loom, with broad shoulders and thick muscles, but he held his hands up in peace. “I meant no disrespect, mistress.”
“Hmmph,” Loom snorted, shoving him in the chest before grabbing Chaff’s head and dragging him away. The big guy snorted, confused, but after a second Chaff beckoned for him to follow.
“I do not think this is the last time I will see you, young master!” Hadiss called after him.
“Why?” Chaff shouted back. “Because of fate or something, yeah?”
“No,” said Hadiss, chuckling. “You and your friend are just very easy to find.”
“Fucking dumbass kid,” said Loom. “Where’d you get it in your head to run off like that, huh? Could have gotten yourself killed.”
“You’re very protective, yeah?”
“I gotta be,” said Loom. “And it’s a dangerous world out there. You don’t know shit about it.”
“You’re irreplaceable, you get me? Irreplaceable.”
Chaff didn’t speak after that. He followed Loom back to Vhajja’s house- back home, or the closest thing to it, all the time wondering. Loom cared for him. Loom protected him. Loom would never betray him.
The house, Jova felt, had been built as if to maximize its exposure to the sun. She sat in the doorway, trying to keep cool where the air was freshest, although the fact that the air was also baked to boiling didn’t help.
Jova’s hand traced the walls, her fingers coated in chalk. The adobe walls had a thick layer of lime on their surface, presumably to reflect the sun’s heat, but as far as she could tell it wasn’t doing a great job.
She dragged her toes in the loose gravel base of the house. The stones were both smooth and rough, tiny little rocks that caught between her toes. If she dug just below the surface, the pebbles were cool to the touch.
Jova sighed, and banged her head against the doorframe. It hurt, but she didn’t care. This was what she had been reduced to, identifying the surfaces of walls and counting pebbles on the ground.
She stood, using the walls as support, flexing her legs to try and get the kinks out. If she held out her hands to the doorframe and aligned herself just right, she could walk in a straight line all the way out into the central compound, towards the pontiff’s house, where…
Where she would probably just count the rocks on the ground again until she decided it was time to go back.
Mo whined beside her, the rhythmic thump of his tail setting gravel loose. Jova could tell by the minute sounds of rock skidding on rock, by the belabored breathing of the weaseldog. It had been agony for Ma and Da to leave her alone, but ultimately they both had to go out and find work soon or else all of them would go hungry. Ma had insisted that Mo stay behind to watch over Jova, though, and as far as Jova could tell Mo was doing a top notch job. Absolutely nothing had happened to Jova. At all. For the whole day.
Jova put her chin on her hands and groaned into her palms. She had actually insisted that Ma and Da leave her behind. In her mind, she thought she could practice. Practice what? Being blind? It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but where in the absence of opportunity there had been an infinite realm of possibilities, now that she had the freedom of privacy Jova found herself with a troubling dearth of things to do.
She flicked a pebble with her finger, and tried to listen to the sound of the rock bouncing on the ground. Maybe she would spend so long listening that she would be able to tell the sound of a dull rock from a shiny rock, or be able to hear a flygnat’s buzzing wings from ten meters away. Maybe she would spend so long listening that she would be able to hit a flygnat from ten meters away with a dull rock or a shiny rock, and be able to tell the difference.
Jova buried her face further in her hands, and groaned even louder. Even her fantasies had grown tepid.
She perked up. There was a crunch of feet on gravel, at a steady pace. Jova furrowed her eyebrows. It was too frequent to be just one person on a stroll, but somehow too consistent to be someone running or jogging. She shifted, sliding back into the shadows of the house as she tried to single out the sound.
A clip-clop, like hooves. The sound had been distorted by the gravel, but now that Jova heard it, it was impossible to dismiss. Another pilgrim, coming in to live in the compound?
The sound of hooves stopped abruptly, close to her. Jova slid back, trying to make herself smaller. What was happening? Her hand brushed Mo’s silky hair. He didn’t seem too worried, although Mo was never worried until the trouble actually started.
“Who are you?” said an imperious voice, and Jova shrank back even further. It was the man on horseback, the man who had ridden into the pontiff’s building.
Jova searched for the right words, unsure of who she was talking to, and found no help in the silence. She stammered, as the man on horseback said nothing, moved nowhere, and made no sound.
“I’m just Jova, sir.” She bowed her head as she said it, mumbling into her lap.
There was more silence. Whatever the man was riding didn’t even seem to make a sound.
She scratched at the sides of her head, where the bandages were tied around her ears, and looked away, as if she could somehow hide the ugly truth.
Finally, the man spoke. “Are you a slave, just Jova?” His voice was neither high, nor low, a middling baritone that rang out like a brass trumpet at a Jhidnu street fair. It echoed around the empty courtyard, which was deserted save for those two.
It was a simple question, and yet Jova found herself floundering for an answer. “No.”
Another critical pause. If Jova could just look the man in the eye, she would have been infinitely more comfortable with him. It hadn’t been like this with Rituu, or the innkeepers, or any of the thousand strangers Jova had met on the road. Now, all of a sudden, Jova was completely at this stranger’s mercy.
She wondered if he would hurt her.
“Show me your tabula,” he said.
Jova wondered if she should just try to run now, but there was no way a blind girl could outrun a mounted man. “I don’t have it,” she said.
“If you are a free girl-.”
“I don’t have it,” whispered Jova, resorting to the truth. It was the only defense she had. “But I’m not a slave.”
“What business do you have with the couple, then?” said the man. “Why are they carrying around a blind beggar girl like you?” It was less of a question and more of an accusation.
This was the forbidden territory of conversation that Ma had warned her so much about. For the first time, Jova felt real fear of another person. Why was it that she finally suspected that those bad people were here, in the city, when she had never on the wild roads?
She didn’t know how to respond. She just gripped the scruff of Mo’s neck, her head bowed so low it was almost in her knees.
“Are you scared, just Jova?”
“Yes,” Jova whispered.
“Hmmph,” said the man, and Jova heard the hoof beats again. Her shoulders slumped and she exhaled.
She petted Mo on the back. “Hey, maybe-.”
“What are you scared of, just Jova?” The man was back. Perhaps he had never really left. The hoof beats continued, but no matter how hard Jova focused she could not pinpoint where they were or where they were going.
Jova looked down, trying to find an answer.
“Give me the truth, girl.”
“You,” muttered Jova. Her mood darkened as she said it.
“I asked for the truth.”
Almost indignantly, Jova looked up. “I am scared of you! You sound cruel and arrogant and you tricked me and you keep asking me these questions! I don’t know who you are or what you look like or why you’re bothering me!”
The hoof beats stopped. Gravel shifted for a second as the riding man came to a halt again. “What is the couple doing with a blind girl like you?”
Jova growled. Perhaps the man was right; she wasn’t afraid of him. She was angry at him. Why couldn’t Mo see that he was a threat? That he was hostile and intrusive?
“Does the man have some kind of fetish?”
“No!” snapped Jova. “He’s-.” She paused.
“You have a secret,” said the man. “It is not good, to keep secrets from those who live beside you.”
“Why are you asking me all these questions?” Jova stood up, although she had to inch her hand up the wall for support to do so. “What do you want from me?”
“I come to my new home after a long and troubling day with people who I would rather not be meeting,” said the man. “And I see you. And I ask myself, why would a strong, healthy, young couple keep a useless girl like you? I think at first that you are a slave. Perhaps they intend to sell you cheaply in the large city, but you say you are no slave. Perhaps they keep you for pleasure, but you deny that as well. Perhaps you have some secret art, perhaps they keep you to beg. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.”
The man paused. Jova wondered what his point was.
“But now, I remember. This is the Temple Moscoleon. The city of miracles! Where a man with no tongue can sing again, where a man with no legs can run again, and where a girl with no eyes can see again. So I am thinking that I am done. My questions are answered. Good day to you, blind girl.”
As the hoof beats began to fade, Jova stamped her foot. She felt Mo perk his head beside her, rubbing his cheek against her leg, questioning the sudden movement. “Wait!” she shouted.
The hoof beats stopped. The man said nothing.
Jova couldn’t bear the silence anymore. “Do you have somewhere to be? Are you going anywhere?”
“Away from those who would wish me harm. Towards? Only where the life is taking me,” said the man. He still had not moved.
“Then I would like to ask you some questions.”
There was a crunch of gravel again. Towards her, not away. Jova found herself ignoring the midday heat, her heart pumping quite fast in her chest. The pontiff had given her a cursory blessing; the men in the street had passed without comment. No one had cared enough about her to notice, except for this imperious lord. Why?
He said nothing, so Jova spoke instead. “What miracle did you come to Moscoleon for?”
There was a pause, as Jova waited. She heard a single, rueful laugh. “You are sharp, blind Jova.” He did not answer for a while again. The wait was agony. “I am thinking that this shall be my secret. I will not tell you it until you tell me yours.”
“Fine,” said Jova. “Who are you?”
“I am Roan. Once I was called Rho Hat Pan, a mighty lord of the steppes, greatest of the Hag Gar Gan and bane of the Hak Mat Do.”
Jova giggled, despite herself. “Hot Pan? That’s a silly name.”
The man’s tone seemed almost sheepish. The contrast was remarkable. “I was a silly man.”
Jova smiled. Even she could not see his face, she realized, it did not mean he did not have one. And for her, his face was in his voice. “Do you have a trade, Roan? Or do you just ask questions of little girls all day?”
“I teach men and women how to ride,” said Roan. “Zealots who want an edge in battle, or rich apprentice-heirs with a taste for the grand. It is profitable work.”
“How to ride what?”
“Horses, such as this one. She is Stel. She is mine.”
Hesitantly, Jova reached out a hand. “May I?”
There was no reply from the man, but soon Jova found a wet nostril pressed against her palm. She laughed again. “You control her so well.”
There was silence, for a moment. “You have a gentle touch,” said Roan. There was no thanks, although Jova felt as if she had just been traded a compliment for a compliment.
“Is she a bearhorse?” Jova asked. “An eaglehorse? A fishhorse?”
“Just a horse.”
“Summer, winter, spring, fall?”
Jova leaned her head in confusion. “Really?”
“A presumptuous blind girl as well,” said Roan. Jova felt the warmth leave her palm, as the horse backed away. It nickered. “Stel thinks that a girl with no eyes is also, as you say, weird.”
Jova flinched. Her smile vanished.
“What? Are you ashamed of what you are, eyeless girl? This is truth. Truth does not care for your shame. You can be no more ashamed of the truth than you can be ashamed of a stone or a rock. Hold the truth up, blind Jova. Use it as your shield.”
Jova held her elbow, her head hanging low again. He sounded like Rituu, with his foreign accent and proverbs. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you are a sad, eyeless girl, who sits in the shadows and does not smile.” The horse began to pace. “Because I am remembering again. This is the Temple Moscoleon! Where sinners come to be saved. I shall make you smile, blind Jova, because you are the most pathetic thing I have seen in this city, and only in this city may a creature like you receive kindness and not cruelty.”
Jova wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She took a step forward, with half a mind to reach out and strike the man, the other to thank him. Neither seemed entirely fair. “Even if I’m a stranger?”
“Because you are a stranger,” said Roan. “Because you know me only as the man I am, and not the man I was.” Jova stumbled back as the horse began to trot away. “I see your owners, blind Jova. I am thinking I have questions for them.”
“They’re not my owners!” Not knowing where he was, Jova shouted in his general direction. “They’re my p- my friends.”
Roan did not respond, although Jova heard his voice distantly, talking with her “friends.”
“What a strange man,” Jova muttered, sitting back down. “Do you think he was strange, Mo?”
The weaseldog whined, and began to thump his tail on the gravel again, as the sun crawled ever higher and higher in the unfathomable sky.
Jova heard Ma’s high, false laughter, and Da’s lower, more soothing tones. There was a brief pause, punctuated only by the horse’s heavy breathing.
“Jova, are you okay?” Ma’s worried voice was close, although Da still sounded distant. She held Jova’s hand as she led her back inside. “Oh, I knew we shouldn’t have left you alone. Was he bothering you? What was he trying to do?”
“I was just talking with him,” said Jova. “I was just…making friends.” She had made quite a lot of adult friends. She wondered if she’d ever have a friend her age.
“Come inside, come inside,” said Ma. Jova followed her, back into the mustier confines of the two-room hut. “Did he ask you any questions? Did he try anything suspicious?”
“He asked a lot of questions…” Jova paused, unsure how to continue. She still didn’t know what exactly Roan had wanted from her.
From the rhythmic sounds of her footsteps, Ma was pacing. “By the Ladies Four, Mo, you’re the worst guard dog that’s ever lived,” groaned Ma. “Jova, get your things together. We might have to move soon, and fast. Men like that will lash out at you. Given half an excuse, they will hurt you.”
“Ma, don’t you think you might be overreacting?”
The pacing stopped. Jova waited and listened, wondering what was going through her mother’s head.
“We’ll wait for your father to get back,” said Ma, finally. “Are you hungry, Jova? I caught some game in the jungle. I’ll start preparing supper.”
“Can I help?” asked Jova. She stared in what she thought was Ma’s direction.
A soft hand adjusted her chin. “You can help eat,” said Ma, her tone cheerful, although Jova in her voice heard an unspoken statement. You can’t help.
Steps through the door. “Da?” Jova asked.
“Hello, my little Lady,” said Da, hugging her. “You keep making odd friends, don’t you?”
Jova felt Ma stand. “Did he want anything?”
“Nothing, he just wanted to ask some questions. You know how those sandmen are,” said Da, dismissively. Jova listened to the uncomfortable silence that followed. “Anjan, it’ll be OK. He’s new here, just like us. He probably just wanted to see who he was living with.”
There was silence still, although Jova heard Ma moving.
“It’s what people do in the cities,” said Da, letting Jova go. She got the sense that he was following Ma. “It’s not the same as the wilds. People are friendlier here.”
“I met a group out at one of the sinkholes,” said Ma. There was the rough scrape of something being cut. Mo panted, and slid away from Jova’s reach. She felt strangely afloat, as if she was a barge and all her anchors had left her. “A group of what-do-you-call-them…zealots. They didn’t seem so friendly to me.”
“It’s a general trend, not an absolute,” said Da.
“Meaning people are still going to be people, no matter where we live.”
Both fell silent, working without comment. Jova edged forward, drawing arcs in the gravel with her toes, careful not to bump into anything. Mo slipped under her hand, and she thanked him. The weaseldog led to her to the central space of the room, where her parents were working. “Did you find somewhere to work, Da?” she asked.
“I was just talking about that with your Ma. It’s…well, it’s complicated.”
“I promise I’ll understand,” said Jova. I’m blind, not stupid, a rebellious voice whispered.
“There’re jobs, alright. The pontiffs need people to maintain the temples. Cleaning, repair work, things I used to do at the Stronghold. It’s just…” Da sighed. “So many people are willing to do it for free, and when the faithful aren’t there then they have slaves. It’s hard to find work with decent pay.”
Jova listened, taking it in. Ma had run into resistance in the jungle, and Da was having a hard time getting pay. What was she doing? Sitting alone at home, playing question games with foreign strangers?
“There was one temple, under the House of Fall, that I might be able to work under,” said Da, quickly. Had he seen Jova’s pensive expression? “It’s decent, even if the pontiffs insist on all these taxes. They wouldn’t pay me with food, either, they’d have this thing called currency.”
“Currency?” The word was strange on Jova’s tongue, although she had heard it bandied about with the plutocrats in Jhidnu once or twice.
“Yeah, feel them.” Da held Jova’s hand and poured three or four smooth, round objects into her palm. She rolled them between her fingers. They were pitted and curved, and rattled as she shook them. “I ran an errand for one pontiff, and he gave me all these little shells. They’re like…oh, how did he put it…” Da paused. “They’re like tabula, but for objects. They sort of represent food and clothes, if you have enough of them.”
Jova furrowed her brow. It was a hard concept to wrap her head around.
“Is this enough to get us food?” asked Jova.
“Maybe one meal,” said Da. He took the shells back. “For one of us. With Ma’s help, maybe we could get enough for a meal a day for each of us.” He sighed, and then laughed. “Well, that’s how we ate in the Stronghold. How about that, Jova? Want to eat like a marble warrior?”
No matter how much he tried to hide it, Jova could hear through his voice the weight on his shoulders. Ma had been stressed not just from fear for Jova, but fear for…what? What had the zealots done, out in the wild jungles?
“I could work,” said Jova.
“No,” said both Ma and Da. They began to talk over each other, but Jova shouted over them.
“You told me once that other kids half my age had to watch out for themselves! I’m old enough!” Jova stood up suddenly. “Let me help!”
Ma tried to make her sit back down. “It’s not your age, it’s…”
Jova waited. She waited for Ma to say it, but she waited for nothing.
“Because I don’t have eyes?” said Jova, and she felt her voice shake as she said it. The truth is a shield. You cannot be ashamed of it.
“We’re so thankful, Jova. The fact that you’re still alive…” Jova felt Ma’s hands on her shoulders. Angrily, she pushed them off.
Jova didn’t know what to say. She wanted to scream. She wanted to rip the bandages off her eyes and let the whole world see the ugly ruin underneath. She ground her teeth and took a step back.
And she heard hoof beats outside.
“I can find a job. I can help,” she said, backing away, holding onto Mo for support. “And I can prove it to you.”
She turned and stumbled forward, hands reaching out to find the doorframe as she half-walked, half-ran. Hands reached around her side, pulling her back. “Jova, what are you doing?”
“Roan!” she shouted, ignoring her mother. “Rho Hat Pan!”
The hoof beats grew louder, more insistent. The hut had no door, and Jova felt the sunlight blocked just as she heard the horse whinny. Roan said nothing, just waited.
“What are you still doing here?” spat Ma, her arms tightening around her daughter.
“I am eavesdropping,” said Roan, and the response was so frank and so sudden that even Jova was taken aback.
She took a deep breath. Only the truth would work with this man. “You said you taught people how to ride horses?”
“Yes.” His steed, Stel, stamped on the ground, as if to prove a point. “The horses are requiring much care,” said Roan. “I find it difficult to take care of them on my own, but…a small one could work with them. One with a gentle touch.”
Jova wormed her way free from her mother’s grip. She turned her face as best she could toward Roan’s voice. “You said you wanted to help me?”
“Yes, blind Jova.”
“Let me work for you.”
Ma almost snarled. “I can’t let you,” she said. Jova wasn’t sure if she was talking to her, or Roan. “I’m sorry for wasting your time, sir, but I can’t let Jova-.”
“Jova told me a truth,” said Roan, cutting her off. “Jova told me that you were just her friends. You have no right to say what she can or can’t do. She is far too old to be coddled by her friends.”
He knows, Jova realized. He knows the secret.
All her life, Jova had been told to run from people who even suspected their secret, but this time she had no choice but to stay with him. It would have been futile, after all. How could a blind girl outrun a man on horseback? If Roan ever came after her, Jova would never be able to get away.
Ma’s voice seemed to echo in her head. “Men like that will lash out at you. Given half an excuse, they will hurt you.”
Jova hoped to every Lady that Ma was wrong, because there was no turning back either way.
The boy couldn’t stop scrubbing his eyes, even as he devoured the old man’s porridge. It made an odd sight, with one hand pressing the chipped bowl into his face while the other rubbed away furiously.
“You were out for a whole fucking week,” said Loom, watching with a kind of horrified fascination. “I guess that’s what seven days of barely eating will do to you.”
The boy shook his head, still blinking his eyes furiously. Everything seemed to have a reddish tint for some reason. “That’s what four years of barely eating does to me, yeah?”
Behind him, Vhajja wheezed out a laugh from his bed, and even Loom cracked a smile, although she tried to hide it. The boy grinned, bits of oatmeal sticking out between his teeth, and attacked the bowl again. It was delicious and wholesome, full of honey and little sweet nuts that Loom called almonds.
“Where’s the big guy? Is the big guy eating this good?”
“Well,” said Vhajja, before Loom could speak. “Eating this well.”
The boy wiped some porridge off of his chin with the back of his hand. “Well,” he repeated. The old man had a curious way of saying things, but the boy liked him nonetheless. With his books and his candles and his speech with all its clandestine rules, he was like a wizard.
“The freak horse is out back,” said Loom. “I bet it’s the best fucking hay he’s eaten in his life.”
That made the boy paused. He raised an eyebrow. “Hay like Shira Hay?”
“No, like, er…straw.”
“Hay like straw…” The boy stroked his chin, thinking. “Straw like the stuff the dirty people sleep on, yeah?”
“Well…yeah,” admitted Loom.
The boy laughed, clapping his hands together. Loom gave him a curious look. “Big guy doesn’t need anything but hay,” said the boy, grinning from ear to ear as he ate more. “He lazy. Just give him the straw hay for sleeping and eating, yeah?”
“You’re certainly energetic,” remarked Loom. “For someone who’s been sick for so long.”
“I sleep for seven days,” said the boy, sticking out his skinny chest. He prodded it with a thumb. “This guy’s fine now.”
“This guy should also tell me what the fuck he’s still doing here. I got you to the city, now it’s time you leave me the fuck alone.” Evidently, Loom was in one of her grumpy moods. The boy suspected it would pass before lunch.
He was about to speak, but Vhajja cut him off.
“Loom, don’t swear. Boy, use the appropriate tense. The third person when referring to oneself is crass and signifies ignorance.”
Loom glowered, but said nothing. The boy was just confused. He counted three people (five if he added in the big guy and Deppash in the stable in the back), but he was unsure which one was supposed to be the third.
“You promise me more than just getting to the city,” said the boy, licking the rest of the bowl clean. He crunched on the last almond and spoke around a full mouth. “You promise a tour.”
“You don’t even know what a tour is.”
“No,” the boy admitted. “But I would like to see it now.”
Loom looked up, and the boy twisted around just in time to see Vhajja give a small nod. “Yeah. OK. Let’s show you that tour.” She pushed her chair out and stood.
“Get some food while you’re at it,” said Vhajja. “I’m certainly not going to walk to the market. I paid the neighbors to fetch meals for me while you were gone, with furniture and cutlery.” He eyed the boy’s chipped bowl. “I’m glad that you’re back.”
“Hrmph,” grunted Loom, as she walked to the window. “Rubbish old man.”
“Feh,” was Vhajja’s only response.
The boy put the bowl down and followed, hopping through the opening after her. “Bye, Vhajja!” he shouted, as he left, and he heard the old man chuckling.
“Come back soon, boy.”
As he slipped out of the old house, the boy grinned. Even though the shade was appreciated, the boy didn’t like the feeling of being boxed in. The alley was still far too cramped and squeezed for his liking, but at least here he could see the sun. “Hey, what’s that big square of wood for?” he asked, looking at it. There was a shiny bauble thing sticking out it. He wondered if he could keep it.
“It’s called a door,” said Loom, as they walked down the narrow alley. “And it’s for eating.”
The boy looked back at it. “Really?”
“No, it’s actually for sleeping,” deadpanned Loom.
“Oh, alright,” said the boy. He wondered what it would be like to sleep on that thing. It was probably a poor person’s alternative to straw. “Hey, will I have to sleep on it?”
“No, you’ll have to eat it.”
“But you said-.”
“Just- just ignore the door for now, kid,” said Loom. She massaged the bridge of her nose. “You’ll see how they’re supposed to be used in a minute.”
“Are there lots of doors in Shira Hay?”
Loom looked at him. The boy stared innocently back. She sighed, as they emerged into the open plaza. “Tons. Look, there’s one right there.”
The boy cocked his head. The flat slab of wood had been flung open as a group of bespectacled men wearing long, red and gold scarves came tumbling out. They grappled on the stones until the burlier one managed to straddle the other and land a loud blow on his face.
“What’s going on?” the boy asked, squinting.
“Well, it seems the electors are having a little debate. Whenever they have disagreements-.”
“No, I understand that,” said the boy, shaking his head. “But why’s the door swinging? Is it supposed to do that?”
Loom sighed. “Dumb fucking kid.” She beckoned for him to keep walking as they crossed the plaza. “Are you sure you don’t want me to tell you about the electors? They’re a pretty interesting bunch.”
“I see people fighting before. No need for you to explain, yeah?”
For some reason, Loom laughed. “Yeah, fine. I can respect that. Now, this right here is a fountain. It’s not working right now but when it does it shoots water in the air all day long, and it pools up in this basin here.”
The boy ran over to the fountain’s edge, hands brushing the dusty interior. He looked up at the statue, and jumped. For a moment, he had thought a real person was standing there, petrified in the stone. He looked closer. She- it- looked like a woman, her robes caught in mid-ripple around her, as if there was a high wind. Her features were dainty, her hands slim and graceful. They were outstretched, gesturing towards the sky.
He tried to mimic her posture. Maybe if he got it right, water would shoot out of his head, too.
Loom leaned on the fountain, smirking as she watched the boy try to imitate the delicate curve of the woman’s wrists. “Who is she? Is she one of your Ladies?” asked the boy.
“No, this dinky little place would never get a fountain like that,” said Loom. “That’s duarch Fra Henn. She lived in the first era, during the Traitor’s War. She was…a strong woman. Came from the wild, learned to read and write herself, yelled at the arbiters until they let her into the Twin Libraries. Took over the Seat of the King for a year or two with duarch Lejja, before the mad lord of Mont Don burned it all to the ground.”
The boy stared at the statue of the woman, and then at Loom. “How do you know all that?”
“First book I ever read,” said Loom. “Vhajja made me read it line by line until I was damn near sick of the whole thing.”
The boy wrinkled his nose. “If you read about it in a book, how do you know it’s true?”
“I guess I fucking don’t, kid.” Loom shoved his head, and the boy nearly slipped and fell from the rim of the fountain. “But that’s the thing about books. You got to trust the stranger that wrote ‘em.”
The boy stared at the bottom of the dry fountain, thinking. “Are the duarchs now like Fra Henn?”
Loom glared at the sky. “The duarchs now are a pair of fat old sods that spend their time drinking in their towers and pissing into the river. They haven’t done a fucking thing for this city in years.”
“Were there any duarchs like her?”
Loom’s brow furrowed. “Nissa. Dess, although she doesn’t really count, she was only supposed to be duarch for a few weeks. But there haven’t been any her duarchs for centuries now, not since the fourth era. Women are banned from every position in the Twin Libraries except as slave knowledge keepers.”
The boy stared at the fountain again, taking it in. Then he asked, “How does the water get into the fountain?”
“What?” Loom seemed surprised by that question. “Fuck if I know. It uses magic.”
“You think I can learn some fountain magic? It’d be real nice if the big guy and I could use some fountain magic. I mean, the big guy’s got a neck so big I bet he-.” The boy froze. “The big guy!” He jumped off the edge of the fountain, flat out sprinting back towards the alley (although he had absolutely no idea which street he was supposed to go back down), until Loom caught him by the collar of his shirt.
“I told you, he’s in the back lot with Deppash, he’s fine.”
“No, no, I stay with him,” said the boy, trying to shake his way free. “We friends, we have to stay together.”
Loom rolled her eyes. “You can’t just lug an animal like that around the city, he won’t fit.”
“I stay with him,” repeated the boy, and he stuck his face into Loom’s.
She relented. “Fine, but if you get in trouble, I don’t know you, OK? Hey, hey, hey, don’t start running off, now, I got a better way.” She flicked his belt. “Take out his tabula. And for the sake of the Lady Summer, put your tabula somewhere safer, any common pickpocket could take it if he wanted to.”
The boy did as he was told, putting the big guy’s tabula in one hand while trying to find somewhere else to put his other two. He settled for wrapping the tabula around his forehead with his belt. The hard disks felt odd on his head, but at least no one would take them without him noticing. Loom smiled, although the boy couldn’t tell if she approved or if she was just making fun of him.
“Alright, you got it? Hold it with two hands, it makes the first time easier.” Loom paused. “You feeling good, kid? I mean, you just woke up and all, and you’ve been just fucking bursting with energy, but I don’t want to push you too far, so if you don’t-.”
The boy put a reassuring hand on hers. “I’m fine, yeah?”
Loom nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, of course you’re fine. What the hell was I even worrying about? You’re dumb but tough, kid.”
He grinned. That seemed like a compliment, coming from Loom.
“Sit down, here,” said Loom, patting the edge of the fountain again. “You don’t want to be standing if it’s too much for you.” She laughed. “Ah, what am I saying? You spent a whole week holding onto that bitch’s tabula, you’ve got the stamina for this.”
The boy had the feeling that bitch was a bad word, but he forgave Loom for that just this once.
“Alright, you got it? Hold tight now. Concentrate. You did it once with that freak horse, you can do it again.”
Thumbs pressed tight against the big guy’s tabula, the boy nodded. “It’s accident when I bring the big guy the first time,” he said, sheepishly.
“Ah, relax. It’s like saying show me, you only have to change it a little.”
“How’s it different?”
“When you show, you think of the thing bound to the tabula, right? You think of their face, their appearance, their looks?”
The boy nodded.
“When you summon, you think of the place instead. Look around you. Take it all in.”
His eyes scanned the plaza around him. The hot sun overhead, the buildings of wood and clay, the pods of talking electors, the cluttered streets that seemed to open in every direction. He closed his eyes, and held the image in his head. It was like holding onto a memory.
“Put him here. Think of him in this place, put your energy in…”
The tabula began to vibrate in the boy’s hands. The boy felt a clenching in his stomach, a pang like he had just disturbed a sore muscle.
All in all, though, it wasn’t so bad. The boy smirked. He was going to show Loom just how easy it was.
And then he felt a violent, visceral tug at his core. He tumbled forward, hurtling through the darkness, the world shrinking around him. The boy bit his lip. Focus, focus. He imagined the plaza again. The cobblestones, the circular design, the hagglers shouting in distant streets and the wandering nomads coming through with wagons full of merchandise.
The tabula stopped shaking so suddenly that the boy lurched. He opened his eyes slowly, prepared to pick himself up off his knees from his little fall.
Except, he found, he hadn’t moved a single inch.
“…and the tabula should just take it from there.” Loom finished saying. She looked up and clapped her hands together in surprise. She glanced over her shoulder, at the electors at the bar. Their squabble had stopped. “Ha, the looks on their faces.”
The camelopard bellowed, blinking his eyes rapidly as he tried no doubt to adjust to the bright sunlight.
“Hey, big guy!” The boy jumped to his feet and wrapped the camelopard in as big a hug as he could manage. “Impressive, yeah? I do all the fancy disk tricks now.”
Suddenly, the boy felt hands around his waist. He yelped and looked back in surprise as Loom lifted him up onto the camelopard’s back, before she clambered on herself. “Come on, kid, we got to get moving. The scarves are staring.”
The boy looked up. All the electors who had been talking so animatedly before were now wide-eyed, shocked perhaps by the big guy’s sudden appearance. “Are we in trouble?” he asked, adjusting his makeshift tabula bandana nervously, wrapping his hands around the big guy’s neck. “Are they going to get rid of him?”
“Get rid of him? Oh, no. They’re going to try and research him. Get moving, kid, come on, before they pull themselves together!” Loom cackled, and gave the big guy a sharp slap to egg him on. “Come on, you lazy old brute, let’s get moving!”
The big guy reared and screamed, unused and unsuspecting of Loom’s riding style, and before the boy could calm him down the camelopard was galloping down the nearest street, practically plowing through crowds of scattering Shira Hay residents.
“Good thing it’s so early, eh? The crowds aren’t so big- whoa!” Loom ducked as the big guy barreled past a merchant and promptly vaulted over his stall. “By the Lady Summer and Fall, kid, watch where you’re going!”
“I don’t steer him, I just hold on!” shouted the boy, in total terror. This was a small crowd? His introduction into the city had been gentle: just Vhajja, a passerby or two, and that group of electors. But this was more people than the boy had ever dreamed possible. “What do we do if we hit someone?”
“Go big, big guy!” The boy laughed, almost involuntarily, as pedestrians in the street shouted and screamed at him. He really shouldn’t have enjoyed it so much. They looked angry. Absently, the boy wondered if they were going to try and kill him.
“Down that way, come on!” Loom pointed towards a narrow street diverging from the main road, and screaming the boy wrenched the camelopard in that direction. He doubted his exertions made any difference, but the big guy managed to turn, skidding into an unfortunate elector before tumbling into the dark alley.
The boy bounced, rolling painfully on the stones before his landing stopped on something soft that squelched. “Think anyone is going to follow us?” gasped the boy, poking his head out of the mushy pile he had landed in. It smelled like old fruit peels, among other things.
“No idea,” said Loom, not looking, although from her tone she sounded positively delighted. Perhaps, the boy wondered, being civilized was what made Loom so grumpy all the time. “If they come at us, it’s a narrow entrance. I can fight them one by one.”
“That’s why you made us run in here?” The boy clambered to his feet. He looked around, both panicked and exhilarated. His hands felt the closed walls, and his eyes looked up at the tiny sliver of blue visible between the looming buildings. The big guy moaned as he tried to untangle his legs. “There’s no way out! We can’t run from here!”
“Sometimes you have to stop running and start fighting, kid,” said Loom, peering out of the alley. “But…but I don’t think anyone’s after us.” And all of a sudden, she started laughing.
The boy watched, bemused, as Loom practically doubled over, laughing at their narrow escape- escape from what, the boy did not know, but he felt quite sure that they had been escaping from something. Perhaps it was civilization.
“Hey, Loom?” the boy said.
“You a crazy bitch.”
“Ha, and you’re a dumbass kid,” said Loom, wiping a tear from her eye. “And don’t say that word.”
“The bitch word or the dumbass word?”
“Both of them.”
The boy tried to help the big guy up with muddy hands (odd, that there was mud in such dry heat). “You too big, big guy,” the boy muttered, as he slipped arms under the big guy’s torso and did his best to haul upwards. Camelopards evidently did not appreciate the city life.
“Ah, fuck, you stink, kid,” groaned Loom. “The fuck did you fall into?”
The boy pointed. “I’m stinky but not shitty, right?” he asked, wiping his hands on the edge of his new shirt as the big guy found his feet.
Loom looked at him. She looked at the trash mound where he had fallen. She looked back at him. A couple of gnatflies buzzed around his head.
“Let’s just get you to the river,” muttered Loom, not answering his question. She kept his distance from him as they emerged into the main thoroughfare on the other side of the alley, as did just about everyone else. The boy sniffed. Perhaps living with one shirt for several years had desensitized his nostrils, but he couldn’t smell a thing.
The boy looked around, wary. Besides the odd glare, no one made any comment about their rapid flight through the streets. Granted, it had been on the other side of the buildings, but these people were close, weren’t they? The boy had noticed everything that had happened around him in the plains.
The sheer number of things happening in the city at once threatened to overwhelm the boy. People haggled, people talked, people argued. No wonder they hadn’t noticed the boy and Loom running past; it was a nightmare for the boy just to keep track of the people who might try to kill him.
A smell distracted him. In a world of dizzying new sensations, he latched onto the familiar smell to anchor himself, and what a smell.
“There’s onions!” he shouted. “Loom, Loom, Loom, there’s onions!”
“Kid, I don’t need you stinking anymore, let’s just keep going to the river-.”
“You said we were going to get food,” said the boy, edging closer to see. A group of four men sat on a woven reed mat, around a bubbling pot. There was no way he could sneak up on them with his scent, but maybe if the big guy distracted them while he ran in and out…
He felt something grab his tangled hair. “What are you doing?” hissed Loom, her voice lowered to a whisper. “Were you going to steal it?”
“We were going to get food, yeah?” repeated the boy.
Loom rolled her eyes. “You don’t have to steal it anymore, kid. They’ve got whole crates of them, anyway. We’ll come back later, no one’s going to trade with you when you’re covered in shit like that.”
“So I am shitty!”
“There’s the river: get in it.”
They forged a way onward to the tall towers standing in the distance; as the streets got narrower, people began to push the boy away in disgust rather than edge around him. Eventually, he gave up trying to keep track of them all, and stopped mentally adding them to his list. If he treated the crowds like grass, they suddenly became much easier to deal with.
“So this trading,” said the boy. “You steal something from them and they steal something from you?”
“It’s not stealing if you agree on it,” said Loom, with a heavy sigh. “But essentially, yes. My trade is carpets and fabrics, so I’d set up shop and get some goods, and then I’d swap with some of the nomads for bread and meat. They don’t do as much trading near the city limits, it’s mostly just hunters and gatherers out there.”
“The city limits?”
“Oh, right, you were asleep when we came in.” Loom looked back and smirked. “That’s the next part of the tour, then, after we cook up something for Vhajja to eat.”
Even as the buildings melted away, the crowds grew no less dense. They flocked to the riverfront, running and talking and eating and fighting and doing no end of things that the boy had never seen before.
He walked forward, wide-eyed, just trying to keep track of it all.
Without warning, someone dived in front of him: a tall, skinny man, with bandages wrapped around his hands and feet. He landed lightly before leaping forward, more jumping than walking, and seconds later another man came shooting after him, this time from the boy’s back. Trying to keep out of their way, the boy was knocked off-balance, and found himself tumbling headfirst into the shallows of the river Gammon.
“Well, that’s one way to do it,” snorted Loom, as the big guy charged into the waters. Fellow bathers made a hasty retreat as the camelopard sank into the muddy shallows, his head still a good few body-lengths higher than the rest of them.
Spluttering, the boy floundered his way out. He was definitely wet now; how he was doing on the stinky and shitty front, he had no idea. He looked questioningly at Loom, arms outstretched.
“Kennya Noni fighters,” said Loom, mistaking his indignant stance. “I told you, you see them for a second and then they’re gone.” When the boy still did not move, she crossed her arms. “Well? Wash up quick, we’ve got to get moving.”
The boy splashed himself with water haphazardly, his movements slowed by his sodden clothes. As he tried to get the worst of the muck off himself, he found his gaze drawn to the great stone bridge to his right.
The stones were worn near the shore but seemed brighter and cleaner the closer they got to the center. From his vantage point below, the boy could just see the heads and necks of the electors crossing the bridge, their red and gold scarves flickering in the wind. His gaze stayed on the bridge for a long time.
It was formed from a long row of stone columns, arches forming in-between them. The entire bridge was reflected in the water, an eerie mirror image that the boy felt he could just dive into and come out on the other side. Both ends of the bridge, too, reflected each other, as did the tall buildings on either side. Reflection inside reflections.
How had they built that?
“Magic,” he muttered, under his breath.
The magic of city folk wasn’t over yet. He nearly leaped out of the river when he saw the great, wooden monstrosity approaching. It floated on the river, as people in rich blue silks walked across it. The boy squinted. Some stood in a line, wearing collars around their necks, although their clothing varied from rags like he had worn to finer, thin gowns, fluttering revealingly as the ship passed.
“Slave auction,” said Loom, following his gaze. “Slavers give them to the auctioneers for goods, the auctioneers bring out the rich bastards on barges for a nice little shopping cruise. See the one they’re looking at now? Her clothes mean she’s educated, she’ll sell for more.” Loom paused. “Are you finished yet?”
The boy shook his head. He hadn’t realized how still he had gotten in the waters, just letting them soak around him.
“Let’s go, yeah?” he said, slogging his way out of the shores. The water dripped in dark spots on the stones, but already the sun was beginning to dry him off.
Loom nodded, and as she walked away the boy whistled for the big guy to follow. He adjusted his headband, and traced the rim of the tabula. He wished the girl could see this.
As the camelopard made his slow way out of the river, the boy found himself thinking. He had been doing that a lot more since they had come to the city; there were so many new things to think about.
The carpet merchant looked back, eyebrows raised. “Hmm?”
“You said you have to trade for the food, yeah?”
“What, do you need me to explain it again?”
“No, I just…I just remember you saying that all of your stuff wasn’t worth anything anymore, and I was just wondering…” The boy trailed off. “How are you going to get your money back?”
Loom looked at him for a long time. She sighed. “I got some notion,” she said, and lead the boy away.
Jova nodded. She had heard the sounds already, but had doubted if they were from the city or just from a busy road. She edged forward, gripping her mother’s hand, her feet sliding more than walking just in case something was in her way.
“It’s going to be alright, Jova dear,” said Ma, sensing her hesitation. “I’m right here for you.”
It had been a long journey. At times, Ma and Da had carried her, but Jova had insisted that she at least try to walk by herself. For three days, she had managed; for some reason, she hadn’t once felt tired. Da had repeatedly called her swift recovery miraculous.
But, today, the fatigue had come back, a crushing weight that made Jova’s steps hesitant and short. She didn’t know where it had been or why it had returned, but in a way she was glad of it. She had to rely on herself, and only herself, if she wanted any hope of living life as normal again. Whatever had taken the pain away hadn’t been her.
It was a sobering thought, and one that made Jova edge even slower as the family approached Temple Moscoleon.
Ma gasped. “There’re statues, Jova. One for each of the Ladies Four. They’re huge! The one closest to us is the Lady Winter. She’s…well, she’s got these long robes, and she’s holding a child in her arms…”
Jova nodded, allowing her imagination to take the place of those visions. Try as hard as she might, though, she couldn’t feel the same wonder she had when Rituu had told her his stories. It seemed an irony that the daydreams she had conjured when she could still see the real world now appeared distant, watery, and blurry without anything tangible to compare them to. They were just daydreams. They were all in her head. They didn’t matter.
She heard the rattle of a wooden cart, the clip-clop of hooves, the chatter of people. She wriggled her toes, and felt bare, beaten dirt under her feet where before the path had been carpeted with the forest litter.
“We’re on the main road now,” said Da. He had been giving her a constant narration all along the trip. Jova squirmed. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate it, but she didn’t want to have her father’s voice explaining the world to her secondhand for the rest of her life.
The space around her eyes- or, where they used to be- throbbed. It was hot and irritated and prone to bleeding. Jova wondered what she must have looked like to all those people she could not see. Did they think her a cripple? Did they even notice her, or did they pass without comment? What of the looks in their faces? Disgust, annoyance, pity?
It was something she would never dare ask her father, something that she would never know.
“We can touch the statue,” said Ma, leading her on. Jova stumbled as Ma moved to the side, but did her best to hide it as they continued to walk down the busy road. Pilgrims from across Albumere jostled around them; Jova felt the press of their bodies around her as they streamed together towards…something.
The cluster of bodies grew denser and denser as they walked on. Jova hunched her shoulders, trying to make herself smaller. With no faces to associate with them, no sky to look to, no indication at all where open space was, the experience was intensely claustrophobic.
Jova’s hand closed tight around Ma’s, her only anchor in this violent, dark world. Ma gave her a reassuring squeeze and led her on.
“Here,” Ma said, taking Jova’s hand and stretching it out. Jova waved her fingers until she found rock: smooth, hewn, cool to the touch. “Oh, it’s amazing, Jova. So high I can’t even see the top from here. It must have taken ages to build something like this.”
“Or one strong man with a lot of tabula,” Da remarked. He wrapped his arms around Jova’s shoulders, as if shielding her from all the other people vying for a chance to touch the great statue of the Lady Winter.
Jova’s hand fell to her side. She would give them that chance. To her, it was just rock. It didn’t matter how tall the great statue was. It didn’t matter that Ma couldn’t see the top when Jova couldn’t even see it at all.
Ma’s voice was low, but Jova could still hear it over the noise of the crowd. “You look sad.”
It sounded obvious, almost painfully so. Jova found not sadness inside her, but anger. But…
What else was there to say? Her parents were trying to help. They were doing their absolute best, in the only way they knew how. She couldn’t have done much better in their position. She couldn’t blame them for that.
She smiled, with all her teeth, even though her heart was breaking. “It’s wonderful, Ma.”
How were Ma and Da reacting? Did they suspect her facade? Were they satisfied with it? More than anything, Jova regretted that aspect of her blindness. People had become a mystery to her, their once open faces now closed forever.
She kept smiling, the same way her parents kept pretending that everything was fine. Maybe if they all pretended long enough, it would be true.
“The walls are big and tough,” said Da, as they walked in. “Not as big as the Marble Stronghold’s or Irontower’s, but they’re defensible.”
“Of all the things you choose to talk about, Ell,” said Ma, exasperated, and for a moment she sounded like herself. Jova laughed, genuine.
“The real advantage is the jungles, though. No army can march through that without getting seriously worn out,” said Da, his voice carrying a hint of smugness. Jova felt a cool shadow pass over them. Were they under those same walls now? “No one’s going to be attacking the Temple soon with those kinds of natural defenses.”
“This is also sacred ground,” said Ma, dryly. “Jova, remember this: men like your father can come up with all sorts of fancy theories, but it’s the Ladies who hold the power in the end.”
“Yes, Ma,” said Jova, smiling.
“It didn’t stop Keep Kago,” said Da, as the shadow passed. “When the barbarian lord marched on the Temple, he treated it like just another city.”
“Oh, spare us the history lesson, civilized man,” said Ma.
They walked on. Jova wiggled her toes. There were stones under her feet, now, no longer dirt. Various squishy things squelched under her feet at times, but the frequency that Jova stepped on said things was much lower than in Jhidnu (and she had been able to see where she was walking, then).
The idea of a city with clean streets was even more unfamiliar than a statue so tall the top could not be seen, but then again, it was a holy city. Perhaps the Ladies swept it from the cobblestones with their divine power.
“What do the buildings look like?” she asked.
She heard Ma sniff. “They look brown. And red,” she said, in fragmented pauses. “A lot of them are short. But there’s a few that are tall. Erm.”
“They’re made from red sandstone and adobe bricks,” said Da, taking Jova’s other hand. “We’re walking through one of the residential districts- that’s a place where people live. There’s a bazaar up ahead, with stalls in all sorts of colors. Reds, greens, blues, on dyed weaves they use to keep the sun off. Even further up ahead there’s a step pyramid, with corners pointing to where each of the four statues of the Ladies are standing. It’s made mostly of sandstone, too, but the cap at the top shines like gold; the Holy Keep sometimes makes sacrifices there when the sun is at its highest and there are no shadows at all, which is why it’s called the Solar Altar.”
Ma made an annoyed sound, to the side.
“Anjie, we have been tromping around the wild for eight years,” said Da, a mock severity in his tone. “Teach our little Lady how to sniff out a blueberry from a mile away later; it’s my turn to impress our daughter.”
“Don’t listen to him, Jova,” whispered Ma. “I can teach you to sniff out a blueberry from three miles away.”
“There’s a reason we left your brute out in the woods, wild woman,” said Da, now haughty. “There’s no place in the city for animals like him or you.”
“I’m tempted to summon Mo right now and show you just how much of a brute he can be,” said Ma.
Jova giggled. Her parents’ banter felt natural, and normal, and good. “Tell me more about the city, Da.”
Ma faked a swoon. “Oh! She’s abandoned me!”
“Well, let’s see.” Da paused. Jova could almost see his face pursing in thought. Perhaps her imagination had not left her, after all. “They didn’t teach us much at the Stronghold about the other cities except military history, to be honest. Even the marble slaves had to know that. A good general learns from his mistakes, Jova, but a great general always learns from his enemy’s.”
“Just in case you ever happen to lead an army, Jova dear,” Ma quipped.
“We learned about guerilla tactics when we discussed Moscoleon,” said Da, ignoring her.
Jova laughed, remembering Rituu’s story about the bearmonkeys. “Gorillai tactics, Da?”
“Guerilla, my little Lady,” said Da. “During the time of the First King, the zealots of the Temple fought like nothing else against the Seat’s armies, stinging like vulturewasps before melting away into the jungle. Just like that!”
Jova shrieked as Da poked her in the side.
“The zealots are still here in this city today,” said Da. “My mentors at the Stronghold told me that they were passionate, but undisciplined. The pontiffs can hardly control them, and the Holy Keep can never prod them too hard less they turn against him.”
“Pontiffs?” asked Jova.
“They’re like priests,” said Da. “There’s one right over there. He’s collecting tax from a resident. You can tell he’s from both the House of Fall, because of the tattoos on his forehead and around his eyes, and the House of Summer, because of the tattoos on his arm.”
Jova concentrated, trying to pick out the pontiff’s voice from the ambient noises of the city. It must have been some grand, magnificent voice, she imagined, but she heard no such thing. She sighed, but remembered her resolution. She had to smile. A silly thing like not seeing the pontiff shouldn’t have changed that.
“How do you know so much about this place, Da?”
“I’ve been wanting to come here ever since I was your age, Jova,” said Da. “From the stories they told us…it seemed like a good place. A holy place. A safe place.”
Da paused for only a second. “Yes, Jova. I think it is.”
“Where are we going now?”
Ma spoke this time. “We’re going to find somewhere to stay. This is a chance for us to start new, Jova dear. No more traveling from place to place. And if anyone ever finds out our secret…” She paused. “Well, it’s a big city. Isn’t it, Ell?”
“It is,” Da said. “We could just move to the other side and no one would know any better. And there are people here who could tell us things no one in Jhidnu ever could.”
The secret. Jova had almost forgotten. Her blindness was one thing, but her parents still believed that bad people would hurt her for her secret and not for her inability to see? How bad could not having a tabula be?
But she just nodded and said, “OK.” She wasn’t going to question Ma and Da, from now on.
“We can take jobs,” said Ma, an unfamiliar emotion in her voice. Jova cocked her head. She hadn’t realized how few times Ma had sounded this hopeful. “There’s plenty of game in the jungles for Mo and I to hunt. It won’t be that different from the bay. Ell can do all sorts of jobs from the things he knows from the Stronghold, and you…Jova, we could find someone to teach you all the history your Da knows, all the history in the world. There are schools here, monasteries for people to learn. They’d be free, Jova. Can you imagine? They could teach you math, music, reading…” Ma stopped, realizing what she had said.
Keep smiling, Jova thought. Don’t let them down. “Maybe not the reading?” she said, keeping her voice light.
“Yeah,” said Ma, softly, the hope dying slightly from her voice. “Maybe not the reading.”
“There’s a tenement up ahead,” said Da. Jova could tell from his voice that he was trying to change the subject. “Shall we go look at it?”
“Alright,” said Ma, her tone light too. She adopted Da’s accent. “We shall.”
Keep smiling, Jova thought to herself, as they turned the corner. Pretend long enough and it might become real.
The sounds became softer and dimmer, and Jova felt cool shadows over her face again. Had they gone inside a building? She had heard no indication of a door being opened. Perhaps they had just walked down a smaller, more compact street. The mystery was maddening.
“It’s just up ahead,” said Da. “There’s probably a pontiff who we’ll have to talk to; he’ll lend us one of the smaller houses to live in, so long as we pay tax in food or goods. I’m not sure what they’ll be like. From here, it looks like they’ll have about two rooms-.”
“A pontiff?” Jova leaned her head quizzically. “I thought they were priests?”
“They are,” said Da. “But the pontiffs run everything in the Temple. It’s just the way things are.”
“We’re here. Watch your step,” said Ma, slowing down. Jova matched her pace, like Mo on the road. A well-trained pet, Jova thought, bitterly. Mo won out in that regard. He had eyes and a tabula, while Jova had neither.
Ma let go of Jova’s hand, and Jova flexed it. It was cramped and sweaty. She hadn’t realized how tightly she had been holding on.
Jova reached out with her free hand, feeling out the frame of the door with her hand. It was cut straight, to an exacting degree, but the material was rough and grainy.
“He’s from the House of Winter. You can tell from the tattoos on his neck and chest,” whispered Da, as they walked in. It was slightly cooler inside the building than on the outside, although not by much when Jova was standing in the doorway.
“You stay with Jova, Ell,” said Ma. “I’ll go talk with him alone.”
“What? No, we can all meet him together,” said Da, confused and just a touch indignant.
Ma’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I just want to take slow steps before sprints, Ell. What if he asks to see her tabula? We have to at least see how this city works before we get rooted out.”
“Now why would he ask to see her tabula?” asked Da in a soothing tone, although he kept his voice low too.
“I don’t know, it doesn’t matter why,” said Ma. “She might be an escaped slave, or- or…”
“It may seem unfamiliar to you, Anjie, but escaped slaves don’t stay escaped for very long.”
“Just give me this one, Ell? Please?”
There was a pause. Jova imagined Ma looking at Da, the pleading look in her eyes even as she stood tall and firm. At least, that was what Jova thought was happening. She couldn’t really know for sure.
Finally, Da sighed. “Come on, Jova. We’ll let Ma take over the business while we have a look- while we take a walk around, alright?”
“Alright,” said Jova, quietly, as she heard Ma’s fading footsteps. She leaned her head, trying to catch what she was saying to the pontiff.
Jova caught the words in fragmented chunks, as Da led her away. “We’ve come a long way… if you would… a place to stay…”
The pontiff had a loud voice, one that he projected around the small room. “How wonderful… new pilgrims are always… welcome men and women of the faith…”
“I didn’t realize how many folks came to the Temple,” said Da. “I think I saw a group from the Seat of Winter, and even Irontower. Most will only be here for a couple nights, finishing their pilgrimage. I don’t think many people come here to stay and live like us.”
“I see you have… rest assured…” the pontiff was saying. “Crippled in body but whole of soul…”
“Jova? Are you listening to me?”
“What? Oh, sorry,” said Jova, trying to refocus on Da. It was hard to keep up with two conversations at once. She wondered if she had ever had the same trouble seeing two things at once. She had honestly never noticed.
“There’re some carpets for us to sit on.” Jova felt Da’s hand shift in her grip as he lowered himself to the ground. “All the way from the west. They’re nice and soft.”
Jova nodded. She ran her fingers through the threads as she sat down. She was thankful that Da hadn’t mentioned how beautiful the designs were or how intricate the weave was. Soft was something she could still appreciate.
There was a sudden, hollow, knocking sound to Jova’s left. Her head snapped up, and her ears turned instinctively to listen.
“Both peasants and lords shall dine together: together, together, in Mos-co-le-on,” sang Da, a tuneless little ditty. “It really is true.”
Jova’s eyebrows furrowed out of thought. That knocking sound was like hooves on the road, but she had been hesitant to call them that when they were in-doors. She heard no accompanying patter of feet. Was the newcomer riding inside the small hut?
“Well, the Lady Winter take me,” said Da. “He’s talking with the pontiff; he really is living here. On our level.”
“What’s he like?” asked Jova. What kind of a man would ride a horse into a building? One with shoes so fine he would not sully them with the bare dirt, perhaps, or maybe one who was used to always being just a bit taller than everyone else. She imagined his features: long, angular, with high cheekbones and a haughty stare.
“I’ll tell you once he’s gone,” said Da, whispering conspiratorially with Jova. “I don’t think he’d like overhearing what I have to say.”
Definitely a proud one, then. Jova wondered how many slaves this newcomer had, waiting outside the door. She wished she could stand and look.
“But he’s living here, with us,” said Da, raising his voice again. “This place, Jova, it really is great. It’s a new beginning.”
Jova hung her head. A new beginning, perhaps, but not one that Jova had ever wished for, all those years trekking to this fabled city. And speaking of that fabled city…
“I’ll have to take your word for it,” said Jova, under her breath.
“What was that?”
Jova shook her head. “Nothing, Da.” Keep smiling. Pretend long enough and it might become real.