Category Archives: 2.04
“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.