Category Archives: Chapter 3 (Rise & Fall)
The boy cried in the shadows of the hollow, his belly rumbling, his eyes red, his cheeks streaked and glistening. He held a disk in his hand, his back pressed against the sap-coated innards of the great tree. The clean clothes that mama had tearfully put on him were already soiled. He had fallen asleep at home, somewhere warm, somewhere safe, but had been jerked awake by the tugging, hurtling through darkness, the world expanding and contracting around him.
He was tired and lonely and scared when the voice shouted, “We got one today, Engers!”
A pair of hands reached inside and pulled the toddler out. The boy blinked his eyes, scrubbing his face in the dappled sunlight. At its high point in the sky, it shone directly down and peaked through the twisted branches of the tree above him, which was surrounded on all sides by high stone walls.
The woman holding him up pursed her lips and turned him from side to side. The boy felt tears emerge in his eyes again, and as he started to cry he felt a sudden harsh pain on the side of his face. He tasted blood in his mouth and began to bawl even louder, until the woman hit him even harder on the head.
The toddler hiccupped once, and fell silent, sniffling despite himself.
“Did you have to be so rough?” asked a teenager standing behind the woman, pulling at the shawl around his shoulders.
“Oh, it just takes a smidge of discipline, young lord,” said the woman. “See? He stopped crying already.”
“May I hold him?” asked the teenager, edging forward.
“Of course, Engers,” said the woman, handing the toddler off to the boy like he was a slab of meat. “How does it feel to hold your first slave?”
The teenager’s hands were clumsy and weak, and he nearly dropped the toddler as he held him under the shoulders. “He feels heavy,” said the teenager, laughing. He turned to the boy and set him down, tickling his nose. “Hey, there, little guy. What’s your name?”
“We don’t let them keep their names,” said the woman, quickly, before the boy could answer. “Even if they do remember them. Best to just start fresh, don’t you think?”
“Oh, alright, then,” said Engers, and he reached into his pocket. “I’ve got a list somewhere, wait a hollow’s hop…”
“I don’t like springborn at the best of times,” said the woman, as Engers examined the long sheet of paper. “But I guess this one will grow into it. He doesn’t look nearly strong enough for good fieldwork, but we’ll try him at it, anyway.”
“Ah! Here’s one I like,” said Engers. “Bax. How about that, little guy? Does Bax sound like a good name?”
The boy looked at the teenager’s honest face, to the woman looming over him, and he nodded his head mutely.
“Speaks as much as the Lady Spring, doesn’t he?” said Engers, grinning. “I’m sorry, Kerry, I was reading: what did you say?”
“Nothing you have to worry about,” said the woman. “One last thing…”
She put her hand on the boy’s back (he flinched) and bent down to pluck the disk out of his hands. The boy reached out, a protest forming on his lips, but at the tightening of the woman’s hand on his back he looked down and didn’t speak. “We’ll just hold onto that for you, Bax.”
“Come on, Bax, let’s go and play,” said Engers, taking Bax’s hand and leading him towards the door in the stone walls. “Shh, shh, it’s OK. Life is nice here in Alswell. Don’t be scared.”
He opened the door, and two giants of men nodded their heads to him as he passed.
“Young lord,” said one, shifting the lance to his other hand to give a little salute.
“M’lord,” said the other, his chainmail rustling as he too saluted.
“Cropper, Hardy,” said Engers, nodding to them as well.
“You should visit Langs,” said either Cropper or Hardy. “He’s had his for a fortnight, he says it’s been getting a bit temperamental.”
“How about that?” said Engers, ruffling Bax’s hair. “You want to go visit Langs?”
“OK,” said Bax, softly.
“He speaks!” said Engers, laughing and clapping, and Bax dared a little smile. “You have a sweet voice, Bax.”
“Thanks,” said Bax.
Bax started when the woman spoke. She was just behind them, but he had not noticed her. “Not ‘thanks’. Thank you, my lord,” she said.
“Thank you, m’lord,” Bax mumbled.
Engers led him on, through a dirt path winding through the field. Neatly cultivated rows of plants surrounded them on all sides, although if Bax stood on tiptoe he could see tiny cabins on the horizon.
He stepped on something thorny and yelped. The woman tittered while Engers examined Bax’s foot and swept the thing aside with a hand. “Nasty thing, the thorny flax,” said Engers, patting Bax’s shoulder. “You get them over the ground sometimes, hollows know why.”
They kept walking, and Bax eyed their boots enviously. He had no shoes, and kept tripping over his own feet as he looked down while he walked.
“These are the flax fields,” said Engers, brightly. “The people out east prefer cotton, but all’s well in Alswell, and all. A little further south we grow tea and sugarcane, and-.”
“He doesn’t need to know the business, young lord,” said the woman, sharply. “He just needs to be able to work it. Probably not a word you said got into his head, poor thing.”
Bax looked down. He didn’t say anything.
“Well, in that case we’ll just—Bechde! Well, I’ll be! We were just going to visit Langs!”
“Engers, this is a pleasant surprise,” said a lady in tight dress, seated on the back end of a wagon trundling around the bend. The waving stalks of flax were so high that Bax had not been able to see her, or her wagon. She waved a fan in front of her face daintily and smiled, showing pretty white teeth. “I was just escorting the workers back around to Greeve.” The lady blinked. “Oh, what’s this? What a darling young boy you’ve got there!”
Bax sniffed. For some reason, all of a sudden, among these bright and happy people, he felt like crying again.
He didn’t listen as Engers and Bechde began talking animatedly. He just stood there, waiting in the hot sun, wondering when he would be able to go home again.
He heard a soft psst and looked up. Poking out of behind the lady, peering through the covers, was a little girl with wide eyes. She waved at him, and made a face at the twitter and chatter of Engers and Bechde. Bax sniggered, and the girl vanished under the tarp again before the lady could see her.
And then Engers took him away, off wherever slaves went in Alswell.
“No more,” sang the field leader. Thunk, went the axe into the tree. “No more.” Thunk. “No more!” Thunk. “Farmer lord.” Thunk.
Bax wiped the sweat from his brow, squinting his eyes as wood chips flew from the tree. “We won’t take-.” Thunk. “No more.” Thunk. “Not ‘til we ask-.” Thunk. “The Ladies Four.”
The rest of the woodcutters hummed with him. They might not have known the words, but they sang with just as much feeling, just as much pain and fatigue in their voices.
“Ask ‘em why-.” Thunk. “My hands are bleeding.” Thunk. Bax tightened his grip on the axe. The blisters on his hands had healed at this point. They would not bleed for another day or two.
“Ask ‘em who-.” Thunk. “Took the hollow seed in.” Thunk. Bax looked up at the great oak hollow they were working around, with its twisting branches and flaking bark. The tabula in its hollow winked innocently, as if they did not hold the terrible power every slave in that clearing knew they did.
“Ask ‘em why-.” Thunk. “That man still breathing.” Thunk. Everyone thought of someone different when they said that. Some resented the farmer lords, and wished them dead with that line. Others prayed for mercy for their fellow slaves as age beat down on their backs as much as the whips of the taskmasters and the heat of the Alswell sun.
“Ask ‘em when-.” Thunk. “This life I’m leaving.” Thunk. With an ominous creak, the oak began to slowly tip over. “Timber!” shouted Bax, backing away as it collapsed in a great, shuddering heap. Loose leaves scattered all over the ground, and with one last gasp the oak came to a rest.
Bax backed away as the taskmaster lead more slaves to load up the tree onto the timber sled, sweat glistening on his chest, breathing heavily. The taskmaster looked up and snapped his whip in Bax’s direction, and the slave flinched. He looked away, as his grasp tightened on the axe.
That man still breathing…
Bax trudged away, to begin work on the next tree. The timber from the oaks was well and good, but it was the hollow at the center of the grove that the farmers really wanted. They would build great stone walls around this one, too, and Greeve would have a steady supply of slaves for as long as he had the clout to keep it from the other farmers.
“All’s well in Alswell, brother?” asked Fisk, leaning on his lance.
“All’s well in Alswell,” said Bax, nodding. He looked up at the trunk of the tree, figuring out where to cut so that it would fall away from hollow at the center. He didn’t want to damage the most precious part of today’s work.
“You go on and rest a little, Bax,” said the alsknight, as Bax began to chop once again. With the arrival of the taskmaster, the singing had stopped. “I can see you sweating enough for a dozen.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Bax, drawing out his words. He didn’t stop working. “Soon as the taskmaster gets done drawing fi’ty line on my back, I’m gon’ have to give that a little cogitating.”
“Heh, you a funny one, Bax,” said Fisk, patting the slave’s shoulder even as Bax drew the axe back for another swing. Bax had to pull back and let his arm fall to prevent himself from decapitating Fisk. “But go on and have a look-see over there. Pretty little filly, isn’t she?”
Bax followed Fisk’s finger and saw Janwye, also hard at work pulling timber onto the sled. Whatever Fisk was imagining, all Bax saw was the grinning little girl in the back of the wagon, making faces at a sad boy to cheer him up. He really did almost decapitate Fisk, then.
“Pretty little filly,” repeated Fisk, licking his lips. “And I’ve love to ride her, know what I mean?”
“She like family,” said Bax, and he swung his axe as hard as he could into the oak. It bit deep, and to his great satisfaction several woodchips went flying into the alsknight’s face. “So you best think real hard about what you say next.”
“Oh, how do you know what family is?” said Fisk, grinning, although anger was smoldering in his eyes. “You had Fallow in the same hollow or something?”
Bax was about to say something testy in reply when suddenly he felt a cold energy seize him. Like some invisible hand tugging at his spine, his body jerked upright and his arms began to swing of their own accord, swing harder and faster than was safe, so that his muscles screamed in protest and the blisters re-opened on his hands. He moved so fast as to be frenzied but so methodically as to be mechanical.
Beside him, the leering smirk had vanished from Fisk’s face; he was now upright and rigid, gripping his lance tightly. His eyes looked like, on the inside, he was screaming.
“No slacking,” growled the taskmaster, and then he moved on.
Fear kept Bax’s arms moving even as the taskmaster walked away. He supposed he should have been lucky, that he had only been commanded not punished, but the total lack of control, the cold realization that he was a prisoner in his own body—that was something Bax did not want to repeat.
Fisk didn’t talk to him anymore. Even if he was an alsknight, the farmers still owned him as much as they owned Bax. If they caught him lax on guard duty, it was back to the fields for him, and the Ladies knew Fisk couldn’t have many friends in the fields if he had become an alsknight.
“No more,” the field leader began again. “No more! No more, my lord…”
Bax laid on the straw and old rags, trying to ignore the smell and heat of the hut, poking his finger through the little hole in the wall. Sometimes winter rats crawled through, and Bax would let their cold breath play over fingers before they snuck away and disappeared. Bax closed his eyes. If only he was a winter rat, who could walk with a sheen of frost on his back to guard against the hot sun, who could squeeze through the tiny cracks and holes in the walls, who could grow fat on crumbs that the farmer lords threw away.
Someone kicked in their sleep next to him, and Bax tried to edge away. It was hard; floor space in the hut was limited, and a dozen people slept here every night. They also cooked here, ate here, and occasionally shat here if they felt like being rude, although none of the farmers actually cared if they did. It was their muck they had to live in, after all.
The taste of cornbread and grease still lingered in Bax’s mouth. He licked his lips. It was more than just hunger that gnawed at his insides. Anticipation crawled inside of him, and Bax could not dismiss it.
Trying to disturb as few people as possible, he rose, tiptoeing over the others towards the door of the hut. No one stirred; they were all sleeping deeply. They needed the rest for the long day they had tomorrow, like today, like the day before, like the day before that.
It was easy for Bax to leave the hut. The farmers posted no guards around the slave quarters; they didn’t need to. It was the tabula boxes and field lords that the alsknights guarded. No matter how far a slave ran in the night, they would always end up in the same place by morning, with whips and brands waiting for them.
No, all the farmers had to do was confiscate any weapons the slaves might have, keep the rope or rock out of reach. Suicide was bad for business.
And even if he found a way, Bax thought, Greeve had so many slaves that the loss of one made no difference. He padded across the dirt, the calluses on his heels scuffing against pebbles and gravel. He didn’t mind so much, anymore. When all was said and done, it was just part of living. Better to keep living, than to be petty.
The only tree in the compound was an old bent willow, its drooping branches waving in some wind only it could feel. Bax sat at its base, his legs straining as he slid down. It had been a harvest day, today. His back was sore and his fingers were covered in scratches and cuts from the flax bolls.
“Hey, Bax,” whispered a voice, and Janwye sat next to him. She yawned and put her head on his shoulder, and he straightened his back a little.
“Comfortable?” he asked, petting her hair. “Do I make a good headrest?”
“Better than the floor,” she said, batting his hand away. “Lady Summer, I’m tired.”
“Mm,” said Bax, softly. “Where’s Mealark?”
“Sleeping.” Janwye snuggled a little closer to Bax. “She had a rough day of it, today.”
Like today, like the day before, like the day before that. Bax’s gut twisted again, not just hunger, not just anticipation this time. “You ever get the sense that we could be doing something better, Janny? Something greater?”
“Every day,” said Janwye. “Actually, Bax, I…”
“Yes?” asked Bax, a little too quickly.
“Oh, Ladies, I’ve been putting this off for too long.” Janwye sat up, her legs folded under her. “Bax, I’ve been meaning to tell you, but I just- I couldn’t find the right way…”
“I’m leaving,” she said. She look on the verge of tears, but she didn’t cry. Janwye never cried.
Bax’s heart plummeted faster than he thought possible. Janwye? Leave? It was so strange as to be surreal. Janwye couldn’t leave. She couldn’t. She was family. “Where? Why?” Bax croaked, his mouth very dry, the pains in his gut forgotten.
“Bechde told me a week ago. An old marbleman, named Marion, he-.”
“She sold you?”
Janwye nodded, looking away. “An offer she couldn’t refuse, she said. She wouldn’t tell me how much I had sold for, but…Bax, I’m scared. I saw him. He dressed like one of their marble generals, and he’s balding and fat and wrinkled and what if he- what if…?”
Bax pulled her in, wrapping his arms around her in a great hug. He rocked her back and forth, whispering comforting nonsense into her ear.
“Anybody else know?” he asked, after a while.
Janwye shook her head. “Bechde said she was already breaking one of the terms by telling me. This man, he doesn’t want anyone to know. You’re the first person I’ve told, Bax.” She pushed her way out of his embrace. “You have to promise me—promise me—that you won’t tell anyone. I don’t want Bechde getting in trouble.”
“Even after she did this to you?” said Bax, incredulously. “Treat you like shit, sell you like a piece of meat?”
“OK, Janny,” he said, after a pause. “I promise.”
Janwye nodded. She turned around and sat against the tree again, sighing. “Oh, Ladies, I said it all wrong. Don’t be worried about me, Bax. I know you’re going to worry. But I’ll be fine. Wherever I’m going, I’ll be fine.”
Bax wasn’t so sure. He stared at his feet, not knowing what to say. “When are you leaving?”
“Can we not talk about it?” asked Janwye. Her voice was rising, and Bax had to put a finger to her lips as the sound began to carry through the night. “Please, Bax? Let’s just not talk about it. Let’s spend this night like we would have if I hadn’t gone and blabbed it all out.”
The way Janwye said it, it made it sound like this was their last night. Bax’s breath caught in his throat. He stared at Janwye for a long time, at the way her hair fell around her face, at the constant emotion and life she had, at the way she moved and talked and breathed. He tried to keep it all in his head and remember, just in case this really was last night they had.
Janwye might never cry, but Bax felt like he might.
He took a quiet breath to calm himself, and then cleared his throat. “But of course, m’lady,” he said, kissing Janwye’s hand like an alsknight would court a fine apprentice-daughter of a farmer lord. “Anything you desire.”
Janwye waved a hand in front of her face and made such high-pitched mock giggle that both of them collapsed in stifled laughter.
“You know, Bax,” said Janwye, as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “I’m a bit glad that Mealark is so tired today.” She groaned, putting her head in her palms. “Oh, shit, that came out wrong, I shouldn’t have said it like that. What I mean is I just-.”
“I know what you meant,” said Bax, and she didn’t need to say anymore after that.
They talked that night, talked about the field groups and Greeve’s court and the work they had to do, and even though Janwye had told Bax not to mention it eventually the conversation came around to what the Stronghold was like, and what they ate, and how they dressed.
“I hear they have gladiators there,” said Janwye. “You know, like pit fighters.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” asked Bax.
“I think…a good thing. At least they give the slaves a chance to fight back.”
“Fighting each other, though? Kicking and biting and scrabbling the dust while some fat general in the stands watches? While he eats grapes and strokes whores?”
“At least they’re fighting something,” said Janwye. “You can’t fight the sun, or the harvest, or the hollows. At least they get a chance to be actual people.”
“You thinking of becoming a gladiator, is that it, Janny?”
She pushed him up against the tree and bared her teeth at him. “You ain’t never seen how hard I fight, Bax boy.”
He laughed and, as Janwye leaned across him, stroked her hair again. She didn’t bat his hand away this time.
“I’ll miss you, Janny.”
She sighed. “I’ll miss you too.”
Kerry fussed around him, straightening his clothes, scrubbing his face judiciously. “Well, you did grow into it, didn’t you?” she said, an old woman now with a bent back and a wheeze in her voice. “Look at you. Nice set of clothes, combed hair, and your lovely springborn voice and no one will ever think you’re a slave unless they see the brand.” She slapped him on the back. “Best keep your shirt on, then, Bax, eh?” She said it like it was a joke, but Bax didn’t laugh.
He went over Engers’s instructions in his head. It was a simple courtship ritual, just the first step in the elaborate Alswell process. Bax would pass the message on to the lady, and give her reply back to Engers.
He adjusted the cravat around his neck and squirmed on the inside. He understood that he had to look the part, but nonetheless he felt puffy.
“Last touch, Bax,” said Kerry, waddling his way with a pair of soft leather boots. Bax stepped inside of them and let Kerry tie the straps. At last, the slave boy was finally good enough for shoes.
“Off you go now, go on,” said the old woman, shooing him away. “Bechde’s manor isn’t far, you know where it is. And don’t get too much dust on those clothes! You’ll have to clean it off yourself.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Bax, bowing his head and backing away. His boots slapped on the stones as he left the chilly castle corridors behind him, and stepped out into the bright Alswell sun. He was already beginning to sweat under his layers of stiff vests and cotton dress shirts.
Bax supposed it was better than fieldwork, but all the same he felt like he had somehow betrayed his brothers and sisters in the working groups as he walked along the fields and saw them, smudges on the horizon, bending and cutting, bending and cutting, bending and cutting.
Someone had to be the messenger for the farmer nobles and their lace-filled, shawl-wearing, puffy society. Better it be Bax, then, the slave reasoned, as he walked along the road. For once, he could stand with his back straight as he walked.
“Finest morning, Lady Bechde,” muttered Bax, under his breath, practicing. “Lord Engers sends his regards and seeks your company in the coming moons. Ahem, finest morning, Lady Bechde…”
The manor was just ahead. Each of the manors technically belonged to Farmer Greeve, but the lords and ladies that were his personal favorites essentially owned the various mansions that dotted the fields. Bax supposed that, at a certain point, they must have all been slaves too, but sometimes the farmers would choose some particularly lucky child to pamper and raise since Fallow. Lady Bechde seemed like one of those children; from what Bax had seen of the perfumed woman, it looked like she hadn’t done a day’s hard work in her life.
The elaborate front of the manor, with its high arches and true-glass windows, loomed before him as he approached. He straightened, preparing himself. If he did a good job at this, Engers might keep him on as a formal messenger, and then Bax would never have to work the fields again.
And then he saw her.
“Janny,” whispered Bax, as she rode out of the courtyard on the back of a beautiful summer elk, its fur russet brown, long and sleek and clean. But she was more beautiful still, her hair combed behind her ears, a plain white shawl around her shoulders. On the other ladies of the Alswell courts it made them look gaudy, but on her it was majestic.
And then he saw the man riding next to her.
He would have, in Bax’s opinion, been the picturesque dashing knight if he hadn’t been so obviously foreign. He rode his horse (and Bax couldn’t tell what kind of horse it was: honestly, it seemed rather dull) with natural skill and ease, but he wore pants of tanned leather and no shirt at all. A barbed whip hung from his side, and his hair, long and greasy, was in a braid that reached his waist. Bax had no small amount of muscle himself from those years in the fields, but this man had the stature and physique of a trained warrior, not a starved worker.
Bax’s mouth went dry. He did not seem like a marbleman, but Bax had not stepped foot outside Alswell since the Fallow. For all he knew, this man could be the epitome of the marble legions.
There was nothing for it. Bax ran, all pretense and manners forgotten as his boots slapped on the dirt path. “Janny!” he shouted. “Janny, hey!”
Janwye reared in the summer elk and looked around in confusion. When she saw Bax, her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Then, to Bax’s great relief, her mouth split in a wide smile.
“Bax!” she shouted, slipping off the elk and running forward. “What the hell happened to you?”
Bax looked down at his cravat and vest and gulped. “I got fancy,” he said, finally. “You- I mean you look…wow.”
The other man rode up behind them and dropped off his horse to the ground, lithe, like some predatory cat. He straightened and gave Bax an intense look-over. “Mosh sag bu,” he muttered, quietly. “Wey ab al, fot hak sen.”
Before Bax could say anything, Janwye looked over her shoulder and said, “Pu al ab! Sen hak Bax, al iro tu sat.”
“You speak foreign,” said Bax, before he could stop himself.
Janwye laughed. “You can thank him for that, he’s too lazy to learn the king’s tongue. That’s Rho Hat Pan.”
“He’s a friend. Just a friend,” said Janwye. She put her hands on her hips. “By all the Ladies, Bax, it’s been so long. I was going to visit, but these damn fields are so big, I had no idea where to start…”
“It’s OK.” Bax kept looking Janwye up and down. She had changed so much. “So, are you…?” Bax couldn’t seem to finish his questions.
“I’m back,” said Janwye, smiling. “For now, at least. As a free woman. I’d figure I’d see what Bechde needs doing, maybe come back around again. Do some favors for some friends, if I need to.” She reached for a pendant around her neck, and Bax noticed for the first time that she was wearing a little wooden disk with a crescent moon inscribed on it.
“Are you going anywhere?” asked Bax, looking at the horse and the elk.
Janwye bit her lip. “Yes, we have to…yes. Stick around though! We’ll be back!”
Bax nodded. “OK, then. I’ll be right here for you, waiting.”
And they hugged each other just once before going their separate ways.
Greeve looked tired. What little hair was left on his head had gone white with stress and age, and there were deep bags under his eyes.
“Banden Ironhide threatens war,” he said, eyes closed, as if just saying the name caused him pain. “The pup swears he will have our food and grain or else he will summon the might that destroyed the Seat of the King and take it by force.”
Bax looked to Engers and Bechde and Langs, all standing at attention before their surrogate father. He stood behind them, with Janwye and Mealark, at attendance and awaiting orders.
He exchanged a glance with Janwye. Even after all these years as a proven free woman, she still stood where the slaves stood: albeit, where the privileged slaves stood, but where the slaves stood nonetheless.
“I’ve sent letters to the Stronghold,” said Greeve, opening his eyes again. They were a clear blue, and still as sharp as ever despite the age that bent his back and wrinkled his brow. “To Jhidnu. To Kazakhal, even, although the Ladies know what good the frog-eaters will do. But for our close allies…it requires a more personal touch.”
As Greeve leaned on his cane and hobbled to his feet, Engers and Langs rushed to his side to help him stand. They helped him to the table at the center of his chambers, upon which the map of all of Albumere was splayed out.
Greeve coughed violently, his body seizing up as he leaned on the table. His three children-apprentices stood by his side, concerned but silent. The proud farmer would take none of their pity.
“Here,” said Greeve, after the fit had passed. “Beyond the mountains. Langs, you will take what supplies you need, what protection you require, to go to Mont Don. Speak to Prince Gaelen, beg him if you must.”
Langs cleared his throat. “Mont Don, my lord? They are…”
“They’re a joke in the Seat,” muttered Greeve. “And that’s exactly how Gaelen, the little guttersnipe, likes it. Don’t underestimate the mountainmen. Make your preparations now, go on. It’s cold up in the north.”
Langs nodded and walked away briskly. “Mealark, come,” he snapped.
“Bechde, you’re going to have to go far, and by foot,” said Greeve. “See Keep Tlai at Temple Moscoleon. They have always been our allies.”
Bechde pursed her lips and said nothing. For once, the lady seemed to be more than just frills and gossip.
“I’d say take a ship, but the saltmen have been getting cheeky. It’s too dangerous. I’d say go through the Seat of the King, but we all know why you can’t do that. The only way is through the deserts of Hak Mat Do.” Greeve sniffed. “Be ready for a long journey, sweet Bechde. Go on, get ready.”
Bechde left, and Janwye turned to follow behind her. Just before Janwye walked away, Bax grabbed her hand. They exchanged a look.
“We’ll talk later,” said Janwye, smiling, and then she left.
Before Greeve could speak again, Engers said, hesitantly, “My lord, if I may…why Bechde? You know she does not have the, erm, fortitude to endure such a long travel. Let me go in her stead.”
Greeve shook his head, and began to cough again. Engers patted him on the back and waited. “I want her as far away from here as possible when this all goes to shit,” said Greeve, shuddering. “And I need you for the hardest part.”
“The hardest part, my lord?”
The old farmer pointed on the map. Bax couldn’t see where, but Engers’s reaction made it clear enough.
“Shira Hay? They- they hate us, my lord.”
“And they’re the only damn ones close enough to help once Ironhide decides to make his move,” snarled Greeve, slamming his fist on the table. “I like it less than you do, Engers, but if we don’t have Shira Hay we won’t live to see any of our other allies arrive.”
“I understand,” said Engers, quietly.
“Go on,” said Greeve. “We’ll discuss the duarchs at length once we’ve gotten things moving around here.”
Engers walked away as Greeve stumbled back to his bed, and Bax fell in behind him.
As the duarch pulled the knife from his gut, Bax felt a sick, hot pain begin to throb throughout him. His fine emissary’s clothes had already soaked all the blood they could, and now he could feel it dripping onto his hands.
He stumbled backwards. Through the red fog that was beginning to envelop his mind, there was some primal instinct to run away, to get back, but the duarch had already grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him in.
Bax felt sudden weakness in his limbs as his pathetic attempts to pull free yielded no fruit. As the duarch put the knife against his throat, he scrabbled against his neck: not to stop the knife, but to grab the box hanging around his neck.
The beetle inside buzzed. This one was for Mealark.
Bax crushed it in his hand and hoped against hope that she would not worry too much about him. Mealark never had been able to calm her nerves.
And then the knife sliced across his throat and Bax could only think of how he was choking, how he couldn’t breathe, how the world was dissolving into red and black and white and nothing.
He stumbled to the edge of the bridge, teetering over the brink, gagging. With a single prod, the duarch pushed him over.
Then he fell towards the water and fell towards the sun, fell up and fell down. A thought drifted across his bleary mind that he should die with a happy memory. He focused. His last thought was of her, of the way her hair fell around her face, of the constant emotion and life she had, of the way she moved and talked and breathed.
With what strength he had left, he reached for the second beetle box around his neck and crushed it. I’m sorry I failed, Janny, he thought. Now stay away from here. Get as far away from this place as possible.
And half a world away, one of the tabula in Janwye’s pack shattered.
He kissed the ribbon she used to wear in her hair before putting it gently back on the altar. “Lady Winter,” Zain whispered, tracing the holy sign over the base of his throat. “Give her my best regards. Thank you for showing her mercy, and kindness.”
Zain waited, listening to the steady drip-drip-drip of the pool before the Lady Winter’s altar. The water flowed freely for most of the year, and only when it had frozen entirely were supplicants allowed to walk across and touch the statue of the Lady Winter.
“I miss you, Nonna,” said Zain, eventually. “We all miss you. Roan is as he is ever, mucking about with his animals, dreaming of better days. Janwye will return later tonight, to prepare for Ladies know what. I feel she has lost sight of what we were trained to do. She thinks only of the good of her people, not the good of us all. She is not ready for the sacrifices we were trained to make.”
He stopped, and listened to the drip-drip-drip.
“Of the sacrifice you made,” he added, quietly. Zain sighed. “I serve your Lady as diligently as ever. I am coming to understand why you all loved her so much in that chilly fortress of yours so far north, and while I might never see with eyes of an iceman I am beginning think like one. And I…I…”
Zain stuttered to a halt. He closed his eyes and cursed himself, under his breath. Even when she was dead, he was still too coward to say it.
“I miss you, Nonna,” he finished, quietly, and rose, sweeping the dust off of his robes. He traced the tattoos on his neck and chest again, and sighed, the memory of their etching lingering in his brain. No matter how much draught of the poppy they had given him, the tattoos had hurt.
Then again, Zain reasoned, they had not hurt nearly as much as her passing, and that was what the draught of the poppy had really been trying to mask.
He rubbed his swollen eyes, trying to block out the dull buzz in his ears as he walked up the winding staircase of his house of the Ladies. Mosaic windows glittered past him, each depicting the Lady Winter in some shape or form: her face kindly, her pose always gentle, the owl wings behind her back curled as if in embrace.
The Keeper of the Broken, the scriptures called her. The Mother Loving. And, Zain had to remind himself, The Shadow of Death.
The touch of the Lady Winter was the touch of mercy, of kindness, of generosity. It was an end to pain, a respite from a cruel world, a brief rest before one’s essence entered the game of worlds once more. Zain had come to peace with this long ago.
All the same, it felt selfish to leave the living with all the burdens of the dead.
The pontiff ascended to his private chambers. He didn’t use it often; perhaps the richly furnished bed, with its thick blankets and fall goose-feather pillows, would have suited the proud pontiffs of spring, but Zain preferred his hard slab of a sleeping table in his run-down, poor tenement. It kept him closer to his people, and his faith.
Zain sat heavily at his pontiff’s desk, reaching for his wax writing tablet. It had been sitting over the fire as he prayed, and now he smoothed it out with a flat stone, wiping the slate clean.
He set to work carving the letters in with his copper stylus, tongue poking out between his teeth as he wrote. It was tortuous work. He envied the scribes in the Seat of the King with their inks and their pens and their parchment. Those were the inventions of the modern world, while Temple Moscoleon puttered around in the dust of the other great cities: Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, Irontower, even sleepy Shira Hay had outpaced them.
But, alas, Keep Tlai enjoyed the trappings of an older age, and so the Temple obeyed. Zain scratched the glyphs into the clay, brow furrowed as he tried to think of an argument that would sway the conservative Keep. Moscoleon was a historical ally of Alswell; audience would be granted on that factor alone. But to truly convince her, who had practically cut the Temple off from the outside ever since Ironhide had taken the throne all those years ago?
Setting his stylus aside, Zain steeped his fingers together and thought. He had to think every word through before he wrote even one more down.
It would have been easier, a rebellious little voice in the back of his head whispered, if the Keep was a Walker as well, but even the brotherhood could not hope to have such far reaching power. Zain had even entertained fantasies of bidding for the Keep in his younger years, but joining one house of the Ladies had been hard enough. Joining all four, and then inheriting the divine declamation would have been near impossible.
Not if the post had been meant for him, Zain reminded himself. If the post had truly been his, then the Ladies would have guided him down the path the whole way. It was the Ladies’ will that Tlai should be Keep, and that was that. The wisdom of their decision would be proven eventually.
He shook his head and set back to work. It did not do to dwell on the past.
“Let the dead rest,” Zain muttered, under his breath, as he worked. The path to reach Keep Tlai was clear to him now. His would be a supplication: firm, but showing respect, appealing to the memories of Keeps past. To aid Alswell was solemn duty—nay, tradition, despite any tensions that had risen since the No-Hand War.
If only, if only, the words let him be so eloquent. Zain had limited space on the tablet, and had to carve cramped, tight letters into the wax, more a proposal than poetry. It irked him.
The motion was so rote and automatic that Zain’s mind began to wander again. He thought of the girl, Jova, and Roan. Would sending them to Alswell work? It was a way to get the girl out of the city, but more than that, it was a way to get Roan moving. Zain’s friend had grown restless in the Temple, and even now Zain squirmed at his false piety. It had been no fault of his; Zain did not doubt Roan’s honest intentions when he came to the peninsula and changed his name. But when his faith had not yet reaped its rewards…
No, it was better to send Roan out. Janwye would keep an eye on him, even while giving him the space to be Rho Hat Pan again. It was…healthy.
Zain’s hand was shaking too much to continue using the stylus. He put the utensil down, breathing deeply through his nostrils. It was the right decision to make, because it was the decision he had made. There was no point in regretting it now.
He could only hope that Albumere would be kind to Roan on this latest journey, the journey Zain had sent him on. The pontiff did not think he could live with causing the death of another friend.
As Zain began to write again, he found himself wondering whether perhaps Roan’s faith had been rewarded. It had taken years—countless years—but eventually he had found her. The blind girl. It had filled Roan with purpose again, with life.
More than that, said Zain’s practical side, it had brought fresh blood into the ranks. The last generation of the brotherhood was growing old. Zain traced the crescent moons embroidered on his cuffs, contemplative. The time was coming to pass the secrets of the Dream Walkers onto the youth.
His thoughts were jarred by a sudden clattering downstairs. Zain shifted, reaching for the trove of tabula hidden under his desk immediately. Gifts and taxes from hunters who foraged the wild jungles: Zain did not know what the amber was bound to, but each disk promised strength.
“Zain!” screamed a voice, female. “Pontiff Zain! I know you’re here! Get out!”
Something crashed at the foot of the stairs, and Zain’s heart quickened. The mosaics of the Lady Winter were precious works of art that he would not have vandalized. More than that, he had left Nonna’s ribbon on the altar below…
He rose and swept across the room quickly, concealing three tabula, chosen at random, in his sleeve. It was always good to have options.
“Anjan, show respect,” hissed another voice, one that Zain was more familiar with. Anjan was usually so withdrawn, so quiet, so reverent, that he had not recognized that angry, desperate scream. Ell still had the presence of mind to sound like himself, though. “He’s not going to-.”
Something snapped and barked, the harsh, jagged, animal sound echoing around the chambers of the house. Zain began to take the steps two at a time.
“How dare you, Ell? She’s gone. Jova is gone and you want to spend time dancing around with your- your civilized etiquette and your fucking manners and proper behaviors and-.”
“Anjan! She’s my daughter, too.”
Zain froze. He sucked in a sharp breath. So it was true? The couple’s behavior had always been suspicious, and Roan would never stop with his conspiracies and ancient prophecies, but if these two had truly kept a daughter so long after the Fallow…
“Lady Winter, what did you do?” he whispered, clutching the walls of the staircase, almost at the bottom. He took a moment to compose himself, before taking the last few steps and striding out the door of the stairwell, imperious, in command.
He nearly bolted when he saw the wild woman standing in front of the altar. Her long hair was in disarray, loose strands dangling around her face, and blood coated her cheeks, her chin, her forearms, her clothes. Her unwashed clothes only added to her frenzied appearance, and she stank of the scent of the jungle. Zain took a step back, realizing for the first time in three years just how much taller Anjan was than him.
One of the woodcut offerings to the Lady lay in pieces on the ground in front of her, shattered splinters of wood littering the stone floor. The woman’s weaseldog snarled and snapped beside her, the burn scars on its face stark and livid. Behind her, Ell stood, his face passive, his stance neutral, but his knife drawn: cold death in capable hands.
“Where is she?” hissed Anjan, and her voice sounded more like a demon of the deep than anything mortal.
Zain hesitated. Which would help more, the blunt truth or the comfortable lie? What lie might he even tell?
He had spent too long thinking. Anjan grabbed the back of his neck and bashed his head against the side of the altar; a little dribble of red began to diffuse into the pool, as Zain slumped, his vision flashing white.
“If you think I wouldn’t kill you because you’re a pontiff, you are wrong,” snarled Anjan, putting a knee on his chest. “I wouldn’t hesitate.”
“Like mother, like daughter,” mumbled Zain, before he could stop himself, head rolling, thoughts swimming.
Before he had the time to blink, a knife was at his throat, and Ell asked, very calmly, “What did you just say, Zain?”
His fingers touched the tabula in his sleeve. Was it worth it? Two strong hunter’s beasts would have been enough to take both of them down. Zain’s eyes flickered from hateful Anjan to cruel Ell. It would have been easy.
“I said that Jova has left the city,” said Zain. He had to tilt his chin up as the knife pressed a little harder, right over his tattoos as a pontiff of winter. “This city can no longer shelter her. She is with friends. Safe, as safe as she can be.”
“She’s not with us,” said Anjan, and the weaseldog barked as if in agreement. “If she’s not with us, then she’s in danger.”
Ell turned the knife up, the barest pressure cutting a thin red line on Zain’s throat. “Where? With who?”
“North, to Jhidnu,” said Zain, immediately. Lady Fall bless him, a lie was required here. He would not have this bloodthirsty pair hunting down Roan, not when the man had important work left to do. “I remembered that was where she came from. I felt she would be most comfortable there.”
“Why not here?” screamed Anjan, face red. “Why wouldn’t she be comfortable here? Why did you drive her out, Zain?”
It was no use trying to placate her. Zain closed his eyes, ready for the worst. He had done all he could for himself, now. It was up to the Lady Winter to decide his fate, all a matter of mercy and cruelty.
The blade left his throat, and Zain coughed, covering the cut with his hands and breathing deeply. “Come on, Anjan,” he heard Ell say. “We move fast, we can catch them before they get too far onto the road.”
Anjan did not even bother to reply; she ran out the door, the weaseldog bounding behind her. Ell gave Zain one last disgusted look before running behind them, knife still in hand.
Zain let the three tabula in his sleeve slip away, and massaged his throat, chest heaving. He watched the door, considering what retribution he might call on the couple for attacking a pontiff in his own house.
Finally, he decided against it. Mercy for mercy. There was no point in pursuing them. He had led them astray; he had done what he had to do.
Even then, it would have reflected poorly on him if he had forgiven Copo’s murderer but had persecuted some mere assailants. He clasped his hands together and sighed. Lady Winter forgive him for his responsibilities, but sometimes the brotherhood came first.
He looked up, to his chambers and his work, and told himself that he had to finish the supplication to the Keep before Janwye returned. For some reason, though, he could not find the strength in his legs to get up.
It was beginning to dawn on him, as blood oozed around the cut on his throat, that he had been seconds away from dying. As much as he had told himself he had come to peace with his death…
Zain bit his hand to try and stop it from shaking. He hadn’t been made for the frontlines. Brave Nonna, stalwart Roan, headstrong Janwye: they were all warriors and soldiers. But Zain, cowardly Zain, had always made his decisions from behind the shelter of his friends, and whenever he made an error they were the ones who suffered the consequences.
He could only hope that he bought Roan enough time with his lie. Things had become drastic indeed if a pontiff had to tell falsehoods in a house of the Ladies.
Step by tortuous step, Zain rose to his feet. He had strength enough for this.
But when he was about to walk away, he heard something behind him. Zain twitched, turning around, hand reaching for his throat again. Had they returned? Would he have to defend himself?
Silence. There was nothing.
Zain turned slowly, keeping his head down while he kept his eyes trained behind him. To any outsider, it would have looked as if he was looking at the altar, perhaps praying…
And he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Something small, fast, nimble, moving too quick to get a good look. It had emerged from behind the benches that rang the house’s outer chamber, where the layman worshippers would sit, and was making for the door when Zain turned around and shouted, “Stop!”
The something was a wild child boy, small, scruffy, dirty, and the moment he heard Zain he sprinted for the exit. Zain ran to follow, his sandals slapping on the stones, his gut already twisting from the effort and pain. Zain breathed deeply, puffing out his cheeks as he ran, and cursed the day becoming a pontiff had made a sedentary life for him.
Whoever the boy was, though, he was no Shira Hay racer. He stumbled and tripped outside, bouncing across the street, and was only just recovering when Zain pressed his foot on the boy’s back.
“Identify yourself, boy,” snarled Zain, pushing down on the struggling child. For the second time today, he appreciated the Ladies’ foresight; weight was something he could make an advantage.
Some pilgrims and passersby stopped and stared, but upon seeing the tattoos on Zain’s neck they kept walking quickly. Whatever a pontiff did became Temple business, and no one wanted to interfere with Temple business.
The boy stopped squirming, and lay flat on the ground. He mumbled something into the ground.
“Identify yourself!” Zain said, louder, his voice booming. It was his authoritative voice: the voice of the pontiff, the voice of the commander.
“Arim!” said the boy, spitting dirt out of his mouth. “My name is Arim.”
“And what were you doing sneaking around in my house, Arim?” said Zain, pressing harder. The boy said nothing, and Zain dragged him up, holding tightly onto the boy’s dirty collar. “Come, then. Perhaps your tongue will be loosened on the altar of the Ladies.”
The boy screamed, struggling for all he was worth as Zain pulled him back towards the house.
When they stepped inside, Zain threw him onto the ground, and then turned and pulled the wooden sliding doors shut behind him, letting the heavy plank fall into the lock. On the back of the doors was another carving of the Lady Winter, her wings extended, her expression stern.
The boy called Arim looked up, and quailed under Zain’s glare.
Zain looked at the boy for several seconds, and then sighed. He sat down on the supplicant’s bench and looked at the boy, leaving the door unguarded. It would still take him time to lift the bar holding it closed, but Zain wasn’t going to stop him.
“Arim, you said? That’s a slave name,” said Zain.
“A freed name,” said Arim, quickly, backing away. He sat on the ground, tense and jittery.
Zain nodded, smiling encouragingly. “I was a slave once, too, a long time ago. Being free makes all the difference in the world, doesn’t it?”
Arim’s gaze flickered to the altar at the center of the house, at the steady drip-drip-drip of water into the pool. “Are you going to sacrifice me for the Ladies now?” he asked, quietly, not looking at Zain.
“Sacrifice is only for those worthy of it,” said Zain. “It is an honor, not a punishment.” Arim looked so confused that Zain asked, “Are you truly a templechild, boy?”
“Yes,” said Arim, immediately. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I see many pilgrims, every day,” said Zain. “From many places far away. I see many more who are not pilgrims but nonetheless come from places far away. They, too, do not understand that sacrifice in the name of the Ladies is a privilege.”
The boy looked towards the door again, and licked his lips. “Are any of these people coming to see you today?”
“Not today,” said Zain. “Not on a holy day. The houses of the pontiffs are closed but for official ceremony on holy days, which is why I was wondering why you were in here…”
“It didn’t stop them,” said Arim, and then immediately he bit his lip.
Zain raised an eyebrow. “The couple? What did you want with them?”
Drip-drip-drip went the pool at the altar. The boy looked at the floor, tracing a dirty fingernail along the stone. “I knew the girl they were talking about.”
“As did I.”
“Is it true that she’s going to Jhidnu?” asked Arim, suddenly. He looked up, and his face was earnest.
Zain’s voice was even. “Do you intend on following her?”
The boy looked back down again and resumed his inspection of the floor. “No,” he muttered. “And good riddance. I just wanted to know.” His words were vindictive, but his head hung and his back slumped.
The pontiff of winter didn’t say anything. Sometimes, these people just needed the silence to open up long enough for them to talk.
He looks like me, realized Zain, with a start. Former slave, now freed, templechild. This Arim looked like Zain had before he had met Nonna, before Marion had taken him under his wing, before Roan and Janwye and the Walkers.
He looked like a coward, in need of saving.
“They really do act like real parents, don’t they?” said Arim, finally. “So concerned for her. They looked like…like they were going to tear this whole place apart for her. Like a real mother and father.”
“And how,” said Zain, slowly, “Do you know what a real mother and father are?”
Arim opened his mouth, a little surprised. He furrowed his eyebrows. “I don’t…I don’t know.” There was real confusion in his face as he stared at Zain, questioningly. “I don’t know. I just felt like…that was the way a mother and father should act.”
Zain felt the embroidered crescent moons on the cuff of his robes. They needed fresh blood in the ranks. Roan had already taken his apprentice. If Nonna were still here, she would have already taken three.
Perhaps it was Zain’s time, as well.
“You do not know, Arim, who was once a slave,” said Zain, slowly. “You remember.”
The confusion only seemed to grow. “From before the Fallow, you mean?”
“From before the Fallow ever existed. Before these,” said Zain, and he pulled the tabula out from his sleeves. He rose, and he could see Arim shrink away at once—just like he had, when Marion had first found him in that ditch on the side of the road.
“Do you have anywhere to go, Arim?” asked Zain. “Truly, honestly: do you have anyone waiting for you beside some cobbled-together wild crew? Do you have any reason to live, other than the fear of death?” Zain hadn’t. He had lived for nothing until Nonna, and when she was gone he had lived for her sacrifice.
Arim looked on the verge of saying an indignant yes, but then he looked up around him, at the hundred images of the Lady Winter, all staring sternly down at him. He closed his eyes, and shook his head no.
“Then please come with me,” said Zain, holding out his hand. “I have an offer that might interest you.”
Arim stared at his hand, but did not take it. “I don’t understand. Is this a job?”
“In a way. Not for the Temple, though.”
Still Arim did not take his hand. “Why me?”
“Why anyone?” said Zain. “I am not giving you the crown and kingdom, Arim. I am just giving you a trial. To see, perhaps, if you are ready to be part of something greater. You will not know what you are part of until it is well and truly over, and the road will be fraught with doubt…but it will give you something to live for.”
Hesitantly, Arim took Zain’s hand: the boy’s palms were cold and clammy. Zain pulled him up with a grunt, and put a steadying hand on the boy’s shoulder as he stood.
“What kind of work will I have to do?” asked Arim. “I’ve done cleaning for some pontiffs before. And a little cooking. And I’m stronger than I look, I can lift-.”
“None of that,” said Zain. “There won’t be much work in the beginning. It’s just listening to stories, mostly.”
“What kinds of stories?” asked Arim, his face splitting into the first smile Zain had seen on the child’s face.
“Stories about mothers and fathers,” said Zain. “Stories about how you can remember without knowing. Stories about who we are.”
The child fell into silence after that, contemplative if not confused.
I miss you, Nonna, thought Zain, as he led Arim past the altar, past the lonely ribbon lying across it. All this, I have done for you.
“Up here, go on,” said Zain, opening the door to the stairwell. “What story shall we start with, I wonder…?”
“Are there any stories with you in them?” asked Arim. “I want to know more about you, pontiff sir.”
Zain grinned. “Alright, then. We shall begin with a story about some very courageous people and one very cowardly one. It starts with an elderly marbleman named Marion, and how he found a fieldgirl named Janwye with a temper like you’ve never seen, and a crooked sandchild who called himself Rho Hat Pan, and an icegirl named Nonna who was as kind as the Lady Winter herself…”
The largest city in the largest nation in Albumere screamed for blood. As if thunder and lightning had struck the Libraries, now the riots spread like wildfire from all sides of the Gammon, and just like wildfire in the plains, everything that lived sprinted to escape the heat.
Chaff hauled Lookout up with him onto the big guy, who reared to avoid the screaming, charging crowd racing after the fleeing fieldmen caravan. “Where now?” yelled Chaff.
“Rendezvous with the rest of the crew!” shouted Lookout. “We can come up with a plan once we’ve consolidated our forces!”
“Ran-day what the what?”
“Just find them,” snarled Lookout, kicking at an urchin who had gotten a little too close for comfort. The scrawny urchin made a face at them and slipped into the crowd.
“Come on, big guy, let’s get out of here,” said Chaff, and the camelopard leaped forward. He moved with the path of least resistance, striding over the heads of many of the plainsmen running forward. “You got to give me directions, Lookout!”
“Give me a second, Sinndi can only fly so fast,” snapped Lookout, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. Chaff cast his eyes upward, looking for Lookout’s owlcrow, but the bird had already flown so far it was only a speck in the night sky.
“Keep moving forward,” said Lookout. “The caravan’s been caught! We—other plainsmen, I mean—are tearing them down, but they’ve made this sort of defensive barricade out of…” She paused. “Out of the slaves.”
The slaves of the fieldmen meant Veer. Veer was fighting in the frontlines against the bloodthirsty, violent, and generally pissed off mobs of Shira Hay. They might not have her tabula yet, but that didn’t stop them from shoving the girl in front of them as a human shield. “Remember how I said we had one last race today, big guy?” said Chaff. “I lied. We got to move fast now! Come on!”
“For once in my life,” said Lookout, burying her head in her hands. “I wish I could have one hour where I’m not in crisis management mode. Just one.”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, holding his tabula with one hand to make sure they didn’t slip. “Yeah, I know the feeling.”
The streets were so clogged with people that Chaff was forced to turn back. The big guy snorted and gave a questioning glare to Chaff, pacing around the edge of the roaring crowd. “I know, big guy, I know,” said Chaff, so soft that he doubted the camelopard could hear him. “Got to find some way through, yeah? Can’t just run through, no.”
“I see Bull,” said Lookout. “He’s trying to get out of the way of the mob. I don’t know if he’s seen the caravan, yet, and I can’t find Hurricane or Tattle.”
“Can you tell if he’s angry?” asked Chaff.
Lookout blanched. “How the hell could I tell that?”
“Look at his face!”
“OK, why would I need to know that?”
“’Cause, depending on the answer, I go see him or no,” said Chaff.
The girl rolled her shoulders, and closed her hands around the tabula. “Let me see, let me see…” she said, and far out over the clay buildings Chaff could see a dark blur dive from the sky. “Well, he definitely looks surprised now. That’s it, Bull, come on, come on, come this way.”
Chaff pulled on the big guy’s mane. “Where now?”
“Shit, give me a second,” said Lookout, pinching her nose. “Left. I’ll give you more directions as we go. Bull, where the hell are you going?”
As the big guy turned to go, something shattered in the street. Had the duarchs planned to throw the city into such chaos with such a violent and unexpected move? Chaff shook his head. It was politics, all politics. He would never be able to understand it.
In the back alleys, along the smaller, weed-ridden roads, there were significantly less people. All the slum-dwellers had left to see what the fuss was about. Lookout occasionally gave Chaff a direction to go as they rode, but for the most part the boy tuned her out as she continued to mutter to herself.
An incongruous thought floated across Chaff’s head. He was hungry. Come to think, the big guy was probably hungry, too. Hadn’t they just eaten lunch a couple hours ago? The fact that they had eaten a meal today was not something to be taken lightly, but no matter how grateful Chaff felt he couldn’t shake the gnawing feeling in his gut. There would have been food in those wagons, Alswell grains and fruits…
Chaff squeezed the big guy’s sides, egging him on a little faster. If he was hungry, the rest of Shira Hay was too. One little Alswell slave girl wouldn’t stand in their way.
“Here, here, here,” said Lookout, gesturing to the right. A screech overhead confirmed that Lookout’s owlcrow had arrived as well, and a bedraggled Bull was waiting for them in the small plaza.
Chaff’s heart caught in his throat when he saw Bull sitting on the edge of the dry fountain. He recognized the statue behind him. Three years later, Fra Henn’s stone features had not changed, her outstretched arm as implacable as ever. Lookout’s owlcrow sat on its shoulder, preening her feathers, and for some reason it seemed almost sacrilegious.
“Where the hell are Hurricane and Tattle?” shouted Lookout, sliding off of the big guy’s back. “Bull, what happened?”
The tanned boy turned his head away and refused to look. There was a thin red line running down his cheek, and despite how still he sat his chest was heaving.
“That bad?” said Lookout, hesitantly. “If they’re dead-.”
“Sick of you people.” Bull snorted, nostrils flaring, eyes wide. “Sick of all this. You crazy? You want to get yourself killed? Fine. Leave me out of it.” He stood and walked around the fountain, running his hands over his head.
“He looked angry,” muttered Chaff, edging the big guy closer to Lookout.
“He looked scared,” said Lookout, shaking her head. “And that’s worse. Come on, Chaff, let’s go. Let him be. We’re not getting any more out of him.”
“Just a little more, big guy,” said Chaff, soothingly, as Lookout mounted him once again. “Just a little more, I promise.”
“Come on, Chaff, let’s go. That way,” said Lookout, as the familiar buzz of the tabula picked up again and the owlcrow took off into the sky.
The big guy stepped back a little as Lookout pointed to a street with a tattered red flag flapping over the entrance. “Not that way, yeah?” said Chaff, slowly. “We don’t like going that way.”
“Why, do you know this place?”
Chaff coughed, and didn’t answer. “Let’s go another way, Lookout.”
To her credit, the girl wasted no time on prying. “Alright, sharp right then.”
Nodding gratefully, Chaff turned the big guy’s head and pressed him on. They passed Bull as they walked, and Chaff could not help but notice the haunted, tired look on Bull’s face. Chaff bit his lip. They didn’t have the time. He shouldn’t.
“Hey, Bull,” said Chaff. The other urchin looked up, the ring on his lip glinting in the emerging starlight. “It’s going to be okay, yeah?”
Bull looked slightly taken aback, and then said, slowly, “No, new kid. No, it won’t.”
Chaff bowed his head and whispered into the big guy’s ear for him to keep running. They didn’t have the time. At least this way he could say he tried.
The night clung to the cobblestones, and echoed with the shouts and chants of the nomads of Shira Hay working themselves into a frenzy. They rode past a bar where Hadiss liked to drink, and Chaff saw a man in fieldman garb being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the street. He didn’t even look like he was associated with the emissaries, but a fever had gripped the normally placid plainspeople.
A building blocked Chaff’s view as the big guy ran on, and he looked away and shivered. He hated the night.
As the murky gloom grew deeper, the big guy began to slow. “We’re not there yet,” hissed Lookout. “We need to go farther.”
“Big guy can’t see anything,” said Chaff. “And he tired, yeah?”
The big guy snorted in agreement, head drooping.
“Owl eyes,” said Lookout, tapping her tabula. “Trust me, Chaff.”
Chaff flinched. He didn’t like when people used that word. He egged the big guy on forward, though, all the same. It was for Veer, he reminded himself. They had to save Veer.
The looming question of how still lingered in his mind.
The next alleys did something strange to the sound. The roar of the city faded to a dull buzz, and the silence gnawed at the edges of Chaff’s patience like some locustbeast. He gripped the big guy’s mane so tight his knuckles were white. He was so tired, so tired, so very tired…
Chaff felt it in his chest a second before the big guy collapsed onto the ground, a twinge that seemed to shake his very essence. The camelopard had come to the end of his endurance; there was simply nothing left in him to keep moving.
The landing was painful, but numbed by the fact that Chaff was at this point too tired to feel anything. He didn’t move from his place on the ground, while Lookout rolled over and groaned beside him. The big guy’s gargantuan form blocked out the weak starlight, and lay slumped across the entire alley.
The owlcrow landed beside them momentarily, ruffling its wings and squawking. The dull throb of Shira Hay screaming seemed almost unreal now, distant.
“I can’t move, Chaff,” mumbled Lookout.
With a pained grunt, Chaff put his hands under his chest and pushed. One step at a time. He paused, and then slid his knees under him, going from lying to kneeling. He closed his eyes, letting his vision swim back into place. “Did you break something?”
“I don’t know.” Lookout raised her head, but then fell back down. “It doesn’t hurt, but my legs won’t move.”
Chaff crawled to her side, hands hovering over her leg. A bloody gash had been torn into it, a flap of skin dangling open above the knee, raw red and white. Chaff closed his eyes, and for a moment at least was glad for the gloom.
A jagged corner of brick glimmered beside him, a red streak on its jagged edge. With so much rubble in the city, it was bound to happen eventually. But, for it to happen to Lookout, who saw and heard everything…
Chaff felt his skin crawl, and tried to block out the voices of doubt and fear growing louder around him.
Hesitantly, he put his hands over Lookout’s knee and pressed. She winced, but said nothing as he applied pressure to the wound, his own hands growing sticky and slick.
“You OK, big guy?” he asked, as he began to unwind the bandages from around his hands and wrap them around Lookout’s knee. That was what they were for, after all, although it was usually for the Kennya Noni fighter who had missed his roof jump and had fallen to the ground, not for a fall from a mount.
The big guy flicked his tail and snorted, although he did not get up. He was at least well enough to sound indignant.
Chaff tied the cloth around Lookout’s leg as tightly as he could, and rose. He had to lean on the alley wall as the blood rushed to his head, and stood like that for a few seconds, winded from just standing up.
“Look at us,” said Lookout, bitterly, pushing herself up into a more comfortable position. She looked to the side, slumped against the wall. “Who’s going to be saving anyone, the way we are?”
Chaff didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure how to.
“I look for help, yeah?” he muttered, and he began to stagger away. Lookout made no move to stop him. She didn’t say anything either.
The boy rubbed the big guy’s neck. “You watch out for her, yeah?”
The big guy gave him a lazy glare, and seemed to nod almost imperceptibly. At least, Chaff hoped he had nodded. It was hard to tell in the night.
The camelopard’s prone body blocked the path out, and he didn’t look like he was moving anytime soon. Chaff walked out back, the way they had come, away from the sound of the mob in the street. He wondered what gruesome spectacle they were preparing now, to stoke up passions even further.
As Chaff left the alley behind him, he looked down. He wasn’t leaving the mob behind. The mob was all around him. There was no escaping it.
He jumped when he heard the patter of feet in front of him. He readied himself, shifting into the fighter’s stance, and looking up saw a man approaching with the red scarf of the electors billowing behind him. For a moment, Chaff saw the electors on the bridge again, leaping out, pulling iron death from beneath their cloaks, hidden strength in such unassuming bodies…
“Young master! Young master, are you alright?”
“Hadiss?” asked Chaff, incredulously. He blinked. He had not seen the man’s face in the dark, but upon hearing his voice he immediately recognized the silhouette. “Hadiss, how-?”
“You are an easy boy to find, young master,” said Hadiss, breathlessly. “Or, rather, your bestial friend is. I saw him in the assembly at the bridge and feared you had been caught in the violence.”
“Hadiss, aren’t you- aren’t you…” stuttered Chaff. “Aren’t you supposed to be fighting them?”
“Ex-elector, young master, ex. If the duarchs no longer want me, then their decisions can no longer bind me, either.” Hadiss gripped Chaff’s hands and shook them firmly. “It’s good to see that you are alright. I was worried that…” He stopped suddenly and trailed off.
Chaff suddenly became aware of the blood on his hands. “A friend,” he said, quickly. “A friend of mine has been injured. Quickly, Hadiss, she needs help.”
“Another one of your friends, another one of your problems,” mused Hadiss, but he followed as Chaff led him back towards the alley. “And the endless cycle thus repeats, does it not, young master?”
Chaff didn’t honor Hadiss’s philosophy with an answer. He didn’t have time for it.
“Lookout! Lookout, I found an elector,” said Chaff, running back to her side. The big guy stirred as Hadiss approached, but Lookout did not. “He’s going to help you out. Hadiss, can you help her out?”
With a grunt, Hadiss bent and picked her up. Lookout’s eyes had closed. She did not move as Hadiss carried her away. “I’ll get her to a sick bay, but then I have my own people I have to watch out for. Chaff, I came to tell you-.”
“Can’t you fix her?” asked Chaff, desperately.
“I am a scholar, not a doctor,” said Hadiss. His voice was not unkind, but it brooked no argument.
Chaff bit his lip and nodded. He whistled for the big guy. “Come on, big guy. No carrying anyone no more. Just walking. Come on.” The camelopard struggled to his feet and began a slow, fatigued limp to Chaff’s side. The owlcrow screeched and flapped its wings to catch up with them, circling overhead like the Lady Winter’s omen of death.
As always with Hadiss, questions bubbled to Chaff’s head as they walked, but he did not know which ones to ask. He settled for the first one that came to mind. “Did you know?”
The ex-elector paused. He shifted Lookout in his arms, and looked down uncomfortably. “I had heard rumors. Some of my acquaintances still with the Libraries tried to convince me to join. Got me nice and drunk before asking, but all the same I refused.”
Hadiss turned from side to side, as if afraid someone was eavesdropping on him, and then said, quietly, “This war will not end soon, young master. The duarchs and the electors are short-sighted. They think only of the plunder to be won now and not the months if not years of bloodshed waiting beyond that.”
“How do you know?” asked Chaff, in hushed tones as well, even if he did not know why.
“Because it has already happened. The War of Whispers, the War of Broken Chains. And the endless cycle thus repeats, does it not?”
Chaff was quiet. Hadiss seemed to be leading him farther and farther from the city center, and the boy realized with a pang that every step he took was leading him farther and farther away from saving Veer. He would go back, he told himself. Once Lookout was safe. Once he was ready. He would go back.
Was it even worth it, for all the good it would do?
“I fear for Shira Hay,” said Hadiss, as they approached the outskirts of the city. It was deserted now, all the doors and windows shut, all the gawkers and gapers already gone to see the…festivities. “I fear for us all. War is coming, young master, and all of Albumere will be consumed in the coming fire.”
“So what do we do?” asked Chaff.
“I do not know what you will do,” said Hadiss. “But I will find the people I call friend and speak to them at least once, before it is too late. I will go where I must, and prevent what harm I can. I will survive, Chaff, as I always have.”
The boy nodded, slowly. As plans went, it was one of the better ones. “That what you doing then, yeah?” asked Chaff. “Talking to me…before it too late?”
Hadiss shifted the girl in his arms and sniffed. “Yes, young master. Before it’s too late, for either of us.”
And as they kept walking, Chaff felt very cold.
“Where we going, Hadiss?” asked Chaff, hugging his shoulders. The shadow of the big guy dipped and rose around him, as they passed buildings lit by sparse firelight.
“An encampment on the outskirts of the city.” Hadiss twitched, looking over his shoulder, which made Chaff twist and look, too. After a moment, Hadiss turned around and kept walking, his pace casual. “I am not alone among those who wish Shira Hay would not join this war, but even among them tempers flare high. Your friend can rest and recuperate there, but then I must leave.”
Chaff did not speak for several seconds. Then, he said, softly, “Like you leave me?”
The burly man sighed. He did not stop walking, or in fact pause to look at Chaff at all. “I have made no pretense, young master. I must keep myself distant. There are others I must guard, others who are, I’m sorry to say, more important to me than you.”
“Like who?” blurted Chaff, and he bit his tongue. “Sorry, if you don’t want to answer-.”
“No, it’s fine,” said Hadiss. “I have a wife. Married six years, back when I was still a full elector. We have lived in the east quarters for quite some time now, making a living where we can. She is a knowledge keeper at the Libraries, and information is something that can be sold easily enough.”
“You living with a woman?” asked Chaff, incredulous. “Hadiss, I never know!”
Hadiss shrugged. “I tell few. It is something that is too easy for those who wish me harm to exploit.” He paused. “We…we had a daughter. The Fallow took her three months ago.”
Chaff looked down. He didn’t know what to say to that.
“Three months, one week, and four days ago, to be precise,” said Hadiss, and his voice was hoarse. “It’s easy to see why so many eschew marriage in Shira Hay, after that, but she is and remains that best thing that has ever happened to me.”
Their footfalls formed a synchronized beat on the street. A man’s boots, a child’s bare feet, a beast’s hooves.
“You know,” said Hadiss, and his voice lifted slightly. “That Shira Hay is unique among the many nations of the world in its lack of formal marriage traditions?”
“Really?” said Chaff, feigning interest. Hadiss seemed to be happier when he talked.
“Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes. In Da’atoa, the couple must be humu akani, sea-forged: they must spend three days at sea, alone, for the bonds to be true. They say the fiercer the storms are on those days, the greater their love is. In Jhidnu, the marriage rites are completed by exchanging tabula, a sign of complete and total trust, and in Moscoleon, they must be overseen by one of the many pontiffs. Even in Alswell, they have elaborate courtship rituals, where the man must prove himself both chivalrous and gentlemanly while the woman is chaste and virtuous. Remember, Chaff, that even though we call them enemy, they are still people like us. We must empathize…” Hadiss stopped talking. He looked at Chaff. He sighed. “You don’t know what marriage is, do you?”
Chaff shook his head. “Is it like slavery?”
Hadiss barked a laugh. “Like slavery,” he said, chuckling so hard that Chaff feared he might drop Lookout. “Yes, for some it is, oh, yes.”
Despite himself, Chaff laughed, too. He kept on laughing, until suddenly tears were in his eyes and Hadiss was practically guffawing. Even the big guy joined in, a few deep, wheezing grunts.
“I think I shall add that to my plan for the future,” said Hadiss, lifting his spectacles and wiping his eyes delicately. “Laugh a little. At ignorance, at cruelty, at pain. It is the only way, I think, to defy this world and its malignities, no?”
Chaff smiled. “It feels good, yeah?”
“It feels good! Most eloquently put, young master,” said Hadiss. The last huddle of clay buildings they left behind them, and Chaff stepped out off the street and onto the grass. He wriggled his toes in the grass, and for the first time in a long time it felt like home.
Chaff looked out at the outskirts of Shira Hay, at the vast rows of tents and colorful banners splayed like a rain festival circus in front of him, at the scrubs whose shadows seemed to dance in the light of the campfires, at the nomads with honest faces and simple garb. He looked out, and he remembered a promise a long time ago for a tour of this place.
He closed his eyes and sighed. This was as good as he was going to get.
Beside him, Hadiss sighed. He stood, staring at the tents too, and his eyes seemed a little moist from more than just laughter. “I will miss this place. And you, young master. As much as I speak of distance and priorities, I will miss you.”
Chaff cocked his head. “Why? Hadiss, what’re you doing?”
“With this war, Shira Hay is not safe for me, or for my wife. I am leaving, and I think I will not be returning for quite some time. I told you, young master, I will do what I have always done.” Hadiss looked at him, his eyes glinting. “I will survive.”
Behind them, the light of the bonfires in the city still flickered. Chaff wondered how many of the fieldmen had survived the massacre that had just happened, and how many would survive the massacre to come.
“In…in more cultured circles of Shira Hay, there is a tradition. A departure gift, given in the name of the Lady Winter and Fall.” Hadiss set Lookout down gently, and reached into his robes to pull out a thick, leather-bound book. He pressed it into Chaff’s hands, gently, and Chaff’s jaw dropped. He had only ever seen the things in the hands of the electors, mystical items of power that whispered and rustled whenever the wind blew.
“What happens is…oh, how do I explain?” Hadiss pursed his lips. “It is a promise. I give something to you, and you give something to me, and we promise to meet each other again to give our gifts back.”
“I don’t have nothing to give, Hadiss,” said Chaff, shaking his head. He licked his lips. He wanted to keep the book, but…
Slowly, he unwrapped the remaining bandages around his other wrist, and proffered them to Hadiss, a little sheepishly. He had never been much of a Kennya Noni fighter, anyway.
Hadiss took them, grinning. “A fine gift, young master. I will remember you whenever I use it.”
His hand drifted to the red scarf around his neck, and he closed his eyes and sighed. “I suppose…I suppose it will be a boon to have a flexible ethnicity in the days to come.” With a sharp tug, he pulled it off, and the scarf lay limp in his hands, its rich golden threads glimmering. Hadiss walked up to the big guy and draped the scarf around his long neck. “You always did fancy the thing, master jarraf. My departure gift to you.”
The big guy rumbled, his face a look of extreme consternation, and a moment later something wet splattered onto the ground.
Hadiss started to laugh so loud that some of the nomads looked up in suspicion. “I suppose I did ask for a sample,” said the ex-elector, and Chaff turned in a hurry to see a fetid pile of camelopard dung steaming on the grass. “But to think you had the memory to keep that in mind all these years! Oh, by the Ladies Four—young master, you must take good care of this one, he is a unique specimen indeed.”
Chaff met the big guy’s eyes and grinned, and the big guy just looked up, a little smug.
“You may keep the thing itself, although its spirit goes with me, master jarraf,” said Hadiss, shaking his head. He bent down to pick up Lookout again, and when he rose, but for his spectacles, he looked like any other dirt-worn, weary traveler. “Come, come, come. I shall get her to the common grounds and then I shall be taking my leave.”
Chaff followed, as he flipped through the book. He did not know his letters, and most of it was a cramped, incomprehensible scrawl, but the pictures stood out in particular. Beasts even stranger than the big guy, oddly shaped weapons in all sizes, foreign and exotic clothes. Chaff squinted, trying to make out the ink sketch in the dim light.
And, suddenly, everything seemed to go silent.
“Hadiss! What is this?” he asked, nearly tripping over his own feet as he ran to show Hadiss the picture.
The ex-elector stumbled, Lookout jostling precariously in his arms, and he blinked rapidly. Peering through his spectacles at the picture, he said, slowly, “That? Well, it’s a coza. People in Moscoleon wear it. It’s-.”
“Where is Moscoleon? Where can I find it?”
Hadiss looked like he was about to laugh again, but Chaff’s face, despite its eagerness, was also dead serious. “Moscoleon?” said the big man. “Well, it’s hard to miss, it’s a very big place. Out east, past the Seat of the King, past Kazakhal, past Hak Mat Do.”
East. Chaff closed his eyes, muttering under his breath, trying to put the names into his leaky memory. Moscoleon, out east, past the Seat of the King, past Kazakhal, past Hak Mat Do…
“If you want to go east,” said Hadiss, hesitantly. “Go by day. Follow the sun, not the treacherous stars. Once you have made it out of the great grasslands, there will be others to show you the path. Indeed, many will walk it with you.”
Chaff was still muttering the names under his breath. Moscoleon, out east, past the Seat of the King, past Kazakhal, past Hak Mat Do…
“OK,” said Chaff, after a moment. “Just…curious.”
Hadiss nodded, although Chaff could see the questions forming on his lips. Ultimately, the ex-elector did not ask any of them.
They walked on, talking sometimes, mostly silent. Chaff’s mind was buzzing.
He had seen her wearing it. What had Hadiss called it? The coza. He had seen her with it! He knew where to find her!
Lookout dangled in Hadiss’s arms, the bandages around her knee soaked red. Would he abandon her? Would he have to?
No, Lookout was…useful. She would see. She would help.
But the others?
Chaff rubbed the big guy’s side for comfort, and then traced his thumb on her tabula to soothe his nerves. He would have to. It was the only way.
Like Hadiss, he had to keep himself distant. He closed his eyes and whispered an apology to Veer, to Hurricane and Tattle, to everyone. This was the way it had to be. Chaff would do anything, give up anything to find her.
As she splashed water over her face and forearms, clarity rung in Jova’s head like a clarion bell. The cold shock brought sudden vitality back to her limbs, and she scrubbed her hands vigorously in the trough. She could hear pacing beside her, and the fevered muttering of the woman Janwye as she recited her address to the Holy Keep.
Jova hung her head, letting the water drip down her fingers and back into the trough. She pursed her lips, considering speaking up to ask Janwye if she had cleaned her hands thoroughly enough, but the thought of the woman’s reaction if she was interrupted made Jova hesitate. She wished Roan would return with the supplies soon. Waiting in the stables with the fieldwoman was doing nothing for her nerves, and even blind Jova could tell Janwye possessed a short temper.
Instead, Jova listened. It was hifalutin rhetoric, one that Ma would have scoffed at and Da would have pretended to understand, but Jova listened all the same. It was interesting.
“I beseech you, Holy Keep Tlai,” said Janwye. “When Kazakhal soldiers massacred towermen and sandmen on the Day of Burning Tower, Keep Izec sent his zealots into the dark marshes. When the Seat of Winter sheltered traitors in the War of Whispers, Keep Hron turned the tide in the siege when the zealots marched north. When the Wilder clans threatened joined the Restoration Rebellion, Keep Kago rallied the-.”
“Don’t mention Kago,” blurted Jova, and she bit her tongue.
There was a scoff, and Janwye said, “Why not?”
Jova searched for the words, but she felt ineloquent. Her hands still dripped into the trough, and she busied herself washing her arms again.
“You don’t have to wash anymore, the blood is gone. You’re clean,” said Janwye, and Jova had no real choice but to stop after that. “Do you bear me ill will, girl?” There was no pause between her sentences. She seemed to say the words as soon as they came to her, quite unlike thoughtful Roan.
“No, I don’t,” stuttered Jova, immediately. “I just…you shouldn’t mention Kago, is all.”
“He was one of the most successful Keeps in history,” said Janwye, and she sounded more confused than angry. “He might not have won against the Wilder during the War of Broken Chains, but it was a noble effort, no?”
“He’s controversial,” said Jova, quietly.
“What? You’re mumbling.”
“He’s controversial,” repeated Jova, clearing her throat. “He was a foreigner and didn’t seem to show any faith to the Ladies. He developed Moscoleon, but most of those developments were secular. It might be a bad idea to bring him up, is all.”
Janwye did not hesitate to ask, even if her tone was questioning. “What is Secular?”
Wiping her hands on her coza, Jova tried to remember how Roan had explained it to her. “The Moscoleon part of Temple Moscoleon,” she said. “Not the Temple part.”
“I do not understand,” said Janwye. “Are not the Temple and Moscoleon one and the same?”
“Well, the- the Keep has two responsibilities,” stuttered Jova, trying to explain herself around Janwye’s rapid questions. “One divine and one mortal. That’s what secular is. Everything to do with mortal men.”
“Ah. Like the Dream Walkers, then?”
Jova furrowed her eyebrows. “What?”
“Nothing,” said Janwye, too fast to not be a lie. “A slip of the tongue. So you think I should not mention Kago in my address at all?”
Jova shook her head. “Tlai and Hron are good, though.” She paused, and smiled. “They won, after all.”
“Thank you, child,” Janwye said, and Jova dared a wider smile. Janwye’s fieldwoman accent made Jova feel lofty and noble. “Roan versed his stable hand well. I would have thought he was training you to be one of us, but…alas. Lady Winter and Fall know what’s going on in that man’s head.”
“So I’m not the only one who can never tell what he wants, then?” asked Jova, smiling, not addressing Janwye’s one of us comment, although she kept it in the back of her head. Who exactly was “us”?
Janwye laughed, and it was light, melodic, kind. “Oh, Ladies, no. No one could crack Rho Hat Pan, not even our teacher. Tell him his spear form was superb and he’d do nothing but mope all day, but if the stew was just passable the night he cooked it he would never stop bragging about it.”
The fieldwoman’s laughter became a little rueful, a little sad. “Back when we all rode together, he’d talk from sunrise to sunset, on and on and on. He…he changed after his accident, though. Came back with Zain to this place, never left.”
Jova wanted to press Janwye to continue, but she had fallen silent and the girl did not know how to ask further.
Janwye cleared her throat. “I formally apologize, child. Earlier, I was abrasive and rude to you when you were hurt and struggling, and for that I ask your forgiveness. You…I see why Roan would care so much about you.”
“Oh—well, thank you—but there’s no need to apologize,” said Jova, quickly, but she felt a hand press against her palm and Janwye kiss her fingers lightly.
“As a lady of Alswell to a lady of Moscoleon,” said Janwye. “Things have improved. I see clearly now.” She let go of Jova’s hand and said, as she straightened, “I don’t think I ever actually introduced myself. Janwye, who speaks for Bechde, whose liege is the farmer Greeve.”
“I’m Jova. It’s nice to meet you, Janw…Janiweyay…”
“Just call me Janny,” said the fieldwoman, and she ruffled Jova’s hair.
Jova nodded. She twiddled her thumbs together, and then scratched her chest. “Er, Janny…”
“You’ll be staying in the city tonight to talk to the Keep, yes? Do you think I could…do you think I could stay with you for a bit? So I can say goodbye to my…to my friends?” At the thought of Ma and Da, Jova’s chest clenched. She hung her head, her fingers drumming against her sides. When would they come back?
“That’s not my decision to make,” said Janwye, rapidly. “Roan and Zain will have to decide whether it’s safe for you to stay the night.”
Jova must have looked very disappointed, because immediately Janwye said, “Don’t worry, Jova. It’s hard to leave your friends behind, I know, but you’ll see them again soon. This is just temporary. Zain will tell them where you’ve gone, and when you come back you’ll have all sorts of stories to tell them.”
Jova sat on the ground, nodding. It seemed Roan would not be coming back for some time yet. “You’re very nice, for a stranger, Janny.”
Janwye sat next to her, and chuckled. “I know quite a few people who’d have issue with that statement, clever little girl.” The fieldwoman groaned, suddenly, tapping her foot on the stable floor. “Where is he? I have to prepare for the address tonight…”
“I’m- I’m sorry if I interrupted you,” said Jova, quickly. “You can still-.”
The fieldwoman patted Jova’s shoulder dismissively. “I wouldn’t be able to concentrate anyways. I just wish Roan wouldn’t take so long doing everything. By the Ladies!” She began tapping her foot again, and barely three seconds had passed when she sat up straight and said, “Oh! Want to see something fun, Jova?”
“Well, I can’t actually s- I mean, I…alright.”
There was the sound of cloth shifting, Janwye rummaging, and then the fieldwoman was pressing something into Jova’s hand. “Hold it like that,” she said, wrapped Jova’s fingers around a little wooden box, made of something soft and bendy like balsa. “Not too tight, you don’t want to crush it. Feel the buzzing?”
Jova could feel more than that. There was the steady tap-tap-tap of something crawling inside, and as she turned it over in her hand she felt tiny holes in the side of the box.
“There’s a spring beetle in there,” said Janwye. “I have another one just like it. Feel the holes? Those are for breathing, and sometimes I slip seeds in for feeding. The box is very fragile, so if you hold it too tight it’ll crush the beetle inside.”
It seemed a nice pet to keep, Jova thought, if not an extraordinarily practical one. She supposed even people like Janwye needed their own hobbies.
Something else slipped in her hand, and to Jova’s immense surprise she realized it was a tiny tabula. “Is this for the beetle?” she asked, feeling the disk’s surface in-between her thumb and forefinger.
“It’s for a beetle,” said Janwye. “There are four more boxes just like this, two each for two more friends. If we ever get in trouble, we just crush the box and the tabula is going to shatter when the beetle dies. That way we can always tell whether we’re safe or not. Feel this one? It’s for my friend who rode to Mont Don. It’s whole, which means she’s fine. I have another tabula right here for my friend who’s talking in Shira Hay. So even if they’re whole continents away, I still know they’re safe.”
Jova nodded. Gently, she handed the tabula and the beetle back to Janwye. “Do you think Zain could give my friends one of those beetle boxes?”
“They’re not exactly easy to make,” said Janwye, laughing. “But who knows? Maybe the Ladies will send a ladybird to tell your friends how you’re doing instead.”
It was nice, sitting with Janwye, just talking. Jova could almost forget everything that was happening outside, all the danger that the city of Moscoleon now carried for her. Roan’s stables were nice and quiet, except for the comfortably familiar sounds of the three beasts who were, at this point, Jova’s old (and only other) friends.
Jova scraped her foot on the ground. There had, of course, been Arim, but he had left her. She had talked with Arim’s wild gang once or twice, but once she had learned that Roan’s old enemies had been part of that gang she quickly began to avoid them. She had kept a cordial distance ever since, from everyone, except the people who had already gained her trust…
“What are your friends like, Janny?” asked Jova.
Jova heard Janwye begin to talk, but she was cut off by rapid hoof beats approaching. “Here comes the cavalry,” she muttered, and she stood. Jova followed suit.
“Janwye! Jova! I have the supplies,” said Roan. “Prepare your mounts, we must be moving quickly. Zealots have already gathered around Copo’s house. They are…we must be moving quickly.” He paused. “What were you two doing on the floor?”
“Sitting, Rho Hat Pan,” said Janwye, as she walked away. “Can’t people sit in this place?”
“There are benches just a few paces away, within eyesight,” said Roan, reproachfully. “The floor is being dirty…”
“I sit where I please, tyrant!” shouted Janwye, as she left the stables to get her mount. Jova smiled. Now that her audience with the Keep had been secured, the fieldwoman seemed much more jovial.
Roan clicked his tongue as he drew near, and Jova found his hand after a moment of waving hers in the air. He pulled her up, and Jova found herself wheeling her arms, unbalanced without a walking stick to lean on.
“Are you needing help?” asked Roan, the concern evident in his voice.
“No, no, I’m fine,” said Jova, steadying herself.
“Find Uten, then. Yora has already been prepared, and Chek is carrying the supplies.” His tone was brisk and straightforward, all business again.
Jova nodded. She began to shuffle towards the stables, and then paused and bit her lip. “Is Ell back, Roan?”
“He…” Roan paused. “The truth is that he has returned, but you may not. It is too dangerous to waste time, especially around a known residence of yours. Zain would be under too much pressure. We cannot risk it.”
“Can Ell come with us, then?”
“That is up to Zain to decide,” said Roan, quietly. “Go and find Uten, Jova. We must be going soon.”
“Why are you so urgent?” asked Jova, and she stood her ground. “Roan, you can tell me. What did I do?” And she waited, trusting Roan to speak the truth.
He chose not to speak at all.
Jova drew herself up. “I’m not leaving then, Roan. I’m not going to walk away from everything I have until you tell me what’s going on!”
The autumn wind swirled around them, and Jova found herself shivering in the cold. She stood tall and straight, unmoving, nonetheless. “You have changed,” said Roan. His tone was even. Jova could not tell if he approved or disapproved. “You have grown defiant, Jova.”
“I would never have left the house of that pontiff if I hadn’t.”
Roan took a deep breath. “Jova, I formally apologize for-.”
“No! No, apologies this time, Roan!” shouted Jova, and she stamped her foot on the ground. The worry and doubt was beginning to morph into anger and frustration. “You keep apologizing and apologizing but you don’t do anything about it. You don’t let me do anything about it!”
There was no answer. Just like the Ladies, just like the whole world, Roan did not answer.
“My childhood was running,” said Jova. “Ever since I was a kid, I can’t remember anything but running. I finally made it to this city, I made a life here, I made friends, and now you’re telling me I have to leave that behind?”
Silence, nothing but silence.
Jova stumbled forward, stumbled into the dark, grasping for Roan. “I have a family here, Roan!” she screamed. “I deserve to at least say goodbye!”
“No one has a family on Albumere, Jova,” said Roan, quietly. “That is why you must run.”
The girl stopped, breathing heavily. She bit her tongue.
“It is not what you have done that is an issue, Jova,” said Roan. “It is the attention that it will bring. People will be looking much closer at you, and they will be finding many things worth questioning. Do you understand? You are unique and your loss cannot be afforded. If a second would risk you, then a second shall not be given.”
Roan put a hand on Jova’s shoulder, and steered her gently towards Uten’s stable. “What do you need me for?” asked the girl, standing firm, refusing to budge.
“Not just I. People like Zain and Janwye. People we are associated with.” Roan sighed. “This is what I wish to apologize for, Jova. For the unseen influence I have had in your life. For the pushing and pulling. For the path I set you on ever since you first came to Moscoleon. I am as culpable as you for what has happened, if not more.”
Roan clicked his tongue, and the scrape of paws on the ground indicated Uten shuffling forward. Jova put a hand on the molebison’s side, but did not mount her just yet.
“You say you want more than an apology, Jova? Then it shall be so.” Roan pressed something into Jova’s palm, a hard wooden object. Jova scraped her thumb over it; it fit between her fingers, like Janwye’s wooden box, but it was flat and circular. “An emblem of my brotherhood. It depicts a crescent moon.”
“What does it mean?” asked Jova, brow furrowed.
“We are the unseen influence. We are the push and the pull. You say you want the ability to do? To no longer run? Come with me. We will give you that power. I cannot promise you will return unchanged, but you will return.” Roan took the badge gently back from Jova’s palm. “It is time to go now, Jova. Let the dead rest.”
Jova nodded, sullenly, feeling a yawning pit opening in her chest. Despite everything Roan had said, all she heard was that she would not get to say goodbye.
“Repeat it, Jova. Say it with me. Let the dead rest.”
“Let the dead rest,” whispered Jova. She heard Roan grunt, felt his hands under her shoulders, and she was lifted bodily onto Uten’s back. She closed her eyes, and patted Uten’s back. Roan said she would return. Roan did not lie.
“Chek! Yora!” Roan snapped. “Ha a ei! Mat ye kan!” The fall mule’s snorts and the staghound’s panting were close behind them. “Janwye, the supplies are ready. We are leaving, now.”
A clip-clop of hooves accompanied them, as the procession made its way out of Roan’s stables. Jova tightened her grip on the saddle on Uten’s back, listening to the twitter of the ladybirds and the whistle of the wind fade away. It was as much of a goodbye as she had.
“We’re moving slow, Roan,” she said, quietly.
“So as not to draw attention. Once we leave the city limits, Janwye will lead the rest of the way.” Roan said nothing more after that.
Uten’s plodding lead Jova to trail behind Roan, walking through the empty streets of Moscoleon. She head the footsteps of the occasional passersby, but, imagining what they looked like, Jova realized how they could be mistaken as just traveling pilgrims, nothing more. It was so easy to uproot and move on.
Jova bit her lip, trying to keep her face still and impassive. A pilgrim would have no reason to look so sad.
She reached back and felt the braid of her hair, and a tingle rushed through her hands. She would have to ask Roan what it looked like. She had to remember how to do it again, for later.
Jova dabbed her blindfold. It had become dirty and stained in the last few days; she would need a fresh one soon. Da would not be there to get one for her. It was true that she had drifted away from her parents lately, but Jova couldn’t stop wanting to turn Uten around and go see them now, to apologize to Ma for everything, to pet Mo one more time…
It wasn’t for forever, Jova reminded herself. She would come back.
“Jova?” said a voice, and Jova jumped. It was just Janwye. “I heard you in the stables. Is it true that-?”
“Janwye,” said Roan, cutting in. “Inquire later.”
“Yes sir, great general and mighty lord, sir,” muttered Janwye, sullenly.
Jova shuddered. What had the old mantra been? Keep smiling. Pretend long enough and it might become real. She grinned as wide as she could and turned Janwye’s way. “What are you riding, Janny?” she asked, trying to change the subject.
“A summer elk,” said Janwye, and her tone had lightened. “His name is Cross. Do you want to pet him? I- oh, what now?”
Stamping feet cued Jova to action, and she stiffened. Someone was walking directly towards them, and fast.
“Roan!” screamed a voice, and it was anguished and pain-stricken. How was it familiar? Jova shook her head. The marbleman accent, the lofty tone…
Stel nickered as Roan reared the horse in. “Latius! What is the meaning of this?”
“I would ask you myself,” roared the banished prince, and he stopped somewhere in front of them. Jova held the saddle tight as Uten came to a halt. “Where are you running, Roan? Where are you taking your beasts?”
“Away,” said Roan. “For a friend. It is no concern of yours.”
“No? No?” hissed Latius. “What is my concern, then, is the filthy coonlizard creature the zealots found on Pontiff Copo’s corpse, you sandman bastard. Stripping the flesh from his face, Roan. He had no quarrel with anyone!” The prince’s voice broke.
Jova felt a cold creep over her. Copo was dead? She heard it, but did not believe it. If Copo was dead, that meant…
And suddenly, Jova felt that perhaps she had not washed all the blood off her hands.
“Put the hammer down, Latius,” said Roan. The animals were getting nervous. Jova could hear their stamping and grumbling.
“Was it the boy? The wild boy, that Copo rejected today. Where is he, Roan? Where may I find him?” Latius’s voice became guttural. “I will crush him. I will batter his skull in like he battered in Copo’s. Tell me, Roan!”
“Latius, have sense,” said Roan, although his voice too had gained a hard edge. “Be calm. The zealots will look for the killer and by the Ladies Four, if they do, their justice will be done.”
It was not a lie. Even in these circumstances, Roan would never lie. Jova looked down, hoping that Latius would not notice her.
“Why are you protecting him?” screamed Latius.
“I am not,” snarled Roan. “I did not know the boy, and neither did Copo.”
A muffled gasp came from the prince’s direction. “You lie,” he whispered. “You lie! The boy professed to being one of your clients, Roan, I heard him.”
“He looks half-crazed,” whispered Janwye. “Jova, behind me.”
“I have many clients, Latius, too many to keep track of,” snarled Roan. “The boy, whoever he may be, had nothing to do with Copo’s death. Now step aside, I have business to attend to and you are in my way.”
“How can you be so sure? Where are you in such a hurry to go? Answer me, Roan!” shouted Latius. Under Jova, Uten snorted and hissed, beginning to race forward, but she was too slow. There was a dull whoosh, a movement through the air, and then the crunch of a hammer on bone.
With a roar, Janwye and her mount charged forward. A column of flame scorched the side of Jova’s face as something ignited beside her, and she flinched back. Most people weren’t keen on summer animals at the best of times for fear of what might happen if they lost control, but Janwye was the one who was half-crazed if she chose to ride one.
Stel screamed. Jova half-expected Yora to leap into an attack frenzy, for Chek to break and run, but it was ponderous Uten who was the first to move. The molebison loped forward, and to Jova it felt like the earth was undulating underneath her.
Screaming with incoherent rage, Latius swung his hammer. Jova could feel the rush of air as it swung forward, the deep hum as it sailed through the air. Behind her, Janwye and her summer elk stopped, dancing out of range of the hammer, but to Jova’s horror Uten did not pause.
A follow-up swing hit the molebison squarely in the side. It missed Jova, but the blow was so great that the girl was nearly knocked off anyway. She clung on for dear life, her bones numb from the echoes of the impact.
Uten did not as much as flinch.
“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,” Roan had once said to her. “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.”
Jova tightened her grip on the molebison’s saddle. Was this the path the Ladies had always meant for her? A good rider. A strong tabula. And it wasn’t the pontiff that made the zealot. It was faith.
The girl clicked her tongue three times in rapid succession, and she made out Latius’s blurred form edging to her left. Heat billowed from her right, but Janwye did not move closer. It was good that she didn’t; on fire or no, the elk’s neck would break easily under that hammer.
With a sharp tug on Uten’s saddle, Jova pulled the molebison towards the left. Blind beast and blind rider crashed into the prince, and Jova could feel powerful muscles shift underneath her as Uten pressed Latius to the ground. Her claws clicked on the ground. Jova knew those claws from years of cleaning them: long, wide things shaped like shovels, and just as good at digging out flesh as digging out dirt.
“Hold, Uten,” said Jova, her voice low. “Janny! How’s Roan?”
The heat ceased suddenly, and Jova heard the patter of feet on the ground. “He’s out cold,” said Janwye, rapidly. “His chest is- there’s a healer back at camp, he can fix this. Stel, down! Down! Jova, Roan can’t ride and even if he could his horse is too spooked to carry anyone.”
Under Uten’s claws, Latius struggled and squirmed. Mouth dry, Jova rubbed her temples. “What do we do with him?” asked Jova, as Latius began to swear in the old marble tongue.
“Him?” There was a sound of hooves approaching, and then Jova jumped as a sharp crack rang through the air. It sounded like he had been struck. Latius fell silent.
“He’s not…you didn’t…”
“He got what he gave,” said Janwye, simply. “Come on, Jova, help me get Roan onto the staghound. We need to move fast.”
When Jova slipped off Uten, her legs buckled momentarily under her. She was breathing heavily.
She followed the sound of Roan’s shallow breathing. “Around, other side,” said Janwye, from Roan’s head. “Lift up his legs.”
Jova nodded, and measuring the distance in her head, she bent down to pick up Roan’s feet.
She found nothing.
Her hands grasped at thin air for a moment, patting the street. Jova began sweeping her hands in front of her, but still she found nothing. Had Roan fallen crooked? She edged forward, still grasping, until Janwye pulled her hands forward gently.
“Don’t worry, Jova, he won’t mind with the state he’s in,” said the fieldwoman.
Jova didn’t understand what she was holding at first. It was almost too smooth to be human, but she could feel the heat pulsing underneath, the tell-tale texture of skin. The girl felt a cold chill run down her spine.
“Janny, are these…Roan’s legs?” asked Jova.
“You didn’t know?” Janwye said, incredulously. “You didn’t…oh, Ladies, you didn’t know. He hid it from you.”
Jova let go, nostrils flaring. How long? Since the beginning? The only reason Roan had ever chosen to show her his kindness was because of her blindness. All a lie, a comfortable lie?
“Jova, I don’t know what Roan told you,” said Janwye, and her tone was low and hushed and quick. “But we can figure it out later. We have to move now. Help me put him up on Yora, and we’ll get out of here, and we’ll talk everything out once we’re safe.”
She sounded like Ma, and if Jova knew one thing it was that nowhere was ever safe. But she bent and hauled Roan’s oddly toddler-like form onto Yora’s back. They strapped him down with spare rope in one of Chek’s packs, and Janwye gently took the animals’ tabula from his limp hands.
Jova left Moscoleon with her head bowed and her lips sealed tight, wondering just how much of the city of miracles had been a lie.
Inside the hut, the air buzzed. Chaff sat on the hard stone, pensive, the bricks digging into his skin, waiting for Hurricane or Tattle to say something. They didn’t. Chaff kept his eyes cast down on the ground. He couldn’t bring himself to look in their faces.
“If you need me to find her,” said Lookout. “I know where she is. But I can’t-.”
“Of course you know where she is,” snarled Tattle, and Chaff flinched. In his short time knowing the girl, he had never heard her raise her voice like that. “That’s only thing you’re fucking good for.”
Lookout wrinkled her nose and looked away, but didn’t say anything else. The owlcrow’s screech from on high was audible even inside the hut, though, and it was harsh and angry.
“Amateurs,” said Tattle. “I run a team of fucking amateurs.”
Hurricane put a hand on her shoulder, and immediately Tattle twisted and slapped his hand away. “Don’t touch me, Lonwal,” she hissed.
“What you expect?” he said, his voice accusatory. “You pick gutter rats and kids off the streets. You think you get a crew like we used to run like that? You got amateurs ‘cause you picked amateurs. Ain’t no one’s fault but you’s.”
Tattle buried her face in her palms, and Chaff could see how her shoulders slumped, how she seemed to crumple under some unseen weight. He hugged his knees and traced the tabula on his belt. It was a little comfort knowing that if the girl was ever taken from him like Veer, he would be able to save her.
“She’s not dead,” said Bull, suddenly. The boy had been leaning on a wall in the corner, jaw stuck out, burly arms folded across his chest. His voice was surprisingly soft. “Fieldmen prefer slave over dead.”
“Lucky her,” Tattle said, and there was murder in her eyes as she looked up. “All of you, get out. I need to think.”
Chaff didn’t waste time in sliding over the windowsill and out of the hut. It wasn’t hard to find the big guy once he stepped outside. Wiping crumbling clay off his clothes, he walked very quickly towards the camelopard, still clutching the girl’s tabula tight.
He had barely made it two paces when someone caught him by the collar of his neck, and Chaff flinched. He twisted, arms raised, but Lookout grabbed his forehead and held him at arm’s reach easily.
“You were going to run,” she said. A statement, not a question.
“So?” Chaff said, angrily, trying to pry Lookout’s fingers out of his tangled hair. “You hear her, yeah? Nobody here knows what they doing! I never ever should trust you-.”
“You were going to run,” Lookout repeated. “Like you ran from her.”
“Not my fault,” Chaff muttered.
“It’s not my fault!” Chaff screamed, and he didn’t care that the girl urchins were staring at him as he screamed. He wanted them to know, he wanted all of them to know. “I do as you tell, yeah? I see them come, I run. That’s my job, yeah?”
“Your job is to get us all out,” said Lookout.
“And I get that job today! You throw me into this job TODAY!” screamed Chaff, red in the face. His jaw hurt from shouting and he could feel the blood rushing through his temples. Behind him, the big guy reared and stamped his hooves, tossing his head. “What about your job? You supposed to keep watch out for us, what about that?”
Lookout’s face twitched. The bird overhead landed on her shoulder, its claws digging in tight to her skin, its eyes bright despite the dying sunlight. “That has nothing to do with the fact that you were the one who left her behind. You were the one who-.”
“If you don’t go and try to get closer, it never happens! If you don’t talk to- talk to that slave, it never happens!” Chaff was on the verge of tears now. His fists were shaking. His breath came in great shuddering gasps. The big guy, clearly agitated, had begun to canter to the boy’s side.
“Don’t pin this on me, you dirty, scrawny, little shit of a wild child,” said Lookout, and the owlcrow screamed, a harsh, raucous sound. “If you’re going to blame someone, then blame the girl in that house- the girl with the vendetta and the death wish that dragged us all into this.”
“At least she’s thinking of a way to save her,” said Chaff.
“And you would have helped by running away, would you?” Lookout sneered, and pushed Chaff away. “Go ahead and do it. I’ll find someone better and cheaper than you in no time.”
Chaff choked on his words. He felt so tired. He had felt tired and hungry and desperate for years, and the girl that had masked that for just a few hours had been snatched away. It wasn’t fair, it was cruel, and Chaff had to either blame someone or else believe that the world was just that cruel. And it couldn’t be, not if he wanted to believe it was worth living in.
He put his hand on the big guy’s side, leaning on him for support as Lookout walked away. The bandages around the big guy’s side were soaked red now. They were both hurting. He hugged the camelopard, even as he wished for someone who could hug him back, talk to him, support him, have a face that Chaff could recognize as a reflection of his own. It was a treacherous thought, and Chaff squeezed the big guy all the tighter for it, but he couldn’t help but think it.
He wanted to be friends with someone who owned their tabula. He wanted to be friends with someone who was free.
“It’ll never happen to her, yeah?” said Chaff, leaning on the big guy, gripping the disks in his belt. “So long as we got this, we can find her. We can get her back. We can…” He trailed off, mouth open.
And, in the depths of Chaff’s tired, hungry, desperate mind, lit the spark of an idea.
“Lookout!” he shouted, letting go of the big guy and sprinting towards the girl as she walked away. “Lookout, Lookout, Lookout!”
The owlcrow noticed first, and squawked, and Lookout turned around with a look of utmost confusion. She put a hand on her hips. “What do you want from me now?”
“You- you know where Veer is, yeah?” asked Chaff, breathless. He could feel the pressure under his eyes. He needed to sleep, and soon, but not now. There was no time now.
“Of course I do,” said Lookout, quickly, almost offended. “In the middle of the fucking caravan. But we have no way of getting her out without probably getting caught ourselves, and this time they’ll be ready for us, and-.”
“Do you know where her tabula is?”
Lookout’s automatic response began, but was then cut short. She looked at Chaff, her eyes slowly widening. “Veer doesn’t keep her tabula on her?”
“Yeah,” said Chaff. He stared into Lookout’s eyes, daring just a glimmer of hope.
With a furious humming to egg it on, the owlcrow launched into the sky, wheeling in tight circles that slowly expanded outward as Lookout’s vision glazed over. Chaff bounced on the balls of his feet.
“Do you know where she keeps it?” he asked, biting his lip. “In the house, maybe? In- in one of her favorite places? Where she eats?” It dawned on Chaff just how little he knew about Veer, how much more he could have known if he had just a little more time with her. He would get that time. He was sure of it.
Lookout’s answer was partial and distracted. “She’s got…places. Places that, uh…” And she trailed off, not finishing her sentence. She began to walk forward, and Chaff had to stumble out of the way as Lookout stumbled haltingly down the street.
Chaff looked over his shoulder. Should he tell Tattle and Hurricane? No, it would take too much time.
And, anyway, this was their fight. Their fault. Their battle to win, their chance to redeem themselves.
The boy hauled himself onto the big guy’s back and pushed him on to follow close behind Lookout. Chaff’s mind raced through the possibilities. Where would a girl like Veer, an urchin and a racer and a wild child, hide her tabula, her most precious thing, her one and only resource left to her in the world? Somewhere safe. Somewhere no one would look. Somewhere she could check daily.
She would hide it, Chaff realized, wherever I would hide it.
If only he knew this district as well as he knew his own. Chaff cast his gaze around, his throat dry. How many nooks and crannies would he have to comb? How many hiding places were there in the ruins of the city?
The big guy tossed his head, and Chaff let go of his belt, reminding himself not to channel too much of his emotion into the tabula. It might bleed over into the girl, too, and Chaff certainly had enough anxiety for the both of them. His head was beginning to spin, but he took several sharp breaths, trying to force himself to calm down.
It would be somewhere commonplace, but surreptitious. Not a place people went too often, but a place where no one would question him if they saw him going there.
The whole city pulsed around him. Shira Hay, a chaotic sprawl, unfolded in Chaff’s mind. Where, where, was the best place to hide a tabula in this city?
“Lookout!” Chaff screamed. “What do you see?”
Lookout’s answer was a distracted mutter. “Her friends, her favorite place to eat, where she sleeps, where she walks, the routes she takes, the race road, the rooftops, a quiet place, a quiet place, a quiet place…”
Chaff ran a finger through his hair. How long had it been since Veer’s capture? An hour or two at best. The sun had not yet even fully set. The fieldmen must have figured out by now that Veer wasn’t carrying her tabula on her.
Would they try to break her first, or just kill her?
Thinking and fretting would do no good. Chaff grit his teeth, and despite the sores developing on his thighs and the ache in his legs, he hauled himself onto the big guy’s back once more. It was just like the plains, he reminded himself. This was easier than days on days of endless riding.
“Lookout, get on!” Chaff shouted, as the big guy trotted forward. Dazed, Lookout turned slowly, her eyes unseeing, the tabula vibrating violently in her hands. Chaff reached out to grab her hand and pull her up, and Lookout moved as if she was sleepwalking, brow furrowed, still muttering under her breath. Just how much could that owlcrow of hers see?
“Where to?” asked Chaff, holding tight onto the big guy’s mane. He turned around and grabbed Lookout’s chin, shaking her head. “Lookout, where to? Where do we check first?”
The girl blinked, and she seemed to finally look Chaff in the eye. “There’s the house. Where she sleeps. We could go back and-.”
“Too obvious,” said Chaff, immediately. “Too close to people, too easy to find.”
“She trusted us. She trusted them, at least,” Lookout said. She sounded hurt.
Chaff did not know how much he believed that. She had said so, yes, but to honestly trust someone enough to leave her tabula out in the open for the taking…Veer would have been a fool. “The hut’s not a good place,” said Chaff. “Too easy to get into. Everybody know she live there, yeah? No good, no good.”
“There’s the way she races. We could check her usual routes, maybe she has some kind of hideaway where-.”
“Come on, big guy!” Chaff shouted, not waiting for Lookout to finish. He could not push the camelopard too much, not with the wounds the big guy had suffered from the fieldmen.
He followed the street down where he and Veer had raced just hours ago, the course still fresh in his mind. The evening bustle of the city was beginning to emerge, and even in this broken down corner of the city the people of Shira Hay still found room to mingle and haggle and brawl in the dusk as the Lady Fall’s eye slowly opened. Chaff had to twist and turn through the pods of people, squinting to make out the high rooftops.
Overhead, the owlcrow screeched. A couple people on the street cast wary glances upward, and Chaff in turn kept his eye on them, but in a few seconds they all looked away.
“You see anything?” whispered Chaff. Talking loudly about tabula in a street full of hungry eyes and desperate ears was not prudent.
“Up,” said Lookout, her response terse. Her finger drifted as she pointed toward the building that her owlcrow was circling over. “Up.”
“Take care of the big guy, Lookout,” Chaff said, hopping off the side of the camelopard. “Take care of Lookout, big guy!”
The camelopard brayed an affirmative, although Lookout said nothing else.
Chaff had to feel the handholds out, rather than see them, in the dim light. It was hard work, groping blindly at the stones until his hand found a grip that might not even be sturdy enough to hold his feet. Chaff was glad that all it took was the light of the sun to dispel his blindness. He didn’t think he would have risked the climb if it was for any other reason.
His bandaged hands and feet provided enough traction that Chaff made steady progress. He felt, rather than saw, the stares of other junior Kennya Noni fighters watching him from below, wondering if they dared to challenge this newcomer, but while the danger of a daytime race was thrilling, the danger of a nighttime race was just foolhardy. It was not worth the risk.
All the same, Chaff kept a wary eye on the bare-sleeved racers down below. Some of them, no doubt, had nothing left to lose.
He hauled himself over the lip of the roof, his muscles aching in protest as he tumbled over the side. He laid on the flat clay, breathing heavily, ignoring his spine’s fervent protests as he curled up into a sitting then standing position. The owlcrow landed in front of him, flapping its wings as its claws clicked on the clay, and Chaff did his best not to flinch as he looked into its beady eyes.
“Lookout, where?” he asked, half-shouting in case she needed to hear him from below. The owlcrow preened its feathers once before, with a sudden jerk, hopping and flapping towards an alcove on the roof.
Chaff nearly tripped over his own feet as he ran to the odd depression, and he stuck his hands into the shadows, feeling for something, anything, that felt like a tabula. If he looked at it from the right angle, there was the glint of something in the shadows…
He pricked his hand on something sharp and metal and winced, withdrawing reflexively. A thin line of red oozed down his palm and, grimacing, Chaff reached in with his other hand just to see what it was. It wasn’t a tabula. Tabula didn’t cut.
His heart sank. Just a shattered piece of bronze, from some pot or pail, the hoardings of a spring magpie or some such creature.
Chaff threw the shard aside, and the thin, corroded metal cracked on the tiles. He looked around, trying to quell the fluttering in his chest. It was one roof. There were many more to search.
There were so many more to search.
Chaff could almost feel his own pulse inside his fingers as he climbed back down. It would have been so much easier to let go and fall, but he made the painstaking climb until his feet touched the cold, unyielding ground.
“Where next?” asked Chaff. He tried to climb onto the big guy’s back again, but his legs folded under him before he could. He knelt in the middle of the street, not caring how vulnerable he was, not caring the weakness he showed. He was just so tired.
Lookout stared at him for a while. “I know you’re exhausted,” she said, finally.
Chaff didn’t have the energy to come up with a reply.
“There are too many places. Too many hiding holes in this rotten city, too many streets where Veer liked to go. She never stuck around much in one place.” Lookout paused. “Chaff, it’d be easier to just take Veer back than try and find where she hid her tabula.”
He glared at Lookout. “We’re not giving up,” he said.
Lookout seemed like she wanted to say something testy. Her face twitched as she opened her mouth to speak, but after a moment looking at Chaff, she just said, “OK. We’re not.”
Holding tight onto the big guy’s side, Chaff hauled himself up. “Where now?”
The girl shook her head. “I don’t know,” Lookout said, haltingly. Her voice caught as she said it. “There are too many good places in this city to hide a tabula.”
“I don’t care about good places to hide it,” said Chaff. “Where would Veer hide it?”
“I don’t know,” said Lookout, and Chaff turned to look at the girl’s face contorted in frustration. “I’ve never known- I don’t- Tattle’s always been better with people than me. I just see things. I can’t see inside people’s heads.”
Chaff looked at the ground. There didn’t seem to be anything else to say. The owlcrow flapped overhead, on its lonely patrol in the crepuscular gloom.
Abruptly, Lookout gasped. “They’re moving,” she whispered.
That made Chaff look up. Lookout’s owlcrow had flapped away, screeching, and the boy’s head snapped around to see where it was going. “Who’s moving?”
“The caravan,” said Lookout, hoarsely. “The fieldmen. There’s…there’s an elector with them. Inviting them…somewhere. Gesturing towards the river, towards the bridges, towards the Libraries, towards…oh, shit.”
“Lookout, what is it? Tell me,” hissed Chaff.
“The duarchs. They’ve come out of the towers. They’re getting ready to talk with emissaries.” Lookout choked on a strangled sob, and Chaff’s eyes widened. “We’re out of time. The robbery, the rescues, everything. There’s not enough time.”
Chaff licked dry lips. The echoes of three years ago still seemed to haunt him.
“I know you’re tired, big guy,” said Chaff, rubbing the camelopard’s neck. “But we got to go fast one last time tonight, OK? Just one last time.”
The big guy nodded once, twisting to turn back towards the river.
“Hold tight, Lookout,” said Chaff, lowering his body and gripping the camelopard’s mane. The camelopard started at a slow trot, sidestepping around the pedestrians on the crowded street, but Chaff could already feel the wind starting to stream around his face.
It had worked last time, hadn’t it?
Chaff had barely re-entered the slum where their headquarters were situated when someone stepped in his way. The big guy reared and pranced aside as Bull stood in front of them, bent low as if he was going to tackle the camelopard to the ground.
“Where you guys go?” said Bull, his voice low and guttural. His lips curled like a dog’s as he spoke. “You skipping on us?”
The beginnings of an indignant reply built up in Chaff’s head, but before he could think of something to say Lookout spoke over him. “Bull, they’re moving. The fieldmen are moving! Tell Tattle that we have to-.”
“There’s no need for messages, I can hear you from here,” said Tattle, pushing the door open with her shoulder. She looked odd, standing outside, her skin oddly pale and her hair thin. Inside the hut, there had been a courtly aura to her; now, she looked like any other homeless urchin, except she stood a little taller and spoke a little louder.
Hurricane followed close behind her, and Chaff noticed a reversal there as well. Inside, he had been Tattle’s lackey. Outside, he was a brooding menace.
Tattle clapped her hands together. “Details, Lookout, details!”
“They’re at the bridge now,” she said, closing her eyes. “The electors are standing at the middle while the fieldmen are waiting at one end, on our side of the river. It looks like…like the duarch- no, the arbiters are talking with the farmer lord, the one in the shawl. No one’s moving much. There’s a crowd gathering.”
“What now?” asked Hurricane, low enough so that it was directed only at Tattle but loud enough that the rest of them could hear. “Do we go through with it?”
Blinking rapidly, Tattle twitched her head, as if she was shaking off some buzzing pest. “Through with the plan? We got our supplies. We got a fucking lionox’s weight in stones inside, we got months’ worth of preparation. I know each and every alsknight on that fucking wagon train like they were born in the same hollow as me. I been working this plan over for- for years.” Tattle shook her head again. “And everything that’s happening right now just about fuck that all over twice, so you know what? We’re improvising.”
Tattle kept running her hands through her hair as she looked around, walking into the center of the triangle that Hurricane, Bull, and the big guy formed. “Lookout, scoot up. Lonwal, get on. We have to move fast.”
Hurricane grit his teeth. “I can run faster than-.”
“I need you fresh, ready for action,” said Tattle. “Don’t worry, I can think while I run.” She turned around. “Bull…Bull, you stay on the ground with me.
The boy raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Because you’re fat and you won’t fit and you need the exercise anyways,” said Tattle, exasperatedly. “Now come on, get moving.”
As Hurricane clambered onto the big guy’s back, Chaff gripped the big guy’s tabula and nudged him forward. The tabula began to hum as he lent what strength he had to the camelopard, and the big guy ran forward at a steady pace despite the unprecedented amount of weight on his back.
The hum of two tabula at once was enough to make it feel like the air was buzzing around them. “There’s too many people around the bridge, Tattle, we’re never going to be able to get close,” said Lookout, eyes closed.
“Alright, good,” shouted Tattle, a little breathless as she dashed through the streets. Chaff could see it now; streams of curious watchers gathering towards the Libraries. “Getting close isn’t part of the plan!”
“There’s a plan?”
“There will be! And getting close won’t be part of it!”
They ran, and while Chaff had no idea where the next step would take him, it was better than not moving at all.
People had gathered around the bridge, and they whispered and muttered at the solemn congregation of electors at the center of the bridge. Chaff stopped the big guy once the crowds grew too thick, and nodded to both Lookout and Hurricane to disembark. He rubbed the big guy’s neck as he got off, and whispered, “You did good, big guy.”
The big guy shook his head and nickered.
“Shoo, now,” said Chaff, pushing the camelopard away. “Get some rest.” He craned his head back to look the big guy in the eye. “I’ll be fine. You draw too much ‘tention anyways, yeah? Go and eat and sleep and all that, yeah? I call if I need you.”
The camelopard trotted away, wading through the growing tide of spectators.
“Lonwal! Lookout!” shouted Tattle, as she shouldered her way towards them. A clearing opened around the group; no one wanted to stand too close to an urchin, for any number of reasons.
“Planned out yet?” said Hurricane, taking Tattle’s hand and pulling her forward through the last press of bodies. Bull followed in the gap close behind.
“Still working on it,” said Tattle, breathlessly. “Lookout, I need eyes.”
“You got them,” said the girl, and her voice had lifted back up to her old, confident self again. Chaff stared. The change had been so sudden. “What am I looking for?”
“Wagons, near the bank. See them? Half the alsknights are there, half the alsknights are escorting the big shot fieldmen. She’s…” Lookout stopped talking for a moment. “Never mind,” she said hoarsely.
Chaff opened his mouth to press for more details, but Tattle stuck a palm over it and glared at him. “Walsh?” she asked, after Chaff closed his mouth and looked away.
Walsh? Chaff thought. “With her,” said Lookout. “Same state.”
Tattle nodded. Sweat beaded down her red cheeks. “Tell me what the electors are going to do.”
“It’s formal,” said Lookout, closing her eyes tight. Chaff looked up, and saw that her owlcrow wasn’t the only one flying overhead. A menagerie of screeching, flapping things ducked and wheeled over the bridge. How many were watching with just their own eyes? “It’s public, too. They’re waiting for people to gather, but I doubt they’ll wait much longer. By the Ladies Four, both the duarchs have come out of the towers. Kobarr and Teyya Lay are all dressed up and everything.”
“What does that mean?” Chaff asked, before he could stop himself.
Lookout opened her eyes, and the humming Chaff had long ago stopped noticing fell silent. “They wouldn’t need something this public for a refusal.” She gulped. “I could be very wrong. But I think it’s more likely than not that Shira Hay is going to war.”
Tattle cast a dark look around. “These people aren’t going to be happy about helping fieldmen…” she muttered. Her eyes lit up. “Which is a good thing.”
“Everyone here gets all angry,” said Chaff. “That’s a lotta angry people. How’s that good?”
“This isn’t going to be clean, Chaff,” Tattle said, shaking her head. “But we’ve got an opportunity here and I mean to use it. Bull, Lonwal, get to the edge of the crowd.” Her gaze flickered from Bull’s adolescent face to Hurricane’s near grown old one. “Bull, you go first. Lonwal, stay back. They might still recognize you. I’ll join up with you in a bit, the timing on this one is going to be tricky.”
Terse nods from the both of them, and they set off. “Lookout, stay with me now,” said Tattle, and she had to raise her voice to be heard over the growing chatter of the crowd. “We’re going to give a lot of people a lot of reasons to be angry.”
“And me?” asked Chaff.
“Saving you for last, new kid,” said Tattle, smiling. “Remember what I told you? One race, that’s it. You get out there, by the river, and you wait. Don’t summon your pet yet, I don’t want anyone noticing you until it starts. And when it does, I want you to grab whoever Lonw- Hurricane tells you to grab and run, got it?”
It was simple enough, but Chaff felt that there was some piece of the plan he wasn’t getting. “How will I know when it starts?” Chaff shouted. It seemed like every man and woman, slave and wild, had come out to the bridge now. Were the electors waiting for the whole city to come out?
“Oh, trust me, you’ll know,” said Tattle. “Get going, it’s going to be impossible to get anywhere soon! Come on, Lookout, with me!”
Tattle slipped away, worming through a crack in the push and shove, but Chaff grabbed Lookout’s hand as she turned to leave.
“Lookout!” said Chaff. He met her eyes. “Before we goes, I got to know—what’s with you guys? Who are you, really? ‘Cause you sure ain’t like any urchin I ever see.”
Lookout just smiled, and ruffled Chaff’s hair. “Neither are you. Make it out of this alive and I promise I’ll tell you.”
And she slipped away, leaving Chaff alone, to be buffeted by the surge of onlookers.
Chaff was small enough that navigating the crowds was no great difficulty. He had to duck to make his way through a collection of dirt-smeared nomads, stumbling out into the fringes of the crowd where he could walk unobstructed. He straightened himself, looking for a good place to wait.
At that point, he heard a familiar voice.
“Wazzat? That Stink?”
Chaff froze. His hand fled to his tabula immediately, but he remembered Tattle’s warning. He couldn’t draw attention to himself. Not now. Now until…whatever it was started.
Hook sauntered up to him, grinning ear to ear. The smile didn’t reach his eyes, though, which were bloodshot and wide open. Scrabble wasn’t with him anymore, although lanky Shimmy, a year or two older than Chaff, walked close behind, and Chaff could see Crook watching from the roof.
“What’sa matter, Stinky?” said Hook, swinging the tabula on a string in front of him. He had not yet found a replacement rod, it seemed. “Where your boooyfriend now?”
“No trouble, yeah?” said Chaff, backing up to the safety of the crowd, but like a tide the spectators watching seemed to be pulling away from him.
“No trouble, sure. No hard feelings,” said Hook, and Chaff knew from experience that it was a complete lie.
“Come on, Hook,” said Chaff, grinning weakly. “Big two gon’ say something. Let’s have a look-see listen, yeah?”
He saw Hook’s hand coming but was still too slow to get out of the way. Hook grabbed him by the collar, his face twisted in a mocking smirk. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said. “Look-see listen, alright.”
Chaff closed his eyes. Fighting back would just prolong what was coming, and he needed it to be over quickly.
And then, like the angel voice of the Ladies themselves, Chaff heard the criers shouting, “There will be silence!”
Hook looked up. He didn’t let Chaff go, but he didn’t move either. A hush of anticipation fell over the crowd, and the sudden quiet was almost eerie. All Chaff could hear was the screech of the birds overhead, the seep of the river as it sucked at the pebbles on the shore.
Chaff turned to look and saw two silhouettes standing alone in the center of the bridge. The first man’s voice echoed as he spoke. “Bax of Alswell,” he said, his voice clipped, pointed, and harsh. “I am Kobarr, duarch of the grove that does not move. You speak for Engers of Alswell, whose liege is the farmer Greeve.”
The second man’s voice wheezed, but still his voice carried over the hushed masses. “Bax of Alswell,” he said. “I am Teyya Lay, duarch of the grove that does not move. Your intent is to make Shira Hay an ally against the aggressor Banden Ironhide. Make your case.”
As the Alswell emissary stepped up and began to speak, Chaff recognized it as the same tired speech each of the fieldmen had shouted over Shira Hay for so many weeks. A disgruntled muttering built up among the crowd, and the sudden torpor that had come over them broke slightly.
As people began to move, someone emerged from the fringes. Chaff turned to see Lookout glaring, and closed his eyes. As much as he was glad to have someone on his side, he did not know how good Lookout was in a fight.
“Violence while the duarchs are speaking?” she said, her nostrils flared wide, as the fieldman continued to argue his case. She had affected a different tone of voice, and stood like Tattle, tall and imperious. To his surprise, it seemed like Lookout pretended not to notice Chaff.
And, to Chaff’s even greater surprise, Hook looked down. “Sorry-sorry, ma’am,” he said, backing away, although Chaff could tell he was smoldering. “We was just-.”
“Just what? Are you prepared to make a thorough and convincing case, boy?” said Lookout. Chaff blanched. Boy? Lookout looked barely a summer older than Hook.
“Nothing, elector ma’am,” stuttered Hook, and then Chaff knew.
It was the scarf, the beige scarf around Lookout’s neck. Chaff had almost stopped noticing it, but to Hook, it must have been the first thing he saw. Poor, stupid, simpleton Hook, who did not know that the scarves of the electors were always red, who did not know that women had not been electors for centuries in Shira Hay.
“Leave,” hissed Lookout. “Before you cause further disruption.”
Hook backed away, gesturing for Shimmy to follow. Chaff saw Crook disappear over the lip of the rooftop, and Chaff’s shoulders slumped as he breathed a sigh of relief.
“How did you know?” he began, and Lookout just smirked. Chaff took Lookout’s hand gratefully to stand up. “Who says you’re bad with people?”
He saw Lookout smile before she tried to hide it. “Shut up, before a real elector notices.”
“Where’s Tattle?” whispered Chaff. “You done what you had to do, yeah?”
“Tattle’s with the boys, she’s waiting for the right time to get them moving,” said Lookout. “And I did the best I could.”
Chaff fell silent, as the fieldman Bax concluded his speech. He could only hope that the best Lookout could do was good enough.
“We have considered your argument,” said the first duarch, Kobarr, and from the speed with which he said it was clear that they had already come to a decision beforehand. “And we have decided thus.”
“Bax of Alswell,” said the wheezing one, Teyya Lay. “Approach to receive your arbitration.”
From afar, Chaff could only see the silhouette of the fieldman as he walked forward. He made a dramatic figure against the sun setting over the river.
“So what’s the plan?” hissed Chaff.
“The moment the duarchs announce that Shira Hay is joining the war,” said Lookout. “There’s going to be some…shall we say, discontent. Tattle’s going to take that and see if we can start a small riot with it.”
Chaff’s eyes widened. “A small riot?”
Lookout shrugged. “Just enough to distract the fieldmen. Just enough to grab Veer and Walsh in the chaos. It’s the best plan we got. By the Ladies, it’s the only plan we got.” She hunched. “Shh, get ready, he’s almost there.”
“Alswell is a nation of great bounty,” said Teyya Lay. “Alswell is a nation of peace. This, we know to be true.”
“Here it comes…” muttered Lookout.
“However,” said Kobarr, and Chaff saw a sudden look of consternation flash across Lookout’s face. “Alswell’s peace is one founded on oppression.”
“Alswell’s bounty is one hoarded from the hungry,” said Teyya Lay.
“You have not respected our borders.”
“You have offended our people.”
“You have been arrogant in times of prosperity.”
“You have been self-righteous in times of need.”
“This is our answer, Bax, who speaks for Engers, whose liege is Greeve,” said Kobarr, and before the emissary could run the duarch grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him in close. “Shira Hay will go to Alswell, and Alswell will burn.”
Chaff saw the glint of the knife for just a second before he heard the strangled, gargling choke of the fieldman who had spoken so eloquently. There was a dead silence as the emissary staggered away and tumbled over the edge of the bridge, and a collective breath being held as he fell down, down, down to the water. He hit the river with a dull splash, his blood mingling with the orange light of the sun bleeding over the horizon.
And then everything fell apart. Immediately, the crowd roared, some in outrage, some in shock, but many more in celebration. The solemn cluster of electors on the bridge moved into action, pulling from beneath their great cloaks weapon after weapon, as tabula buzzed and hissed all across the riverfront. Both groups of alsknights reacted immediately, mounts stampeding over civilians who had become casualties of war, and over it all Chaff could hear the high cry of the fieldman noble shouting, “Away! Away! Out of the city!”
Mouth dry, Chaff reached for his tabula. He needed to keep the big guy safe from the chaos. He turned to Lookout, eyes wide. “What now?”
“Now?” Lookout shook her head. “Now, we really have to improvise.”
The words seemed to echo in her head, unreal, distant. She had never anticipated this.
“Jova of the Temple,” he said. “Present your tabula.”
Jova wiped her sweating palms on her coza, holding her breath. What could she say? Was there to say?
She phrased her words carefully. “Why do you want it?”
There was a soft clank of metal on tile, and suddenly Copo’s voice grew closer. “Do you not trust me, zealot of the Temple? I have shown you what needs to be done.”
Jova suppressed a shudder. Even if she had a tabula, she wasn’t sure she could go through with that. She thought long and hard before speaking. It would not do to lie in the House of Spring. “I was told not to tell anyone where my tabula was,” said Jova, haltingly. “I was told that if I ever did, I would no longer be free.”
She felt cold, clammy hands on her bare shoulders. “And who told you that, sweet girl?” asked Copo.
“A- a friend.”
“A friend,” repeated Copo, and Jova could hear the disdain in his voice. “Do you trust the prattle of a wild child over the word of a trusted pontiff, Jova?” And his hand slid down her arm.
Jova tried to squirm out of the way, but Copo would not let her. “I’m sorry, pontiff sir, I just-.”
“It is true, you will no longer be free,” said Copo, and his grip tightened. Jova’s heart was beating in her throat now. “You will serve the Ladies, and all those who speak for the Ladies. Now, sweet girl, please, present your tabula.”
The incense made Jova’s head spin. “I don’t- I don’t have it.”
“You don’t have it?” repeated Copo, a hint of disbelief, of incredulity in his voice. “Did you lie, Jova? Are you truly the sandman’s slave? Or are you some common animal, who left its tabula behind in the hollow tree after the Fallow?”
“Pontiff sir, is there any other way?” asked Jova, breathlessly. “Anything else I can do to prove my devotion to-.”
“Answer my question, zealot,” barked Copo, and Jova flinched. “It would be easier for all of us if you would just tell me- where is your tabula?”
Jova twisted out of his grip, and fell onto the hard floor, falling on her hands and bruising her knees. She felt a hand grab her shoulder, and before she could stop herself she reacted. Her hand found her walking stick, and she twisted, hitting Copo hard. From the sound of the crack of wood, and the way Copo’s body moved, Jova could tell she had hit something boney. His face?
His voice, when he spoke again, was a nasal whine. “That was very bad of you to do, sweet girl. Very, very bad.”
“I- I’m so sorry,” gasped Jova, but her words were cut short as the pontiff grabbed her by the collar and dragged her away. She kicked and struggled, but Copo grabbed her with both hands and hauled her anyway, with prodigious strength for one who had seemed so soft and plump.
One of his palms was coated with something hot and sticky. Jova’s heart leaped to her throat. She had made a pontiff bleed in his own house. Even if she made it out of this alive, would she ever walk free in the streets of the Temple again? The pontiffs were a tightly knit, exclusive group. They would hear of this, they would all hear of this.
There was a clatter of tabula, and Copo finally let Jova go. She crumpled onto her knees, listening to Copo muttering under his breath, a low and constant stream of unintelligible words.
Her mind raced through the possibilities. What was Copo going to do? Would it be worse than what would happen if she ran? She had struck a pontiff in his own house; she did not know the ramifications because no one had ever had the gall to do it. Jova flinched as she heard Copo sweep aside what sounded like a whole hollow of tabula. Just how many slaves did the pontiff have?
Jova did her best to sit still as she heard the tabula hum. She did her best not to wretch out of fear and anticipation as she felt the heat from the summoning wash over her. She didn’t move as she heard claws clack on the tiles.
But the moment she heard the beast hiss, hiss like that monster from three years ago, Jova couldn’t take it. She spun, hitting anything within reach with her walking stick and bolted, tongue clicking rapidly as she sprinted to whatever exit she could find.
She could barely hear the sound over the pounding of her ears, and the echoes twisted and distorted as she ran.
She slammed into the frame of the door—was it even the door? Was it just the wall? A window in the pontiff’s high tower?—and she felt her away across the room, the snarl of the beast just behind her. She twitched; she spun.
Her walking stick cracked against the beast’s muzzle, and she could hear it stumbling back, whining. Jova’s grip tightened, and the space around her eyes throbbed. Not again. Never again.
Tense, she shifted her stance, listening intently. Back pressed against the wall, she didn’t dare speak lest she miss some vital movement, some unexpected attack.
But there was no pretense to Copo’s movements as he strode forward, his sandals slapping loudly on the floor. Jova clicked rapidly, trying to get an image of where the beast was in relation to him. It seemed to be pacing behind him, its movement erratic and irregular.
“Just tell me where your tabula is, sweet girl,” said Copo, his voice ragged and breathless. “I’m sorry that it has come to this, but I will use force if I must to prevent the intrusion of the Deep into a house of the Ladies- will you stop making that infernal sound!”
Copo grabbed her by the shoulder, and Jova shrieked. Her head was pounding, her heart was beating too fast to think properly.
The beast at Copo’s side snarled, and before Jova could stop to think she had batted aside Copo’s arm, spinning and cracking her cane once more over the beast’s head. She felt claws lunge for her thigh and stepped back reflexively, so that the beast caught instead only onto the loose petals of her coza. She lunged forward, and her stick caught in what must have been the beast’s mouth.
At the same time, the beast had charged. With a squelch, Jova’s walking stick sank into something firm but pliable. She heard the beast gag, felt it writhe and flop on the end of her cane. Its claws scrabbled on the base of her stick weakly as it struggled to back away. Jova felt a moment’s indecision.
Then she pulled her walking stick free and heard the low wheeze of the animal limping away. She was not a monster. She did not kill for no reason.
But Jova had barely had time to catch her breath when Copo’s arms closed around her neck. “Cease this immediately, girl!” he shouted. “Let go of your weapon!”
Jova could hear the low hum building up once more, and she knew she could not face a second beast, not if the first one had time enough to recover. Should she submit? But then what would she do? Copo would demand and demand her tabula and she would not be able to produce it.
She could not beat anything Copo summoned.
There was only one solution, then.
Jova twisted, trying to worm her way out of Copo’s grip. He tried to hold on, but Jova kept twisting and twisting until she broke free. The hum had stopped; Copo’s concentration had broken.
Not enough. Jova had to ensure her permanent safety. She brought her cane against the side of the pontiff’s face, and felt her hands shaking from more than just exhaustion.
The hum had started again, and Jova stabbed blindly down, trying to separate Copo’s tabula from his grip. “I’m sorry,” Jova shouted. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
Copo gasped pitifully as Jova’s blind attacks jabbed and struck his soft flesh. In the corner, the beast whined, but made no move to come closer.
Jova paused, head spinning, trying to think straight. “Oh, Ladies,” she whispered. “Oh, pontiff, I didn’t- I’m so- oh, Ladies, oh, Ladies…”
If she just took a moment to think, a moment to breathe. Damage had been done, yes, but she would find a way to fix it. She didn’t have to resort to violence. This was Moscoleon. It was a holy city. She didn’t-.
Copo grabbed her by the throat, and Jova screamed. She hadn’t even heard him get up over the buzzing in her ears, but now she could feel the man’s hand squeezing tighter and tighter around her neck.
She flailed. All those months of careful practice and technique with Arim left her just as much as Arim had. She hit every part of Copo’s body she could find, swinging so hard that she thought her walking stick might snap. She heard wood impact on Copo’s elbow several times before he finally let go, and when he did Jova did not stop. When she found his face, she did not stop.
When her walking stick finally snapped, Jova had gathered her senses enough to run.
Sound, touch, smell: all the senses Jova had come to rely on blurred as she stumbled out of the pontiff’s house. She felt so weak she would collapse down the long stairs, but somehow she made it down without falling. There was no miraculous strength this time, no one to take away the fatigue. It had seemed the Ladies had forsaken her.
The cold air outside of the den of still burning incense hit Jova hard, but it did not so much as brace her as shock her. She felt more disoriented now, not less. Where was there to go now? What was there to do?
She fell into a familiar rut; she staggered down the road to Roan’s stables, mouth dry, hands shaking, leaning on the splintered end of her walking stick as she limped down the street. It was good that it was a holy day. It was good that the streets were empty.
Jova hoped they stayed that way.
She couldn’t remember stumbling through the streets or falling through the backdoor of Roan’s stables. She didn’t know how she had managed to find her way back, disoriented as she was, but forces of habit came back easily in times of crisis. Jova lay on the straw and dirt, hugging her chest, unmoving, until Uten smelled her and began hissing and spitting. She shifted a little then, but only slightly.
Then she heard the pounding of Stel’s hooves, heard Roan shouting indistinctly. Roan gasped as he entered the stables—the strongest display of emotion Jova had heard from him in three years—and heard a thud like Roan had fallen from his horse.
There was an odd scraping, like something was sliding on the ground, and Jova finally sat up.
“You are not being alright,” said Roan, breathlessly, and it was a statement, not a question. Jova shook her head mutely. Something touched her shoulder, and she flinched, but it was just Roan’s calloused hand, rough and hesitant.
“What are you doing on the ground like that, Rho Hat Pan?” said an unfamiliar voice. “Do you need help? Here, I will-.”
“Silence,” spat Roan, and the venom in his voice made Jova flinch again. “Get your steed, Janwye. We will be discussing the Walkers at a later date. Right now, this girl is hurting and in need of assistance.”
“Roan…” Jova croaked, as the stranger’s footsteps pattered away. “Roan, he tried to…he asked for my…” She stammered into silence, unsure what was safe to tell him, what was safe to tell anyone.
“Take my hand, Jova,” said Roan, and he pressed Jova’s palm into his. He clicked his tongue and Jova heard Stel approach. With an audible grunt, Roan lifted himself up onto his steed. Jova didn’t know why, but it seemed to be costing him a great deal. Had he injured himself practicing earlier that day?
“Hold onto my hand,” said Roan. “We are returning to your Anjan and your Ell.”
Ma and Da. Jova choked back a sob, of relief, not grief. She was beginning to realize just what Arim had meant by having everything.
“You are taller,” said Roan, gently, as they walked out of the stables, Jova taking small, stuttering steps like she was newly blinded again. She couldn’t seem to hear her environment over the buzzing in her ears. “You have been growing since I first met you.” He spoke like he spoke to the animals, kindly and softly.
Despite herself, Jova felt her panic subsiding. She did not feel quite as shaken as they entered the familiar road back to the tenement.
“Jova,” said Roan, still gentle. “Please tell me what happened.”
Jova did not speak for some time, putting one stuttering foot in front of the other. “What happens if I hit a pontiff?” she asked, finally.
Roan’s silence was dark, and brooding. “How many times?” he responded.
Jova didn’t answer.
“Jova…is that your blood?”
Jova scratched her chest, shaking her head to clear the thump-thump-thump of her heart. “Some of it is,” she muttered.
“But not…all of it.” There was a pause, and then Roan tugged Jova’s hand. “Come. We must be walking a little faster.”
They were halfway down the street when Jova heard footsteps approaching rapidly, someone running. She tensed, but Roan tightened his hand and said, “Shhh. It is a friend with which I do business. She is being impatient.”
It was the woman, Janwye. “Roan, I do not appreciate this. I would expect more of a brother-.”
“Your initiative is admirable, Janwye, even if your discretion is lacking,” snapped Roan. “Be speaking of these things with Zain and I, no one else. We have polite company present.”
There was an annoyed scoff, followed by an almost sarcastic, “My apologies, milady. May I speak of more mundane politics with you, then, Roan?”
“That you should be saving for later too,” said Roan, and his tone was icy.
“For all I know, Alswell is burning as we speak. There is no later. I have heard nothing from the other envoys in Shira Hay and Mont Don! We have not rested since we left Alswell and it has still taken us weeks to reach Temple Moscoleon. We need the Holy Keep and we need you to-.”
“I said later,” repeated Roan, and the woman fell silent.
As Jova’s feet began to crunch on the gravel of the compound, she listened intently for her mother and father. Her nerves were tingling again; without Roan’s soothing voice, the full enormity of what she had done threatened to overwhelm her. She waited and waited in the empty square of the tenement, and she let go of Roan’s hand and sank to her knees when no one seemed to be coming.
“Zain!” snapped Roan, as Stel tossed her head and paced on the gravel. “Zain, come out!”
The resident pontiff’s feet crunched on the ground as he walked. Jova heard a small intake of breath from Zain, but before the pontiff could say anything Roan shouted, “Where is Anjan? Where is Ell?”
“The woman is, as I understand it, still out hunting,” said Zain, his voice soft and calm. “The man left for the market at least an hour ago. Something about enjoying his holy day. If I may ask…”
“No, you may not,” Roan said. Stel nickered, and Jova hugged her knees. She could still hear every impact of her walking stick on Copo’s face, still feel them shuddering through her bones.
Only the wind spoke for a few seconds, like the Lady Fall laughing. Jova’s brow furrowed. What part of the Ladies’ plan was this?
“The girl, through no small set of happy accidents,” said Pontiff Zain, and there was a hint of disapproval in his voice, “Was going to become a zealot. If she struck down someone inside a house of the Ladies…”
“I’m certain she did not,” said Roan, riding away from Jova to talk privately with the pontiff.
“You’re certain,” Zain repeated.
“She would not do such a thing,” said Roan. A temporary silence. “However, I have not asked fully.”
“Look at her,” hissed Roan, and although his voice was low Jova could still hear him. “What kind of trauma do you think she has just gone through?”
“What kind of trauma do you think she just inflicted?” the pontiff of winter hissed back. “The blood is on her hands, Roan! On her staff!”
“You think a blind little girl is capable of- of what, killing a grown man?”
“If she passed the first test of zealotry, I have no doubts as to what she is capable of and who she learned it from.”
“Not to interrupt your personal dramas, gentle sirs,” said a third voice, Janwye. “But I am running out of time. If I am to speak with the Keep before-.”
“Enough! ENOUGH!” shouted Roan, and Jova felt herself back away instinctively. “There is a girl who is injured and frightened and needs to be taken care of! She is more important to me than that fat slug of a pontiff, Zain! Yes, more important than all of Alswell, Janwye!”
Jova felt that she should have been flattered, but all she could feel was frightened. She thought she had heard Roan’s anger before, but never truly had she heard such rage and pain in the man’s voice.
“Listen to yourself, Roan,” said Zain, his voice doubly low. “You are losing control. There are other things at stake here.” Jova could not hear the rest of what he said.
She kept waiting, kept hoping that Ma or Da would return. She could feel the blood crusting on her fingers and forearms, now.
“Rotten to the core,” said Roan, suddenly, his voice much louder than the pontiff’s. “Not our concern.”
“If that is what you think,” said Zain, and his voice rose too, “Then leave this city.”
Stel’s hooves stamped on the ground, like frustrated hammers on a shattering anvil. “You would abandon me now, brother?”
“You are not being abandoned, Roan. Be calm and trust me.” A heavy sigh came from the cluster of grown-olds, presumably from Zain. “Janwye, where are the travelers you came with? The other fieldmen?”
“North and west, in a farming village on the jungle paths,” said Janwye. “But I don’t understand…”
Zain talked over her. “You will go there, Roan.”
“Where the zealots of the jungle will ambush and kill me?”
“Where the zealots of the jungle will join you. Janwye, you shall receive your audience as soon as is possible. Tonight, if I can. Make your best case, because once you step into the chamber of the Holy Keep I cannot help you. Roan, take your mounts, take as many supplies as you can. Leave quickly, before…before incriminating evidence is found. You are going west.”
Jova felt lost. She was eavesdropping on a conversation far beyond her magnitude, far beyond anything she had ever experienced.
“Why?” said Roan. “What do I tell the zealots that ask why I uprooted my entire business here?”
“You will tell them,” said Zain. “That you, and your little girl, are going to save Alswell.”
Veer jerked Chaff’s head to the side, holding his face so that he had to look directly at the caravan of wagons trundling down the road. “You see, you see it?”
Chaff nodded, standing on the big guy’s back to get a better look. The bright colors and floral lace of the Alswell wagons stood out plainly among the more conservative Shira Hay tarps, and that wasn’t even mentioning the entourage of alsknights walking beside them. They weren’t exactly subtle.
“The caravan moves about once every two or three days, to a different part of the city,” said Lookout, dangling her feet over the edge of the roof. Her owlcrow wheeled overhead, and Lookout had a glazed, distracted look in her eyes as she flipped its tabula over and over in her hands. “Dense areas, mostly, where the most people pass per day. Places where they got a lot of listeners. Unfortunately, also places with a lot of witnesses.”
She stood up, and beckoned from above. “Come on, keep moving. We need to follow them to know where they’re going to stop next.”
Chaff squinted as Lookout rose and walked away backwards, still flipping the tabula in her hands as she skipped without looking back over the gap in the roofs. His gaze followed Lookout, then the owlcrow, which was still circling in the overcast sky, beady eyes glinting.
“You see what he sees, yeah?” said Chaff, as he hopped off the big guy and walked down the street to keep pace.
Lookout just grinned. “Sharper than you look,” she said.
Chaff’s hand edged back towards the tabula at his belt. It would have been a great help to see what the girl saw; it would do no end of good in helping find her. Chaff just wished he knew how to do it.
The boy looked back up at Lookout, the question forming on his lips, but the girl had already looked away. The conversation was over. Chaff wasn’t going to ask any more questions, not if he didn’t want to arouse suspicion.
As Chaff’s hand left the tabula, he felt, not for the first time, his curiosity prickle. He had had no idea tabula could borrow the vision of others; what else could the little amber disks do? What power did they hold?
And why did everyone have one?
Chaff felt like he was looking into the hollow of a hollow, at a thousand glittering amber disks beckoning to him, so many details inside of details that they threatened to overwhelm him. Asking why people had tabula was like asking why people were alive at all.
“You coming or nope-not, Chaff?” said Veer, punching Chaff’s shoulder. She giggled. “Don’t think so hard, I think I see-see your brains leaking out yo’ ears.”
He did his best to laugh, but he couldn’t bring himself to meet Veer’s eyes.
The path they took led down to the waterfront. Chaff did his best to hide behind the big guy and sneak past the stalls without the alsknights noticing, but when he saw Veer walking boldly down the road he straightened and followed behind her.
“They don’t care about us, yeah?” said Chaff, just to make sure, in a hushed whisper. His eyes never left the lances in the fieldmen’s hands. “They not gonna hurt us?”
“Too proud,” said Veer. She spoke normally, as they followed close behind in the little bubble of space the caravan left in its wake. “That’s what Hurricane says. Them in their shawls and silks don’t give a shitting shit about urchins like us.”
Chaff rubbed the big guy’s side, and felt the camelopard twitch at his touch. No matter how tender or frequent his apologies were, wounds had been left by his abrupt command of the beast. “What about big guy? Last time they saw him they wanted to…to…”
“Take him? They’d done do it, too, if they thought no one would see.” Veer clapped Chaff on the back. “They wouldn’t-won’t in the street. The farmers need Shira Hay. Ain’t no nomad gonna help them if they see the fieldmen ‘tack us on our turf.”
Chaff wasn’t entirely sure what Veer meant by that; he had been on both sides of attacks by fellow plainsmen in Shira Hay, and no one seemed to have any problem with that. He supposed that was what Hadiss called politics.
“What about when they think no one is watching?” asked Chaff, as the street opened onto the banks of the Gammon. A man wearing a shawl that went all the way down to his elbows barked orders to his men, and then reclined back inside his palanquin. Veer took a step back at that, and Chaff followed her cue, hiding in the shadows beneath the eaves of a riverfront shop.
“If no one’s watching,” said Veer, darkly. “It’s them that should be worried, not us.”
Chaff didn’t ask any more questions after that. He retreated into the corner, brushing the big guy’s hair, eyes flickering around. They were near the edges of the sprawling library complex, a couple minor bridges spanning the river, cheap imitations of the Gammon. A couple off-streets provided ample space for Chaff to duck in and hide, although he didn’t know if the big guy would fit, and worst case scenario this section of the river had a long open space for the big guy to run. In his experience, the big guy could outrun just about anything so long as nothing else got in the way.
Lookout dangled her feet from the rooftop above them. “We do this every few days,” explained Lookout. “Keep tabs on where they are, what they’re doing, what their pattern is. Veer, how you doing?”
“Done-doing fine,” the urchin girl said, her tongue poking through the hole in her teeth as she surveyed the caravan with furrowed eyebrows. She didn’t say anything else.
“Veer looks for ways in, Bull and Hurricane take notes on who they might have to fight, and I…well, I look out.”
“What am big guy and I supposed to be doing?”
“You are our new runaway guy. You look for quick exits, escape routes, anything that can get us out of here in a hurry if things get messy- and I guarantee that things will get messy.”
Chaff chewed his lip. “Well, how does you know that?”
“’Cause I know a lot more about this business than you do,” said Lookout, and she seemed almost smug about it.
The boy scoffed, and turned aside. Look for exits? He had already done that. It seemed silly that the urchin’s crew needed someone to do such an automatic job for them.
Chaff yawned, scrubbing his eyes. The pale light of dusk was starting to fade away, and the exhaustion was beginning to catch up to him. The bruises that were starting to swell across Chaff’s sides were no doubt Hook’s handiwork, and two races in one day were proving to be more than Chaff could handle.
“What you think ‘bout-a-bout waiting by the river?” said Veer. “Wait for them to do their rounds, come in from a side they ain’t expecting.”
“They’d clear us out the moment they saw us,” said Lookout, shaking her head. “And if anybody has a winter animal we’re dead in the water. No, no go.”
“What ‘bout-a-bout a listener? They start a shout, somebody shout back and distract ‘em while I go ‘round-a-round back…” continued Veer, in a low mutter.
Chaff spoke up, suddenly. “Who was the old runaway guy?”
“Hmm?” said Lookout, distractedly.
“Who was the old runaway guy? You said I was the new one. Who was the old one?”
Veer looked nervous, but Lookout just smirked. “Go on up there and ask him yourself,” said Lookout, pointing to the caravan. Chaff followed her finger and saw a brown-skinned boy, scrawny to the point of emaciation, wash a bundle of grey clothes in the river. A collar looped around his neck, and the skin in-between his shoulder blades was a twisted mat of scar tissue.
He did not once look up as Chaff stared at him, and kept his eyes trained on the ground and the water whenever he walked. Chaff shivered, and it was not just from the autumn cold. He was beginning to doubt if running with Hurricane’s crew was a good idea after all.
“Take it as a lesson to be learned,” said Lookout. “He didn’t run away fast enough.”
Chaff looked down at the ground. What was the real lesson? If he didn’t run fast enough, would he be caught, or would he be left behind?
It was only his friends that could betray him, not his enemies.
He jumped as Lookout landed next to him with a heavy thud. “Getting tired of this sitting around,” she said, stretching her arms. “You guys up for a closer look?”
“That’s not such a good idea, yeah?” said Chaff, hesitantly. He rubbed his shoulders, and averted Lookout’s suddenly demanding glare. “The boys is always saying, don’t get close to the fieldmen. They work you hard, the fieldmen. Make you so miserable you wish you is dead.”
“You can’t be part of this crew if you’re scared,” said Lookout. She walked right up to Chaff, until they were almost nose to nose, her voice was a low whisper. “We’re doing big things here. You’re either all-in or you’re out, no middle ground. We can’t risk it.”
Chaff quailed, his fingers drumming on the tabula in his belt, and the big guy tossed his head beside them. Chaff’s gaze met Lookout’s, and he saw in her eyes the same manic expression that had been in Hook’s. His bruises began to throb, despite himself.
“I’m in,” croaked Chaff, gripping the big guy’s fur very tightly. “All in.”
An easy smile returned to Lookout’s face. “Knew you’d say that. See? Everything’s good. The way you’re hanging onto your tabula, they’ll never be able to rip it out of your hands.”
Chaff laughed weakly, although his grip only tightened. It wasn’t his tabula he was worried about.
Veer clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry-worry,” she said, smiling. “If I didn’t know no better, I’d say Tattle and Lookout had fallow in the same hollow. Both fallborn, both pretty-pretty smart, both…” Veer gestured, jaw stretched as she searched for the words.
“Pushy?” offered Chaff.
“Yeah,” said Veer, shoving Chaff forward so that they could keep up with Lookout. “Pushy.”
Chaff walked forward hesitantly as they neared the Alswell caravan, still holding her tabula close to him, as if he could shield it with his body. They were so close that he could hear snippets of their conversation, smell the food cooking inside their tents.
“Hey, hey, Chaffy Chaff,” said Veer. She put a hand on Chaff’s forearm and the boy twitched. “Don’t hold it like that. Next time, hide your tabula somewhere safe. It better that way.” She grinned. “No one can take it even if they catch you.”
“Hide it somewhere else? Don’t keep it on me? Like some animal?” said Chaff. He cocked his head. “That what you do, then, yeah?”
Veer put a finger to her lips, and Chaff shook his head and kept walking.
As the big guy followed behind him, Chaff could hear the camelopard’s stomach rumbling. It was a good sign; the big guy’s stomach only rumbled after he had eaten. Chaff patted him on the side, and the big guy tossed his head, a bass rumble emerging from his throat. When he looked back at Chaff, his eyes were back to their lazy, hooded stare.
Chaff smiled. “I like this. Everything normal, yeah? Everything good.”
The big guy grunted in response. It was probably a yes, although Chaff could never really tell.
“What the what you doing, Chaffy?” said Veer, pushing on his shoulder. “Not so-so close!” The ragged urchin girl took Chaff’s hand and led him to the riverbank, into the muddy shallows. “Over by the water, that’s it. They don’t suspect nothing if all we doing is getting a drink.”
Chaff yelped as he stepped into the frigid waters, but he grew numb to the cold within minutes, and the mud felt good on the soles of his feet. The fieldmen seemed not to care that two urchin children were playing in the water, although Chaff caught one or two surreptitiously evaluating the big guy. An Alswell announcer started to shout, his voice high and loud, as dusk began to fall. More nonsense about the tyranny of the one called Ironhide.
The mud sucked at his feet as Chaff stepped around, the water up to his ankles. He made a mental note that escape via the river was only a last chance resort, and laughed as the big guy sloshed through the water. His laugh died quickly in the odd quiet, unease crept over him as he looked around. “Where’s Lookout?”
Veer, standing next to him, looked hesitant to say anything. Chaff followed her gaze, and jumped, splashing water over both of them, when he saw Lookout stepping right up to one of the Alswell slaves.
He strode two paces through the water, with half a mind to walk up and figure out what was going on, when Veer put a hand on his shoulder. He twisted, trying to calm the jitters in his gut, and met Veer’s eyes. The girl shook her head once, her mouth drawn in a thin-lipped frown.
Chaff waited, not willing to speak, searching Veer’s eyes for an answer. The possibility of betrayal loomed in the back of his head, and he could not dismiss it.
He turned back to Veer, scanning the whole scene. None of the fieldmen seemed to have noticed, still shouting at the top of their lungs at passersby in the streets, but if a patrolling alsknight came back and saw Lookout, then that was it. If Lookout was arranging some kind of double cross, Chaff had no easy out.
The boy caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He twisted, already taking steps to pull his feet out of the muck, but then he stopped. It was Lookout who had moved.
She had touched the slave—the old runaway guy, Chaff realized—tenderly on his back. The slave did not look up, did not move, did not react in any way, but still Lookout traced the scars on his skin. Chaff could not see her expression, but her hand moved lightly, daintily, gently.
A new question was in Chaff’s eyes when he turned back to Veer, but the urchin girl just shook her head once more.
And then he heard the shout.
“Thieves near the slaves! Alsknights, to arms!” Heavy leather boots slapped against the stones as the shouting alsknight began to run. “Walsh, subdue her.”
The tabula’s vibration seemed to find its way into the alsknight’s voice, and no sooner had he spoken did the slave boy straighten and attack. There was no restraint in his action, no semblance of technique or strategy. The slave’s limbs flailed violently, so hard that Chaff could barely see Lookout through the foam; he caught one glimpse of the boy’s water-streaked face, locked in its eternal, mournful grimace, before both disappeared under the river.
That was the least of Chaff’s problems. Two more alsknights dashed at them from the wagons, the rustle of their chainmail a sinister steel whisper as they ran. Chaff moved automatically, splashing through the water to haul himself onto the big guy’s back. He reached out for Veer, slippery fingers trying to catch onto Veer’s hand as the big guy reared and shrieked. Even slogging their way out of the river, the big guy was faster than two men on foot…
Sound shone and light echoed in an explosive mess across the river as the two alsknights each gripped their palms tight, and blurred forms galloped out of the foam of the now turbulent river.
“Go big, big guy!” screamed Chaff, using both of his sweating hands to hold the big guy’s tabula. “GO BIG!”
He would not be a slave. Not then, not now. Not until he found her.
There was a clap like thunder as the big guy bounded out of the river, the water around his hooves evaporating into steam as he charged onto the street. The electors emerging for their night debates and the hunters returning from their day hunts scattered as the big guy pounded through the street.
Clinging onto the big guy’s neck, Chaff turned to see the two alsknights galloping after him, their faces cold and intent. Sweat broke out on the back of Chaff’s neck. It wasn’t the fieldmen he was scared of. At least, not now.
Six Alswell slaves pursued him as well, running so fast that each step looked like it was breaking their own legs. Never had Chaff seen someone—something—run that fast. A burly man, with a face so disfigured by scars that Chaff could not even see his expression, reached out as he began to near the big guy, his red mouth open wide as he sucked in breath. He made no sound as he ran but a desperate wheezing.
“Turn, turn, turn, turn!” shouted Chaff, tugging on the big guy’s neck to send him careening down the nearest street, away from the river and into the inner city. The camelopard’s hooves scrabbled on the cobblestones, and Chaff clenched his teeth so hard his tongue began to bleed.
Their momentum carried them in a wide arc into the street, knocking over more than one stall preparing for the evening market in their mad dash. Chaff heard several more consecutive crashes as the Alswell slaves hurtled into walls, buildings, other people. He looked over his shoulder.
It had barely slowed them down a second.
And close behind them rode the alsknights, not even winded. Six slaves meant three tabula on each, and their own mounts. Chaff’s head swam. How was it even possible to command four different living things at once?
His head snapped back forward. The big guy dodged past pedestrians and stalls, not out of any concern for their fellow citizens but simply because a collision would have slowed him down. The slaves had no such qualms; they plowed through the market, and while they moved with relentless strength and speed, they were beginning to lose ground.
The alsknights, on the other hand, were beginning to gain it.
A fall horse leaped so high for a moment it seemed to be galloping on air. The alsknight atop it reached for the mace dangling at his side, and Chaff tensed. He was far enough ahead that melee weapons would have been useless. Yeah?
It was only as the alsknight swung the mace forward that Chaff saw the glint of amber at the mace’s head.
Something exploded out of the mace, hurtling forward with momentum that did not decrease as the thing grew and grew and grew and landed with such a forceful thud that it cracked the stones on the street with the impact.
It trumpeted, long white tusks sharp and glinting, barreling through the street so fast that the stalls literally exploded into shards of wood and cloth as it passed.
The big guy began to move, and the thrill of fear Chaff felt passed through to the camelopard, but nothing either of them could do could prevent the impact. Numbly, as the creature crashed into the camelopard’s side, all Chaff could think was five tabula. The alsknight had shown complete and total control of five tabula without breaking a sweat.
He skidded across the ground, his bruises flaring and screaming in protest. A hot pain began to throb at the base of his spine, and Chaff could see nothing but red and black as he rolled on the cobblestones, trying to get his bearings.
Chaff saw, dimly, the silhouettes of the alsknights surround him: one on the fall horse, the other on some slim, sinuous steed. He groaned, trying to rise, his hand scrabbling over his belt to keep her tabula safe.
The alsknight on the sinuous animal dismounted. Instead of a mace by his belt, he had a sword. He drew it. The blade distorted until Chaff saw four of them, floating in various positions over his head.
And then someone bashed the alsknight across the head and the sword clattered to the street, harmless. Chaff blinked, hope lighting a fire in his hazy mind, but the movement was still too fast for him to see.
Another blurred figure—or was it the same one?—dragged the other alsknight off his mount. More beat the approaching slaves into submission, and the fieldmen in their heavy armor found themselves in a hurricane of quick blows and body shots.
A smile found its way onto Chaff’s lips. Kennya Noni. The fighters of Shira Hay.
“The fuck you think you’re doing?” snarled a male voice, with a familiar Shira Hay twang. “Tear up a whole street going after a kid.”
“Who do you think you are?” shouted another voice, female. “You horde your food, you steal our people, you march into our city, and you expect us to just give you help when you come begging for it?”
“You expect us to die for you,” said yet another voice. “When you go after us on our own land?”
Politics. It was all politics.
No matter how many tabula they had, the fieldmen were outnumbered. Their faces drawn and pensive, they backed away, not quite running but clearly retreating, and Chaff found himself helped up by a myriad of hands as his head finally began to clear.
“Big guy,” he mumbled, staggering to the prone camelopard’s side. His vision hadn’t cleared yet, but he saw red. Too much red.
“The elephaunt gored him good,” said one of the fighters, taking off the bandages on his wrists to wrap the wounds on the big guy’s side. The fighter opened his mouth to say something else, but when he saw Chaff’s expression he fell silent. “He’ll be fine,” the fighter muttered, quietly, and he stood and left without another word.
Chaff knelt by the big guy’s side, too exhausted to even move from their place in the middle of the street. The crowd ebbed and flowed around him, although no one seemed to notice him. They had fought out of hate for the foreigners, not love for him.
His lungs hurt, his legs hurt, his back hurt. There wasn’t even a distinction between what Hook’s beating had given him and the rest of the day anymore; his entire body felt like a giant bruise. He closed his eyes, trying to block out the pain.
Then Chaff heard footsteps near him, and when the drip-drip of water near him grew to be too much he opened his eyes and looked.
Lookout stood next to him, water dribbling from her clothes onto the street. Her owlcrow still circled up in the sky above her, which would explain why Lookout had her eyes closed while her head turned to Chaff. There were red marks around her neck.
“You alive?” she muttered, eyes still closed, her voice low and gravelly.
“Yeah,” said Chaff.
She nodded. Chaff waited, looking around, even as a sinking feeling began to open up in his gut.
He had reached for her when they were leaving the river, but when he had seen the alsknights mounted he had panicked and…and…
“Lookout, where’s Veer?” asked Chaff, hoarsely.
Lookout didn’t speak for a long time. Finally, she said, “Didn’t run fast enough.”
Chaff sat on the ground, his head spinning and his ears ringing. I guess we friends now, Veer had told him.
And only friends could betray friends.
The food was, despite Chaff’s most extreme misgivings, good: a stew that was rich and creamy, with chunks of white meat and wild mushrooms. Tattle watched him, grinning, as he ate. On his part, Chaff did not look up. He took his food very seriously.
“Gobble up,” said Hurricane, carrying a hefty stone the size of a watermelon into the hut. He looked at Chaff, and shook his head ruefully. “The best we got and you go on and feed half it to your horse out there. What you, boy, crazy or somewhat?”
Chaff didn’t answer. The big guy got his half first, and then him. It made sense, in case they took the food away.
Another boy walked in behind Hurricane, this one carrying the brick fragments of some old and broken Shira Hay building. He was a couple years Chaff’s senior, with a thick, heavyset face and a single golden piercing on his lower lip.
Of the three of them, he did the trick. Chaff looked up and stared as the boy walked past, and the boy’s lidded eyes glared as he passed.
“Just put it over there, with the rest. We’ll have to move them soon, anyway,” said Tattle, pointing towards the slowly growing stack in the corner of the hut. “Bull, Chaff, I don’t think you’ve been officially introduced.”
The boy with the lip piercing glared at Chaff, as if daring him to explain why he was worth the time.
“Bull doesn’t talk much,” said Tattle, helpfully.
Chaff put the bowl down and met Bull’s steady gaze. He coughed, once, the movement sending waves of pain through his bandaged sides, but he met Bull’s eyes with a glare that was just as cold.
“And neither, apparently, does Chaff,” sighed Tattle. “Alright, break it up, you two lovebirds. Bull, outside, come on. We’re not even halfway done. You, Chaff? Finish quick, I need to get you up to speed. The complete tour, as it were.”
At the prospect of a tour, Chaff stiffened. He remembered his last tour guide through Shira Hay. He didn’t need another one.
“Don’t look so pensive,” said Tattle, clapping him on the shoulder. “It’ll be fun.” She stood and walked outside, stretching her arms behind her back as she shouted, “Lonwal! Stop playing with your dick and get out here!”
Hurricane passed by Chaff, his face dark. Chaff watched him kick aside a straw bedroll as he walked outside, and made a mental note never to cross the big man. Well, another mental note.
Chaff ate furtively, like a cathound in an alleyway. He kept looking over his shoulder, hunched protectively around his meal. It was a good thing he ate like that, too, or else he never would have noticed Veer as she crawled in through the windows.
The skinny girl was light on her feet; she landed on all fours, lithe, like a fall lion. The crack in the window she had slid through had been tiny, and yet despite that and the shards of sharp glass bordering the opening Veer was unscathed. Chaff supposed that was all part of being a “door maker.”
Veer glanced towards the open door, but no one was entering. She grinned at Chaff. “Told I told you that we ate good. Tattle and Hurricane, they watch out for us.”
Chaff wiped a bit of stew from the corner of his mouth and licked it off his finger. “So long I does as I’m tell’d, yeah.”
“So it ‘ficial now? You our runaway guy?”
“The big guy your runaway guy, yeah?” said Chaff. He looked out the window to where the big guy was browsing on a stack of stolen hay, and then glared at Veer. “Dunno why you needs me at all.”
Veer stuck her hands in her pockets and rotated on her heel, starting to walk towards the door. “Well, hey, hey, if you don’t want to do this no more, I’ll go tell Tattle…” She looked back at him and grinned through the hole in her teeth.
Chaff looked aside and picked up his bowl again. With a start, he realized he was smiling. He screwed his face up into a scowl immediately. He would not let his guard down again.
“Watch it, watch it, you got your grouchy face on,” said Veer, bending down to look Chaff in the eye. She got so close to him that Chaff had to lean back to get out of her face (or, rather, get her face out of his).
“It’s my face. My grouchy face is my face, yeah?” said Chaff, huffily.
“Naw,” said Veer, leaning even in closer to Chaff, clearly enjoying how uncomfortable he was. “It look like-a-like it don’t fit right. You gotta smile side to side, like this!” She grinned, her lips stretched wide, her teeth a dirty yellow but her eyes bright and wide.
Chaff bared his teeth in what could have been interpreted as a smile before gulping down the rest of his stew and pushing the bowl away. It was clear he wouldn’t be able to savor his meal in peace, but Chaff would have to have been just plain stupid if he let food go to waste.
“You get off me now,” said Chaff, trying to push Veer out of the way, but she wouldn’t budge. She was still grinning like a loon. “Or I fight you off, yeah?”
“Ooh, Chaff, Chaffy-Chaff, he big and strong,” said Veer. Her eyes darted to the bandages around his wrists. “Aw, you Kennya Noni?”
“That’s right,” said Chaff, puffing up his chest.
Veer pushed him down with ease. “You wraps all white and pretty, like you done did wash ‘em four times today. Holy hollows, they could be the wraps of the king he-self.” She bent down and whispered in his ear, “They ain’t Kennya Noni wraps, though. Kennya Noni wraps is dirty.”
Chaff gulped. “Yike,” he muttered, as Veer pressed close against him. He wasn’t sure what else to say.
And then Veer decked him in the face. Chaff’s head hit the floor, and he clutched his cheek, his head spinning, as Veer hopped off him and danced away, guffawing. She hadn’t hit him that hard; after Hook’s beatings, Chaff could definitely tell a friendly punch from an unfriendly one, but all the same his jaw stung.
“You Kennya Noni or not, Chaff?” shouted Veer, and she ducked under the arms of a protesting Tattle as she ran out the door.
Veer was moving too fast for Chaff to think. He jumped up, dashing to keep pace with Veer as she raced out the door. Oddly enough, Tattle stepped aside and let Chaff run past without comment, although Hurricane looked substantially irritated as Chaff blew past him.
With a flick, Chaff took the big guy’s tabula from his belt. A brief twinge of nausea surged through his head, but the fresh air and the wind racing past him did more than make up for it. The big guy crackled out of thin air, in a flash of light blinding enough that Chaff had to avert his eyes. Seeing the boy running, the camelopard began to sprint immediately.
Before he could stop himself, Chaff laughed. He jumped! Onto a rotting wooden crate, off its splintering frame to the sill of the nearest window, and then once more onto the big guy’s back. His momentum threatened to send him tumbling over the big guy’s side, but the camelopard turned as Chaff jumped and the boy ended up sprawled but secure on him.
“Tricky, tricky!” shouted Veer as she looked over her shoulder. She did not pause for a second as she ran backwards. “Can Chaffy Chaff catch me with his tricks?”
Chaff, clambering into a sitting position, gave the big guy a hard squeeze. “Come on, come on, big guy,” he said, breathless but more exhilarated than he had felt in years. “We’re not gonna let her beat us, yeah?”
As if she had heard them, Veer stuck her tongue out at them and began to scale the sides of the nearest building. They were nearly out of the slums: any farther and big guy would have to run through the main thoroughfare of the city. Chaff steeled himself, his sides still aching but his heart racing. There was a fire in him that kept him awake, alert, and alive.
He stood on the big guy’s back, balancing precariously as the camelopard pounded forward. Chaff’s eyes darted from the eaves to the windows to Veer. At last, he found something that might work: a low-hanging clothesline, only a few seconds away. His fingers curled and uncurled. He would only get the one chance.
“See you, big guy!” shouted Chaff, laughing uproariously, and he jumped. His hands caught the clothesline, and the string pressed so hard into his fingers that he thought it might cut them off. The torque sent his feet flying while he stretched the string taut, and just as he swung upwards he let go.
For a second, Chaff flew. There was nothing but air above him, air below him, air on all sides. He was freer than he had ever been in his whole life.
Then he started to fall down. He wheeled his arms, gasping for breath as he sailed through the air, and then with a heavy crunch he landed on the roof, his feet nearly folding underneath him.
Chaff did not stop. He kept running, whooping and shouting as Veer turned to look in amazement. “You see that?” Chaff shouted, in-between breaths as he practically fell across the roof. “Big guy, you see that?”
The camelopard brayed his approval.
When Chaff looked back, he saw that Veer had already stopped. His feet, on the other hand, seemed to have no intention of slowing down. He twisted his body, trying to decelerate, but that only seemed to make his reckless skid worse as he crashed headlong into Veer.
Chaff’s stomach dropped as the two of them tumbled off the roof.
The big guy caught the back of Chaff’s shirt in his teeth just as Chaff grabbed Veer’s hand; there was a brief lurch as the camelopard pulled both of them up, before Chaff’s old shirt gave and ripped. They tumbled in a heap on the ground, bruised but not broken.
“Thanks, big guy,” said Chaff, breathlessly, massaging a battered rump.
“Chaff,” said Veer, flopping over onto the ground and laying her arms wide. “You dumb.”
“I catch you,” said Chaff. “I ain’t that dumb, yeah?”
“Yeah,” said Veer, and she giggled.
Chaff started to laugh, too, which made Veer laugh even more, too, and suddenly both of them were rolling on the floor in fits, tears in their eyes, for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Chaff didn’t know how long they laid there, laughing, only that it was far too short a time.
A shadow suddenly stood over him. “You look like you had fun,” remarked a dry voice, and suddenly all of Chaff’s humor vanished. He leaped to his feet, hands on his tabula, but Veer putting a steadying hand on his wrist. She stood, too.
“How you doing-a-doing, Lookout?” she asked. “Chaff, this is Lookout. She our point man.”
“What’s that on her head?” asked Chaff, glaring at the strange second pair of eyes on Lookout’s forehead. They were like Hadiss’s spectacles, but with frames of leather and not wire.
“Goggles. I filched them from someone you don’t know,” said Lookout. She whistled, and a feathery shape dove out of the sky and onto her shoulder. Chaff flinched. “I visited the hideout and you weren’t there. Tattle didn’t know where you were. I did.”
Veer stuck her tongue out at Lookout. “Congratu-atulations. I take him back now.”
“Oh, no, no,” said Lookout, putting hands on Veer’s shoulders and turning her around as she started to walk away. “Tattle’s got a headache now. You show him the caravan, we’re already out here anyway.”
Veer pouted. “I don’t even know where it is.”
“I do,” said Lookout, smugly.
Veer looked to her side. “You okey-dokey with that, Chaff?”
He blinked. Honestly, he hadn’t been paying very much attention to the conversation; he was too busy looking at the scarf around Lookout’s neck. It had the same golden inlay and weave of the elector’s scarves, but was beige-white instead of red. He had never seen anything like it.
“Are you one of them?” asked Chaff, unable to keep it to himself.
Lookout smirked. “No, though I should be. Shame on you, new kid. The scarves are Shira Hay tradition; all nomads should wear them, even those who aren’t part of the Libraries.” The owlcrow on her shoulder squawked as if in agreement, and Lookout shushed the bird and shooed it away with her hand.
“If they tradition, then why does nobody else wears them?” asked Chaff. It was an honest question.
“Because they’re all dumber than me,” snapped Lookout. She sounded irritated. “Are we moving on or what?”
“We moving,” said Veer, pulling Chaff along. “Come on, Chaffy Chaff. You see the full caravan, what they got inside, your brain gonna go booshhh.” She moved her hands around her like her head was exploding.
Chaff looked back to the big guy, grinning. He heaved himself on, swinging himself lightly onto the big guy’s back and adjusting into a comfortable, familiar position. From on high, he was taller than even Lookout. He looked down at Veer, grinning. When she looked back up to him, his grin faded slightly. His stomach churned.
He paused. His voice cracked when he spoke. “You wanna ride?”
Veer looked at him, a look of genuine surprise on her face.
Chaff babbled and stuttered on. “Cause we need to see if there’s room for two, yeah? I’m part of the crew, yeah? We gotta…we gotta test it out.”
With a light hop and a skip, without another word, Veer swung herself onto the camelopard, just behind Chaff. The big guy shifted at the new weight, glaring around at Chaff and trying to shake Veer off, but the girl grabbed Chaff around the waist and clung on for dear life, whooping.
“Lookout, stop staring!” shouted Veer, when the big guy finally settled down.
“OK,” said Lookout. She didn’t.
Chaff squeezed the big guy’s side and prompted him to follow as Lookout started to walk away, but the camelopard stayed put. “Come on, big guy,” said Chaff, pushing his neck. “We gotta go!” He was about to turn to Veer and apologize when the camelopard spat in his face.
Glaring, Chaff wiped the spit off with the back of his hand. “What? You too lazy to go with two people or something?”
The camelopard tossed his head and looked away.
“Just walk, big guy!”
“I can get off if you want me to,” said Veer, hesitantly, as the big guy began to fold his legs under him and sit down on the street.
“No, no, no,” said Chaff, distractedly. “Big guy, move!”
The camelopard did not budge. Instead, he cast an annoyed look in Chaff’s direction and pulled his lips back again.
“You stubborn sometimes, you know that?” growled Chaff.
They sat, staring at each other, both of them refusing to budge until Veer said, “Hey, Chaff, why ain’t you just use your tabula?”
Chaff began to speak, but paused. He didn’t know what he was going to say. The thought of using the big guy’s tabula like that had never occurred to him.
He met Veer’s questioning stare, and his mouth went dry. Would she take it as a sign of weakness if he didn’t? What would she tell Hurricane and Tattle when the crew’s runaway guy couldn’t even control his own steed? What would they do to him then?
“Yeah,” Chaff croaked, finally. His hand closed around the big guy’s tabula while the camelopard, oblivious to their conversation, flicked his ears and sunned himself. “Yeah, OK. I do that.”
His palms were sweating as he held the tabula. He looked once more to Veer, and saw only impatience and expectation in her face. Chaff closed his eyes and sighed. He didn’t know what he had been looking for.
“Big guy,” Chaff said, softly, so soft that he doubted the beast could hear him. His breath caught in his throat. “Get up.”
The world dissolved. It was nothing like the descrying or summoning; it was a thousand times worse. Chaff felt a pit open up inside his chest, eating into his heart, threatening to suck away everything he was. A chill snaked through his gut, and Chaff could see nothing but a blinding light. His whispered words echoed until they were deafening: get up, get up, get up.
And then it was over. The big guy was standing, his eyes wide, not moving. Chaff had fallen to the ground, and could only stare at the terrified expression in his friend’s face.
Veer dropped to the ground and touched his shoulder hesitantly. “Chaff, you OK?”
He raised his head and looked at Veer, mouth dry, as his thoughts came back into alignment. Then he groaned and let his head fall back onto the ground. She had definitely taken that as a sign of weakness.
“You go on and walk,” mumbled Chaff. “I catch up.”
Veer took one long look at him and then nodded, jogging away to meet Lookout. Chaff watched her go, his insides turning over inside of him.
“Big guy,” he said, and he heard the camelopard move. Chaff stood, the blood rushing to his head. He stumbled to the beast’s side and hugged one leg tightly, shaking. The big guy flinched. “I’m sorry,” Chaff said. He looked up at the camelopard, blinking rapidly. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
The big guy lowered his head and touched Chaff’s shoulder gently. The boy hugged the beast closer, and for a moment they stood in silence, as the cold drained from Chaff’s gut.
“Come on, big guy,” Chaff said, after a moment. He took a long, deep breath, and smiled. “I promise to never ever ever do it ever again. Let’s go now. Go forward, yeah? Always go forward, that’s right.”
He walked down the street, leaning on the big guy, trying to ignore the twisted feeling in his chest. Veer and Lookout were waiting; Veer waved, a wide smile on her face, and Chaff smiled back. She was kind to him, he knew, and when she smiled he couldn’t help but feel happier. She had made no move to take advantage of his weakness, and from the looks of it Lookout did not even know about the incident.
But, as he join the pair and walked down the street with them, Chaff couldn’t help but wonder what she was going to make him do next, and how much he might regret it.
“The road to the Temple is watched by the Ladies,” Da sang. “The Ladies! The Ladies! In Moscoleon! Both prayers and blessings alike, they shall these. They say these! They say these! In Moscoleon!”
Jova smiled as Da hummed the old song while he braided her hair. Perhaps a marble warrior’s weave was not so fitting for the occasion, but it was the only braid Da knew how to do.
“The zealots, they guard us, their arms crowned with feathers. With feathers! With feathers! In Moscoleon! Both peasants and lords shall dine together. Together! Together! In Moscoleon!” Da squeezed Jova’s shoulder. “All done now, little Lady. You look beautiful.”
Jova squeezed his hand back. “Thanks, Da.”
She felt Da’s fingers trace her palm. “Your hands are clammy,” he said, softly. “Are you nervous?”
“A little,” Jova admitted. She took a deep breath. “A lot.”
“You shouldn’t be,” said Da, hugging her and rocking her back and forth. “You already did the hard part, and if you’re to be believed you did it on accident.”
“Da, I did do it on-.”
“I know, Jova, I know. I’m just teasing you.” Da stroked her braid. “And there is no such thing as an accident, not here. If the Ladies chose this path for you, then they will guide you safely down it.”
Jova nodded glumly. It was a matter of faith, in the end. All the same…
“I don’t even know what the initiation ceremony will be like,” Jova said. “No one’s telling me. They all say it’s some sort of big secret.”
“Then a secret it shall be,” said Da. “And you will walk into it with your head held high, as proud as the Lady Spring herself. You are brave, my little Lady. Aren’t you?”
“Yes, Da.” Jova sighed. “Is Ma coming back soon?”
“Eventually,” said Da, vaguely. “You know how she gets. She’ll come back with a dead bearcat slung over her shoulder and blood all over her face, but she’ll come back.”
Jova paused, twiddling her thumbs together. “Is she still going to be angry at me?”
“No! No, no, no, Jova, she was never angry with you. She just gets…frustrated, at times.” Da took Jova’s hand as he stood up, and Jova brushed off her coza as she got to her feet. Her stomach lurched as she stood, and she had to rely on her walking stick for support.
It was a small movement: it did not seem as if Da had noticed. Jova straightened and smiled, clicking once to find where the door of the hut was and walking towards it.
“It’s at sun-down, yes?” asked Da, hesitantly. Jova could hear him walking just beside her. “I think you told me, but I suppose this old man’s memory is fading. It is- it is at sun-down, yes?”
“Yes, Da. I don’t know how long it’ll take.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you? I mean, just to walk you there…”
Jova put a hand on Da’s wrist. “I’ll be fine, Da. Honestly. Enjoy your holy day! I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Look at you,” said Da, and his voice was husky. “Not even twelve years and more mature than grown-olds twice your age.” He bent down to hug her again, and whispered, “Jova, by each of the Ladies Four, I am so proud of you.”
“Thanks, Da,” Jova said, and she kissed him on the cheek.
She felt Da stand, and heard him clearing his throat. “Alright, then, little Lady. Go on, shoo! Get it over with! I want you to have your feathers on your arm before your Ma comes back home, alright?”
Jova nodded, and turned to walk down the street. She waited until she heard Da returning to their tenant’s compound before turning the corner, towards Roan’s stables. She had time. There were some things she needed to do.
A chill wind made her shiver, and she turned her ears to the sky. Was that the Lady Fall, whispering an answer to her prayer? Or was it just…the wind?
Jova could not answer these questions, but neither could she help from thinking them. She tapped her way across the Temple Moscoleon, grand city of the Ladies Four, waiting for them to give her a definitive answer.
There was none—not that Jova had been expecting one.
The city was quiet on its holy day. Jova listened, and heard the soft sizzle of peppers and rice, the murmured prayers of the supplicants at the temples, and below it all even the steady trickle of blood on the altar. Jova shivered, and hugged her shoulders. That was a part of Moscoleon Jova had never been able to accept.
Is that what the Ladies demanded for their answers? Sacrifice? Jova felt her hands move unconsciously towards her blindfold. How much more did they want from her? How much sacrifice did the gods demand before they started giving answers?
How much was Jova willing to give?
She walked forward, trying to force the questions out of her head, scratching her chest to get rid of the restless itch stirring inside of it. She would talk to Roan first, then go to Copo’s temple: just putting one foot in front of the other, without worrying about the road ahead.
Just outside Roan’s stables, as she walked the familiar path to the compound, she heard something odd. It sounded like one of Jova and Arim’s sparring matches, the crack and thud of wood on wood. She edged forward cautiously, her walking stick raised just a little bit higher in case she needed it. The wild boys had stopped harassing Roan years ago, but Jova was not so innocent anymore to believe they would disappear forever.
She heard Stel’s hooves cantering across the ground, and Roan’s labored breathing. Her brow furrowed. One animal, one person. There was no one else.
Again, there was a sharp crack. It wasn’t quite the sound of Jova’s walking stick hitting Arim’s spear; there was a snap to it that Jova could not identify, a thinner, keener sound.
Roan shouted and Jova jumped. She had never heard Roan speak so loudly and so harshly before.
“Atoa eri zak das, Raj Mal Azu!” he roared. Snap! Snap! Snap! “Sal iro eri Rho Hat Pan!”
He did not seem to be talking to her. Jova relaxed, slipping behind the edge of the door and listening. Perhaps it was not such a good time to talk to Roan, but Jova’s curiosity had been peaked.
Again, Roan shouted. “Gesh toh shira! Sal iro eri Rho Hat Pan!”
Rho Hat Pan was Roan’s old name: that much Jova knew. She wondered what the rest of the gibberish meant.
She heard footsteps approaching from the side and, bundled with nerves already, snapped out, hitting whoever approached once on the shoulder and then holding the walking stick to the stranger’s neck.
“You already beat the crap out of me once today,” said Arim, his voice sullen. “There’s no need to do it again.”
Jova lowered her walking stick immediately. “I’m sorry, Arim, I- I…” Jova’s mouth went dry, and her chest clenched. She didn’t know what to say.
“Need me to tell you what the horse freak is doing?” Arim’s voice was low, and not directed at Jova. He sounded both vindictive and exasperated.
“OK,” said Jova, meekly, still trying to find the right words to say.
“He’s practicing against a wooden dummy, with a whip. Long sandman whip, it’s got barbs on the end and everything. And he’s wearing all his Hak Mat Do get-up, even the saddle, even though…” Arim paused. “Never mind. Forget I said anything.”
“Part of your promise to Roan?” asked Jova, trying to smile. “You still scared of him?”
Arim didn’t laugh. He didn’t say a word.
Jova felt her heart sinking. She coughed, searching for something to say. “Look, Arim, about what happened…I’m sorry about…”
“What? What are you sorry about, Jova?” Suddenly, Jova felt rough hands push her to the ground, and heard Arim’s voice rising. “What do you want to apologize for?”
“Arim, please,” Jova hissed. “He’ll hear you!” She made no move to stand up.
“And why shouldn’t he?” Arim walked up to Jova. “What don’t you want him to hear?”
“I don’t know,” said Jova, and despite herself she felt tears behind her blindfold. “I just- I don’t- you’re making a scene, Arim.”
“Like you didn’t? Like you weren’t trying to be the miraculously gifted blind girl whenever we fought?”
“Arim, please,” said Jova, trying to keep her voice steady. “Please, don’t be mad at me.”
She heard Arim pacing around her, followed by a frustrated grunt as he kicked the ground. He began to stomp away, his footfalls heavy beside her. “Arim, wait!” Jova rose to her feet and followed, doing her best to at least jog to keep up.
Jova ran too fast. Her foot caught on something hard, and she tumbled to the ground, skidding on her knees.
She heard Arim’s voice above her, but as far as she could tell he made no move to help her up. “Well, Jova? I’m waiting.”
“It- it was an accident. I can’t convince Copo- the pontiff, I mean- otherwise. You’ll get a second chance, Arim. I promise!” Jova stood shakily. “I’ll tell him there’s someone else. I’ll put in a good word!”
“Oh, you’ll put in a good word.”
Jova didn’t say anything. There wasn’t anything else to say.
“You know, if it wasn’t for me, you would have never been able to fight like that. I gave you that practice! I did that! ME!” Arim’s voice was shaking. “Did you have to take it from me? Don’t you have enough already?”
Jova’s mouth opened in surprise. “What?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know. You’ve got everything. You and your cushy little job, your three meals a day. You’ve never been scared of going hungry, and you’ve got masters to watch out for you but they let you walk free. You’ve got people who act like your mom and dad, Jova, or at least as close as you’re going to get in this shithole we live in.” Arim pushed her again, as if daring her to fight back. “That was my one chance! You promised me, Jova! You promised I would be able to have that good of a life!”
“I do,” breathed Jova. “I still promise. I’ll keep my promise. That’s what friends do.”
Arim’s voice was low and full of contempt. “You don’t have friends. Just people who use you and pity you. Can’t you see that, Jova?”
Jova opened and closed her mouth, and the tears started to stain her blindfold. She took a deep breath, and grabbed the knot that was tied around the back of her head. She pulled it loose.
“No, Arim,” she said, slowly, the cloth limp in her hand as cold air rushed around her face. “I can’t see.”
“You freak,” whispered Arim, and he ran. Jova made no move to follow him. There was nothing to say to him even if she did.
She tucked the walking stick under her arm and bowed her head to re-do the knot, behind her ears and snugly over her face, just like Ma always did it. She bumped into a few things on the road as she walked, but honestly Jova did not care. She tied the blindfold tightly, so tight that it hurt.
“I don’t have everything, Arim,” she muttered, under her breath. “I might have a job and parents, but you have your eyes.” She kicked the ground, running her fingers through her hair, wishing she had been able to think fast enough to talk back to the wild boy. Vindictive anger boiled inside of her as she walked.
Da’s braid had come a little loose in the fall. Jova did her best to weave it back into place as she walked to Copo’s temple.
The pontiff was waiting for her. “Had a bit of a tumble, did we?” said Copo, as Jova made her way down the street.
Jova blushed. She felt at once embarrassed and annoyed.
“Ah, children,” said Copo, putting a hand on Jova’s back and ushering her inside the cool, musty interior of the building. “Not to worry, sweet one, the process will be quick.”
“Are you sure?” asked Jova. “I would think that something so important would be…bigger.” Her voice echoed off of the walls of the high-ceilinged temple. As far as she could tell, she and Copo were alone.
“You’ve earned your first feather in the selection, Jova,” said Copo, leading her on up to a flight of steps. Jova took them carefully. “But just the one. As such, it is rather a small affair, although insignificant? Hmm, no, I wouldn’t say that. When you earn your second and third feathers, though, then you shall have an audience. And should you earn your fourth feather, which you very well might, oh, yes, you would be graced by the presence of the Holy Keep herself.”
“But for now? For the first feather?”
“Only I shall be in attendance, for even the Lady Spring knows that only by recognizing our humble beginnings may we know how far we have risen,” said Copo, stroking Jova’s hair. “What a pretty braid! Did you do it yourself?”
“My- a friend helped,” said Jova. She felt dirty for lying in a temple, but hoped that the Lady Fall would forgive her the one secret.
“It is good to have friends,” said Copo, sagely.
“Yes,” said Jova, softly. “It is.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence.
Copo opened the door for Jova as the stairs leveled out, and she curtsied. “Thank you, sir,” she muttered, as she walked inside.
“So cultured, for a free girl,” said Copo, like a mother goosehen clucking over her brood. “Kneel here, go on. Mind your knees now, and just…relax. There is very little you will have to do. You have already proven yourself.”
Jova knelt, slowly, as she heard the low hum and the soft hiss of summer flies setting the torches alight. She heard the clatter of tabula, and Copo muttering to himself as the scent of burning incense began to drift to Jova’s nostrils.
Copo began to sing, circling her by the sound of it. His voice warbled and fluctuated, and he sounded like Roan and his funny foreign language, although his voice changed so much that Jova was having difficulty understanding what he was saying.
She gave up, letting the sound wash over her as she breathed deep the smoking incense. It stung her nostrils and had an acrid, bitter taste, but Jova got used to it very quickly. She thought of the Lady Fall, and made the circle on her forehead very quickly.
Of all the Ladies Four, she wanted to hear most from the goddess of secrets.
Copo’s chant continued, a low, steady hum that surrounded Jova and seemed to worm its way into her bones. She felt her whole body vibrating to the tune, and though she could see nothing of the room a pale blur filled her mind.
It had been so long since she had thought that way- in colors, and shapes. The presence of those thoughts felt almost alien to her.
And suddenly, Copo stopped, and the whispering images disappeared.
“I would show it to most,” said Copo. “But for now you will be allowed to hold it.”
Jova held out her hands, and took something hard, and round. Her fingers traced it, wondering what it might be. And then, her heart lurched.
It was a tabula.
As tabula went, it was the same size as the last one she had held in that glade so long ago, although now her hands had grown to the point that it could fit easily in one palm. She felt, in the center, a roughly hewn hole, big enough for her index finger to slip through. It was crudely cut, hacked and carved through the center.
“As a soldier of the temple, nay, soldier of the gods, you must open yourself in every way you can to the Ladies Four,” said the pontiff, his voice deep and booming.
Jova felt her stomach curl in revulsion at the idea. To cut through someone’s tabula like that felt like some horrid act of self-mutilation, as if someone had drilled through their own skull or as if…well, as if someone had gouged out their own eyes.
Copo took the tabula from her hand gently, and then Jova realized with a sinking feeling what was coming next. She broke into a cold sweat, and it wasn’t because of the burning incense or the small fires around her. What was she going to say? What was she going to do?
She didn’t know whether she should run or stay. She didn’t know whether to stop the ceremony now or let it go for as long as possible. She didn’t know what to do, and so, as Copo began to speak again, she did the only thing she could do. She prayed.
“Jova of the Temple,” he said. “Present your tabula.”
The child gangs segregated by gender; Chaff usually avoided the girls’ territory. The almost-grown-old Hurricane, however, strode past their curious (and at times sullen) glares without even looking. He walked while Chaff rode, and Chaff, who winced at every sudden movement, was grateful for it.
Chaff hunched closer to the big guy’s neck, a throb of pain flashing through his side. He rubbed the big guy’s fur. “Thinking you can make you’self any smaller?”
The camelopard tossed his head and kept his haughty vantage point, eyes flickering from child to child. He made no move to lower himself down.
“Yeah, OK,” said Chaff. “Keep an eye out, yeah. That’s fine. That’s good.”
Hurricane held up a hand, and Chaff reared the big guy in. “You see what I see?” said Hurricane, his voice low and guttural.
Chaff squinted, but could see nothing except for the everyday streets of Shira Hay. There were nomads trying to haggle off their bushmeat, urchins running underfoot, and a few garbage scraps someone had thrown out that Chaff would have to remember to come back for later. He couldn’t focus on the street anyway; he was too busy looking over his shoulder. The girls didn’t seem overtly hostile, but he couldn’t sit still with them behind him.
Hurricane snapped his fingers and Chaff jumped. “You done ogling?”
Chaff gave a noncommittal grunt. The street slang of Shira Hay was wide and varied, and he wasn’t quite sure what ogling meant. There was, however, something odd in the way Hurricane spoke, something Chaff had never heard in all his years in the city…
“Get your eyes back then, ‘ristocrat. You can court your pretty ladies later,” Hurricane said. He crossed his arms and stared out at the street again. “You see it yet or did that twerp beat the eyes out your head?”
The boy looked up to the big guy for help, but found none. He bit his lip. It was getting harder to ignore the pain in his side.
“The fieldmen,” said Hurricane. He pointed, and Chaff followed his finger towards the huddle of shawled men, with their escort of alsknights in their boiled leather boots and chainmail armor. He saw even a few slaves in attendance, marked by the brands burned on the back of their necks. He shuddered. If anything, that was enough reason for the boys to never try and invade the farmlands; an Alswell slave was a slave for life.
“Sons of bitches lined up over there, gold in them teeth and crumbs on them clothes,” said Hurricane. His prominent jaw was set, and his eyes were shadowed. “Go on and take yourself a good look. Farmers be raising up a fuss about king this, king that. What you think, boy? Think we should listen?”
Chaff stared at Hurricane for some time, unsure what the correct answer was.
“I’m listening,” said Hurricane. “I’m listening and I hear they scared.”
There was silence. Hurricane’s expression was unreadable. All Chaff could see in his face was something to be afraid of.
“Get on, boy,” Hurricane said. “Enough gawking. We got people to meet.”
Chaff nodded, watching Hurricane’s back as he walked away. His hand never left the big guy’s tabula, though. At the slightest hint of a trap, he had enough left in him to give the big guy the boost to run. Until then, though, Chaff followed, if only because it was easier than not. He had nowhere else to go, anyway. He doubted Hook would welcome him back with open arms if he returned.
Hurricane nodded to a wiry, thin girl as he stepped up to the entrance of one of the least run-down buildings. Chaff blanched.
“You know them?” he hissed.
Hurricane raised an eyebrow. “You scared of girls or somewhat?”
Chaff felt the heat rise to his cheeks. “There’s lines, that’s all. We don’t fuck with them, they don’t fuck with us, yeah?”
For some reason, Hurricane laughed. “No fucking with girls. That’s funny, ‘ristocrat. Why di’n’t you tell me you had a sense of humor?”
Chaff didn’t answer. He looked instead at the wiry girl, gauging her. She didn’t seem like too much of a threat, although she had a nasty look on her face as her gaze followed the big guy’s neck. Chaff couldn’t help but notice the way she held the shattered shard of brick in her fist, and tensed instinctively.
“You stay here wi’ your ride,” said Hurricane, cracking open the door. It was pitch black on the inside; the windows had all been boarded up. “The folks need rustling. Veer, make sure he don’t go nowhere.”
The girl guarding the door, presumably Veer, nodded. Her fingers tapped on her brick. It looked sharp. As Hurricane stepped inside, she sidled in front of the door, closer to the big guy. “Wazzat, wazzat, what kind of beastie you got there?” she asked, grinning and revealing gaps in her teeth.
Chaff tugged on the back of the big guy’s neck, and the camelopard took a few steps back just as the girl took a few steps forward. Chaff met her eyes, and after a moment the girl nodded. She didn’t come any closer.
“Ain’t no-nobody got tabula here ‘cepting-cept they own. Can’t seem to…hold onto ‘em.” And again, Chaff felt awfully uncomfortable about the amount of time Veer spent staring at the camelopard’s neck.
“He’s useful. Real useful. The big guy runs a lot faster than you, yeah? We get away always if you try to catch us, yeah?” Chaff said.
Veer drew herself up. “Maybe he do, maybe he don’t. We gon-gonna catch you either way. If Hurricane angry at you, he tear the whole city ‘part-a-part to find you. He knows where everyone is in all of Shira Hay.”
“It’s a hy-po-the-ti-cal,” said Chaff, using one of Hadiss’s favorite words. “Made up. Not going to happen.”
“Yeah, well, longs as it stays that way.” Veer spat on the ground.
The big guy flicked an ear and cast a disdainful look downward, which for him was normal behavior. He seemed at ease here, although Chaff couldn’t relax. His throbbing sides were bothering him, and his stomach was grumbling. “What you want from me, anyway?” he asked, after a stretch of silence.
“Dunno, dunno,” said Veer. “Hurricane wants you to stay, you stay. I trust him.”
That made Chaff pause. “Yeah?”
Veer nodded. “Yeah. Hurricane and Tattle and the rest of the crew, they good to me. I been having three meals a day for weeks. Good stuff too, not garbage shit fished out from the river. You do what Hurricane says, you eat like king and queen.”
Chaff could just imagine the kind of “good stuff” Veer preferred, a step up above the scraps and leftovers that the orphan urchins scavenged from the gutters. In his own head Chaff remembered custard tarts and honeyed oatmeal with almonds. Even fresh meat and clean water, out on the plains, had been preferable to Veer’s good stuff.
Veer spoke up. “Hey, hey, you got a name?”
Did he? Hadiss never really called him anything but young master, and he had been going by Stink or boy or thief or just now ‘ristocrat for so long that he had forgotten the sound of his own name. Was it even his, if it had been given by someone who had betrayed him, someone who he had betrayed?
“Chaff,” he said, finally. “But only my friends call me that.”
“Well, I guess you my friend, then, Chaff,” said Veer, grinning again. Her tongue poked through the gap in her teeth. “Lighten the lighten up, you got your grouchy face on.”
Chaff shifted, turning away from Veer. He didn’t get off the big guy’s back, but he made sure the urchin girl couldn’t see him as he drew out his other tabula. There was no getting around the inquisitive stares of the others in the child’s slums, but they were of less concern to him.
“Help me out a little now, yeah?” Chaff wiped the girl’s tabula, and felt the tingle of energy through his fingers. “Show me.”
It wasn’t so bad nowadays; Chaff felt only a mild twinge in his head as the murky shadows swirled on the amber surface. For three years, it had stayed dark and opaque, but Chaff hadn’t given up. He was still looking for her. He would give it back.
He could see only silhouettes in the tabula, obscured by darkness. It was impossible to get any real sense of form or shape from the image. But sometimes…
Sometimes, though, as the tabula hummed, he would hold it up to his ear and he would hear something underneath it all. People speaking, a dog barking, footsteps, chanting. And, on very special days, high laughter.
Chaff didn’t mind terribly that he could no longer see her smile, if that meant he could hear her laugh.
“What the what you got there?”
Chaff jumped and stuffed the tabula in his pocket immediately. Veer was standing on tiptoe, trying to peer at Chaff’s tabula, standing much too close to the big guy for Chaff’s comfort. Chaff tugged on the big guy’s mane for him to step aside, and glared at Veer. “You nose around in my business, nuh-uh, no good.”
Veer ignored him. “You got another tabula?” she asked, and she looked up at the sky. “Where your other beastie at? I wanna see, I wanna see!”
“I don’t have no other beastie,” snapped Chaff. He kept glancing backward, to make sure the big guy wasn’t walking back into a trap.
“Well, then, what you got there? You don’t have no slave, that’s for sure.”
Nothing seemed capable of perturbing Veer. Chaff curled over his tabula, trying to shield them from the girl’s view. He couldn’t let her be taken again. He had to find her.
And suddenly, Chaff had an idea.
Chaff cast a wary glance Veer’s way. “You say Hurricane can find anybody in Shira Hay, yeah? Anybody at all?”
“Yeah,” said Veer, reaching for her brick shard again. “Why? You think-thinking of running?”
“No,” said Chaff. He straightened up, his mind buzzing. Planning around these people could be so difficult. If he showed them her tabula before he put them in his debt, he would lose her for sure; if he did it after, he had no idea what he was walking into. Chaff stared at Veer for a few long seconds, chewing his lip.
He slipped the tabula back into his cloth belt and repeated, “No. I’m not going nowhere.”
Veer grinned. “They gonna be good to you, you wait and see. Hurricane and the crew, they gonna be real sweet on you. Lotta food, all the time.”
The big guy glanced Chaff’s way and snorted at that. The city didn’t have nearly enough for a growing camelopard to eat, and the promise of food was never one an urchin took lightly. Chaff sighed. If it was for his friend’s sake as well, he supposed he would do it.
The only trouble now was figuring out what exactly it was.
“He’s coming out of there soon, yeah?” asked Chaff, staring at the door. He had passed beyond worry at this point to simple curiosity. Hurricane was taking an awfully long time.
Veer strode in front of the door quickly, standing in Chaff’s way again. She tried to look nonchalant about it, although her arms were crossed and her cheeks were red. “Don’t you worry ‘bout-a-bout what goes on in there. Hurricane’s business is he own business, see?”
There was an uneasy silence.
“They’s watching you, Chaff friend,” said Veer, after a moment. Her head was turned to the side, and her eyes seemed distant.
Chaff looked around him, back at the urchins coming and going, and then to the door. “Who? Them? Hurricane?”
Veer pointed. “The fieldmen. They’s watching.”
Chaff turned. Sure enough, some of the alsknights were leaning on their lances, a bright glint in their eyes, whispering to each other as they watched Chaff on the big guy’s back. “Yeah,” Chaff agreed. “I seen hungry. That’s hungry.”
“Ain’t-they-ain’t hungry,” said Veer, leaning against the wall next to the door with one foot propped up against the building. “At least not for meat. Them fieldmen, they like their fancy things. I’m betting they ain’t never seen a beastie like yours before. Soon as they can, they gonna try and grab him to bring back as a gift to their farmer king.”
“I lets them try,” said Chaff, indignantly. His hand strayed to his belt, and the big guy pranced as a brief jolt of energy surged through both of them. “They touches the big guy, I kills all of them.”
Veer scoffed. “You gonna fight off all four of them alsknights on your own? Got a lance youself, do you?” She grinned. For some reason, she seemed to think it was funny.
“Then I steal him back.”
Veer rolled her eyes. “How? If you can’t beat the alsknights what-what come af’er you, how you gonna beat the alsknights just sitting ‘round-a-round and waiting?”
“They slow, yeah? I Kennya Noni,” said Chaff, tightening the bandages on his wrists and ankles. “I runs around them.”
“They alsknights, stupid. All they do is chase after slaves that run, and then they kill ‘em. Double triple double kill them.” Veer stood straight. “But say if you say you get past them. How you gonna get a great big animal out without no one noticing? How you gonna get his tabula back? How you gonna live in this city without they hunting you down and catching you? You can’t steal from the fieldmen. Not you, not nobody ever gonna do it.”
Chaff glared at the fieldmen soldiers until they looked away. “Nobody touches the big guy,” he repeated. “Nobody takes him either.”
Veer looked up, eyebrow raised, but did not inquire further. It was better that she didn’t, Chaff decided. He didn’t want to give her ideas.
At that moment, the door cracked open. Chaff tensed, ready to run, but the girl held her hands up behind her head as she walked out. Behind her, Hurricane stood with his arms folded across his chest.
The new girl gave Chaff and the big guy a quick scan. She smiled, still holding her hands behind her head. “He’s jumpy,” she said. “And he’s dumb enough to go along with it. Hurricane, I say we got a runaway guy.”
Run away was certainly what Chaff felt like doing, as Hurricane stepped out from behind the door too.
“You hear that, boy? You in, long as you willing to come in.”
Chaff stared from Veer, who shrugged apologetically, to the new girl to Hurricane and back to Veer. He opened his mouth automatically, but the new girl cut him off. “He’s going to say yes no matter what. You scare him.”
“Well, I’m doing my job then, ain’t I?” snarled Hurricane.
The new girl smirked. She looked nearly as old as him, and looked at Chaff with an almost vulpine grin. “I never said that was a bad thing. He’s going to say yes, and we’re going to take him. Isn’t that right?”
Chaff stared at her, trying to figure out what was hiding behind that wide smile. And, very slowly, he nodded.
“Come on in, then,” said the girl, kicking the door open wide. “There’s company watching I’d rather avoid.”
There was no way the big guy would fit in that small one-room hut. Chaff didn’t get off.
Veer stepped up. “Hey, hey, Chaff friend. It’s OK? Nobody taking your tabula off you. No fieldman is going to get this far into the ghetto. He’s safe.”
“You feel safe, big guy?” whispered Chaff. He coughed, his sides flaring with renewed pain, and the big guy nuzzled his shoulder. With black eyes opened wide, the camelopard nodded.
“There’s blood on his shirt,” said the new girl. “Hurricane, tell me why there is blood on his shirt.”
“He done did got a beating when I found him,” said Hurricane. “He’ll-.”
“We don’t have a crew if the crew is bleeding out, you nincompoop. Come here, Chaff, let’s get you inside.” The girl tugged on Chaff’s hand, although Chaff tugged back.
“I can get off on my own,” growled Chaff, swinging his legs over the big guy’s side and dropping to the ground. Sore from riding, his knees buckled as he landed. “And how you know my name?”
The girl shrugged. “I was listening.” She opened the door. “If you hate us so much, you could always walk away. We can help, though. Truly, we can. So, you in or you out?”
Chaff glared at the girl as he staggered inside. The hut was dimly lit, with straw mats scattered across the dirt floor and a fire pit ashen black and smelling of soot in the center. A few personal belongings were scattered along the walls, in plain sight where anyone could take them.
“Welcome to headquarters,” said the girl, a hint of sarcasm in her voice, as she closed the door behind her. Neither Hurricane nor Veer had followed her inside. “I’ll be your guide on this tour. You can call me Tattle.”
“Tattle,” repeated Chaff. He stared at Tattle as she patted down a mattress in the far corner. Odd that an urchin would care so much about cleanliness.
“Sit down here and rest a bit,” said Tattle, sitting cross-legged next to the mat. “It won’t do you much good if anything’s broken but it’s better than walking and riding around, right? I swear, Lonwal is blind sometimes.”
“Lonwal?” echoed Chaff. He did not make to sit down. He did not even move from the doorway.
“Oh, he hasn’t told you his real name yet? Well, I suppose some of us are proud of our nicknames,” said Tattle. She looked up and smiled, in a way that seemed so warm and genuine that Chaff’s insides started to hurt. “You really can rest here, you know. I’m not going to hurt you. Trust me down to Da’atoa, I promise.”
Hesitantly—very hesitantly—Chaff made his way over and sat.
“We’ve put together a decent-sized crew,” said Tattle, as Chaff sat. “You know Lookout? Hangs out a lot on the nomad outskirts? No, I suppose you don’t. She doesn’t exactly get along with people- but, she’s a damn good point woman. Hurricane and my buddy Bull are our muscle. Veer’s our door maker, and I’m the show master. All we needed was someone with a good tabula, a runaway guy.”
“None of you has tabula?” asked Chaff, suspiciously, still holding tight onto his belt. He had sat, yes, but was neither reclining nor relaxing.
Tattle shrugged. “I had a beast once. Ate her a few years back.” She grinned, and Chaff immediately made to stand.
“Stop, stop, stop, I’m just joking you,” said Tattle, grabbing Chaff’s wrist. The bandages loosened under her grip, and Chaff pulled free easily. He began to walk away, as Tattle shouted after him, “He’s more useful to us alive!”
Chaff faltered. He felt the tabula under his belt again, not just the big guy’s but hers as well. This was for both of them.
“All you need to do, Chaff, is run a race. That’s it. When the time comes, you just need to ride one race for us with a bit of cargo and a few passengers against a couple of foreign ratvipers.”
“Why?” shouted Chaff, at last. He turned on Tattle, ignoring the pain in his sides. “Why this crew, why you need me?”
“You’ve seen the caravan. I told Hurricane to show it off and by the holy hollows he loves doing that. It’s more than just food in there.” Tattle rose, her eyes gleaming. Chaff recognized in her gaze the same hunger he had seen in the alsknights’ eyes. “There’s wealth. Enough for all six of us start new lives. Good lives.”
Chaff shook his head. “But the people of Alswell…”
“The fieldmen? The ones with the professional slave-catching knights and the bondage system that strikes terror into the hearts of even the bravest marble soldiers of the Stronghold? Yeah.” Tattle nodded. “No big deal. We’re going to rob them.”