Category Archives: 3.01
“Dull rocks,” said Jova. She cocked her head, listening to the clack of pebbles on pebbles. “Shiny rocks. Shiny rocks again. Oh, now you’re just cheating, that was a dull rock and a shiny rock. Dull one’s in your left hand.”
“By the Lady Fall, that’s creepy,” said Arim, although he sounded more amazed than scared. “How the hell do you do it?”
Jova shrugged, trying to hide her embarrassed smile. “They’re very distinctive sounds.”
Arim yawned. “OK, enough fucking around, let’s get this done before you have to go work for the horse freak again.”
Jova bristled. “Don’t call him that.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s just that he-.” There was a distinctive pause. “Forget about it, OK?”
“Forget about what?” asked Jova, standing up. She used her walking stick to steady herself as she found her feet. “You always say that.”
“You can’t make me talk about it,” said Arim, sounding exasperated. “I made a promise to the horse fr- to Roan. You pay attention when you make a promise to a guy like that.” He paused. “How long you known him?”
Jova sniffed. “Three years, about.”
“Three fucking years,” said Arim, under his breath. “And it’s worked? I can’t believe it. By the Lady Fall, he’s lucky.”
“What’s worked? Why’s he lucky?”
“Nothing! Roan’s a scary guy, is all I’m saying.” Jova heard the wooden clunk as Arim picked up his spear. “Scarier than you, even.”
“Is that true?” asked Jova, bemused, twirling her walking stick as she shifted her stance.
“Sure,” said Arim. “Except when you start doing that thing with your tongue. Gives me the shivers, every time.”
Jova smirked and clicked. From what she could hear, Arim was standing to her left, his stance casual, although he tensed the moment he heard her.
“Every time, Jova!”
She hit him on the shoulder with her walking stick. “Are we doing this? Or did you make me wake up early and sneak out of the house just to chat me like a toucanrat?”
“You’re like a slave girl.” Pebbles shifted as Arim stood. “Leave the grown olds, stay with us! No one telling you what to do or when to do it. You don’t know freedom until you’ve got a gang behind your back, Jova.”
“Tell you what,” said Jova. “You beat me and I consider it.”
At the whoosh of air beside her head, Jova raised her walking stick to block. She parried Arim’s swing and shifted to hit back, focusing on the sound of his heavy breathing. The wooden stick connected with his jaw with a loud crack.
Arim lunged, and Jova twirled her stick to bat it aside. She couldn’t tell where Arim was targeting or where the lunge came from, but her spinning stick had a radius wide enough to catch the edge of the spear and force it aside. With a grunt, Jova pushed Arim’s spear down and kicked out where his hand should be.
She missed, her foot instead planting on the wood of the spear. She pushed, using her own walking stick as leverage, and the spear clattered to the ground as it was forced from Arim’s hand.
Immediately, Jova swept her stick low, hoping to catch Arim as he bent to get his weapon back, but no such luck. She waved her walking stick, but it found only empty air.
Three sharp clicks to her left, right, and center found Arim backing away, edging around Jova’s right. She shifted her stance, turning her head to face away from Arim. It let her hear him better with her right ear, and more than that it always threw him off when she hit him without facing him.
She rolled the spear under her foot, moving it just a little closer to her. She waited…
And the moment she felt Arim tug to get his weapon back, she stepped down, hard, using her momentum to throw herself forward. A crunch as something hit the gravel indicated Arim had fallen. She gave him a few thwacks on the side just to drive the point home.
“Ow, I yield, I yield!”
Jova smiled and held out her stick. She felt the force on the other end, and pulled Arim up. The boy’s hands made patting sounds on his clothes as he brushed himself off.
“I hate how you can tell I’m there without even looking at me,” complained Arim. “It’s unfair.”
Jova crossed her arms. “Say that again, to my blindfolded face.”
Arim just laughed. “You don’t get that excuse anymore, Jova. Maybe in the beginning, but by now I’m convinced you’re not actually human.”
“Then what am I?”
“Oh, something mysterious,” said Arim, and the direction of his voice shifted as he circled Jova. “A dark demon from the Teeth, maybe, with unholy powers taken from the depths of the earth and a tabula made of pitch.”
Jova clicked twice, and grinned. She hoped Arim flinched.
She raised her head. The air was getting hot. “Is it sun-up yet?”
“Might be,” said Arim, noncommittally. “Come on, let’s go again.”
“Arim, I don’t want to be late. Roan likes me to be punctual.”
“Oh, come on, you’ve got time. The last fight didn’t count, it went too quick!” Arim put a hand on Jova’s shoulder as she walked away. “How am I supposed to become a zealot if I can’t even beat a girl like you?”
“I’m not sure if I should be offended by ‘girl’ or ‘like you.’ I think I’ll go with both,” said Jova.
“Yeah, so fight me!”
“No, Arim. Go grapple with your boy gang,” said Jova, pushing him off.
She heard him sigh. “At least let me walk you there?”
Jova flung out her walking stick, and it prodded Arim right in the chest. “I can get there on my own, thank you.”
“Not for you, for me,” said Arim, and Jova felt a gentle hand push her walking stick down. “I want to learn all your little tricks. The test can happen any day now! I have to be ready!”
Jova shook her head. “A toucanrat, I swear. Well, come on then, don’t slow me down.”
She heard the patter of Arim’s eager feet as he raced up to walk beside her. “Maybe the pontiffs will be doubly impressed if I make my way through the entrance exams blind-folded.”
“It’s supposed to be a test of faith, not talent,” said Jova, exasperatedly. “Arim, you’ll never make it if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.”
Arim scoffed. “I know fours on four people who got their feathers for the wrong reasons. Bash, Izca, Nock…the way I see it, I’m rounding it out so it’s nice and holy.”
Sometimes, Jova couldn’t believe the wild child’s gall. It was good that it was so early in the morning, or else a pontiff might have been about and overheard. Jova clicked and listened, just in case, but there was no one else on the street.
It was an odd combination of coincidences that had led Jova to these daily sparring practices with Arim. First, Roan had given her the hardened walking stick; then, he had assigned her to groom one of his client’s steeds. It was just Jova’s luck, she supposed, that said client’s assistant aspired to be a zealot and needed someone to practice against.
“I thought you said you didn’t want me slowing you down,” said Arim, smugly.
Jova concentrated on the present. “Shush, you,” she said, striding forward. “I was thinking. You should try it sometime, it’s useful.”
“I’ll think about it,” said Arim. “Wait…no, I won’t.”
“Oh, haha,” said Jova, dryly, knocking Arim out of the way with her walking stick. “You’re very funny. Now, scoot, you really are slowing me down.”
“I’m going, I’m going!” Arim clapped Jova on the shoulder. “It’s right up ahead, so if you just keep walking-.”
“I got this, Arim,” said Jova, shoving her stick into his gut. “Go away. Shoo.”
“Alright, well, I’ll see you around, right?”
It wasn’t until she heard footsteps crunching away that Jova was sure Arim had gone. She sighed, and smiled. She appreciated all that the boy had done for her, but sometimes talking with him was exhausting.
Jova’s walking stick tapped on the ground. Ma had appreciated him, she mused. She had been wary at first, of course, and had no idea what Jova was up to in the mornings, but she seemed to like Arim. Da had taken a more resolute stance, although Jova had no idea why.
She had hardly walked ten paces when someone tapped her on the shoulder. She felt cool shells pressed into her palm, and heard a soft, male voice whisper, “A gift, child.”
Jova rolled the shells in her hand even as she traced the man’s palm. Soft and supple, a palm used to long days indoors and hot baths, no doubt. The sensible thing to do would have been to take the man’s money and leave.
She pushed the man’s hand back, shaking her head. “Thank you, sir, but save your charity for someone who needs it.”
The hand of shells withdrew, although the hand on her shoulder did not. “How…interesting. There is no shame in accepting assistance, child.”
Only a pontiff would preach like that. “I need no assistance, thank you,” said Jova, firmly. “I have my work to attend to.”
“As do I,” said the pontiff. His hand left her shoulder. “Fortune be with you, child.”
“Be it with you too,” said Jova, nodding her hand, waiting until she heard the pontiff’s footsteps walk off behind her, in the same direction Arim had gone, before moving onwards.
Jova was used to being treated like a cripple beggar by now; with her blindfold and her clothes smelling of manure, she could hardly blame them. They were pontiffs of the House of Winter, usually, but sometimes laymen who were feeling holy.
It was odd that men so willing to give their own away were so taken aback when told they could keep it.
She heard the clop of hooves and stopped respectfully, waiting for Roan to speak. After quite some time, he said, “You have been awake for some time.”
How could he tell? Jova brushed down hair, straightening herself. “Morning errands, that’s all.”
A long pause, and then, “The merchant-prince will be here sometime this afternoon. Prepare Yora, then Uten. I am feeling he shall be wanting to try both.”
Jova nodded, and started to walk towards stables. Roan rode at a steady pace beside her.
“Is he the one from the Seat?” asked Jova.
“Of the King, yes,” said Roan. “After all these years, I think he still entertains ideas of riding in and taking back Ironhide’s crown. The revolution had not been kind on him.”
It had not been kind to anyone, Jova noted. The Holy Keep had chosen to seal the Temple from the war, and rumor had it she had burned all the letters from both the old and new king’s envoys. No matter how much Keep Tlai hid, though, Banden Ironhide’s armies needed to get their food from somewhere, and the treacherous roads had made food scarce.
Roan coughed. “Your breakfast is as it is, on the bench. You may eat when you are finished.” And he rode away, without another word.
Jova could smell it as she approached, although only under the various earthy smells of the rest of the stables. For such a graceful creature, Yora sure did poop a lot.
She made soft, reassuring noises as she entered, clicking with her tongue and whispering nonsense under her breath. The staghound was prone to skittishness in the mornings, and Jova did not want to startle him.
She started with the hooves first, brushing her hand gently over them to pick out rocks and wipe away dirt, carefully avoiding the sensitive part of the heel. Roan had once had a hoof pick, but that had been traded away for food nearly a year ago, and Jova supposed Roan had never found the time to replace it. It was valuable, too, forged in the Irontower with their steel magic.
Yora tossed his head, and Jova clicked her tongue for him to hold still. She was determined to do a good job. In these troubled times, Roan had still provided for her, and her family, and if she would not accept the charity of strangers then Jova certainly wouldn’t accept the charity of a friend. These merchant-princes and arena champions, displaced by the revolution, paid generously as well. If Jova did well, they might come back as repeat customers.
Jova’s hand drifted until she found the bristled comb, and with it scraped mud and dirt out of Yora’s long fur.
It took nearly half an hour for Jova to finish, as she had to use her hands and not her eyes to make sure Yora looked presentable. He didn’t seem to mind; the staghound’s tail thumped on the ground happily as Jova rubbed his underbelly and behind his ears. He was like Mo, in that regard.
“Alright, you’re clean,” said Jova. “Don’t go rolling around in the dirt until after the prince is done, got it?” She patted Yora on the back and walked out of her stall.
Uten was next, but as Jova picked up her walking stick and found her way out she smelled the food and her belly rumbled. Roan had said to wait until after she was done, but the food was probably getting cold and the merchant-prince would likely not arrive until late in the afternoon.
Jova bit her lip, and knocked her stick on the door of Uten’s stable, listening. There was no sound in reply.
Well, Jova reasoned, she could let Uten sleep while she had breakfast. It wouldn’t hurt.
She smelled bean stew as she approached. Smoothing out her coza, she sat on the bench and cupped the bowl in her hands, taking a moment to enjoy the warmth on the chill autumn morning. It smelled more robust than usual, although it had gotten a bit cold.
Jova cleared her throat and said, softly, “The Lady Fall bless me, I give you thanks. May I be wise, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
She picked up her spoon, but for some reason her stomach had clenched. She sat, letting her head hang.
“It’s, uh…it’s been a while,” Jova continued. “In case you’re listening, I just wanted to say I’m grateful for what I have. Truly, I am.”
Jova scratched her chest.
“I just…I wanted to ask…” Jova tapped her thumbs on the side of the bowl. “I’ve worked hard. Ma and Da have worked hard, harder than anyone. And people here are always talking about miracles and your presence and I know I don’t always say my prayers or respect the holy days but if there’s anything you want me to do I’ll do it.”
In the stables, Chek snorted. A flygnat buzzed past Jova’s ear.
“I want answers,” said Jova. “That’s what you do, right? Lady Fall? You give answers? Ma and Da have spent the last three years looking, looking for someone like me. You’d approve. They were subtle about it, quiet. But they haven’t found anyone, anyone at all. I don’t have a tabula and I’m starting to get worried because I still don’t know why.”
Jova waited, hoping, listening. Was that the crack of dry leaves? Was the Lady Fall answering?
“I don’t know if you’re punishing me or guiding me or what,” said Jova. “But I want to know why. Please. I promise, I can be worthy. Just- just point me in the right direction.”
Like every other morning prayer before it, there was no answer. Jova slumped, and ate quietly, listening in vain for the answer of the silent goddess. Who else was there to ask besides the Ladies Four?
And then, at that moment, the banished lord arrived.