Category Archives: 3.03
Jova tapped her walking stick on the ground and walls of the stable as she made her way out. She didn’t really need the stick anymore in Roan’s stables, but it gave her sweating hands something to do.
“You see, Copo? This is no place for business. Beggars infest it like roachrats in a marshman barge.”
“How interesting…” said a familiar voice. Jova cocked her head. Could it be? “This is no beggar, Latius, or else if she is she is a very selective one.”
“Pontiff, sir,” said Jova, curtsying. She heard footsteps approaching and then felt a clammy hand stroke the top of her head. She flinched, involuntarily, although the pontiff’s voice was warm and sweet.
“This is where you attend to your work, girl?” he asked.
“They say the man who lives here was once a mighty sandman warlord, and yet he has taken you under his wing. How very interesting,” said Pontiff Copo. “I suppose, though, people like you would be attracted to each other.” There was mirth in his voice, although Jova couldn’t tell what was so funny.
“Don’t taunt her, Copo, you’re making a mockery of me. I formally apologize for my companion’s misconduct, girl.”
Despite herself, Jova was surprised. She should have known from his name that Latius was a marbleman, albeit one of the generals and not a freed slave like Da.
“Who are you, anyway? This Roan’s apprentice-daughter?”
Jova opened her mouth to speak, but before she could she heard hoofs behind her. “Just an assistant,” said Roan. “And I was under the impression that you were being men of business.”
“Meaning you would approach me before my assistants,” he said.
“Proceed, then,” said Latius, icily. “Let us conduct business.”
Jova shrunk back. Both their voices were like Irontower steel, and they clashed like swords as well. She made to excuse herself, but Pontiff Copo put a firm hand on her shoulder.
“Oh, let’s leave them to their business,” said the pontiff. “Us assistants shall have our own private meeting, won’t we?”
Jova hesitated, but Roan and Latius were already leaving. She sighed, and turned to Copo, smiling. It was always good to smile to a pontiff. Perhaps she could learn more about this odd duo, and perhaps…
Jova made the sign of fall on her forehead, tracing a circle on her temple. Perhaps this really was a sign.
“There are seats over there,” said Copo, pressing on Jova’s shoulder. “Come, I will-.”
“I know where they are,” said Jova, doing her best to worm out of the pontiff’s grip. Her smile was beginning to hurt her lips. “I can find my way on my own, thank you.”
“Oh, but I insist,” said Copo, and led her to Roan’s waiting benches anyway. “What a strong young girl you are,” he said, and he stroked the back of Jova’s head again.
Jova did her best to move her head out of the way. “Which house are you of, pontiff sir?” she asked, politely.
“The House of Spring,” Copo said, and Jova heard him thump his chest. “The tattoos are on the small of my back. We keep our chests bare, for are we not proud of that which the Ladies have given us? Would you like to feel it?”
“Erm, no, thank you…”
But Copo had already grabbed her hand, and Jova felt as gingerly as possible the sweaty skin with the tips of her fingers. She supposed the markings must have been exquisite, but even she could not tell what they looked like just from touch.
“They’re very…nice,” said Jova, falteringly.
“Aren’t they? What a sweet girl you are, dear. Remind me what your name was again?”
“Jova, pontiff sir.”
“Ah, Jova. A sweet name.”
Jova nodded thanks, unsure what to say. “You’re Copo, right?” she asked, just to make sure. It was the only thing she could think of, anyway.
“How attentive! Yes, Jova, my name is Copo.”
Jova coughed, and slipped off the bench. “It’s been very nice talking to you. If you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
Copo grabbed her hand with both his, and though he did not pull her back his grip was firm. “Do you like working here, Jova?”
“Well, yes,” she stammered. “It’s very- very rewarding. The animals have good hearts.”
“And what of the man who rides them? Does he have a good heart?”
“Roan?” Jova paused. She had to think about this, although she felt the need to say something quickly because she could feel Copo’s sweat on her hand. “Yes, yes he does. He is very forward but very honest, and has always treated me and my- my friends kindly.”
“You may speak ill against your master, if you wish. You can trust me.”
“My master? No, no,” said Jova quickly. “I am free. I work for wage.”
“You are not a slave? How…interesting.” And again, the pointed pause. “And so you truly do enjoy your work here?”
“Yes, pontiff sir. Very much so, pontiff sir.”
Copo gave a long sigh, and let go. “Ah, more’s the pity. I suppose I will just to have learn to ride then, to see more of you. Would you help me ride, sweet girl?”
“Of course. Just talk with Roan,” said Jova. “Thank you for your business. I must be going now.”
With that, Jova made a hasty retreat back inside the stables. She had never gotten around to cleaning Uten or in fact finishing her breakfast, but her food could wait. She had a feeling that Latius the prince would not be fond of riding dirty molebisons.
“Hey, girl,” she said, rubbing down Uten’s back as she began looking for the comb. Out of all the animals, she had to profess she liked Uten the most. Roan made Jova ride her the most often when they went down to visit the Teeth or else run errands through the city, and Jova couldn’t help but notice the obvious kinship between them.
Uten rubbed her nose in Jova’s side and sniffed, her voice as breathless and wheezy as always. Jova began to comb Uten’s fur with as much care as possible- Uten was the most sensitive among the animals- and the molebison exhaled long and slow, her way of saying that she was content.
Her mind wandered back to Pontiff Copo, and his strange line of inquiry. For some reason, just thinking of the man made Jova’s skin crawl. What had he really been trying to ask her?
Was he trying to somehow besmirch Roan’s name somehow? Get Jova to confess something to start something against the foreign man? But, no, Copo hadn’t even been sure if this was the right place to find him. Jova found it difficult that sweaty, sickly sweet Copo would both take such an immediate dislike to the man and come up with such a convoluted plan to discredit him.
Perhaps Copo had just wanted to know a little bit more about the man his friend was doing business with. Except, he had barely asked about Roan, now that Jova thought about it. It had all been directed at her…
Was it a job? It seemed obvious in hindsight, although Jova felt doubts the moment she thought it. What kind of job would a pontiff have for her? They certainly needed no beggars, and there were so many of the faith lined up to join their ranks they hardly had to go recruiting for them.
Jova thought of the way Copo kept stroking her hair, and shook her head, grimacing. She would need a comb-down herself, later.
She patted down Uten’s left side and squeezed her way around the molebison’s bulk to get to work on the right. No sooner had she done so did she hear a sharp hiss from her side. Her hand tightened on her walking stick.
Not Roan, not Copo, not Latius. Jova furrowed her eyebrows. “Arim?”
“Yeah, it’s me,” said Arim, in a low whisper. “Jova, come on, I need your help.”
Jova smacked a palm against her forehead. “For once, today, could I work in peace? Can’t you see I’m busy right now, Arim? Go away, before he catches you!”
“No, no, no, Jova, you don’t understand, this is important,” said Arim, and the tone of his voice made Jova pause. “Really, really important.”
“What is it, Arim? Is someone in trouble? Did somebody get hurt?” Jova’s grip tightened on her walking stick.
“No, no, nothing like that, but…” Arim lowered his voice even further, so that Jova had to bend down to hear. “You see that pontiff over there? The sort of gangly, shirt-less one?”
“Oh, right, right, sorry. Well, you talked to him, didn’t you? You know who he is?”
“His name is Copo. From the House of Spring, he’s just been tailing that man from the Seat of the King. I don’t get it, Arim, what’s he have to do with you?”
“He’s not just here for his friend,” Arim hissed. “I heard him as I was walking down the street. He’s here for a zealot test.”
Jova sucked in a sharp breath. Was that what he had meant by other business? It had seemed odd for the pontiff to have just wandered in to accompany the banished prince…
“This is it, Jova! This is my one chance! And I’m not-.” Arim paused, and Jova tensed, wondering if he had been caught. There was a pause, and Arim whispered in a lower voice, “And I’m not ready.”
“Arim, don’t say that, we’ve been practicing for months!”
“I’m serious. By all the Ladies Four, I’m serious. I can’t do it, Jova. He’s not going to take me! What do I do? I need you to help me!”
Jova bit her lip. Was this what the Lady Fall had meant, by sending the prince and the pontiff when she did? Was it Jova’s goddess-given responsibility to help Arim join the ranks of the Ladies’ soldiers?
Divine or not, it was certainly part of her responsibility as a friend.
“OK,” she said, nodding. “OK. So what do you want me to do?”
She felt Arim squeeze into the stables with her, and heard his heavy breathing. He really was panicking. “I don’t know!” he hissed. “You’re the smart one.”
“The first thing you have to do is calm down,” said Jova, evenly.
“No, I will not calm down!”
“Shh, shh,” said Jova, waving her hand in the air until she found Arim’s shoulder. She gave him a few pats. “Everything’s going to turn out alright.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I have faith,” said Jova. She smiled. “That’s something you’ll need to have too if you really want to prove yourself.”
“OK. OK, sure. I got faith. I’m all faithed up. Now what? What if he asks me to fight? Jova, I can’t even beat you. What if he asks me to fight a- a slave, or a criminal, or a demon? What do I do? What if he asks me to fight his marbleman friend? Jova, I can’t fight a marbleman.”
“This is not calming down,” hissed Jova, doing her best to keep her voice low too. Arim’s anxiety was infectious. “I’ll think of something, just give me a moment.”
Her fingers drummed on the side of the stables, and she heard Uten shift to scoot away from the bodies cramped inside the small stall. “Arim, what exactly is the procedure for the test? Does he know who you are? Your name or your face?”
“He’s gotten a tip that there’s a zealot-hopeful in his district,” said Arim, stammering. “I don’t know who from, but I can think of who else I’ve told. It must have been Bash, or Izca, or one of them…I swear, I’m going to find them and…”
Jova’s hand waved until she found Arim’s face, then she grabbed his chin and turned it. “Arim, look at me. Focus.”
“But you can’t-.”
She clicked her tongue. “Focus.”
“He- he has a tip,” said Arim, slowly, in-between breaths. “He probably has had a lot of time to prepare, but I’ve never seen him before. Nock told me that the pontiffs only get second-hand descriptions. He’s probably looking for a young wild child who hangs out a lot on this street, but that’s it.”
“And the test? How is he going to test you?”
“It’s different for all of them. I’ve never seen this one before, I didn’t even know he lived in this district!”
“And you’re sure he’s going after you?”
“Positive,” said Arim, and Jova felt his chin shake as he nodded. “I heard him!”
Jova’s lips were dry. It certainly wasn’t a lot to go off of. “But the tests for zealotry, it’s always about fighting, right? You’ve got to prove you’re strong enough.”
“Summer and Spring, yes. And I’m not-!”
“Shh,” said Jova, and she twisted her hand to put a finger on Arim’s lips. She felt a sharp intake of breath from the boy, and he became almost eerily silent very quickly. “And he just needs to see that you’re a good fighter?”
A single nod from Arim.
Jova sighed. She didn’t know if the plan was going to work, but either way Roan would be furious by the time it was done. All the same…
Jova traced a circle on her forehead and thanked the Lady Fall. She would not be on the receiving end of help this time. “You got your spear, Arim?”
“Yes,” said Arim, taken aback. He paused. “Jova? What’s the plan?”
“He wants to see you get into a fight? We’re going to get into a fight.”
Walking stick in hand, Jova strode out of the stables, tugging Arim behind her. “But Jova,” the boy protested, trying to tug back. “I haven’t beaten you for months! You’ll completely ruin me!”
“Not today,” said Jova, firmly, and she threw Arim out into the open. She heard him scramble to his feet, heard the low scrape of the spear as he dragged it up, heard the pontiff sit up and gasp at the sight.
“You attack first,” said Jova, in as low of a whisper as possible. “Go on, Arim, it’ll be OK.”
She couldn’t hear Arim’s response, but moments later she heard quick footsteps approaching and she spun her walking stick to parry the straightforward lunge.
“I thought you said I would win this time?” hissed Arim, in passing as they spun around each other.
“You will,” Jova grunted, through gritted teeth. “Just do your best and I’ll take care of it. No more talking now, not while he’s watching.”
Jova circled Arim slowly, getting ready to go on a counteroffensive should Arim take too long. They had to move quickly, before anyone tried to break up the fight. The key was to make Arim appear impressive, and that meant the fight couldn’t be too one-sided. Jova could only hope that they looked like two experienced fighters sparring more than two children squabbling in the dirt.
Arim did not make a move. Jova braced herself and made the move herself, swinging her walking stick wide. Arim blocked it just in time, and Jova grunted her approval. She spun, aiming lower at Arim’s body, and the parry came quicker. Faster, faster, it had to be faster to make the fight look real.
A flurry of blows followed from Jova until she sensed Arim buckle under the assault. She paused, holding her arms wide to give Arim an opening to counter.
He did so, with gusto. Jova smiled. Arim had the passion of a zealot in battle; it was with training that he would gain the necessary skills. He would be fine.
“Jova! You will be stopping, now!”
Or perhaps they wouldn’t be fine. Jova’s heartbeat matched the rhythm of hoof beats, and she tensed, forcing the fight to move faster. “Come on, Arim, come on,” she muttered, as she swept her walking stick at his legs.
With a roar, Arim jumped and slammed downward, cracking his stick on Jova’s shoulder. He seemed to be taking her “no more talking” rule rather seriously.
“Jova, I command you stop now!” Roan shouted. “Leave the urchin boy alone, you can still walk away! If you do not, I will be-.”
“No,” said Copo, and his voice was suddenly serious. “No, let it finish.”
Jova’s heart leaped. They had done it. She whipped her walking stick around, exchanging another series of showy but slow blows with Arim, before she sensed a particularly well-placed swing coming from him and let it hit. She crumpled to the ground, head ringing but satisfied.
“Jova!” Stel cantered around her in agitation, although Roan made no move to help her up. “You, boy! Leave now, or I will run you down!”
Jova sensed Arim edge up against her, frightened, and she rose quickly. “I’m fine, Roan! Fine!”
“You pick these fights you are not ready for,” hissed Roan. “You push yourself too far! When will you learn that you as you are will never be able to hold your own when fighting the likes of others? And, you boy, step aside! I am telling you to leave, now!”
Jova opened her mouth, but she wasn’t sure what to say. Would saying Arim was a friend make their deception more obvious?
“Master Roan, I apologize! I got a little heated, was all!” said Arim. “You remember me? I rode your staghound a few months back.”
From Roan’s side came the harsh laugh of the marble prince. “Threatening your own clients? Is this how you do business, sandman?”
Roan snorted, but said nothing more. Instead, he rode quickly to Jova’s side and pulled her away. “If our affairs are being concluded,” he said, and his voice was ice, “Then I would like to be resolving my private matters in private.”
“No,” said Copo, speaking up. Jova’s head spun from the number of voices coming from all directions, although thankfully she had been holding back in her fight against Arim. She still had the energy to pull away from Roan and listen. “Of course, why did I not see it before? A blind girl with such a gift must have been chosen by the goddesses themselves. Free and yet so humble and mannered, it cannot have been a coincidence.”
Jova’s racing heart almost stopped. She tried to find Arim, tried to point him out, but she could already feel Copo’s shadow over her.
“I’m not- I haven’t-.” she stuttered.
And then she felt a clammy hand pull away her blindfold, and shrank. The flesh around her eyes still throbbed when touched, and the unusually cold air around eye sockets made her gasp involuntarily. She pulled the blindfold back down immediately, and felt Copo’s hand shaking as she gently pushed it away.
“And so you truly are blind,” said the pontiff. “Yet you fight as one who may see. How interesting.” There was a scrape of gravel, and Copo’s voice was suddenly much closer to Jova’s head. Jova felt a hand on her forehead, and shuddered. “Zealot of the Temple,” said Copo, formally. “I have found you.”
Jova couldn’t say anything. And though she couldn’t see anything, either, she could still feel Arim, hating her.