Category Archives: Chapter 5 (Beck & Call)
He was a young man again, his skin smooth and unwrinkled, his back straight and unbent. Tay Yi Ah stood in the void, wearing his Fallow-given name like a length of fine cloth, the burden of being the tribe’s shaman temporarily forgotten.
The darkness shuddered. Tay Yi Ah looked up. This was the first among visions, which all the shamans saw when they were first initiated. To see it again was a sign of great portent.
Although he knew what was coming, it did not fail to take Tay Yi Ah’s dream-breath away. Stars filled the void around him; there was no ground beneath his feet, so like a crucible the shifting points of light surrounded him.
He floated, suspended in nothing, and watched as three stars fell from the sky and came hurtling towards him. One burned green, like jade. Another shone white, the gleam of marble. The last was gold, with a pulsing amber glow.
“Raj Mal Azu,” whispered the young man. “A god, one.”
He took a step forward, and suddenly Albumere was beneath his feet. The earth felt cool between his toes, and he stood there, naked, as the stars landed. The twisted tree spiraled out of the earth, so tall that it touched the sky itself, so that the stars rippled at its touch. Its branches were made of human hands and feet, and at the very top they melded together into a face with translucent golden skin and pupil-less eyes.
“Lives in worlds two,” recited Tay Yi Ah. “Has faces three.”
It turned towards Tay Yi Ah. The outline of a wooden skull could be seen behind filmy skin, and its eyes stared unblinkingly at Tay Yi Ah. A pulse like a heartbeat ran through the whole length of the tree, spiraling into its roots and deep into the ground.
“And holds a court of ladies four and lords five.”
The green and white stars burned. Shadows seemed to stand behind them that Tay Yi Ah could not make out, as tall and great as the twisted tree. Around the white star they stood. The first to emerge had high cheekbones and an angular face. She had ladybird wings humming on her back, and was unashamed of her bare skin. Glowing runes traced themselves along the small of her back, geometric lines with hard corners and an unrecognizable pattern.
The second had softer features and curled hair that framed her gentle face. Owl wings curled around her as she stood, hiding her body from view, but Tay Yi Ah could still see the lines carving themselves into the base of her throat.
The next Tay Yi Ah almost did not notice. She stood in the shadows, bat wings stretching on her back. She had a small nose and mouth, and her eyes were cunning and swift. It might have been Tay Yi Ah’s imagination, but the glowing lines seemed to form a third eye upon her forehead.
The last flexed her stocky arms as she emerged, runes forming on her shoulders. Ladybug wings buzzed on her back, as she rolled her neck and stretched her arms. Her hair was cut short like a boy’s, and her features were square and hard. She alone looked at Tay Yi Ah, a direct challenge at the mortal who dared look upon her.
His essence trembled at her gaze. Tay Yi Ah turned away, and stared instead at the figures surrounding the green star. They were not nearly as human, hulking beasts and monsters made out of rock and wood and water. He saw only four, and some did not even look human. They were too distant to make out, too alien to recognize.
A long, somber creak made Tay Yi Ah turn once again to the twisted tree. Its mouth was opening slowly, ever so slowly, and its branches were held out in such a way that it looked to be pointing towards Tay Yi Ah. The stars began to shake violently overhead, as the earth beneath Tay Yi Ah began to hum.
“You do not understand.”
The u-ha blinked, and he felt such a fatigue in his bones that he considered turning over and dying right then and there. Pale rainbows danced over his face as the crystal shards in the net overhead shook with the swaying of the tent.
“You do not understand,” repeated Dal Ak Gan, standing with his feet planted and his arms crossed. “Kharr Ta would never do business with us after that. We had to leave. There was no other choice.”
“Then when,” growled Dock the mercenary. “Are we getting paid?”
The u-ha stared up, not listening. He was looking at the Lady Winter, and he was telling her no.
Blood sloshed through the old man as he found the strength within himself to sit upright. He knew he was dying. Not of any affliction or disease: no, he was dying of old age. Even the youngest u-ha could tell that, if the tribe had one.
The u-ha smacked toothless gums together. He had forgotten a long time ago what it was like to be hungry. He couldn’t chew meat, fruit didn’t agree with his stomach, and his bowels protested just about everything else. He supposed, though, that he could use some morning stew.
His shaking hand clasped the handle of his cane. Eyes that could barely make out his fingers an inch from his face scanned the room, and with some reluctance the u-ha stood from his sleeping furs.
He walked between Dal Ak Gan and Dock, both of whom had fallen silent once they had seen the u-ha rise.
He walked towards his pots and pans, and set about making stew. It took him a couple minutes to get the fire started, and while he fumbled with the match and wood both the others watched in silence.
Finally, Dock cleared her throat. “Want to ask him where to go?” she said, in the king’s tongue, and the contempt was evident in her voice. “Ask.”
The u-ha snorted. In his day, a foreigner would have treated a son of the emperors with a little more respect. If anything, she deserved their contempt. She was an impudent, hot-blooded, money-grubbing scoundrel who had lost (and, indeed, never had) the blessing of the old way.
All this, the u-ha muttered under his breath as he scraped oats into the bubbling pan of milk. Of course no one heard him. No one ever listened, these days, except for Dep Sag Ko, and he was an oaf.
“U-ha,” said Dal Ak Gan, his tone reverential. At least that man knew respect. That was why he was still chieftain. He knew who deserved his respect and who didn’t. “We have lost the way. We have many slaves but none shall buy them. We are not welcome in the city of our forefathers.”
Hak Mat Do was not the city of their forefathers. It belonged to the pyramid lords. What did the free-riding people of the steppes know of those dusty necropolises? Only the young of Albumere assumed that Hak Mat Do and Hag Gar Gan were one and the same.
All this, the u-ha said. Dal Ak Gan did not have a response. He just waited.
With glacial slowness, the u-ha watched his porridge simmer. Outside, he could hear a continuous buzzing, all the insects of Albumere swarming in the afternoon heat. Winter was near upon them. This would be one of the last times he would hear such a thing again. It might be the last time.
Impatience radiated from Dock, but even she knew not to interrupt the venerated u-ha. She had sense enough for that, at least.
He scooped the porridge out with a wooden spoon. He put the porridge in his mouth. He ate the porridge. Dock and Dal Ak Gan waited. The air buzzed outside.
The u-ha’s hand dug around his chest of medicines and supplies, and he drew out a little glass jar. It was full of worms and beetlebeasts, their tiny tabula dumped inside of a small wooden box next to the jar. Broken amber fragments littered the bottom of the box, but quite a few lived yet.
The old man shook a few out into his porridge, and watched them squirm inside the gruel for several seconds before capping the jar again. He put the jar gently back in the chest; glass was expensive, as were the services of a bug catcher.
He began to eat again, slowly. A stagbeetle twitched, half-drowned amid the oats, but the u-ha had no teeth to chew it with. He swallowed the thing whole, even as worms and grubs slithered into his gut. He put the bowl aside, and waited with Dock and Dal Ak Gan for the creatures to die.
Open disgust was evident on Dock’s face, while Dal Ak Gan was expressionless. The u-ha tapped his net of crystals, and watched the lights shimmer.
The stagbeetle died.
He emerged from the seas at the end of the world, his blocky head made of hewn jade, water spilling up out of the grate where his mouth should have been. A titanic hand reached out to smother the tiny fishing skiff, except his intent was not to smother at all. He cupped the boat in his palm and held it up to his face, watching it, observing it.
Terrified sailors tossed their cargo overboard into the sea creature’s hand: Jhidnu spices, lengths of fine silk, golden and silver peaches from the bay. But what did a god care for the trinkets of men?
His fingers closed slowly. Now was the time for smothering.
Spices and silk and golden peaches. The spirits pointed to Jhidnu. Jhidnu would take their slaves. The closest and most amicable market in the east, they could take the spice road through Hak Ger and be at the boy within a month. The winter would make the journey harsh, but the plutocrats would never turn them away like the pyramid lords had.
All this, the u-ha said.
“To Jhidnu,” said Dal Ak Gan, in the king’s tongue. “There are so many plutocrats that at least one of the Wind will buy from us there. It will be easy for you and your men to find new work, too, in the city.”
“You finished talking with your spirit man?” said Dock, crossing her arms.
Dal Ak Gan’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, I am.”
“Then let’s take this outside.”
They locked eyes. The air buzzed. Then, Dal Ak Gan said, stiffly, in the imperial tongue, “Excuse us, u-ha.”
They stepped outside, and the u-ha returned to his porridge.
He stared at it, his face wrinkled in disgust. The bugs and worms were fine—he had eaten many of those in his long service as the tribe’s u-ha—but the thin gruel was already making his intestines squirm. He was an old man. His hands shook and his shit leaked.
The u-ha looked at the Lady Winter, and told her no. Not today.
Inside his gut, the worms shriveled and died.
Her image graced the pyramids. On every slab of marble and limestone, they carved her and her great stone mask. She could only barely be called human: abnormally tall and slender, with arms like lengths of wire and wings made of glass. They prayed before her and she answered.
She had won the war against the world for them. She had forged a place for man in the unforgiving wilds. She had raised monuments of stone in the name of the greatest empire Albumere had ever seen.
The wild savages had become unruly again? The Ladies would descend upon them, their retribution swift and terrible. New colonies to the north and west needed building? Stone would raise itself from the ground, fully formed settlements ready to be lived in. She had given them greater steel magic than Irontower, better boats than Jhidnu, more knowledge than the Twin Libraries of Shira Hay had held in four ages of kings combined.
Then she had abandoned them, and the prayers of Hak Mat Do fell on deaf ears.
It had taken years of training to become the tribe’s wise man. Eating bugs was the easiest part. Learning the medicines, reciting the histories, understanding the essence of the world: that had been what becoming u-ha entailed. Even now, the old man did not fully understand the portents of his dreams and visions.
He blinked rheumy eyes. When he was young, before his hair had turned silver and his teeth had rotted out, he had thought his mentor was unstoppable, indomitable, and privy to all the secrets of Albumere. Now he realized the previous u-ha knew less than he did. Did they truly understand the dreams?
Coughing, the u-ha picked up his porridge again. Food first, then philosophy, even if it seemed to bring more going out than going in. He wouldn’t let something like an upset stomach kill him, not when he had survived so much more.
He ate slowly, mechanically, eyes wandering. The burned slaves had been treated as best they could; they were with the others now, away from the u-ha’s tent and tabula. They had left the river, and Hak Mat Do, and Kharr Ta, behind them. It was time to go a new way. They would make it. They were Hag Gar Gan; they always made it.
The u-ha stared up at the net of crystals. It inspired the same awe in him as it had in the days of his youth. If he had done his duty right, then there should have been another young u-ha with him to marvel at their beauty.
Except, there wasn’t. The u-ha was alone in his wise man’s tent, and he knew that for this tribe at least there would never be another. There simply wasn’t the time.
All the little deaths in his stomach brought him back, to when there was all the time in the world.
There shall be four, and a fifth to come.
A single cloud drifted across the full moon as it stared down upon Albumere, a pale white eye in the night.
He hung upside down, water streaming down his face, his hands and feet bound to the underside of the world itself.
Lightning sundered the tree, murdering one god’s people for the sake of another’s.
There was only one god.
The part that loved her and the part she gave him spiraled through the past, locked in such a tender embrace that Tay Yi Ah cried in remembrance.
“U-ha!” shouted a voice, interrupting the old man’s reminiscence. He opened his eyes, his cheeks wet and his hands shaking. “Dal Ak Gan says you are awake!”
Dep Sag Ko walked inside, his burly frame blocking out most of the ambient sunlight.
“And up you are, old man,” he said, clapping his hands together. He slid the plate of porridge aside. “Come on, let’s get you some sunlight. La Ah Abi has some leftover rhubarb, for your stomach.”
The u-ha sighed inside. The oaf meant well for sure, but sometimes he was simply tiresome.
“Can you walk? Do you need me to carry you?”
The old man brushed his hand away, standing slowly as he planted his cane in the ground. He was in no rush. He hobbled forward, as Dep Sag Ko stood like some overeager sparrowdog beside him. His infernal bird squawked from his shoulder, preening its feathers.
“Dal Ak Gan says we are going to Jhidnu,” said Dep Sag Ko. “Lo Pak will like it there. And you! The sea salt will do you good, I think.”
What did Dep Sag Ko know of sea salt? He had never known the spray of the ocean waves on his face. He had never seen the titans rise from the mist, the stoic guardians at the edge of the world. He had never known the sea.
All this, the u-ha said. Dep Sag Ko just laughed.
“Then I’ll get my chance soon, won’t I? You sure I don’t need to carry you? It would be no trouble.”
The old man grimaced at the idea and kept edging forward. Snakes bit their own tails, but horses rode straight. Slowly and steadily, he made progress. Always progress.
The u-ha stepped out into the sunlight, and squinted down at the camp. His people huddled around little fires, cooked in broken pots, and squatted in hide tents. His face turned up in a sneer. They were the first people of this world, and he could barely distinguish them from their slaves. They deserved better than this.
He looked upon the slaves, and the one he was searching for looked straight back at him, even though she didn’t have eyes.
“Dream Walker,” the u-ha whispered.
She knew. Rho Hat Pan knew. They knew. The knowledge of the u-ha were the echoes of a dying order, but the Walkers knew. They had to know.
“Tired, u-ha? Need help?”
The u-ha waved him away, as he walked among the remnants of the Hag Gar Gan. Tired? Of course he was tired. He had clung to life for eighty summers and he was dying.
But if the Ladies wanted his life, they would have to come to take it personally. Then, he would find out why they had abandoned his people. Then, he would find out how to bring them back.
He hobbled forward slowly. He was in no rush.
The world laid out before her, the people and the animals and the naked trees all perfect pieces on a board that she shared with only the Ladies themselves. She soared through the fog bank, watching as the marsh radiated out from the poltergeist’s haunt. The great root snaked, fat and sluggish, through the marsh, until it disappeared into the earth farther north, but the bloated creature was nowhere to be seen.
A distant prod touched Lookout’s shoulder, but she paid it no attention. She was flying now. She was free.
To the west, the marsh broke off into the parched Redlands, like a faded scar on the horizon. Even with an owlcrow’s eyes, she could only just see the border of Shira Hay, and it grew ever smaller as she flapped away. In a way, Lookout was glad to leave the plains behind. Too many memories.
To the east, the marsh melded into Kazakhal proper, which, to Lookout’s great relief, looked substantially less wet than the marsh. She missed having dry feet.
Something shoved Lookout so hard she nearly fell off her perch, and her concentration broke.
It took her a moment, as always, to get her bearings again. She clutched a hand to her head, waiting for the nausea to subside. She knew she shouldn’t have pushed Sinndi so hard, especially not so soon after Al Innai had hurt the owlcrow, but the bird healed fast and Lookout needed to know that none of Al Innai’s friends had followed them.
Plus, she needed something to get the image of Al Innai, bleeding into the mud, out of her head. What better than the daily vision of the gods themselves? Up there, she felt more than safe. She felt indomitable.
She opened her eyes to Chaff’s face grinning at her, and although she always felt like her human vision was blurry and inadequate, she could still make out the boy’s crooked teeth, his matted hair and his mud-spattered skin.
“What,” she said, slowly, swaying as the boy’s jarraf walked underneath her. “Do you want?”
The boy looked away. “Just checking to see if you OK. Innai-Innai did bad on you. You got to take it easy, yeah?”
“I know that,” said Lookout, and she did. There was a difference between knowing and doing, though. She didn’t say that to Chaff, though; she just looked at him, waiting for him to say more.
Chaff met Lookout’s eyes for just a second before he ducked his head and scurried away, returning to a rather animated conversation with Sri.
Lookout bit her lip. Had she been too harsh on him? Arrogance and aggression were forces of habit by now.
Once, a long time ago, Lookout had tried to submit. She stayed out of the way of the bigger children, never looked them in the eye, and obeyed every order they gave her. That, she had realized, and Walls had taught her, was the quickest way to get hurt in the streets.
Flowers had fragrant aromas, and within hours their petals were crushed to paste. Cactus plants had spines and needles, and no one dared touched them. She wouldn’t be crushed. She wouldn’t be an easy target.
All the same, sometimes Lookout regretted how lonely the thorns made her.
She touched Sinndi’s tabula again, and it hummed to life. In the skies, she was free.
While on the ground the trees shaded her, like oppressive titans with hands outstretched to block the sun, up in the air they couldn’t even reach her. They grasped for her like children, the last of the autumn leaves shedding from their now skeletal frames, and Lookout danced above them, untouchable.
Lookout held back, just a touch. She couldn’t tell what Sinndi was feeling, or how much the flight was taxing her, but she knew it must have been hard. With a little mental nudge, she pointed the owlcrow back to their little party, and gratefully the bird began to fly her way back.
The girl let go, after that, trusting the owlcrow to find her own way back. If any of Al Innai’s friends really were hiding in ambush, it would be up to Wozek and his spiderwhale to catch them, not her.
She picked at the scab on her forehead, even though she knew she shouldn’t. Now that she had started, though, she couldn’t stop. She scratched at it three times, before she let her hand fall. Three was a good number. It was her number.
Her fingers began a nervous tap on her leg, and she did that three times, too, before she stopped. Then, since she had already started, she scratched her nose three times. Three by three. A good number of times to do things.
She regretted it immediately. She wanted to shake her head or run her fingers through her hair, but she knew that would just start the cycle all over again, and once her brain started to obsess over the numbers and the patterns and the sequences and the way she absolutely had to do things, it would never stop.
Enviously, she looked at Chaff. For a boy so troubled, it still must have been so much more peaceful to live inside his head.
Lookout adjusted her seat on the camelopard’s back, and tried to block out the fact (again) that with Wozek, they were now five people traveling together. Three was a good number. Four was a holy number. Five was a bad number. It was so close to being a good number, but not quite.
She assured herself that there were four animals—Sinndi, the camelopard, the bathawk, and the spiderwhale—and that with five made nine. Three by three. That calmed her nerves for now.
The camelopard stepped over a particularly large puddle, and Lookout gripped onto his mane for support. As he lifted his long legs over it, the beast shot Lookout a disdainful glare, and Lookout let go apologetically. She rode with her hands holding ever so gently to the sides of his neck, doing her best to keep her balance.
It was like riding the winds with Sinndi; it was all about minor adjustments. It wasn’t so bad, though. Lookout decided that with all this practice she was getting the hang of riding the big guy.
She looked to Chaff again. Lookout was honestly grateful to the boy; he had a kind of generosity she never would have expected from a street urchin of Shira Hay. At the same time, though, he knew the wild laws. He knew what he had to do to survive.
Lookout watched the skies. Sinndi was due to arrive soon.
Twiddling her thumbs, Lookout wondered if she should say something to the boy. Thanks for lending her his animal, maybe. Or an apology for being so brusque. Lookout wondered how to word it. Sorry for being rude. No, that was too many words. Sorry for talking badly- sorry for- sorry I was- I am sorry.
I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry.
Three by three. A good number, even if Lookout wanted to say so much more.
She was rehearsing in her head when she spied a glance towards Chaff again. He was still talking with Sri, a wide smile on his face, clearly enjoying himself. He didn’t need to be bothered now. He didn’t want Lookout spoiling the mood.
Chaff, noticing, glanced to make eye contact, but immediately Lookout turned aside, a bored and disinterested expression on her face.
The girl rubbed the bridge of her nose when Chaff turned away again. Was he or wasn’t he angry with her? Was she supposed to apologize or thank him? She could read the facial expressions of a bird better than that of a boy, and that was saying something. Lookout had never been good with people.
Maybe she had just spent too much time around Sinndi. The subtle cock of the bird’s head, the glint in her beady eyes, even the harshness of her screech all carried meaning for Lookout that human faces simply didn’t. Even Jiralla, the bathawk that followed Gopal, was easier to understand than the marshman himself.
She had never told anyone this. After all, who would understand?
Beside her, Chaff was regaling Sri with tales of the marsh. “And then everything just stops, yeah? The man made of wood, he as creepy as a creeper, he walks up to the poltergeist. Poltergeist just walks away, feet going boom-boom-boom. Then the man comes for us…”
No, they definitely didn’t want Lookout interrupting them. She bowed her head and kept her distance.
She didn’t want to admit it, but that might have been the reason why she wandered away in the first place. Just so Chaff, who seemed to like Sri so much, could have his space—and so she wouldn’t have to watch.
How was she supposed to know a murderous psychopath had been waiting to pick her off when she split from the group?
Well, she was supposed to know. She was Lookout. She knew…everything.
She knew facts and dates and little useless pieces of information that stuck in her head like grit. She didn’t know people, but she knew names and reputations and territories and everything else there was to know about people except who they actually were. She knew how to read. She definitely knew how to read. Slowly, yes, but she knew how to read.
Lookout knew how to read Chaff’s book.
She knew where it was, too, tucked away inside the scarf that now hung around the camelopard’s neck. “Excuse me, elector big guy,” she said, drawing the leather-bound book out and flipping through its damp pages. Though the ink had blurred and the fringes all had dark stains, it was legible enough.
Walls had always loved books, and therefore she had loved books because…well, the reasoning wasn’t important.
He had broken into the Libraries once. She didn’t even remember the name of the book he stole, some thin pamphlet that had fallen apart a week after it was taken out of the libraries. At first they had thought the electors had put some kind of decaying curse over any book that left their shelves, but then Lookout had realized it was just bad paper and shit glue.
This book wasn’t like that pamphlet. It carried a certain portent to it, a certain weight that no loose scraps of paper could ever carry. It felt knowledgeable.
“The Song of Mazzia, the Wandering Man,” read Lookout, flipping open the cover. “A book of moral instruction.” She pursed her lips. The Wandering Man was a concept that only the electors talked about. He was the perfect plainsman, the epitome of what it meant to be from Shira Hay. He was thoughtful, curious, quick-witted, and male. “That’s me disqualified,” Lookout muttered, under her breath, as she kept reading.
It was hard work. She was not overly familiar with the letters, and the smudged ink only made it harder to read. Lookout had learn literacy the same way she had learned arithmetic: by stealing it. Tattle and Walls and even Hurricane had always said that education was the way to a better life, and she had believed it even when they didn’t.
The book began slowly, and even slower for Lookout, who had to decipher each word and letter in turn.
Mazzia, it said, was the first disciple of Raggon and Gahhay, the founders of Shira Hay. That made Lookout pause. She didn’t know how much of this book was true, but it had to be a very old book indeed if it was telling stories of the time before kings, when the empire of the Hak Mat Do was still strong. Perhaps it was all just one big fib. Lookout read on.
There was something in there about a quest, an epic journey that the Ladies themselves sent Mazzia on. They spoke to him, it said. They answered his questions. At that point, Lookout knew it was all a lie.
The goddesses never answered anyone’s questions.
Familiar talons wrapped lightly on Lookout’s shoulder, and she looked up, closing the book. That was enough reading for today.
“Hey,” she said, stroking one finger along the side of Sinndi’s face before tucking the book back away into Chaff’s scarf. She didn’t need to say anything else. Words only ever seemed to get in the way, for Lookout.
The owlcrow ruffled her wings, her wide eyes staring inquisitively at Lookout. Her feathers shone like black bronze in the dim light.
“Nothing’s the matter,” said Lookout. She made sure it was she said just three words. The tic got worse when she was nervous or flustered. “Go away, shoo.”
Sinndi knew when to leave her master alone. She glided away silently, keeping low to the ground and hopping on occasion when her wings would not support her. Lookout watched her go, her head pounding, her body aching, and not entirely sure what her heart was doing.
“That’s enough!” shouted Wozek, and Sinndi wheeled as the marshman held up his hand to stop. “We’ve gone far enough. Food, now, then sleep. The village is just a day’s more travel away.”
Almost automatically Lookout reached for Sinndi’s tabula, but she stopped and held herself back. Sinndi needed her rest.
“Goodman Gopal! You have supplies?”
“Enough for Sri and I,” said Gopal, raising a leather satchel. “Would you like bread, Wozek?”
“All is well, I have enough,” he said. “Goodman Chaff? Goodwoman Lookout?”
Lookout turned her head away. She knew they should have taken the time to gather supplies, but where would they have taken it from? They had no time at all. “We left under…pressed circumstances,” said Lookout, and it was true.
“Come then,” said Wozek. “Sit. Eat!”
Lookout dismounted slowly, wondering why Wozek would take the time to be so kind to them. Obviously Chaff had done him quite a favor in…doing whatever he did to the spiderwhale, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Wozek owed them nothing. He knew this marsh, and thanks to Chaff, he had the beast that could rip any one of them to shreds if he wanted to. He was the one with power, and he was the one in control.
So what did he want?
“Come on, Lookout!” said Chaff, tugging on her sleeve, and she nearly tumbled off of the boy’s camelopard. He did not seem to have a care or fear in the world as he sat in the little circle the others had formed.
At first, there was no room in the circle for her, but then Chaff asked Gopal to budge aside and make space.
“We have dark rye bread,” said Wozek, pulling the food out from a pack slung over the spiderwhale’s back. “Peppers, salted chickenbeef, some red onions…”
“Can I have some of that?” asked Chaff, suddenly.
Wozek held up a raw reddish-purple bulb. “The onions?”
“No, no,” said Chaff, pointing. Lookout followed his finger, and raised a quizzical eyebrow. “That.”
“This?” Wozek laughed. “This is animal feed. Raw fish for this big old lug.”
Chaff looked down, his eyes drifting as if he was confused himself, but then he shrugged. “I kind of want it though, yeah?”
“I thought you liked onions,” Lookout quipped, staring at him.
“The big guy can have the onions, he likes them too,” said Chaff, shaking his head. “I just…want to eat some fish.”
Wozek, with his mouth slightly open and his eyebrows furrowed, looked slightly taken aback. With no one else to turn to, he met Lookout’s eyes, and she shrugged. “He wants fish, let him have fish,” she muttered. “Long as the big beast doesn’t mind.”
The marshman shook his head, as he continued to pull food from his pack. “And the rest of Albumere thinks kazakhani are strange,” he said, and Gopal and Sri laughed. “For you, goodwoman Lookout?”
“Just the bread,” she said, hugging her knees to her chest. She didn’t want to ask for anymore. Sharing a full meal’s worth of food with Wozek would make him fully her friend.
She took the half-loaf of bread with a curt nod, and broke off a few crumbs to feed Sinndi. Of course, the owlcrow would have preferred meat—mousefrogs or grubs dug from the dirt—but here bread would have to do.
Three pinches of bread, just to be safe.
“If you are heading east,” said Wozek, as they ate. “Then you could take a boat from the Maw. Sail around Oldsea, dock somewhere along the peninsula. Better and faster than walking, if you have the stomach for it.”
“Where’s the Maw?” Chaff asked, and Lookout rolled her eyes at his ignorance even if she wasn’t quite sure herself.
Wozek smiled. “The bay of Kazakhal. The city itself lies along its shore. I can guide the way, if you are planning to go there.”
“Where are you planning to go?” asked Lookout, suddenly. She turned straight to Wozek, her brow furrowed. (Had she been too harsh? Too sudden? Too rude, again? Lookout couldn’t tell.) “Where are you planning to go?”
There was a moment’s silence. Behind him, Wozek’s spiderwhale rumbled. “I’m sorry?”
“Were you going somewhere, before you met us?” asked Lookout. She wanted answers. She wanted explanations. “Are you going somewhere? Or do you just have the time on your hands to show us the whole way there?”
Wozek cleared his throat. “If you do not want me-.”
“No!” said Chaff, immediately. He shot Lookout something between a glare and a confused plea. “If it’s quicker, we go that way, yeah?”
Chaff turned to Lookout, as if waiting for her confirmation, and suddenly all eyes were on her. She rubbed her elbow, looking down. If just one of them stopped looking at her, the number would be good again…
“Sure, yeah,” said Lookout, not making eye contact with any of them. “Just curious, was all.”
Wozek nodded, looking satisfied. “To answer your question, goodwoman Lookout,” he said. “I am keeping my land safe. I am keeping my people safe. Now that the winter is near upon us, some shall be fleeing south, also to the Maw. Food is easier to come by, there, and the journey is not so long if the snows have not set in.”
That seemed to be good enough for Chaff, and who was Lookout to say otherwise? She ate her bread slowly, piece by piece, considering if maybe she should store it somewhere and eat it later. She did not feel like sharing a meal with Wozek. He was the fifth. It was a bad number.
“We are both very grateful,” said Wozek, patting the spiderwhale’s side. Its eighth leg dangled limply in the air, and its eight-eyed expression was unreadable. “We just want to do our fair share in kind.”
He smiled, then, a disarming and charming smile.
Almost unconsciously, Lookout’s fingers drifted to her tabula. It hummed ever so slightly, but that was all she needed. Lookout’s vision blurred and shifted, until she was seeing from a space just a few inches from her head, with eyes that could count the number of hairs on Wozek’s lip. She ate her bread mechanically, as she saw through the eyes of the owlcrow.
The smile was lost on Sinndi. Birds didn’t have lips or teeth. And perhaps she was just seeing things, but when she looked at him—at the cock of his head, the glint in his eyes, the lilt of his voice—all Lookout saw was a liar.
She emerged from the waters like a devil from the deep, and Alis could not help but scream. The monster climbed aboard the boat with her long hair dripping, her limbs tensed and bent like a spider’s, her scarred eyes pointed straight towards Alis. Click, click, click, she went, like a bell with no tone, announcing the coming embrace of the wide-eyed owl. The Lady Winter herself had sent one of her reapers to collect Alis’s soul.
Not as if they would find it on her. Not as if Alis would ever hold it again.
With every click, the monster twitched like a bird, her movements jerky, erratic, and irregular. She advanced through the flames, and Alis whimpered as she struggled to pull free of the fallen beam. It lay flat across her legs, wooden debris all around her waist, and Alis had long ago stopped feeling the burning.
The injustice of it all made Alis’s eyes sting. She pulled and twisted, but could not struggle free. Of course she had been the last one to get out. Of course the fire had reached the cabin only as she was leaving.
“I’m coming for you, Alis!” shouted the monster. “Tell me where you are! You have to tell me where you are!”
Alis’s eyes widened. She recognized that voice.
“Jova?” she called out, her voice hoarse and weak.
“Keep talking to me!” Something splashed overboard near the side of the ship, and the shouts and screams of others trying to put the fires out echoed in the night. “Alis, I need you to keep talking to me!”
Alis didn’t know what to say. Perhaps it had been the flickering shadows cast by the firelight, or the fear roiling in her gut, or the spinning stars above her, but Alis had not recognized Jova. She had been scared of her.
She is here to help.
Jova stopped, her whole body tensed. “Alis?” she called out again, even as the slaver’s cabin crumbled even further. “Where are you?”
Was Jova scared? Alis didn’t want her to be scared. “Don’t be scared!” she shouted.
And then Jova was beside her, her hands under the wooden plank, her face twisted in a grimace of concentration. She pulled, hard, but Alis felt the debris over her body budge only a little.
The fires burned hot around them. “Can you get me out?” asked Alis, every word carefully articulated despite their dire straits. Alis wasn’t very good at talking. She needed time to think about the words, time to lay them out piece by piece and present them.
“Only if you help,” grunted Jova, gasping and tugging. She backed away, and Alis could see the sheen of perspiration on her forehead. It wasn’t just the effort of pulling the planks away. The fires were getting closer.
Alis clawed at the ground again, trying to worm her way free, but as ever she could not. Where had the other kids gone? The grown-olds who had been taking care of her? Why was Jova the only person who had come to help her?
She is special.
“Together, Alis!” shouted Jova, over the crackling flames. “You push, I pull! Ready?”
“You have to tell me when you’re ready, Alis!”
The little girl planted her hands on the floor. The fire danced in a circle around them, like spectators at a gruesome sport. It was a game to them, as they cackled and watched. If Alis lost…
She set her brow, shaking her head to clear the hair from her eyes. She hated losing. Not games, not people, not anything.
“I’m ready, Jova,” she said, and braced herself. She would not end up like her friend in the jungle. He had lost the game, and now he laid asleep, cold and prone and alone. There was too much for Alis to do for her to fall into that kind of endless dream.
“Then when I say go, push,” said Jova. “Get ready, Alis! Make it count!”
“I’m ready, Jova,” repeated Alis, and she was.
Alis shoved as hard as she could, her high voice crying out as she began to push against the ground. She saw the planks crack and split where Jova dug herself in, and inch by inch the great beam lifted off of her.
Even as she pushed for space, Alis began to crawl forward. Her cotton pants ripped as she moved, threads of fabric tangling in the splinters, but that was the least of Alis’s concerns. The flames danced higher, a perfect circle around their little arena, and blinking tears from her eyes, Alis struggled her way free.
And as the pressure was relieved, the pain hit her.
It was as if every sensation from when her crushed legs had become numb under there had come rushing back. Her very pulse, pounding in her calves and thighs, made Alis’s whole body twitch and tense. She could barely breathe or hear or move.
“Keep going, Alis!” shouted Jova. The wooden beam slipped from her hands, and she sunk to her knees to catch it. “You have to keep going!”
Alis couldn’t. It was too much. Perhaps her friend in the jungle had it right all along.
This is shock. This is fear and pain. Will you lose to fear and pain?
No. Alis hated losing.
Fear is fire, said a voice like echoing memories, although Alis did not know what she was remembering. It laid down the words for her, piece by piece, slowly and carefully so that she could understand. Unchecked, it will burn away everything you are.
Stiffly, Alis’s arm reached out. She pulled herself forward, and that little movement caused Alis to convulse in shock.
Fire is hunger. It will never be sated, no matter how much you feed it.
Alis’s eyes fixed on the sky, on a single bright point overhead. The flames had obscured every other star in the sky, but this single bright point shone for Alis. It drifted lazily down to the horizon, and Alis reached out for it. Reach out, pull. Reach out, pull.
Do not submit to fear.
By fractions, Alis pulled free.
Jova collapsed next to her, and Alis saw dimly that her fingers were littered with splinters and scrapes. The water from the river had nearly evaporated completely in the heat, and thin lines cut across both of Jova’s forearms.
Live. She will not unless you do, whispered the voice. Alis felt the pain in her limbs growing even as her consciousness receded. She looked up, and saw movement past the flames. A person?
I will visit again when the summer comes, fallborn. It is my sister’s turn now, although she hates fire so.
And suddenly the flames leaped higher, the perfect circle around Alis and Jova broken as the fires ate hungrily at the ship.
Alis’s vision flickered as she saw the person burst through the flames. He was a legless man, who sat astride a horse whose eyes were bulging and rolling in their sockets but whose body was perfectly calm and controlled.
Jova stood immediately, her whole body tense. She did not say a word.
The man on the horse took one look at the both of them, and Alis saw him grimace.
“She needs help,” said Jova, and she put her arms under Alis’s shoulders and knees. Alis shut her eyes tight and froze as Jova lifted her, the movement sending spasms through her body.
Rough hands grabbed her and slung her over the back of the man’s horse. Alis felt detached, a ghost tied by some invisible string to a doll that others could toss around at their mercy. She laid across the horse’s back, too weak to even cry anymore.
Nobody moved. Even as the fires grew so hot that it seemed as if the walls of the cabin were dripping away, nobody moved.
“Why are you here?” said the man, finally.
“Roan,” said Jova. “Rho Hat Pan. Sir. This isn’t the place-.”
“I am seeing you with u-ha. I am knowing what you spoke of with him.”
“-or the time to talk about this. Look at her! She needs help!”
The horse stamped a hoof so hard that the plank beneath her cracked. Alis jolted on top of the animal’s back, and she clung on, gasping for breath. As Jova and the man began to shout over each other, she raised her head and peered over at her legs. Almost immediately, she turned away. She didn’t know which was worse, the blood or the burns. She didn’t have the words to describe it.
“Where is Bechde?” shouted Rho Hat Pan.
“Gone,” snarled Jova.
“She is not with you. You…” And suddenly Alis jerked forward as the horse galloped towards Jova. The man’s arm bulged as he gripped Jova by the collar and lifted her entire body upwards, and then he directed all three of them straight toward the fires.
Alis did not know how they survived it. All she could remember was orange and red light, and the heat, a flaring heat so great that it was almost cold again.
“You are wanting to go? Let us be going,” snapped Rho Hat Pan, and from what Alis could see of his twisted face, he was livid. Bags under his eyes and unkempt stubble did nothing to alleviate the sheer malice Alis felt radiating from this man.
They stood at the edge of the burning boat, as the stars sunk from the sky and the river sloshed beneath them. “Let us see how well you swim,” Rho Hat Pan said. He held Jova out over the railing, firelight illuminating her face while it darkened his. “If you are so eager to leave, then leave. You are frustrating, devil girl.”
“She needs help,” Jova repeated. She turned to face him, her expression unyielding, her ruined eyes somehow daring the man to make good on his threat. “If you tire of one cripple, take on another.”
Alis saw the man tense, even as her eyelids began to flutter. It was getting harder and harder to stay alert. It would have been so much easier to just sleep…
The last thing she saw was the man letting Jova go, before she fell into unconsciousness.
Alis had no dreams that night. She felt nothing, saw nothing, heard nothing. There were no mysterious voices, no mystic figures, no shadowed silhouettes. There was nothing she didn’t understand, nothing to confuse her or lead her astray. In a way, she was grateful. She wanted sleep, and only sleep.
When she woke, it was to shouting. Alis kept her eyes closed. She wanted to cover her ears and roll away. She had had enough of shouting.
She remembered the voices, but the names eluded her. There were so many of them, in so many different dialects and languages, that it was hard to keep track of them. The first man was the slaver, the one who owned the boat. The second was the new leader of the group, the one who—Alis realized this with some resentment—was supposed to be watching out for her.
“What was your plan, Dal Ak Gan? Hmm? What did you intend to accomplish via…via arson and sabotage!?”
“I had no plan, Kharr Ta. We didn’t know-.”
“Oh, well, that was obvious.”
“We didn’t know what was happening, either.”
It sounded like business as usual. Alis didn’t know how grown-olds usually talked about trading things, but she assumed it had to sound something like that since they did it so much. She opened her eyes, and immediately closed them again. Harsh light shone directly down on her face, although it did not feel like she was lying in the sun.
She moved her arms, and felt straw padding under her. It was, if not comfortable, at least amenable. Her friend in the jungle was not given a straw bed to lie on. The bodies that had been piled up after the raid were not given straw beds to lie on. Straw bed was a good sign.
She tried to move her legs, and failed.
Alis opened her eyes again and raised her head, squinting through light. Long splints ran down both her legs, locking them firmly in place. The girl tried to move, but she could barely even raise herself up to a sitting position.
Shielding her eyes, she looked up. The light was coming from a crystalline bauble, dangling from the tent’s ceiling. It was one of many, all hung from a net that stretched across the entire tent, catching the light and shooting it all over the tarp and the ground and the skins spread on the dirt. Whenever someone touched the tent, the whole thing wobbled, and colors flew everywhere.
A soft, wheezing sound came from the opposite side of the tent, and Alis looked to see an old man giving her a toothless grin. Alis smiled. She liked this tent.
“I like this tent,” she said, and the old man nodded sagely, like he already knew.
He was sitting next to a bubbling pot, and Alis eyed the fire underneath it uneasily. Her fixed legs had quite a bit to say, on the dangers of fire.
Outside, the men were still shouting. Their voices grew a bit louder as the tent flap opened, and then a bit softer as they were muffled again. Another one of those hide-wearing, charm-yielding men walked in. He wore a necklace of bones and strings around his wrist. There was a bird on his shoulder, who gave Alis a critical once-over before hopping onto the man’s other side.
He held a boy in his arms, and barely even looked at Alis before saying…well, Alis really had no idea what he was saying. The words were so fast and so sharp that Alis couldn’t even tell the individual sounds. Everybody in the group talked like that, and Alis tried so hard to keep up that her head hurt.
The old man responded, and the man with the bird laid down the boy.
“Biggest trader in all of Shira Hay throws a tantrum when one of his boats catches just a wee bit on fire,” said the man with the bird, putting his hands on his hips. He rolled his eyes. “Not like they’re setting things on fire down there,” he muttered, and he ducked under the flap and walked away.
Alis looked at the boy. He had welts and burns all along the side of his body; half the hair on his head was gone, his face looked like the blackened side of burnt meat, and the rest of his body was wrapped tightly in old cloth. As she watched, the old man came hobbling over. He had a ladle in his hand full of whatever was in the cauldron, and he dripped large dollops of steaming green paste onto the boy’s side.
“What,” said Alis, carefully. “Are you doing?”
The old man muttered for quite some time under his breath as he administered to the boy, until, finally looking up at Alis and seeing her blank expression, he said, “I…save.”
As the old man continued, she said, slowly, “Do you know Jova?”
“Where is she?”
The old man smacked his lips together. His ladle now empty, he walked slowly back to the pot. Alis watched him as he went, watched his wrinkled brow furrow deeper still, watched his rheumy eyes glaze over as he thought.
“Devil girl,” he began, just as slowly as Alis. “Comes from Kaza. Dripping allwhere. Had three tabula, but poof! Gone. I say to Dep Sag Ko this, but Rho Hat Pan say no. Is to do with Walkers.”
With his cane, the old man tapped the net above and the baubles and light-catchers danced once again. Alis laughed in delight.
“Talk to spirits. Guide me. They say, trust Rho Hat Pan. Keep devil Jova alive. I say no thing to Dal Ak Gan.” He pointed a cane at Alis. “You say no thing to Dal Ak Gan. No thing to no one.”
Alis shook her head, her silence promised.
“Ota wa, gul hay ak ar. Sleep, go,” said the old man. He trudged out of the tent, even as the shouting went on, and on, and on.
Alis couldn’t sleep, though. Her aching legs wouldn’t let her. Instead, she stared, transfixed, at the dangling ornaments. They were like the stars in their constant movement and their bright lights. Stars during the day. They really were beautiful.
Beside her, the boy stirred. He stared groggily upward, his face slack and drooping like he was only half conscious.
“I’m alive,” he said, finally.
It was all thanks to the old man. The old had saved him. “The old man saved you,” said Alis.
He turned to Alis, and the little girl had to turn away from the horrific burns on the side of his face. “Who saved you?” he croaked, a thin line of drool dripping out of his mouth.
Alis paused. What was she supposed to say? Just another slave, someone on the boat? Jova, or the blind girl, or the devil? Should she say anything at all?
Finally, Alis found the right words. She said them carefully, piece by piece, just to make sure she meant it.
Parsaa Inno waited, cradling her sleeping children against her chest as the fetid bog swirled around her. Of course, they were not her children per say, but Scrabble and Clatter were as close as she was ever going to get.
In her private moments, she gave them civilized names. Tahmmin, after the scholar, for Scrabble, who was so smart that he could be an elector if only he put his mind to it. Lejja, after the wanderer, for Clatter, who could spin a walk down the alley into an epic for the ages. Raggon and Gahhay, after the founders of Shira Hay, for the both of them, for they were as close as hollow-born brothers.
Of course, Al Innai would not stand for it. They would earn civil names when they became civilized, he said, not when an aging woman whose face was beginning to wrinkle and whose breasts were beginning to sag gave it to them.
Parsaa Inno held her children close to her, and waited for Al Innai to return.
Her own name she resented. Parsaa everyone called her; Parsaa she was known as. That was no issue. It was the Inno that no one ever said that shamed her, that chained her, that implied her bondage.
Parsaa waited for Al Innai, wondering if something had happened to the man who held her tabula.
Clatter began to stir, and Parsaa ran a hand through his frizzy hair. She couldn’t be that old yet, she decided, even if Al Innai always said so. She couldn’t have been older than a score and five summers when she first found the two urchin children curled up in the rain. Now that Clatter and Scrabble were nearing ten, she had only reached thirty. She had a few child-bearing years yet.
Not that she would ever let herself bear another one of Al Innai’s children. Parsaa had made sure of that: the solutions of mercury and water had a flat, metallic taste and made Parsaa’s head pound, but they were better than the alternative.
It was fortune from the Ladies that she had stayed as a keeper of the Libraries even after Al Innai had bought her; she didn’t know where else she could have found the ingredients, or where else she would have even learned the contraceptive mix. The doddering alchemical elector had been perfectly happy to lecture her day and night on his latest formulas.
The job had been good while it lasted, but not good enough to outweigh the cost of war.
Now that they were in the wilds, Parsaa kept a small clay pot of lime, ground thorntree bark, and honey in her pouch. Al Innai did not know and would be livid if he found out, but thankfully there had been no need to apply the paste yet.
Something rumbled in the mist, and Parsaa flinched. She did not like Kazakhal. Disease was as thick as the fog in the air because of the damp, and she did not know any of the native herbs and flowers. She had begged Al Innai not to come, but the bloodlust had taken him, and he had not listened.
Parsaa looked down. She should not have pushed the boy from the cliff.
She should have done it cleaner, where the kill was guaranteed.
Scrabble mumbled something in his sleep, and Parsaa put a gentle hand on his cheek. The poor boys had been through so much; Scrabble said that he’d been haunted by bad dreams ever since they left Shira Hay. Parsaa was sure he dreamed of the riots, when the alsknights had torn apart anyone unlucky enough to stand in their way. Her sons had watched firsthand theirs friends captured and slaughtered. It must have hurt them deeply.
Parsaa was not blind. She saw the rough face Scrabble put on when anyone brought up the old gang, the almost cruel way that Clatter acted towards the child who had been a former member. She did not blame them for doing what they had to do to survive. But, in the end, no matter how tough they acted, they were just kids. They weren’t ready for that kind of loss.
She put her hand on Scrabble’s forehead again, just to make sure he didn’t have a fever. He hadn’t been eating well, either, ever since they left the city, and Parsaa feared the worse. His skin was warm but not hot; Parsaa let herself relax, if only a little.
Enough was enough. Gently laying Scrabble and Clatter down so that their heads were up and their feet were dry, Parsaa rose. The boys slept lightly. If anything came after them, they’d be up and calling for her in an instant.
Of course Parsaa was afraid, but she had to balance her fears against practicality. They were in more danger waiting for Al Innai than they were searching for him.
Al Innai was not a bad man. Parsaa had to remind herself that. He took care of her, and he treated her like she was free, and he let the boys stay. That was more than Parsaa could have hoped for from one of the riverside merchants.
And he believed in Shira Hay: if not the people, then the idea of it. He believed in home, something rare for a plainsman, those people who acted like they had none.
All the same, a part of Parsaa couldn’t help but fantasize of leaving right now, returning to her sunlit alcove in the libraries, and living out the rest of her life with just the boys. There would be no war, no fighting, no hard truths. Only peace.
Parsaa’s foot sunk suddenly into the mud, and she flinched. It was cold and clammy and sucked at her ankles. She missed the flat plains of Shira Hay. They should never, never have come to this place.
Her hand found the stalk of an unfamiliar plant, and she plucked it out absently as she walked. There was still a trail of footprints in the mud where Al Innai’s large feet had stepped, and Parsaa rubbed the leaf between her fingers as she followed the trail.
“Summer yearning, essence burning,” said Parsaa, as she crushed the leaf in-between her fingers. Little white fibers like hairs brushed against her skin as a white goo oozed onto her hand. “Winter’s kiss is only bliss.”
The paste made Parsaa’s fingers tingle, and she brushed it off quickly. “Fall is faint but full of taint,” she recited. “And silence of the spring only ever shall death bring.”
It was a nonsense rhyme, one that the old alchemical elector always sang as he prepared his new pots and jars of ground roots or crushed flower petals. Parsaa had taken on the same habit, as she tested the herbs and shrubs of Kazakhal. First, she decided, she needed to find out what was edible and safe to eat. Then she could find remedies for the sick, poultices and numbing herbs, although on Albumere, the line between poison and cure could be thin indeed.
Parsaa shook her head. That was the wrong line of thinking. She didn’t need to know Kazakhal because she wasn’t staying in Kazakhal.
She followed the tracks, uneasiness eating at her gut as she walked further and further away from Clatter and Scrabble. Where was Al Innai? He held her tabula. If she couldn’t find him, she wouldn’t be able to find her soul.
For the first time in her life, Parsaa prayed to the Ladies to help him. She made a circle over her forehead for wisdom, and on the small of her back for fortune, as she trudged through the marsh, trying to find him.
The trail twisted suddenly, curling around a gnarled white pine while at the same time Parsaa saw long furrows in the mud. Had this been where the boy and Al Innai had fought?
Except there was no trace of either of them, and Parsaa saw that the trail continued: now Al Innai’s feet were joined by a single, long line, like something being dragged through the mud.
As Parsaa followed, it took her a moment to realize she was holding her breath.
What tricks did that boy have up his sleeve? There was the beast with the long neck and the spotted fur, Parsaa knew, and the accomplice he had with him, although she should have died to the infection long ago.
Except, and Parsaa could have sworn she saw it even if Al Innai denied it day and night, the girl’s leg had healed the moment the boy had summoned her. Nothing—her herbs, her medicines, her remedies—could have done something like that so fast.
Parsaa clenched her fists. She hoped Al Innai was right, because if he wasn’t and she was, then a lifetime of stealing knowledge would be invalidated. That people like that existed on this world was…frightening.
Perhaps that was why Royya had fled. Parsaa had never liked Royya, with her constant smile and her vacant eyes, but she had a point. It was a fool’s errand, to chase down one person somewhere out there in the whole of Albumere; it was more foolish still if that person was an unknown. Better to stay safe and survive, Royya had said. Better not to take risks.
Al Innai had been adamant, though, and Parsaa knew why. He was a good man once, but ever since his dreams for Shira Hay had been shattered by the war…what did he have to survive for now? What was he risking? He lost that which was precious to him and had become an empty man, fueled by hate and anger.
She shuddered. If she ever lost her children, Parsaa feared the same would happen to her.
The trail went on into the water, and Parsaa paused. The boy’s track had led here, that Al Innai had been absolutely sure of: who else would always be accompanied by a beast with flat hooves, all the way from Shira Hay? The boy was traveling with a group, though. He had found others.
What if they were too much? What if the worst had happened? Royya had been right. Better to stay safe and survive. Better not to take risks.
Then she felt it.
There was a second of clarity as Parsaa heard the hum. A muffled roar echoed through the fog, and before Parsaa could react she felt a searing pain around her midsection. Her eyes burned as she felt an impact in her bones like she had just been kicked in the chest.
She had only felt like this once before, when her first master had died.
Her vision danced before her, and dimly Parsaa felt her knees sink into the mud. She saw Al Innai standing before her, his mouth slightly ajar, shock and fear in his eyes. As she watched, his skin began to split, golden blood oozing from the wounds as his head twisted back and his mouth was wrenched open by some unseen force.
His tongue writhed and warped until a thread of green spiraled out of his mouth, and Parsaa took a reflexive step back. She felt herself falling, sinking, as ocean waves crashed above her and a watery sun shone through the surface of the water. Amber tendrils reached around her, wrapping around her body, anchoring her arms and legs to the bottom of the ocean itself, as the forlorn roar continued through the murky waters.
Then the vision was over, and Parsaa was on the ground, her clothes stained with mud. She stood shakily, her head spinning.
And she knew, without a doubt, that Al Innai was dead.
She had seen it with animals all the time: when their owners died, they recoiled, flinched, shrunk back, and spent the next few seconds dazed and confused. The first time Parsaa had felt it, she must have been barely a year or two past Fallow, but she still remembered the golden eyes, the choking grasp, the feeling of desiccation and rot in her very bones as the old man died. When the master’s tabula broke, the slave felt it.
Now it had happened again. Now Al Innai was dead.
Parsaa Inno did not wait to find out what killed him.
She ran back, heedless of the mud flying off her elbow and arm. The boys—she had to get back to the boys—they were her priority. The roar faded into the fog, but now it felt to Parsaa like she was running over an earthquake; the ground itself seemed to be trying to stop her from reaching her children.
“Scrabble!” she shouted, scrambling over a rotting log. The maggotpoles inside were writhing and squirming to get out, and as Parsaa’s foot split the bark they spilled out onto the ground. Every single one began to wriggle away from the epicenter of the shaking, in the direction Parsaa ran. “Clatter!”
“Ma!” shouted Scrabble’s familiar voice, and Parsaa breathed again. Scrabble was a light sleeper. Scrabble was in no danger. As she made her way through the fog, she saw them standing there: Scrabble awake and alert, Clatter rubbing his eyes and yawning.
She wrapped the both of them in a tight hug, trying to stop her body from shaking. Closer than brothers. More kin to her than her lost son.
“Go, go, go,” she said, ushering them away. As long as they kept their wits about them, it would be easy enough to reach the border of the Quiet Marsh, the surreal line where badland and swamp were divided.
“What’s about Innai-Innai?” asked Clatter, looking over his shoulder. “Where he do-.”
“He’ll meet up with us,” Parsaa lied. She saw Scrabble look up sharply, and knew she could not hide the truth from her son. Now, though, was not the time to tell it. They never should have gone into Kazakhal.
It was only as all of three of them began to run that Parsaa realized what she was missing, the reason why she had gone to find Al Innai in the first place.
The dead man still held her tabula.
For one insane moment, Parsaa considered turning back right then and there to find it. She couldn’t, though, not with her boys now running, not with freedom so tantalizingly close on one side and death so treacherously hidden on the other.
Her step did not falter, even as Parsaa already began to feel a hole in her chest, an itch deep down inside of her heart. What fool would willingly leave their tabula behind in a place as strange as this? What if she was summoned away again like a newborn at Fallow, or, even worse, what if her tabula broke under the foot of some wild beast out here in the marsh?
Whatever had killed Al Innai, she had to risk going past it. It was the only way to get her tabula back.
Parsaa tightened her fists. Better to stay safe and survive, Royya had said. Better not to take risks. She had learned her lesson. She had to balance her fears against practicality.
Already, Parsaa could see the light of the Shira Hay sun peeking through the fog. There was no turning back now, not when home was so close.
She loved her sons. Parsaa knew that without a doubt. There would be a time to return, and a time for them to find her. For now, she would take her four years as just Parsaa, no Inno. She would take her four years to watch her sons grow into little men on their own right. She would take her four years.
After all, the Ladies seemed to think that was enough.
No one minded her as she walked through the camp. Jova could even hear quick steps moving away from her as she led Dep Sag Ko’s eelhound along the banks of the river. It made Jova think they knew what she had done, but of course that was ridiculous. It was just her appearance: the devil girl with no eyes scared even the most rational of the Hag Gar Gan.
The eelhound thrashed its head and pulled back as Jova walked it along. She struggled to hold it down, but it refused, snapping its teeth and growling in a low, vicious rumble. “Lo Pak, down! Down!” hissed Jova, digging her feet into the sand, struggling to control the animal. Even it did not seem to want anything to do with her.
Finally, grudgingly, the eelhound began to follow her again. Jova kept her distance from the animal’s head, walking by its side instead. It was beginning to dawn on her that Lo Pak was perhaps the only witness to her crime; of all the people who were scared of her, only its fears were justified. “Good thing you can’t talk, then,” muttered Jova, as she guided it further down the river.
She could hear the waves lapping against the hull of Kharr Ta’s barge, hear the rhythmic wooden thunk of the boat on the shore. Jova cocked her head, but no one appeared to be nearby.
“Stay, Lo Pak,” she said, clicking her tongue. The eelhound seemed to understand the command well enough, although it was in the king’s tongue, and sat on its hind legs with a crunch of sand and gravel.
Jova dipped her bare foot into the water. “All rivers flow to the sea,” she muttered. She felt like she had heard it before, although she could not remember where. “All rivers flow…free.” Jova turned her face to the sky. What would she give to just disappear now, to just dive into the water without fear of the consequences?
But she needed a plan. It would be a folly for a girl who could barely swim to escape into the river without solid contingencies for everything that could go wrong. Jova had been thinking, though. She had a plan.
It was doing it that would be the hard part.
“I will be free,” said Jova, feeling the fading light of the sun on her face. “I have always been free.”
She turned back to the shore before anyone could see her, keeping her head low, leading Lo Pak down to where the animals drank. The sandmen put high priority on their mounts, and Jova had to hold her breath as a whole host of eclectic smells assaulted her. There were crickets for Uten, oh, yes—and a bucket of dead rodents for Yora, and a bale of hay for Stel (although the horse was not there) and half-rotten fruits and roasted birds and even a pail of nothing but pebbles. Lo Pak dug its snout into a trough of slimy fish with a happy snort, and Jova let the beast be.
Jova clicked her tongue as she moved through the throng. It was lucky for her that the animals all had such distinctive shapes and sounds, or else she never would have found who she was looking for.
“Budge up, Uten,” Jova said, patting the molebison on the side. “I miss you too. I’ll come for you later, OK? Right now, I need…”
She clicked her tongue, and a complex jumble of echoes bounced back. The summer elk’s antlers were bowed before her, and the animal was breathing heavily as she approached.
“Hey, Cross,” said Jova, reaching a hand out gingerly. Cross’s fur was unnaturally hot; Jova did not know how Janwye had managed to ride him all that time. “I’m a friend, OK? I’m friendly.”
Janwye’s old animal snorted and stamped its hoof. It was jittery, and with good reason. Jova could hear the limp in its step as Jova pulled it away from the rest of the group. She wished she had something to pacify him with—lumps of brown sugar or a slice of fresh fruit—but those were luxuries a slave would never have. Her own voice would have to do for now.
Again, the desire struck Jova to simply run away. It would have been easy to ride Cross off into the wilds, safety be damned.
Except it wouldn’t. Dep Sag Ko still held the summer elk’s tabula, so she could lose the animal at any moment. Cross would leave tracks that could easily be followed, and Jova could not risk the chance of getting lost without the guiding presence of the river. She did not have the skills or the ability to survive in the wilderness on her own. No, it was better for Jova to escape to the trappings of civilization. Better for her to be among people, and be unafraid.
“This way, Cross,” she said, leading him along. She had no reins or tabula to command him, so she had to place a guiding hand on his muzzle instead. “Let’s go this way, come on.”
Her heart beat very fast as she began to walk back into camp with the elk in tow. This wasn’t what Dep Sag Ko had sent her to do. If anyone stopped her, or asked her why, her justification was flimsy. It was dangerous, this way.
Still less dangerous than escaping without a plan.
Cross fought harder than Lo Pak, dancing away from Jova at every turn. Jova had only ever felt that level of resistance from unfamiliar steeds she had worked with, in Rho Hat Pan’s stables, which the clients had brought in themselves. Those steeds had been scared,
What was Cross scared of?
“I miss Janny, too,” said Jova, as they walked. “But we’re going to be OK. We’re going to keep living anyway.”
The summer elk didn’t respond, but he wasn’t fighting back anymore either. That was victory enough for Jova.
The u-ha had a private tent. Jova stopped Cross before it, putting a firm hand against the elk’s snout. Jova swept her feet around and reached blindly to find some post that she could tie him to, but she could not find anything. “Stay. Here,” she said, finally, holding her hands in front of Cross. “If anyone asks, Dep Sag Ko sent me.”
Cross just tossed his head, and Jova decided to get the job done before the elk got too restless. She slipped in u-ha’s tent, doing her best not to look nervous.
The tent smelled of wood smoke and old spices and faintly of manure. It was hot and oddly muggy inside, and Jova could not help but feel light-headed. It reminded her of the pontiff’s chambers in a way, but more primal, closer to the earth. If this was what spiritual enlightenment smelled like, then Jova was content to live a secular life.
“Ya tei, u-ha,” she said, respectfully. Good fortune, shaman.
There was a clattering as the old man rose. Dep Sag Ko did not appear to be with him; for once, he was alone. Except…
“Kha gar pu a devil,” said a familiar voice. Rho Hat Pan shifted, and there was a rustle of cloth. “Excuse me, u-ha. Your medicines have been most helpful.”
Jova’s fists tightened.
The u-ha breathed very heavily as he hobbled forward. He mumbled something under his breath as he approached, but although Jova’s hearing was keen enough to catch the words, she could not decipher the slurred imperial tongue the u-ha spoke.
Rho Hat Pan began to talk in a very low, quick whisper to the u-ha; Jova could catch only snippets of their conversation. “…waste of time…” Rho Hat Pan said. “Intrusive…presumptuous, I shall lead her…not bother you…”
Jova only knew this words because Dep Sag Ko had said the same thing about Ya Gol Gi, loudly and often. Jova turned her head, and tried not to listen. It was not a good sign, comparing herself to the man she had killed.
When the old man spoke, it was as unintelligible as ever. A breathless rasp came from his lips and through toothless gums.
Drumming her fingers on her hip, Jova waited. This was the part of her plan that she knew was extraneous, the part that she knew would be the most dangerous, the part that she knew she didn’t need to do. It was also the part that she was going to do, no matter what.
“…and, u-ha…my tabula?” said Rho Hat Pan. There was a pause. “I understand…medicines use it, of course…I am free…hold the tabula of the crippled.”
And that was it. The crux of the matter. The u-ha held the tabula of the crippled and the dead. Ya Gol Gi’s slaves belonged to this old man now, and so it was this old man that Jova would have to confront.
She heard Stel move suddenly, heard her toss her head and stamp her hooves. It was restless behavior, the kind that meant she had been held very still for a very long time. Jova waited patiently as Rho Hat Pan hauled himself onto the back of his mount, keeping her expression neutral, disinterested, almost bored, even as her insides churned.
Stel brought her head close to Jova as the horse passed, her mane brushing against the girl’s cheek, but the horse jerked away suddenly and Jova was left standing alone, her face cold and the warmth leaving her.
Rho Hat Pan did not say a word to her as he passed. He did not so much as acknowledge her.
Jova didn’t acknowledge him, either. It was not Rho Hat Pan she needed.
“U-ha,” she said, trying not let her voice falter. “Dep Sag Ko ak eri al iro.” Dep Sag Ko sent me to you.
In the back of her head, a little voice whispered, “Lie.” She could only hope the u-ha was not thinking the same.
The u-ha mumbled something under his breath, and Jova took a step forward. She had to know what the old man was saying: not so that she could answer him, but so she could know the right way to respond.
“Iro ta su har,” said Jova. I apologize. “Eri ba va gat ha gha?” Can you say again what you have said?
Jova could only catch some words: why was among them, as was listen. Frustrated by the blind girl who seemed to be deaf now, too? Jova could only hope so.
He was just an old, senile man, Jova reminded herself. He was just an old, senile man who wanted Jova out of his hair as quickly as possible so he could return to his old, senile life. “Dep Sag Ko ak eri al iro,” she repeated.
The u-ha stamped something that sounded like a cane on the ground, and Jova flinched. She couldn’t push him too far. What if he grabbed “her” tabula and commanded Jova to get out? That would not end well for either of them.
“Kokro fi al gana Kharr Ta.” Kharr Ta wants to see the adults.
The old man made a disgusted sound. Jova heard has them already and belong to me.
Jova licked dry lips. “Dep Sag Ko ba va kokro mun fi al gana Kharr Ta.” He says Kharr Ta wants to see all of them. She coughed, clearing her throat. “Al ahab mun.” All of them.
A wooden cane tapped on her cheek, and the u-ha made an angry, low mumble. Those tabula did belong to him, after all. The thought of even offering to trade what belonged to their venerated u-ha must have been antithetical to the whole philosophy of the Hag Gar Gan.
“Dep Sag Ko su ghal,” said Jova. “Pu zota iro Dock ji yesh.” He can’t come. He needed me to get past Dock.
And the old man fell silent.
The enemy is in your camp, Jova thought. The enemy sits and eats with you. You’re going to have to swallow your pride, old man. You’re going to have to give up your prize, because unless you get what you came here for you’re going to have a big problem indeed.
She could feel his breath on his face. It felt oddly cold, like wind whistling through a hollow shell. When he spoke, every word was so simple and so close that Jova could understand him perfectly.
“Is that what he said?”
Jova didn’t nod, or say yes, or respond. She stood, there, terrified, a slave girl who had been sent to do an errand and whose only priority was getting the job done right.
The old man walked away, grumbling to himself.
Jova did not let herself relax yet. She would not relax until Bechde’s tabula was in her hand.
Jova knew how much risk this move was taking on. Bechde would sell for infinitely more than her, if Kharr Ta was willing to take her. The Hag Gar Gan would be that much more incensed to find them, rather than if it had just been one crippled girl disappearing down the river.
There were justifications as well, to be sure. Bechde had connections, a home to go back to, people that cared for her. She could see when Jova couldn’t, and she could navigate the city much more easily.
But if Jova was being honest with herself, that wasn’t it.
Albumere could take away her eyes, her innocence, and her clean conscience—but it could never take away who she was. Her hands might have shed blood, but her heart was in the right place. It had to be.
More mumbled words. Jova stood, dumbly, as if she didn’t understand, and the u-ha pressed three cold amber disks into her hand. Three would have to be enough. She was about to take them, but the old man did not let go.
He mumbled in Jova’s ear, an almost painful tension in his fragile body. “You are going,” he said, in his thick accent. “Straight to Dep Sag Ko?”
“Yes,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Yes, u-ha.”
“Zat,” he said. Go. And Jova went.
“Cross!” she shouted, the moment she got out of the tent. The sun had fully set now, and Jova could hear the crackle of fires as the Hag Gar Gan settled down for supper, then sleep. “Cross, where are you?”
She heard the heavy breathing of the summer elk behind her, to the side, and she edged forward to find the elk on the ground, sweating profusely. “I know it’s hot,” Jova said, putting her hands under the elk’s belly and trying to prompt him to rise. “I know this isn’t where you’re supposed to be. It’s not where I’m supposed to be, either.”
Cross planted his hooves laboriously onto the dirt and stood. Jova took him by the antlers and tugged. She didn’t have time for gentleness or subtlety.
As she heard the river get closer, Jova pulled out the first of the tabula. She cocked her head. Was anyone looking? Listening? Not that she could hear. She hid behind Cross’s girth and concentrated. It wouldn’t matter in a few minutes, anyway.
The tabula began to hum. Jova held her breath. She had never done a summoning before.
No, that wasn’t true. She had done one other summoning. Just one, a long time ago.
Jova thought of the river lapping at her feet, thought of the shifting sand between her toes and the night wind on her face, and as she thought all of it seemed to shrink down into one single point, surrounded by darkness. Fear was in the dark. Uncertainty. Not knowing whether things were going to go according to plan.
She heard a crunch on the sand in front of her.
Before the person had a chance to say a word, Jova thrust the tabula in front of him or her. “Do you want to be free?” she asked, quickly. “If you do, take this and run.”
“How did you…” said the voice, in the fieldman’s drawl, but Jova cut him off.
“Go, now!” she said, pressing the tabula into the man’s chest. He took it.
“They’ll kill me,” he hissed.
“Not if everything goes according to plan,” Jova said, and she began to concentrate on the second tabula. There was no time for this.
As she heard the man run quickly away along the shore, a treacherous thought floated across her mind that broke her concentration.
That was a lie.
The humming built in intensity as Jova poured all of her focus into the second tabula, and the blackness was now colored with frustration, guilt, and anger. She had given him a chance for freedom. It wasn’t a certainty that he would be caught. And his chance for freedom bought a guarantee for Jova’s.
The second person was summoned, and Jova said the same thing. “Take this and go,” she said, thrusting the tabula out.
“Jova?” said a stunned, female voice. Not Bechde’s. One of her alsknights.
“Please just take it and go, you won’t get another chance.”
The alsknight took the tabula briskly without further question. She ran, in the opposite direction of the first man, her feet padding heavily on the shore.
Two baits. Two distractions. Jova had hoped for more.
The girl walked very quickly towards the boat, the rhythmic knocking of the boat calling to her, the point fixed in her mind so that her feet walked toward it like a Jhidnu sailor’s compass pointed to the center of Albumere.
She stood just before the gangplank, her heart pounding. She hoped no one could see her.
“Cross, I need you to do something for me. I know you can do it. I know you can,” said Jova. She put a hand on Cross’s flank, and took a deep breath. He was the last reminder of Janwye the girl had left, and Jova wasn’t sure if she was ready to part with him. Jova’s grip on the elk’s fur tightened.
“Ignite, Cross,” she whispered. “Now is the time for summer. Now is the time for light. Now is the time for fire.”
The summer elk tossed his head, but did not respond.
“Fire,” Jova whispered, and though the night was cold, she was sweating. “Fire will free us, Cross.”
It was no use. Cross would not do it, and Jova did not remember Janwye’s command word. She would have to spook him.
With a rough shove, Jova pushed the elk onto the gangplank, and the elk moved more out of confusion than submission. She could hear voices now, confused and quizzical tones. They didn’t matter.
Jova reached for her blindfold and tore it off. Pits where her eyes should have been gazed upon the animal, and she shouted, in her deepest voice, “Cross! Fire.”
The elk reared and screamed, and Jova heard the whoosh of his antlers igniting. Jova took a step forward, and the terrified animal had nowhere to run. Either side would mean jumping into the river, where his flames would be extinguished. Forward would be towards the terrifying creature of the deep that now stood before him. That only left…
Backwards. Onto the ship.
“Fire!” screamed voices, as Cross galloped forward. Jova could already hear the flames crackling at the edges of the gangplank from the summer elk’s hooves, and she stumbled forward quickly before the whole thing collapsed.
Heavy footfalls rang on the planks as Kharr Ta’s crew ran after the summer elk. Jova stood in their way.
It’s all an act, Jova reminded herself. It’s all a game.
“Help!” she screamed, her voice high-pitched and desperate. She hugged her sides, fake sobs shaking her whole body. “Help, please, somebody help!”
“Out of the way, girl,” said a disgruntled voice. A calloused hand shoved her aside. “I said out of the way!”
They ran past her, and the moment Jova was sure they were gone she stood straight again. The crackle of flames and the dense smoke stung her face, and she walked forward slowly, calmly, tying the blindfold back on with deliberate care.
The shore was right next to them. No one was in a hurry to get off the ship. All of them were in a hurry to save it.
The raft was just where it had been. With a grunt, she hauled the raft over the side, and it landed with a splash in the water. She tossed the oar over next, and then Jova grunted and hauled herself over, landing in the water. It was shallow here, only waist height, and Jova clambered atop the raft that was now floating downriver, oar in hand. It rocked in the waters, but the slow Kaza stabilized it quickly.
Jova held the last tabula in her hands as she sat on that cramped little raft. There was only room enough for one.
Who said she had to summon Bechde now, though? That could wait until Jova was in the city.
The raft floated out past the prow of the ship, and Jova kept her head low. She doubted anyone would notice her—not with two runaway slaves sprinting down opposite ends of the camp and a slaver’s boat on fire. She was safe. The plan would work.
“Ma, Da,” she whispered, more to herself than to them. “I’m coming back.”
She moved at a glacial pace. Jova was beginning to understand now what Dal Ak Gan had meant when he said a child could navigate the Kaza with his eyes closed. It was slow and languid, and despite the chaos Jova left behind her she felt almost calm.
And then Jova heard a high-pitched scream.
At first, Jova would have just ignored it and moved on. She knew this was going to happen. But she recognized that voice. She was good with voices.
“I can’t move!” screamed Alis, among the pleading voices of all the other children on that ship that were about to be sold to Kharr Ta. “Please! Please!”
Jova tensed. Someone would help her, right?
Except that sailor had shoved Jova aside so callously that Jova had no doubt in her mind that if they wouldn’t help a little girl with no eyes, then they wouldn’t help anyone at all.
Alis was going to die on that ship, and no one was going to do anything about it.
Jova gripped Bechde’s tabula in her hands. She didn’t give herself time to regret her decision.
The girl summoned her. It made her spin and her hands weak, but she recovered easily enough, and when she did, she saw Bechde kicking and spluttering in the water before her, utterly bewildered.
“Onto the raft,” said Jova, slipping off. “Come on, Bechde. You’re getting out of here.”
“Darling,” gasped Bechde, clambering aboard even as Jova dropped into the water. Despite its languid pace, the waters of the Kaza were shockingly cold, although perhaps Jova had simply spent too long under the Hak Mat Do sun. “How?”
“Take it, Bechde,” said Jova. She handed the tabula off to Bechde, holding onto the raft to conserve her strength as the waters grew deeper. She hoped there was nothing lurking below her, no crocodilebeasts waiting to snap her up.
Bechde seemed too shocked to do anything but obey.
“The river leads,” gasped Jova. “Into the city. You can find your way, can’t you? You can get out, back to Alswell?”
“Yes,” said Bechde, slowly. “Jova…do you have your tabula, too? Are you coming with me?”
Jova looked back to the ship. She would have to let go soon, if she wanted to swim back in time.
She turned back to Bechde, and shook her head. “You have your own people to save, Bechde,” she said. “I have mine.”
There was silence. “I’m sorry, Jova. I’ll…I’ll…”
Jova paused. Albumere could take away her eyes, her innocence, and her clean conscience—but it could never take away who she was. It would not take away the part of her that was willing to guide three strangers through a lonely forest, that was willing to help train a ragged wild child to realize his impossible dream, that was willing to right now give up the guarantee of her freedom for the chance to save a girl she had met just days ago.
“Go ahead,” said Jova, smiling. “I’ll be just fine.”
We do not fear the wrath of this world, for we are the free.
We are the walkers of the waking dream. We stand together as one, for we are brothers and sisters, a family of those who have none. We are the pieces of each other, we are the stars innumerable in the shifting night sky.
We are sworn to Albumere’s secret. We remember the world as it should be. We see the monsters that slumber at its core. We know what they dream. We know what they have done.
And though we shall heal this broken world, though we shall bind the wounds that make us bleed, though we shall make Albumere whole again…
We shall let the dead rest.
-The First Creed of the Dream Walkers
As he saw Lookout raise the tabula, Chaff’s heart plummeted. Automatically, he began to stumble to his feet, but he knew he was too far to stop her. “Lookout, stop!” he shouted, hoping she would hear over the pounding footfalls and roar of the poltergeist. “Stop!”
His breath caught in his throat as the tabula began to hum.
Chaff squinted. From the first step he had taken into Kazakhal, everything seemed like such a surreal blur that he was unsure what was real and what wasn’t, but as he watched he saw an ethereal green patina begin to build over the surface of the disk. It wasn’t quite there: it flickered and twisted like fire, although Lookout did not seem to feel or even notice it.
Something was emerging out of the mist. Chaff’s mouth became very dry. Was it her? What would he say to her? How would he apologize?
It wasn’t though.
The bark-made man had returned.
It held out its hand, a single finger extended, and touched Lookout on the shoulder. Her entire body seized, and the humming stopped abruptly. The tabula fell to the ground, landing with a splash in the water.
Chaff looked from the bark-made man to Lookout, utterly and totally lost as to who he should be running from and who he should be attacking, when the big guy tossed his head and began to gallop forward, bleating.
“Big guy doesn’t like you, I doesn’t like you, yeah?” muttered Chaff. Behind him, the poltergeist was gaining ground, and fast. There was no time to think.
He charged, screaming.
The bark-made man raised a hand, and suddenly Chaff collapsed, face-first, into the water. Behind him, he heard a loud splash, although he did not know from what. The boy tried to stand, but it was like a crushing weight had fallen suddenly on his back. He managed to at least raise his head out of the water, but that took all the energy he had. Chaff laid there, spluttering and gasping, as a dull buzzing rang in his ears.
And then it stopped. All sound ceased. Nothing moved. There was no mumble from the poltergeist, no sound from Wozek or Lookout, not even ripples in the water. The marsh was so quiet that Chaff could hear the beating of his own heart, the gasp of his own breath, the trickle and slosh of his own blood.
“She is a vector,” intoned a flat, grating voice. Each word fell like the gavel of an arbiter, final judgment that brooked no argument. “I cannot allow contact.”
Chaff clutched his head, crying out in pain. Whatever was speaking, it wasn’t human. It made his head pound and his insides twist up, and he fell to his knees, gasping. Through blurred eyes, he saw the poltergeist kneeling behind him in the same position.
The poltergeist moaned as it clutched hands made of vines to its head, retching water back into the marsh as it shrank in size. Chaff couldn’t tell what it was saying anymore; from what he could actually hear, it was all half-crazed gibberish.
The only thing that moved was the bark-made man as it strode through the Quiet Marsh. Not even the mist seemed to stir, except when it parted to make room for the man.
Chaff’s neck was stiff as stone. He twisted it painfully, bit by painstaking bit, as the bark-made man passed.
It held up a wooden hand, right over the poltergeist’s malformed head. Again, in the same grating voice, it said, “Return to dormant state.”
The poltergeist cried out as it began to wade away, moaning and sobbing. “Back it calls us, back to sleep,” it said, staggering through the marsh. “Can’t hear us cry, can’t hear us weep. No mercy the warden knows, no mercy…”
The bark-made man followed the poltergeist a distance, then turned to consider the rest of them. Lookout was still on the ground, clutching her chest, while Wozek laid frozen against the back of the spiderwhale, who had been silently bleeding into the water.
“No risk of compromise present,” said the bark-made man, matter-of-factly. “Further action is unnecessary.” It took a step forward, before it paused. It turned towards Chaff, and though the boy had always been bad at reading faces, somehow he could tell the expression of contempt and disdain on its featureless, wooden face. It was in its eyes, the amber slits that narrowed as it focused on Chaff. “Do not return here, martyr,” it said, looking directly at him.
And then it strode away into the fog, without another word.
Chaff gasped as the weight on him was suddenly lifted. He nearly fell back into the water as his muscles, weak from stress and fatigue, gave out under him. He held onto the big guy for support, even as the big guy’s knees folded under him and the camelopard collapsed into the mud.
Chaff looked over his shoulder, but now there really was no hint of the bark-made man. There wasn’t even a trace of the poltergeist. All there was…
The boy looked away. All that was left was Al Innai, dead. Chaff hugged his waist, and kept his eyes wide open, because every time he closed them he saw himself being torn in two like he was a tuft of grass in a giant’s fingers.
“Why’s he talking to me?” Chaff muttered, as he thought back to the bark-made man. “I didn’t do nothing, yeah?”
The big guy had no reply. Chaff gave him a conciliatory pat, and made to stand up.
Immediately, his shoulder sent a shock of pain through him. Chaff shut his eyes tight, gripping his elbow as he rotated his arm slowly. He gasped as his arm popped back into place, blinking tears away as he crested whatever threshold of pain there was for moving his arm back into place. The muscles still hurt like nothing else, but at least Chaff was functional.
“Lookout?” he called, uncertainly, as the girl flopped over in the mud. She did not seem to care that her beige scarf was now, for all intents and purposes, black, or that she was sinking slowly into the mud as she laid there with her arms outstretched. Chaff walked over to her, and bent to retrieve his three tabula.
He held the girl’s very close. It was fortunate that the bark-made man had come when it did, although why it had come at all was still a mystery to Chaff.
The boy brushed his thumb over the tabula’s crack, turning it over in his hands. The green fire was gone, and seemed to have left no mark or burn or trace at all. The tabula was the same as before, unblemished. Chaff closed his eyes, ready to peer through the tabula’s surface and check on the girl again, but the moment the humming started his head began to spin. He stopped, and waiting for the nausea to pass. He did not have the energy for this.
“Chaff!” said Lookout, and the boy looked up. The girl was holding one hand up to the sky, her hair splayed and tangled around her head. “I fucking love being alive.”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, smiling. He took Lookout’s hand and pulled her up. “What’s the matter with you, huh? How’re you getting all the way out here?”
“Son of a bitch ambushed me,” said Lookout, staggering to her feet. Sinndi landed on her shoulder, hooting.
Chaff raised an eyebrow, and eventually Lookout turned away.
“And, yes, I will admit to wandering off on my own. I was just having a peek around since you and Sri seemed to have, uh, occupied each other.”
Chaff was amazed to see Lookout blush. They had been seconds away from being eaten by a rampaging swamp monster and she was embarrassed about this? The boy was flabbergasted.
“And then the son of a bitch ambushed me,” said Lookout, glaring at Chaff. “Although I suppose I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.”
There was an awkward silence as both Chaff and Lookout pointedly did not look in the direction of Al Innai’s body. Chaff pursed his lips. Finally, he said, “Nah. He dead, yeah? He can’t do nothing to you.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” said Lookout, putting an arm around Chaff’s shoulder and leaning on him as the pair limped away. She whistled for Sinndi to fly, but the owlcrow remained resolutely perched on her shoulder and refused to budge. Lookout sighed, and craned her head to look manually, with human eyes. “Where’s the cavalry?”
And that was when Chaff noticed Wozek kneeling before the spiderwhale, as red pooled in the marsh. His stomach dropped. The beast was still moving, but it didn’t have long. Wozek knelt before the animal, cradling its monstrous head, and Chaff could only imagine how he felt. It must have been like losing the big guy, and that was something Chaff did not even want to think about.
The two had met them barely an hour ago, and they had already saved Chaff and Lookout’s lives at the cost of one of their own. If only the boy could do something…
Chaff had an idea. One death had already proven false today. Perhaps he could make it two.
“Sorry, Lookout, I gotta hurry!” shouted Chaff, shoving Lookout’s arm off of him as he splashed through the water.
Lookout nearly fell over as Chaff bounded away. “Chaff, what the hell are you doing?”
“Mystical healing bullshit!”
Chaff waded forward, through the water. He had no idea if this was going to work, but he had to at least try.
Wozek’s cap had been lost in the fight. His bare chest was spattered with blood and marked by raw red lines where the vines had snapped at him. He was speaking in low, soothing tones to the twitching animal. “There you are, you big lug,” said Wozek, his eyes closed, his voice shaking slightly. “We had a good run, didn’t we?”
“Wozek!” shouted Chaff, practically showering water onto the ground as he stepped back onto dry, sturdy land. “Wozek, give me the tabula!”
Wozek whipped around. “The plainsboy? I can’t just give you her-.”
“You save my life,” gasped Chaff, sprinting forward. “Let me save hers.” He held out his hand as he stood before Wozek, heart thumping in his chest. “You got nothing to lose, yeah? Trust me.”
The marshman looked at Chaff for just a second before the spiderwhale shifted behind him, a mournful song rumbling from its throat. He did not hesitate after that, dropping the amber disk in Chaff’s outstretched palm. He did not say a word, just watched.
Chaff closed his eyes tight and focused. The tabula remained inert in his hands. He blinked, sweat beading down his forehead. How had he done it? What was he supposed to focus on? He couldn’t remember. Was it the wounds? Good health? The face of the person he was trying to heal?
His fingers drummed on the tabula. Now, of all times, he needed his leaky memory to come through for him. What had he focused on?
Chaff closed his eyes, focused, and did not let another thought through his head. He focused on the feeling of the tabula shaking in his hands, the tingle of the mist on his skin, the gritty dirt under his feet. He focused on the other soul, beating right next to his, and he felt…fire.
The visions he had seen all those years ago in that terrifying moment when the tabula began to break had been surreal, too bizarre to remember in their entirety. The second time, with Lookout, all Chaff had felt was utter terror at what he thought was his impending death. Now, he felt calm. He felt something more primal, more animal, a deeper, inexplicable force that surrounded him, as Chaff felt a fire in his chest swell until his whole body was filled with warmth. For some reason, the poltergeist’s words began to echo in his head. Our essence is energy, it had said. And energy-
A furious clicking sound broke Chaff’s focus. He opened his eyes, and saw the spiderwhale standing, its side whole and healed, two of its three legs firm and steady again. The third, it seemed, was beyond repair, although the leaking blood had stopped and the spiderwhale stood well enough with seven.
Suddenly, muscled arms wrapped around him. Chaff gave an undignified squeak as Wozek picked him up bodily. “With all the strange things I’ve seen today,” he said. “I shouldn’t be surprised.”
Chaff blinked. He was not exhausted but rejuvenated. He looked around, wide-eyed, as if seeing the marsh in a new light, and as he looked at the spiderwhale again he could see its beady eyes meeting his. Chaff stared at her, as Wozek crushed him in a hug that Chaff swore was going to break his ribs, and gave the beast a curt nod.
It could have just been his imagination, but the animal closed its eyes and inclined its head, as if nodding back.
Wozek finally let go, and Chaff gasped as he could breathe again. Lookout, Sinndi, and the big guy had all caught up with him.
“I don’t know what they teach you in those libraries,” said Wozek, stroking his stubble and shaking his head. “But they should keep teaching it. That’s the last time I’ll even consider turning down a plainsman in my marsh. You’re damn useful.” He paused. “And damn nosy, too.”
Chaff shared a look with Lookout, and smiled. It was true.
“I need to find the little family, Gopal and Sri. If you don’t mind, could you stay here? It’d be easier to rendezvous in a fixed location.”
“Not a problem,” said Lookout, shoving Chaff aside. “Right here, then?”
Wozek nodded. The spiderwhale moved to follow as he walked away, but he raised a hand. “Oh, no, you big lug. You stay here and rest. I can handle myself just fine out there.”
Watching the muscles moved in his toned back and shoulders as Wozek walked away, Chaff believed him.
“Man of the hour, huh?” said Lookout, as Wozek left. She patted Chaff on the back. “Come swooping in at the last second to save the day, is that right?”
Chaff shrugged sheepishly.
“That thing you did…you think you can do it again?”
The boy looked around. “I think so. Nobody else hurt, though, yeah?”
“Everybody’s fine. But, like he said. It’s damn useful.” Lookout stared at Chaff, and her expression was pensive. “I mean, Wozek seems like a nice guy, but…if it’s all the same to you, Chaff, I wouldn’t do that in front of anyone else. People might want to use you.”
“OK,” said Chaff, and that was that.
Lookout shook her head. “Look at you, anyway. Fit as a fall hopper. By the Ladies Four, I’d assume that those kinds of tricks with a tabula would be tiring as fuck.”
Chaff grinned, ear to ear. “I feel real good, Lookout.”
“You remember my theory, on how tabula worked?” Lookout stared at Chaff, her frown deepening. “I’m just wondering, about this healing people thing. If it doesn’t cost you energy…what else are you losing?”
This was getting too abstract for Chaff. “You need patching up, Lookout?” he asked, staring at the dried blood on Lookout’s forehead.
She held a hand to her head, as if she had just noticed the injury there. “No, I’m- I’m good.”
“You sure? It looks pretty bad, yeah?”
“Chaff, I’m fine.” Lookout furrowed her eyebrows, as if her own statement confused her. “I’m fine.”
They stood there, together, waiting. Behind them, the big guy seemed to be having something off a stand-off with the spiderwhale, while Sinndi perched himself comfortably on the camelopard’s back. A little sound had returned to the Quiet Marsh, although Chaff still heard no signs of life but for them.
“Chaff…” began Lookout again. “I saw what was in that tabula.”
The boy froze. His hands darted protectively to his side, and he tensed immediately.
“Relax, kid. This is a sore spot for you, I get it, but we’re just having a conversation, OK? Conversation between friends. That’s it.” Lookout folded her arms and looked at Chaff. “How long have you had it?”
“Since the Four Years’ Fallow, yeah? I always had it,” said Chaff.
“Don’t bullshit me, Chaff. I know better than that. Did you pick it up before you joined our crew? After? Somebody want you to run this girl out of the city or something?”
“I always had it,” said Chaff, shaking his head. “Nobody told me to do nothing with her.”
Lookout straightened. “So you mean to tell me, Chaff, that you picked this tabula up when you’re four years old, and you’ve been carrying it around for, what, seven years?”
“And you don’t think that’s strange?”
Chaff shook his head.
“That you’ve had it for this long, and you’ve never summoned the girl, and nothing has happened? Her Fallow time didn’t come up? The tabula didn’t activate on its own?” Lookout gaped. “You never once wondered about that? Chaff, you’re dumb.”
“Yike,” muttered Chaff. Now that Lookout mentioned it, of course it seemed a little strange. He had always assumed that it had just…turned off somehow.
“Four years is all you get, Chaff. Ever. Doesn’t matter if you’re grown-old already, if you’re separated from your tabula for four years, then assuming it hasn’t been broken and no one’s messed with it since, then you go back like that.” Lookout snapped her fingers. “Just like that. Of course it never happens because anyone stupid enough to lose their tabula isn’t going to survive another four fucking years. By all the Ladies, Chaff!” Lookout held her head in her hands. “I know you’re telling the truth because no one would try to tell a lie this stupid.”
Chaff was beginning to feel very uncomfortable. He hugged his sore shoulder and scuffed the dirt with his foot. “Doesn’t matter, yeah? Everything works out the way it should, that’s right.”
“Of course, yeah, it doesn’t matter,” said Lookout, shrugging. “It just begs the question…why?” She looked at Chaff. “Which one of you is lucky, and which one is special?”
The boy stared at the tabula, and not for the first time wondered who was really on the other side.
“OK, moving on. Ignoring that.” Lookout gripped Chaff’s chin and held his face up. “Look at me, Chaff, look at me. What was the plan? Why are you carrying it around? Why can’t you summon her? Was it something you saw her do in there, or- or are you planning on selling it, or what?”
“I’m going to give it back,” said Chaff, and this time there was no hesitation in his voice. He met Lookout’s gaze squarely. “I’m going to find her, and give it back.”
Lookout scoffed. She backed away, halfway between laughing and stunned silence. “You’re serious? Chaff, you can’t be…” She paused. “You are. That was why you left Shira Hay?”
“That’s why I come to Shira Hay.”
Chaff stood, resolutely, as Lookout paced. This was something he would not yield on. He didn’t need Lookout’s approval to finish his journey.
“When’d you make this plan, huh? When you were four summers old?” Lookout gripped Chaff’s shoulders. “Grow up, Chaff. There are better things to be spending your time on than this impossible quest. You’d be better off without this.”
“No!” Chaff said. He could feel his pulse pounding in his temple. “No, no, no.”
“Is that all you can say?” said Lookout. “Is that your whole argument? No? Is that what you’re going to tell the world when you find that she’s already been raped and killed, assuming that you find her out of all the people in Albumere? I’m telling you this because I care about you, Chaff, and I’m in this with you too. Move on. Live.”
“No, Lookout, I won’t!” said Chaff, stomping his foot down. Behind him, all the animals had fallen very still, and silent.
“Why, then? Why is this so important to you?”
“I was four years old when the world took me away!” Chaff screamed.
Lookout didn’t say anything. The marsh did not make a sound. He stood there, panting for breath, rubbing the tears from his eyes.
“I was four years old,” said Chaff. “I didn’t see another human being for another four years. That’s half my life, yeah? Half my whole life the only other face I knew was hers. Not my mama’s. Not my papa’s. Hers. So don’t tell me I’d be better off without her, because that’d just mean everyday I’ve forced myself to keep living since the hollow took me away has been for nothing.”
Chaff’s face was ruddy and red. He could barely keep himself from breaking down as the nerves and fatigue and stress clawed at the crumbling pillars that held up his sanity.
“What’s so great about life, anyway?” asked Chaff, his voice low. “Why’s it worth it without her?”
Lookout took a step forward, and Chaff flinched. She didn’t move to strike him or hurt him, though.
“If it’s that important to you,” she said, holding him close. “Then fine. OK. But, Chaff, I mean it when I say it gets better. You’ll find something worth fighting for. Something else.”
Chaff didn’t say anything. The thought that there was something more was almost heretical.
“Come on, then. Enough of this,” said Lookout, letting him go. She sat heavily on the ground. “Hey, you still got that book? Let’s take a peek.”
The boy dashed to the big guy’s side and, to his utter shock, found that the book was intact. “Thanks, big guy,” he said, grinning, and the camelopard spat on his face by way of reply.
“Hey, Lookout,” Chaff said, as he handed the heavy volume over to the girl. “I got a question.”
“Go for it,” she said, opening the cover delicately. “I know the answer.”
Chaff thought back to the bark-made man, who was already fading into a distant memory. There was something it had said that stuck with him, though. “What’s a martyr?” he asked, as they settled down to read and wait.
Lookout stared at him for a long time. “It means…” She paused. “Well, Chaff, it means someone who dies for his cause.”
Adrenaline pumped through Chaff’s body like liquid fire. In that instant, he took in everything around him. Visibility was significantly impaired by the thick mist, as was mobility by the mud and marsh water. Al Innai seemed to stand on the only piece of dry land in sight, wrapped as it was by the engorged tree root. Straight-backed pines jutted from the water, with even straighter branches fanning out in every direction. They would take his weight, Chaff was sure. Would they take a grown man’s?
In that split second, Chaff made his decision. “Up and out, big guy!” he shouted, leaping onto the strait of dry land. He weaved past Al Innai, heading straight for the tallest tree he could see. It was still nothing compared to the behemoth that the great root fed, but it was a start. It could have been just an inch higher than Al Innai’s reach and Chaff wouldn’t have cared, so long as he was safe.
Al Innai turned leisurely, tossing a limp owlcrow onto the ground. The bird twitched weakly, its wings bent at grotesque angles, but Chaff did not have time to worry about that.
“Give us a little chase, wild child,” said Al Innai, rolling his head and cracking the bones in his neck. “Give the Ladies a little entertainment tonight.”
Chaff jumped, wincing as his calloused feet found purchase on the rough bark. He looked over his shoulder. Where was the big guy?
The camelopard cantered towards him, towards safety, when Al Innai struck. Chaff gaped in utter shock as Al Innai took one long stride forward, and with his other leg pivoted and swept under the big guy’s body. While he was under the camelopard’s belly, Al Innai forced his hands upwards. For a brief moment, the man hoisted the five-meter beast bodily off the ground, and the camelopard’s hooves kicked at empty air.
Then Al Innai pushed. Essentially flipping the big guy to his side, the Kennya Noni fighter heaved the camelopard off of him, and the big guy landed with a shuddering thud on the ground. His breath not even labored, his walk measured and composed, Al Innai strolled back towards Chaff, leaving the boy’s friend kicking and struggling in the mud.
Pragmatism kicked in. Chaff hauled himself upward, digging in with his hands and feet as he desperately gained height. His arms were thin, and scrawny: he had never been quite as fast as the other racers.
At last, Chaff reached a branch so thin and whippy that it could not hold even his weight. He looked down, and immediately regretted it. It was a dizzying drop down, and Chaff knew from experience that the water would do nothing to soften the fall. It would hit him harder than a brick wall. He tightened his grip. This was the safest place for him to be. His friends on the ground, however…
“You crazy, yeah?” shouted Chaff, as Al Innai walked, apparently unconcerned, up to the base of the tree. “You come all this way, Innai-Innai? Just for me?”
“You walk with me, you follow my rules. You break my rules, I lay down the law.” Al Innai craned his head upward as he approached. “Royya left after your little escapade, you know that? Crazy bitch just disappeared. That, and your little friend, and so your run took out half my fucking group. Half my manpower, half my eyes. You think I’m just gonna let that go?”
“So you go through the whole marsh?” shouted Chaff, incredulously. “Just to get me?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, kid, I’ve got nowhere to go back to. Shira Hay is at war.” Al Innai cracked his knuckles. “It’s real simple, kid. You made my life miserable. Now I’m gonna end yours.”
And he leaped.
Chaff could not believe how fast Al Innai moved. The boy had been right about the tree not holding the grown man’s weight, but that wasn’t stopping the plainsman. Al Innai clawed at the tree, launching himself up bark that crumbled even as he climbed.
The boy cast wild eyes around. His treacherous sanctuary had ensnared him. The other trees stood a taunting distance away from him, beckoning with their outstretched branches. Chaff braced himself. It was a manageable distance.
He shook his head. These were not the roofs of Shira Hay anymore. A wild jump could send him flying past his target, and while Chaff might not have been the smartest urchin on the block, he had survived all those years by not taking unnecessary risks.
The only out was down.
Chaff could waste no time regretting his decision. He took a deep breath and hopped to the next lowest branch, just as Al Innai crawled up to meet him. The fighter’s hand grabbed Chaff’s ankle, and Chaff felt his stomach leap to his throat as he pivoted around Al Innai’s arm.
Dangling upside down, Chaff had a second to react. The boy reached out for the nearest branch, and despite his misgivings, pulled. Using the branch as a platform to propel himself out of Al Innai’s grip, Chaff dragged his body down. Gravity helped, and Al Innai let go with a startled grunt as the boy hurled himself towards a fall that would kill him. They were both falling now, scraping at the trunk of the tree and each other as the ground raced towards them.
His fingers dug into the bark. Chaff roared in pain as the wood snapped and stabbed at his hand, long splinters digging into his fingernails, but he could not let go. He flailed as he fell, and his other hand closed around a sturdy support.
Tears rose unbidden in Chaff’s eyes as his arm jerked. There was an audible, hollow sound: the click and pop of bone as Chaff’s shoulder was pulled out of its socket. He hung there, fingers frozen out of shock, his dislocated shoulder throbbing.
Blinking rapidly, Chaff looked around. He had seconds before his hand gave out and let go. Where was the enemy? Where was Al Innai?
He dropped, and a jarring pain ran through his body as he landed on his tailbone. Chaff winced, propping himself up on his uninjured arm. His vision spun as he tried to get his bearings; everything below was mud brown, everything above was misty white. Al Innai could have been two feet from him and he wouldn’t have been able to tell.
“Big guy?” shouted Chaff, his mouth dry. “Lookout?”
He stumbled forward, and his foot prodded a body. Chaff fell to his knees. “Lookout?” he whispered, holding her chin, her face. Blood crusted the side of her head, and her head was twisted at an odd angle. She wasn’t moving.
“Lookout?” Chaff asked, again. He blinked tears from his eyes, and they had nothing to do with the pain in his shoulder. “Lookout, I need you.”
She didn’t respond.
Uncontrollable gasps began to shake Chaff’s body. “Lookout, please, please,” he whimpered. “It…it does get tiring. Leaving people behind. It gets tiring, yeah? So please don’t leave me behind. Please, Lookout, please. I don’t want to live in a world of strangers.”
He grabbed Lookout’s wrist and shook her arm. He couldn’t see anything but a watery blur, couldn’t hear anything but a static buzz. But he could feel the ache in his chest. He could feel the black loneliness surround him again. He could feel…
Chaff could feel a pulse.
Cold relief washed over him at the same time as a wave of fear. He had to get Lookout out, now. He wouldn’t go through losing her again.
Chaff could barely breathe, his muscles hurt so much, as he put his arms under Lookout’s shoulders and began to drag her away. She was bigger than him, and heavier, although that wasn’t saying much. Chaff dragged her through the mud, panting, sweating. “Big guy!” he shouted. “Big guy, I can use some help!”
He searched the mist for the big guy’s familiar silhouette, but it was nowhere to be seen. Where had he gone? Had he, too, been injured when Al Innai had pushed him aside? “It’s me you want, Innai!” shouted Chaff, cheeks flushed. “It’s me! Leave the rest of them alone!”
“Make me,” growled a voice from behind him, and before Chaff could turn or run, something hit him in the back of the head so hard he nearly blacked out.
He crawled backwards out of pure reflex, as Al Innai advanced on him. It struck Chaff just how calm the Kennya Noni fighter was, how deliberate and relaxed his actions were. How many times had he laid down his law? How many times had he killed children in the wilds?
“You don’t pay attention to what I tell you to do,” said Al Innai, and he pressed his foot on Chaff’s chest. Mud splattered Chaff’s shirt. “Why should I pay any heed to you?” Al Innai stared at Chaff. His expression seemed almost bored, except for his eyes. They were alight, and burning with anger a sane man couldn’t hope to achieve.
Chaff couldn’t respond. Half submerged in mud and marsh water, he couldn’t seem to draw breath as Al Innai pressed and pressed, and black spots were beginning to appear in his already spinning vision.
“Maybe I’ll bury you instead of your book. Maybe the Lady Fall will like you if you’re still squirming,” Al Innai mused, as Chaff’s weak fingers clawed ineffectually at Al Innai’s ankle.
The boy’s head fell to the side. He saw him again, a silhouette in the mist. The bark-made man watched with eyes made of amber, always at a distance, never quite close enough for Chaff to make out the details.
Chaff didn’t have the breath for words anymore, but he had enough energy to mouth the word.
“Help,” he whispered.
And then several things happened at once.
A bass roar filled the marsh, a deep and terrible sound that shook Chaff’s very bones. The thunderous bellow continued to crescendo, and as Chaff stared at the wooden man’s silhouette something else emerged from behind it in the mist.
The poltergeist of the marsh had swollen to three or four times its previous size. It barreled past the bark-made man, sweeping him aside with a crushing blow that Chaff swore could have toppled one of the great hollow trees of Shira Hay. The poltergeist seemed more beast than man, a writhing mess of vines and sloshing water that galloped forward on all fours, and even as it ran it seemed to grow in size.
At the same time, the big guy arrived. Eyes wild, prancing with nervous energy, the camelopard ran straight for Chaff—and he wasn’t alone.
Behind him rode the marshman Wozek, and the monstrous spiderwhale. Gopal and Sri were there, too, clinging for dear life to the spiderwhale’s back. “Where the hell are you taking-!?” shouted Wozek, but he stopped. He had seen.
Al Innai didn’t have time to cry out. He stepped off Chaff’s chest, eyes widening, mouth gaping, and was just about to sprint away when a vine-made hand with too many fingers closed around his waist. Chaff gasped for breath, unable to take his eyes away from the Kennya Noni fighter as he kicked and struggled in the now gargantuan poltergeist’s fist.
“Piece of the father, tried to kill our brother,” mumbled the poltergeist, in the same, mournful tones, except now its voice echoed throughout the marsh. “Doesn’t he know? Our essence is energy, and energy never dies.”
Al Innai beat his fists on the poltergeist’s hand, but the poltergeist did not even seem to notice.
“Our essence is energy,” it repeated, its sad green eyes flickering. “And energy never dies.”
Its other hand closed around Al Innai’s head, and Chaff could hear Al Innai’s terrified scream suddenly muffled by the mass of vines and plant matter. There was a creek, a groan like timber falling as the poltergeist’s arms stiffened, and then the poltergeist pulled.
Chaff saw Al Innai’s spine rip out of his body as his entire torso was torn from his waist. Blood spattered the ground, dark scarlet rain that landed on Chaff’s face. The boy felt ready to be sick as both halves of Al Innai’s body fell from the poltergeist’s hands: his head and shoulders crushed to a pulp, his lower body leaking guts and shit.
The boy backed away, twitching and shuddering, as slowly, inexorably, the poltergeist’s face turned towards them. The jade fire in its eyes seemed to burn hotter than the sun and stars.
“Hunger, hunger, can’t be sated,” it muttered, staring. “Green star, mother of spiders, she’s inside me. Can’t be helped. Sorry, sooorrry.” Its voice deepened and distorted on the last word, as it took a step forward.
“Lookout, wake up!” shouted Chaff, pulling at the girl’s shoulders. He slapped her cheek, the adrenaline overriding the pain in his shoulder and chest. “Lookout, we have to go! We have to go now!”
The big guy nickered and reared, biting down on Chaff’s collar and pulling him away. Behind him, the spiderwhale clicked and hissed, as Wozek shouted for Gopal and Sri to get to safety.
“Big guy, we can’t go now! Lookout!” Chaff struggled and twisted, his shirt tearing as he tore free. His tabula clattered into the mud as he stumbled away, but he didn’t care. “We can’t go without her! We’re not leaving her behind!”
The first impact between the poltergeist and the spiderwhale was nowhere near close enough to touch Chaff, and yet it still knocked him off his feet. The poltergeist cracked a fist over the spiderwhale’s back that could have crushed a house flat, while the beast dug mandibles into the poltergeist’s waist from which water leaked like blood. A humming so loud that it echoed with their titanic blows came from Wozek, as the marshman held on tight to the spiderwhale’s back.
Chaff watched with shock and awe as he knelt in the mud, his body taxed to the limit.
And overhead, he heard a familiar screech.
Sinndi’s flight was crooked, yes, barely even off the ground, but she was flying. And if the owlcrow was conscious, that meant…
“What the fuck did you do, Chaff?” shouted Lookout. She gripped her head as she rose, stumbling away from the fight the moment she raised her head. “Where’s Al Innai? Did he summon that?”
Her gaze slid downwards to the body, or at least half a body, sinking into the swamp, and she rolled over, retching.
“Let’s go now, big guy,” said Chaff, limping forward. “Now’s the time to go, yeah?” He bent down to collect his tabula, but no sooner had he done so when another impact knocked him flat.
“Essence burning, five in one,” said the poltergeist, staggering away towards Chaff and Lookout. The spiderwhale was alive, as was Wozek, but three of the spiderwhale’s great legs looked to have been snapped in two and it was bleeding profusely from its right side. “There shall be four, and a fifth to come.”
“Chaff…” muttered Lookout. “Please tell me you’re on good terms with that thing.”
Chaff answered by running. He didn’t know how he was going to get out of this one, but running seemed like a good way to start.
“All rivers flow to the sea,” muttered the poltergeist. Chaff tripped! He went sprawling into the mud, the tabula in his hands falling into the mud. They tumbled out, three golden disks that reflected the green fire in the poltergeist’s eyes. “All rivers flow to me.”
As Chaff struggled to rise, he saw Lookout bend down to collect his tabula. She looked at them, and then at Chaff, and then at the monster looming above him.
“Fuck it,” said Lookout, grabbing one of the tabula. “Whatever you’ve been holding out on us, Chaff, it better be good.”
Chaff looked up. It wasn’t his tabula, or the big guy’s. It had a single crack running down its face.
“Not here,” Chaff whispered, tears running down his mud-streaked face. “Not here.” But there was nothing he could do to stop her.
Jova sat, and listened. She held her chin in her hands, snippets of conversation in both the king’s and imperial tongue floating past her.
“He didn’t die of his wounds,” said the woman named La Ah Abi, in the imperial tongue. Jova was learning the language quickly, although it helped that many of the Hag Gar Gan riders spoke bluntly and simply. “He couldn’t have. He was riding fine just hours before he disappeared.”
Mumbling came from the other corner of the tent. “U-ha says his face was drawn and grey when he last saw him. He says Ya Gol Gi could have easily been hiding it.”
“Then why didn’t he try to find help?” snapped La Ah Abi. “He had time.”
“Snakes are chasing their own tails,” sighed Dal Ak Gan. “I am having two stories to listen to. One would have me believe that Ya Gol Gi was a rat of a man who went to curl up and die alone, for the vulturewasps to pick at his bones—which, to be honest, I have no trouble believing.”
The u-ha spat angrily. “U-ha shames you, and warns you not to speak ill of the dead,” said Dep Sag Ko. “U-ha says Ya Gol Gi’s essence will bring bad fortune on our tribe in his next life if he is not honored.”
Dal Ak Gan coughed. “That same story would also have me believe that Ya Gol Gi was stoic and stalwart enough to not burden us with his impending death—which, to be honest, I do not believe at all. And yet the other story is saying that something other than his wounds killed him. If so, what?” And Dal Ak Gan waited, as the silence went on.
“Girl, the wine,” said Dep Sag Ko, snapping his fingers. “Za, za, I need a drink.”
Jova had already poured the cup much earlier; Dep Sag Ko was a thirsty man, and she found it easier to pour the wine beforehand at her own pace, rather than fumble with the stopper and cup whenever he called. She held it out, with a deferential bow of her head.
“Lo Pak came back, when Ya Gol Gi didn’t. The beast didn’t seem spooked at all.” Dep Sag Ko sighed. “Perhaps a wild animal got him,” he said, vaguely. “Perhaps the storm was too much.”
“The man lived through the No-Hand War,” scoffed La Ah Abi. “He scurried out of Do Yash while holding his guts inside him with his bare hands. No storm killed him.”
“Then what? Then who?” After a pregnant pause, Dal Ak Gan finally said it. “Rho Hat Pan?”
Jova retreated back into her little alcove, where no one would bother her or even notice her. They did not know. They did not even suspect. Jova flexed tingling fingers. She was going to get away with it.
“That is what even the slaves say. Didn’t Ya Gol Gi beat the man? Didn’t they hate each other? The slaves have known him for longer than any of us, and they say this Rho Hat Pan is meticulous and cruel. They say he leaves no job unfinished.”
“They say, they say,” Dep Sag Ko snorted, and he began to speak in the imperial tongue. It was getting harder and harder for Jova to follow their conversation. “But I see, I see! Rho Hat Pan is not leaving my sight until after Lo Pak comes back. He cannot have done it.”
Dal Ak Gan slammed his fist into his palm, and Jova flinched. All three of them began to shout over each other, and she shrunk even further back into her corner. She jumped as she touched someone leaning on the other side of the tent tarp, and slid away.
Jova knew who was waiting outside. Dock and the mercenaries wanted to know why their liaison was missing, and when they were getting paid. The caravan was mere hours away from the city of Hak Mat Do, and now that they had braved the desert they could focus their attention on each other.
Jova’s heart fluttered at the thought of the markets that thrived in the shadow of the pyramids, not just at the horror of it but the uncertainty. How much longer could she maintain her ruse? Who would she belong to when she arrived?
No one. Jova gripped her hands into fists. She belonged to herself.
Suddenly, Jova felt a hand on her shoulder. She touched it gingerly: it was cold, and clammy, and wrinkled. The shaman u-ha breathed heavily as he hobbled forward, and leaned in close to Jova’s ear. “The dead rest,” he said, in his heavy accent.
The incomplete phrase made Jova feel uncomfortable, on-guard. This man was not one of them, whoever they were, although to be fair Jova did not think she was either. She did not draw away from the u-ha, but she did not answer him either. He was just an old man, chasing an idle dream that he scarcely knew the full significance of.
The u-ha’s hand traced down Jova’s arm, until he came upon the cuts and scratches around her hands and wrists. He pulled and prodded at Jova’s skin unashamedly, and Jova winced at the pain. “Raj Mal Azu…” muttered the old man. “Gup ak siz an ima? An ima gar ga?”
Jova shook her head. “I’m sorry…” she muttered. “I don’t understand.”
“The…first,” rasped the u-ha. “You are meeting…gup ak siz, gup ak siz, first among lords…”
“What are you doing, old man? Leave Jova alone, you have pestered her enough already.” Dep Sag Ko’s voice approached, and promptly dragged the u-ha’s hand away. “What is he asking you now?” asked Dep Sag Ko, at Jova. “Teeth grinders? Loud snorers?”
Jova gave him an obligatory laugh, and in a way she felt grateful. Even if Dep Sag Ko’s jokes weren’t funny, at least he was trying to make her happy. The same couldn’t be said for many others in the group.
As Dep Sag Ko walked away to resume the conversation, Jova held her forearms, tracing the scratches and cuts. She had assumed that they had come from her fight with Ya Gol Gi, from his barbed whip or his sharp nails, but she was just now beginning to realize that Ya Gol Gi had never hit her arms.
The storm? The sand? They couldn’t have made such clean cuts. The only other thing that had happened in the desert was her collapse in Ral Zu.
Jova hugged her arms to her sides, and wondered what the ball of green fire in her gut had been—and what it had done to her.
She was distracted by the rustle of the tent flap opening. “The trader’s coming up the river,” said Dock, her voice a deep rumble. “The foreign one.”
“They are all being foreign,” said Dal Ak Gan, and Jova could hear the exhaustion in his voice. This was not a man whose patience Jova wanted to stretch.
“The western one.” Jova heard Dock plant her feet in front of the entrance, and the mercenary growled, “You gonna trade up?”
“Certainly going to try,” said Dal Ak Gan. His voice was hard, his tone brooking no argument.
“We gonna get our cut?”
“We’ll see,” said Dal Ak Gan, and Jova heard Dock stumble as she was shoved out of the way.
“Ya Gol Gi was easier to work with,” said Dock, to his retreating back. “Knew what we wanted. No nonsense in getting it.”
“If you are so unsatisfied, I am making this deal with you,” shouted Dal Ak Gan’s fading voice. “If we find Ya Gol Gi’s killer, he’s all yours.” Dal Ak Gan stepped outside, leaving Dock in the tent with his two Hag Gar Gan lieutenants.
Jova turned away, and hoped Dock wouldn’t notice her. She didn’t think the mercenary’s punishment would be particularly imaginative, but it would be…direct. And effective. How could Jova outwit someone who thought so simply? How could she talk her way past someone who spoke so little?
If she got turned over to Dock, it was over.
“La Ah Abi,” said Dep Sag Ko, his voice dripping with false grace. “The honor of negotiating with harr Dock is being yours. U-ha and I must go and speak with this trader. Jova, come! And bring the wineskin.”
Dutifully, Jova collected the wood goblet (the wine pre-poured), and the skin, and ducked out the tent, clicking her tongue to find the square of open air that led outside. She heard just the slightest of movements beside her as she did so, as Dock drew away from her. Perhaps she had just been getting out of the way of the blind girl, but perhaps…
Ya Gol Gi had always meant “devil girl” maliciously. Dep Sag Ko sometimes said it as a joke. Who among the tribe actually believed it?
It had been hot inside the tent, but outside it was even hotter. Jova did not envy the line of slaves sitting, baking under the sun, and counted her blessings that Dep Sag Ko and the u-ha had taken an interest in her, and taken her as an assistant.
At least they had the river, though. Jova had heard the sluggish trickle of the wide River Kaza long before they had arrived at its shore, but it wasn’t until she stood before it that she realized its magnitude. Standing on the edge of the Kaza and listening to the waves had been like standing on the high cliffs of the Moscon Peninsula and listening to the ocean.
Jova remembered the ocean, from when she had lived in Jhidnu. A softly undulating landscape of its own, the warm waters of Lowsea had always been host to a trading barge or two. In her years in Moscoleon, though, she had forgotten its majesty; there was something about the ocean that the sinkholes of the peninsula would never be able to match, a kind of primal awe that soothed the itch in Jova’s chest just a little.
“Follow me, Jova!” said Dep Sag Ko, and Jova shook her head and brought her thoughts back to the present. “Up on the boat. Can your secret devil eyes see it, or shall I be carrying you?”
“I’ll be fine,” said Jova. “Although it would be easier if I had a walking stick,” she added, somewhat hopefully.
Dep Sag Ko laughed, like Jova had said the funniest thing he had ever heard. “And let you beat my face in like you are beating that fat templeman pontiff?”
Jova froze. Her fists tightened. How did he know?
“Rho Hat Pan is telling me all sorts of stories,” said the sandman beastmaster. “Our sweet little devil girl is not so sweet after all, eh? I am not knowing who is more interesting, him or you.”
Her footsteps fell hollowly on the wooden boat as she boarded. Jova kept her head low, trying to mask her expression. What other stories had Rho Hat Pan been telling? What other stories would he tell? By Dep Sag Ko’s demeanor, he had not betrayed Jova’s secret yet, but it was only a matter of time.
As Dep Sag Ko put a hand on Jova’s shoulder, indicating for her to stop, Jova wondered where Rho Hat Pan was. There were at least ten or twelve other tribe members for him to meet; he was, as always, too busy for Jova.
Anger bubbled in Jova’s gut at the thought of Rho Hat Pan getting chummy with his new tribe. Perhaps it was for the better that Dep Sag Ko didn’t give her a walking stick, after all.
A harsh squawk interrupted Jova’s thoughts. Like a crowbeast’s but higher pitched, it came from the cabin of the ship. The aracari bird on Dep Sag Ko’s shoulder screeched in response, only to elicit an even louder answer from the bird in the cabin. The two birds began to flap their wings and screech at each other, until Jova’s head spun with the noise and chaos.
“Dep Sag Ko!” barked Dal Ak Gan, from inside the cabin. “Eri fha pa zu ara cari!”
“May I remind you,” said a voice, in an even, clipped tone, also from inside the cabin, “What we agreed on about using a language we can all understand?” Jova drew back instinctively. The voice reminded her of Copo.
“My apologies, Kharr Ta,” said Dal Ak Gan, gruffly. “I was just telling Dep Sag Ko to shut his bird up. So we may conduct business in peace.”
“Nevertheless, your incivility is insulting,” said Kharr Ta. Jova assumed he was the slave trader. He spoke like a plainsman, quickly, with an almost rhythmic cadence. “I leave the city at great personal energy and expense-.”
“You had to take an hour’s ride upriver,” snapped Dal Ak Gan. “A child could navigate the Kaza with his eyes closed, and you know the situation with the pyramid lords. They will not let any of us into the city.”
“And so you make me come to you.” Though not a word more was said, Jova could hear hostility in the silence.
“The wine,” muttered Dep Sag Ko. As Jova prepared to pour, he hissed, “Not me. Him.”
Jova edged forward cautiously, her feet treading lightly on the thick Shira Hay carpet, careful not to bump into anything. Incense wafted around Jova as she made her way around polished oak tables and low western-style couches.
A cold hand, with long, slender fingers, took the wineskin from Jova’s hand. Kharr Ta sniffed. “Cheap Hag Gar Gan swill,” he said, but he took it anyway.
“So,” said Dal Ak Gan, and the tribe leader grunted as he took a seat opposite Kharr Ta. “To business.”
“To business,” said Kharr Ta, and Jova heard him take a deep drink. “As I understand it, you are a direct people, so I too will be direct. You have with you a strong, useful, good stock. Templeman zealots, alsknights, even a smattering of children to be trained and sold later. They will make you rich, if you can sell them.” Kharr Ta paused. “And you will not be able to sell them.”
Neither Dal Ak Gan nor Dep Sag Ko said a word. Jova stepped back, waiting to be called again, even as she listened intently.
“Do you know who you caught? Do you know exactly who these people are?”
“Alswell nobles. A zealot patrol getting them to the Seat of the King. Merchants and pilgrims,” said Dal Ak Gan. “The fieldmen of all people should understand that this is just business. They are too far away for any kind of retribution.”
“The Rape of Alswell continues,” said Kharr Ta. “I left a lucrative business behind in Shira Hay because war fever has gripped the region. Refugees flee east and west, north and south, to escape the fighting, and the nobles you caught—the ones you are so confident you can sell without consequence—were the ones who were going to stop it. The farmers will not overlook this.” Kharr Ta raised his voice. “Do you understand? The slaver who buys from you will never trade with Alswell again. That is assuming he survives the wrath of Greeve or any of his lesser farmers.”
“You said you would be direct,” said Dal Ak Gan, and his tone was like ice. “Be direct.”
“You have no product. No product, no sale. No sale, and you are wasting my time.”
Jova thought of the mercenaries waiting outside, and the slaves lined up on the shore. She stood and waited, as flygnats and fall mosquitoes buzzed around her. The boat swayed with the sluggish flow of the Kaza. Finally, Dal Ak Gan spoke.
“You said it yourself. You are spending energy and expense to be here. It was not just to tell us that we had nothing to sell.”
“For you, I am willing to take the risk,” said Kharr Ta, and Jova could almost hear the oily smile in his voice. “But you must understand that I am your only potential buyer. Ordinary prices will not be sufficient here.”
“The bastard’s a plainsman,” growled Dep Sag Ko, in a low voice. He must have been talking to the u-ha. “What fucking risk is he taking that he doesn’t already have? Alswell’s never gonna trade with the prick anyway.”
“You shall see them first,” said Dal Ak Gan. Jova had been listening to the emotion in people’s voices for years, but she could not glean anything from Dal Ak Gan’s tone.
“The children first. The plutocrats of Jhidnu know I sell well-trained children.”
Dal Ak Gan snapped his finger, and Dep Sag Ko left the cabin. Jova was about to leave, but Dal Ak Gan said, “You, girl! Stay.”
Jova edged forward, hands clasped in front of her. She stood and waited, as Kharr Ta began to pace around her and inspect her. “How old are you?” he asked Jova, directly.
“Eleven summers, sir,” said Jova, respectfully. She listened carefully as the man walked around her, as attentive as possible. It was obvious that his ship was luxuriantly furnished, yet that spoke only of his wealth, not his business policies. If she was sold to this man—this Kharr Ta—was escape possible? He did not seem as lenient or as trusting as the Hag Gar Gan tribe.
“Too old for those who want trained slaves. Too young for those who want workers. This is your first offering?” asked Kharr Ta, his voice full of disgust. “Is she actually…disabled?”
“Yes, but no less functional. She-.”
“Enough, Dal Ak Gan. I will not be insulted like this.” Kharr Ta stopped pacing and turned to the tribe leader. “By all the Ladies Four, what did you think I would pay for an eleven-year old blind girl? Did you even think before you offered her to me?”
“If you don’t like her,” said Dal Ak Gan, his tone even. “Then we can move on. Girl, tell Dep Sag Ko to bring the next one in.”
Jova curtsied, backing away. She clicked to find the door, but when she did the bird in the cabin screeched again, and she scurried away, trying not to agitate anyone further. “Dep Sag Ko!” shouted Jova, walking up to the railing of the boat. “He wants the next one!”
“Da, Jova,” said Dep Sag Ko, from the shore. “U-ha, let that girl go, she needs to go in. Come on, little one.”
“OK,” said a soft voice. Jova turned immediately. She recognized it.
“Alis!” she whispered, as the girl passed.
“Jova.” Alis held Jova’s hand for just a second, but that was all they had. She walked away, and Jova was left alone once again, her gut twisted with worry. She had not seen Alis for some time, but Alis was still her friend. Alis was someone she needed to protect.
Jova turned her head, wondering where she was to go next. She was about to take a step off the boat, when she paused.
She was not a slave. She belonged to herself. She would find a way to be free. Jova walked along the railing, putting one hand in front of the other, until her palm brushed against something flat and wooden. It did not seem to be useful to her, and she was about to walk away, when she held the thing in her hands.
Plank by plank she felt it. It was concave, with sides as long as she was tall, and a bottom that dipped out. One plank lay across it, although for what Jova could not tell. Jova kept her ears pricked, hoping no one would come and stop her, but there seemed to be no one on this side of the boat. Kharr Ta’s crew seemed to be elsewhere, and the Hag Gar Gan tribe was otherwise preoccupied.
She bent down, and her hand closed around a wooden shaft. She had half a mind to take it as a walking stick, when she realized what it was.
An oar. That meant the thing next to it was a raft, perhaps, or a boat: a small one, no doubt, one that could only fit one person.
Space for one person, though, was all she needed.
Jova licked dry lips, trying to find out exactly the size of the craft. What had Dal Ak Gan said? A child could navigate the Kaza with his eyes closed. From here, downriver, it went into the city of Hak Mat Do, where Jova could find supplies enough, if not for the journey home, then at least to survive. She would leave no tracks in the river, and could disappear into the city once she arrived. The Hag Gar Gan did not have boats themselves, and Kharr Ta did not care enough for her to follow.
She would have to do it later, of course, at night when they all slept or when they were preoccupied. But she would do it.
Jova straightened. Kharr Ta could not leave just yet.
He didn’t know it, but he had just brought Jova the means of her escape.
The spiderwhale clicked its mandibles together, bare inches from Chaff’s face. Eyes that were almost comically small compared to the rest of its body leered at him, and he shrunk behind the body of the big guy as it stared at him hungrily.
The man on its back slipped off easily, landing with a splash in the marsh water. “Strangers do not come often to the Quiet Marsh,” said the man. He stood like some fierce apparition before them, brown skin decorated with dyes and paints and tattoos. “Goodman Gopal, you let those who are not kazakhani walk so freely?”
Gopal shrugged. “You let me walk free, Wozek, when I first came. They deserve at least that chance.” He seemed entirely unperturbed by the presence of the massive spiderwhale, although Jiralla flapped agitatedly overhead. The bathawk was barely restrained violence and anger, snapping and squawking from a perch that had not yet been knocked askew by Wozek’s behemoth.
Wozek crossed his arms. “There was no war, then. Now I hear of such things as the Rape of Alswell from my messengers, and have cause to fear for my people. Two plainsmen come to my home. What would you have me do?”
“What children could bring war here?” asked Gopal. “The plainsmen have never been bloodthirsty. You have nothing to fear.”
The marshman considered Gopal for a moment, before turning back to Chaff and Lookout. “Let me see your tabula,” he said. “Just a precaution.”
Chaff met Lookout’s eyes, and she nodded. He dug his disk out of his belt and held it in front of him, close to his chest. He didn’t have much else of an option, with the eight-eyed beast staring down at him.
“They’re not slave spies either,” said Gopal, exasperatedly. “They just want to get through the marsh.”
Wozek’s face darkened immediately. “To where?” he asked. “The city of Kazakhal? The Maw? Or the deserts beyond?”
“Moscoleon,” said Chaff. “The Temple Moscoleon.” He hadn’t told Gopal or Sri that yet (or, now that Chaff thought about it, even Lookout), but at those words both Gopal and Sri immediately stiffened. He wondered if he had said something wrong.
“Pious,” remarked Wozek. He nodded. “Well, who am I to stop a pair of faithful pilgrims? Come, I shall go along with you. You are welcome to spend the night with us, so long as you spend just the night.”
He lifted himself bodily onto the back of the spiderwhale, slinging himself into the saddle on the creature’s back. Chaff had heard before the marshmen followed strength above all other things, but just how strong did one of their leaders have to be? The boy patted the big guy on the side. “No riding now,” he whispered. “We separate, we harder to catch, yeah?”
The big guy tossed his head, and did not take his eyes off of the spiderwhale. Wozek sat comfortably atop his mount, waiting for Chaff and Lookout to move first.
“Come on,” said Sri, pulling on Chaff’s hand. “We don’t want to keep Wozek waiting.”
“Who is he?” Chaff whispered, as they walked away. He tried to keep his voice low, although the marsh was so quiet that his voice carried anyway.
Sri looked over her shoulder. She, like Gopal, did not seem concerned by the spiderwhale or the man riding it. “He’s the leader of the village down the way. They come and go with the seasons, but he always makes sure to visit us when they’re here.”
“He impatient or something?” asked Chaff.
“Just very important,” said Sri. “He has places to be, people to talk to.” She leaned over and whispered, much quieter, “They say he used to run with a Jhidnu traveling circus before he came to Kazakhal. He’s very much kazakhani now, though.”
Chaff was about to respond when the sudden crashing footfalls of the spiderwhale began in earnest, as the beast stepped clear over the two of them. Chaff had to jump out of the way of its massive tail as Wozek steered it forward, and shielded his book with his body as water splashed over them.
He exchanged a look with the big guy, and they slogged on. The further in they walked, the deeper the marsh grew, and Chaff was beginning to tire of wading through the muck. Goosebumps spotted his bare skin, and he was cold and dripping and exhausted. The sun was up there somewhere, but its warmth could not penetrate the fog or the mist.
“So…” said Sri, softly. “You’re going to Moscoleon?”
Chaff nodded. He was about to tell Sri why, but then bit his tongue. Perhaps it was better not to.
“We were going to go there, once.” Sri’s expression was distant. “I would be careful. The road is dangerous, even when it doesn’t seem like it.”
“OK,” said Chaff, simply. He looked around, trying to think of something to say to fill the awkward silence. “Thanks for defending us back there, yeah?”
Sri shook her head. “That was all Gopal. I think he feels like he owes something to…your people.” She looked Chaff in the eye, and Chaff did not break her gaze. She had rather pretty eyes, bright and brown, that were too often hidden behind the hair falling around her face. “Chaff, did I ever tell you about Rituu?”
Chaff pursed his lips. If she had, he didn’t remember it. “Who that?” he asked.
“He was like a dad to me,” said Sri. “He and Gopal took me in when I was just a kid. They bought me off a slave auction, and then they freed me, just like that. He and Gopal…they loved each other.”
Sri stopped. Chaff turned to look at her; she seemed apprehensive, and was biting her lip, waiting for Chaff to answer. “Yeah?” he said. “So?”
“You don’t think that’s…weird?”
Chaff made a face. “Nah,” he said. “Love’s like kings and gods, yeah? What’s it got to do with me? People always yelling about the Ladies and the Seat and the revolution, but if they don’t do nothing to me then they don’t mean nothing to me. Maybe some elector in the Libraries got something to say ‘bout it, but not me, yeah?” He gestured for Sri to follow. “Come on! They’re getting ahead of us.”
Sri smiled and bounded ahead to catch up.
“So what about this Rituu?” asked Chaff. “Why he so special?”
“He was the biggest fibber there ever was, for one,” said Sri. “Just the grandest imagination there ever was, always telling stories about how he was the prince of this nation or that or how he had sailed past the three seas when he wasn’t yet grown-old. And he did have quite a few really amazing true stories. He was from Shira Hay, you know? Wandered all across the south, even went up north as far as Mont Don once.”
“Where’s he now?” asked Chaff.
Sri paused. She looked down. “In the owl’s embrace,” she said, her voice firm but her tone somber. “With the Lady Winter. That’s what I was telling you, about the road being dangerous. When I had seen seven summers, we, Gopal and Rituu and I, all decided to go to Moscoleon. It had gotten dangerous in the east, with the plutocrats pulling their guardsmen off the roads and the king not doing anything about it, and we just thought…it’d be a better place to go. You know that song, The Road to Moscoleon?”
Chaff shook his head.
Sri hummed the tune, singing softly, just like she had sung the old marshman children’s rhyme. “The road to the Temple is watched by the Ladies. The Ladies! The Ladies! In Moscoleon! Both prayers and blessings alike, they shall these. They say these! They say these! In Moscoleon! It just seemed like a good place to go.” She sighed, deeply. “So we took the back road, and one day, while we’re going through it, we meet this girl. She leads us back to an inn, and we find out that she’s been adopted by a couple too—a man and a woman, not like Gopal and Rituu.”
The path had become much easier to walk with the spiderwhale clearing a path for them, although Chaff did not pay much attention to what was up ahead. He focused on Sri.
“Rituu decided that it was a good time to teach me how to use a tabula. I was a slave first, even if only for a little bit, so I never had one of my own. The girl takes her first, too. The plan was to learn together.” Sri closed her eyes and shook her head. “It just went wrong. She summoned her beast first. It was too strong, too aggressive, too powerful. I don’t know why she did it alone, but she couldn’t control it. And the wounds…she must have died. I can’t imagine anyone surviving that.”
It was like the kids in the ghettoes that didn’t belong to a gang or a crew. Easy mistakes to make, with no one to watch out for them, got them killed on Albumere.
“She was just a kid, the kind to rush into things. She didn’t know any better, and it was no one’s fault. It was like a wild child dying, it just happened. But the woman who took care of her, she was so angry.” Sri held up her hands like she was holding something. “We all found that girl, lying there, at the same time. The woman got Rituu by the throat, and she kept screaming, ‘You did this!’ Over and over again. ‘You did this, you did this!’ Gopal tried to stop her, but she had this beast, this animal that came after me and…he had to choose. We didn’t fight, we just ran.”
There was silence. Sri’s story was over. Chaff looked ahead, and realized that Gopal and Wozek hadn’t been talking either. Their heads were just slightly turned their way, and their mouths were shut.
Sri cleared her throat. “So be careful, OK? Be careful on the road to Moscoleon.”
“You hear that, Lookout?” said Chaff. “We gotta…” He stopped. “Lookout?”
He spun around. She was nowhere to be seen. Immediately, sweat broke out on Chaff’s forehead. Hadn’t Sri’s story been about a girl who wandered off on her own? And now Lookout was somewhere, by herself, in this cursed marsh?
“Come on, big guy,” he said, dragging himself out of the water and onto the big guy’s back. “You seen her? You know where to go?”
The big guy’s long neck twisted as he looked from side to side. Even if he hadn’t seen her, he had better chances than Chaff ever would.
“Wait, Chaff!” shouted Sri. “This marsh is dangerous! You could drown!”
“She could drown!”
The pounding of the spiderwhale’s feet stopped, as Wozek turned. “What is the boy doing?” he shouted. “Where is he going?”
“I be right back!” shouted Chaff. The big guy bounded out of the water, twisting to go back the way they had come. Chaff felt a sudden, horrible vertigo as the big guy’s hoof slipped in the mud and his knee buckled, but the camelopard righted itself before falling into the marsh. Bleating, the big guy slowed just enough to prevent another fall. Even so, Chaff’s mouth became very dry. The big guy had sunk to his knees in that pit; how deep might Lookout have fallen?
To his surprise, Wozek was not following him. Chaff supposed it made sense: so long as he ran away from Wozek’s village and not towards it, he wasn’t a threat. All the same, if their positions were reversed, Chaff would have stopped Wozek to make sure he wasn’t going back to get help or allies to-.
Chaff shook his head. That was an urchin’s way of thinking. The urchins were treacherous, murderous scumbags, and thinking like them wouldn’t help find Lookout. Just the opposite, in fact.
There were no tracks in the water, but Chaff saw footprints in the mud on higher ground. “Up, up,” he said. “That way, big guy.”
A white mist clung around them, so dense that Chaff could barely see at all. He kept looking over his shoulder; he knew the way back to Sri and Gopal, he was sure of it, but nonetheless it would be very easy to get lost in the fog…
He yelped and grabbed for the big guy’s mane as the ground sloped steeply upward. “Lookout!” he shouted. “Where you go? We gotta get back to them, yeah? They gon’ show us the way out, that’s right.”
The Quiet Marsh had only its usual response.
Chaff did not know how long he walked back, calling for Lookout. He needed to find her. He couldn’t just leave her behind. Every step forward, though, felt like he was getting left behind himself. How long would Sri wait for him? How long until Wozek decided enough was enough?
“Lookout!” shouted Chaff. “If I do something wrong, I sorry!”
He looked around, waiting.
A figure moved in the mist, and Chaff froze. His heart beat very fast. It looked like a man, and the last time he had seen a man in the mist it had been less than settling. At this moment, he wanted nothing more than a torch: not to light the figure, but to burn it.
He heard a faint mumbling. “Little by little, big guy,” said Chaff. “You see what I see?”
The big guy flicked his tail and nickered.
“Quiet now,” whispered Chaff, as they approached the shadow. The mist swirled, so that at one moment it seemed to be just ahead of them, and the next it was several body-lengths away. The closer they got, the less human it appeared, and Chaff was just about to give it up as a tree stump or rock when it moved again.
“Lookout?” he called out, forgetting his own admonition to be quiet. “You there? We can use you right now…”
Again, he heard a low mumbling. He strained his ears, but couldn’t make out the words. “You stay, big guy,” he said, slowly clambering off the camelopard’s back. “Don’t you go running off too, I don’t have no patience to go looking for you.” The boy reached into his belt and his tabula, ready as he approached the figure.
He caught the end of its muttering. “…to the sea,” it sighed, in a deep, mournful voice, so deep that it seemed to shake Chaff’s very bones. “All rivers flow to the sea. All rivers flow to me…”
Chaff edged forward, resolving in his heart of hearts that Kazakhal was the weirdest place on Albumere.
The figure shambled forward slowly, wading through the water. Chaff could make out something that looked vaguely like a head, draped with vines like dreadlocks, and its hunched back, all covered in moss and vegetation. It stumbled forward, deeper into the mist, and hesitantly Chaff followed.
“What you doing standing there, big guy? Let’s go!” hissed Chaff.
The big guy tossed his head, annoyed, and descended back into the water to follow.
Chaff followed at a safe distance, although he didn’t know what distance was safe for this thing. Its arms were like rope made out of twisted roots, and they descended into the water, going too deep for Chaff to see where they ended. In fact, Chaff could only see the creature from its waist up, as the rest of its body swayed and rocked through the water.
“All rivers flow to the sea,” it continued to mumble. “All rivers flow to me.”
“You know where Lookout is?” Chaff asked, his voice small and quiet. The shambling thing did not respond, and Chaff shrugged at the big guy. “It like a two-part beastie, yeah? Like a plantman or something. Can humans be part of two-part beasties? It’s not like we two-part alr-.”
The monster cut Chaff off as it can began to make heaving, retching sounds. Chaff watched with horrified fascination as it stopped, swayed, and swelled, the vines that seemed to either make up or surround its body expanding until finally brackish water began to spew from approximately where its mouth should have been. Great waves of the stuff hit Chaff in the chest, and he had to cling to the big guy’s leg for support as it washed over him. The creature continued to vomit water into the marsh, the vines covering its body tensing and twisting and snapping as it did.
“Yike,” gasped Chaff, spitting water out of his mouth. He had fallen under, but the hand holding the wobbling book had managed to stay dry. “You take this, big guy, I don’t want to deal with it no more,” he muttered, tying it around the camelopard’s neck with his scarf. He looked back at the shambling figure, which had resumed its plodding journey forward.
“How long you think it’s been doing that?” he breathed, as he followed further. It was against his better judgment to stay so close to something he understood so little, but Chaff’s curiosity itched to be sated. He had to know just what this thing was. Perhaps Lookout had thought the same, and by following it he would find her.
Another shadow loomed in the mist, and Chaff held his breath. It grew larger and larger as they approached, and as the details and shapes began to break through the fog Chaff realized what it was.
It was a gigantic tree root. Like some bulbous, bloated snake, it stretched on in front of Chaff; its full size could not even be seen for the fog, but Chaff was sure it had to be massive.
“How’d that song go again, big guy?” asked Chaff. “The one Sri sang us? Poltergeist that haunts the hollow, hung himself where none could follow…” Chaff hummed tunelessly to himself as he gently touched the great root. He followed along it, behind the poltergeist of the marsh, but he could see neither the trunk of the root nor the tree it fed.
“Must be a big tree,” said Chaff, to the big guy. “A real big tree.”
He heard it again. A distressed, choking sound echoed through the marsh, and even though Chaff lagged so far behind the poltergeist, he could still feel the waves lapping at his submerged legs. He stared at the ground, thinking. If Sri was to be believed, the poltergeist was located at the center of the marsh.
Perhaps, Chaff thought, the exact center.
Chaff followed the poltergeist, wondering just how long it would take a man, even a man such as it, to puke an entire swamp into existence. He made a face. “That’s really gross,” he said, to the big guy, and the big guy flicked an ear in agreement.
They caught up to the thing easily, it moved so slowly. Chaff wondered if he was the first to think of the theory. Surely other people had seen this thing; surely they had left with their lives? The poltergeist hardly seemed to be a threat at all. Perhaps, Chaff thought, with a little glow in his heart, he wasn’t as dumb as he thought he was. He wanted to tell Lookout.
“All rivers flow to the sea…” the man continued to mumble. “All rivers flow to me…”
This was taking too long. “You talk, yeah? You tell me where my friend is, that OK?” said Chaff, and he reached out to tap the poltergeist on the protrusion that appeared to be its shoulder.
The poltergeist stiffened immediately. It turned so that its waist looked like a twisted up roll of cloth, and stared at Chaff. Its arms dangled by its sides, and while at first Chaff had assumed the thing didn’t have a face, now he saw two spots in its “head,” glowing points like jade green fire.
Then it tackled him into the water, moaning. Chaff coughed and spluttered, struggling to sit up, but the weight of the thing held him down. He managed to hold his head above the water and sucked in breath, spitting the marsh out of the corners of his mouth. It took a few seconds for him to realize that the poltergeist was not holding him down. It was just…holding him.
“Father, father,” it moaned. “Brother, son. War we lost, can’t be won. Father, father, we did wrong. Now he’s got us, now we’re done. Took us apart and put us back together! Arms for legs, eyes for ears, disk made of sap where our hearts should be!”
Chaff stared at the poltergeist, at its burning green eyes, inside the slack jaw made of vines, not even sure where to begin his questions. Before he could, though, he heard a sudden humming.
The surface of the water rippled as the vibrations shook the marsh itself. The poltergeist slid off of Chaff, and the boy fell back into the water. When he emerged, wiping the grit of the swamp from his eyes, Chaff saw it again. The man made of bark, standing just so he was shrouded in the mist.
“Brother, brother, sister fair,” mumbled the poltergeist, shambling away, resuming its lonely walk. “You’re not going anywhere…”
Chaff ignored it. He did not have time for the ravings of an old ghost. It was the master he wanted.
The humming had stopped as soon as the poltergeist walked away, and the bark-made man had disappeared as soon as the humming had stopped. Chaff grit his teeth together, running as fast as he could through the deepest part of the marsh, searching for a figure in the mist.
There! He saw it! Chaff set out in a headlong run, determined to catch him.
Chaff stumbled to a halt when the figure came into view. It was not the bark-made man. It was a man made of flesh and blood, with a prone Lookout lying at his feet, with a struggling Sinndi in his hands. His hair was tangled and disheveled, and there were shadows on his face like he had not slept for days.
“Found you,” whispered Al Innai, with murder in his eyes.