Category Archives: Chapter 6 (Ebb & Flow)
A sudden sharp force yanked at Jova’s ear, and Mo began to bark and snap. Jova slid on the marble steps, clutching her ear and the meaty hand that held it in pain. “You got a lick of sense, child?” growled a voice. “No begging here.”
“Stop, please, stop!” shouted Jova, as she tried to twist her way out of the man’s grip. “Sir, I’m with the- the traders, I was told to wait out-.”
“Back, you mutt,” snarled the man, and Mo began to bark even more violently. “I said get back!” The man threw Jova down onto Mo, and the girl could feel the beast squirm his way free out from under her with a kind of violent fervor. “Get out of here, the both of you!”
“I don’t know the way,” babbled Jova, quickly, keeping her arms around Mo to hold the weaseldog back. “I was told to wait out here.”
“Tell that to someone else. We’ve got important business here today.”
“Yes,” said Jova, her frustration mounting. “I’m part of that.”
“We’ll see about that,” the voice growled, and Jova felt a hand around her collar. She did her best not to resist, even as Mo’s barking turned into a sudden, very low, very dangerous growl.
“No, Mo, stay back! Stay back, it’s OK!” said Jova. “Just stay here! Wait for me!”
The weaseldog whined, and Jova heard his claws clicking on the street as he backed away. “Yeah, beat it,” said the man, and he yanked on Jova’s collar. “You’re with them, you say? Well, let’s go and ask them, shall we?”
He stormed off, Jova following at a somewhat bemused if wary pace. He seemed to be taking a vindictive pleasure in dragging Jova to her supposed doom.
“They’re foreign, but I bet you knew all that already, since you’re so intimately familiar with them all,” sneered the man, as Jova was led through the open air corridor that Darpah had lead her halfway through. “Hak Mat Do warriors, they are. They’ll skin you and eat you for wasting their time, I bet they will.”
Jova said nothing. She didn’t think that continued contradictions would get her anywhere.
Their footsteps began to echo louder, longer; although the open wind still blew unobstructed to her side, they must have entered some kind of high vaulted room or chamber.
Something clicked sharply on the ground. “Dandal!” snapped a voice. Male, with a rhythmic cadence. “Didn’t I say that I was meeting?”
“Apologies, master, sir, but I found this ragamuffin begging on your steps,” said Dandal, lifting Jova higher. Jova did her best to smile and wave. “Said she was one of the sandfolk you was talking with, didn’t she?”
“She is,” said Dal Ak Gan, dryly. “Why did you feel the need to tell me?”
Jova could almost hear the man, Dandal, deflating. He let go of her shirt, which was now wrinkled at the collar, and her heels touched on the ground once more.
“Just thought…that…” muttered Dandal. He didn’t finish.
The unfamiliar voice snorted from somewhere ahead of Jova. “You are like a cathound bringing me dead sparrowmice. Go, off with you, go and hunt somewhere else.”
Dandal put a hand on Jova’s shoulder, and Jova was about to turn back and walk away herself when the plutocrat said, “Leave her. We have seen the best of your wares, Dal Ak Gan, now let us see the worst of them.”
The man scoffed, but didn’t say anything back. Instead, he bent down, close to Jova’s ear. “You make any noise,” he whispered. “Any fuss. And I’m throwing you back out on the street quick as thinking, and not a one’s going to notice.” Jova swallowed and nodded, and Dandal shoved her aside and walked away, grumbling all the while.
She turned back around and clicked. The sounds echoed off of the high ceiling, and it took her a moment to gauge her surroundings. She found her way up to what seemed like a carved, stone desk, and bowed her head in respect as the plutocrat took her hand with a firm, almost callous grip.
“You blinded this one?” said the plutocrat.
“Already blind,” said Dal Ak Gan. Jova cocked her head. From the echoes and the shapes of the sound, there was someone else standing next to him, of similar height and build. Who was it?
The plutocrat guffawed. “How generous of you! And does she have any skills?”
“Stablehand,” grunted a voice from by Dal Ak Gan. Jova turned her head immediately. Dock the mercenary was evidently part of the negotiations as well.
“And she is seeing with her tongue,” said Dal Ak Gan. “You heard her. Click, click, and she walks as well as any man. A circus master would be paying good money for a spectacle like her, no?”
The plutocrat patted the back of Jova’s hand, his palms hot and dry. Jova took it as her cue to leave, and backed away, standing by Dal Ak Gan’s side. She needed to stay right where she was needed. What if she was gone and they tried to recall her with her tabula? She couldn’t risk it. She stood there, waiting, the perfect and obedient attendant.
A quill scratched at parchment with a constant, raspy whisper. Every ten seconds there was a glass clink, as the quill tapped on the side of the ink pot. Jova waited and listened, her heart beating fast.
Dal Ak Gan patted her on the shoulder, an awkward, fumbling kind of contact. “Worry not,” he said, and it seemed more to himself than to her. “Sovar-l’hana is a fair trader. He will care for you up to auction.”
It was not Sovar-l’hana, or whatever his convoluted plutocratic name was, that Jova was worried about. Ma and Da were out there somewhere. They had to be. Jova had only spent a second with Mo when that man, Dandal, had dragged her away, but she would have recognized the weaseldog anywhere.
The scribbling continued. A brisk wind blew through the patio that made Jova’s sweating cheeks tingle. It never snowed in Jhidnu—it was too warm even in the winter—but the wind from the sea still made Jova shiver.
“The staghound will sell for much,” said Sovar-l’hana, his melodic accent thick in his brazen voice. “I already have a buyer, although we shall see how much he is willing to pay when auction-time comes. Silly of me to take a fat Wind’s word before I see his money, eh?” He guffawed, like he had something extraordinarily funny. No one else laughed.
Dip. Tap, tap. Scribble, scribble, scribble.
“We have quite an international audience for this one. An envoy from Irontower has come, and raiders from Da’atoa shall be in attendance as well. Some of them will be needing safe escort home.” Sovar-l’hana put his quill down with a definitive click. “I believe in convenience, friend. You will receive your cut of the profit, of course, but if you would be to pick up an extra job for you and your tribe once the sale is done…”
“Sale first,” growled Dock. “We’ll see about other jobs once we see the money.”
Jova bit her lip. Dal Ak Gan’s silence made her uneasy. Even easygoing Dep Sag Ko had been complaining about the mercenaries for days. What was Dal Ak Gan, whose own authority was being subverted, thinking?
“Mm,” said Sovar-l’hana, and even he sounded a little annoyed. “Very well. This has been a scheduled auction for some time. The usual plutocrats will be in attendance, looking to buy for personal use, resale, and so on. A smithsworn towerman will be there as well, looking for laborers to man the valleys, as well as a crew of saltmen looking to return to the islands by spring. You are not my only supplier, but you are one of the biggest.”
Restless, Jova turned her head to the side. When would she be able to leave?
“The starting prices will be high. Everyone this side of Lowsea knows me, and my reputation. You won’t even need a tabula to command my slaves. Look, look, see here. Dandal! Darpah!”
Jova had only just met the both of them, but she recognized their footsteps immediately. Dandal’s were loud, crashing, almost petulant, while Darpah, the skittish little servant from before, scuttled forward like a beetlemouse.
“My two dogs,” said Sovar-l’hana, jovially. “Darpah, if I told you to jump into the bay and drown, would you do it?”
“Yes, master,” said Darpah, quickly.
“And Dandal—if I told you to bend Darpah over and fuck him in the ass, would you do it?”
Jova didn’t miss Darpah’s terrified whimper as Dandal sneered, without hesitation, “Yes, master.”
Sovar-l’hana actually slapped his knee, then, giggling like a loon. Once he had recovered, he snapped his fingers for the two to leave, and leave they did. “So you see, everybody wants one of Sovar-l’hana’s slaves. We split what we get, half and half. First pick is yours. Mahashma, no?”
Jova heard Dal Ak Gan begin to speak when Dock growled, “No tin chips. Food, clothes, weapons.”
Sovar-l’hana’s wicker chair creaked as he leaned back in it. “That’s why you get first pick. Although, mind, this is a civilized event. If you wish to be in attendance, I expect you to clean up and behave yourselves.”
“That can be arranged,” said Dal Ak Gan, finally squeezing his say in.
“So long as we get what we came for,” growled Dock.
“Mahashma,” said the plutocrat, and Jova heard the sound of their hands clapping together. “Now, about this escort…”
“Who? How far?” said Dock.
“-That, I think, is for me to ask.” Dal Ak Gan shifted, and Jova heard the almost imperceptible creak of leather and fiber as he gripped the handle of his whip. “Once you are paid, our contract is over. We are being separated, no?”
Dock took a step forward just as Jova took a step back. They weren’t going to fight, were they? Not here. They might have made their livings off of violence and brutality, but they were practical as well.
“Still our job to take,” the woman mercenary said.
“Still ours to keep,” replied Dal Ak Gan.
Jova heard the scrape of a chair against the floor as Sovar-l’hana stood. “Keep your barbarisms to yourselves! This is my home and you will follow my rules. Work out your differences like civilized people, or I’ll see to it that the both of you are on the summer-burnt auction block with the rest of my slaves when the time comes!”
“We should go now,” whispered a voice, and Jova jumped. Darpah moved so quietly and so stealthily that even she had not heard him approach. “Come, girl, I’ll show you where the slaves sleep.”
Darpah took her hand and lead her away, and Jova did not resist.
“Oh, oh, I do get so worried when the master is angry,” muttered Darpah, distractedly, as he led Jova down a maze of corridors that too late did she realize she would be utterly and hopelessly lost in without his help. Sometimes she could feel the open air to her side and sometimes she couldn’t; sometimes she felt the heat of torches and sometimes she didn’t. It was a confusing mix of directions and sensations that she could not keep head nor tail of.
She pulled back, and Darpah paused, his sleeves scraping together as he wringed his hands. “I don’t know if this is the way I should go,” she said. “Maybe I should get back to…back to my masters.”
“Oh, no, no,” said Darpah, and he put a gentle hand on Jova’s. “Sovar-l’hana is your master now. They shook on it, didn’t they? They signed the contract. Mahashma. You’ll stay with us until auction. It’s only lucky that you were already here, I expect master to summon the rest soon…”
Only lucky indeed. Fortune be with her, sometimes Jova felt she was too lucky for her own good. The Ladies gave, and mortal men paid; in Jhidnu of all places, she had to be aware of that.
“The master does so hate it when things don’t go exactly the way he wants them to,” muttered Darpah. “He likes everything to be perfect. Exactly perfect. Watch your step.”
Jova edged forward slowly, and a wave of muggy air hit her. It was humid and hot inside; the air was stale and still.
“It’s not the, erm, cleanest,” said Darpah. Jova stepped forward, her feet brushing against the frames of bunks and cots. She treaded lightly, trying not to step on anyone’s belongings, before she realized how foolish that was.
This was a room for slaves. They had no belongings.
“We have plenty of room though! Since the, er, the last group just moved out.” Darpah sat at the foot of one of the musty cots, and Jova turned around to face him. She found that people were more comfortable when she looked at them, even when she couldn’t actually look back. “The beds are nice. There are hardly any ratworms at all at night, and they don’t carry any sickness.”
There was such plaintive, earnest gratitude in his voice that Jova felt sorry for him. Did he really think this was the best his life could get? A pest-infested bed and constant servility to a man who thought him less than human?
“Oh, oh, but let’s not take a hammer before nails,” said Darpah. “Back or the front. It, erm, it depends on your preference. Whether you want to do deal with other slaves or masters.”
“Slaves or masters?” echoed Jova.
“Stay in the back, the masters will punish you for lagging behind. Sleep in the front, and the, erm, the others will always be walking past you. Pushing, shoving, fighting.” Darpah coughed. “I…prefer the back.”
“So this is it?” said Jova. She spun around, feeling the grimy floor under her bare feet. It was beginning to dawn on her that this was not just another stop on the road. This…this was where the Hag Gar Gan left her. Where Rho Hat Pan left her.
Darpah didn’t say anything. His collar rattled, and Jova assumed he had nodded.
Jova sighed. “Darpah…if I speak honestly with you, you will keep my confidence. Mahashma?”
“Mahashma,” said Darpah, quickly. Too quickly. Did he intend to betray her that fast, run tattling off to his loved master? Or was he simply that starved for human interaction?
It didn’t matter much either way. Jova didn’t intend on staying here long.
“Why do you do it?” asked Jova. “Act like this is all good for you?”
“Oh, but it is,” said Darpah, eagerly. “It is, it is. I’ve served as the master’s assistant since Fallow. I’ve never gone hungry and I’ve never had to fight anyone. I learned manners. I was –educated! I know how to be useful. This is good. It is a good life.”
“But what about freedom? Haven’t you ever wanted to be free? To belong to yourself?”
Darpah lapsed into stuttering silence.
“He said it himself: he treats you like a dog.”
When he spoke next, his voice was soft and timid. “What’s wrong with that? I’m not a bad dog. I don’t live in the streets like a…like a cur. I get fed. And I’m- I’m wanted. I’m needed. I’m loved. In a fashion.”
“In a fashion,” repeated Jova. She didn’t know what else to say to him. She didn’t know if there was anything left to say.
Darpah’s slippers squeaked on the floor as he hurried away. “I must be off. He’ll be summoning the others soon. He’s a powerful man, the master.” He paused at the door. “Stay. Here. Um.” And he ran away, muttering under his breath.
Jova waited all of a minute before she ducked out of the slave dormitory and started to feel her way down the walls. She didn’t know the way out. But she knew how to get there.
“Dandal!” she shouted. “Dandaaaal!”
Her voice echoed around the labyrinthine confines of Sovar-l’hana’s manor. It didn’t take long for the dog to snap at the bait; Jova heard thunderous footsteps approaching her, and she stopped, waiting for him to approach.
“Didn’t I say?” said the man, furious. He gripped Jova’s collar and tugged harshly, and Jova stumbled as he began to drag her away. “Didn’t I say that if I heard one peep, I was throwing you out?”
Jova didn’t say a word. She relaxed as much as possible, letting Dandal drag her to the outside.
“Let’s see how you like a night of real begging.” Dandal spat. “One night on the streets, that’ll break you. Roll call isn’t until morning. No one’s going to miss you all day, will they? And we’ll see, we’ll see, the state you’re in once the sun comes…”
It was better than Jova had hoped for. She had hoped only to escape notice by merit of all the other slaves arriving at the same time. If she had all night, so much the better.
“Not a sound,” hissed Dandal, clapping a hand over Jova’s mouth, as they entered some kind of enclosed space. “Negotiations are ongoing.”
Jova’s heart quickened at the thought of Dal Ak Gan and Dock negotiating. She didn’t see how it could end well for either of them.
And suddenly she was in Jhidnu again. The smells and sounds hit her first, and then the street quickly followed. She groaned, wiping her bleeding lip, as Dandal shouted, “And get off the fucking steps, will you?”
It wasn’t the cleanest exit, but it got her out. Jova stood shakily, and began to hobble down the side of the street, back bent and head bowed. She was a beggar, nobody, no one worth noticing.
“Mo,” she whispered. “Mo!” she shouted. Where was he? Had he left? Maybe Ma had summoned him already.
Jova felt panic rising in her chest. She needed Mo, and her parents. One way or another, this was her last chance to be free.
The girl stood alone in the bustling streets, breathing heavily. She could barely think, her head was spinning in so many different directions. She would have to find Ma and Da, first. She would have to make sure Alis came with them. She would have to do so many things, prepare so many new plans…
And if a single part of it failed, then Jova would have lost her chance.
Her thoughts were quelled by a warm presence under her hand. “Hey, Mo,” she said, smiling. She scratched the back of his head and his belly, her fear evaporating at the weaseldog’s presence. Mo was family. He had always been family.
“You stay right here with me,” said Jova, hugging his neck. She knelt, and began to untie her blindfold. The weaseldog whined as she wrapped it around his head, but he did not resist. Then she sat, getting ready for the long wait.
If Ma looked through the tabula, there was no way she could see Mo and not see Jova. If Ma summoned the weaseldog, then the blindfold would have to be enough of a clue for them to know. Jova had never learned her letters, even before she was blind. It was the only hint she had to give. She had all night to wait.
“You stay right here,” said Jova, stroking Mo’s fur. “You stay right here until they find us.”
On the first day Chaff learned that he loved the ocean. He loved the feeling of the planks rolling underneath him, he loved the smell of sea salt in the air, and he loved the gentle caress of the waves against the hull of the Kazakhal kapaz barge as it plowed around Oldsea towards the Moscon Peninsula. He was going a world away, and the ghosts of the past could no longer haunt him.
Every day thereafter, Chaff learned something new. Prav taught him how he charted his way across the sea, and how, when the treacherous stars shone overhead, he used arithmetic like the electors to find his way. Armand showed him fat mackerelcod and searobins that he fished straight out of the ocean, although the silent mudmaker would not tell Chaff how it was done or even what the fish were called. Wozek had even let him ride on the spiderwhale’s back as it swam beside the boat, and Chaff had clung onto its slippery skin in a half-terrified, half-exhilarated joy.
Today, he learned how much Lookout hated the sea.
“You want something else to eat?” asked Chaff, watching Lookout’s breakfast drift away on the waves.
“No, Chaff, the last thing I want to do is eat…” grumbled Lookout. She was breathing heavily, and her face was pale and sickly. Surreptitiously, Chaff checked her leg, but it seemed whole and healthy enough. Whatever Lookout’s sudden bout of sickness was, it had nothing to do with her old injury.
“It’s just that you spit it all out,” said Chaff. Shadows under the water nibbled away at the food falling from the sky as he stared. “You gotta be hungry again, yeah?”
“If you try to feed me anything, I will puke on you,” said Lookout. She hobbled away, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “I’m going to go lie down.”
Chaff watched Lookout go, his back on the railing. He looked toward the big guy, who was standing by the mast and glaring unceasingly at the crow’s nest. “How you doing, big guy?” he asked.
The camelopard did not look at Chaff, but one of his nostrils flared. Chaff didn’t know if the big guy was trying to stave off Lookout’s sickness or if he really was just that mad about a place for humans to go that was taller than him.
“Why she sick?” asked Chaff. He dug one of his fingers into his mouth and ran his nail along his teeth. “Something she eats? Am I going to be sick too?”
The big guy had no answer for him. Chaff couldn’t even remember what he had for breakfast; fish were involved, he was sure, although he couldn’t remember what kind. A lot of things were getting harder to remember.
“It ain’t what she et,” said one of the crew, poking his head out of the crow’s nest. The moment the sailor revealed himself, the big guy lowered his head and began waving it side to side, and Chaff got up immediately. It turned out he was mad about someone being above him.
“Easy there, big guy,” said Chaff, putting a comforting hand on the big guy’s side. “Don’t want you knocking down the sails now.” He squinted at the sailor in the crow’s nest. Stubble had grown all around the man’s chin. His skin was brown, his hair was unkempt, and his clothes were both. He wore a single brass stud in his left ear, and looked at Chaff with eyes that seemed much too sharp for a man so filthy. “Who you? What you say?”
“It ain’t what she et,” repeated the man up above. He leaned on the railing of his little platform, grinning at the big guy. “Sea sickness, it be called. The moving and the rocking and the rolling gets to some people. Not you, though, eh? Took to it right away, you did.”
“She gets sick from moving?” asked Chaff, face wrinkled in confusion. “But she moves all the time, yeah? How come now?”
“You ever feel the earth quaking ‘neath your feet, chil’? The shaking and shuddering and heaving is enough to make anyone lose their stomach,” said the man, perched comfortably on his nest so high. Overhead, a few winter gulls circled, and Chaff eyed them nervously. They were perhaps the only part of the sea that he did not like.
He did remember earthquakes. Why, the earth itself had rolled beneath his feet in the Quiet Marsh not so long ago. That had made him sick with fear. Perhaps Lookout was just afraid.
“Storm’s coming, too,” continued the man. “The winds of the Lady Fall tell us, if you speak her tongue. Waves are getting worse. You can taste it in the air.”
“Storms is good, yeah?” said Chaff, staring where the man stared. The sky was so blue it hurt, but if the man said a storm was coming then a storm must have been coming. “Lots of water. Drinking water, not the salty yuck.”
The man laughed. “You don’t know seasick until you’ve been in a proper Oldsea storm, chil’.”
Chaff glared at him. He wasn’t sure what the man was laughing at, but he was fairly certain that he was the butt of the joke.
Leaning back over the railing, the man raised an eyebrow. “Does Wozek’s pup have teeth? You have something to say to me?”
The boy looked down, his cheeks red. He didn’t mean to get caught. He was about to take the camelopard and walk away, when a little voice whispered in his head.
How do you ever expect to get closer to where you want to go, if you’re always running away?
You’re always running away.
Chaff turned around and stood as straight as he could, his chest puffed out. “Don’t laugh at me!” he shouted, up to the man in the crow’s nest. Up at the head of the barge, he could see out of the corner of his eye Wozek and some of the men he was talking to look up.
“So he can bark,” said the man, smiling. There was a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Can he bite?”
“Don’t talk to me like that,” said Chaff. “Or I’ll set the big guy on you.”
The man’s grin grew wider. “He can climb, can he?”
Chaff put a hand on the big guy’s tabula. “I can make him.”
He clapped his hands together and hooted. Chaff stared at him, nonplussed. “Word to the wise, chil’, but tabula can’t make anyone do anything they just can’t do. You can’t make that beast climb no more’n I can make a fish fly.” He grinned. “Or turn a yellow-bellied kid like you into whatever it is you want to-.”
“Will you stop antagonizing him, Drael, you fieldman bastard?” said Wozek, intervening. Part of Chaff felt indignant, that he couldn’t finish the fight alone. The other part felt relieved, that he wouldn’t have to.
“No offense meant, goodman Wozek,” said Drael, dipping his head. “Just teaching this here chil’ the way of the world. You’d think he’s just had his Fallow, the way he prattles on.”
“I can say that about you too,” said Wozek, and he put an arm around Chaff’s shoulder. Chaff squirmed. It didn’t feel like Wozek being so much protective as possessive. “And what’s that I hear about a storm?”
Drael grinned. “It’s coming.”
“Yes, well, tell the captain next time before us,” snarled Wozek, and he spun around, taking Chaff with him. The big guy was about to follow, but Wozek put a hand up. “Chaff, keep the beast here. The boat’s shaky enough as it is, we don’t want to go tipping it over.”
“You stay back, big guy,” said Chaff, doing his best to turn around with Wozek’s firm hand still on his shoulder. “And eat his stinky hair next time he come out, yeah?”
The big guy, who had looked annoyed at being told to stay, flicked his ears and straightened, mollified by the prospect of revenge.
“Of all the things you just had to bring along, it was him,” sighed Wozek, as he led Chaff away. “All the other animals we left in the city to summon on the other side, but the one thing you couldn’t go without…” He looked down at Chaff and ruffled his hair, like a man petting a houndbeast. “Ah, well. So long as it’s just this one time and I don’t have to drag him back to Kazakhal.”
Back to Kazakhal? Chaff wondered Wozek meant by that. Of course, he and the big guy were sticking together. Perhaps Wozek meant that Chaff wasn’t coming back either. He didn’t know where he was going after he found Jova—Jova, Jova, that was her name, Jova—but he was sure it wouldn’t be Kazakhal. Perhaps she would know.
“Pay no mind to Drael,” Wozek continued. “He’s an alsval idiot who runs his mouth, but he means well.”
“He sounds different from the fieldmen I knew,” said Chaff. Drael’s accent was somehow sharper and faster than the Alswell drawl Chaff had grown used to listening to.
Wozek nodded. “Got ears like the Lady Fall, don’t you? You’re right, he’s not your typical fieldman.” Wozek looked over his shoulder at the mast. “A farmer picked him up right after Fallow and brought him to the Seat of the King. He’s only been free for about three years.”
That made Chaff look up. “That was when the revolution started!”
Wozek smirked and ruffled his hair. “Can’t get anything past you, can I? He was one of Banden’s men, that’s right. Only good thing about him, in my opinion.”
“Why-?” Chaff began, but he was cut off.
“Captain!” shouted Wozek, waving towards a woman at the steering wheel. “Drael has something to tell you.”
The woman looked up, nodded, and moved past them without another word. The captain didn’t talk to Chaff much, except when the big guy needed feeding: as far as he could tell, she was capable, intelligent, and diligent in her work. But even if she was the captain, always, always, Wozek was in charge.
“You wanted to say something to me, Chaff?” asked Wozek, after the captain had gone.
“I’s just wondering why you coming with us.” Chaff looked at his feet (clean of mud and dirt for perhaps the first time in his life), and twiddled his thumbs. “It’s weird, yeah? Coming all this way just for me. Bringing everybody with you.”
Wozek smiled. “Chaff, I mean nothing by this, but it’s not all about you. Everybody here wants to go.”
Chaff looked around. Wozek’s people turned their heads away when he stared at them; was it just his imagination, or were they avoiding his gaze?
“We go to Moscoleon first. You’ll finish your business there, and we’ll prepare for our journey further north to the Seat of the King,” said Wozek. He knelt down to so that he could look Chaff in the eye. “We want to join Banden. We want to be part of his revolution. And I hope you’ll join us.”
The boy stared at Wozek, unsure what he was asking. He had never been part of a revolution before. He didn’t know what that entailed.
Wozek put a gentle hand on Chaff’s shoulder, not pushy, just present. His smile was still friendly, his eyes still reasonable. “Your talent would be…appreciated.”
That made Chaff take a step back. Lookout had warned him about this.
Immediately, Wozek let Chaff go. He seemed to have known that he had crossed a line. How did he know? How could he read people’s faces so easily? “It’s OK if you don’t want to,” he said. “I won’t push you. But I strongly encourage you to consider it.”
“Why are you doing it? Do you know the king?” Chaff asked, before he could stop himself. He bit his tongue. He hadn’t meant to sound so impudent.
“I wish I did,” said Wozek, wistfully. “I saw him once, giving one of his speeches. It was like…like having the Lady Summer’s fire poured into my ears. His words made light, his voice burned away lies until all I saw was truth. The Fifth Age of man has come, Chaff, and the time for kings is no more. I want to be part of that. We all do.”
It sounded like a load of nonsense to Chaff, but he had the sense at least to not say that out loud. There was something that irked him, though. “I thought Banden was a king, though?” he asked. Had he remembered it wrong?
“No,” snapped Wozek, quickly. “No. His opponents and enemies are the only ones that call him a king, even as they also name him traitor and usurper. He knows he is just a man. He knows he has killed the last king of Albumere.”
Chaff looked back down. How could just one man cause this much…pain? Banden’s war had pushed Loom to her betrayal. His war had sent the fieldmen into Shira Hay, and his war had sent the nomads out. And what was he even fighting for? Chaff could understand killing someone for food, for clothes, for a bed to sleep in and for the safety of the things that were precious to him. But freedom? Freedom was nebulous. Freedom had never fed Chaff or kept him warm at night.
Wozek squeezed Chaff’s shoulder. “I’ll let you think about it.”
He walked away, and he left Chaff alone, among the bustling crew. The sailors’ face were drawn with worry: not despair or fear, just a tense, tight anxiety. Chaff looked ahead and saw an advancing line of bruised clouds on the horizon. The waves were getting choppier and more violent, and the wind was picking up strength. Perhaps Drael wasn’t such an idiot after all.
Chaff backed out of the way as the crew set to rigging the sails, to turning the wheels, to greasing the hinges or whatever it was they did to steer the barge. By the mast, the big guy was starting to stamp his hooves, his eyes rolling as people ran around and under him.
“Hey, hey, big guy,” said Chaff, ducking around the sailors to make his way to his friend. “It’s OK. Shh. Got nothing to worry ‘bout. Just a little rain, yeah? Maybe there’s lightning. We hold some bark up, get hit, and you eat the burned bit. You like the burned bits, yeah? Course you do. Course you do, big guy.”
Despite the crescendo of activity around him, Chaff felt no fear. How could he? He was by the sea, and he liked the sea. It made him feel safe, even as the clouds advanced and the winds grew stronger.
“I’m not running away this time,” said Chaff, out loud. He held the big guy close, and the camelopard towered above him, warm and close. Together, they were indomitable. “No running away no more, that’s right.”
“Chaff!” shouted Wozek, as he started to head below decks. “It’s going to get miserable up here. Get down, where it’ll be dry.”
Chaff looked up at the camelopard. “Nah. If the big guy stays, I stay. I don’t like leaving my friends behind.”
Wozek’s face changed slowly. First he looked concerned, then a slow smile spread across his face, and then he hid it. “I see,” he said. And then he walked away, down, where Chaff’s other friend was sleeping.
The air smelled like oranges. It smelled like stale beer and perfumes, and eastern spices, and offal. Music filled the air, the soft lilt of lyres and harps, even as more indelicate tunes sang out, plucking the heartstrings of the lonely.
It had been a long time since Jova had been in Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, but it was just as she remembered it.
She stood by Dep Sag Ko and his animals, the image of obedience. She would only get so many second chances. There was a kind of tranquility to it, a peace that kept Jova calm even as she stood on the roaring streets of the city of light.
The Hag Gar Gan slavers were less tranquil. Dep Sag Ko kept flinching whenever a bayman, bold as they were, walked up to him, and his fear made the animals skittish. This was not their place, among the clustered buildings and streets, facing the sea with the thick jungles to their backs. This place was a long, long way from home, for them.
“Eat,” muttered Dep Sag Ko, sliding his skewer off the fire. Jova held the thigh of chickenfrog gingerly, her fingertips dancing on its burning surface as grease dripped down its side. Her eyebrows furrowed. A whole length of freshly cooked meat, just for a slave like her?
The strangeness of it was not enough to stop Jova from eating hungrily, panting as the hot food scalded the inside of her mouth.
“The animals are needing cleaning,” said Dep Sag Ko, his fingers drumming on his leg. “Gen, Jova? Looking very nice. Presentable.”
Jova nodded. Dep Sag Ko really must have been worried, if he had forgotten that Jova was the last person he could ask to make anything look nice.
She didn’t question him, though. She walked away, hands by her sides, the cotton slave dress heavy on her shoulders. Other members of the tribe could handle their own mounts; Dep Sag Ko wanted Jova to prepare only those that were for sale.
Uten and Yora, then, as well as the few other animals that the slavers had caught on the way. Not Lo Pak the eelhound. Not Stel. Not, as Jova remembered with a lump in her throat, Cross. The elk was gone, and so was Janwye. All Jova had left now was memories.
Jova felt oddly hollow, thinking about doing all the old, familiar routines, but with these new and unfamiliar animals. She missed Chek, and his mulishness. The new animals were still afraid of her, still flinched at her touch and shied away at her presence.
She felt her way around the edge of the stables, hands feeling the bamboo walls as she edged her way around. Already her feet were sticky with dirt and loose straw; Dep Sag Ko didn’t like eating by the inn, and Jova had been unable to voice any objections. He seemed to prefer it out here by their temporary stables, amid the earthy smells and sounds.
To her surprise, the stable gate was already open. Jova felt a small surge of indignation. The animals could have wandered free at any time, and no one would have been wiser. That kind of carelessness was what had made the journey across the spice road from Hak Mat Do so arduous and dangerous…
But the gate had been left open because there were people still inside. Jova shrank back immediately, her ears pricked. That was unmistakably Dal Ak Gan’s voice, speaking in the imperial tongue.
“I do not trust them, and I do not like this,” he said, in a low whisper that Jova could just hear over the ambient noise of the city. Her skill with the language was getting better. Weeks of practice, listening to them speak, had helped. “Since Ya Gol Gi disappeared, I have had forebodings, blood-sister.”
La Ah Abi answered. “We needed them. Their swords and the arms that are holding them. It is too late to go back now.”
“Yes,” said Dal Ak Gan, and he sounded bitter. “But you remember, La Ah Abi. The slaves knew we were coming.” There was silence from both of them, for a long stretch. Jova quivered, not sure if she should walk in and interrupt their conversation. If she was caught, it would be the end of her.
“Soon they shall be paid, and then they will be on their way. You need not worry about them.”
“They knew, blood-sister. These fieldmen knew we were coming.” Dal Ak Gan stamped his foot, and for a moment Jova remembered who this man really was: not her leader, not her benefactor, but the man who had wrapped his arms around Janwye’s neck and held them there until she choked to death. “That woman, that who Rho Hat Pan loved so, she knew we were coming. How? Ya Gol Gi was so quick to kill her, and now he is gone. The fieldwoman noble was her master, and now she is gone…”
“You see candle-flames on the water and think them stars,” said La Ah Abi, her voice soothing and calm. “Today, your blood runs hotter than mine. Your mind is fevered. Your eyes are clouded.”
Dal Ak Gan said nothing. Jova waited, steeling herself to walk in like she had not heard a thing.
And then she heard the telltale clip-clop of hooves behind her, and she nearly ran in through the stable gates.
Both Dal Ak Gan and La Ah Abi shifted the moment she walked through, their feet scraping on the dirt of the stable. “Ya, girl,” barked La Ah Abi. “Dep Sag Ko is sending you?”
Jova bobbed her head, trying to keep her voice steady as her heart thumped in her chest. “Cleaning the animals, ma’am,” she said, arms crossed respectfully behind her back even as she tried to swallow her fear. Had Rho Hat Pan seen her? Would he give her away?
“Mm,” said La Ah Abi, shortly. “Be doing it then.” Then she strode away, curtly and briskly.
Dal Ak Gan was not so quick. The hairs on the back of Jova’s neck tingled, as though she could feel his eyes on her. When he spoke, it was slow and thoughtful, like he was considering the words himself. “You are knowing these animals so well,” he said, as if he had suddenly realized something. “Rho Hat Pan’s animals.”
It wasn’t a question. It was a statement, one that Jova did not dare deny.
“Are you knowing Rh-?”
“Dal Ak Gan!” shouted the man himself, as he rode in behind Jova. Stel snorted as she came to a halt just behind the girl, and then they all stood there, in silence. Was Jova just imagining the tension? Was her fear getting the better of her?
Somewhere in the streets, a performer had begun to sing. It was a bayfolk song, all thumping beats and undulating vocals. It seemed oddly jarring, with the quiet that continued to dominate the little stable.
“Clean the animals,” said Dal Ak Gan, finally. “The Waves are coming.”
He strode briskly away, and though Jova’s hearing was keen she did not hear him say a word to Rho Hat Pan as he walked away.
It was just the two of them, then. Jova clenched and unclenched her fingers, not knowing what to say. The last time they had spoken, Rho Hat Pan’s voice had been accompanied by the roaring fires. He had thrown her into the river, to drown, to die. Except…
She was not dead. She had set three slaves free and nearly escaped herself, and still the tribe did not suspect a thing. Not even the Ladies could give someone such fortune.
“You are being born in this city,” observed Rho Hat Pan, finally. Jova turned around, surprised. It was the first time he had talked to her like an equal in a very long time.
Rho Hat Pan exhaled, a long heavy sigh. “Are you knowing it well?”
“No,” said Jova. “I was very young.” What was he trying to do? Rho Hat Pan—or, at least, the Roan Jova had once known—never just made small talk.
Beside her, Jova heard Uten plodding in her direction. She put a steadying hand on the molebison’s snout, running her fingers through her fur idly while Rho Hat Pan sat there in silence. Neither of them talked. Down the street, there were a few cheers and the clink of those odd Jhidnu coins as the song concluded.
As always, Jova had questions for him, too many questions for her to properly sort out. There was only one she could ask, in the end.
“I have found my people,” said Rho Hat Pan, hoarsely. “I have been lost for a long time. I am coming home.”
“And the Dream Walkers?” Jova wanted to spit and point at him, accuse him of betraying his order, of betraying her, but she did not even know what the Dream Walkers wanted to do, what goal he could have possibly betrayed. As far as she knew, this was part of their clandestine plan, whatever it was.
He never was good at filling in the silence. Once or twice, Jova heard him begin to speak, before he stopped and cut himself off. At last, he said, “You will learn soon enough that we work in many places, in many ways.”
That was hardly the answer Jova wanted. It was hardly an answer at all. She drew herself up, and though she could only face his general direction, she hoped he could see her face twisted in anger. “Did you forget that they killed Janwye?”
She waited for him to answer. She almost wanted him to say something trite, something cold. Let the dead rest. If he said let the dead rest, then that would solidify his betrayal and Jova would kill him next. By all the Ladies Four, she would kill him next if he-.
“I will never forget.”
All Jova’s rage twisted and writhed. All of a sudden, it had nowhere to go.
“Clean the animals, devil girl,” said Rho Hat Pan, darkly. He began to ride away, whatever business he had in these stables evidently abandoned. “Do it quickly.”
And he left Jova again, with just as many questions as before.
She trudged away, sweeping the area for a clean brush. She doubted the innkeepers would have one lying out in the open for her to use, but she had forgotten to get one from Dep Sag Ko and she didn’t want to turn back now.
“I guess you’ll show up as you are,” said Jova, leaning against Uten and stretching her aching back. The molebison supported her placidly, snuffling in the dirt. Jova scuffed her feet on the stable earth too, hands on her hips. “Can’t expect a blind girl to do a good job, can they?”
Jova made a mental note to check on Alis. The girl had just been able to walk again without splints, to Jova’s delight. Alis told her that the burns were healing well, although Jova didn’t know how much she trusted Alis’s quiet, understated word. When there was a chance, she would check on her again.
Jova’s thoughts wandered. She had to admit, she liked being back in a city again—any city. She had never really entered Hak Mat Do proper, and being back among so many people for the first time since she had left home was oddly cathartic. This city especially was so full of life, so full of little stories, so full of hope that Jova couldn’t help but smile. She breathed it all in, the scent of cumin and cinnamon and peppercorn. For now, at least, Rho Hat Pan and his mysteries would not bother her.
From the gate, there was a polite cough, and Jova shook her head. She turned her head to the side, to better hear whoever was there. No one she knew coughed politely.
“You are with the tribe Ak Gan?” said the voice. Clipped, soft, male, and ostensibly well-mannered.
Jova cocked her head. The tribe had no name for itself; to the Hag Gar Gan, there was no need. But she supposed, if it made this polite little man happy, she would humor him. She nodded yes, and wondered how he knew the tribe’s name when they didn’t even know it existed.
“Ah.” Jova could almost hear the man’s furtive glance in the way he said it. “May I speak with your master?”
Jova pursed her lips, wondering if it was wise to bring a stranger to Dep Sag Ko. What did he want, anyhow?
“Oh, I’m sorry,” muttered the man. “Erm. Kaga iro pak gha zea wa tu?”
Jova moved from Uten’s back and stood straight. “I speak the king’s tongue,” she said, and the man made a surprised little squeak. “Do you need anything?”
There was a simpering desperation in the man’s voice. “If I may just speak with-.”
“If you need the animals, I can bring them.”
The man spluttered. “Well, I suppose- I just think it’d be wise to ask- are you sure?”
“The Hag Gar Gan are in the business of selling slaves, not commanding them,” said Jova. She meant it to be reassuring, but it came out as bitter.
“Oh, well, alright,” said the man, and his fingers drummed on the bamboo walls of the stable. “Just the one, if you please, though. Ladies know we don’t want to…to herd this crowd down the streets.”
One was fine with Jova. If it was for a good impression, Jova knew who to bring. “Enjoy yourself here, Uten,” said Jova, patting the molebison on the side. “I’ll be back later. Come on, Yora!”
The staghound padded forward, and Jova knew his stride would be long and graceful, his stature poised and respectable.
“Do you like animals?” Jova asked, politely, as she led Yora out of the stable.
The man’s terrified shudder as the staghound sniffed his face was all the answer that Jova needed.
“What’s your name?” she asked, instead. She closed the gate behind her, and held out a hand. “I’m Jova.”
There was a dumbfounded silence, and then the man said, his voice a little lower and a little less formal, “Darpah. I- I’m sorry, it’s just been such a long time since anyone asked…” He shook Jova’s hand, and his touch was light and timid, as if at any moment Jova might try to tear his hand off.
“It’s nice to meet you, Darpah,” said Jova, smiling. It was hard to tell his age from his voice. He was a grown man to be sure, but he could have been anywhere from twenty to forty summers old.
“Yes. Erm. Likewise,” said Darpah, and he let go like he was releasing a vicious animal from his hands. “Um. I shall show you the way, and you shall…not cause any fuss. Mahashma?”
It had been such a long time since Jova had heard the phrase, yet she still remembered it to this day. How could she forget? It was the catchphrase of every plutocrat on Albumere. “Mahashma,” she said. Good deal.
As they walked, Darpah kept making little mumbling noises. “I. Erm. Do you need help? I could, um, hold your hand if you…”
Jova clicked her tongue by way of response, and Darpah mumbled himself into submission.
With Yora following close behind her, they walked through the street. There were no pious philanthropists in Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, no, not at all. The pedestrians pushed and shoved past Jova, and twice she nearly fell flat onto her back as baymen and woman rushing about their business barreled past her. She learned to sidestep them quickly enough. It was just a matter of getting to know the city, and its people.
“It’s not such a distance,” said Darpah. “Oh, I do hope we don’t keep them waiting…”
“It might be faster if we ride,” suggested Jova, as the claws on Yora’s paws clicked gracefully on the cobblestone road behind her. Her pace was languid and serene, compared to how Jova had to dodge past the baymen on her path.
“Oh, no, no, I don’t- that’s not- I don’t ride,” said Darpah, and Jova heard a soft clink coming from near his head as he shook it. Earrings, jewelry? He didn’t seem the type. What else could it be?
A collar. Bayman slaves wore collars made of leather, with iron chains that trailed down their backs.
Darpah’s behavior made a little more sense, now.
“Watch your step,” said Darpah, kindly, and Jova edged carefully onto the stone steps leading to the patio of…something. The hand that wasn’t guiding Yora along felt the long stone columns and balconies as they walked. They must have been very close to the bay.
“I’ll, er…I’ll show the beast in.” Darpah tapped Jova lightly on the shoulder. “Perhaps you could…wait outside? Master doesn’t like to see slaves around the patio. Oh, but it just wouldn’t be right to…to leave a girl like you out in the street…” The slave sounded so miserable that Jova was tempted to hug him and tell him it would be OK.
“Behave, Yora,” she said, and she handed the reins off to Darpah. “I’ll be just outside.”
“If you’re sure…” Darpah muttered, taking the rein like it was a live pillsnake and treading lightly away. Jova took a moment to enjoy the sea breeze, before continuing on her way. She traced her steps back to the stone stairs that led into the rest of the compound, and wondered what exactly this ornate patio led into. What if there was an entire palace above her head, and she didn’t even know it? She sat on the steps, imagining.
The streets were full of sounds as well as smells. The slap of leather boots on the stone was the most frequent, but Jova heard hoof beats and drumbeats, and the constant, lively chatter of the baypeople.
She thought back to her conversation with Rho Hat Pan. She may not have known the city well, but if she managed to get Alis and escape into the city of light, she felt like she could make it. Just the two of them, alone. It would be hard, but it wouldn’t be impossible.
There was the padding of paws on the street, and it was getting closer. At first, Jova thought it was Yora, but it was the wrong direction for that, and Yora’s walk was always more stately. Perhaps it was a stray. Perhaps…
“Fang?” Jova asked, holding out a hand. She had done her best to keep track of the pigwolf, but she had even less of an idea of its whereabouts ever since the fire on the river.
The animal was extraordinarily comfortable with her, and Jova marveled at her fortune to find a beast so friendly on a chance foray into the city. It had thick, matted fur, and a long, sinuous body, and a face with stiff welts on the side, and a happy growl that seemed all too familiar…
Jova’s heart dropped, then it leaped into her throat. Her cheeks flushed. Her breath caught.
The weaseldog panted happily, and Jova realized that she and Alis might not be so alone after all.
Chaff didn’t know what he said wrong. He looked from Gopal to Sri, his mouth very dry. Suddenly, there seemed to be too many people in the tavern. It was too hot, too noisy, too confined. He wanted to be back in the plains again, with nothing but the grass around him. He didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want to watch their faces turn from shock to confusion to anger.
“Say that again,” said Gopal, and the soft wood of the table was beginning to splinter and crack under his white knuckles.
“I don’t know what it means,” said Chaff, quickly. He looked to Sri for help, but he couldn’t even see her eyes for the hair that had fallen around her face. She seemed dark, now. Brooding. Dangerous. “I just-.”
“Say it. Again.”
“The Jova girl,” whispered Chaff, meekly. “I wanted to find the Jova girl.”
“Is this some kind of trick?” hissed Gopal, standing up. The bench scraped against the floor as he stood, a long wooden moan, and heads began to turn. “Some kind of joke?”
“I’m not- I’m not smart,” Chaff babbled. “I don’t know what it means, yeah? If-.”
“Are you mocking me?” Gopal grabbed Chaff’s scarf and pulled him close by it, so that if Chaff tried to move he would just tighten it around his neck. He blinked rapidly, his eyes misting over. “We save you. We guide you. We walk together for weeks and today, you- you dig this out of the past?”
“Sri, tell him!” said Chaff, trying to keep his voice steady even as it cracked with panic. “Tell him I don’t know what any of it means!”
“I never told you her name. I haven’t said that name in three years,” said Sri, slowly. Her voice didn’t change pitch at all. “Chaff, why are you going to Moscoleon?”
“For the girl, to find the Jova girl! I have- I…” Chaff couldn’t bring himself to say it. Lookout had spent a long time earning his trust, and even then her seeing the tabula had been mostly accidental. To just tell someone? After Loom and Vhajja had nearly ripped her away? He couldn’t risk it.
“Jova girl,” said Gopal. “That was what Rituu called her. Why are you calling her that? Who are you?”
None of the marshmen in the tavern were talking now. Chaff could see Lookout trying to push her way through the clustered tables and people out of the corner of his eye, but he didn’t dare break eye contact with Gopal. He was too afraid to.
“Rituu was the better man among us,” said Gopal. There was a look in his eyes that reminded Chaff too much of madness. “He was the thinker. The traveler. The storyteller. I was the brigand. The thief. The killer. And the Ladies left me, and sent you, so where does that leave us?”
His fists tightened around Chaff’s throat, and the boy gasped as he began to struggle for breath.
“Goodman Gopal,” said Wozek’s steadying tone, and he was smiling despite the obvious tension in the air. Marshmen had risen from their seats, hands resting on their weapons or their tabula. “Let him go.”
“Not until I get answers,” growled Gopal, his hands shaking even as he pulled Chaff up and out of his seat.
“Jhidnai! Remember yourself! This is not the place for you to get them,” snapped Wozek.
“Are you in on this?” Gopal let Chaff fall, heaving, onto the table, while his eyes darted around the room. “Are you all in on this?”
“Gopal. Be reasonable. Sit down,” said Wozek, his voice calm and steady.
“Not until you tell me who this shit is and how the hell he knows- how he knows…” Gopal looked around, breathing heavily. “Did you tell him? Did you tell him who killed Rituu? What are you doing, Wozek, why are you-?”
Wozek put a hand on Gopal’s shoulder and he fell silent immediately. “Sit. Down.” He turned around, his smile jovial, his shoulders relaxed. “Everyone, go back to your meals! There’s no need for fuss.”
And the marshmen obeyed, just like that.
But Gopal would not sit down. “Who is he? How does he know that girl’s name?”
“Obviously someone must have told him,” said Wozek, the epitome of reasonableness. “Now you’re just getting yourself more worked up the way you are. Sit. Food is coming, and-.”
“Then why,” said Sri. “Does he want to find her?” She turned to Chaff and looked straight at him. Her soft and gentle eyes were ablaze with anger, and coming from her Chaff felt his very bones tremble with fear. “Why does he want to find the girl who killed my dad?”
Chaff didn’t know what to say. He was lost and confused and didn’t know what Sri meant. It was only as he searched her eyes for an answer did he remember her story. “The girl on the road to Moscoleon? She’s…Jova?”
Sri nodded, once. Her fists were tightening. Chaff didn’t know a lot about people, but even he could tell her patience was shortening.
“But you said it wasn’t anyone’s fault,” said Chaff, shaking his head. He was remembering Sri’s story correctly, wasn’t he? “You said you didn’t blame anyone anymore!”
Suddenly, Chaff’s head was knocked to the side. He sat, gasping, his cheek stinging as Sri drew back her palm to slap him across the face again. “I don’t know who to blame anymore! I don’t know what’s going on!” she screamed. “Chaff! Why are you going to Moscoleon?”
Chaff could only shake his head. He recognized the look in Sri’s eyes; he recognized the pain, and the regret, and the fear. It was as if…
As if someone had brought up Loom in front of him. That was what he was seeing.
Just what exactly had Jova done?
“Chaff, you can’t just- you can’t just say something like that and not answer, you can’t just…” Sri’s hands gripped tight around Chaff’s scarf, pulling him forward. “Chaff, answer me! Chaff?”
The boy stared blankly at the ceiling, lost within his thoughts. Why was he going to Moscoleon? Why was he trying to find her? “That’s my name. That’s me. I’m Chaff,” he finally croaked. “I’m the part that no one wants. I’m the part you throw away. You want answers, yeah? I don’t got none. I’m dumb. You gotta find her and ask her, like everyone else.”
Sri hit him, hard, with nothing held back. She wasn’t the friend Chaff had spent weeks coming to know. She was the girl in the marsh, prepared to kill a stranger on her turf. Chaff’s head snapped back as he tasted blood on his lip, and he tensed, getting ready for a fight.
Before he could move an inch, Sri let go. Lookout stood over the fallen girl, her back to the window, her face a mask of shadows.
The bench fell and scraped on the ground as Gopal jumped to his feet. “Don’t touch her,” snarled Gopal, and before anyone could stop him there was the hum of tabula.
The table broke clean in half as the bathawk burst from the darkness beneath it, screaming. It was nothing but wings and fanged teeth, flapping and screeching as its yellow eyes sought out Chaff. At last, they found him. They focused, and narrowed.
Talons planted themselves on Chaff’s chest, pinning him to the ground. They raked slowly across his chest, then caressed his face as Jiralla looked at him with evil, yellow eyes. Chaff’s vision swam. This had happened to him before, but it hadn’t happened to him. He knew the part that came next. The pressure, and the piercing…
Fwip! Something flitted through the air so fast and so sudden that every head in the tavern turned to look. Fwip! Fwip!
And then Jiralla collapsed over him even as Chaff dug a feathered dart out of his thigh.
“You vouched for them, Wozek,” said the mudmaker with the large earrings. “And see where that got us. I should call you oathbreaker and expel you from the city.”
“You came here fast, Vizdak,” was all Wozek said in reply.
“You didn’t go far,” was Vizdak’s curt answer.
Chaff blinked. Bile began to bubble in the back of his throat, as his vision dissolved into runny colors, like sunlight on the water. He tried to stand, but he could hardly tell up from down.
“I hope you didn’t kill them,” said Wozek, his voice as calm and reasonable as always.
Chaff wasn’t conscious long enough to hear Vizdak’s answer. He collapsed onto his back, the weight of the fallen bathawk heavy on his chest, the vomit dribbling out of the side of his mouth as he dreamed.
The marshmen’s leering faces glared at him. He was sitting in the center of the tavern, surrounded by people that hated him, and he spun, searching for an escape. He saw Loom’s face in the crowd, then Vhajja’s—then Hadiss, and Veer, and Lookout, and Sri. They all turned to strangers in the end, though. They were all strangers in the end.
The faces began to hiss and spit like summer snakes, and as Chaff closed his eyes and covered his ears they glowed and glowed until he saw them behind his eyelids, burned on his pupils. They became the night stars, spinning and twirling and cackling as an old man laughed, “She doesn’t want you. She doesn’t want you.”
Chaff rose to run, but the stars caught him with barbed whips of golden light, and he could not move at all. “Let me go!” he screamed. “Let me go!”
And the bark-made man stepped up to him, grabbed his chin, and whispered, “Never.”
Chaff woke up rocking, like he was in a mother’s cradle, except he had long since forgotten who his mother was. He was lying in a straw mattress, and the fibers clung to his hair as he tried to sit up. His pounding head wouldn’t let him, and he fell back, groaning. There was still dried puke on the corner of his lip.
He turned, and saw Wozek sitting in a corner, watching, unmoving. “Heal yourself, boy,” he said, watching, arms crossed.
It took a great effort to speak. Chaff breathed heavily, holding back another convulsion as his stomach twisted. He shook his head. “Can’t.”
Wozek rose, and began to walk away.
“No!” Chaff said, sweat breaking out on his forehead as he reached for Wozek. “Don’t go.” His arm fell, and the boy closed his eyes, trying to collect his thoughts. “Where?”
Wozek waited until Chaff opened his eyes. “We found a boat,” he said, simply.
Chaff shook his head. “Where are they?”
“Gopal and Sri have gone their own way. I had a feeling they would want to…leave all this behind,” said Wozek.
The boy slammed his fist on the side of his bed’s wooden frame. “Where?” he spluttered, and he reached for his belt, where he kept his tabula.
At last, Wozek understood. “Goodwoman Lookout is fine. Same condition as you, but fine. And…your beast is on the ship. Unhurt.”
Chaff slumped into his bed, relaxed at last.
“I will let you rest,” said Wozek, and he walked away.
The boy stared at the low ceiling of the room, trying to let his breathing subside. What was this, a sick bay? An animal pen? He doubted they would afford a foreign street urchin the luxuries of a private room.
As Chaff laid there and let himself breathe, it hit him that Gopal and Sri were gone. They had left. He hadn’t gotten a chance to say a proper goodbye. He blinked back the tears. All he had wanted to do was say a proper goodbye. The Ladies never gave him the chance to say a proper hello. Couldn’t they let him at least say goodbye?
“Goodbye Gopal,” he whispered, to no one. “Goodbye Sri. In Shira Hay, we give each other departure gifts, yeah? It’s a promise we meet again someday. I was going to get you one, but I didn’t- I didn’t have the time to find one ‘cause you left so soon…”
It was no use. They had gone. What were the chances they’d appear a second time?
And they had known her. That made Chaff’s eyes widen. They had known the girl. They called her Jova. Chaff gripped his pounding head, trying to remember every detail he could of Sri’s story. The girl had been traveling to Moscoleon; she was in Moscoleon. Except, Sri had been traveling to Moscoleon, and she wasn’t there, was she?
It didn’t matter. It was a start. It was the right direction. It was forward.
But there had been more to the story. She had nearly died. Chaff took out her tabula and looked at it, tracing a finger down the crack. She couldn’t be dead. For once, this wasn’t just wishful thinking: if she was dead, then the tabula would have broken. She had nearly died. She was still alive.
And for the first time in his life, Chaff thanked the Ladies, for saving her.
The door opened, and Chaff heard Lookout’s frustrated voice shouting, “Look, I see him! He’s not dead. Now go back up the stairs! You’re not even going to get your fucking neck below decks, stop trying, you’ll just make it worse!”
There was the unmistakable sound of hooves, and Chaff sat up.
“Big guy, I’m good!” he shouted. “Get going, shoo! You a camelopard on a boat! Never been a camelopard on a boat before, yeah? Enjoy it!”
Beyond the door, something snuffled, snorted, and stomped away. Lookout stepped into Chaff’s pen, looking frazzled, the owlcrow on her shoulder equally so.
“Hey, Lookout-,” Chaff began, and the girl turned on him.
“Why the hell are you speaking SO LOUD?” she screamed, breathless already.
Chaff gaped, unsure if she was being serious.
Lookout promptly slid onto the floor, grabbing her head. “Fuck this place. Fuck mudmakers and their poisons. Fuck Kazakhal. I am so glad we are leaving.”
“Are you even supposed to be in here?” asked Chaff, blearily.
“No,” said Lookout, bluntly. “But fuck the kazakhani. And fuck their bigotry, and fuck their rules, too.”
They sat there in silence, as the boat rocked beneath them. Chaff wondered how they were going to fit a camelopard up there without the boat sinking. He wondered how they were going to feed the camelopard.
“Well,” said Lookout, her eyes still closed. “That trip into the city was an unmitigated disaster, don’t you agree?”
“Yeah,” said Chaff.
“We didn’t even get our food,” she snorted. “I really wanted to try their winter snail bread. I hear it’s cool, like peppermint.”
“You’re very energetic, yeah?” said Chaff. As Lookout’s eyebrows furrowed and her forehead creased, Chaff added, quickly, “I like energetic! I…need energetic now.”
The boat rocked. It reminded Chaff of the swaying grass, and he felt a little closer to home. Lookout said, finally, “I’m just glad we’re leaving this place behind. Lot of unpleasant memories, if you know what I mean.”
“…Yeah,” said Chaff.
Lookout scoffed. “Course you do,” she muttered. There was a pregnant pause between them, as neither of them spoke. Then Lookout said, stiffly, “Now…I know it’s not my place, and if you want me to shut up then just say it, but…” She sighed. “Chaff, what did you say to them that made them so angry?”
Chaff turned his head away, and fell back into the straw.
“They looked real upset,” said Lookout. “Whatever you said…I mean, we gotta make sure it doesn’t happen again, right? That was a close one.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Chaff,” Lookout said, shaking her head. “Listen to yourself. How do you ever expect to get closer to where you want to go, if you’re always running away?”
Again, Chaff had no answer.
“I never notice before,” breathed Chaff, staring. “Can I touch it?”
“No, you cannot.”
“But look at it! It’s so big, yeah? How you keep that in your pants?”
Chaff reached for the spiderwhale’s tabula again, but Wozek slapped his hand away. “I just wanna see!” Chaff whined, looking hurt.
Wozek rolled his eyes. “I let you hold it once, wasn’t that enough?”
“That was just for a little bit, yeah? I wasn’t even paying attention, then.” Chaff steered the big guy a little closer to the spiderwhale, craning his neck to get a better look. “How come it’s so much bigger than yours? Mine’s as big as the big guy’s, yeah?”
“Really, now? I would like to see that, goodman Chaff.”
Chaff reached for his belt before he froze and paused. He narrowed his eyes and glared at the marshman.
“Exactly,” snapped Wozek, once he saw Chaff’s expression. “That’s what it feels like to have people pry at your tabula, boy. Not good, right? Intrusive. Invasive.”
“I just wanted to see…” grumbled the boy, but not loud enough for Wozek to hear. Before he could say anything further, Wozek held up his hand, and the spiderwhale came to an abrupt halt.
“Wozek!” shouted Prav the brusher from the top of the hill up ahead. “You’ll want to see this!”
“Budge aside, you old lug,” said Wozek, swinging over the spiderwhale’s side. He didn’t say a word to Chaff as he left to join the brusher to scout ahead, up over a hill framed by the tilted pines.
Chaff watched him go, and sighed forlornly. “He important, yeah?” said Chaff, reining in the big guy. “Ain’t got no time for us at all.”
The camelopard flicked an ear, as if he didn’t mind at all that Wozek had no time for them.
Chaff looked back. He had ridden ahead to talk to Wozek, but now that the marshman no longer had the patience to host him, Chaff was left with no one to talk to. “No point in going back,” said Chaff, adjusting himself. He laid on the big guy’s back, staring at the sky. “Just like the old days, yeah?”
A cold but bright winter sun shone overhead. It didn’t snow this far south, but Chaff’s toes still throbbed from when he had crossed the frost-crusted wet lands further north barefoot. He lay in the warmth, pretending he was in the plains again, surrounded by the softly waving grass.
It would take more than that, though, to bring the boy back to the old days. The grass had changed, and so had the chaff.
Chaff furrowed his eyebrows. Everything he had done to get here…had it been for the better? And if it was, why did he feel so guilty about it?
He craned his head up, but the long muddy road was empty as far as he could see. Wozek and Prav had gone quite far ways ahead of the rest of the group, although Chaff supposed that was what leaders and brushers did.
He wasn’t sure where he fit in there, for he wasn’t a leader or a brusher, but here he was.
Chaff reached for his belt, and held her tabula up in front of him. It had been a long time since he had looked into it. It had been a long time since it had answered.
The tabula formed a single circle of shadow over Chaff’s face as the sun shone overhead. The birds were silent, and the bugbeasts had all burrowed inside their dens to sleep the winter away long ago. He was alone.
It buzzed at his lightest touch, as if eager for him to use it. And yet…
He slipped the disk away in his belt. It didn’t feel right, not when he felt so twisted up inside. Chaff had seen what happened to the big guy when he was distressed and he used the camelopard’s tabula; he didn’t want to load all his bad feelings on her.
“What you think, big guy?” he asked, staring at the sky. “What you think it’s like when we meet her?”
The big guy didn’t answer.
“Jova,” said Chaff, eyes glazing over. “Jova.” He wondered what it meant.
The camelopard moved. He walked away to go browse on the pine needles, and Chaff had to hold tight onto the big guy’s back to balance himself. Chaff sat up as the big guy ate. “You sure you eat that?” he asked. “What if it make you sick?”
The big guy snorted and glared at Chaff.
“Yeah, OK,” said the boy. “Not a lot to eat lately. I gets it.”
He paused, watching the big guy chew placidly.
“Hey, big guy, lemme try some,” he said, standing up and tearing off a handful of rubbery green shoots. The last time he had tried camelopard food, he remembered it had not gone well, but…well, this was different camelopard food.
He bit and chewed and gagged all in one fluid motion, and rolled over to spit it out and clawed at his tongue to get the taste out.
The supplies from Wozek’s village had lasted long enough to get them here, although they had not stayed there long. There had barely been twenty people among them, but Chaff still had difficulty remembering all their names and faces.
He sighed. He had been traveling with them for weeks now and he could only really tell apart a quarter of them. There was mudmaker Armand, who didn’t talk much and wore face paint like he had stitched his mouth shut. Then there was the couple, Bori and Sevra, and their unnamed child, who still had a Fallow coming for him. The rest…well, the rest were a complete blur.
What Chaff had found most interesting about all the marshmen, though, was how they listened to Wozek. One stern talk from him about the dangers of the Quiet Marsh and the coming winter, and they had unanimously decided to leave. It wasn’t much they were leaving behind—a few ramshackle huts with roofs made of woven reeds and soggy fireplaces—but leave it behind they did, without question.
“He doesn’t even need tabula,” said Chaff, as he waited. “Just words, yeah?”
Chaff wondered what it would be like, to speak words with such power. Vhajja had been able to do it, and he was an old man, weak and frail. Hurricane had done it, and he had never needed to use those big muscles in their place.
A dark blot flapped across the sky, and instinctively Chaff flinched. Sinndi he had grown used to, but up there wasn’t Sinndi. The owlcrow had been recuperating and hadn’t flown for some time. Lookout wouldn’t let Chaff try to fix her; she said it would draw attention. Wozek hadn’t said anything either to his people, and Chaff supposed that if two smart people thought he should keep it a secret, then he would keep it a secret.
It was frustrating, not being able to do anything.
A sudden screech cut across the sky. Chaff flinched again, nearly falling off of the camelopard as Jiralla dived, snatching the dark blot out of the air like it was a piece of low hanging fruit. The bathawk wheeled with a limp form in its claws, feathers shedding from the corpse and fluttering back down to the earth.
Chaff looked around. The rest of them must have been close.
Lookout was, of course, the first to see him. “Chaff! There you are,” she shouted, jogging up the road to him.
“You surprised?” asked Chaff, grinning.
“Pssh, no,” said Lookout. “I knew where you were. I could see the big guy from half a mile away.”
The camelopard held his head up high, as if he was proud of that.
The rest of the group was not far behind, talking and laughing and living. Chaff waved to Sri, who clung to Gopal’s side as they approached, and gave her an encouraging smile.
“Wozek’s up ahead?” said Lookout, hands on her hips. It was more of a statement than a question.
“Yeah, him and the scout-man brusher.”
“Then what are you doing waiting here, you dummy?” Lookout clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s get going.”
“Hup, big guy,” said Chaff, squeezing the big guy’s sides. “Lookout says go, we go.”
The camelopard’s hooves sunk into the soft dirt as they climbed. “What do you see?” asked Chaff, craning his neck. He stood on the camelopard’s back, swaying precariously as he clung by one hand to the big guy’s neck.
“Careful, Chaff, you’re going to fall,” said Lookout.
“I just pick myself up then,” said Chaff. “I can-.” And then the big guy crested the hill, and whatever the boy was going to say faded on his tongue immediately.
It was the second city Chaff had ever seen in his life. On top of that little hill, he saw it all: Kazakhal, spread across the bay. The houses stood on rickety wooden stilts, just feet above the water, while its citizens drifted past on rafts and canoes. It was like an antmole-hill that Chaff had once seen, a complex network of channels and waterways that wove around each other in one huge organic sprawl. Despite the winter chill, marshmen sat shirtless on their porches, feet dangling in the still waters while out further into the bay fishing skiffs and great aquatic beasts prowled.
The whole place smelled like fish and smoke, which set Chaff’s belly rumbling. He jumped off the big guy’s back and dashed down the hill, trying to get closer to the city, but Lookout held out a hand.
“Easy there. Look,” she said. She pointed down the hill, to where Wozek and Prav were talking at the wooden pier that led like a road into the rest of the city. A mudmaker with hoop earrings as large as Chaff’s hands stood before them, arms crossed, leaning on a staff with his leg in a splint. While he talked he kept looking straight at Chaff and Lookout.
“Goodman Wozek,” he said, in a loud voice, meeting Chaff’s eyes. “You and your people are of course welcome to the Maw. But you know our laws. Those two are not kazakhani. They are not allowed here.”
Wozek looked behind him, and beckoned for Chaff to come over. “No need to hide and skulk, boy, just face him.”
Chaff met Lookout’s eyes, and together they edged forward.
“I was wary at first, too, Vizdak, but this boy has proven himself a true friend of Kazakhal,” said Wozek, putting a hand around Chaff’s shoulder. It was oddly tight, and the runner in Chaff wanted to squirm free. He held himself back, meeting the mudmaker’s painted face warily. “The girl, too, I can vouch for.”
“Vouching or no vouching,” said Vizdak, shrugging his bare shoulders. Black and white spirals had been painted along his shoulders, and they flowed into shapes like tongues of flame on his arms and the backs of his hands. “It’s not a matter of what they’ll do, but what we’ll do. You know how it is with foreigners.”
“They’re children,” said Wozek, and Chaff had a moment of déjà vu as he remembered Gopal using the same argument not too long ago. “What harm can they cause?”
“Ask the gargani wild child who broke my leg and sent me moaning off to guard duty.” Vizdak tapped his cane on the dock. “I always say, if they’re old enough to live on their own, they’re old enough to kill on their own.”
“Alright, alright,” said Wozek. “But they’ll be under my watch and my people’s the whole time. Prav here has the sharpest eyes of any man or woman in Kazakhal, don’t you, Prav?”
The brusher didn’t say anything, although his smirk was answer enough. Beside him, Chaff saw Lookout make a face. “You’ll get that title back once I leave Kazakhal, Prav,” she muttered, darkly, under her breath, and Chaff couldn’t help but giggle.
“He’ll catch them before they even have the chance to stir something up. We’re here two days at most. We’re finding a boat, and then we’re leaving, all the way to Oldsea Strait. No fuss, no trouble.”
Vizdak adjusted his stance. He pursed his lips, and looked from Chaff to Lookout to the big guy and Sinndi. “One day,” he said. “And the beasts stay out here, where I can see them, until you leave.”
“Perfectly reasonable,” said Wozek, giving the mudmaker a firm handshake, careful not to smudge his paints. He turned to his brusher. “Prav, go and tell the others. The animals stay here.”
Prav nodded and went jogging back, just like that. “Doesn’t even need a tabula,” muttered Chaff, as Vizdak hobbled aside and let them past.
“You stay, big guy! Relax a little!” Chaff shouted, and the camelopard dipped his head as if nodding, although that might have just been him trying to get Sinndi off of his head. Chaff turned to Wozek as they, with Lookout, walked down the dock. “Why don’t we just shove him away and run by?” he asked, once he was sure the mudmaker guard was out of earshot. “He can’t fight back at all, with that leg, yeah?”
“Only use force when you absolutely have to. Most of the time people just need a little talking to before they see sense,” said Wozek, shaking his head. “Besides, he was a mudmaker. He’d poison you dead before you even thought of running past him.”
Chaff hopped as he walked, listening to the hollow thunk of the wooden boards beneath his feet. “Yeah, OK,” he said. “Why he trying to stop us then? What’s that all about?”
Behind them, Wozek’s people were filing onto the dock, clutching their belongings to their sides and staring around the city with nervous, apprehensive looks. Wozek looked back on them, his eyes scanning over them, before he turned back to Chaff. “You are not one of us. Not kazakhani.”
“What are we then?” asked Chaff.
“Shiralhane. The lonely people.” Wozek pointed towards Gopal and Sri. “Them? They are jhidnai. You are both just…different kinds of people. Kazakhani don’t like different.”
Wozek fell silent, then, and Chaff did too. He stopped hopping on the planks, and the awe he had first felt when he had first seen Kazakhal was being subdued by a growing sense of fear.
The people here had pouting, swollen faces, and stomachs distended by hunger. Their clothes were grimy and tattered. There was no sense of grandeur here, nothing like Shira Hay with its libraries and its fountains and its statues. As Chaff fell behind Wozek and Lookout so that they could all fit on the narrow walkway, he stepped lightly and carefully: he felt like the whole thing might collapse at any moment, as the hut beside him sagged on its stilts. As he passed the open window, a pair of hooded eyes watched him go from deep within the shadows.
This city was barely surviving.
Something cracked underneath him, and Chaff yelped. Before he could fall into the muddy waters, though, Lookout caught his arm.
“I knew you were going to fall,” she said, pulling him up. “Just a matter of when.”
“I get up, don’t I?” said Chaff, brazenly, although his hands were shaking.
“Shouldn’t have been jumping around so much,” said Lookout.
“I wasn’t jumping. Not that time at least.” Chaff walked on, staring at his feet. “Why do they all live here, Lookout?” he asked, finally. “There’s dry land, just over there. It’s better living there, yeah?”
“It’s home,” said Wozek, before Lookout could answer. “It wasn’t always like this. See that, out there?” He pointed to the waters where the fishing boats sailed and the turtlesharks swam. “We call it the Maw of the Deep, and every year it gets a little bigger and a little hungrier. People just…got used to it. Inertia keeps them here. They don’t know what’s good for them.”
“In-er-sha,” repeated Chaff, slowly. “That some kind of monster?”
“Close enough,” said Wozek, and he stopped. “Here, we are.”
This hut was larger than the others. It smelled of cooking fires and alcohol, and next to the entrance of the doors (which, unlike many others Chaff had seen, looked functional), something was scrawled in large, ugly letters.
“What’s that say, Lookout?” he asked.
Lookout squinted. “F…” she began. “Fuck King Ironhide.” She coughed, and looked away.
Wozek crossed his arms. “Like I said,” he growled, darkly. “People don’t know what’s good for them.” He opened the door for Chaff and Lookout. “Sit in the back, please, we don’t want to cause any trouble.”
It was dark and smoky inside. The low buzz of chatter didn’t change as Chaff and Lookout walked in, but they drew glares and odd looks from the tables they passed. “I didn’t realize the philosophers let them in so young,” said a balding, yellow-toothed man. He batted at Chaff’s scarf as he passed, and he shied away. “Plainslords think little kids are smarter than us, eh?”
“Don’t have to be smart,” muttered his drinking partner, eying his mug morosely. “Just got to be willing to stick a knife in an alsval back.”
“Oaf,” snarled Lookout, and she pulled Chaff away.
Chaff felt more on edge than usual. Being among this many people felt like being tossed into a pit full of hungry piranhawolves. “Let’s sit by the window, Lookout,” said Chaff, trying to avoid eye contact with the other patrons.
“Sure, this place is stuffy enough as it is.”
Chaff eyed the rippling waters as he sat on the bench, wet with damp, and twiddled his thumbs. He wasn’t sure what else he was supposed to do in this place, besides wait. “Can you swim, Lookout?”
“It’s not going to come to that,” said Lookout, peering out the little square of light and air. “We’re not going to have to jump into the bay to get away from these people.”
“Yeah, but can you swim?”
“Sure I can,” said Lookout, although her fingers had begun drumming on the table. She looked at Chaff and raised an eyebrow. “You can swim?”
“I don’t remember,” Chaff admitted.
“You don’t remember how to swim?”
“I don’t remember if I can or not.”
Lookout stared at him for a full ten seconds. “That’s comforting,” she said, finally, and slumped with her chin in her palms and her elbows on the table, watching the door. Wozek’s other people were trickling in—sitting, Chaff couldn’t help but notice, on the other end of the room.
“What’s he doing?” Lookout muttered, as Wozek finally came in. The marshman began talking with a man in clothes stained with grease, who seemed to own this little shack. As he did so, people Chaff had never seen before kept shaking Wozek’s hand, giving him little two-fingered salutes, or calling at him from across the room.
“He that important?” whispered Chaff.
Lookout didn’t respond. She was staring intently at him, a rigid expression on her face. “Remember when he was talking to that guy with the earrings?” she said. “How did he put it? We’re finding a boat. We’re leaving in two days.”
“Maybe he wants to come with us,” said Chaff. He smiled at the thought. He rather enjoyed Wozek’s company, even if Wozek didn’t very much seem to like his. The man always had interesting things to say. “Maybe he can help us find her.”
“Maybe,” said Lookout, distractedly. “But…why? He took us this far already. He got his people where they needed to go, and they seem happy enough. What’s his game?”
Chaff didn’t say anything. He didn’t know. Also, he was hungry, and he was wondering if he might be able to steal a bite of salted fish while the man sitting next to them wasn’t looking.
At last, someone acknowledged them, sitting in their corner. It wasn’t Wozek, though.
Gopal sat heavily on the bench on Lookout’s side, while Sri sat next to Chaff. She kept looking over her shoulder, as if she was scared someone might attack them from behind.
“All the foreign folk, shoved into a corner, eh?” said Gopal. Sri gave him a pity laugh, while Chaff stared blankly at him. It took him a few seconds for him to realize Gopal was trying to be funny.
“Well,” said Gopal, clearing his throat. “I guess this is it. Here we part ways. You’ll be off to Moscoleon before the day is out, and we…won’t.”
“You’re staying here?” said Chaff, surprised. He hadn’t expected the two other foreigners in Wozek’s group to spend a second longer than they had to in this crumbling city.
“We’ve spent our fair share of winters here. We’ll be fine.”
Chaff stared at his thumbs for a while, as the talk and chatter continued around him. His belly rumbled. “Meet up one more time before we go?” he said, to Sri. “I gotta say goodbye the proper way.”
Sri ducked her head, and the hair fell around her face. “Okay. We’re not saying goodbye yet. Let’s…let’s share a meal first. The Shira Hay way.”
Chaff nodded, and smiled.
“I’ll go check with Wozek to see if he can get us some food,” Lookout said, rising. She walked away quickly, brushing past Gopal in her haste.
They sat there for a little while, not saying anything, just watching the light play on the water outside. Finally, Sri spoke.
“There’s something I don’t get about you,” said Sri, as they sat there, together. “All this time, we’ve been traveling together…I’ve never once seen you pray. Never once seen you use the Ladies’ names. Never once seen you acknowledge them at all. Why are you going to Moscoleon, if not to find the gods?”
“I’m not going to find the gods,” said Chaff, shrugging. He had thought that was obvious. “What’s gods and kings to me? I’m going to find her.”
“The Jova girl.”
And though the buzz of talk did not stop, there was suddenly a deathly silence.