The thing that bothered Jova the most was the damp. She hadn’t felt properly dry in ages, her clothes constantly stained and dirty with rainwater, seawater, and other more foul things that dripped down from the grate above her.
But the cruelest thing about Jhidnu’s penance cells, Jova realized, was the sound. The music, the festivities, and the merriment aboveground was just loud enough to carry down below, and Jova could but sit and wait and listen to the echoes. Since Dock and Darpah had come, no one had bothered to visit her. Except…
One night, while Jova slept, she awoke to the feeling of hot breath on her face. She held very still as she flexed her stiff fingers, listening to the panting right above her. “Mo?” she whispered, and the weaseldog barked, the sound echoing all throughout the cells.
She sat up, and scratched the back of his head behind his ears, although the chains were stretched taut for her to do so. “How the heck did you get down here?” Jova whispered, to Mo’s happy whines. The cells maintained no real guards—after all, who would pay for them?—but she still didn’t want to risk Mo being found and caught.
The weaseldog just panted, his warm body curled at Jova’s feet.
“Is this where you’ve been hiding?” asked Jova. “How’d you end up in a dump like this, huh, Mo? Why don’t you go home? Why don’t you go back to Ma and Da?”
As always, Mo didn’t answer. Jova didn’t expect him to. She leaned back, stroking his fur as she waited for more time to pass, and after an hour he slipped out from her grasp and trotted away. Then Jova was alone again, listening to the sounds of freedom beyond the bars of her cell.
Jova had strange dreams in that dank darkness. She felt a presence reach out to her, beating at her, beating like waves against the shore at the high cliffs of her very consciousness. She dreamed of the cursed pyramid and the man made of wood and a voice older than the u-ha’s that rasped in a tongue Jova had never heard before.
She lost track of time, in the cells. The sun only barely shone through into her cell, and sometimes at night it got far hotter when someone dropped a torch over her grate or a summer animal stood above her and she had to roll aside to avoid the drifting cinders.
Then, one night, she woke to the sound of the leather boots stepping on the floor and labored breathing. She felt heat on her face, much closer than if an errant torch had been dropped above her, and held up a hand to shield her face from the heat.
“Slave is awake?”
Jova rattled her collar chain as she sat up. “Is it time to go?” she asked.
“Slave is alert.”
She felt rough hands haul her up, and Jova gagged as the collar strained on her neck. “Who are you?” she rasped, struggling to speak around the ring pressing against her throat.
More leather manacles were wrapped around her wrists and ankles, so that Jova was held taut between chains on all sides. She couldn’t move at all. Whoever had spoken to her was working away studiously, from the sounds of it. His breath whistled as if from a tube. It sounded painful.
When he spoke again, his voice was nasally and ragged. “Do you know of Banden Ironhide?”
Jova wasn’t sure what to say. It was as if she had been asked if she knew who the Ladies Four were. “Of course I do,” she said, and with her throat pressed tight against her collar her voice sounded just as raspy. “Everyone does.”
“Hrm. Have you heard of his hounds?”
At this, Jova shook her head. The rusted iron links rattled.
“They say he has three. Candidos, the winter hound, whose bite will kill a man slow.” The man tightened the chains holding Jova’s arms, and she winced as they stretched painfully above her head. “Viridos, the fall hound, whose ears hear the tread of all spies that sneak around our new king.” Suddenly, a leather glove gripped Jova’s chin, and sweat began to break out on Jova’s brow as she felt breath against her cheek. “Aurudos, the summer hound, whose coat burns with his passion.” The fire of his torch came close to Jova’s face, and she could not turn away as her skin tingled, then stung, then burned.
The man pulled the torch away, and Jova gasped with relief. The cool damp of the cells felt suddenly good. “Who are you?” Jova asked again, as her head hung and dirty, unkempt hair fell around her face.
“Banden Ironhide, the king who is not a king, keeps three hounds,” said the man. “Sovar-l’hana does the same.”
Jova shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“Darpah, the simpering pup, helps the master with his business. Dandal, that vicious mutt, he helps the master with his business.” Jova heard a scraping, like something being drawn from a sheath. The sound was too short for it to be a full length sword, more like one of Da’s knives…
Then something was driven into her palm, and Jova screamed. Every chain holding her down rattled as her body jerked and twisted, but Jova was fully immobile. She heard the man’s wheezing breath terribly, terribly close to her ear.
“I, too, help the master with his business.”
Jova felt blood run down her palm, and cried out as the blade or the spike or whatever it had been was removed. She tried to move her fingers, but the pain was so blindingly sharp that she could not even tell if her hand was responding. Jova wouldn’t be able to hold a staff for weeks.
She heard footsteps, as the man moved from one side of her to the other. “No,” she whispered, shaking her head, trying to move away, but she couldn’t. “No, no, please, no…”
“The journey was a long one, I hear,” said Sovar-l’hana’s third dog. “Across the Barren Sands twice, from Moscoleon to Hak Mat Do, from Hak Mat Do to here. You suffered some losses, no doubt. People died. And you, well, you have gone through some suffering yourself, haven’t you?”
The tip of a nail traced lightly across Jova’s sensitive face, and she cringed. The nail painted across her face a line of blood—her blood—that stuck to her skin, and she could not rub it away.
“You think you know pain? The world is still full of horrible things yet, little girl. You don’t know the half of it.”
Jova howled as her other palm was impaled. Her whole forehead was covered in sweat, the pain bouncing like echoes through her body, or maybe that was her screaming, echoing through the underground cells.
“I learned- I’m sorry- I’ll be a good…a good slave…” gasped Jova, sucking in breath even as she held back her screams.
“You’re impudent. Demanding. Righteous. You’re not a slave. Not yet.”
Jova’s whole body tensed as the man, Sovar-l’hana’s nameless hound, held the torch up to her once again. This time, he held it up to one of Jova’s bleeding hands, so close that she could feel her flesh melting, feel it roasting.
The man coughed, hacking phlegm out as he tried to speak. “Where is your tabula?”
“I don’t- I don’t know,” gasped Jova, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Please, if you just stop, I’ll-.”
The burning end of the torch pressed hard against her palm, and Jova didn’t know what she was feeling anymore. A hard hand slapped her cheek as her head rolled, and her ears rang as the man said, “Do you think you are in any position to offer me anything? I stop when I choose to stop. Where is your tabula?”
“It’s- it’s…” Jova gulped, her limbs trembling. “It’s in Moscoleon. I’m a zealot, it’s in a House of Spring, with the pontiff C-Copo.”
The heat left Jova’s one hand for one throbbing second before the other was set ablaze as well. “Where is your tabula?”
“I told you! D-didn’t I tell you?” Jova screamed, her voice high and plaintive. She wasn’t the blind zealot of Moscoleon anymore, she wasn’t any mercenary’s assassin, she wasn’t a devil with no soul. She was just an eleven year-old girl, and she was burning.
“Where is your tabula?”
“In, in, in the jungle, the Moscoleon jungle,” she stuttered, her mind racing. “I l-lost it, when the tribe attacked. I lost it in the fighting, I swear I did, I lost it!”
The torch fell aside, and Jova tensed, waiting. Where would he burn her next? What would Albumere take from her this time?
“I will return in the morning,” said the man, and Jova heard his limping footsteps padding away. He did not untie Jova’s new chains. He did not say anything else as he was leaving. The wounds on Jova’s hands had been burned closed, cauterized by the torch, but that was hardly a comfort to her.
Before he left, though, he did say one other thing.
“I am Chetan,” he said. “Since you asked.”
Jova did not reply. She slumped, her tears drying on her cheeks. That night, she dreamed of nothing but iron spikes and fire.
A bucket of water dumped over her head woke her in the morning, and she felt her stiff limbs fold under her as the chains were unlocked and she fell to the floor. Shivering violently, she curled up for warmth, but someone grabbed her under her armpit and hauled her to her feet. Jova gasped as her dress was wrenched off of her, but her limbs, thin from days of disuse, were too weak to fight back.
She wrapped her arms over her chest and bowed her head, preparing herself for the worst, but rough hands grabbed her forearms and made her hold her palms out. Jova turned away.
Cloth wrapped around her hand, and Jova dared to relax her arm. “The other one,” rasped Chetan, and Jova held out her other hand, while still trying to hide her nakedness as best she could.
She drew breath. “You’re not going to…to…”
“Torture you?” wheezed Chetan. “No, little girl. I just wanted to ask you a question.” Jova felt something wrap around her eyes as another dress was pressed into her hands. She slipped it on once her new blindfold had been tied, though her skin was still wet and cold.
Chetan gripped her very suddenly by the collar. “Inconvenient, though. No tabula. Rush job. This is not the cleanest way to do things, but…” Chetan pulled her in closer. “If you shame Sovar-l’hana with your new master, then, well, back here you come. It will last longer than one night.”
Jova nodded. Her hands throbbed, and she didn’t dare try to push Chetan away. She did, however, summon the courage to ask one question. “New master?”
“You’re being sold,” said Chetan. He coughed, and it seemed to shake his entire body. “Rented, I should say, really. Whoever buys you only has the four years. Look pretty, make it worth it.”
He led her away by her collar, and Jova stumbled behind him. Blind, hands crippled, barely able to walk. Her stomach rumbled. Sitting there in that cell, it had been easy to forget how few the meals were, but now that she was up and walking again the hunger pangs hurt more than even her hands.
She shrunk back from the heat of the sun as they began to walk up the hewn stone stairs leading back aboveground, but Chetan pulled on her collar and she followed after him.
The auction house was not far. Jova could feel its marble steps under her feet, could hear the soft mutter of attendants and the quiet murmur of the buyers within. She had seen them before, years ago: not gaudy like the Jhidnu show houses, but with a subtler sophistication. These were places of business. She hadn’t been allowed in, of course, but the great auction houses of the bay were hard to miss, even from the street. Jova had pretended they were palaces, when she was little.
Chetan took her around the back of the palace. Jova expected it to be rotten and filthy, like the cells beneath the city, but it…well, it wasn’t. It was barren, yes, but clean. Professional. The sliding wood panel in the back slid open almost soundlessly, and inside Jova heard no voices speak, only the shuffling of feet and the scrape of chains. Beyond some curtain or panel, Jova heard Sovar-l’hana’s bark of a laugh.
“Wait,” said Chetan. “You’ll be called.” And he limped away, past the curtain that separated Jova and the livestock from the actual people.
Jova flexed her fingers. The motion made her hands scream out in protest, but she needed to do something besides stand here, mill around, and wait to be handed off to someone who was in the right place at the right time when a richer man died.
Something touched her arm, and Jova flinched. The touch was light, though, gentle, and furtive. “Jova?”
“Alis!” Jova said, and she turned quickly, hiding her hands behind her back. She didn’t want the girl to see her as more of a cripple than she already was.
When Alis spoke again, she sounded hurt. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No, Alis, no, I just…” Jova reached out, putting her hand as lightly as possible on Alis’s shoulder. “You see the bandages on my hands?”
Jova felt Alis’s shoulders move as she nodded. “They’re red.”
Jova withdrew her hand, after that. “They’re…well, they’re like my eyes. They’re hurt and I have to cover them up.”
“Forever?” asked Alis.
“No, not forever,” said Jova, and she smiled for the little girl. “I hope,” she added, as an afterthought.
Jova felt a soft hand grip her wrist, carefully placed just above the wrap on her palm, and for a moment the seething anger inside her left. “Where were you?” Alis asked, and Jova wrapped her arm around the little girl’s head and held her close.
“In a cave for demons,” she said. “Sneaking around, right under your feet.”
“Dandal said you were in the sewers,” said Alis, plaintively.
Jova smirked. “Oh, he was down there, too. He lives there. That’s why he’s so stinky all the time, didn’t you know?”
Alis giggled. “What about-?”
And then she froze. Her hand fell from Jova’s wrist; she didn’t even push Jova’s hand aside as she turned around and began to walk away. Outside, Jova heard the hammer of a gavel as the last slave was sold and the hum of a tabula as the next was brought out.
“Alis!” she hissed, as the little girl stumbled away. “Don’t be afraid.”
The girl did not respond. She just kept marching away, outside, to be sold, and this time Jova could not save her. She couldn’t even save herself.
She turned her head to listen as Sovar-l’hana began the sale of Jova’s last companion. Everyone else had gone. Alis was the only one that Jova had left, and from the sounds of it, she was going to be sold off for a bag of Da’atoa salt.
An anger, white hot inside her, burned from a place in Jova that she did not know existed. Her lip curled in a snarl. Any person on Albumere was worth more than a bag of salt, and here the plutocrats were, trading them around like livestock. It wasn’t right.
But what could she do about it? She had no eyes and, right now, no hands. There was no fighting back.
So when Chetan came to retrieve her, she bowed her head and followed and said not a word. There was murmuring outside, blocked out by the curtain separating the slaves from the buyers. Chetan stood by, waiting and wheezing, coughing as Jova listened.
“A rare and exotic treat from the far south,” said Sovar-l’hana, not quite shouting but not quite quiet either. “I give you the blind zealot of Moscoleon!” Jova stumbled out, Chetan dragged her chain, to utter silence. It wasn’t unexpected. She wasn’t sure how much fanfare she really deserved to receive anyhow.
“She’s a little girl,” said a male voice, disdainful and exasperated.
“Well, if I were trying to get you interested, Ashak-g’hopti, I would have brought a little boy. Ha!” said Sovar-l’hana, and that earned a few chuckles.
“You brought her out on a leash,” said the plutocrat named Ashak-g’hopti, as Chetan let the collar dangle behind her back and limped away. “A leash! Is this some scam?” Jova stood, listening to the sounds echo. It was a big room, with many people in it. Most of them were silent. She and Sovar-l’hana stood on a stage above the rest of them, and if Jova strained her ears she could hear the bought slaves filed in a line in the back.
“I bring it out on a chain because it is not a girl, or a boy, at all. It is something unnatural, something you will only ever have the chance to see but once in your whole lifetime.”
“You lost the cripple’s tabula and you’re trying to push her onto us,” snorted Ashak-g’hopti. “Enough tricks, Sovar-l’hana, show us the real merchandise.”
Sovar-l’hana cleared his throat. “Jova, walk to me.”
For one frozen moment, Jova considered disobeying, but then she heard the sliding sound of a nail being drawn from a leather pouch, and her heart stopped. Was it real? Was it a memory? It didn’t matter, so long as she didn’t face that again. She wouldn’t lose her hands, too.
She clicked her tongue, getting a better feel for the room, before stepping forward towards the plutocrat. She had to avoid the pots and pans laid out on the stage, as well as the foodstuffs in the burlap bags (she smelled peaches from the north) and the sacks of tin coins strewn on the ground. As she walked, she heard a murmur from the crowd, and paused.
“Keep going,” said Sovar-l’hana, and she took a few last steps until she was standing right next to him. Her heart was in her throat. She couldn’t fight him in her condition, but if she unwrapped any of her bandages and choked him, this smug man, this slaver…
“Not a step out of place!” Sovar-l’hana said, as Jova bowed her head and waited. “An exquisite piece! A rare opportunity! And she has been broken, too. Jova, do you recognize your master’s voice?”
“I’ll always remember your voice,” said Jova. She meant it.
“And you will obey any order that voice gives? Ha!”
“Just give me an order.” And see what I do with it.
Ashak-g’hopti spoke. “A carpet from Maaza Parsi, in Shira Hay. You see the weave? A western style, near the Cove. Exquisite.”
“Fish,” said a foreign voice that boomed like thunder. “The biggest spring tuna we have caught in months.”
“A broadsword from Irontower,” said a third voice. “Master’s work, not an apprentice’s.”
“I’m a merchant, not a warrior,” said Sovar-l’hana, chuckling. “Ha! What would I need with a sword, Thun Doshrigaw?”
“Plate armor, then,” said the man from Irontower. “It will be made to fit and sent to you at once.”
A carpet, a fish, a sword. That was what these men thought Jova was worth. Her eyebrows furrowed. Theirs was an evil trade. Only Dal Ak Gan’s life might buy her freedom, but they all deserved to die.
“Armor. Ha! Everyone needs armor,” said Sovar-l’hana. “To Thun, then, unless anyone has anything better.”
There was no answer.
“Mahashma, Thun Doshrigaw. Off you go then, girl,” said Sovar-l’hana, as he scribbled away on his parchment. Someone tugged on her collar chain, although she did not know who. “You’re going to Irontower.”
The night passed, and Jova waited. When the morning came at last, Jova had to remove the blindfold from Mo (she couldn’t just leave it on the weaseldog), and sneak back into the compound. “Why don’t you go home, Mo?” she whispered, as she rubbed the sides of his head and readied herself to go. The animal just panted and whined. “Why don’t you go home?”
The day passed, and Jova obeyed. Rho Hat Pan brought a box of tabula already marked to Sovar-l’hana at his request, and when the slaves were lined up for inspection she did exactly as she was told exactly when she was told to do it. She ate thin gruel with the other slaves, washed Sovar-l’hana’s fine clothes in a wooden tub, and advertised her own auction in the streets.
The night passed. Jova slept through a Jhidnu street fair as she waited, the sizzling of kebabs and Mo’s hungry whines still in her ears the next morning. Tensions had been growing between the Waves, the common folk, and the Winds, the plutocrats, as Banden Ironhide’s war escalated, but that night at least they reveled together as one people. The only ones who seemed concerned about the movements in the west were the Foam, those philosophers and middle-class thinkers, and no one ever listened to the Foam.
The day passed. Sovar-l’hana took to calling Jova “the zealot with no eyes,” and got a hearty chortle or two watching her stumble her way around his quarters before she was dismissed. She found Alis later that day and held her hand as she told the girl about her memories of the colorful fish that swam in the Bay of Jhid, about the saltwater hollows that roamed the sea bed and about the great barges that sailed above them. Jova did not know any baychild games, so they played Summer-Sign-Knock after until the slaves were called back into their quarters. Jova sneaked away just a few minutes later, but she did not find Mo that night.
The night passed. The day passed. Sometimes Mo appeared and sometimes he didn’t, and the time turned to liquid and dribbled past Jova’s hands as she waited and waited for her parents to find her. Had something happened to them? Had Mo somehow been separated from them? Fourteen days and nights passed as Jova waited.
On the fifteenth morning, Jova stirred and stretched. She had spent the night curled in a huddled ball, and she woke with her nose running and a winter chill in her bones. Her limbs ached as she stretched them, and she had to lean on the alley wall as she stood.
Mo hadn’t shown up last night, but Jova had tried to stay awake waiting for him. Judging by the dew now on her arms and face, she had failed.
The city did not rest, even in the dim hours of the morning, but there was a certain drowsiness to it. Jova limped forward, flexing her stiff limbs as she felt her way back. It was not far to the master’s—to Sovar-l’hana’s—compound. She caught herself as she thought it. Sovar-l’hana was not her master. Jova was and would be free.
She paused, as the blood began to flow through her again. She had just woken. Back in Moscoleon, she would have been on her knees, praying to the Ladies, giving thanks for…whatever it was she was to be thankful for.
Jova kept walking. This was not Moscoleon. This was Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, which held but one lady, and her name was Fortune.
As she stepped onto the steps of the compound, her fingers tracing up the chilly marble railing, she heard footsteps approaching. She tensed. Did she have time to hide? The footsteps were coming directly toward her; there was nothing to hide behind. She bowed her head instead, the collar heavy around her neck, hoping against hope that no one would notice a slave on the steps of the compound.
Except this wasn’t no one. Jova could hear his panting from halfway down the passage, and her fingers tightened. She mentally prepared herself for another encounter with Dandal the dog, even as she heard his wheezing breath come closer.
It had taken Jova several days to realize just how plump Dandal was. He was strong to be sure, but there was a fat to him that weeks of hard travel had stripped from Jova and the others. He did a servant’s work, not a soldier’s.
He did this often, Jova had also come to learn. He seemed to enjoy bullying the other slaves. His privileged position as—well, not exactly Sovar-l’hana’s favorite, but close to it—gave him small power and made him feel like a big man. For the most part, Jova let him at it. Bruises healed easily. Grudges did not.
Except the moment Dandal grabbed her, Jova knew this time was different. He kept her at arm’s length and said not a word, keeping all his usual insults and jibes to himself.
“Dandal?” asked Jova, trying not to let her fear betray as she stumbled after him. “Dandal, sir?”
No reply. Jova heard a slave housemaid put a hand on Dandal’s shoulder and stop him in his tracks. “Dandal-jan,” she said, in rustic wave-speak, the strange accent thick on her voice. They said those baymen who spent too long at sea started to talk strangely, the words getting mixed up as the salt got to their heads. “Worried you look. She does do wrong?”
“She’s not a girl at all,” snarled Dandal. “The slaves all knew it, she’s a devil. Get back, Abhay.”
Devil? Jova couldn’t believe such a quick change of heart. The slaves had been at the compound for a fortnight now, with Hag Gar Gan tribesmen eating and drinking in Sovar-l’hana’s guest halls. Surely they had heard the whispers before. What had changed?
She could feel the blood pounding in her fingers as Dandal dragged her along, to the horrified intake of breath from the slave woman. Jova let herself be carried along, and conserved her strength. It was no use to struggle here.
He took her past the gardens, where Jova heard the clip-clip of slaves pruning the hedges, and past Sovar-l’hana’s office, the open aired chamber where he had met Dal Ak Gan and Dock (a meeting whose resolution Jova had not dared to ask for). Dandal dragged Jova past the slave quarters, where she and Alis slept, past the guest quarters, where the tribesmen had spent an uneasy two weeks, and finally up to the master’s own private quarters.
The door opened and Dandal threw her inside, standing in the doorway as she struggled to her feet.
It was colder than she had expected in Sovar-l’hana’s bedroom. Jova heard the rustle of a very thick piece of cloth to her side, the same place where a wall should have been. A curtain of some kind, pulled to the side?
Shivering, still sore from her sleep, she listened closely. Sovar-l’hana must have been up and awake; she could hear the telltale scratch of his quill and parchment in the corner of the room. A low breeze snaked into the room through the open wall, and carried with it sounds of the city stirring.
Jova waited, her mouth dry, as Sovar-l’hana wrote.
Finally, with the soft crinkle of paper, Sovar-l’hana finished. “Fetch, dog!” said Sovar-l’hana, barking a laugh as Dandal walked around Jova to pick up the piece of paper. Her muscles tensed. Was it time to run? No, not yet. “Have Gorram ride it up north, before the snows set in.”
“Snows have already set in, master,” said Dandal, taking the paper.
“Ha! Then before they get worse, you hear? Get going, shoo! This letter’s more important than your head.”
Dandal hesitated. “Should I leave you with…this?”
“Your loyalty is truly touching, Dandal, but when I give you an order you obey it,” said Sovar-l’hana, and the jovial undertone to his voice had been replaced by something altogether darker.
The dog left without another word.
“Oh, get up off the floor, girl,” snapped Sovar-l’hana, once Dandal had left. Like a cloud on a sunny day, his bad mood had passed quickly and without comment. “You’re not old enough to be on your knees in a master’s bedchambers, ha!”
Jova stood, brushing off her cotton slave dress, keenly aware of the weight of the leather collar on her neck. The chain dangled off to nowhere, but she could feel its pull either way.
“Pour us some tea, then, blind little zealot,” said Sovar-l’hana, sitting heavily back at his desk as he rolled another sheet of parchment out from under his paperweight. “Go on, with your fancy seeing eye trick. Pour some tea.”
Even as Jova set to work, her mind was buzzing. The plutocrat had not dragged her here just for the pouring of tea. He had enough personal assistants, for that. And what was that, Dandal had said? She was a devil. He was scared to leave her alone with his master. What had they learned?
Jova sniffed, as her feeling hands found the teapot. There was an odd smell coming from somewhere, outside the open wall. Probably just another street cook.
“How obedient. How utterly obedient,” said Sovar-l’hana, as Jova brought a trembling cup to his side. Both the cup and the plate were smooth porcelain, and Jova could not imagine how fantastically expensive they must have been. “You know, I never liked routines. Schedules. Hrm. Give a man wood and nails and he’ll box himself in, ha!”
The girl waited patiently, standing at attendance.
“I’ve got some rituals, though.” The chair creaked as Sovar-l’hana leaned into it. “I told the masons, when they made this place for me, I told them I don’t want walls. Let me see the sea in the morning. Let me see the sea when I work. Let me see it.”
“A noble request, master,” said Jova, quietly.
“Ha! Noble! If I wanted a balcony so I could piss into the street you’d call it noble,” said Sovar-l’hana, rising. “But I do see this city, its high tides and low tides, its ebb and flow. I keep my finger on its pulse, and sure enough it tells me: war or peace? A buyer’s market or a seller’s? Who’s the talk of the town tonight?”
Jova stood still as Sovar-l’hana paced.
“And this morning, I see…you.”
The pacing stopped, just as Jova began to shift her stance. If she had to make a run for it, she would. Sovar-l’hana was no fighter.
“Imagine my surprise when I see my little blind zealot sleeping in the street like a common beggar!” He clapped Jova on the back, and Jova could not help but flinch. “I think, why is she doing this? Just because she can’t see her collar doesn’t mean they can’t, ha! This puzzles me for a long time, girl. I don’t know what to think. I decide to bring you here, and ask you for myself.”
The plutocrat gave Jova a push, and she stumbled onto the balcony, where the odd smell was getting stronger. Jova heard the buzzing of flies.
“That you, girl?” said the master, his tone harsh. “With the funny old snout and the big teeth?”
Jova’s stomach roiled as she reached out and felt the limp snout under her hands, as the pigwolf lay rotting in the sun. She felt the blood still hot from the hole in his gut, and could not help but remember Izca choking as an arrow pierced his heart, begging for his mama. “Oh, Fang…” she whispered, her fingers and hands shaking.
“Fang, is it? Not Jova?” Something tugged at Jova’s dress, and suddenly lights flashed in her head as she was pressed, hard, against the balcony railing. She squirmed her way out of Sovar-l’hana’s grip, gasping, but she had nowhere left to run. “I was so angry, you see, girl. I thought I had been cheated. Dal Ak Gan was a good friend, my trusted friend, and he gives me a box of pig and sheep and calls them man. What does he plan to do, steal them all back after the sale? Ridiculous, ridiculous, just ridiculous.”
Sovar-l’hana took a step forward, and Jova took a step back.
“But, of course, the other tabula work. They work just fine. And I remember what they say about you, about the girl with no eyes and no soul,” he said. “I remember how obedient you are. How utterly obedient. Too obedient. Never fought back at all.”
Jova felt the stone rails against her back, and knew there was nowhere left to go. She was cornered and unarmed. She couldn’t think her way out of this one.
“You’re my property,” said Sovar-l’hana. “I don’t kill my property, I sell it. Tell me, girl. Be obedient one more time. Where is it? Where do you hide it?”
Jova said not a word. Sovar-l’hana was wrong. There was fight left in her yet.
The master straightened. Jova could feel his shadow growing over her. “If you’re going to be difficult, then you should know, devil, that there are more ways to break a slave than one. The Hag Gar Gan gave you too much freedom. I will not make that same mistake.”
If there was a time to run, now was it. Jova launched herself forward, tackling the now upright Sovar-l’hana, hitting him in the knees. He crumpled as she slammed her full body weight at him, and she had to struggle over his flailing arms to get away and start running. Click, click, click. The door was to her left, and down the hall freedom waited.
“Chetan! Krish!” shouted the plutocrat, and Jova heard the hum of tabula-work. She had barely a second to react before, out of nowhere, something hissed and wrapped rustling scales around Jova’s neck. Feathery feelers swept across her face as sharp fangs bit into her shoulder.
Immediately, Jova felt her body go numb. The next step she took she collapsed, as whatever was around her neck flapped away. Jova jerked violently, her body refusing to obey her brain. A little foam rose in her mouth as she struggled to breathe, but she was choking on nothing, on the poison, on the emptiness inside her. She couldn’t feel her right arm or her right leg or her right side anymore, and the numbness was spreading. Soon all of her would dissolve away and join her eyes in whatever box the Ladies kept the pieces of her body, and Jova would truly be nothing.
She felt rough hands drag her away before she slipped into unconsciousness.
Jova dreamed of the sea. It rose up to meet her, its face blocky and somber, water streaming out of hewn jade grates where its mouth should have been. It cradled her, holding her close, and her heart beat fast as it moaned with a kind of hungry desperation. It held her so tightly that she thought it might smother her whole, and she felt her throat seizing, choking.
She woke up gasping, clawing at the collar around her neck. She tried to stand, and the collar caught. With a rattle of chains, Jova fell back down, groggily trying to get her bearings.
“Oh! Oh, Ladies, she’s awake,” muttered a familiar voice. A good few feet away, Darpah scuffed his shoes on the stone—it sounded like stone, at least—floor. “You’re awake.”
Jova lay on her back, breathing slowly, listening to what was around her. Wherever she was, the sounds echoed, bouncing down a long hallway into what sounded like a hundred different rooms. Water dripped from the ceiling into little puddles on the floor, which explained why Jova felt so damp and filthy. Above her, she heard…wagon wheels rattling and street vendors shouting, the sounds of Jhidnu awoken.
“I’m underground?” asked Jova, and her voice was raspy and dry.
“Er, yes,” said Darpah. “Yes, you are.”
Jova tugged on the chain at the end of her slave collar. No longer was it just for show; now it was fixed to some point on the wall, and it was a short chain indeed. Jova put her hands on her stomach and laid down in the damp and the muck. Her blindfold was gone, and she flinched whenever a drop hit her face. “Am I going to die?” she asked, finally.
Darpah spluttered and stammered and couldn’t seem to get a word out in-between. Jova waited. It wasn’t as if she had anywhere to go.
“You’re- well, you- master still intends to sell you,” Darpah said, at last. The rest of the dungeons or the cells or wherever Jova was were silent but for Darpah’s coughing. “You’ve been bad. Oh, Jova, you’ve been bad.”
Jova did her best to smile, although she heard Darpah flinch when she raised her head, her eyes unhidden. “Sorry if I caused you any trouble.”
“You’ve been bad, you’ve done wrong, I shouldn’t be talking to you…”
“What is this place?” asked Jova, talking over Darpah’s mumbling.
“The penance cells, under the streets. It’s to- well, what it’s supposed to do is- when everyone is walking above you, it reminds you how…low you are. All the plutocrats use them. The master uses them quite a lot.” Darpah fell silent. Jova did not press further, but he kept talking after a pause anyway. “It’s where slaves go if they’ve done wrong. Where bad slaves go. I’m not a bad slave, I shouldn’t be here…”
“Did Sovar-l’hana send you here?”
“Oh, no! No, no, no. Ladies, no. He doesn’t- he’s not aware.” Darpah shook his head, biting his lip. “It’s public, you see. The idea is that you don’t- that, well, your privacy- sometimes the wild children come down to mock you. But they won’t harm you! They’re not allowed to touch you! But sometimes they do throw, well, things…”
Jova let him ramble on, until finally Darpah said, “It’s just, well, they wanted to see. And I couldn’t say no, but I had to check that you wouldn’t shout or scream or anything, and I must make sure they don’t do anything to master’s property, so, erm…”
Jova sat as straight as she could. “Who wanted to see?”
“You can come in now, madam, just- just, oh, be careful, please…”
“Not a madam,” said the woman, as she approached. She wasn’t alone. Her footsteps were powerful and strong, and her voice was low and husky. Jova shook her head to clear her still ringing ears. She felt like her whole body was humming with anticipation.
“Ma?” she asked.
“Never married neither,” said the woman, and Jova’s heart sank as she recognized the voice. Her days of waiting, it seemed, still were not over. Perhaps Ma would never come.
Dock the mercenary squatted on the ground, and didn’t say anything for a long time. Jova got the sense that she was being looked over. “Blind Jova. The girl with no tabula.”
“You know?” said Jova, before she could stop herself.
“Everybody this side of the bay knows,” snorted Dock. “That’s his angle. You’re a freak show, ain’t you? It got the circus masters listening. Got the plutocrats listening. Got the other freaks listening.”
“What do you want?” asked Jova. She couldn’t keep the suspicion out of her voice.
Dock didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, she said, “You. Slave man. Leave.”
Jova almost laughed at the courage Darpah managed to summon in his reedy little voice. “I can’t leave you with the master’s slave. I don’t know what you’re going to do to her and I can’t risk-.”
“Fine. Shut up,” said Dock. “Hey, Smarty. Memorize his face.”
By way of answer, the man named Smarty grunted.
“If he says anything, kill him. If I die, kill him.”
Smarty grunted, and Darpah whimpered.
Dock adjusted herself, and drew a little closer to Jova. “Answer me true. You the one that killed that sandman bitch in the desert?”
It was Jova’s turn to keep silent. The water dripped down the sides of the grating above as Dock waited. Jova considered lying, but what did she have to gain from the silence? Her most grievous crime, the one she had escaped persecution for all her life, was already well known. Jova gave an almost imperceptible nod.
“Good. You ready to kill another one?”
Jova nodded again. There was less of a pause, this time.
“Way I see it, girl, I put a knife in your hand, nobody’s gon’ grab your tabula and make you put it down. You got the opportunity. You got the in.”
“They’re never going to take these chains off me, now,” said Jova, her voice hoarse.
“Did I say it’d be easy?” snapped Dock. “I’d do it myself, but he’s turned that fucking mansion into his own summer-burnt fortress. You do this, you never worry about chains again. You hear what I’m saying? Give me Dal Ak Gan’s life, and I give you your freedom.”
There was a faint voice of protest in the back of Jova’s head. This is wrong, it said. This is evil. But it had been a long time since Jova had listened to that voice. This was an evil place, with evil people. She could not sit and wait for her parents to rescue her any longer, wherever they were, for whatever reason they had abandoned her.
But there was one thing she would not give up.
“Another slave. A girl named Alis. She goes free, too.”
“That’ll be harder,” said Dock. She didn’t go into details as to why. She didn’t need to.
“She goes,” Jova repeated. She turned her face directly towards Dock, her expression set, and although her ruined eyes saw nothing she heard Dock draw back.
“The girl goes,” repeated Dock, and Jova let her shoulders slump. The mercenary stood up. “Talk details later. Can’t spend too long here.”
“Wait,” said Jova, and she raised her hand. It was not chained, but Jova couldn’t stand all the way without pulling her collar taut. “Mahashma?”
Jova heard Dock smirk. Her hand, rough and calloused, pockmarked with scars, closed around Jova’s. “Mahashma.”
And then Dock left, taking Darpah and the rest of her mercenaries with her. The rest of her mercenaries, that was, but for one. Jova slumped against the wall, listening to the dripping of the cells and the footsteps overhead, wondering how many men she would have to kill before she could be free.
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.
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.”
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.
Janwye began to shout out, but Roan covered her mouth quickly, muffling the sound. Jova tensed, and her hand gripped Alis’s so tight she worried she might hurt the girl, but she did not dare emerge from her hiding place and speak out.
A low whispering came from where Janwye and Roan were speaking, so soft that not even Jova could hear.
Her knuckles loosened slowly, and Jova just realized that she had been breathing heavily. Her brow furrowed. What had happened between her and Roan? Before, Roan had been like another parent to her, someone she could always rely on to protect and guide her. Now…now she was scared of him.
The pit in Jova’s chest seemed to open a little wider. How had things gone so wrong?
“What are you doing?” hissed Janwye. She was trying to keep her voice down, Jova could tell, but her temper was flaring, too. “If the Hag Gar Gan are coming, I have to go back and warn lady Bechde! The rest of the group! We must arm ourselves!”
“Remember yourself, Janwye,” said Roan. “Remember why we are here.”
“I am here to save my people! I am here to prevent the deaths of those I care for!” shouted Janwye. “You are here because you could not control your apprentice and let the girl kill a man when you pushed her too far!”
A cold rush ran over Jova’s skin, and a sick wave of nausea began to build in her stomach.
“Let the dead rest,” said Roan, and he sounded more tired than offended. “Janwye, please. Let the dead rest.”
“Only after they have died, Roan,” snarled Janwye. “And my people are not dead yet.” There was silence. The jungle air pressed in around them, hot and humid and stifling. “I’m going, Roan,” said Janwye. “Just try and stop me.”
Jova heard Stel take a single step, and Roan beginning to speak, when there was a sudden, heavy impact. Janwye let out a choked yell—a frustrated, angry sound—and then Jova heard her storm off, her boots thudding heavily on the ground.
Stel was padding around the jungle floor, her hooves kicking up leaf litter, as Jova heard something scrape across the undergrowth.
“He’s on the ground,” said Alis. “How’s he going to get back up?”
Jova raised her head. She heard Roan’s soft grunt, another impact on the ground, his tired sigh. “Come on, Alis,” she said, tugging on the little girl’s hand. “He’s one of my friends. Let’s go talk to him.”
Jova could feel the mid-morning sun starting to creep through the canopy as she trudged hesitantly across the path to Roan’s side. Alis followed close behind her, although her steps too were hesitant and uncertain.
“Do you need help, Roan?” asked Jova, after his customary silence.
“I am not thinking so,” said Roan, as he grunted again. Stel snorted and Jova heard her hooves trot, and then Roan fell back onto the ground again. It sounded like he was trying to lift himself up.
“You’re on the ground,” said Jova, pointedly.
Roan sniffed. “The truth, I admit. Another truth, then, I must be saying, is that a blind girl cannot be helping me now. It is very hard, what must be done.”
Jova was not about to contradict him, and so stood waiting with Alis, as Roan grunted and sweated and heaved himself up onto Stel’s back. It took him several minutes, long minutes of silence and waiting that only served to make Jova’s pounding heart beat faster, but when he was done he seemed to be in full control of Stel again.
“You should let her take a break,” said Jova, reproachfully. “You ride her too hard. All the time, every day. Let her rest for once.”
“I am lending her my strength, and she is lending me hers. She will be fine. She has been fine.”
“Even when she has to run? To escape?”
She waited for Roan to finish thinking, for all the pieces to fall into place in his head. “How much did you hear, Jova?” he asked.
Jova did not give a real answer. “When were you going to tell me?” she retorted.
“Sooner than you are thinking,” said Roan. There was a weariness to his voice, a resigned sadness and fatigue. “You should be going too, Jova. Find the animals, and hide somewhere far from here, before it begins.”
He did not sound nearly as urgent as he had when he was talking to Janwye. Jova scratched her chest. “Where do I hide?” she asked.
Roan didn’t say anything. He wasn’t moving, either.
“Where do I hide, Roan?” Jova repeated. “I left Jhidnu to hide in Temple Moscoleon. I left Temple Moscoleon to hide among the fieldmen of Alswell. Now I am leaving the fieldmen of Alswell to hide somewhere else. Where do I hide, Roan?”
“Ladies guide you, you will find a place.” Stel stamped her hooves on the ground, as Roan began to move away. “I must be finding Janwye, now. Be safe, Jova.”
“Roan, you promised-.” Jova began, but he was already gone. She stood, alone, holding a lost girl’s hand and listening to the murmur of the jungle.
It was now of all times that she wondered where Ma and Da were. How had Zain explained it to them? Were they worrying for her, even now? Wouldn’t it have just been better for them to come with her? Now more than ever, she felt angry at Roan for tearing her away from her family so suddenly.
She wasn’t angry that Roan had never told her all the secrets he had promised to tell, that he had never let her into whatever clandestine society he served. She was just angry that he had left her. He had promised to care for her, to protect her, to watch out for her, and even if he was doing that, it didn’t feel like it. It felt like Jova had been left to fend for herself.
For the first time in what must have been her whole life, Jova had no one to care for her.
She felt the grip on her hand tighten. Jova braced herself. She had someone to care for herself, now. People to watch out for. Responsibilities to shoulder. She did not have the leisure to sit by herself and mope.
Jova raised her head and listened. She needed to find the animals, but she had no idea if Roan had brought them with him or if they had been left back in the camp.
“Lady Fall give me clarity,” she muttered, spinning around, as if that would help. She could feel Alis stumbling beside her. “Where, oh where, does Roan want me to go?”
The pressing sense of urgency had left with Janwye; now Jova felt only an oppressive unease and foreboding, a tingling in her gut she could not shake. Her stomach clenched even tighter when she heard a strangled sob beside her.
“Alis?” she asked, and she felt the little girl’s shoulders shake. “Alis, please don’t cry.”
“I want to go,” said Alis, quietly, in-between sobs. “I want to go, I want to go, I want to go.”
“Come on, then,” said Jova, pulling the girl along as gently as she could. “We’ll go, see? We’re going. We’re going.”
Jova walked into the undergrowth, going as she promised she would, but not knowing where. She held Alis’s shoulders and smiled as wide as she could. “Smile with me, Alis,” Jova said. “Go on, it’ll make you feel better.”
Alis did not reply.
“Are you smiling, Alis? I can’t tell if you are, but you must,” said Jova. Keep smiling. Pretend long enough and it might become real.
“Mm-hmm,” Alis said, although it sounded like she was lying.
Jova wasn’t sure what else to say. She wished Ma or Da was there, or even Mo. They always knew how to cheer her up. Jova gave Alis a quick hug, feeling the warmth of the little girl’s body against her, and patted her on the shoulder.
As they walked, Jova clicked her tongue. She didn’t want to walk headlong into a tree or something silly like that, and besides that she needed some way of finding Roan’s animals. Uten wasn’t exactly the most vocal of companions.
When the sound bounced back, Jova froze. It was like there was a line of rocks in the foliage, but as Jova clicked her tongue again, she realized with a shudder down her spine that rocks didn’t move.
If she concentrated hard, she could pick out the sound of whispering from the undergrowth.
“Alis,” she said, very slowly and very softly. “Turn around. Don’t say anything. And don’t…don’t look scared, OK?”
Alis didn’t say anything. Jova did not know what Alis looked like, though.
As she listened closer, Jova began to make out the whispers, although it did her little good. They spoke in Roan’s foreign tongue—the imperial tongue, the language of Hak Mat Do—and Jova could not understand a word. Once or twice she heard snippets that she could understand, in voices very different from the guttural growls of the sandmen, but she was so nervous she could not process what they were saying.
Jova clicked her tongue one more time. If the slavers were lying in ambush, she did not want to alert them as to her knowledge of their presence; if she was fast, she could get away in time. But she had to know where the enemies were, and what they were doing.
The Hag Gar Gan sandmen had not moved. They were still and silent now, so still that Jova might have once again mistaken them for stones or logs if she did not know better.
“Walk faster,” she muttered to Alis, and they sped up their pace. If they could make it back to the camp in time, amid the safety of grown-olds and alsknights and zealots, then there was a chance…
Something snapped behind her. A dry leaf, an old twig, it did not matter. Before Jova could help herself, she turned her head to listen.
“Ilo ya gek! Zat! Zat! Zat! She is knowing!” The underbrush around Jova exploded with activity, and Jova stumbled over her feet as she fell into a sprint.
“Run, Alis, run!” Jova shouted, but she could barely keep pace herself with the little girl without fear of tripping and sprawling over a root or a bush. She stumbled her way through the foliage blindly, hands groping at the air as she tried to get away.
The voices were still shouting. “Dep Sag Ko, La Ah Abi! Rally the mercenaries, the attack is starting!” More voices carried from further down in the jungle. “One of them knew! That fieldwoman knew! Attack now!”
Alis began to wail, her little legs incapable of keeping up the headlong sprint, and Jova collapsed, chest heaving from the zigzagging path she had taken through the jungle. She crawled forward, struggling weakly to get back up on her feet.
And then a whip snapped above her head.
Alis screamed, but before Jova could rise to help her, a searing line of pain blazed across her back. Jova gasped, her body tensing, as the barbs on the whip ripped out of her skin, and she felt hot blood oozing down her back.
She heard the crack of the whip snapping over her head and rolled to get out of the way, leaf litter and mulch clinging to her wounds as she tumbled over the forest floor.
Jova felt panic rising within her, the same panic that she had felt in the house of Copo, the same panic that had caused her to beat into the man’s face over and over and over, and Jova felt so wretched that she thought she might be sick if she wasn’t already scared witless.
And then the Hag Gar Gan man above her choked and gurgled, and something fell heavily to the ground. “By the light of the Lady Summer!” shouted a familiar voice. “You! Will! DIE!”
The horror of what had just happened was only matched by an overwhelming sense of relief. That man is dead, Jova thought, breathing heavily. Dead. I shouldn’t feel happy. But it was either him or me. Him or me.
“Fang! Hold the others back!” shouted the zealot, and Jova heard the pigwolf pawing at the ground, snorting and snarling.
Gentle hands turned her over, and Jova cried out as the zealot tried to wipe the dirt from the wounds on her back.
“It hurts, Izca,” Jova muttered, doing her best to sit upright, but every time her back moved it flared with pain. “Where’s Alis? Is she alright?”
“She’s fine,” said Izca. “You, on the other hand…”
Jova cried out as something was wrapped tight around her back and chest.
“I’m sorry, I’m being rough,” said Izca, hurriedly. “But I have to get you patched up quickly so we can get out of here soon.”
“What’s- what are- augh!” Jova grit her teeth as Izca continued to bind her wounds.
“These are the bandages of the zealots,” said Izca, misinterpreting her question. “We all wear them, as a symbol of- well, there’s a long story behind them, but we really don’t have time for that now.”
Jova’s head spun as she rose, but Izca’s steadying arm held her up. “Come on, up we get, that’s it. You, too, little one. I’ll get you out of here.”
The sounds of fighting were breaking out all around them. Shouts and screams rang through the forest, and Jova shuddered at the sounds of nets and whips and cages. She shut it out and kept walking. Them or me, Jova thought. This is the real world. It’s either them or me.
But am I worth it?
“There’s a barricade back at the camp,” said Izca, leading them along. “Don’t worry. I know you’re tired, but we just need to get a little further. Keep up, Fang! We’ve got to watch out for our little ladies.”
Jova would have laughed if she had the strength for it. Even when she wasn’t trying to think about it, the past found ways to keep up with her.
“Izca, where’s Janwye? Where’s Roan?” Jova asked. The pain was receding to a dull throb in the back of her head now. If she concentrated on something else, it wasn’t so bad.
Izca drew breath to speak, but no speech came out. His breath was cut short so abruptly and so suddenly that Jova did not realize what had happened until Izca tumbled to the ground.
The second and third arrows zipped through the air and from the sound of the impact hit Izca squarely in the back.
“Izca!” shouted Jova, trying to turn the man over, get his face out of the ground. The shafts of the arrows in his back snapped as Jova began to turn him, and Jova paused, her heart beating in her throat. What if she forced the arrows deeper into his body when she turned him over? What if she needed to keep the wound facing up to keep the blood from flowing out? She couldn’t just leave him with his face in the dirt, though! She had to move him.
She dragged Izca on his side, but the man was too heavy for Jova to move more than a few inches. He began to shudder and shake, and when he tried to speak a sick gargling noise came out.
“It’s going to be OK, Izca,” Jova said, reaching for the bandages around her own chest, which were already slick and stained with blood. She winced as she began to peel them away. They had never been hers in the first place.
Izca made no move to stop her, but he made no move to do anything else, either. “Ladies…” he muttered, his voice oddly infantile. He could barely speak, his whole body shuddering as Jova tried to put pressure on his wounds. “Ladies, no…please…mama, mama…”
What mama? Jova thought, bitterly. To her knowledge, she was the only one who had ever had a mama in all of Albumere.
Fang whined as the bond between animal and owner was severed, although Jova heard no tabula crack. It must be in some pontiff’s house somewhere, with the little hole drilled through it to mark his service to the Ladies Four. Where were those Ladies now? She let her hands fall to her sides, slick and hot with blood, and bowed her head.
Izca died without last words. Jova did not know how to save him.
“Alis, get away,” she said, rising unsteadily to her feet. Izca’s spear, the one he had used to kill Jova’s attacker, had fallen out of his hands. Jova picked it up and braced herself. There was no running anymore. She could only hope that whoever had fired those arrows didn’t have any left.
She turned her back, keeping her ears pricked. Even with the screams and shouts, Jova could hear the footsteps coming up behind her, trying to sneak up on her. Every step was like a drum beat to Jova, impossibly loud, and every beat of her own heart likewise. She was aware of every part of her body except the parts that hurt the most.
Perhaps that was the point.
Jova shed no tears as she stepped over Izca’s corpse, her heart hard and numb. She had barely known him. He was not important to her.
Her fingers tightened on his spear, even as the little voice in the back of her head whispered, “Lie.”
“Alis,” she said, to the little girl, as she heard the man get closer. “I said, get away!”
At that moment, Jova twisted and lunged, catching the slaver just as he was about to toss his net over the two of them. Soft footsteps Jova could only hope were Alis’s faded away, and Jova turned towards the man. There was something cathartic about putting all of her focus into one thing.
The man snarled, swearing in that savage tongue as Jova stepped on the net that had fallen out of his hands and swept it away. Jova heard acutely the sharp metal scrape of a weapon being drawn, and readied herself.
At the sound of the first step, Jova twisted, cutting a shallow wound in the man’s side but failing to pierce flesh. His weapon’s reach was short: it was a dagger or knife of some sort, and he seemed intent on closing the distance between them. Jova couldn’t let that happen.
She stabbed forward, trying to push the man back, but he was nimble and sidestepped her easily. Her spear became an impromptu staff as she beat at his shoulders and arms, just barely staying out of reach of the blade slicing through the air.
It was too little. She was not strong enough to keep a fully grown man at bay. Jova found her arms growing weaker and weaker as the pain on her back grew and grew. One blind swing later, and the man had grabbed her spear and tossed it contemptuously aside.
Jova breathed deeply, hoping only that Alis had gotten away, that Ma and Da would not grieve her long.
And then Fang, Izca’s pet, Izca’s cowardly, bumbling pet, slammed into the man’s side and began to show just how much of a wolf he was. The murderer’s screams were drowned out by Fang’s baying and howling, and Jova heard approaching shouts and yells as other people were drawn by the sound.
Jova crawled forward, and after patting down Izca’s body she found Fang’s tabula. She slipped it in her pocket, right next to Alis’s. Jova was about to crawl away, when she stopped. Before she left him, Jova held Izca’s hand tightly. “Lady Winter come quickly,” she muttered, her voice breaking. “He served you as faithfully as any.”
Jova made no move to pick up Izca’s spear again. Arms shaking, legs weak, she sat and waited for whoever was coming to come, not knowing whose side they were on or what they were going to do to her.
She was alive, but she was tired. And she could fight back no longer.
The shouts to raise arms faded quickly. Jova tensed, an electric buzz in her arms. It wasn’t as if the conflict had been violent and brutal and ended quickly; the conflict hadn’t happened yet. An eerie silence hung over their corner of the jungle, and the thick foliage around them seemed to muffle the interference of the outside world.
Jova’s hands tightened around the wooden pole, and she edged towards the wagon entrance, keeping one hand to the floor to make sure she didn’t accidentally fall out.
“We are merely passing through!” shouted a voice from outside, one unfamiliar to Jova. His accent was neither that of a templeman nor of a fieldman; it could have been a mountainman’s, but Jova couldn’t be sure. “We mean no harm!”
“Prove it,” came Janwye’s angry growl.
“Janwye, you are being rash,” said Bechde’s voice, soft but close. “Lay down your arms.”
“Only if they lay down their weapons first.”
Quietly, Jova slipped out from the wagon tarp, turning back and putting her finger to her lips for just a second before sliding out. She hoped Alis understood. More than that, Jova hoped it was the right advice. The cautious plan was to stay still and quiet, but perhaps Alis was safer if she went to find help, or found something to defend herself with…
Jova shook her head. The girl was four years old. The idea that she would even stand a chance if things got violent was ludicrous. It was Jova’s responsibility to protect her, and Jova’s alone.
“You understand if we hesitate,” said the perhaps-mountainman. “We are weak from travel and you outnumber us five to one. We have cause to fear, not you.”
“Words from a snake,” hissed Janwye. Jova heard venom in her voice, thought, not in the stranger’s. What had these people done that had angered her so?
“Janwye!” shouted Bechde, aghast. “You forget yourself!”
“I am a free woman, now, Bechde,” said Janwye, and she sounded so angry that for a moment even Jova was afraid. “You cannot command me as you once did.”
Jova heard a sharp intake of breath, and then she heard Bechde’s deadly whisper, “Free you may be, Janwye, but this is still my caravan. My envoy. My people! You will lay down your weapon, or I will teach you the consequences of freedom.”
A pause, and then Jova heard the clatter of a lance thrown onto the ground. The girl relaxed, straightening, although she did not let go of her own weapon.
“Quele! Cropper!” Bechde shouted, raising her voice again. “Tell the men to put their weapons down, there is no cause for worry.” To the strangers, she said, “My apologies. I don’t know what caused my friend such a conniption, but please, let us amend ourselves to you. Something to eat? Drink perhaps?”
“No, Bechde!” shouted Janwye, angry again. “I draw the line here! Leave them alone, fine, but we shall not waste one second wining and dining them when we have places to be, friends to watch out for.”
“Your temper is still quick, Janwye,” said Bechde. “Has the Lady Summer touched your tabula? What could they have possibly done to offend you?”
“They lie,” was all Janwye said, and she stomped away, her boots thudding heavily on the jungle floor.
There followed a helpless silence, and then the man said, “We just told her that we were from the Seat. The draft’s come again, and Banden’s men have come kicking down doors and taking our tabula. We, all of us, traveled to get away from that. Nobody wants to fight a war in Alswell-.”
“War? In Alswell?” And suddenly Bechde’s voice was tense, too. “There is no war in Alswell.”
“There is now, friend,” said the refugee, hoarsely. “The plainsmen turned. A survivor from Shira Hay, he came back, he told us all—the duarchs slaughtered every fieldman in the city. Now they’ve marched on the fields, pillaging and burning and Ladies know what else. I didn’t think they had it in them.”
Bechde didn’t say anything for quite some time. Then, she said, very softly, “Find the woman alsknight named Quele. She’ll get food, water, anything you need. Thank you for the news.”
“You’re all from- oh, Ladies, I didn’t realize. I’m sorry! I’m sure everything…” The man trailed off into silence as Bechde walked away.
There was a little laughter left in the lady’s voice as she came back to the wagon. “Our little protector,” she said, patting Jova on the head. “Thank you for keeping us safe, Jova. We’ll get you a proper weapon soon. You’ll need- you’ll want it, I’m sure.” And she plucked the wooden staff from Jova’s hand.
“Proper weapon?” echoed Jova. “What was I holding?”
“In Alswell, we call these parasols. They’re for keeping the sun off your face, but I’m sure you could have skewered a bandit or two with it,” said Bechde. Jova recognized the exhaustion in her voice, the attempted mirth: it was the sound of someone who was doing her best to smile when inside she was breaking.
“Bechde,” said Jova, slowly. She rubbed her shoulder, trying to find the right words to say. “It’s OK to be sad.”
Bechde choked back a sob, and Jova heard her sit heavily on the edge of the wagon. Jova sat next to her, and put a hand on hers. She didn’t say anything. There was nothing for her to say.
There was movement from behind her, and Jova said, “It’s OK, Alis. You can come out now.”
And the three of them sat together, each nursing their own little wounds. Jova held each of their hands, and took a deep breath. What was there to say, that could heal the cuts and bruises that no hand could touch?
“Lady Fall bless us, we give you thanks,” said Jova, and she felt Bechde grip her hand just a bit tighter. “May we be wise, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
“Fortune be with you,” echoed Bechde.
Jova squeezed Alis’s hand. “Say it with us, Alis.”
“Fortune be with us,” said the little girl, carefully and slowly, and Jova smiled.
“Close enough,” she said, and she turned her head to listen to the camp. A buzz seemed to travel around the camp as the news of the refugees spread. Jova felt the same questions stir in her head that the people of the caravan were no doubt asking each other. Where did they go now? What came after this?
Bechde rose. “I’ll need to talk with my advisors. The other alsknights, the minor farmers. We have some…planning to do.” She took a step, before suddenly she turned around. She embraced Jova, a tender, motherly embrace.
Jova stiffened, more than a little surprised, but after the shock had passed she embraced Bechde back.
“You have been with us for but a few days, darling,” said Bechde. “And yet I feel as if I have known you all my life.” Bechde sniffed. “I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but you are very much like the daughter that was taken from me.”
“Thank you, Bechde,” said Jova. “You…you’ve made leaving my mother easier.”
Bechde cleared her throat, and she patted Jova’s head again. “I must be going now, before the rumors get too out of hand. I will find you later, once the talks are over!”
Jova nodded, and waved in Bechde’s direction. She stood, holding Alis’s hand—the little girl was too short to let her arm hang while she stood hand-in-hand with Jova and had to hold her arm higher to meet Jova’s—and clicked her tongue to get a better picture of the state of the camp. Her concentration was broken when she felt Alis flinch beside her and heard her whimper.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” said Jova, immediately. She had forgotten how scared it had made Alis the night before, and hurriedly bent to hold Alis’s hand between hers. She gave it a comforting squeeze, like Ma used to do. “Look, it’s just a noise. See?” And Jova clicked again, right in front of Alis’s face.
The girl said nothing. A pensive silence stretched between them, and Jova licked dry lips. How was she supposed to read the girl’s emotions if she wouldn’t say anything?
Just to drive her point home, Jova clicked one more time, exaggerating her expression on purpose. Her face drawn long, her lips pouting out in a ridiculous circle, she clicked a few times in Alis’s face, and to her delight the girl let out one small giggle. “See?” said Jova. “Nothing to be scared of! Are you scared, Alis?”
Alis didn’t say anything. Jova waited for a response, but none seemed to be coming.
“Did you just shake your head?”
Again, no response.
“Don’t just nod your head, say yes.”
“Yes,” said Alis, and it amazed Jova how the girl could say a one syllable word that slowly and carefully.
“Well, you have to say that out loud from now on, OK? Say yes or no, don’t just shake or nod your head, OK? Because I can’t…I can’t see all that well, so I need you to say these things out loud for me. Can you do that, Alis?”
There was a couple seconds’ silence, before Alis remembered herself and said, “Yes.”
Jova smiled. “Thanks.”
As Jova stood, Alis took her hand once more and asked, “What’s under that thing around your eyes?”
“Why, my eyes, Alis,” said Jova. A little white lie couldn’t hurt, could it?
“Can I see them?” asked the girl.
Jova paused. “I’m afraid you can’t.”
“Because my eyes hurt right now, Alis,” said Jova, in her best placating voice. “And I can’t take this blindfold off or else they’ll hurt even worse.”
“How’d your eyes get hurt?”
Jova, who had once wished that Alis would talk a little more, was now beginning to wish that the girl would stop. “In an accident, a long time ago.”
“What kind of accident?”
“I don’t really remember all the details,” said Jova, vaguely.
“Was it like the accident my friend had?”
“The friend I left behind!”
And the smile vanished from Jova’s face. She remembered a child’s corpse, face swollen, flesh distended, lying in that clearing while Alis cried over the body. It was hard to stay jovial after that. “I don’t know, Alis. I don’t know what kind of accident your friend had.” She paused. “Do you feel OK talking about this?”
“Yes,” said Alis, although she didn’t say any more after that.
Jova squeezed her hand. “Come on, Alis, let’s go talk to some of my friends.” As they walked away, Jova couldn’t help but wonder if ignoring the issue was the best way to deal with it. She was just a kid. She didn’t know how to talk about things like death and loss to another child. For the first time, the unfairness of the situation dawned on Jova. Any other child her age would have been teasing and taking advantage of this little girl, not caring for her. If Jova was like any other child her age, she would have done the same, but she had grown up in the company of adults that had always watched out for her.
Jova wondered what would have happened to little Alis if she hadn’t found her. Like Bechde had said, the wilds were a dangerous place for a child. What might slow, thoughtful Alis have become out in the jungles of Moscoleon? Who else would have found her? Hag Gar Gan slavers, that roamed the jungle borders?
She shuddered. Jova promised herself that she would never let the little girl live either of those lives, slave or wild. She had seen the effect it had on her parents, the phobias and fears that had rooted in them. Most people thought one was mandatory, but Jova knew that there was a better way to live. She had lived it herself. It was what made her take Alis under her wing, instead of leave the girl out in the wilds to die.
But to be honest, Jova wasn’t sure if this was a crusade she could accomplish.
“Who are your friends?” asked Alis, her questioning only dissuaded momentarily.
“We’re looking for Janwye now,” said Jova. “She-.”
“What does she look like?”
Jova sighed, long and deep. “I don’t know, Alis.”
“How can she be your friend if you don’t know what she looks like?” Despite the way she said it, Alis didn’t sound accusatory at all. She sounded genuinely curious. It was an innocent question.
“My eyes have trouble like that. I know what she sounds like, though. She talks very fast, and very loud, and asks all these questions, all the time- kind of like someone I know,” said Jova. She poked Alis in the side, and to her surprise the reserved girl shrieked and giggled. “She’s not all that ticklish, though,” said Jova, grinning, and she ducked under Alis’s defenses to prod her again.
Alis tumbled over, laughing, and Jova mock-wrestled with her in the leaves, glad that she at last knew for certain that Alis was happy.
They twisted and rolled on the jungle floor, until Jova bumped into something hard and sturdy. At first, Jova thought she had hit a tree, but that thought was quickly disproven when the “tree” yelped and shouted, “Ow!”
Jova rose to her feet immediately, brushing off her coza. “I’m very, very sorry,” she said, quickly, and beside her she heard Alis mumble something like an apology as well.
“Not to worry, not to worry,” the man said, gruffly, and Jova recognized his voice as the refugee who had talked to Bechde. “Children will be children.” He paused. “Children. I didn’t realize there were children here…”
You don’t realize a lot of things, it seems, Jova thought, but she didn’t say it out loud.
“There’re children here,” muttered the man, under his breath, at a volume Jova had learned people thought she couldn’t hear them at. “Ladies Four, if we didn’t lose them…”
“Is something wrong, sir?” Jova asked, hesitantly.
“No, nothing’s wrong,” said the man, far too quickly to be true. “I’ll be off. Erm. Mind your step in the future, child!” And he stomped away, hurriedly.
“Strange man, wasn’t he, Alis?” said Jova, and Alis, breathless, said something that sounded like a yes.
They kept walking, taking the time to recuperate. Jova walked in the direction she had heard Janwye go, keeping her ears pricked as she passed through the camp. Janwye could not have gone far. Jova wanted—needed—to see how she was taking the news. Knowing Janwye, the volatile fieldwoman might do something drastic.
As they walked through camp, Jova’s keen ears caught snippets of conversation. People were worried; people were afraid. Jova just hoped that worry and that fear wouldn’t touch Alis. It was strange, how having something to protect gave her such purpose.
Inevitably, Jova’s thoughts turned to her eyes, to the blindfold. What would happen when Alis found out? Jova knew she could not keep it a secret forever; she would be caught, while she was sleeping or washing the blindfold or simply didn’t have it on. Perhaps Alis would leave someway, somehow, before Jova ever had to tell her secret.
Jova realized with a shiver that this was how Roan must have thought when he first met her. She found herself holding Alis’s hand so tight it must have hurt, and shakily let go. She missed Roan: the old Roan, the guardian Roan, not the missing and aloof and absent Roan.
And just as she was thinking of him, she heard his voice.
“Janwye, I am trying to warn you! We must leave now! There is no further to go,” snapped Roan, angrily. “The journey was a noble effort, but it is over. What are these things to us and our order? They mean nothing now.”
“You don’t mean that, Roan, I know you don’t mean that!”
Jova did not dare approach them. She took Alis’s hand and skulked away, her back pressed against a nearby tree. She did not know if she was in sight or out, but she did not want to get any closer.
Roan took a while to answer. Stel reared underneath him, screaming and nickering. “Perhaps not. But even so, there is nothing left for you to do. How can you prevent something that has already happened?”
“If I cannot stop the war, then I can help win it!” shouted Janwye. “We won’t go to the Seat, anymore. We’ll go to…to Hak Mat Do! The pyramid lords will help us! If they won’t, then you can rally the clans again! You are one of the Hag Gar Gan, Roan!”
“You are speaking foolishness, Janwye,” said Roan. “Please, listen to me! We must go now!”
“Why, Roan? What are you so afraid of?”
“In your anger, you were blinded,” said Roan. “Did you really think that a man would not notice he was talking to a fieldwoman, when he was surrounded by alsknights, by slaves, by western wagons and the finery of Alswell, unless he had something else to worry about? His words, however true or false they may have been, were bait, to let himself in under your protection. He has more immediate concerns than Banden Ironhide and his conscriptions in the north.”
Janwye’s voice had lost its edge, to be replaced by confusion. “What are you talking about, Roan?”
“When I rode ahead—when I strayed off the path—I am seeing them with my own eyes. I know their strategies, their tactics. They have sent their bait out, and now they lie in ambush.” Roan began to talk very fast, as if he had planned this part out. “I will find Jova, the animals, whoever else can escape without notice, but you must leave now, alone. If the whole camp moves at once, they will be alerted, and strike, and we shall all be lost.”
“Who’s going to strike? What do you mean, Roan?”
“You do not need to find the Hag Gar Gan, Janwye,” said Roan. “Their slavers are already here.”
Jova did her best to wipe the girl’s face with the lace handkerchief, although the child squirmed and twitched as she sat, and Bechde kept fussing around over Jova’s shoulder. “Fallborn can be fickle,” the lady said, and Jova’s head spun as she tried to keep track of where Bechde was standing. “But they’re ever so quiet about it. It’s so hard to tell what a fallborn is thinking sometimes, isn’t it?”
However hard it may have been for Bechde to read the quiet girl’s emotions, it was nothing compared to how hard it was for Jova. She sighed, letting her arms fall as she let the girl go (and the girl was, contrary to Jova’s initial guess, a girl).
“What will you name her?” asked Bechde. “It’s very important, the name. She can’t run around with some Wilder name like Stick or Stone or River or Brook. It’s very lucky, really, that you found her. A nice civilized name, that’ll do it.”
“Anjan changed her name when she grew up,” said Jova. “I don’t remember what her name was first, but she changed it.”
Bechde sniffed, and patted Jova on the head. “Yes, well, it’s much easier if you start with a civil name, dear.”
“Do I have to name her?” asked Jova.
“She is yours, darling,” said Bechde, kindly. “I’ll help if you like. A good Alswell name, what say you?”
“I don’t want her to be mine, though,” said Jova, and she hung her head. “Bechde, why can’t you take her?”
“Where are you taking me?” said a soft voice, suddenly. Jova jumped. She had almost forgotten the girl was there. The girl spoke slowly and deliberately, and sounded almost too articulate for someone so young.
“Nowhere, dear,” said Bechde, quickly. The lady’s dress rustled as she moved past Jova, and the girl squeaked as Bechde picked her up. “Quele, come here! Get the child food and water, anything she wants.”
With nothing but the rustle of her chainmail and a curt “yes, m’lady,” the alsknight Quele picked up the girl and walked away.
“And now to talk in peace,” said Bechde, resuming her seat next to Jova. The lady had special travel cushions, just for sitting, and while it was still morning they could sit and talk by the fire, uninterrupted.
Jova could feel a light mist on her fingers and cheeks. The sun would burn it away soon, but the humid air still clung to her skin, and made her breathing short and shallow. She hadn’t slept much the last night, holding, for the first time in her life, a tabula in her hand.
“You can sell her in Hak Mat Do, if you like,” said Bechde, and even though Jova knew the lady was trying to be kind, she couldn’t help but shiver. “The markets beyond the Barren Sands thrive with the odd trade.”
Even under that pseudonym, Jova recognized what “the odd trade” was. Slavery had never agreed with her, even when it was such a natural facet of everyday life. It came from having a slave father, perhaps—a slave father who, unlike all other slave fathers, could tell his child stories of his servitude. All Jova said, though, was, “I don’t want to sell her.”
A comforting arm wrapped around her shoulder. “Then you’ll just have to keep her, dear girl. You’ve done so much good already! She could have died out here, or met Hag Gar Gan slavers next, or run in with a crowd of wild savages. You’ve given her a chance for a real childhood, Jova. That’s a very precious thing.”
What about the chance for freedom? Wasn’t that precious too? Jova didn’t say it out loud, though; it was too hard to articulate what she was feeling. She scratched her chest again, pensive.
“Just imagine if she had been found by the horse riders.” Bechde paused, and lowered her voice. “By Rho Hat Pan’s people. Imagine! The brutality of the Hag Gar Gan! Oh, I don’t dare to think it. No, it’s much better this way, honestly.”
“What do I do, though?”
“You clothe her, you feed her,” said Bechde. “She won’t be good for much work until she’s older, but I find that they are most excellent companions even in their younger years if you treat them well.” Bechde must have noticed Jova’s expression, because she said, after, “Oh, don’t look so unhappy, Jova. It will be a treat, honestly.”
“If she’s mine,” said Jova, hugging her knees, “Don’t I have the right to give her to you?”
“Then I have the right not to take her, dear. I’ll help, but Ladies know I’ve got too many of my own to look after.”
“But you will help me?”
“Yes, Jova, now stop worrying.” Jova felt a thumb press against her forehead, and move across it as if it was smoothing out the wrinkles in her skin. “Smile! There’s no need to have your face all scrunched up like that.”
Jova reached up to touch Bechde’s hand, not sure if she was going to hold it or push it away, but Bechde withdrew quickly.
“I’m so terribly sorry, Jova, that was far too forward of me,” said Bechde. “All this talk of children and mothers, I suppose it’s gotten to my head.”
This was the first time Jova had heard talk of mothers, but she didn’t inquire further. “It’s alright, Lady Bechde,” she said, smiling. “I don’t mind.”
Bechde sighed. “I hope you don’t mind my saying this, darling, but you are truly…open. It is something I have never seen before, and I think I am not alone in saying it is something I want to protect.”
Jova had to admit there was a pattern: Roan, then Janwye, and now Bechde. All the same, she could not help but feel that Bechde was not being entirely honest. It was her faults that marked her, not her strengths: it was pity she inspired, not care.
“For all your smiles and your laughter, you have known suffering,” said Bechde, her hand hovering just over Jova’s face, where her bandages were tied. “That takes real character, dear. Honestly.”
“Thank you, Lady Bechde,” said Jova, bobbing her head. Bechde sounded so sad, that Jova felt she had to say something else. She thought hard for a minute. “May I be forward too, Lady Bechde?”
“Why not,” said the Alswell lady, and Jova could tell she said it with a smile.
“Were you a mother once?”
Jova could almost hear the smile vanish. “I pray that I still am,” Bechde said, and her tone was resigned. “They are lost and gone now, Ladies take them wherever they may be. I haven’t had child in many years, though, old crone as I am.”
Jova scoffed. “You don’t sound very old, Lady Bechde.”
“Why, thank you, little darling, but I assure you I am.” She lowered her voice. “I am going on fifty summers, and there’s silver in my hair.”
“You’re young on the inside, though,” said Jova. “I think you might be younger inside than I am!”
Bechde laughed. “Oh, darling, you make me blush. I dare say you’ve got a little youth left in you yet, though.”
Jova was about to answer, when a horn sounded so suddenly and so loudly that she flinched. Bechde yawned.
“We really did spend the whole night talking, didn’t we?” Bechde’s dress rustled as she rose, and she patted down the cushion to wipe off the dirt. “Well, up we get, Jova, we’ve got a long way to go. You’ll ride with me today, how about that?”
Jova tensed. “What about Roan?”
“If the sandman wishes to be alone with his beasts then let him be,” said Bechde, dismissively. “If he needed you, he would have sought you out, but as it is you have no obligation to be with him.” Her voice softened slightly. “There’s plenty of room in the wagon, and the bumping’s not so bad. We could have pomegranates again! Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Jova nodded her consent, just once, all while wondering where on Albumere Roan could be and why he had suddenly become so distant.
“Oh, marvelous!” Bechde trilled, taking Jova’s hand. “There’s so much left to discuss. We simply must find a good name for the girl, Jova. I was thinking something with an ‘m’ sound, Methila or Makenna.”
“Bechde, can I ask you a question?” asked Jova. She was thinking back to the last night, of all the strange things that had happened then. There were things about that glade she wanted to forget, and at same time things that she wanted to know so much more about.
“As the Lady Fall listens, ask away,” said Bechde, unperturbed by Jova’s interruption.
Jova hugged her own cushion to her chest as they walked away, her ears pricked to the sound of the camp coming to life. Things were quieter on the Alswell side of things, the slaves breaking up camp almost mechanically, the other fieldmen’s morning exertions lazy and gentle. “Do you have many hollows in Alswell?”
“A fair number.” Bechde helped Jova up as they stepped into her personal wagon, nestled comfortably in shade on the jungle path. “Just as much or as little as any other nation, I would think.”
“And you keep them walled in, you said?”
“The great wells of Alswell, we call them, yes. Poets say we draw from them the sap of the world. Beautiful, don’t you think?” said Bechde. She made a sound as if she was going to say more, but then fell silent.
“And these hollows,” said Jova, feeling as if she would regret the words the moment she said them. “Do they…do they walk?”
“I would certainly hope not,” said Bechde, and her laughter made Jova’s face turn red. “The ones we’ve caught certainly don’t go anywhere, and if we lose them out there in the wild, well, there are quite a few trees in the woods, now, aren’t there?”
Jova nodded and did her best to laugh, all while wondering what the thing in the glade was last night if it wasn’t a hollow. She had already been wrong about the girl; if she could mess up something so simple, who was she to say that the thing she had heard was truly one of the walking trees? It was preposterous. There had to be another explanation.
Another question drifted across Jova’s mind unbidden, and before she could stop herself she asked, “Bechde, do the hollows have tabula? Tabula of their own, I mean?”
“What a clever little girl you are,” said Bechde, as the wagon rose and began to trundle away. The bumping was bad, even as they rolled over soft jungle mulch, and Jova could swear that her behind was beginning to bruise as they rumbled on. Bechde and her voluminous dress suddenly seemed rather practical now. “I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it before,” continued Bechde, unfazed by the wagon’s movement. “There must be some philosopher out there I’m sure who’s looked into this, but I’ve never seen a hollow with one. Perhaps it is buried somewhere under all those other tabula, dear, or perhaps one must simply be able to move to have a tabula.”
It was true, plants didn’t have tabula, but if moving was the only rule, then Jova was either an exception or the rule was wrong.
The tarp parted suddenly, and Quele said in her gravelly monotone, “She has been fed and watered, m’lady. I can’t carry her the whole way, though.”
“You’ve done excellently, Quele, thank you. You may leave.” The tarp closed, leaving the three of them in their comfortable little world. “Come here, little one. Did you eat well?”
“Yes,” she said, curtly. Again, there was an earnest dedication to the words that made it hard to imagine them coming from a mouth so young.
“We were just thinking of what your new name will be,” said Bechde, in a kind voice. “Jova, what do you think of Methila?”
Before Jova could respond, the girl said, “My name is Alis.” It wasn’t an argument or an assertion; it was just a practiced statement of fact. Her parents must have taught her that, Jova thought. They had taught her to protect the one thing she could bring with her, her name.
“Why don’t we let her keep her name?” suggested Jova.
“Oh, that’s not such a good idea,” said Bechde, quickly. “Best to start fresh, don’t you think? Whenever we take new ones in Alswell, we always give them new names.”
“I’m sorry, Bechde, but I think…” Jova reached out and took the little girl, Alis, by the hand. It was small and hot, and only squirmed slightly when Jova touched her. “I think we’re not in Alswell. I think she should keep her name.”
“Well…well, alright then,” said Bechde, and she sounded more disappointed than angry or upset. “Alis is a good name.”
“A holy name, too,” said Jova, patting Alis on the head. “Roan would approve.”
“What’s Roan?” asked Alis. She took a seat next to Jova and asked in her prim, directed voice. Who had this Alis been, before the Fallow took her away?
“Roan was the man on horseback, remember?” said Jova, holding Alis’s hand still. “You’ll talk with him more soon. He might seem harsh, but he’s really very nice.”
“What’s that on your face?” asked Alis, and Jova had to change tacts just as quickly to figure out what she was talking about.
“This?” Jova asked, indicated her blind fold.
There was an expectant pause, and Jova realized Ali must have nodded. “It’s called a blindfold,” she said, nodding back even though she wasn’t quite sure how far up or down Alis’s face was in the silence.
Alis continued with her interrogation. “Why do you have it?”
Jova’s breath caught in her throat. For a moment, she saw a glimpse of it what it felt liked to be unrestrained, unjudged, and realized how tempting it must have been for Roan. Jova hesitated, wondering what truth she had for little Alis, when at last all Jova chose to say was, “There’s something wrong with me.”
The little girl seemed to accept that, and asked no more questions.
The wagon jerked suddenly, and Jova nearly tumbled out of her seat. “What’s going on?” muttered Bechde, as she opened the tarp.
As Jova picked herself up, there was a fevered muttering between Bechde and one of her attendants, and as the attendant left Bechde whispered, “Three years and there are still refugees on the road from Ironhide’s revolution…”
There was a rustling of fabric as Bechde slid out of the wagon. “I’ll be back in a moment, Jova dear. We’ve met some people who want to talk to us. You two stay in here, and get to know each other!”
“Bye,” said Jova, meekly, as Bechde left. She was left alone with Alis in the wagon, wondering what to say. “Are you OK?” asked Jova, hesitantly. “After last night? Do you feel…better?”
Alis did not respond for quite some time. Then, she said, “Where are we going?”
“Very far away,” said Jova. “To Alswell, and to a place called the Seat of the King. You’ve probably already gone a far way, to here. This place is called Moscoleon.”
Jova felt the bench shift as Alis began to swing her legs. “When are we going home?” she asked.
It was like a hand had clenched around Jova’s chest. She felt sudden moisture around her eyes, and she shook her head to clear it. Her hand gripped Alis’s tighter. “I don’t know,” said Jova. “Not for a long time, I think.”
There was a sudden weight on Jova’s shoulder, and Alis mumbled, softly, “Will you be my sister?”
“OK,” Jova said, and she adjusted herself so that she could lower Alis’s head gently into her lap. “I’ll be your sister.”
She wasn’t sure what being a sister meant, but, as Alis’s little body leaned peacefully on her, Jova figured it couldn’t be so bad. Jova felt her own head begin to droop, as the warm air in the wagon and the trials of last night began to lull her into her slumber.
Jova did not know how long she had slept, or if she had even slept at all, when shouts from outside made her jerk upright.
“Lances up, tabula out!” shouted a voice from the outside, one that Jova recognized as Janwye’s. The shout echoed all the way down to the end of the procession. “Draw weapons! Lances up, tabula out!”
Jova tensed, and began to pat down the floor of the wagon, looking for something she could use as a spear or a stick. Alis stirred next to her, yawning and smacking her lips together. Her tabula felt heavy in Jova’s pocket.
Jova’s hand closed around something that would do, and she felt years of morning practice with Arim return to her. It was time to prove that she could make it in the real world, time to prove that she was no longer just a scared little blind girl.
It was time to protect the one that the Ladies had sent to her. It was time to find faith, once again.
Jova tensed, crouched in front of the tarp opening, and waited.
Izca was so helpful sometimes that it irked Jova. The zealot apologized profusely even when he hadn’t done anything wrong, and hardly seemed to be the staunch warrior Jova imagined one who had earned his feathers to be.
His help wasn’t even the standard charity of a templeman, who was bound by the Lady Winter to be generous and giving. Jova knew the people that gave that kind of charity: they were more concerned about themselves than her. It was a generalized, almost self-righteous kind of charity, as if they still expected something in return. But Izca seemed like he was actively seeking Jova’s forgiveness for something, like he wanted to make amends for something he had done, although what it was Jova could not tell and he would not say.
Jova held Uten’s reins a little tighter, her ears pricked as she kept track of where Izca was, his footsteps mingling in with the march of the Alswell caravan, and where Roan rode, Stel’s hooves ahead a ways in front of her.
It had taken some explaining on their part to justify their presence. Roan, evidently, did not have the same flair for the dramatic Zain had: the way he had explained it, they were not saviors. They were simply friends of the fields, bringing mounts and supplies and support in the difficult journey ahead. With Janwye to vouch for them, Bechde had allowed them to travel with the group. (“And I would be fool to let such a delightful young girl slip away from me so easily,” she had said, patting Jova on the head.)
Jova still had difficulty framing it in her head. The way she understood it, the caravan was split into two groups: the fieldmen who had come originally from Alswell, and now the small contingent of zealots that were escorting them back through the jungles.
Roan and Jova (and a few merchant hopefuls, Jova had not failed to notice) seemed to fall outside those categories. Some pilgrims had emerged from the city to travel with the caravan for the safety of numbers, and the alsknights agreed to protect the civilians in return for much needed supplies. With them, the caravan numbered perhaps four or five score in total.
They were headed for the Seat of the King, where the simple travelers would split off and go their own separate ways while the official retinue would try to negotiate a peace with the new king, Banden Ironhide, before war began in earnest. It seemed simple enough, in theory.
And, yet, the politics of the process continued to evade her. No one knew whether war had yet even begun, with Moscoleon so cut off from the rest of the world and Alswell so far away: Janwye was convinced that disaster had happened in Shira Hay, and dark mutterings circled through the travel-weary and homesick fieldmen. The number of zealots Keep Tlai had sent was nowhere near a real fighting force; they were symbolic, an indication of the Keep’s support, but if so then they symbolized only a tentative alliance. “Not enough,” Jova kept hearing, as the alsknights managed their slaves, as Janwye talked with Bechde. “Not enough.”
Jova flinched as long jungle fronds reached out at her, and ducked down so that she was a little closer to Uten’s bulk. Only a few had brought riding animals; the winding jungle paths were no place for majestic riders on galloping steeds, and more than once Uten had stumbled or tripped through the thick creepers and foliage.
The caravan, for the most part, was silent as it walked. A few pilgrims had tried to start a traveling song, but the thick jungle air had quickly taken away their breath and the natural chorus of the peninsula drowned them out easily.
Jova remembered her first journey through the Moscoleon paths as an almost surreal dream, the unnatural strength that had graced her in the days following her accident giving her the ability to forge through what would have otherwise been an impossible route.
It was only later, on her more frequent trips between the city and the Teeth, the caves where she had trained, that Jova had realized how taxing the thick air, the hot sun, the heady perfumed flowers could be.
“We’ll want to stop soon,” said Izca, walking beside Jova. Jova sighed internally. It sounded almost like he was trying to force a conversation. “It’s getting dark. Find a sinkhole, get some rest, light some fires. Not enough light gets through the trees during the day as it is. Once it’s nightfall we won’t be able to see a damn thing.”
“No, we won’t,” said Jova, scratching an itch under her blindfold. She decided not to comment.
“Big beasties start waking up at dusk,” the zealot continued, and Jova could hear the clack of Izca’s spear as he used it to sweep something aside from the path. “Pantherapes, spring tigers, that kind of thing. Definitely don’t want to mess around with those when it’s pitch black out.”
“Mm,” Jova grunted. She really didn’t have much to add to what Izca was saying.
Izca cleared his throat. “Funny, how this whole system works, isn’t it? We call him the king, but really what does he rule except a league of nations that hates him? I mean, I- uh, sorry, I was just- I was thinking about it, since we’re going to the Seat of the King and all that…”
Why was Izca trying so hard to talk to her? Jova could understand if the zealot was just a naturally friendly person, but from his tone of voice and his constant stuttering it seemed a great effort for him to just come up with small talk. Jova shifted on Uten’s back, pulling on her reins as she heard the caravan diverge to the right.
“I mean, he doesn’t have much authority, does he?” Izca babbled on. “We watch out for ourselves. I don’t think we even really need a king. He doesn’t do us much good, does he? And this one- well, we didn’t even choose this one, did we? Assassination and revolution, it’s really all just out of control…”
“Izca,” said Jova, and she tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t offend him. “You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to. I’m fine on my own.”
Izca fell silent for a moment. His feet made little stomping sounds as he trudged through foliage, clumsy and loud. “The Lady Summer demands that we are brave. The Lady Winter asks us to embrace that which we fear the most, and the Lady Fall wishes that we look to our past, so we may perfect our future. I must do what the Ladies ask of me,” he said, and his voice had a kind of quiet fervor that took Jova by surprise. That’s what it means to be a zealot, thought Jova. Not a fluke like me, not looking for opportunity like Arim. You have to actually believe.
She wasn’t sure if she was ready to believe, again. Not after what Roan had done, not after the fate that the Ladies had strung her along. What did they mean, to dangle so many opportunities and answers and hopes in front of her, only to snatch them away? How was she supposed to worship goddesses that were so cruel?
“I’m sorry,” said Izca, suddenly. “If you want me to leave you alone, I’ll leave you alone.”
Jova raised her head, letting the sounds of the world wash over her. Perhaps her prayer had not yet been fully answered. Perhaps she still had a path to walk. One asks for a reward for her faith, said a distant voice, in a sunlit grove from what seemed like a lifetime ago. The other has faith to sustain her, and understands that it is its own reward.
“One of my friends—his name is Ell—once told me that the zealot tests can happen at any time because they symbolize that we’re always being tested,” said Jova, before Izca could leave. “That it’s not just one hour of one day that we have to prove ourselves, but every hour of every day.” She turned to Izca’s direction, and gave him her best friendly smile. If the zealot thought it his religious duty to befriend a blind girl, then who was she to say otherwise? “I like it when you talk about the Ladies.”
“They saved me,” said Izca, and the stuttering had faded from his voice. “The drink promised it could, my wild brothers promised they could, hatred and fear and anger promised they could, but it was the Ladies that saved me. I’m not proud of who I was. Of the people I hurt, loved ones and strangers alike.”
There was a long pause after that, as Uten stepped over some obstruction in the path and the caravan continued its lonely march through the jungles. Jova wondered who Izca was thinking about, in the silence.
“This is my way of making amends. Of recovering. And if you don’t remember me, then…then that’s good. I don’t want to remember that person, either. But all the same, I have to ask for forgiveness. I’m sorry, Jova. For what I was. What I did.”
Jova took a deep breath. It still ate at her, tantalizingly close to the light of recollection, but the mystery of Izca and Fang, she decided, was one that she would leave alone. She didn’t have to remember.
It took her a moment to find Izca’s shoulder, but when she did she patted it gently. “I forgive you,” she said. Jova did not move her hand. She felt as if there was something more she had to say, but she didn’t know what. “Everyone deserves a second chance,” she said, finally, and she pulled away.
Izca sniffed. It was a prolonged sniff, as emotional as sniffs could be, and Jova couldn’t help but smile a little as Izca said, gruffly, “Thanks.”
They didn’t say any more as they continued walking, but this time the silence did not feel quite so uncomfortable.
Uten rumbled underneath her, shifting the furry hump that Jova sat on. The molebison walked close to the ground, and Jova could almost feel each step as Uten’s paws dragged along the ground. Jova tightened her grip. She had never ridden this long and her legs were sore and chafed. She doubted Uten had ever walked this long either, and she rubbed the back of Uten’s head, gently so as not to disturb her sensitive skin. “There now,” she whispered. “We’ll rest soon.”
“You control her so well,” said Izca, appraisingly. “She’s not yours, is she?”
“No, she’s Roan’s,” said Jova, wondering how Izca had known. Had he been an old client of Roan’s, somewhere in those three odd years? Jova shook her head. She had promised herself not to pry.
“Hmm,” said Izca. Jova sensed an air of disapproval from the man, but he said no more on the subject. There was a snuffling to the side as the pigwolf, Fang, returned to him, and Jova brushed down Uten’s fur and whispered comforting gibberish into her ear as the molebison smelled danger.
For a long time, Jova just rode. The temperature dropped rapidly with the sun: although the air was still thick and humid, moisture still beading on her cheeks and forehead, a coolness tinged it now that made it easier to breathe. The night reminded her of the walks she used to take in the Jhidnu wilds, peaceful and unbroken, listening to the chorus of the Lady Spring. The twitter of the birds, the background hum of the Moscoleon insects, the waking cries of the animals of the dusk: the jungle pulsated around her.
Uten came to a sudden halt, and Jova gripped the molebison’s back tightly. “They’re signaling to make camp,” said Izca, putting a reassuring hand on Jova’s arm. “We’re stopping for the night.”
Jova grinned. She was glad of it; she did not know how Roan managed riding for so long, when her legs were raw and aching from only a couple hours on Uten’s pondering back. She swung herself over the side and slipped off easily, using Uten as an anchor as she felt her way forward. She clicked, but there was so much background noise in the jungle it was difficult to concentrate on the echoes.
She did hear Fang whimpering again, though, and Izca said, his voice betraying his nervousness, “It sounds like some kind of batbeast, doesn’t it? I’ve got to admit, it’s a bit frightening.”
Jova scuffed her foot on the ground. “Sorry about that,” she muttered, biting her tongue. She forgot how much the clicking unnerved people sometimes.
“No, don’t be! Fang’s a coward, that’s all,” said Izca, quickly. He cleared his throat. “Well, it was nice- it was nice talking with you, Jova. And walking with you. I’ve got to go with the other zealots now, but, erm…”
“We’ll see each other tomorrow,” said Jova, nodding in Izca’s direction. “Bye now! It was nice meeting you.”
Izca coughed and mumbled some kind of reply, but even Jova could not make out what he had said before the zealot stumbled off to some other group in the caravan.
Jova stood next to Uten, listening to the relieved chatter of the travelers as they made camp, to the dull whoosh and crackle of fires being lint by flint and summer animals. The molebison beside her grunted, and Jova wasn’t sure how to comfort her. Who would she break bread with? Whose fire would she sit beside? Izca’s company had alleviated it, but Jova was just beginning to realize that Roan had not approached her once on the march through the jungle.
Was she no longer useful to him now that she knew? Jova felt a cold tingling in her gut. Roan had always been distant and reserved, but there had been a protectiveness to him that made Jova feel safe. Had she fled her home with a man who simply no longer cared for her?
“Roan?” Jova said, hesitantly, to the darkness, but no one answered. She trudged forward, trying her best not to run into people as she navigated the camp. “Roan, where are you?”
Beside her, Uten snorted and snuffled. Roan still had her tabula. Perhaps she would know the way.
“Come on, girl,” said Jova, rubbing her side. “Let’s go and find him.”
Uten did not move. She swung her snout Jova’s way and gnawed a little at Jova’s hand; she was hungry. “Sorry, Uten,” whispered Jova. “Roan’s got all the feed. That’s why we have to find him.” She tugged at the molebison’s reins and reluctantly the creature began to walk.
She kept her ears pricked for Roan’s voice, but the sandman rarely raised his voice when he spoke at all and she had little hope on that front. After she was sure she had walked the length of the camp and back searching for him, Jova gave up.
“Change of plans,” she said, to a disgruntled Uten. “We’ll find Janny, and eat with her tonight.” Even as she began to walk where she knew the Alswell emissaries were set up, worry crawled in her gut. She was sure she made an obvious sight, a blindfolded girl tugging around a clumsy, blind brute of an animal back and forth through the camp. Where had Roan gone? Why hadn’t he tried to find her?
Jova missed Ma and Da.
As she was walking towards the head of the camp, where she had heard the fieldman slaves making their cooking fires and the alsknights laying down their lances, she heard something in the underbrush. Not some chirp, or twitter, or snarl. It was high-pitched, single cry.
It was human.
Jova froze. What was she to do? Her first thought was to find Roan, but, well, she had tried that already and to no luck. Janwye or Bechde, then? Maybe even Izca? But the crying grew louder and more fervent and Jova knew that if she ran away now she might never come back.
With Uten as a pillar of stability and safety beside her, she walked away from the warm fires into the chittering, seething undergrowth of the jungle. Dark possibilities danced in her head. What if it was not a human, but some animal skilled at mimicry, luring her away to be eaten whole? What if it was a demon of the deep, taking the form of a child and even now was planning to steal away Jova’s face and set her blood boiling?
But as drew closer to the source of the crying, and as the crying grew closer to her, it sounded so plaintive and pathetic that Jova had difficulty imagining it as anything dark or scary or dangerous.
“Hello?” she said, tentatively, to the muffled darkness. “Is anyone out there?”
And she heard footsteps on the mulch, right in front of her. Jova bent low and clicked, trying to place the person.
Immediately, the crying became screaming. Jova clapped her hands over her mouth, and cursed herself. The toddler, for it evidently was some kind of toddler, had a high-pitched, grating scream, and Uten stamped her feet and moaned at the ear-splitting sound.
Jova cursed herself as she reached out blindly to find the child. What must it have looked like to the child, to see the great lumbering hulk of Uten accompanied by the clicking, blind-folded form of Jova? They must have seemed like demons of the deep themselves.
“Shh, it’s alright, I’m not going to hurt you,” said Jova, holding her hands up to show that she meant no harm, having no idea how old the child was or if it even understood a word Jova was saying. She did her best to smile, but that only seemed to make the crying and screaming louder.
And now the demon is reaching out to grab the kid and is showing all its teeth to eat it. Great job, Jova, whispered a voice in her head, and Jova put down her hands quickly and sealed her lips. She had no idea what to do, until she felt Uten move suddenly beside her.
“Uten, wait!” she shouted, fearing the worst when she heard something hit the ground, hard. The decaying jungle mulch deadened the sound of the impact, but it was still loud enough that Jova feared someone had been hurt.
The crying stopped. For a moment, Jova feared the worst.
Then the child hiccupped and sniffed, and Jova’s palpitating heart slowed. She gripped her hair. Things were going too fast, she needed a moment to process what was happening.
Who was this child? Where had he or she even come from? By all the Ladies Four, was it a boy or a girl? Jova staggered over to Uten’s side, and then shuffled her way forward until she came into contact with the child.
He (Jova was guessing) had been pinned down by Uten’s large paw, and he whimpered slightly whenever the molebison moved. Jova put what she hoped was a comforting hand on the boy’s arm. “We’re not going to hurt you,” said Jova, gently. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
She felt, suddenly, a swelling in her chest, one she could not quite place. It was parts surprise, parts fear, parts anger, and she gripped the boy’s hand tightly. “I’m Jova,” she said. “Jova.”
From his voice, he sounded young, far too young to be out in the wilds alone. Jova’s mind shuffled through all the possibilities. Farmers lived out in the jungles, she knew, but never in areas so dense and thick with foliage. Some of the wild zealots lived out here as well, but how could a wild zealot be so young unless-.
And then it came to Jova.
“You came from the Fallow,” she whispered, and the child whimpered as Uten shifted her weight. Jova traced her hand down the child’s arm, until she found, grasped in his tiny little hand, a disk-shaped object. He let go of it quickly, and Jova cupped it in her own palms, not knowing what to do with the tabula.
“Get off, Uten,” she said, softly. “He’s no harm to anyone.”
The molebison snorted and backed away, and Jova heard the leaves crunch as the child stood shakily. He seemed too terrified for words, and stumbled away almost immediately once he was free.
“Wait!” Jova shouted, rising from her crouching position. She held out the child’s tabula. “This is yours!”
The child had not gone far. Restraining herself from clicking, Jova edged forward until she found the kid, sitting on the ground, sniffling to himself. It sounded like he was crying again, although not as loudly.
“Here you are,” said Jova, trying to push the tabula back onto the child, but he wouldn’t take it. Jova knelt, ready to shove the tabula into the child’s lap and be done with it, when her knee bumped against something on the ground. Curiously, she felt it. Clammy, and pliable, but with a hard surface underneath…
Jova felt hair and realized she was holding the head of a corpse.
She felt as if she was going to puke. She reeled away, gagging, her lungs seizing up. The corpse’s skull had been small and round, barely large enough to be more than a toddler, and the skin had felt oddly swollen and distended. There had been no smell, although the body was cold, and for the first time in her life Jova realized what it meant to be wild.
Jova traced the sign of winter over the base of her throat, and prayed to the Lady that this child’s death had been merciful and kind. She had no idea what to make of the living one, left to cry over the corpse. Did he even fully understand what had happened?
“Let’s get away from here,” said Jova, pulling on the child’s hand. “Come on, let’s go.”
The child would not stand, no matter how hard Jova pulled. She could not just leave him here. Whatever might have killed the first child might come back. It might, to Jova’s horror, still be here. They had to go.
And as she tried to coax him to leave, the second shocking thing happened that night.
She heard a great thump, and every tree overhead rustled: a wooden creak, like the bending of falling timber, except this creak went on and on and on and never seemed to stop. The child’s crying went completely silent, Uten bellowed and backed away, and Jova heard the rhythmic impacts slowly getting closer, like footfalls.
The walking tree passed, and though Jova could not see an inch of it, she could feel its power reverberating through the ground, feel its sheer weight and age with every step. She stood, frozen, as the hollow marched away, having deposited its young burden, the branches rusting and whispering in some ancient tongue that Jova could not hope to begin to understand.
It seemed to last both an age and no time at all. The hollow’s passing somehow demanded respect, a quiet, a reverential pause, like standing when a pontiff entered the room. Jova stood in that clearing for quite some time after it had passed, and wondered how many people in Albumere could truthfully say they had witnessed something so arcane and so eternal.
Then she heard the galloping of hooves, and knew that Roan had, at last, found her.
“Jova!” he shouted, rearing Stel in as the horse whinnied, and it was as if the spell of the hollow’s passing had been broken. The boy began to cry again, even louder than before, and the normally quiet Uten snorted and bellowed. “What are you doing, so far from camp?”
“Did you see it, Roan?” said Jova, unable to keep the amazement from her voice. “Did you hear it?”
“Was I seeing what?” asked Roan. His voice straddled the edge between concerned and suspicious.
Jova shook her head, not knowing how to say it. It must have made footprints, it must have made echoes, it must have made some kind of after effect. “A hollow, Roan,” whispered Jova. “I heard it! It was right in front of me! One of the hollows, and it was walking!”
“Many things can be mistaken for another in the dark,” said Roan, flatly. “We must not be letting our imaginations get ahead of our realities.”
“No, Roan, I swear I heard it!” said Jova, but even as she said it she felt a twinge of doubt. What had truly made those shuddering footsteps? No one had ever seen the hollows move before. Who was she to be the first?
Roan hissed suddenly, and Jova realized what she had been standing next to. “The dead child, Jova. Is this your doing?”
Jova shook her head mutely.
For at least a minute, Roan did not speak. Stel paced around Jova as he assessed the situation, and finally he said, “Come, Jova. We must be returning, now.”
As Uten began to shuffle away, the boy began to whimper again. “What about him?” asked Jova.
“We shall leave him be,” said Roan. “Such is the way of wild things.”
Jova felt a pit in the bottom of her stomach, and remember the cold clammy face she had just touched. “He’ll die out here,” said Jova, holding the child’s hand tightly.
“He may yet survive.” Roan said it with the weariness of one who had resigned himself to the way of the world long ago. “He has been claimed by the Ladies. It is his fate to be wild.”
“I’m not going to leave him to be killed out here, with no one to care for him,” said Jova, staunchly, and she knew in her heart that she meant it. No one deserved the fate of the corpse on the ground.
Roan did not speak for some moments. When he did, his voice was cold, and harsh. “You hold his tabula, then, Jova,” he said. “You now own your first slave.”