The cut in Uten’s side had grown infected. The molebison’s flesh was hot to the touch, and Jova could hear the carrion flies buzzing around her. Da said the blood was black and lumpy.
“Come on, girl,” whispered Jova, trying to pull the molebison forward, but Uten would neither move nor answer. Fighting back tears, Jova slapped the molebison’s sensitive nose, a move that, on any other day, would have earned a panicked grunt or push. Uten just slumped further, breathing heavily.
Jova felt a hand on her back, and jumped. It would be a long time before she stopped doing that.
“It’d be a kindness to give the beast to the Lady Winter, Jova,” said Ma, softly. “It’s suffered enough.”
Hot tears began to spill across Jova’s cheeks, and she bit her lip in shame. She thought she’d done enough crying, lately. Jova tried to think of a reason to stop her, a way to save her last reminder of Roan, but in her heart she knew Ma was right.
“I’ll do it quickly. Painlessly. I promise, my little Lady.” Ma knelt down to hug Jova close, although Jova did not return it. She just nodded, and turned away, and tried not to listen as Ma let go and walked to Uten’s side.
The molebison shuddered once, and then her labored breathing stopped. The tabula in Jova’s hand split, and cracked, and Jova shuddered as she felt a great chill run through her body that had nothing to do with the cold.
It seized her, suddenly. Jova heard the wind howling around her ears, and clutched her chest as her heart began to burn with a searing pain. The ground shook beneath her, and a woman so tall she blocked out the sun stood above her. Where her face should have been, there was only a slab of marble, cold and impassive.
The vision passed. Uten was dead. Their link had been broken.
Jova bowed her head, giving a silent prayer to the Lady Winter that she would take care of Uten. The pontiffs didn’t have much to say about the souls of animals, but Jova had known enough of the beast to know she had one.
She rubbed the wooden badge in her hands as Ma walked her back to camp. Uten was not the last reminder Jova had of Roan.
“It still doesn’t make sense,” muttered Jova, as she sat on the coarse, short grass of the Hang Mountains. Irontower was not far: technically, they were already within the nation’s holdings, although Da had always described Irontower as more of a cult than a nation.
“What doesn’t make sense?” asked Ma, sitting beside her. “Just ask, Jova. We’ll tell you everything.”
Jova pulled her knees up to her chest. It was strange, how quickly she had become accustomed to traveling on the road again. Just the three of them, and Mo, sleeping on the worn bedrolls as they traveled along the side roads. The only difference was that they were going north, instead of south.
“Why weren’t you there?”
“We told you, Jova,” said Da, sitting on the other side of her. Their beaten, iron pot bubbled as dinner cooked. “We couldn’t be in the city. The plutocrats wouldn’t let us.”
That was what they had told her, yes. They had come looking for her when Pontiff Zain had told them that she had gone to Jhidnu; why he had lied, Jova didn’t know. Ma and Da had spent weeks searching for her, until the plutocrats had expelled Ma from the city—for what reason, they wouldn’t say, although Jova suspected it had something to do with her mother’s temper. And, in her experience, men with power on Albumere did not merely expel. From then on, they had stayed in the outskirts of the city, until…
“When did Roan find you?”
“Later. The same day that Mo found you,” said Da. “Your mother was going to storm the city, guards be damned, but then Roan came. Riding out past the walls on his horse, war paints on his face and chest like he really was one of them. And then…”
“He told us about his plan,” said Ma, picking up the story. “Said we’d wait until you were sold. Said he’d sneak you out on the road once you were past the walls. If only we’d known what they were doing to you.” There was a dark anger in Ma’s voice as she held Jova’s still healing hands, an anger that Jova now recognized. She truly was Anjan’s daughter.
She’d heard it all before. Roan had wanted Jova to have protection when she escaped. It was why he had been so angry when Bechde had left without her.
But Roan hadn’t been willing to be the protection Jova needed. And now, he never would be.
What was it Chetan had said? Everybody had a story. While Jova had been sneaking around, trying to accomplish something, plans had been in motion around her. People had been taking action. She might never fully understand what Roan had—or hadn’t—been doing to secure her freedom.
“We were waiting by the towermen camp,” said Da. “We’d follow you until night fell, then Roan would sneak you out. But when that killer woman took the sandman leader, he had to act fast before—well, before they took you.”
How long had Roan been working towards Jova’s freedom? The whole time? Since the desert? After Hak Mat Do? Why the ruse? He had always wanted to return to the Hag Gar Gan, but he must have been too kind a man to abandon Jova.
And that kindness had killed him.
“Are we still going to Irontower?” asked Jova.
Jova knew when Ma and Da were exchanging looks behind her back (not that they needed to). Eventually, Da said, “I think not, Jova. We have to stop in the valley for supplies, but then we’ll go to my home. The Stronghold. It’ll be safer there.”
There was a time when Jova would have just nodded and followed in her parents’ trail. But something now made her pause. “Will they let you back in? You were a slave when you escaped.”
“Oh, it’s been long enough. No one will remember a runaway from the black caste,” said Da. His tone betrayed his fear, though. He had to have at least killed his master unawares to take his tabula back. Jova could not imagine they would forget so easily.
Jova bit her lip. “Is it really going to be safe?”
“Of course it is,” said Da, wrapping his arm around Jova’s shoulders. “The Marble Stronghold is the safest place on all of Albumere.”
“What about when it’s at war?”
Silence. “The marble soldiers will protect us,” said Da. “Trust me.”
“OK,” said Jova. She laid on the ground, wincing as she stretched out her back. “I’m really tired now.”
“Of course, Jova,” said Ma, getting up, as Da rose with her. “Get some rest now. Supper will be ready soon.” Jova listened to her footsteps tread away, before they stopped. “Jova…I know Roan was very close to you. If you want to-.”
“I’m tired, Ma,” said Jova, and she rolled on her side, curling her body so that her back faced her parents.
Ma didn’t say anything else, and Jova felt a pit open in her gut. She shouldn’t have said that. The Ladies had given her a miracle! Her parents had come back for her! She was with her family again, free and safe and happy. Except, Jova was beginning to doubt that she was any of those three things.
They had been moving fast. Ma had done her best to cover their trail, but there was no way they could outrun a clan of Hag Gar Gan riders. If, as they hoped, they chose not to pursue, then all the better, but it never hurt to be cautious.
And then, of course, there was the matter of the towerman.
He was heading the same direction, no doubt. Perhaps he would stay in Jhidnu long enough to voice his complaints, perhaps he would simply head straight for Irontower. His smithsworn warrior was no longer with him—Jova had seen to that—but that didn’t mean Thun Doshrigaw was alone. The Hag Gar Gan could still be with him, and if they weren’t, there were always more mercenaries to be found in the city.
Thun Doshrigaw. It was too strange a name to forget. His name Jova remembered, but his voice she couldn’t. She had heard it too few times for it to stick.
As she laid there, Jova made up her mind. At Irontower, she would wait for Thun Doshrigaw.
She could imagine the conversation in her head. You’re not the first man whose skull I’ve crushed. Your man wasn’t either. Nothing pops, you know. The blood leaks out of your eyes first. Then the rest of the skull just cracks and crumbles, and whatever’s inside just dribbles away. Jova shuddered. The imagined dialogue both thrilled and horrified her, and she was horrified that she was thrilled.
She curled up tighter. The air grew colder the further north they went. It also grew colder the higher they walked, through the mountain pass that led to Irontower, and it also grew colder the more the winter dragged on. There’d be snows, soon: the first snows Jova had ever seen.
Odd, how it could snow so heavily in the Irontower when never a flake so much as touched its neighbor Jhidnu. Another one of the strange ways the Ladies had cobbled Albumere together, she supposed.
Can’t expect more from a half world, a voice seemed to whisper in her ear, and Jova twitched, although her limbs seemed suddenly heavy and her body weary. Her ears couldn’t hear anything; it was just her thoughts, echoing inside her own head. Can’t expect more from a place that’s at war with itself.
And then another voice spoke, in a breathless moan. You didn’t bury me. Was that Uten? Or was that Roan? Perhaps the ghosts of Ya Gol Gi and Copo had come to haunt her, too. You let my essence spill free. Now they’ve taken my life from me.
Jova almost opened her mouth to protest, but it felt like her teeth were glued shut. She could hear them, moving in dizzying circles around her, about her, inside her. They were not louder, for how could they be louder? They were as loud as silence. But they grew more angry and demanding.
Why didn’t you bury me? Ladies have wings, not roots. Can’t go under. You were there. Under the street. Deep, dark, dank places. Bad place for the living. Good place for the dead. Who cares about the seasons down there? Why didn’t you bury me? Jova, Jova, Jova. Why didn’t you bury me? JOVA. JOVA.
“Jova?” Ma shook her shoulder, and Jova sucked in a breath of bracing, cool air. “You dozed off. Supper’s ready.”
Jova sat up, massaging her temple, and clasped tight the wooden badge in her fingers. It was such a small thing, smooth but for the lines etched in its surface. She tried to make sense of the carving by touch alone, but it was too hard to tell.
She trudged the few steps she needed to sit by the fire, and squatted down as Da passed her a bowl. She took it, letting the steam waft into her face. It dampened her blindfold, but her blindfold had been plenty damp for quite some time.
There was a joy to it though, to hot food and Mo rubbing himself on her knees and Ma and Da sitting beside her. “Thanks,” she muttered, quietly, so quietly she wasn’t sure if her parents could hear her.
“There’s no need for that,” said Ma, kissing Jova on the forehead.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Da. “I’m the one who cooked it, and I rightly enjoy it when I get some appreciation.”
“We spent too long with those fieldmen refugees in the woods, their accent grew on you,” grumbled Ma, as she drank the soup. “And that’s not a good thing.”
Jova didn’t quite smile, but she drank. It was thin, the flavor weak, but it tasted better than anything Jova had eaten in days. Food in her gut, rather than shame and anger, was a nice change.
“What’s on this badge?” she asked, holding it out. Da’s calloused hand took it first.
“Well, where’d you find this, little Lady?” he asked, and Jova heard him tapping it with a fingernail. “There’s a crescent moon on it, and a cloud across it, all curves and spirals. Finely made little thing.”
He put it back in Jova’s palm, and she held it tightly. Had Roan mentioned the symbol before? She couldn’t remember. It had to do with the Dream Walkers, she was sure of it, although she imagined their insignia to be…different, somehow. Why a wooden badge? Of the Dream Walkers she knew, one had been a merchant, the other a pontiff, and the last an ambassador. She had somehow imagined them with golden chains on their neck, silver rings on their fingers, and ivory bands on their wrists. A wooden badge so small that it hid when she closed her fist seemed underwhelming.
She felt hands on the back of her head, but before she could act she realized it was just Da, braiding her hair. “You ate quickly,” she said, bowing her head as Da untangled her hair, which by now had grown long and wild.
“It was excellent cooking!” Da declared, and Jova heard Ma snort into her bowl beside her.
Jova drank slowly, enjoying the warmth as she felt it trickle down her throat, into her gut, through her body. The fire teased her with its heat, dancing closer, then farther, with the capricious wind. “The marble braid, Da?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said. “Marble soldiers are all warriors like you, my little Lady.”
For the first time in her life, when Da said that, it scared her. She didn’t want to be surrounded by warriors like her.
Ma must have noticed the expression on her face. Jova felt her embrace, and this time, she returned it. The scent of sweat and earth lingered around her, but to Jova, it was as sweet as any plutocrat’s perfume. “We’re so proud of you, Jova,” Ma said. “For being so…so strong and so brave while you were gone. And we’re so, so happy you’re back.”
“Me too,” said Jova. It was all she could think to say, but it was also everything she needed to say.
They spent the rest of the night there, huddled together, until Jova dozed off again. Ma must have carried her off to her bedroll, where Jova dreamed once again. This time it was of wooden clouds passing over the hooded eye of the Lady Fall, and a wooden man pointing at the orange glow of the sun on the horizon, although she could not tell if it was rising or setting.
Then she woke, and it was time to go.
Jova’s mind wandered as she walked; she didn’t have to pay too much attention to where she walked, with Ma holding her hand the entire way. At the Irontower, tell them: let the dead rest. Those were Roan’s instructions. Yet, how was she to let the dead rest, if they were the ones seeking her?
“This one here is Mount Mokesh,” said Da, with his running commentary as they walked. “Tallest of all the ones in the Hang, taller even than Mason’s Peak. The towermen believe the Lady Fall and the Lady Summer gave the First Smith the secret to steel-magic at the very summit of that mountain.”
Jova’s foot slipped on a loose rock, but Ma caught her before she fell. “Careful now,” said Ma. “Don’t pay too much attention to your da’s rambling if you can’t concentrate on where you step.”
“I’ll be fine, Ma,” said Jova, holding her arms out to keep her balance. They were walking uphill, toward a pass that lead to the Irontower valley, and the skeletons of shrubs clawed at her ankles and legs as she walked through them. The rocks wobbled when she stepped on them, but for the most part did not budge.
“On the other side is Fogenlaw,” said Da. His voice sounded distant, ahead of them, or perhaps that was just the wind. “They say it spit fire and molten rock before the Irontower was ever built, but it’s quiet now. Has been since before the time of kings.”
“I understand your knowing Moscoleon back to front, but how in the name of the summer-burnt wastes do you know so much about this place?” shouted Ma, as she led Jova around a square boulder, its edge keen and cold under the winter sun.
“The marblemen hated it!” Da sounded like he was running out of breath. “Partly because we used to own it, mostly because they’re better at doing what we did than we ever were. What would you rather have, a marble hammer or a steel sword?”
“I’d rather have the tabula of tigerbear, thank you,” said Ma, as they caught up with him. “Almost at the top of this hill, Jova. It’s down from there, into the valley, so don’t go too fast, OK?”
Da coughed. “Alright, then, let’s ask someone who’s not a savage wildling. What say you, Jova? A hammer or a sword?”
“The Lady Summer wields the Sunhammer,” said Jova. She felt a twist in her gut as she remembered the story she had told Chetan. It had been foolish to think of Roan as the champion from a story; even if they somehow came true in real life, Roan had never been a man to crush small things. Except, perhaps Jova. He had crushed her for nothing. “None of the Ladies have swords, though.”
“Oh, Anjan, we’ve ruined her! She’s a templechild, through and through.”
“Don’t listen to your father, dear, we need someone who can stay in the Ladies’ good graces. Careful, now, careful…”
“I’m fine, Ma,” she said, and stepped forward.
“There it is,” said Da. “The Irontower. It shines in the light, so, Jova. Come on, we’ll get so close you can touch it, my little Lady.”
They descended the slope, Mo scampering about their feet, Jova stepping slowly so as not to slip. Da kept talking, as they approached. “Not everyone can be a smith. This whole valley is full of farms, and there are miners up in the Greenskull Caverns. There’s some local tale about Greenskull, but I forget it…”
Deep, dark, dank places. Why didn’t you bury me? Jova flinched, thinking about caves. She had nothing to fear from them, she knew: after all, what did a blind girl care if a place had no light? But her hands still throbbed, and she could still feel the fire of the torch, so close to her skin it felt like she was burning.
There had been good caves, too, she reminded herself. Roan had trained her in the Teeth of the Abyss, those limestone tunnels near Temple Moscoleon. But Roan was gone now, and Moscoleon was barred from her. It was painful to think about it.
He was not all gone. He had one last instruction for her. At the Irontower, tell them: let the dead rest.
The ground evened out beneath them. Jova found herself walking a smooth, dirt path, which was a good deal easier on her bare feet than the pass from before. The valley around her felt oddly empty; Jova could hear the low moan of the wind, felt the dust around her ankles. She supposed the harvests had already been brought in for the winter.
“It’s creepy,” said Jova, and she gripped Ma’s hand a little tighter. “I don’t hear anyone.”
“They must all be inside,” said Anjan, squeezing Jova’s hand.
Irontower did not take kindly to strangers, Jova knew, but they had little other choice. It was either stop in the valley and trade for supplies, or let Jova walk through the Hang Mountains barefoot, in her ragged slave clothing, with nothing but a wood badge and a broken collar in her hands.
“Tell me what it looks like,” said Jova, as they drew closer. She could feel its shadow on her now. If she clicked her tongue, it was there: a solid mass, huge and imposing, in the center of an otherwise empty void.
“It’s tall, Jova,” said Ma, her voice filled with wonder. “Taller even than the Stone Ladies outside of Moscoleon. I don’t know how they could build it so tall without the wind knocking it over.”
“Is the whole city inside it?” asked Jova.
“As much as it can be called a city,” said Anjan, although she sounded hesitant. “Is that right, Ell?”
“The forgestokers never leave the tower, and all the forges are located inside,” said Ell. “But, to be honest, I don’t know. They need farms on the outside, and there are mining camps scattered throughout the mountains, but even the farmers and miners don’t really know what’s inside that tower.”
Jova clicked her tongue, and she heard it. The ring of the metal, soft and pure, responded to her. She walked forward, all the way forward, until she could put out her hand, and touch the Irontower. The metal sheeting on its side was frigid and cold.
“The merchant isn’t in the tower,” said Ma. “He’s on- Jova? Jova, where are you going? Jova!”
The girl felt the door handle, laid her palm flat against the entrance to the Irontower. She closed her hand into a fist.
Then she knocked. Four times.
Jova felt Ma’s hands around her waist, pulling her away, just as the door began to creak open. Before Ma could say anything, before even the towerman on the other side could speak, Jova raised the wooden badge.
“Let the dead rest,” she said.
There was silence. Ma had stopped moving, although she still held Jova tightly. Jova could hear the echoing inside the tower, the dim sounds of hammers on anvils and steel being drawn somewhere far above her. Then, the man who had opened the door said four simple words.
“Not here, Dream Walker.”
Jova had heard a peckerbeetle once in her life. It had bored into the side of the tree near her house in Moscoleon and had spent the rest of the day knocking its beak against the trunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. The incessant rhythm had been enough to drive a seeing man to madness, but to Jova it had been near torture.
Sovar-l’hana’s writing was worse. Scribble. Scribble. Scribble. Dip, tap-tap. Jova wasn’t sure if she had ever heard Sovar-l’hana without the constant scratch of his quill.
He wasn’t even writing contracts, for Jova’s sale or anyone else’s; from Darpah’s neurotic mutterings, Jova had learned that the slaves prepared those, and “the master” just signed off on them. By extension, Jova had learned that Darpah could read, write, and apparently understood Jhidnu trade law. It was odd, how a man like that could be so educated and yet so servile.
Jova shook her head. It wasn’t odd, with a tabula. She had never known the terror of having her soul held by another person. Who was she to judge?
She flexed her fingers. She was in some position to judge. Her palms were far from healed, but they no longer leaked blood, which Jova supposed was a good thing. Darpah had just changed the bandages a few hours ago, starting half-conversations with Jova while stopping and admonishing himself the whole time, but her hands were still grimy and slick.
The master tapped his knuckles on the desk, and the air rippled. So quick was the summoning that Jova barely heard the hum of the tabula.
A part of her wished she had met Sovar-l’hana under different circumstances. A man like him must have known everything there was to know tabula. Perhaps even something that would have helped Jova.
“It’s done,” said Sovar-l’hana, and Jova cocked her head. Which dog had he summoned this time? “Give him the girl, and this as well. If the seal breaks before it gets where it needs to go, both the intended recipient and I will be very displeased. And you know how I am when I’m displeased, ha!”
“Ay,” muttered the man. Too subdued to be Dandal. Too insolent to be Darpah.
“Good morning, Chetan,” Jova muttered, as the slave limped to her side.
“How is it good?” he growled back, and yanked on her chain. Jova stumbled after him, doing her best to follow without knowing where he was leading her. She resisted the urge to claw at the collar around her neck. As she had laid there in the slave pens last night, she had realized something: everyone wore the chains, but only she had to follow them. Like an animal that couldn’t be reasoned with, she had to be pulled and tugged where she needed to go.
Was this what Ma had meant, that bad people would hurt her if they knew her secret? That they would no longer treat her as a person?
Jova stumbled down the steps of Sovar-l’hana’s mansion, her head bowed. She had never been treated as a person. These men treated her like beasts, it was true, but Ma and Da, as loving as they had been, had handled her like a fragile object that could be broken at any time. Arim had used her as a path to a better life. The Hag Gar Gan had seen her as an amusing pet at best.
Rho Hat Pan had lived some kind of redemptive fantasy through her. She had been a convenience for him, nothing more.
It dawned on Jova that no one, in her entire life, had ever acted as if she was her own person, and she didn’t even have a tabula for them to hold. That was just how people were.
Chetan, as direct and business-like as he was, walked slowly. Sometimes, Jova would stop, and he would have to tug and pull on her chain to get her moving again. When he did, he would wince and stumble, and Jova took some small pleasure in that. It was her rebellion, as little as it was.
She stopped doing that, after nearly half an hour of walking, though. It must have been hard on him, with his limp, and it had quickly turned from rebellious to cruel. Was he really taking her all the way to the city limits?
It must have been so convenient, summoning and all the ways it could be exploited. One tap of the finger and Chetan had been whisked from Ladies knew where to do his master’s bidding. There were so many ways it could be used, if only people were a bit more trusting. If only, Jova thought, they could afford a bit more trust.
Jova scratched her chest. She never had the chance to try, but after everything that had happened, perhaps it was better that she hadn’t.
It was slow progress. A couple times, as she followed the sounds of his steps, Jova nearly passed Chetan. She settled for walking beside him, listening to his unsteady gait and the clink of her chains.
She didn’t know how much longer she had in Jhidnu. If they truly were leaving, then she had not long at all.
She wouldn’t miss the city much. She had been so young when she left, so afraid and so confused, that it hadn’t felt like home in the slightest. But Mo was here, and she had hoped to find her parents, to at least speak to them before she was taken away…
“I’m going to ask you a question,” said Jova, as they walked. “Is that all right?”
“Harder to break than you seem,” growled Chetan. “You’re bought and paid for. Ask your question if you want, but mind your tongue around master Doshrigaw.”
“Where did you get your limp?”
Chetan didn’t answer her. He just hobbled on, and Jova followed him. She didn’t mind the breaks in the conversation; she was used to them. Finally, as he pulled her down a street corner, he spoke. “There’s a story behind it.”
“Then tell me a story,” said Jova. She bit her lip. Was that too impudent?
“You’re surrounded by stories, girl,” said Chetan. “City’s full of them, and they’re all tragedies. Darpah’s got a story. Dandal, the arrogant sod, he’s got a story. Sovar has two stories, before and after he earned the name l’hana. Everyone you know has got a fucking story.”
“You’re the only one I know with a limp.”
“Really? You’re not the only blind girl I know, or the only zealot, or the only one who’s missing her tabula, even.” Chetan’s grip loosened on Jova’s chain. His tone grew wistful. “There’s no point in knowing my story, girl. What do the names Jetta and Krish and Kal Matushew mean to you? You’ll just forget. The only story that matters is your own.”
The city of light grew more subdued, quieter and less rank, as they walked further and further from its center. Jova could no longer hear the moans from beneath the streets. “Is that what you tell yourself, when you’re nailing our hands to the walls?” asked Jova.
“It’s the truth, little girl,” said Chetan, although it was without his customary growl. He sounded tired, not angry.
“The truth is that all people have stories. You tell yourself that they don’t matter.”
Chetan wheezed. It almost sounded like he was laughing. “Little girl, you are too wise to be a slave.”
“As are you,” said Jova. “I just wish you were kinder.”
“And I wish you were crueler. There’s all kinds of pain on Albumere. It makes people swell with all manner of sin, until there’s no room left for kindness.”
They lapsed into silence, as Jova wondered about the mystery of Chetan’s limp.
“Could I tell you a story, then?” she asked, as they walked.
“Speak, if you will. I shall not stop you.”
“It’s from the scripture of Moscoleon,” said Jova. She furrowed her brow; her memory was foggy, but she could remember it well enough. It had been one of her favorites, when she had sat at the feet of Pontiff Zain and listened to his booming voice. “It’s about the Lady Summer, and how she earned her wings.”
She didn’t miss Chetan’s derisive grunt. They did not hold the goddesses in particularly high esteem, in Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, but they held to them, nonetheless. What other gods were there to worship? The walking trees? The demons of the Deep?
“She, the youngest and least of the Ladies, called to them. ‘Come, sisters, I have a new game!’ she said. They flew down to meet her, and her heart grew sick with envy, for she could not yet fly. ‘See the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs? Whoever smites the most shall be the winner.’”
“‘What is the wager?’ said the Lady Fall, who cared not for the game but wished to know more of her sister’s heart.”
“‘I do not like this game,’ said the Lady Winter, who was gentle and loving. ‘What have the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs done to wrong us?’”
“Nothing, said the Lady Spring, for her sister was not yet worthy to speak to.”
“The Lady Summer had a plan, from the start. ‘If I win this game,’ she said, ‘then the loser shall give me their wings. Spring, you bear the wings of the lady bird. Winter, you bear the wings of the owl. Fall, you bear the wings of the bat. You have all had them for so long, while I have had none. It is only fitting that we share.’”
“The Lady Spring nodded, and her sisters agreed in turn. Though her sisters were swift in the air, the Lady Summer looked upon the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs, and burned them with her light. She crushed them with her hammer, and delighted in her slaughter, for though she could not fly, she felt no need to as a titan among lesser things. She won by a great score, and returned to her sister’s full of pride.”
“But the Lady Winter looked upon her with sadness, for she had not slain a single one of the antbeetles, or the flies, or the wandering bugs, but put them in a long sleep with her breath. And the Lady Fall looked upon her with knowing, for she had listened to the secrets of all those who had curled in the shadows to die before taking their small lives. And the Lady Spring looked upon her with no feeling on her face, and spoke thus: ‘You have won your game, and for this we shall not give you our wings, but make you new wings, wings of your own.’”
“The Lady Summer’s joy lasted for but a second, for then the Lady Spring turned her into a beetle, with wings dyed the color of the blood she had spilt, with dark spots like all the bodies she had crushed, and the sun no longer shone and the first night came. The Lady Summer fled into the world, and hid, for though she had wings, now she was a small thing. She saw the Lady Spring wander the world, and with Summer’s fire restore life to the flies she had crushed, and thus were born the summer flies, who still light the way by night, and the Lady Summer saw a great beauty in the things she had killed.”
“She saw their beauty, and yet did not dare to follow it, for in the dark of the night all manner of things that could kill a little beetle still lurked. For the first time, the Lady Summer felt pity.”
“The Lady Spring restored the Lady Summer on the first dawn of the first morning, but left her the wings: a lady bug’s wings, red, dotted with black. ‘Take you your hammer,’ said the Lady Spring. ‘And with it, lend strength to the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs, for you know both the minds of the hunter and the hunted.’”
“And the Lady Summer wept, for this was the first time she had seen her sister smile, and she joined her sisters in flight, for now she was worthy. Every night, when the suns dips below the horizon, the Lady Summer becomes a lady bug again, and is led by the summer flies, to remember what it is to be small.”
Jova stopped. The images—the light of the summer flies, the fluttering of the beetle wings, the Lady Summer’s great marble hammer—danced in her mind like a dream long forgotten.
“Well told. Perhaps in another life you could have been a pontiff,” said Chetan, his voice very hoarse. “But it is a story for children. I do not see what it proves.”
Jova reached out, feeling for Chetan’s hands, and he did not resist when she put her ruined palms over his. “Take you your hammer, and with it lend strength to us,” she said. “For you know both the minds of the slaver and the enslaved.”
Chetan’s wheezing grew harsher, until he was bent double with hacking coughs. “I am no champion,” he said, when he had gathered the strength to speak. “Kindness ill fits me still, little girl.”
Jova let his hands go, and bowed her head once more. She wasn’t sure why she had said that to him, this man who had driven nails into her hands. Perhaps it was because it pained her to know a good man did such terrible things. Perhaps it was because he was not a good man at all.
“Go. Take these letters, and deliver them to your new master. He is waiting,” said Chetan, giving her a push in the right direction. It was some kind of encampment, by the sounds of it, well beyond the limits of Jhidnu-by-the-Sea. “I will not see you again.”
“And I have never seen you,” said Jova, as she shuffled away. “But despite what you think, I will remember you, and the little part I played in your story.”
“Farewell, little girl,” said Chetan, firmly, and he turned and limped down the path, back to the city of light.
As Jova walked, clutching the two rolls of parchment in her hands, towards the sound of people packing and preparing for the trip to Irontower, she realized why she had told Chetan the story of the Lady Summer’s wings.
He had, in his own, twisted way, treated her like a person. No one tortured an animal. And he’d listened to her, even if he still disagreed. He’d said she had a story.
Odd, how the Ladies worked like that.
“Slothful Sovar-l’hana is too fat to come himself,” droned a voice, almost bored, in a nasal monotone. Jova had heard it before, but had trouble placing it. “I should have expected as much.” The voice drew closer to her, and she felt hands take the letters out of her grip.
“Letters for Thun Doshrigaw,” said Jova, keeping her head low. She didn’t know much about the towermen. No one did. Until then, she would expect the worst.
“Then he is ever so pleased to have received them,” said the man, and she heard the sound of the seal breaking. “You, there! Take her with the rest.”
“Yup,” said a female voice. Heavy. Low. This one Jova recognized.
“Dock?” she hissed, as someone else took her chain. It was disconcerting, being pushed and pulled by so many people at once.
Something was pushed into Jova’s hand, something wrapped in cloth with a handle and a hard surface beneath. “Don’t talk,” said Dock. “They ain’t seen me yet.”
“Don’t talk,” Dock repeated. Simple, blunt, matter-of-fact. “Only two towermen. Rest are Hag Gar Gan, contracted as guards and escorts. My job, or it should have been. And slaves. Remember our deal?”
Kill Dal Ak Gan. Earn your freedom. Jova nodded, keeping to Dock’s “don’t talk” rule.
“We walk past. You stab. He dies. I get you out,” said Dock. Jova could smell the manure of horses, the Do Yash spices that the sandmen liked so much. “Mounts can’t follow us into the city. You ready?”
Sweat began to break out on Jova’s brow. The knife, wrapped in cloth, felt like it would tumble out of her clumsy hands. A question came to mind, but she bit it back. She wasn’t to talk, or say Dock’s name. But, like the question of Chetan’s limp, she couldn’t help but wonder: why couldn’t Dock do this herself? Didn’t she own her own tabula?
Everybody had their own story. Jova had met so many people since she had left Moscoleon, and she had barely scratched the surface of what those stories were.
“On your left,” said Dock. “Get ready.”
Jova’s grip tightened. Why did Dock need her? Why did Dock want Dal Ak Gan dead so badly? Obviously the mercenary had been wronged, but Dock was in far more danger than a simple grudge demanded.
It didn’t matter. Jova would kill Dal Ak Gan, and she would earn her freedom. She could return to Jhidnu, and continue the search for her mother and father, and she would never again have to bow to the likes of Sovar-l’hana and his cabal of slavers.
Chetan was right. This was a cruel world that left no room for kindness.
But even as Jova wrapped her fingers around the handle of the dagger, she knew she didn’t believe that. Those other men she had killed had been out of fear, necessity, panic. And right now she knew that no matter what she chose to do, she would live either way. Dal Ak Gan would not. She didn’t need to do this.
“Do it now,” whispered Dock. “Do it.”
Where was Alis? What good were Dock’s promises to her?
Jova was just a knife to her. Not a person. What did it say about the world, that the only time Jova felt she had been treated as a person was when she was being dragged by a chain through the streets?
Dock’s probably going to kill me, Jova thought, almost as an afterthought, as she dropped the dagger. It rolled out of her hands, tumbling out of the cloth, and that was when the chaos started.
The mercenary did not scream out a protest or howl in frustration. She merely shoved Jova aside and reached for the ground. Jova heard it, detail by tiny detail. The crunch of dirt as Dock stepped forward and swept the dagger up, the rush of air as Dock flipped it a hair’s breadth from Jova’s face, the concentrated grunt as she plunged it into Dal Ak Gan’s back.
A horse screamed, and there was a crack like a bone snapping. Dock was knocked onto her back, skidding across the ground. The sandmen shouted, the hum of tabula beginning at once all around her. Was that La Ah Abi shouting? Was that Dep Sag Ko, mounting his eelhound? She heard barking, harsh and fierce.
Strong hands gripped Jova by the arm, and she was lifted bodily into a burly man’s arms. The rhythm of horse hooves was familiar to her.
“Anjan! Ell! Now is the time!” screamed a voice that Jova had never been so happy to hear in her entire life.
“Rho Hat Pan?” she whispered, as Stel reared and nickered. “…Roan?”
“Lies are not becoming me, Jova girl,” grunted Roan, and there was a crack of a whip as the shouting grew louder, angrier. “You see how all things are falling apart when the truth is not told? Why, in the name of the Ladies, were you part of that harebrained Dock’s schemes?”
Jova still did not understand. She clutched Roan’s chest, too shocked to make sense of the sounds around her, too confused to care. Before she knew what she was doing, Jova hit him in the chest. “You told me the truth was a shield!” she shouted, unable to hold back tears that were equal parts relief and anger. “You- you told me…”
“Zat, zat, Stel!” shouted Roan, and the horse galloped hard. The bouncing nearly jostled Jova from her seat, but she clung onto Roan even tighter. “Sometimes shields must be being lowered, Jova girl. And sometimes…I am making mistakes. Anjan! Ell!”
The barking grew louder. It was no eelhound that was making that noise.
“My little Lady,” sobbed Ma, and she clutched Jova close as Roan let her down from his horse. There was still shouting from behind them, and Roan quickly turned, shouting in the imperial tongue and snapping his whip.
“You came back to us,” said Da. He sounded sickly and hoarse, but happy.
Jova was speechless. Nothing made sense anymore. Minutes ago, she had been preaching to the man who tortured her, she had been about to become an assassin, and now people who betrayed her had always been loyal and people who loved her had never left. “I never got the chance to say goodbye,” said Jova, and she hugged her parents tightly.
“And you’ll never need it,” whispered Anjan, holding Jova close. “Never again.”
“Anjan! Ell! Remember yourselves!” shouted Roan. “Clear a path! Jova—upon Stel. There is little time for explaining. Take this.”
As Mo’s barks turned from happy to vicious, as she heard Da draw his knives and heard Ma’s vicious scream, Jova clambered behind Roan. It felt somehow right to be there, again.
Roan pressed something into her hand, as he kicked Stel into a full gallop. Jova felt it, struggling to maintain a hold as Stel bounced beneath her. It was two things, actually: a tabula, still warm from Roan’s touch, and what felt like a wooden disk, about the same size but with a rougher surface pockmarked with cuts.
Jova heard the men and women in front of them scatter as Roan snapped his whip. For a moment, it sounded less like a whip and more like the marble hammer, and the pack on his back felt like the shell of a lady bug’s wings. He remembered what it was to be small. Perhaps he had always remembered.
“Roan,” Jova said. This time, she knew the question to ask. She opened her mouth to speak…
And someone else cut her off. “Stop and return to your people,” said the man she knew as Thun Doshrigaw. “Now.”
They did not slow at all. “He is unarmed and unarmored,” muttered Roan. “We will ride past him.”
Jova began to speak, but something held her tongue. A feeling, in the pit of her stomach.
Then something slammed into Stel so hard that it sent both of the horse’s riders tumbling into the grass. Dimly, Jova heard the humming of a tabula, and the presence of another man, where previously there had been none. Jova heard a clank of metal, and a chill ran down her spine. Her stomach dropped as she realized what had happened. All the ways summoning could be exploited…
A man in full armor would never have been able to catch a man on horseback. But a man in full armor could very easily stand in his way.
She scrambled to her feet, still clutching the tabula and the disk in her hands. “Roan! Roan!” she cried, clicking her tongue. He was a distance ahead of her, lying on the ground, struggling to sit upright.
“At the Irontower, show them the badge. Be telling them: let the dead rest.”
And if Jova had been afraid before, she was terrified now. “Roan, what do you mean? Am I still going to Irontower? Why do I-?”
Stel screamed for one soul-wrenching, blood-curdling moment before something cut her screams short. A sound, like meat being sliced.
The ground beside her exploded in a shower of dirt, and Jova realized with a start that the tabula in her hands was humming. The energy of her fear and shock must have translated into it, and now Uten stood, huffing in distress, beside her.
“Come on, Roan, let’s go!” Jova shouted, pulling on Roan’s arm, but she had not the strength to pull him up. When she tried to adjust her grip, she cried out in pain as her palms opened up again, and blood began to trickle down her fingers. And the rattle of armor grew closer, slowly, steadily, inexorably.
“Let the dead rest, Jova girl. Do not mourn me,” said Roan. He pushed Jova away, his stumps of legs unmoving. “I will tell Janwye you still think of her.”
Jova moved automatically, clambering on top of Uten, gripping the molebison’s fur and trying to point her towards the smithsworn warrior. She would fight him off, she would…
And then she heard the thud of the broadsword. Like meat being sliced.
Her whole body tensed. Jova screamed, and whatever rational, human part of her remained shrank back into the dark corners of her mind. The tabula hummed until it felt like the whole world was shaking with her, and a different blindness settled on her. Black became red, and all was forfeit to her rage.
The smithsworn raised his sword to prepare a defense, cutting Uten along the side, but that was all he managed to do. Uten slammed into him with a blow that would have flattened a lesser man, Jova still screaming on her back. The molebison slammed her paws on the man’s helmet, again and again, and Jova felt each blow viscerally through the animal. It wasn’t just the shudders of the impact, it was as if she was the animal itself.
She felt everything. Felt the man’s skull shatter inside his metal helmet. Felt his blood oozing out through the cracks. Felt a sorrow that threatened to overwhelm her as she realized that no matter how much of this man’s life she took away, she would never get Roan’s back.
He kissed the ribbon she used to wear in her hair before putting it gently back on the altar. “Lady Winter,” Zain whispered, tracing the holy sign over the base of his throat. “Give her my best regards. Thank you for showing her mercy, and kindness.”
Zain waited, listening to the steady drip-drip-drip of the pool before the Lady Winter’s altar. The water flowed freely for most of the year, and only when it had frozen entirely were supplicants allowed to walk across and touch the statue of the Lady Winter.
“I miss you, Nonna,” said Zain, eventually. “We all miss you. Roan is as he is ever, mucking about with his animals, dreaming of better days. Janwye will return later tonight, to prepare for Ladies know what. I feel she has lost sight of what we were trained to do. She thinks only of the good of her people, not the good of us all. She is not ready for the sacrifices we were trained to make.”
He stopped, and listened to the drip-drip-drip.
“Of the sacrifice you made,” he added, quietly. Zain sighed. “I serve your Lady as diligently as ever. I am coming to understand why you all loved her so much in that chilly fortress of yours so far north, and while I might never see with eyes of an iceman I am beginning think like one. And I…I…”
Zain stuttered to a halt. He closed his eyes and cursed himself, under his breath. Even when she was dead, he was still too coward to say it.
“I miss you, Nonna,” he finished, quietly, and rose, sweeping the dust off of his robes. He traced the tattoos on his neck and chest again, and sighed, the memory of their etching lingering in his brain. No matter how much draught of the poppy they had given him, the tattoos had hurt.
Then again, Zain reasoned, they had not hurt nearly as much as her passing, and that was what the draught of the poppy had really been trying to mask.
He rubbed his swollen eyes, trying to block out the dull buzz in his ears as he walked up the winding staircase of his house of the Ladies. Mosaic windows glittered past him, each depicting the Lady Winter in some shape or form: her face kindly, her pose always gentle, the owl wings behind her back curled as if in embrace.
The Keeper of the Broken, the scriptures called her. The Mother Loving. And, Zain had to remind himself, The Shadow of Death.
The touch of the Lady Winter was the touch of mercy, of kindness, of generosity. It was an end to pain, a respite from a cruel world, a brief rest before one’s essence entered the game of worlds once more. Zain had come to peace with this long ago.
All the same, it felt selfish to leave the living with all the burdens of the dead.
The pontiff ascended to his private chambers. He didn’t use it often; perhaps the richly furnished bed, with its thick blankets and fall goose-feather pillows, would have suited the proud pontiffs of spring, but Zain preferred his hard slab of a sleeping table in his run-down, poor tenement. It kept him closer to his people, and his faith.
Zain sat heavily at his pontiff’s desk, reaching for his wax writing tablet. It had been sitting over the fire as he prayed, and now he smoothed it out with a flat stone, wiping the slate clean.
He set to work carving the letters in with his copper stylus, tongue poking out between his teeth as he wrote. It was tortuous work. He envied the scribes in the Seat of the King with their inks and their pens and their parchment. Those were the inventions of the modern world, while Temple Moscoleon puttered around in the dust of the other great cities: Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, Irontower, even sleepy Shira Hay had outpaced them.
But, alas, Keep Tlai enjoyed the trappings of an older age, and so the Temple obeyed. Zain scratched the glyphs into the clay, brow furrowed as he tried to think of an argument that would sway the conservative Keep. Moscoleon was a historical ally of Alswell; audience would be granted on that factor alone. But to truly convince her, who had practically cut the Temple off from the outside ever since Ironhide had taken the throne all those years ago?
Setting his stylus aside, Zain steeped his fingers together and thought. He had to think every word through before he wrote even one more down.
It would have been easier, a rebellious little voice in the back of his head whispered, if the Keep was a Walker as well, but even the brotherhood could not hope to have such far reaching power. Zain had even entertained fantasies of bidding for the Keep in his younger years, but joining one house of the Ladies had been hard enough. Joining all four, and then inheriting the divine declamation would have been near impossible.
Not if the post had been meant for him, Zain reminded himself. If the post had truly been his, then the Ladies would have guided him down the path the whole way. It was the Ladies’ will that Tlai should be Keep, and that was that. The wisdom of their decision would be proven eventually.
He shook his head and set back to work. It did not do to dwell on the past.
“Let the dead rest,” Zain muttered, under his breath, as he worked. The path to reach Keep Tlai was clear to him now. His would be a supplication: firm, but showing respect, appealing to the memories of Keeps past. To aid Alswell was solemn duty—nay, tradition, despite any tensions that had risen since the No-Hand War.
If only, if only, the words let him be so eloquent. Zain had limited space on the tablet, and had to carve cramped, tight letters into the wax, more a proposal than poetry. It irked him.
The motion was so rote and automatic that Zain’s mind began to wander again. He thought of the girl, Jova, and Roan. Would sending them to Alswell work? It was a way to get the girl out of the city, but more than that, it was a way to get Roan moving. Zain’s friend had grown restless in the Temple, and even now Zain squirmed at his false piety. It had been no fault of his; Zain did not doubt Roan’s honest intentions when he came to the peninsula and changed his name. But when his faith had not yet reaped its rewards…
No, it was better to send Roan out. Janwye would keep an eye on him, even while giving him the space to be Rho Hat Pan again. It was…healthy.
Zain’s hand was shaking too much to continue using the stylus. He put the utensil down, breathing deeply through his nostrils. It was the right decision to make, because it was the decision he had made. There was no point in regretting it now.
He could only hope that Albumere would be kind to Roan on this latest journey, the journey Zain had sent him on. The pontiff did not think he could live with causing the death of another friend.
As Zain began to write again, he found himself wondering whether perhaps Roan’s faith had been rewarded. It had taken years—countless years—but eventually he had found her. The blind girl. It had filled Roan with purpose again, with life.
More than that, said Zain’s practical side, it had brought fresh blood into the ranks. The last generation of the brotherhood was growing old. Zain traced the crescent moons embroidered on his cuffs, contemplative. The time was coming to pass the secrets of the Dream Walkers onto the youth.
His thoughts were jarred by a sudden clattering downstairs. Zain shifted, reaching for the trove of tabula hidden under his desk immediately. Gifts and taxes from hunters who foraged the wild jungles: Zain did not know what the amber was bound to, but each disk promised strength.
“Zain!” screamed a voice, female. “Pontiff Zain! I know you’re here! Get out!”
Something crashed at the foot of the stairs, and Zain’s heart quickened. The mosaics of the Lady Winter were precious works of art that he would not have vandalized. More than that, he had left Nonna’s ribbon on the altar below…
He rose and swept across the room quickly, concealing three tabula, chosen at random, in his sleeve. It was always good to have options.
“Anjan, show respect,” hissed another voice, one that Zain was more familiar with. Anjan was usually so withdrawn, so quiet, so reverent, that he had not recognized that angry, desperate scream. Ell still had the presence of mind to sound like himself, though. “He’s not going to-.”
Something snapped and barked, the harsh, jagged, animal sound echoing around the chambers of the house. Zain began to take the steps two at a time.
“How dare you, Ell? She’s gone. Jova is gone and you want to spend time dancing around with your- your civilized etiquette and your fucking manners and proper behaviors and-.”
“Anjan! She’s my daughter, too.”
Zain froze. He sucked in a sharp breath. So it was true? The couple’s behavior had always been suspicious, and Roan would never stop with his conspiracies and ancient prophecies, but if these two had truly kept a daughter so long after the Fallow…
“Lady Winter, what did you do?” he whispered, clutching the walls of the staircase, almost at the bottom. He took a moment to compose himself, before taking the last few steps and striding out the door of the stairwell, imperious, in command.
He nearly bolted when he saw the wild woman standing in front of the altar. Her long hair was in disarray, loose strands dangling around her face, and blood coated her cheeks, her chin, her forearms, her clothes. Her unwashed clothes only added to her frenzied appearance, and she stank of the scent of the jungle. Zain took a step back, realizing for the first time in three years just how much taller Anjan was than him.
One of the woodcut offerings to the Lady lay in pieces on the ground in front of her, shattered splinters of wood littering the stone floor. The woman’s weaseldog snarled and snapped beside her, the burn scars on its face stark and livid. Behind her, Ell stood, his face passive, his stance neutral, but his knife drawn: cold death in capable hands.
“Where is she?” hissed Anjan, and her voice sounded more like a demon of the deep than anything mortal.
Zain hesitated. Which would help more, the blunt truth or the comfortable lie? What lie might he even tell?
He had spent too long thinking. Anjan grabbed the back of his neck and bashed his head against the side of the altar; a little dribble of red began to diffuse into the pool, as Zain slumped, his vision flashing white.
“If you think I wouldn’t kill you because you’re a pontiff, you are wrong,” snarled Anjan, putting a knee on his chest. “I wouldn’t hesitate.”
“Like mother, like daughter,” mumbled Zain, before he could stop himself, head rolling, thoughts swimming.
Before he had the time to blink, a knife was at his throat, and Ell asked, very calmly, “What did you just say, Zain?”
His fingers touched the tabula in his sleeve. Was it worth it? Two strong hunter’s beasts would have been enough to take both of them down. Zain’s eyes flickered from hateful Anjan to cruel Ell. It would have been easy.
“I said that Jova has left the city,” said Zain. He had to tilt his chin up as the knife pressed a little harder, right over his tattoos as a pontiff of winter. “This city can no longer shelter her. She is with friends. Safe, as safe as she can be.”
“She’s not with us,” said Anjan, and the weaseldog barked as if in agreement. “If she’s not with us, then she’s in danger.”
Ell turned the knife up, the barest pressure cutting a thin red line on Zain’s throat. “Where? With who?”
“North, to Jhidnu,” said Zain, immediately. Lady Fall bless him, a lie was required here. He would not have this bloodthirsty pair hunting down Roan, not when the man had important work left to do. “I remembered that was where she came from. I felt she would be most comfortable there.”
“Why not here?” screamed Anjan, face red. “Why wouldn’t she be comfortable here? Why did you drive her out, Zain?”
It was no use trying to placate her. Zain closed his eyes, ready for the worst. He had done all he could for himself, now. It was up to the Lady Winter to decide his fate, all a matter of mercy and cruelty.
The blade left his throat, and Zain coughed, covering the cut with his hands and breathing deeply. “Come on, Anjan,” he heard Ell say. “We move fast, we can catch them before they get too far onto the road.”
Anjan did not even bother to reply; she ran out the door, the weaseldog bounding behind her. Ell gave Zain one last disgusted look before running behind them, knife still in hand.
Zain let the three tabula in his sleeve slip away, and massaged his throat, chest heaving. He watched the door, considering what retribution he might call on the couple for attacking a pontiff in his own house.
Finally, he decided against it. Mercy for mercy. There was no point in pursuing them. He had led them astray; he had done what he had to do.
Even then, it would have reflected poorly on him if he had forgiven Copo’s murderer but had persecuted some mere assailants. He clasped his hands together and sighed. Lady Winter forgive him for his responsibilities, but sometimes the brotherhood came first.
He looked up, to his chambers and his work, and told himself that he had to finish the supplication to the Keep before Janwye returned. For some reason, though, he could not find the strength in his legs to get up.
It was beginning to dawn on him, as blood oozed around the cut on his throat, that he had been seconds away from dying. As much as he had told himself he had come to peace with his death…
Zain bit his hand to try and stop it from shaking. He hadn’t been made for the frontlines. Brave Nonna, stalwart Roan, headstrong Janwye: they were all warriors and soldiers. But Zain, cowardly Zain, had always made his decisions from behind the shelter of his friends, and whenever he made an error they were the ones who suffered the consequences.
He could only hope that he bought Roan enough time with his lie. Things had become drastic indeed if a pontiff had to tell falsehoods in a house of the Ladies.
Step by tortuous step, Zain rose to his feet. He had strength enough for this.
But when he was about to walk away, he heard something behind him. Zain twitched, turning around, hand reaching for his throat again. Had they returned? Would he have to defend himself?
Silence. There was nothing.
Zain turned slowly, keeping his head down while he kept his eyes trained behind him. To any outsider, it would have looked as if he was looking at the altar, perhaps praying…
And he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Something small, fast, nimble, moving too quick to get a good look. It had emerged from behind the benches that rang the house’s outer chamber, where the layman worshippers would sit, and was making for the door when Zain turned around and shouted, “Stop!”
The something was a wild child boy, small, scruffy, dirty, and the moment he heard Zain he sprinted for the exit. Zain ran to follow, his sandals slapping on the stones, his gut already twisting from the effort and pain. Zain breathed deeply, puffing out his cheeks as he ran, and cursed the day becoming a pontiff had made a sedentary life for him.
Whoever the boy was, though, he was no Shira Hay racer. He stumbled and tripped outside, bouncing across the street, and was only just recovering when Zain pressed his foot on the boy’s back.
“Identify yourself, boy,” snarled Zain, pushing down on the struggling child. For the second time today, he appreciated the Ladies’ foresight; weight was something he could make an advantage.
Some pilgrims and passersby stopped and stared, but upon seeing the tattoos on Zain’s neck they kept walking quickly. Whatever a pontiff did became Temple business, and no one wanted to interfere with Temple business.
The boy stopped squirming, and lay flat on the ground. He mumbled something into the ground.
“Identify yourself!” Zain said, louder, his voice booming. It was his authoritative voice: the voice of the pontiff, the voice of the commander.
“Arim!” said the boy, spitting dirt out of his mouth. “My name is Arim.”
“And what were you doing sneaking around in my house, Arim?” said Zain, pressing harder. The boy said nothing, and Zain dragged him up, holding tightly onto the boy’s dirty collar. “Come, then. Perhaps your tongue will be loosened on the altar of the Ladies.”
The boy screamed, struggling for all he was worth as Zain pulled him back towards the house.
When they stepped inside, Zain threw him onto the ground, and then turned and pulled the wooden sliding doors shut behind him, letting the heavy plank fall into the lock. On the back of the doors was another carving of the Lady Winter, her wings extended, her expression stern.
The boy called Arim looked up, and quailed under Zain’s glare.
Zain looked at the boy for several seconds, and then sighed. He sat down on the supplicant’s bench and looked at the boy, leaving the door unguarded. It would still take him time to lift the bar holding it closed, but Zain wasn’t going to stop him.
“Arim, you said? That’s a slave name,” said Zain.
“A freed name,” said Arim, quickly, backing away. He sat on the ground, tense and jittery.
Zain nodded, smiling encouragingly. “I was a slave once, too, a long time ago. Being free makes all the difference in the world, doesn’t it?”
Arim’s gaze flickered to the altar at the center of the house, at the steady drip-drip-drip of water into the pool. “Are you going to sacrifice me for the Ladies now?” he asked, quietly, not looking at Zain.
“Sacrifice is only for those worthy of it,” said Zain. “It is an honor, not a punishment.” Arim looked so confused that Zain asked, “Are you truly a templechild, boy?”
“Yes,” said Arim, immediately. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I see many pilgrims, every day,” said Zain. “From many places far away. I see many more who are not pilgrims but nonetheless come from places far away. They, too, do not understand that sacrifice in the name of the Ladies is a privilege.”
The boy looked towards the door again, and licked his lips. “Are any of these people coming to see you today?”
“Not today,” said Zain. “Not on a holy day. The houses of the pontiffs are closed but for official ceremony on holy days, which is why I was wondering why you were in here…”
“It didn’t stop them,” said Arim, and then immediately he bit his lip.
Zain raised an eyebrow. “The couple? What did you want with them?”
Drip-drip-drip went the pool at the altar. The boy looked at the floor, tracing a dirty fingernail along the stone. “I knew the girl they were talking about.”
“As did I.”
“Is it true that she’s going to Jhidnu?” asked Arim, suddenly. He looked up, and his face was earnest.
Zain’s voice was even. “Do you intend on following her?”
The boy looked back down again and resumed his inspection of the floor. “No,” he muttered. “And good riddance. I just wanted to know.” His words were vindictive, but his head hung and his back slumped.
The pontiff of winter didn’t say anything. Sometimes, these people just needed the silence to open up long enough for them to talk.
He looks like me, realized Zain, with a start. Former slave, now freed, templechild. This Arim looked like Zain had before he had met Nonna, before Marion had taken him under his wing, before Roan and Janwye and the Walkers.
He looked like a coward, in need of saving.
“They really do act like real parents, don’t they?” said Arim, finally. “So concerned for her. They looked like…like they were going to tear this whole place apart for her. Like a real mother and father.”
“And how,” said Zain, slowly, “Do you know what a real mother and father are?”
Arim opened his mouth, a little surprised. He furrowed his eyebrows. “I don’t…I don’t know.” There was real confusion in his face as he stared at Zain, questioningly. “I don’t know. I just felt like…that was the way a mother and father should act.”
Zain felt the embroidered crescent moons on the cuff of his robes. They needed fresh blood in the ranks. Roan had already taken his apprentice. If Nonna were still here, she would have already taken three.
Perhaps it was Zain’s time, as well.
“You do not know, Arim, who was once a slave,” said Zain, slowly. “You remember.”
The confusion only seemed to grow. “From before the Fallow, you mean?”
“From before the Fallow ever existed. Before these,” said Zain, and he pulled the tabula out from his sleeves. He rose, and he could see Arim shrink away at once—just like he had, when Marion had first found him in that ditch on the side of the road.
“Do you have anywhere to go, Arim?” asked Zain. “Truly, honestly: do you have anyone waiting for you beside some cobbled-together wild crew? Do you have any reason to live, other than the fear of death?” Zain hadn’t. He had lived for nothing until Nonna, and when she was gone he had lived for her sacrifice.
Arim looked on the verge of saying an indignant yes, but then he looked up around him, at the hundred images of the Lady Winter, all staring sternly down at him. He closed his eyes, and shook his head no.
“Then please come with me,” said Zain, holding out his hand. “I have an offer that might interest you.”
Arim stared at his hand, but did not take it. “I don’t understand. Is this a job?”
“In a way. Not for the Temple, though.”
Still Arim did not take his hand. “Why me?”
“Why anyone?” said Zain. “I am not giving you the crown and kingdom, Arim. I am just giving you a trial. To see, perhaps, if you are ready to be part of something greater. You will not know what you are part of until it is well and truly over, and the road will be fraught with doubt…but it will give you something to live for.”
Hesitantly, Arim took Zain’s hand: the boy’s palms were cold and clammy. Zain pulled him up with a grunt, and put a steadying hand on the boy’s shoulder as he stood.
“What kind of work will I have to do?” asked Arim. “I’ve done cleaning for some pontiffs before. And a little cooking. And I’m stronger than I look, I can lift-.”
“None of that,” said Zain. “There won’t be much work in the beginning. It’s just listening to stories, mostly.”
“What kinds of stories?” asked Arim, his face splitting into the first smile Zain had seen on the child’s face.
“Stories about mothers and fathers,” said Zain. “Stories about how you can remember without knowing. Stories about who we are.”
The child fell into silence after that, contemplative if not confused.
I miss you, Nonna, thought Zain, as he led Arim past the altar, past the lonely ribbon lying across it. All this, I have done for you.
“Up here, go on,” said Zain, opening the door to the stairwell. “What story shall we start with, I wonder…?”
“Are there any stories with you in them?” asked Arim. “I want to know more about you, pontiff sir.”
Zain grinned. “Alright, then. We shall begin with a story about some very courageous people and one very cowardly one. It starts with an elderly marbleman named Marion, and how he found a fieldgirl named Janwye with a temper like you’ve never seen, and a crooked sandchild who called himself Rho Hat Pan, and an icegirl named Nonna who was as kind as the Lady Winter herself…”
Roan reared in his horse, watching Jova as she clambered over the stalagmites in the damp cave. He did not move to help. The child would need to learn how to rely on her own strength, just as he had.
“Where are we now?” asked Jova, her voice echoing with the steady drip of water.
“In a cave the templemen are calling the Teeth of the Abyss,” said Roan. “One of many. The zealots shun it as a place for devil-spawn.”
“So why are we in it?”
“For the same reason they avoid it, I suppose,” said Roan.
Jova laughed, although Roan did not know why. He supposed she was just a happy girl. And yet, she insisted that her blindness was recent. Roan could only have dreamed of that kind of strength after his accident.
Stel tossed her head, prancing. Her hooves clipped hollowly on the stone floor of the cave, and Roan saw Jova perk up out of the corner of his eye. She turned her head from side to side at the sound, looking with her ears and not her eyes.
Jova stood straight, and clicked, turning her head slowly as the sound echoed off the walls. Roan nodded in approval. He hadn’t needed to remind her, that time.
“A good place to practice,” he said.
The blind girl scratched at her cheek, under the blindfold. “It echoes too much. It’s confusing.”
“The echoes are being loud and thus you are being able to hear better, no?”
“Says you,” said Jova. “Why don’t you try it? Have you ever done this yourself, before?”
The scars around Roan’s face stretched as he smirked. Truthfully, he couldn’t say he had. “No,” he said. “But I learned the method of teaching from one of the best.” He left it at that.
“Was your teacher another of your Hag Gar Gan shamans?”
“No,” said Roan, simply. He didn’t elaborate. His hand drifted to the badge pinning his cloak to his shoulders: painted wood, depicting a single cloud drifting across a crescent moon. Easy enough to destroy, should he need to, although he doubted it would come to that anytime soon.
“Now what?” asked Jova, standing so far back in the dark of the cave that Roan could barely see her.
“Now you walk back,” said Roan.
He could hear Jova stamping her foot. “What? What’s the point of that?”
“Without touching anything.”
“Oh.” Jova paused. “What if I stab myself on one of those rock things?”
“That would count as touching something.”
Stel shifted again, and Roan had to channel through the tabula to take away her fear. His vision swam for a moment, but when he was done Stel was calm and still. “Follow the sounds from here if you must,” he said. “And go slowly. I care less about speed and more about you not making mistakes.”
It was a simple exercise, and one Roan was confident he could guide Jova through, but he had to admit it would have been easier if he had the freedom to do it alone.
“What if she hurts herself?” whispered the woman, Anjan, as Jova made her way through the maze of stalagmites, clicking periodically to reorient herself. The girl’s arms were stiff against her sides, as she shuffled awkwardly towards them.
“Then she will learn to be more careful next time,” said Roan. He watched the darkness as Jova approached. Demon-spawn he was not worried about, but wolfbats and pale fall toads infested the caves. “If you will speak, speak louder. It will help her find the entrance.”
Anjan looked away, her brow furrowed. Roan’s gaze drifted to her hands, formed into fists, and kept a hand on Stel’s tabula, just in case. “But…”
“But I need a worker who can navigate my stables without crawling on the floor,” said Roan. From the way Anjan flinched, he could tell he had been too harsh.
“Yes…sir,” said Anjan. She still wouldn’t look at him. “I need to check back on Mo. Just…just make sure she stays safe. Please?”
“I will,” said Roan. He clicked his tongue and made Stel stamp her hooves so that Jova could hear, and paused. “Anjan?”
The woman paused as she made to climb out of the rim of the cave, back into the steaming jungles of the Moscon. “Yes? Sir?”
“I trust you have not told her?” said Roan, and this time he was the one to whisper.
Anjan looked Roan up and down, and said, slowly, “No. I haven’t. Neither has Ell. Like I said, mister Roan, we do appreciate all that you’ve done for us.”
“Hmm.” Roan looked over his shoulder at Anjan. He did not like how the woman seemed to affect a false personality around him. “Do you find me loathsome?” he asked, after a prolonged silence.
Anjan opened her mouth, and hesitated. She met his eyes. “No, sir.”
“I think…you’re very reasonable, sir. It’s good that you’ve found someone who…someone like her. I think, in your position, I would have done the same.” Anjan sighed. “I just wish it didn’t have to be Jova.”
“I apologize,” said Roan. He looked down. How much of that was a lie? All of it, none of it? Roan could never tell.
“May I go now, sir?”
“Yes,” said Roan. “Be careful. You are more than capable, but the world can be a dangerous place for someone who does not know how to defend herself.” He looked out at Jova, and clicked his tongue again for Stel to move.
He heard echoing footsteps behind him. One advantage of the Teeth, Roan had found, was that despite the near total darkness within, it was impossible for someone to sneak up on him.
“Roan,” said Anjan, and her voice rose. “We appreciate it. Whatever else you have planned for my- for Jova, thank you, but we don’t need it.”
Roan smiled. “So this is your voice when you speak truth. I prefer it.”
“Roan, please. Whatever plans you have, leave Jova out.”
“She burns to prove herself,” said Roan. He looked at Anjan, at the wild woman with her wide shoulders and angry face. “She submits to our authority but she is reckless when she thinks no one is looking. And I am sorry to say this, Anjan, but not even the Ladies Four will always be looking.”
Anjan almost looked like she was going to tear Roan off his mount right there in the cave. “You have no right to tell me how to raise my-.”
Roan glared at Anjan, and saw in her eyes barely restrained fury. “Why should it matter to you?” said Anjan, through gritted teeth.
He considered saying he needed an able employee, again, or perhaps that it was his duty as a man to give his charity. But, in the end, those would not be true. “I am selfish,” he said, simply.
Anjan looked away, her hunt apparently forgotten.
“I cannot teach her, but I know men who will, men whose faith in the Four is strong,” said Roan, turning away as well. “I will inform you if a decision is made.”
Anjan bristled. She stood next to him, breathing through her nose, as Jova approached.
“How’d I do?” asked Jova, a wide smile on her face. She did not quite look at Roan as she spoke, but he did not mind.
“You did great, Jova,” said Anjan, her voice warm. Stel tossed her head as a bit of Roan’s irritation leaked through to her, but Roan decided to let Anjan handle the praise. It was more effective, that way. He was not particularly good at it.
Jova grinned as Anjan took her hand, and then the wild woman looked at Roan. “We’ll come back later,” she said. “Let’s go check on Ell, huh?”
“But we walked all this way! Roan, is that it?” asked Jova, looking straight ahead.
Roan, to her side, nudged Stel forward. “I am not having the right to detain you if you wish to leave,” he said, and he met Anjan’s gaze.
Jova pursed her lips. “Alright,” she said. “But we’ll come back, promise?”
“I promise,” said Anjan, as she led Jova out of the cave. “Watch your step, now, it’s a bit tricky.”
Roan let them walk ahead before he followed, ducking his head to avoid hitting his head on the hanging stalactites as Stel climbed out of the cave.
The sentinel statues of the Ladies were still visible from the Teeth, and the jungle path was so trodden by the drunk and the foolhardy that it was not hard to find the main road again. Roan whispered a small thanks to the Lady Summer for sun and fresh air, and to the Lady Fall for showing them the path.
The sun made Roan sweat, and he could hear and feel Stel’s labored breathing. He rubbed her neck, as a silent means of encouragement.
As ever, the road was flooded with both pilgrims approaching the Temple and pilgrims leaving it. Anjan and Jova were already a far ways up ahead; Roan had to navigate around the pedestrians as he sped Stel up to a trot to keep up.
Once, he had, though, he rode a polite distance behind them.
Jova talked animatedly with Anjan, who smiled and laughed at all the right times. Roan watched from behind, his face betraying no emotion. In the end, what right did he have? The pontiffs spoke often of how two men could do the same thing, and for one it could be virtue while for the other it was sin. What was charity if it was done only for his own self-interest?
From the moment he had approached the blind girl sitting in the doorway, he had known he was indulging himself. Roan’s brow furrowed. It was weakness, not strength. True charity would have been to help one who could see and judge him, all of him.
Roan rolled his shoulders, sore from riding. One would think he’d be used to it by now, but Roan promised himself he could dismount and rest once they reached his hut at the compound. He blinked and shook his head. Idle thoughts, too, he would reserve for home.
He passed through the gates and breathed deep. Moscoleon smelled of incense and roasting peppers. He looked up at the great ziggurat, and for a moment he saw the great pyramids of Hak Mat Do again.
“Jova! Anjan! What are you doing here?” asked Ell. Jova took his outstretched hand and hugged him around the waist.
“It’s a holy day, after all,” said Anjan, sparing one glance back at Roan. “We thought we’d spend it with you.”
“With me and not the fine strapping lord?” said Ell. He, too, met Roan’s eyes, but Roan did not speak or move. “Well, I am flattered. Let me finish up these last few errands and I’ll be right with you.”
“Come on, it’s an open temple,” said Anjan, pulling Jova away. “Let’s have a look around where Ell works. The pontiff won’t mind.”
Jova nodded. She turned and waved, in the wrong direction. “Goodbye, mister Roan!”
Roan watched her go. He didn’t wave back, or say goodbye, or move at all. He just looked back up to the Sun Altar, but the illusion of the pyramids had been dispelled.
Roan sighed. The idle thoughts would have to be waiting for quite some time. Home, for him, was a long way off.
He clicked his tongue and directed Stel back towards the compound.
The ride was slow. Roan kept to the back roads, to better avoid the crowds. He told himself he had grown used to their questioning and sometimes revolted stares, that the expressions on their face no longer bothered him. He told himself that, at least.
Stel nickered as they squeezed their way through a cramped alley, and Roan traced her tabula and whispered into her ear. He closed his eyes, his head swimming. Every day, the commands grew harder. He knew he should have stopped, let both Stel and himself rest for a day or two, but he couldn’t. He had places to go, even if Stel was getting older.
He scratched the back of her neck. They were both getting older.
It was only when he returned to the compound did he notice his stomach rumbling. Roan closed his eyes. There wasn’t enough food to make a decent meal at the hut, and buying more would mean going back, out, into the crowds. Roan gripped his saddle tight. He was too tired for that.
He sniffed, and smelled freshly baked bread from the pontiff’s chambers. He sighed. “Come, Stel,” he said. “Let us go where the life is taking us.”
He walked in.
Zain did not look particularly surprised to see him. The winter pontiff and owner of the tenement bustled about, preparing flatbread in a stone oven. He gave only Roan only a cursory glance as he and the horse entered.
Roan coughed. “Does the afternoon find you well?”
“Well enough.” Zain scraped minced bell peppers and tomatoes into a bubbling stew and stirred. “Would you like to eat?” Before Roan could answer, Zain said, “In the name of the Lady Winter, I insist.”
“Thank you, brother,” said Roan. He did not get off his horse.
“Only those who have been sworn to the House of Winter may call me that,” said Zain, reproachfully, holding his hand over the tattoos on his chest.
“Have we not sworn deeper bonds, brother?” asked Roan.
Zain pursed his lips. “The Walkers are of men, by men. The Houses of the Ladies are more than that.”
Roan said nothing. He unclipped his cloak and looked at the badge of the crescent moon in his hand. This secrecy he could obliterate in a second, but Zain’s faith was etched onto his skin. Of the two, the truth of which was deeper could not be denied.
“Would you sit with me, then, Roan?”
The rider nodded. He shuffled awkwardly, trying to unfasten the various belts and buckles that kept him strapped to the saddle. Stel pranced, and Roan had to snap at her to calm down, unable to reach for her tabula.
Zain rose to help, but Roan waved him off. It was something he had to do alone.
“Crippled in body but whole of soul,” said the pontiff, and he undid the last strap despite Roan’s protests. Roan glared at him, but Zain’s gaze was cool and soft. “There is no shame in accepting help, even if you do not need it.”
Roan closed his eyes. This was true. He did his best to relax, although his limbs were still stiff as Zain picked him up and carried him to the table.
The stumps that were his legs dangled uselessly underneath him.
“Go, Stel,” he said, gesturing outside as Zain set him on the wooden seat. “Water and food, go on.”
The horse left at a leisurely pace, head hanging.
Roan hauled his legs over so he could sit in the seat proper as Zain walked around to sit opposite him. The pontiff put his hands together and closed his eyes. After a pause, Roan did likewise.
“The Lady Summer bless us, we give you thanks. May we be strong, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
“Fortune be with you,” Roan repeated.
Zain split the flatbread and gave half to Roan. He dribbled the bell pepper and tomato sauce over it liberally, although Roan eschewed it. Even after all these years, he still could not stomach Moscoleon food.
“You know what I find most distasteful about summer?” said Zain.
Roan looked up but did not answer.
“As it is a time of bounty, so it is a time of strife. Of fighting, of competition, of anger. But winter? Winter is a time of scarcity. In winter, the only bounty we may find is within each other. Eat, Roan.”
Roan took a small bite. Zain’s hands around his sides had made his stomach clench, and for some reason it would not relax.
“How is the girl?” asked Zain, after a long silence.
Roan raised an eyebrow. “Why do you take an interest?”
“Because you take an interest. Because you no longer wash or shave, but every morning, afternoon, and night, you make sure the girl has a hot meal waiting for her. Because you are a specter of the man I once knew. The Lady Winter asks us to give,” said Zain, kindly. “But never to take. Not even from ourselves.”
“Is this truth?” asked Roan. “It seems an unlikely one. How can there be giving if no one will take it?”
“Give to the world,” said Zain. “For all the world’s possessions are yours, and all yours its.”
“Even in a world of strangers?”
“That is the only way.”
“What of me?” Roan had to grip the edges of the seat to keep from slipping as he leaned forward. “You give me your hospitality and yet I am no stranger to you.”
“That is because I am mortal, and have more than one allegiance,” said Zain. He tapped the crescent moons embroidered on his sleeve. “Brother.”
Roan drummed his fingers on the table. His thighs shifted and he felt the rest of his legs twitch even though they weren’t there.
“She wants to learn how to fight,” said Roan.
“I am telling her I will not teach her.”
“Why is that?”
“Because you will.”
Zain rolled his eyes. “If you are that interested in the girl’s security, hire a marble soldier and let it be done with.”
Roan grit his teeth. “You haven’t even given me a chance to discuss this.”
“That’s because there’s nothing to discuss,” snapped Zain. “Zealotry is a choice you cannot make for her. She must do it, through her faith, and her faith alone.”
“I have lied as the snakerat does to protect my secret. I am selfish. I am not proud of it,” said Roan. “I have seen that I have hurt her and I must be making amends in any way I can. She is strong. She learns quickly. And if the Ladies Four were to bless a blind girl with the ability to fight as well as any other man-.”
“If that were the case, Roan, I would be amazed to see it,” said Zain. He pushed his plate away, having apparently lost his appetite. “Your faith wavers, friend. You hold onto it only when it suits you. And, worst of all, you know it.” Zain rubbed the bridge of his nose. “What are you trying so desperately to prove, Roan?”
Before he knew it, Roan’s fist slammed onto the table. It shook, and Roan felt a sudden impulse to stand, but of course he couldn’t.
“That this is Moscoleon!” he shouted. “The city of miracles! Where a man with no tongue can sing again, where a girl with no eyes can see again, and where I with no legs can run again.”
“Calm yourself, Rho Hat Pan.”
Breathing through his nostrils, Roan looked away. “That is no longer my name.”
“Is it not? If you have thrown away the name, why are you so desperate to cling to everything else that man once was?” Zain’s voice rose until it boomed. “You call yourself Roan, but you are still Rho Hat Pan. You thirst, if not for blood, then glory. Chase not forgotten dreams, friend. The war is over. Let the dead rest.”
Roan nodded, touching the badge on his cloak. “Yes,” he muttered. It was truth. It was for the best. “Let the dead rest.”
Zain slumped. He coughed. “If you like, I could help you-.”
“No,” said Roan. He slid his almost untouched plate back to the pontiff. “Thank you for the meal.”
He turned away, and tried not to look at Zain as he whistled for Stel. He hauled himself onto his horse and struggled to swing his legs over her back. He knew the truth. The truth was his shield. He was not afraid of it.
But, at times like these, as Roan kicked like a toddler to get into position, he was ashamed of its weight.
The house, Jova felt, had been built as if to maximize its exposure to the sun. She sat in the doorway, trying to keep cool where the air was freshest, although the fact that the air was also baked to boiling didn’t help.
Jova’s hand traced the walls, her fingers coated in chalk. The adobe walls had a thick layer of lime on their surface, presumably to reflect the sun’s heat, but as far as she could tell it wasn’t doing a great job.
She dragged her toes in the loose gravel base of the house. The stones were both smooth and rough, tiny little rocks that caught between her toes. If she dug just below the surface, the pebbles were cool to the touch.
Jova sighed, and banged her head against the doorframe. It hurt, but she didn’t care. This was what she had been reduced to, identifying the surfaces of walls and counting pebbles on the ground.
She stood, using the walls as support, flexing her legs to try and get the kinks out. If she held out her hands to the doorframe and aligned herself just right, she could walk in a straight line all the way out into the central compound, towards the pontiff’s house, where…
Where she would probably just count the rocks on the ground again until she decided it was time to go back.
Mo whined beside her, the rhythmic thump of his tail setting gravel loose. Jova could tell by the minute sounds of rock skidding on rock, by the belabored breathing of the weaseldog. It had been agony for Ma and Da to leave her alone, but ultimately they both had to go out and find work soon or else all of them would go hungry. Ma had insisted that Mo stay behind to watch over Jova, though, and as far as Jova could tell Mo was doing a top notch job. Absolutely nothing had happened to Jova. At all. For the whole day.
Jova put her chin on her hands and groaned into her palms. She had actually insisted that Ma and Da leave her behind. In her mind, she thought she could practice. Practice what? Being blind? It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but where in the absence of opportunity there had been an infinite realm of possibilities, now that she had the freedom of privacy Jova found herself with a troubling dearth of things to do.
She flicked a pebble with her finger, and tried to listen to the sound of the rock bouncing on the ground. Maybe she would spend so long listening that she would be able to tell the sound of a dull rock from a shiny rock, or be able to hear a flygnat’s buzzing wings from ten meters away. Maybe she would spend so long listening that she would be able to hit a flygnat from ten meters away with a dull rock or a shiny rock, and be able to tell the difference.
Jova buried her face further in her hands, and groaned even louder. Even her fantasies had grown tepid.
She perked up. There was a crunch of feet on gravel, at a steady pace. Jova furrowed her eyebrows. It was too frequent to be just one person on a stroll, but somehow too consistent to be someone running or jogging. She shifted, sliding back into the shadows of the house as she tried to single out the sound.
A clip-clop, like hooves. The sound had been distorted by the gravel, but now that Jova heard it, it was impossible to dismiss. Another pilgrim, coming in to live in the compound?
The sound of hooves stopped abruptly, close to her. Jova slid back, trying to make herself smaller. What was happening? Her hand brushed Mo’s silky hair. He didn’t seem too worried, although Mo was never worried until the trouble actually started.
“Who are you?” said an imperious voice, and Jova shrank back even further. It was the man on horseback, the man who had ridden into the pontiff’s building.
Jova searched for the right words, unsure of who she was talking to, and found no help in the silence. She stammered, as the man on horseback said nothing, moved nowhere, and made no sound.
“I’m just Jova, sir.” She bowed her head as she said it, mumbling into her lap.
There was more silence. Whatever the man was riding didn’t even seem to make a sound.
She scratched at the sides of her head, where the bandages were tied around her ears, and looked away, as if she could somehow hide the ugly truth.
Finally, the man spoke. “Are you a slave, just Jova?” His voice was neither high, nor low, a middling baritone that rang out like a brass trumpet at a Jhidnu street fair. It echoed around the empty courtyard, which was deserted save for those two.
It was a simple question, and yet Jova found herself floundering for an answer. “No.”
Another critical pause. If Jova could just look the man in the eye, she would have been infinitely more comfortable with him. It hadn’t been like this with Rituu, or the innkeepers, or any of the thousand strangers Jova had met on the road. Now, all of a sudden, Jova was completely at this stranger’s mercy.
She wondered if he would hurt her.
“Show me your tabula,” he said.
Jova wondered if she should just try to run now, but there was no way a blind girl could outrun a mounted man. “I don’t have it,” she said.
“If you are a free girl-.”
“I don’t have it,” whispered Jova, resorting to the truth. It was the only defense she had. “But I’m not a slave.”
“What business do you have with the couple, then?” said the man. “Why are they carrying around a blind beggar girl like you?” It was less of a question and more of an accusation.
This was the forbidden territory of conversation that Ma had warned her so much about. For the first time, Jova felt real fear of another person. Why was it that she finally suspected that those bad people were here, in the city, when she had never on the wild roads?
She didn’t know how to respond. She just gripped the scruff of Mo’s neck, her head bowed so low it was almost in her knees.
“Are you scared, just Jova?”
“Yes,” Jova whispered.
“Hmmph,” said the man, and Jova heard the hoof beats again. Her shoulders slumped and she exhaled.
She petted Mo on the back. “Hey, maybe-.”
“What are you scared of, just Jova?” The man was back. Perhaps he had never really left. The hoof beats continued, but no matter how hard Jova focused she could not pinpoint where they were or where they were going.
Jova looked down, trying to find an answer.
“Give me the truth, girl.”
“You,” muttered Jova. Her mood darkened as she said it.
“I asked for the truth.”
Almost indignantly, Jova looked up. “I am scared of you! You sound cruel and arrogant and you tricked me and you keep asking me these questions! I don’t know who you are or what you look like or why you’re bothering me!”
The hoof beats stopped. Gravel shifted for a second as the riding man came to a halt again. “What is the couple doing with a blind girl like you?”
Jova growled. Perhaps the man was right; she wasn’t afraid of him. She was angry at him. Why couldn’t Mo see that he was a threat? That he was hostile and intrusive?
“Does the man have some kind of fetish?”
“No!” snapped Jova. “He’s-.” She paused.
“You have a secret,” said the man. “It is not good, to keep secrets from those who live beside you.”
“Why are you asking me all these questions?” Jova stood up, although she had to inch her hand up the wall for support to do so. “What do you want from me?”
“I come to my new home after a long and troubling day with people who I would rather not be meeting,” said the man. “And I see you. And I ask myself, why would a strong, healthy, young couple keep a useless girl like you? I think at first that you are a slave. Perhaps they intend to sell you cheaply in the large city, but you say you are no slave. Perhaps they keep you for pleasure, but you deny that as well. Perhaps you have some secret art, perhaps they keep you to beg. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.”
The man paused. Jova wondered what his point was.
“But now, I remember. This is the Temple Moscoleon. The city of miracles! Where a man with no tongue can sing again, where a man with no legs can run again, and where a girl with no eyes can see again. So I am thinking that I am done. My questions are answered. Good day to you, blind girl.”
As the hoof beats began to fade, Jova stamped her foot. She felt Mo perk his head beside her, rubbing his cheek against her leg, questioning the sudden movement. “Wait!” she shouted.
The hoof beats stopped. The man said nothing.
Jova couldn’t bear the silence anymore. “Do you have somewhere to be? Are you going anywhere?”
“Away from those who would wish me harm. Towards? Only where the life is taking me,” said the man. He still had not moved.
“Then I would like to ask you some questions.”
There was a crunch of gravel again. Towards her, not away. Jova found herself ignoring the midday heat, her heart pumping quite fast in her chest. The pontiff had given her a cursory blessing; the men in the street had passed without comment. No one had cared enough about her to notice, except for this imperious lord. Why?
He said nothing, so Jova spoke instead. “What miracle did you come to Moscoleon for?”
There was a pause, as Jova waited. She heard a single, rueful laugh. “You are sharp, blind Jova.” He did not answer for a while again. The wait was agony. “I am thinking that this shall be my secret. I will not tell you it until you tell me yours.”
“Fine,” said Jova. “Who are you?”
“I am Roan. Once I was called Rho Hat Pan, a mighty lord of the steppes, greatest of the Hag Gar Gan and bane of the Hak Mat Do.”
Jova giggled, despite herself. “Hot Pan? That’s a silly name.”
The man’s tone seemed almost sheepish. The contrast was remarkable. “I was a silly man.”
Jova smiled. Even she could not see his face, she realized, it did not mean he did not have one. And for her, his face was in his voice. “Do you have a trade, Roan? Or do you just ask questions of little girls all day?”
“I teach men and women how to ride,” said Roan. “Zealots who want an edge in battle, or rich apprentice-heirs with a taste for the grand. It is profitable work.”
“How to ride what?”
“Horses, such as this one. She is Stel. She is mine.”
Hesitantly, Jova reached out a hand. “May I?”
There was no reply from the man, but soon Jova found a wet nostril pressed against her palm. She laughed again. “You control her so well.”
There was silence, for a moment. “You have a gentle touch,” said Roan. There was no thanks, although Jova felt as if she had just been traded a compliment for a compliment.
“Is she a bearhorse?” Jova asked. “An eaglehorse? A fishhorse?”
“Just a horse.”
“Summer, winter, spring, fall?”
Jova leaned her head in confusion. “Really?”
“A presumptuous blind girl as well,” said Roan. Jova felt the warmth leave her palm, as the horse backed away. It nickered. “Stel thinks that a girl with no eyes is also, as you say, weird.”
Jova flinched. Her smile vanished.
“What? Are you ashamed of what you are, eyeless girl? This is truth. Truth does not care for your shame. You can be no more ashamed of the truth than you can be ashamed of a stone or a rock. Hold the truth up, blind Jova. Use it as your shield.”
Jova held her elbow, her head hanging low again. He sounded like Rituu, with his foreign accent and proverbs. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you are a sad, eyeless girl, who sits in the shadows and does not smile.” The horse began to pace. “Because I am remembering again. This is the Temple Moscoleon! Where sinners come to be saved. I shall make you smile, blind Jova, because you are the most pathetic thing I have seen in this city, and only in this city may a creature like you receive kindness and not cruelty.”
Jova wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She took a step forward, with half a mind to reach out and strike the man, the other to thank him. Neither seemed entirely fair. “Even if I’m a stranger?”
“Because you are a stranger,” said Roan. “Because you know me only as the man I am, and not the man I was.” Jova stumbled back as the horse began to trot away. “I see your owners, blind Jova. I am thinking I have questions for them.”
“They’re not my owners!” Not knowing where he was, Jova shouted in his general direction. “They’re my p- my friends.”
Roan did not respond, although Jova heard his voice distantly, talking with her “friends.”
“What a strange man,” Jova muttered, sitting back down. “Do you think he was strange, Mo?”
The weaseldog whined, and began to thump his tail on the gravel again, as the sun crawled ever higher and higher in the unfathomable sky.
Jova heard Ma’s high, false laughter, and Da’s lower, more soothing tones. There was a brief pause, punctuated only by the horse’s heavy breathing.
“Jova, are you okay?” Ma’s worried voice was close, although Da still sounded distant. She held Jova’s hand as she led her back inside. “Oh, I knew we shouldn’t have left you alone. Was he bothering you? What was he trying to do?”
“I was just talking with him,” said Jova. “I was just…making friends.” She had made quite a lot of adult friends. She wondered if she’d ever have a friend her age.
“Come inside, come inside,” said Ma. Jova followed her, back into the mustier confines of the two-room hut. “Did he ask you any questions? Did he try anything suspicious?”
“He asked a lot of questions…” Jova paused, unsure how to continue. She still didn’t know what exactly Roan had wanted from her.
From the rhythmic sounds of her footsteps, Ma was pacing. “By the Ladies Four, Mo, you’re the worst guard dog that’s ever lived,” groaned Ma. “Jova, get your things together. We might have to move soon, and fast. Men like that will lash out at you. Given half an excuse, they will hurt you.”
“Ma, don’t you think you might be overreacting?”
The pacing stopped. Jova waited and listened, wondering what was going through her mother’s head.
“We’ll wait for your father to get back,” said Ma, finally. “Are you hungry, Jova? I caught some game in the jungle. I’ll start preparing supper.”
“Can I help?” asked Jova. She stared in what she thought was Ma’s direction.
A soft hand adjusted her chin. “You can help eat,” said Ma, her tone cheerful, although Jova in her voice heard an unspoken statement. You can’t help.
Steps through the door. “Da?” Jova asked.
“Hello, my little Lady,” said Da, hugging her. “You keep making odd friends, don’t you?”
Jova felt Ma stand. “Did he want anything?”
“Nothing, he just wanted to ask some questions. You know how those sandmen are,” said Da, dismissively. Jova listened to the uncomfortable silence that followed. “Anjan, it’ll be OK. He’s new here, just like us. He probably just wanted to see who he was living with.”
There was silence still, although Jova heard Ma moving.
“It’s what people do in the cities,” said Da, letting Jova go. She got the sense that he was following Ma. “It’s not the same as the wilds. People are friendlier here.”
“I met a group out at one of the sinkholes,” said Ma. There was the rough scrape of something being cut. Mo panted, and slid away from Jova’s reach. She felt strangely afloat, as if she was a barge and all her anchors had left her. “A group of what-do-you-call-them…zealots. They didn’t seem so friendly to me.”
“It’s a general trend, not an absolute,” said Da.
“Meaning people are still going to be people, no matter where we live.”
Both fell silent, working without comment. Jova edged forward, drawing arcs in the gravel with her toes, careful not to bump into anything. Mo slipped under her hand, and she thanked him. The weaseldog led to her to the central space of the room, where her parents were working. “Did you find somewhere to work, Da?” she asked.
“I was just talking about that with your Ma. It’s…well, it’s complicated.”
“I promise I’ll understand,” said Jova. I’m blind, not stupid, a rebellious voice whispered.
“There’re jobs, alright. The pontiffs need people to maintain the temples. Cleaning, repair work, things I used to do at the Stronghold. It’s just…” Da sighed. “So many people are willing to do it for free, and when the faithful aren’t there then they have slaves. It’s hard to find work with decent pay.”
Jova listened, taking it in. Ma had run into resistance in the jungle, and Da was having a hard time getting pay. What was she doing? Sitting alone at home, playing question games with foreign strangers?
“There was one temple, under the House of Fall, that I might be able to work under,” said Da, quickly. Had he seen Jova’s pensive expression? “It’s decent, even if the pontiffs insist on all these taxes. They wouldn’t pay me with food, either, they’d have this thing called currency.”
“Currency?” The word was strange on Jova’s tongue, although she had heard it bandied about with the plutocrats in Jhidnu once or twice.
“Yeah, feel them.” Da held Jova’s hand and poured three or four smooth, round objects into her palm. She rolled them between her fingers. They were pitted and curved, and rattled as she shook them. “I ran an errand for one pontiff, and he gave me all these little shells. They’re like…oh, how did he put it…” Da paused. “They’re like tabula, but for objects. They sort of represent food and clothes, if you have enough of them.”
Jova furrowed her brow. It was a hard concept to wrap her head around.
“Is this enough to get us food?” asked Jova.
“Maybe one meal,” said Da. He took the shells back. “For one of us. With Ma’s help, maybe we could get enough for a meal a day for each of us.” He sighed, and then laughed. “Well, that’s how we ate in the Stronghold. How about that, Jova? Want to eat like a marble warrior?”
No matter how much he tried to hide it, Jova could hear through his voice the weight on his shoulders. Ma had been stressed not just from fear for Jova, but fear for…what? What had the zealots done, out in the wild jungles?
“I could work,” said Jova.
“No,” said both Ma and Da. They began to talk over each other, but Jova shouted over them.
“You told me once that other kids half my age had to watch out for themselves! I’m old enough!” Jova stood up suddenly. “Let me help!”
Ma tried to make her sit back down. “It’s not your age, it’s…”
Jova waited. She waited for Ma to say it, but she waited for nothing.
“Because I don’t have eyes?” said Jova, and she felt her voice shake as she said it. The truth is a shield. You cannot be ashamed of it.
“We’re so thankful, Jova. The fact that you’re still alive…” Jova felt Ma’s hands on her shoulders. Angrily, she pushed them off.
Jova didn’t know what to say. She wanted to scream. She wanted to rip the bandages off her eyes and let the whole world see the ugly ruin underneath. She ground her teeth and took a step back.
And she heard hoof beats outside.
“I can find a job. I can help,” she said, backing away, holding onto Mo for support. “And I can prove it to you.”
She turned and stumbled forward, hands reaching out to find the doorframe as she half-walked, half-ran. Hands reached around her side, pulling her back. “Jova, what are you doing?”
“Roan!” she shouted, ignoring her mother. “Rho Hat Pan!”
The hoof beats grew louder, more insistent. The hut had no door, and Jova felt the sunlight blocked just as she heard the horse whinny. Roan said nothing, just waited.
“What are you still doing here?” spat Ma, her arms tightening around her daughter.
“I am eavesdropping,” said Roan, and the response was so frank and so sudden that even Jova was taken aback.
She took a deep breath. Only the truth would work with this man. “You said you taught people how to ride horses?”
“Yes.” His steed, Stel, stamped on the ground, as if to prove a point. “The horses are requiring much care,” said Roan. “I find it difficult to take care of them on my own, but…a small one could work with them. One with a gentle touch.”
Jova wormed her way free from her mother’s grip. She turned her face as best she could toward Roan’s voice. “You said you wanted to help me?”
“Yes, blind Jova.”
“Let me work for you.”
Ma almost snarled. “I can’t let you,” she said. Jova wasn’t sure if she was talking to her, or Roan. “I’m sorry for wasting your time, sir, but I can’t let Jova-.”
“Jova told me a truth,” said Roan, cutting her off. “Jova told me that you were just her friends. You have no right to say what she can or can’t do. She is far too old to be coddled by her friends.”
He knows, Jova realized. He knows the secret.
All her life, Jova had been told to run from people who even suspected their secret, but this time she had no choice but to stay with him. It would have been futile, after all. How could a blind girl outrun a man on horseback? If Roan ever came after her, Jova would never be able to get away.
Ma’s voice seemed to echo in her head. “Men like that will lash out at you. Given half an excuse, they will hurt you.”
Jova hoped to every Lady that Ma was wrong, because there was no turning back either way.
Jova nodded. She had heard the sounds already, but had doubted if they were from the city or just from a busy road. She edged forward, gripping her mother’s hand, her feet sliding more than walking just in case something was in her way.
“It’s going to be alright, Jova dear,” said Ma, sensing her hesitation. “I’m right here for you.”
It had been a long journey. At times, Ma and Da had carried her, but Jova had insisted that she at least try to walk by herself. For three days, she had managed; for some reason, she hadn’t once felt tired. Da had repeatedly called her swift recovery miraculous.
But, today, the fatigue had come back, a crushing weight that made Jova’s steps hesitant and short. She didn’t know where it had been or why it had returned, but in a way she was glad of it. She had to rely on herself, and only herself, if she wanted any hope of living life as normal again. Whatever had taken the pain away hadn’t been her.
It was a sobering thought, and one that made Jova edge even slower as the family approached Temple Moscoleon.
Ma gasped. “There’re statues, Jova. One for each of the Ladies Four. They’re huge! The one closest to us is the Lady Winter. She’s…well, she’s got these long robes, and she’s holding a child in her arms…”
Jova nodded, allowing her imagination to take the place of those visions. Try as hard as she might, though, she couldn’t feel the same wonder she had when Rituu had told her his stories. It seemed an irony that the daydreams she had conjured when she could still see the real world now appeared distant, watery, and blurry without anything tangible to compare them to. They were just daydreams. They were all in her head. They didn’t matter.
She heard the rattle of a wooden cart, the clip-clop of hooves, the chatter of people. She wriggled her toes, and felt bare, beaten dirt under her feet where before the path had been carpeted with the forest litter.
“We’re on the main road now,” said Da. He had been giving her a constant narration all along the trip. Jova squirmed. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate it, but she didn’t want to have her father’s voice explaining the world to her secondhand for the rest of her life.
The space around her eyes- or, where they used to be- throbbed. It was hot and irritated and prone to bleeding. Jova wondered what she must have looked like to all those people she could not see. Did they think her a cripple? Did they even notice her, or did they pass without comment? What of the looks in their faces? Disgust, annoyance, pity?
It was something she would never dare ask her father, something that she would never know.
“We can touch the statue,” said Ma, leading her on. Jova stumbled as Ma moved to the side, but did her best to hide it as they continued to walk down the busy road. Pilgrims from across Albumere jostled around them; Jova felt the press of their bodies around her as they streamed together towards…something.
The cluster of bodies grew denser and denser as they walked on. Jova hunched her shoulders, trying to make herself smaller. With no faces to associate with them, no sky to look to, no indication at all where open space was, the experience was intensely claustrophobic.
Jova’s hand closed tight around Ma’s, her only anchor in this violent, dark world. Ma gave her a reassuring squeeze and led her on.
“Here,” Ma said, taking Jova’s hand and stretching it out. Jova waved her fingers until she found rock: smooth, hewn, cool to the touch. “Oh, it’s amazing, Jova. So high I can’t even see the top from here. It must have taken ages to build something like this.”
“Or one strong man with a lot of tabula,” Da remarked. He wrapped his arms around Jova’s shoulders, as if shielding her from all the other people vying for a chance to touch the great statue of the Lady Winter.
Jova’s hand fell to her side. She would give them that chance. To her, it was just rock. It didn’t matter how tall the great statue was. It didn’t matter that Ma couldn’t see the top when Jova couldn’t even see it at all.
Ma’s voice was low, but Jova could still hear it over the noise of the crowd. “You look sad.”
It sounded obvious, almost painfully so. Jova found not sadness inside her, but anger. But…
What else was there to say? Her parents were trying to help. They were doing their absolute best, in the only way they knew how. She couldn’t have done much better in their position. She couldn’t blame them for that.
She smiled, with all her teeth, even though her heart was breaking. “It’s wonderful, Ma.”
How were Ma and Da reacting? Did they suspect her facade? Were they satisfied with it? More than anything, Jova regretted that aspect of her blindness. People had become a mystery to her, their once open faces now closed forever.
She kept smiling, the same way her parents kept pretending that everything was fine. Maybe if they all pretended long enough, it would be true.
“The walls are big and tough,” said Da, as they walked in. “Not as big as the Marble Stronghold’s or Irontower’s, but they’re defensible.”
“Of all the things you choose to talk about, Ell,” said Ma, exasperated, and for a moment she sounded like herself. Jova laughed, genuine.
“The real advantage is the jungles, though. No army can march through that without getting seriously worn out,” said Da, his voice carrying a hint of smugness. Jova felt a cool shadow pass over them. Were they under those same walls now? “No one’s going to be attacking the Temple soon with those kinds of natural defenses.”
“This is also sacred ground,” said Ma, dryly. “Jova, remember this: men like your father can come up with all sorts of fancy theories, but it’s the Ladies who hold the power in the end.”
“Yes, Ma,” said Jova, smiling.
“It didn’t stop Keep Kago,” said Da, as the shadow passed. “When the barbarian lord marched on the Temple, he treated it like just another city.”
“Oh, spare us the history lesson, civilized man,” said Ma.
They walked on. Jova wiggled her toes. There were stones under her feet, now, no longer dirt. Various squishy things squelched under her feet at times, but the frequency that Jova stepped on said things was much lower than in Jhidnu (and she had been able to see where she was walking, then).
The idea of a city with clean streets was even more unfamiliar than a statue so tall the top could not be seen, but then again, it was a holy city. Perhaps the Ladies swept it from the cobblestones with their divine power.
“What do the buildings look like?” she asked.
She heard Ma sniff. “They look brown. And red,” she said, in fragmented pauses. “A lot of them are short. But there’s a few that are tall. Erm.”
“They’re made from red sandstone and adobe bricks,” said Da, taking Jova’s other hand. “We’re walking through one of the residential districts- that’s a place where people live. There’s a bazaar up ahead, with stalls in all sorts of colors. Reds, greens, blues, on dyed weaves they use to keep the sun off. Even further up ahead there’s a step pyramid, with corners pointing to where each of the four statues of the Ladies are standing. It’s made mostly of sandstone, too, but the cap at the top shines like gold; the Holy Keep sometimes makes sacrifices there when the sun is at its highest and there are no shadows at all, which is why it’s called the Solar Altar.”
Ma made an annoyed sound, to the side.
“Anjie, we have been tromping around the wild for eight years,” said Da, a mock severity in his tone. “Teach our little Lady how to sniff out a blueberry from a mile away later; it’s my turn to impress our daughter.”
“Don’t listen to him, Jova,” whispered Ma. “I can teach you to sniff out a blueberry from three miles away.”
“There’s a reason we left your brute out in the woods, wild woman,” said Da, now haughty. “There’s no place in the city for animals like him or you.”
“I’m tempted to summon Mo right now and show you just how much of a brute he can be,” said Ma.
Jova giggled. Her parents’ banter felt natural, and normal, and good. “Tell me more about the city, Da.”
Ma faked a swoon. “Oh! She’s abandoned me!”
“Well, let’s see.” Da paused. Jova could almost see his face pursing in thought. Perhaps her imagination had not left her, after all. “They didn’t teach us much at the Stronghold about the other cities except military history, to be honest. Even the marble slaves had to know that. A good general learns from his mistakes, Jova, but a great general always learns from his enemy’s.”
“Just in case you ever happen to lead an army, Jova dear,” Ma quipped.
“We learned about guerilla tactics when we discussed Moscoleon,” said Da, ignoring her.
Jova laughed, remembering Rituu’s story about the bearmonkeys. “Gorillai tactics, Da?”
“Guerilla, my little Lady,” said Da. “During the time of the First King, the zealots of the Temple fought like nothing else against the Seat’s armies, stinging like vulturewasps before melting away into the jungle. Just like that!”
Jova shrieked as Da poked her in the side.
“The zealots are still here in this city today,” said Da. “My mentors at the Stronghold told me that they were passionate, but undisciplined. The pontiffs can hardly control them, and the Holy Keep can never prod them too hard less they turn against him.”
“Pontiffs?” asked Jova.
“They’re like priests,” said Da. “There’s one right over there. He’s collecting tax from a resident. You can tell he’s from both the House of Fall, because of the tattoos on his forehead and around his eyes, and the House of Summer, because of the tattoos on his arm.”
Jova concentrated, trying to pick out the pontiff’s voice from the ambient noises of the city. It must have been some grand, magnificent voice, she imagined, but she heard no such thing. She sighed, but remembered her resolution. She had to smile. A silly thing like not seeing the pontiff shouldn’t have changed that.
“How do you know so much about this place, Da?”
“I’ve been wanting to come here ever since I was your age, Jova,” said Da. “From the stories they told us…it seemed like a good place. A holy place. A safe place.”
Da paused for only a second. “Yes, Jova. I think it is.”
“Where are we going now?”
Ma spoke this time. “We’re going to find somewhere to stay. This is a chance for us to start new, Jova dear. No more traveling from place to place. And if anyone ever finds out our secret…” She paused. “Well, it’s a big city. Isn’t it, Ell?”
“It is,” Da said. “We could just move to the other side and no one would know any better. And there are people here who could tell us things no one in Jhidnu ever could.”
The secret. Jova had almost forgotten. Her blindness was one thing, but her parents still believed that bad people would hurt her for her secret and not for her inability to see? How bad could not having a tabula be?
But she just nodded and said, “OK.” She wasn’t going to question Ma and Da, from now on.
“We can take jobs,” said Ma, an unfamiliar emotion in her voice. Jova cocked her head. She hadn’t realized how few times Ma had sounded this hopeful. “There’s plenty of game in the jungles for Mo and I to hunt. It won’t be that different from the bay. Ell can do all sorts of jobs from the things he knows from the Stronghold, and you…Jova, we could find someone to teach you all the history your Da knows, all the history in the world. There are schools here, monasteries for people to learn. They’d be free, Jova. Can you imagine? They could teach you math, music, reading…” Ma stopped, realizing what she had said.
Keep smiling, Jova thought. Don’t let them down. “Maybe not the reading?” she said, keeping her voice light.
“Yeah,” said Ma, softly, the hope dying slightly from her voice. “Maybe not the reading.”
“There’s a tenement up ahead,” said Da. Jova could tell from his voice that he was trying to change the subject. “Shall we go look at it?”
“Alright,” said Ma, her tone light too. She adopted Da’s accent. “We shall.”
Keep smiling, Jova thought to herself, as they turned the corner. Pretend long enough and it might become real.
The sounds became softer and dimmer, and Jova felt cool shadows over her face again. Had they gone inside a building? She had heard no indication of a door being opened. Perhaps they had just walked down a smaller, more compact street. The mystery was maddening.
“It’s just up ahead,” said Da. “There’s probably a pontiff who we’ll have to talk to; he’ll lend us one of the smaller houses to live in, so long as we pay tax in food or goods. I’m not sure what they’ll be like. From here, it looks like they’ll have about two rooms-.”
“A pontiff?” Jova leaned her head quizzically. “I thought they were priests?”
“They are,” said Da. “But the pontiffs run everything in the Temple. It’s just the way things are.”
“We’re here. Watch your step,” said Ma, slowing down. Jova matched her pace, like Mo on the road. A well-trained pet, Jova thought, bitterly. Mo won out in that regard. He had eyes and a tabula, while Jova had neither.
Ma let go of Jova’s hand, and Jova flexed it. It was cramped and sweaty. She hadn’t realized how tightly she had been holding on.
Jova reached out with her free hand, feeling out the frame of the door with her hand. It was cut straight, to an exacting degree, but the material was rough and grainy.
“He’s from the House of Winter. You can tell from the tattoos on his neck and chest,” whispered Da, as they walked in. It was slightly cooler inside the building than on the outside, although not by much when Jova was standing in the doorway.
“You stay with Jova, Ell,” said Ma. “I’ll go talk with him alone.”
“What? No, we can all meet him together,” said Da, confused and just a touch indignant.
Ma’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I just want to take slow steps before sprints, Ell. What if he asks to see her tabula? We have to at least see how this city works before we get rooted out.”
“Now why would he ask to see her tabula?” asked Da in a soothing tone, although he kept his voice low too.
“I don’t know, it doesn’t matter why,” said Ma. “She might be an escaped slave, or- or…”
“It may seem unfamiliar to you, Anjie, but escaped slaves don’t stay escaped for very long.”
“Just give me this one, Ell? Please?”
There was a pause. Jova imagined Ma looking at Da, the pleading look in her eyes even as she stood tall and firm. At least, that was what Jova thought was happening. She couldn’t really know for sure.
Finally, Da sighed. “Come on, Jova. We’ll let Ma take over the business while we have a look- while we take a walk around, alright?”
“Alright,” said Jova, quietly, as she heard Ma’s fading footsteps. She leaned her head, trying to catch what she was saying to the pontiff.
Jova caught the words in fragmented chunks, as Da led her away. “We’ve come a long way… if you would… a place to stay…”
The pontiff had a loud voice, one that he projected around the small room. “How wonderful… new pilgrims are always… welcome men and women of the faith…”
“I didn’t realize how many folks came to the Temple,” said Da. “I think I saw a group from the Seat of Winter, and even Irontower. Most will only be here for a couple nights, finishing their pilgrimage. I don’t think many people come here to stay and live like us.”
“I see you have… rest assured…” the pontiff was saying. “Crippled in body but whole of soul…”
“Jova? Are you listening to me?”
“What? Oh, sorry,” said Jova, trying to refocus on Da. It was hard to keep up with two conversations at once. She wondered if she had ever had the same trouble seeing two things at once. She had honestly never noticed.
“There’re some carpets for us to sit on.” Jova felt Da’s hand shift in her grip as he lowered himself to the ground. “All the way from the west. They’re nice and soft.”
Jova nodded. She ran her fingers through the threads as she sat down. She was thankful that Da hadn’t mentioned how beautiful the designs were or how intricate the weave was. Soft was something she could still appreciate.
There was a sudden, hollow, knocking sound to Jova’s left. Her head snapped up, and her ears turned instinctively to listen.
“Both peasants and lords shall dine together: together, together, in Mos-co-le-on,” sang Da, a tuneless little ditty. “It really is true.”
Jova’s eyebrows furrowed out of thought. That knocking sound was like hooves on the road, but she had been hesitant to call them that when they were in-doors. She heard no accompanying patter of feet. Was the newcomer riding inside the small hut?
“Well, the Lady Winter take me,” said Da. “He’s talking with the pontiff; he really is living here. On our level.”
“What’s he like?” asked Jova. What kind of a man would ride a horse into a building? One with shoes so fine he would not sully them with the bare dirt, perhaps, or maybe one who was used to always being just a bit taller than everyone else. She imagined his features: long, angular, with high cheekbones and a haughty stare.
“I’ll tell you once he’s gone,” said Da, whispering conspiratorially with Jova. “I don’t think he’d like overhearing what I have to say.”
Definitely a proud one, then. Jova wondered how many slaves this newcomer had, waiting outside the door. She wished she could stand and look.
“But he’s living here, with us,” said Da, raising his voice again. “This place, Jova, it really is great. It’s a new beginning.”
Jova hung her head. A new beginning, perhaps, but not one that Jova had ever wished for, all those years trekking to this fabled city. And speaking of that fabled city…
“I’ll have to take your word for it,” said Jova, under her breath.
“What was that?”
Jova shook her head. “Nothing, Da.” Keep smiling. Pretend long enough and it might become real.
Jova fell back, screaming, covering her face with her forearms. She gasped as the beast withdrew claws from her side, and rolled over, struggling to reorient herself.
The beast paced around the forest clearing, bristling in agitation, screeching at anything and everything that moved.
One hand clutched her wound, trying to stem the bleeding; the other scrabbling forward on the dirt, Jova tried to drag herself forward. Somewhere in the midst of the dizzying pain, she found room for a plan. Who was closer? Rituu and Sri, or Da and the camp? There was no way she could out-speed that thing by crawling. She tried to stand, but her entire torso seemed to have gone numb.
Could she hide? That didn’t seem an option either. She was too clumsy, wounded, a trail of red already dripping into the dirt. She had lost a lot of blood. That should have worried her.
Options. Other options. The thoughts came in fragmented bursts, now, difficult to string together in coherent ideas. She cast her eyes about, and something glinted from the underbrush.
The tabula! She had dropped it when she had fallen over. If she could just reach it, there was hope.
She hauled herself up on her elbows, crawling forward to get the tabula. Her fingers scrabbled at the edge, and she tried to give it the same energy she had before. Was there some kind of unsummon command? Some way to send the creature back?
The tabula did not even budge. It stayed still to the touch, and Jova felt her heart leap to her throat. She didn’t know how else to use a tabula. She had just wanted to bring the animal here and show it to Ma, she was never supposed to do anything else. Her hand pressed on the tabula so hard that she forced it into the earth. A dismissal command, a pacifying command, anything at all that could help her.
The screeching thing had finally turned its attention back on her. Jova blinked, taking it in. A colorful bird’s head, streaked with long feathers, on the body of some lithe predatory cat, sleek and black. The contrast was stark, almost beautiful, if it had not been for the crazed, angry look in its yellow eyes.
“Ea-easy there,” Jova stuttered. It was what she said to Mo when he was upset, although she harbored doubts that it would work on this one. Mo was twisting curves and docility; this was sharp lines and anger. “Easy, now. Don’t be afraid.”
The creature opened its mouth and shrieked, louder than the bathawk, a more brutal, razor edge to its voice. Jova shrunk back, breathing hard. The advice was more meant for her than it, in a way.
She clutched her stomach again. The pain in her gut was growing too large to ignore. She looked up at the creature, wordless, pleading.
It paused, pacing, considering her. That was good. Any time at all it spent not killing Jova was time someone could hear, someone could come and help. It was making enough noise, surely someone had heard. Da would be worried that she hadn’t come back yet, or Rituu would be heading back to camp, or Ma would have-
And then the creature leaped forward and grabbed Jova’s skull.
She screamed. It was the only option left to her. She pushed and shoved and screamed, but despite all her efforts there was nothing she could do. She felt her head jerk backwards as the creature closed tight claws around, felt blood drip from wounds that felt like hot knives sinking into her flesh.
Pushing the creature back was like trying to push back a boulder; no matter what Jova did she could not seem to even make the creature budge.
It looked at her, its eyes intelligent and malicious. Its claws traced Jova’s face, slowly, purposefully.
She moaned, her struggles faltering, as the claws came to a leisurely rest over her eyelids.
“Please,” she gasped. “Please, no…”
She shut her eyes tight, as the pressure over them increased.
And then the claws pierced.
She lurched, her screaming coming to an abrupt halt, her mouth frozen open as a soundless gurgle came out. Blood like hot tears streamed down the sides of her face. In that moment, Jova wanted to die. She should have died.
But she didn’t.
It was not a blessing. Jova did not want to think, did not want to feel. She prayed to each of the Ladies Four for an end. And for a moment, it was there, a painless, sweet bliss. For once in her life, Jova just felt like falling asleep.
And then it was as if someone lit a fire inside of her. The pain flared inside of her, pain that hurt so much it went out the other side into numbness. She felt her heart pick up speed, felt strength return to her muscles.
Her hands found the creature’s neck. It snapped and shrieked, but she would not let go. She pushed. There was no hidden reserve of strength in her body, but this time she ignored the pain. She kept on pushing, and pushing, and pushing.
With a wet squelch, Jova felt the pressure removed from her eyes, to be replaced by a dull, hot throbbing. She choked, her stomach turning over, but somehow she kept the nausea at bay. Her whole body hurt, not just her face: the beast had torn her belly, shoulders, and legs. Yet the pain, as insurmountable as it was before, somehow seemed manageable.
Manageable in the loosest sense of the word. Manageable in that Jova was no longer frozen to the ground.
She had something to prove.
The beast snapped and bit, stretching out its head to get at Jova’s vulnerable neck and chest, but she kept it at arm’s length. She did not let go. If she did- and this thought came with a crushing feeling worse than any pressure the physical world could put on her- if she did, she would not know where the beast was any longer. She would be blind.
She was blind.
Claws raked against her thighs, as Jova felt the animal thrashing under her hands. Something inside her swallowed the pain, pain that seemed somehow separate from her. She could almost see it in her mind, white hot, compressed into as small a space as possible, waiting.
The animal stopped shrieking, its voice descending into a reedy whistle, gasping for air. How odd, that suddenly every other one of Jova’s senses felt more acute. She could feel the silky whisper of the feathers under her hands, could hear the thump-thump-thump of her heart in her chest. Jova’s hands twisted, and she felt the pop of every bone, muscle, and sinew.
And with a crack, the beast’s neck snapped in her hands. It was not sudden, but slow, slow like the waves beating at the shores or the wind eroding the sea-side cliffs. It seemed to take ages.
When it was done, the pain returned. Jova slid to the ground, her body crying out for rest. The blood on her face, was that from her eyes? Or her mouth? Was it even her blood?
She heard screaming distantly. You did this, the voices seemed to say. You did this.
She had done it, to herself. Ma needn’t have worried. The bad people would never get a chance to hurt her if Jova kept this up.
She dreamed of open spaces. She saw more stars than she thought could fit in the sky, and when she reached up to touch them they whirled and rippled like leaves in a pond. Constellations formed and galloped, strange creatures she had never seen before: bulls with long tusks and wide, fan-like ears, engorged monkeys with silver backs and stern faces, horses with necks as long as she was tall. She looked around her and saw no trees, no roads, no looming cliffs or stoic ocean. She could go anywhere she wanted, anyway she wanted. No more hiding, not even if she wanted to.
Then the fires came. They leaped up and roared around her, consuming the dry brush in an instant. Jova raised her hands and screamed, and heard her mother and father shouting at each other, running through a burning door, fighting their way out of the flames, until they emerged in a crowd of children with leering faces, each waving their tabula in front of them in some kind of toddler’s game.
The flames surrounded her, a crackling heat beating at her face. The rest of her body felt oddly cold, but her face felt like it was burning. Jova reached up to it, but found that her arms would not move, as if they were pinned down with leaden weights. She struggled, immobile, while her face kept burning, swelling up with heat, inflamed, distorted, twisted.
Jova woke to the most complete darkness she had ever known.
She turned her head, and heard the rustle of the fabric under her, felt the rough scratch of her clothes. The sound felt somehow wrong, too sharp, too detailed. It was textured in a way Jova had never noticed before. The dissonance made it feel both close and far away.
Jova breathed deep. She was outside; that she could tell from the smell of the air, crisp and fresh. She was in the shade, though, lying on her sleeping roll. Occasionally spots of heat danced on her skin. Under a tree? The breeze was gentle, but to Jova’s too sensitive skin she could feel it coming from her right, a susurrus, a whisper. It felt so odd to feel the breeze, but to not see anything move.
There was cloth over her eyes. It itched. Jova avoided the other thought. She felt as if a great pressure was pressing against her from every side. She reached up to the bandage, her fingers slipping under the cloth but not pulling it away.
Something clattered on the ground. Hollow, like wood. The splash was probably water. “Oh, by all the Ladies,” whispered Ma, and the rustling became louder. “Jova. Jova, dear, are you awake? How do you feel?”
Jova croaked. Her mouth was dry.
“Here, here, here,” said Ma, and Jova swallowed greedily. Ma held her head up as she drank. When she was done, Jova felt suddenly guilty. Coddled, like a baby, like a cripple. She reached up, trying to find the cup, but her hands grasped at empty air.
Ma pressed the cup into her hand, and as Jova took it she felt her mother’s hand shaking. She drank it all in one gulp, water dribbling out of the corners of her mouth. Jova tried to hand the cup back, but found that she did not know where to offer it.
Her mother took the cup back, just as gently. Jova let her hand fall. She hung her head, staring at nothing. The pressure was in her chest, now.
She choked back a sob.
“Oh, my little Lady,” said Ma, and she hugged Jova close. The sudden movement made Jova’s wounds twinge, but the warmth of her embrace more than made up for it.
Despite herself, Jova began to cry. Tears streamed from empty eyes, and she began to gasp for breath as she hugged her mother close. “I’m so sorry, Ma,” she managed to say. “I’m so sorry.”
“No, no, no,” said Ma, rocking her back and forth. Her voice was steady, even as she pressed a wet cheek against Jova’s forehead. “Don’t be sorry. Don’t be sorry. It wasn’t your fault. You were so strong. So strong, my little Lady. You don’t have anything to be sorry for.”
But Jova couldn’t stop. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
She heard a gasp behind her, a strangle intake of breath. “Jova,” Da said. “Anjan, is she…? Jova, are…”
“Our Jova is just fine,” said Ma, still rocking her daughter. “She turned out just fine, didn’t she?”
Jova felt a second pair of arms wrap around her, and she began to cry even harder. “Our little Lady’s just fine,” Da repeated. He kissed her on the head. “You made it. Oh, Jova, you made it. We thought you would die. You- you should have, but now we know you’re made of stronger stuff, eh?” The cheeriness in his voice sounded forced to Jova’s ears.
They sat there for a long time, until Jova found she could cry no more.
“Rest now, Jova,” said Ma. “We’ll take care of you, don’t you worry.” Jova nodded. She let her hands guide her back down to the ground, and lay there, not moving. She didn’t sleep, though. Some old habits, it seemed, died hard.
“How long has it been?” Jova asked.
There was silence. What were her parents doing? What were they thinking? Not knowing was frustration beyond belief. “Four days,” said Ma, finally. “Four days and four nights. We watched over you the whole time.” She whistled, and Jova flinched. She heard soft padding on the ground. It was just Mo.
“You must be hungry,” said Da, and Jova concentrated. There was a very low crackle. A small fire? “Do you want to eat now? We’ll wait, if you don’t. Just tell us when, Jova.”
Her throat was still dry. “I’ll eat now,” said Jova, and it surprised her just how weak her voice sounded: it was thin and feeble. Like she was, she supposed.
“OK,” said Da, and the cheeriness had faded. “I’ll tell you when it’s ready.”
Jova nodded, although she did not know if Da could see. She curled up on her mat, trying to listen. Her eyelids kept opening to see only darkness, and the bandage itched around her face. It more than itched, it felt wrong.
It was no great mystery what was wrong, but Jova had no context to describe it. She doubted many people did.
Of course, there was pain, and that pain became more apparent as she lay there. It was whispering in her wounds, in clumsily bandaged scratches and cuts. Jova concentrated, trying to focus on anything else besides herself.
She heard a low whine, felt the heat of the weaseldog’s body. “Hey, Mo,” she said, although she did not reach out to pet him as she normally did. “How you doing?”
A wet snout found its way under her palm, and she did her best to smile. “Good Mo,” she whispered, brushing his snout. He was part of the family, too.
It took only a short time for the meal to be ready, and Jova felt her stomach rumble.
“Mushroom broth,” said Da, smiling. “It’s your favorite. And we have bread, too, and cheese. There’s not much, but we’ve been saving it for when you woke up.”
Jova felt hands on her side again. “It’s just me,” Ma said into Jova’s ear as she helped her up. Again, Jova felt that surge of guilt, guilt for being useless, a burden.
“Careful, it’s hot,” said Da, putting the chipped wooden bowl gently in Jova’s hand. “Doesn’t it look- smell good?”
His little slip of the tongue made Jova’s heart sink even lower. She had meant to prove herself stronger to her parents. This was the opposite. She held the bowl carefully in her lap.
“Do you need any help?” asked Ma, her concern evident in her voice.
“No!” Jova took a deep breath. “No, Ma, it’s OK.” And she brought the bowl up, shaking, to her mouth. A little soup sloshed out of the sides as she did, and a little more came out of the corner of her mouth. Was that because of her disability, or was she simply noticing it now?
She ate, her parents huddled in pensive silence around her. They seemed at a loss of words to say.
And finally, Jova worked up the nerve to ask something that had been bothering her since she had woken up. “Where are the others? Where’s Sri?”
Again, the long silence that Jova could no longer read. She sat and waited, as the possible answers slowly grew worse and worse in her head.
“I sent them away,” Ma said, finally. “They shouldn’t have done what they did to you.”
They didn’t do anything to me, Jova thought, morosely.
This was all my fault.
“Up here, Jova girl!”
Jova bit her tongue, concentrating as she clambered up to the next branch. The further south they went, the more flexible the trees got, and Jova had already fallen once when a whippy branch bent a little too much.
“Look at you two,” said Rituu, smiling, his head craned up to watch. “Like little mothmonkeys.”
Sri just swung her knees from her perch on high, while Jova turned to look at Rituu. “Mothmonkeys?” Jova was as familiar with his tall tales as Gopal and Sri by now; unlike them, she still liked them. It was a game between her and Rituu to see if she could tell the fibs from the truth.
“Scary things,” said Rituu, with a straight face. “Big eyes, white fur all over, wings under its arms. I saw a couple in a marsh forest in Kazakhal called Sorzova.”
“Truth for the mothmonkeys,” said Jova. She clambered a little higher. The branch bent precariously as she grabbed it, but held as she hauled herself up. “Lie for Sorzova.”
Rituu cocked his head. “Oh, really? Are you sure? I’ve never mentioned either of them before.”
“Absolutely positively,” said Jova, a wide grin on her face.
“What do you think, Sri?”
The dark-haired girl looked up, shielding her expression from view. “I agree with Jova girl,” she said. Jova snorted. Sri had picked up “Jova girl” from her dad- well, Jova thought of Rituu as her dad, although Sri never called him or Gopal that.
“Why do you think that, Sri? Don’t say it’s just because Jova thinks so. I want you to think for yourself!”
“Don’t I get to explain myself?” said Jova peevishly.
“Shush, you. Sri?”
“I’ve seen winter moths before,” said Sri. She spoke so quietly. Jova had no idea how Rituu managed to hear down on the ground; she could barely hear Sri and they were almost on the same branch. “And you’ve talked about monkeybears before.”
“Educated men call them gorillai now,” said Rituu. “But do go on!”
“I think mothmonkeys make sense,” said Sri. “Even if they do sound a little…weird. But you never talked about Sorzova, and I’ve never heard about it either. And it sounds like a made-up Kazakhal name, not a real Kazakhal name.”
Jova stared. She had just picked at random. Even though they were the same age, Sri was so much smarter than her.
Or, perhaps, Jova reasoned, she just had the patience to think things through.
“Well done, my little Sri,” said Rituu clapping. Jova began to clap too but stopped when she nearly fell off her branch. She stopped, and looked around. Rituu had told them to climb, but to what end?
“You are correct on one and might be correct on the other.”
Jova laughed and glared at the same time. “Might be? You don’t remember?”
“They say plainsman memories are like leaky pots, which is why we write everything down,” admitted Rituu. “But that is not the reason. No, you might be right because I never knew in the first place. Fib about Sorzova, yes.”
“A-ha!” Jova couldn’t help herself. She pumped a fist in the air. She liked winning.
Rituu’s face crinkled in a smile, as did Sri’s. “But mothmonkeys, I don’t know.”
“So that was a lie too?”
“A lie, a truth. I do not know. I have never known!” Rituu looked happy about that, for some reason. “But after listening to little Sri’s profound argument, which, must I say, would rival the greatest debates of all the electors of the Twin Libraries, then I am convinced that perhaps there are some mothmonkeys in the world, flapping around with their big wide eyes.”
“But you’ve never seen one,” said Jova.
“Knowing without seeing is believing,” said Rituu, sagely.
“Sounds like lying to me.”
“We always believe. You would think everything I say is a lie if you did not believe! We believe that there is more world to Albumere even though we cannot see it, we believe that the stars are still there even when we cannot see them for the light of the sun, we believe that there is tomorrow even if we cannot see the future.” Rituu’s voice became grand and mighty, and his chest puffed out with self-importance. “We believe because we are men, the children of the Ladies Four and the most superb of animals!”
“You’re lecturing again,” said Sri’s soft voice.
Rituu just grinned. “And you believe that there is something up there and I didn’t send you to climb a shit- a stupid tree for no reason even though you can’t see anything, right?”
“My Da says that we always get paid for our belief,” said Jova, raising an eyebrow. What she didn’t mention was that he always said that when the pay was not apparent, so personally Jova found the adage a little difficult to swallow. Rituu’s reasons for leading them up there, though, were hopefully a bit more concrete.
“Oh, sometimes our faith is not always rewarded,” said Rituu, and he walked away down the trail.
“Hey! Hey, wait, no!” shouted Jova, moving to clamber back down. Sri just shook her head and sighed.
Rituu popped his out from behind the bend in the path. “And other times, Jova girl, we just need to believe a little longer.”
Jova crossed her arms and leaned back against the trunk of the tree, her patience wearing thin. “You talk too much, Rituu.”
“I thought you liked my stories,” said Rituu, feigning hurt. He still didn’t seem to be approaching the point of their excursion anytime soon.
“I do,” said Jova. “But this isn’t one of your stories, this is one of your lectures. And I hate those.”
When Rituu laughed, Jova wasn’t surprised. Sri’s quiet chuckle made her look up, though. Was it something she had said?
“You are both very forward for a stranger, Jova girl,” said Rituu, “And very earthy for a pilgrim. Your reason to go to the Temple, I feel, is not the same as your, er, guardians’. What business does a girl like you have in Moscoleon?”
“The tree, Rituu,” snarled Jova. “Tell me why I’m in a tree.”
Leaves fell in a sudden shower around Jova. She tensed instinctively, but it was just Sri. Her mouth was open in surprise, her arm outstretched as she reached for something on the other side of the tree. “Whoa!” she said, balancing precariously as she leaned over. “Look at this!”
“One asks for a reward for her faith,” said Rituu. “The other has faith to sustain her, and understands that it is its own reward.”
“You act really differently from how I first met you,” said Jova. “You were angry and swearing and stumbling through the dark. Where did this philosopher come from?”
“One should never be too quick to judge,” said Rituu. “People are like onions. You must peel away layer after layer-.”
“I’m going, I’m going!” Jova hauled herself up to the next branch, trying to get a vantage on whatever Sri was looking at. She looked at the girl. “Is he always like that?”
“He’s gotten better,” said Sri. She paused. “Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to him.”
Jova sat on the edge of the branch, and peered. Sri was reaching inside a hollow indentation in the center of the tree, her hands reaching into the dim shadows.
Jova’s heart skipped a beat, her squabble with Rituu forgotten.
There must have been hundreds of tabula stacked in the hollow. Jova hadn’t realized how high up she was; the canopy was just above them, and beyond that bright, unbroken sunlight. It played on the tabula, bright beams shining through gaps in the leaves.
Jova bent forward, reaching out nervously. Her grip so high was tenuous at best, but the veritable hoard of tabula held a kind of magnetic appeal. She just had to touch it, had to know that they were real.
Her fingers brushed against the disks, causing several to slip and slide off each other like a small avalanche. Her heart jumped. If one fell out and shattered…
But none of them did. She drew her shaking hand back. Her fingers were numb, and from more than just nerves. The piles and piles of tabula had vibrated softly to her touch, the effect compounded a thousand-fold as the vibrations spread throughout the collection.
Jova looked closer. Shattered fragments peeked out of the disks: the remains of wild animals that had passed the Fallow and left their tabula behind in the hollow. Sap lined the walls of the tree, and some patches had even begun to harden in half-formed ovals and circles. Jova’s hand drifted towards the walls, but she pulled back. It felt somehow sanctimonious to disturb the forming tabula; her impure hands would probably somehow taint the nascent disks.
“This is a hollow?” whispered Jova. It was the first one she had ever seen.
“I know,” said Sri. “Mine was so much closer to the ground.”
Jova’s mouth went dry. This was one of the things that her parents had warned her so many times about talking about. Bad people would hurt her if she mentioned her hollow- or, more specifically, the lack thereof. But Sri spoke freely and openly of it. What could be the harm?
“I thought the ones in Jhidnu were smaller than this,” said Sri. Wonder had apparently loosened her tongue. “But I guess that we aren’t quite in Jhidnu anymore, are we? Maybe they grow taller in Moscon…I wonder if hollows even know the difference between the bay and the peninsula. Maybe the soil is better here…”
“Or- or maybe…” Jova said, trying to join the conversation. Her knowledge of plants was limited to the fact that most were green. “Maybe it’s old,” she said.
Sri looked at her, and Jova felt her cheeks turn red. It seemed like a reasonable thing to say at the time.
“That might be right,” Sri whispered, her voice lowering again. She sounded like her ordinary, quiet self, but there was an excitement in her expression that Jova had never seen. “Could you imagine? A hollow this size could have lived for hundreds of years, since the age of High General Desdon. It could have been around when Keep Mist was alive, when the First Army marched on the Temple!”
Jova had absolutely no idea what Sri was talking about but the imagery was vivid nonetheless.
“How is it, girls?” shouted Rituu. “Enjoying the view?”
Sri nodded, although Jova doubted Rituu could see her head move from all the way down there. Jova chose the more direct method of shouting, “How did you know this was a hollow?”
“I can see you’re not from the south, then,” said Rituu, smugly, and Jova gulped. Had that been the wrong thing to say? Ma and Da probably would have been mad at her if they heard her ask that question. “The hollows of the coastal region never stop growing! They get taller and taller, and some would swear that they have seen them walk.”
“Lie!” Jova shouted.
“Truth,” Rituu replied. “This is about more than just admiring the hollow, though. There are things you have to learn, Sri, things I’ve neglected from teaching you. My eyes were opened last night, when goodman Ell gave me this little gift.” He rolled his shoulder and winced. “It’s about time you learned to defend yourself.”
Sri sat bolt upright, her eyes wide with surprise.
“What about me?” Jova shouted.
“Little Sri needs a sparring partner, doesn’t she, Jova girl?” Rituu clapped his hands together, his voice somewhat hoarse from shouting so much. “I could give you a couple lessons too.”
“I’ve had enough of your lessons!” shouted Jova. “But I’ll take a tabula!”
“Then take one! Who am I to give or deny you permission?” Rituu raised a warning finger. “But only one! This is a law of the Ladies, not men. Take just one from the hollow tree. It is bad luck to do otherwise.”
Sri’s hand darted out, quick and nimble, taking one disk without even disturbing the rest. Jova, on the other hand, groped in the hollow blindly, searching for a disk even though they all felt the same. “Do I just pick one randomly?”
“They say in the darkness of shadows, the Ladies Four will guide your hand-.”
“I don’t care what they say, Rituu, just tell me how I’m supposed to pick one!”
“Randomly is fine,” said Rituu, his laughter barely held back. “Just make sure it isn’t another person! We don’t need slaves for our lessons. Those we shall leave for their Fallow.”
Jova’s hand found a disk. She held up to her face, trying to see what kind of creature it was bonded to in the dancing reflections within, but all she saw was her own reflection staring back at her. Sri had already given her tabula the appropriate command; what it was, Jova had no idea, so she pretended she had said the right words and stuffed the tabula in her pocket so as not to be embarrassed.
The two clambered down the tree slower than they had ascended, stepping carefully on the bending branches. With the tabula on their person, it was as if they were escorting some precious treasure back down to the ground, where Rituu waited.
“Have you claimed them?” he asked.
Jova looked up in time to see Sri nod. She ignored Rituu, hopping down from the last branch and squatting to absorb the impact. “What’ll you teach us first?” asked Jova, a wide smile on her face. She imagined a fierce companion like Mo: friendly at times, with its own little quirks, but always strong and always dangerous.
Rituu took a deep breath (no doubt to launch into one of his monologues), but before he could speak a familiar shape came through the bushes. Ma looked from Rituu, to the girls, to the tree, and back to Rituu. “Just wondering where you had gone off to with the children,” said Ma. Jova watched her face closely. She could see by the furrowed eyebrows, the slight pursing of the lips, the narrowed eyes that Ma was worried. Jova’s stomach sunk. She would be receiving a lecture later, no doubt, and a full debriefing on what she had said to Rituu and Sri.
“Ah, goodwoman Anjan,” said Rituu. “I was just showing them a hollow I found on the path! Perhaps I should have asked for your permission first, but I meant it to be a surprise.”
Lie, Jova thought, automatically. Rituu had had no intention of telling her parents where she had gone, she was sure of it.
“Consider me surprised,” said Ma, laughing airily as she took Jova’s hand and tugged her away. “I need to talk with my d- with Jova now, though.”
Jova waved a little goodbye to Sri as she stumbled away. Sri’s hand waved from her waist, which was about as good as Jova was going to get, even as Sri’s bright eyes followed them as they walked away.
“I don’t want you running off like that all the time,” said Ma immediately once they were out of earshot. “And I don’t want you spending time with him, either.”
Jova felt a protest rising, but she bit it down. “He showed me the hollow,” said Jova, instead. Not quite an accusation, but nevertheless accusatory.
“I know,” said Ma, distractedly. She kept looking back over her shoulder.
“He let me take a tabula,” said Jova.
“I know.” Ma hurried Jova along, as they made their way back to the little glade where they had made camp. Da was preparing food over the fire, while Gopal was nowhere to be seen.
Jova fell silent. If Ma wasn’t going to listen to her, then she wasn’t going to say anything. The tabula in her pocket was like a glowing ember in Jova’s chest. It kept her spirits just a bit higher, to know that she had that kind of secret power in her pocket.
Ma turned Jova around and sat down with her. “Now I want you to promise me that you won’t do any more things with tabula around them, OK? Not any of the big ones, or even the little girl, OK?”
“They have names…”
“Promise me, Jova,” said Ma, and her voice grew firm.
Jova mumbled something that could be interpreted as an affirmative.
“Oh, my little Lady,” said Ma, and she drew her daughter in close, hugging her tightly. “I’m doing this to protect you. You understand that? I’m doing this because I love you and I want to keep you safe.”
The words rang empty in Jova’s ears. Rituu had said that Sri would learn to protect herself. Why couldn’t Jova do the same? Perhaps Ma would need a shock like last night to let her know; perhaps Da would be more willing to let Jova continue lessons with the other family after what he had been through…
Jova was horrified with herself. Manipulating her father when he was injured? What kind of person would do that?
Ma let her go and stood up. “You be a good girl, now,” she said, trying to be gentle. Jova could tell when Ma was making a conscious effort not to be harsh with her; her voice softened to a near whisper even as it climbed an octave or two. Her expression seemed genuine, though. “I’m going out with Mo. You help your father with the rest of lunch.”
Jova nodded, as Ma whistled for the weaseldog to come. Mo padded along to Ma’s side, giving Jova a friendly nudge with a wet nose as he passed. She traced the burn scars on his face. He looked fierce, but Mo was kind as could be. Perhaps if Mo approved of the beast in Jova’s tabula, Ma would be more willing to accept.
After a moment, Jova decided she felt a guilty for manipulating Mo, too. He was, after all, part of the family.
With all the guilt and the frustration and the anticipation pent up inside of her, Jova felt like she would burst. Her fingers tapped inside her threadbare pockets, but ultimately it would have been foolish to ask Da for help with a tabula now.
Da caught her eye, and waved her over, a large smile on his face. Jova drew her hand out of her pocket and skipped over to her father’s side. The tabula could wait for later.
He was bent awkwardly around the simmering pot, the wound on his chest making it hard for him to maneuver. Jova took the wooden ladle from his hand, as he sat gratefully back down. “Thank you, Jova dear,” said Da, eyes closed, although from relief or pain Jova could not tell. His hand rested against his heart, and he breathed heavily. “What would I do without you, eh?”
Jova’s brow furrowed, as she stirred the broth. It bubbled golden-brown, and smelled so savory that even if Jova wasn’t hungry already she would have begun to salivate anyway. This, here, was good. And yet…
“Sorry, Da,” Jova muttered.
Da looked up, his eyes open. He put a hand on Jova’s shoulder. “Sorry for what? You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.”
“Sorry about running out during the night,” said Jova. “Sorry about getting you hurt.”
“Getting me hurt? No, no, no. Little Lady, it was a big tough old bathawk that got me hurt.” Da thumped his chest, despite the rawness of his wounds. “Do you have talons, Jova? Do you have wings and fangs? You didn’t do this to me, an animal did.”
“But you couldn’t sleep and you tried to help some people,” said Da, cutting her off. “You can’t blame yourself for that. You didn’t mean to do anything wrong, did you? You didn’t mean to do anything bad, did you?”
“But I still did it!” Jova said. She felt more frustrated, now, not less. Would her father just stop talking and let her admit that everything was her fault?
“No, you didn’t.” Seeing that she wasn’t stirring, Da took the ladle back. “If anything, it’s my fault that I went rushing in headfirst like that. If you’re sorry, then I’m sorry, too.”
“Don’t be sorry!” Jova said, immediately. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry…for…” She paused, biting her tongue.
“How about this, then? If you promise not to be sorry, then I promise not to be sorry either.”
Jova opened her mouth. Then she closed her mouth. She felt like she had lost a game she hadn’t even known she was playing.
“So no more apologies,” said Da. “Now help me with this, your new friends seem to take their food very seriously.”
They sat together over the bubbling pot, as the forest whispered around them. Jova found herself tapping the tabula in her pocket again, despite herself. Perhaps now she could broach the subject with her father? How?
Jova spent a pensive minute mulling her plan of attack over in her head, but she had not yet even opened her mouth when there was a rustle in the path. Da turned suddenly, tense, but Jova was a bit calmer about it. It was just Gopal returning from wherever he had gone when they had made camp. He held one large bag over his shoulder and another smaller one in his hand.
“Lunch?” he said, nodding approvingly. He looked slightly breathless. “I found some herbs in the forest, they’ll be good for seasoning. And I’ve got some dried biscuits, too.”
“Ah, no doubt foraged in the forest as well,” said Da. “I didn’t know they had biscuit bushes in the south. Are they all dried here, or do they come sweetened and glazed like they do in the mountains?”
Gopal indulged him a smile. It seemed somehow false, though. There was still tension between them.
Jova looked down, trying to ignore the sudden quiet that had fallen over the camp. Da did not blame her for his wounds, she knew. But, then, who did he blame?
About as distant as he could get from them without being rude, Gopal laid down his bags. He did not explain where he had gotten them, nor why he was out of breath. “Will it be ready soon?” asked the burly man.
“Soon as soon comes,” said Da. “Jova, be good and see if you can fetch the others? We don’t want it getting cold now. I’d do it myself, but I think it’s best if I don’t move around so much.” He laughed and rubbed his chest, but he looked at Gopal as he said it.
He doesn’t trust him, Jova realized, but out loud all she said was, “OK. I’ll be back soon.”
She rose and jogged away, back down the little split trail where Rituu had taken her with Sri. Perhaps she could catch the tail end of a tabula lesson, she realized, with a smile. The smile vanished quickly, though. That would be going against what Ma had told her to do, though…
Her hand crawled back down into her pocket, where the tabula waited, warm and enticing. Jova looked over her shoulder. There was no one around, just the forest, its constant susurrus enveloping her comfortably. It couldn’t hurt, just to try it herself- just to prove to Ma that Rituu wasn’t bad, that Jova could watch out for herself, that she didn’t need to be worried.
Jova took out the tabula, and cupped it in her hands. She licked dry lips. What was the next step? Ma always closed her eyes when she summoned Mo, like she was concentrating hard. Jova did the same, concentrating with all her might on the amber disk in her hand.
It hummed, just slightly. Sweat broke out on Jova’s forehead, and she stopped, gasping. She felt so drained. The humming stopped as soon as Jova opened her eyes.
Jova blinked. She couldn’t stop now. She had to prove to her mother that she could do this.
The frustration and guilt and anticipation swelled up inside her, and Jova shut her eyes tight again. The tabula hummed fiercely in her hands, making her arms numb from the shaking, but she did not stop. She thought she felt something like a breeze around her, but with her eyes shut so tight they hurt Jova could not tell if it was real or imagined. She felt a prickling on her skin, became intensely aware of the trees and the wind and the noises of the forest.
It felt like eternity, but finally it was as if something broke. The tabula stopped shaking very suddenly, and Jova drew in a great gasp of air. She had forgotten to breathe the entire process, but now that it was over she felt her knees weaken beneath her. She opened her watering eyes, and her vision swam. She saw something, an indistinct blur of shapes and colors, but it was hard to tell after the summoning. She hadn’t expected it to be so tiring, and yet, she felt strangely elated. It hadn’t been that hard at all.
“Hey,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “I’m Jova. We’re going to be fr-.”
And then she felt claws sink into her belly as the thing attacked.
Ell was a blur with his knife. In that moment, Jova was reminded that Da was not just her father: he was also the slave who had fought his way to freedom in the arenas of the Marble Stronghold, the city of soldiers, with nothing but a broken shiv. And if ever she doubted Da’s stories of his journey to freedom, she did not doubt them now.
Jova felt a rough hand grab her as Ell pushed her back into safety.
Meanwhile, Rituu stumbled backwards, arms raised. From the ground, Jova saw Gopal reaching for his neck. She couldn’t make out what he was holding in the dim light- but she could guess.
Ell had forced Rituu to the ground, a knee on his chest while he raised his knife high, but before he could stab down a harsh shriek tore through the air. Dead leaves swirled in a violent ball around them, and when they broke a dark shape had materialized within. It flapped massive wings, beating gusts of air so powerful that Jova had to shield her eyes and look away.
The thing Gopal had summoned screamed, flapping up, breaking past the canopy. Leaves from the disrupted trees jostled around them, and through the newly made hole in the treetops Jova could see its silhouette, tucking in its wings- all four of them- close to its body, turning in the air, and plummeting.
At speeds Jova did not think possible, the creature dove directly towards her father. He moved to dodge it, but it was as if a rock tried to dodge the wind. The creature hit him squarely in the chest, raking his body with talons the size of Jova’s whole arm, biting forward with a fanged mouth.
A sleek form barreled into it from the side, snarling. Mo entwined himself around the beast’s wings, his burn scars glistening in the moonlight, preventing it from flapping to safety as he bit and snapped at the creature’s neck. Both rolled away, grappling in the dirt, but no sooner had that happened did Ma arrive on the scene, murder in her eyes.
The weaseldog disentangled himself from Gopal’s creature, just as Ma stepped up to it. The winged beast turned and hissed at Ma, baring sharp fangs. For its trouble, Ma seized its neck and slammed her fist squarely into its head. There was a sharp crack as the creature fell to the side, wings flapping helplessly, dazed but not dead.
Jova had finally gathered herself, and she stumbled forward, screaming. “Stop! Ma, Da, stop! They’re friends! I’m helping them!”
Ma, who had been about to crush the creature’s skull with her fist, froze, while Mo backed away, tail between his legs. Da forced himself to sit up, bleeding from his chest, while Gopal dragged the similarly bleeding Rituu away to safety. The little girl, Sri, surreptitiously dropped the heavy branch she had picked up after the bird creature had crashed through the trees. Two men were bleeding, debris was scattered across the now ruined path, and the local innkeepers were now stumbling out of the door in their nightclothes.
All in all, the fight had lasted about ten seconds.
“They’re my friends,” Jova repeated, breathless. She had not fought, yet her heart was still pumping so fast she felt she might throw up. She was no stranger to blood, but all the same she was grateful that the night was so dark. “They were just lost. I was helping them find the way.”
Da took off his torn shirt, wincing as he wrapped it around his chest to stymie the bleeding. “You disappeared in the middle of the night and next thing I know I see three strangers following behind you in the dark.” He tossed his knife aside and spat, as Ma bent down to help him with his wounds. “That makes a father worry, little Lady.”
“Mo was with me,” said Jova. The weaseldog was squaring off against Gopal’s creature, growling as they paced around each other. “He wouldn’t have been so calm if I was in danger.”
“Never mind that, Jova!” snapped Ma, and there was real anger in her voice. “Do you have any idea how worried you made us? Any idea, at all? Have you listened to a word we ever said? There are dangerous people out there- bad people that will hurt you given half the chance. Don’t ever, ever go away like that again.”
Jova felt her cheeks go red. She looked down, wishing she could hide but knowing that she was not yet dismissed. She had just wanted to go for a walk; she couldn’t sleep. She had thought her parents were still sleeping. It wasn’t my fault, she thought.
The fact that it was, though, made her angry.
And what exactly was her fault? Her parents, distraught. Rituu, bleeding from a stab wound in his shoulder. The glaring, mistrustful eyes of the girl who Jova had wanted so dearly to befriend.
“You did not tell me your parents were summerborn, Jova girl,” said Rituu. There was still joviality in his voice, although it was forced through gritted teeth. “Fierce, they are. Like tigerbeetles.”
“I formally apologize for attacking you,” said Da, stiffly, his upbringing among the marblemen coming back. “It was wrong of me to do so.”
“I apologize for my partner calling his bathawk to kill you,” said Rituu. “Speaking of which: Gopal, call it off.”
Gopal spoke quietly, in a low whisper that Jova could not hear.
“Gopal,” Rituu said, loudly. “Call it off.”
“Hrmph,” said Gopal, rising. He flapped his arms at the wounded bathawk, which shrieked again as it raised its wings. “Go, Jiralla! Shoo!” The bathawk flapped away, breaking a few more tree branches in apparent anger.
“It doesn’t like me,” explained Rituu. “Gopal is strong enough to control it, I think, but the rat with wings is clever. One day, I swear the thing will pick me up in my sleep and fly away to eat me.”
There was forced laughter, as both parties helped their own up. “Being scared of your partner’s beast,” said Ell, shaking his head. “I can relate, friend.”
Rituu beamed, his smile visible as they staggered back to the inn. The innkeepers squabbled in front of the door, one with a weapon in hand while the other tried to shove it out of sight.
They ushered the newcomer family in first. One of the innkeepers offered to fetch hot water and bandages for Rituu, who nodded gratefully. “They even heal your complimentary knife wound for you,” Jova overheard Rituu saying. “Told you this place was a good idea.”
Jova began to trail behind them, determined to at least say something– an apology, a greeting, anything- to Sri before the night was out, but she felt a tug on her shoulder.
“You, little Lady, are coming with us,” said Ma, pulling her up the stairs. “You are going to think about tonight, and then you are going to sleep because we have a long way to go tomorrow.”
They faltered on the stairs as Da leaned on the walls, trying to catch his breath as red stained the makeshift bandage around his chest.
“You go and get some help down there too, dear,” said Ma, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder as she guided him back down the stairs. Jova stood out of the way, watching. “Get it cleaned and fixed.”
Da nodded. He patted Jova on the head as he passed her. “Some friends you made, little Lady. I promise not to kill them.”
As reassurances went, it was the best Jova hoped to get. She followed her mother glumly up the stairs, and went to sleep for the remainder of the night with Ma’s arms wrapped tightly around her, Mo standing watch in front of the window.
The next morning came too soon. Jova woke up sore and groggy; she hadn’t realized how much she had been tossed around during the fight, or how late it had been when she finally returned. Ma kept protective hands on Jova’s shoulders, escorting her all the way downstairs to the dining table.
Jova sniffed. The smell of frying oil did a little to wake her up, and as she and Ma walked in she saw sausages sizzling in front of Rituu and his partners. What they were made of, it was best not to ask: the baypeople around Jhidnu were willing to cook just about any kind of meat into just about any form. It was an acquired taste, but one Jova had grown up with.
“Ah!” said Rituu, clapping his hands. He had been commiserating with Da, both of them drinking morning ale out of mugs. He was the only who seemed happy to see them; to Jova’s chagrin, Gopal’s and Sri’s expressions were still dark and unyielding. “Come, come, come! Eat with us, so that we may cement our bonds of friendship.”
Ma sat, one arm still around Jova as they slid onto the long wooden bench. Jova reached for a sausage, but Ma grabbed her hand. So far the food remained untouched. They had waited for them.
As the innkeepers brought in the last of the steaming meal, Gopal put his hands together and closed his eyes. Sri and Rituu followed suit, and with a jump Jova joined in the blessing before bounty.
Gopal made the sign of summer, tracing a circle on his left shoulder. “The Lady Summer bless us, we give you thanks. May we be strong, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
“Fortune be with you,” intoned the rest.
“-be with you,” said Jova, late. Her parents often didn’t say the blessing; there wasn’t much time for prayer when they ate quick breakfasts on the run, but today seemed to be an exception.
Jova reached for the sausages again, but Ma slid a bowl of porridge in front of her before she could. It was grainy and thick, but sweetened with honey and Jova was content with it for now.
“You can’t back out of being friends now,” Rituu said, happily. “The custom of my people is that once you share a meal together, you have forged an unbreakable bond.”
“Your people?” echoed Jova. She had assumed that Rituu was from Jhidnu, like the rest of them, from his style of dress. Some people swore they could tell where someone was from just by their skin tone; Jova didn’t put much stock in that. What could they do, tell how long the days were at home by the tan of their skin? Did that mean all the pale merchant lords of Jhidnu-by-the-Sea were from the Seat of Winter, and all the tanned workers in the fields of Alswell hailed from Da’atoa? Preposterous.
“Yes, my people,” said Rituu, his arms extending once more in theatrical gestures. Jova saw Gopal roll his eyes again beside him, but he was smiling, which was a good sign. Ma and Da were watching with interest; perhaps this would convince them that Rituu was a good person, and that he had meant no harm. Perhaps this would make up for last night. Evidently this happened quite often. “You see, I am not from Jhidnu.”
“You told me you were the apprentice-heir of a plutocrat,” said Jova, accusatory. “You told me you sold spices.”
“And I do,” said Rituu, winking. “But I have traveled far to make my own fortune on the coast of the east. I have begged on the streets of the Seat of the King. I have slept among the marshmen of Kazakhal. I have traveled far and wide from my homeland to reach this place!”
“I don’t like this one as much,” said Gopal, spooning his porridge. Jova stared. It was the first time she could remember him talking to her. “The story has no conflict and the fibs aren’t as interesting.”
“That’s because they’re true, which should make it the most interesting of my stories,” said Rituu. He shook his head. “Ack, if Gopal doesn’t like it, then piss all. I won’t waste time on the build-up. I’m from Shira Hay, Jova girl. When the plainspeople eat together, it is a sign of trust.”
Ma and Da were talking in hushed tones, but Jova was enraptured.
“Shira Hay? Where is that?” She remembered only once seeing a man who was visibly from Shira Hay; he had been wearing a long cloak and an even longer scarf despite the sweltering heat of that day, searching for books on the bazaar.
“Far to the west,” said Rituu. “My people are renowned for being travelers, nomads, and explorers. I’ve come a long way, true, but so do they all.” He laughed, drinking deeply from the mug. “What’s the saying? The first thing a plainsman does when he becomes a man is leave the plains. The people of Shira Hay are not very good at staying put.”
“Could you tell me how you got here?” said Sri, suddenly. She looked up at her father with wide, earnest eyes, and since she was interested Jova was interested too. “You’ve never told me that story before.”
“How I got here?” Rituu sniffed, his nose wrinkling. “As I remember it…”
Jova’s untouched porridge grew cold. Jova herself leaned forward, eager for more.
“Walking. Lots and lots of walking.” Rituu laughed at the crestfallen expressions on both the girls’ faces. “It’s a dull story and one I’ll tell you later. Give me time to think of a few good fibs and I promise you won’t regret it.”
Jova was beginning to like Rituu’s stories, even if some parts weren’t true. She didn’t see why Gopal was irritated by them. A little rebellious part of her whispered that Ma and Da never told stories like that.
“Now, Gopal here hadn’t walked a mile outside of Jhidnu-by-the-Sea when I first met him,” said Rituu. “Saw ships coming into the bay every single fuc- fuzzy day and never once thought about getting onto them. Ships from all over Albumere! Junks from Mont Don, reed rafts from Hak Mat Do, even spiderwhales from strange Kazakhal.”
“Spiderwhales?” whispered Jova.
Rituu’s voice grew low. “Oh, aye, spiderwhales. You’ve never seen one? I wasn’t lying when I said I slept in Kazakhal; with my own eyes, I’ve seen marshmen raise the beasts. Skin so slippery you can’t even hold them, black and white all over, with eight legs and eight eyes always moving. The biggest ones are the size of this whole inn! Monsters that can carry a dozen men and all their cargo across the sea, and when they reach the shore they just have to crawl up on the docks, no anchors or unloading.”
Jova leaned back in her chair, eyes distant. Perhaps one day she could see the famed spiderwhale. She looked to the side. Could Mo carry any of their packs, like these spiderwhales did? He probably could, but wouldn’t. Mo liked to run free.
“What was I saying? Oh, Gopal! Gopal had worked the docks for twenty years and never thought to leave them. Never even set foot on anything that wasn’t cobblestones or wooden planks.” Rituu grinned and slapped Gopal on the thigh. “When-.”
Gopal put a hand on Rituu’s shoulder. He glanced at the innkeepers in the kitchen, and then at Ma and Da, who were still talking quietly. “Maybe you don’t need to tell them about us, Rituu.” Gopal hadn’t touched his food either. He looked nervous. “They might not be…sympathetic.”
Rituu hesitated, and worry flickered on his face. It lasted just a moment, before he smiled and laughed. “Yes, well, that’s another story I’ll have to save, Jova girl.”
Jova cocked her head. They seemed to be hiding something (Gopal was, at least) but what, she couldn’t tell.
“Gopal and I found Sri just a little while later,” said Rituu, nodding.
“Some adventurer type was auctioning her off,” Gopal said. He spoke as if he was trying to keep the story on-course. “We traded for her with a Wilder longbow and a couple steel arrowheads.”
“Adventure boy didn’t need a kid, we didn’t need arrowheads.” Rituu ruffled the little girl’s head. “I always tell her she’s worth more than just a couple bits of steel.”
Sri looked away, embarrassed.
“I’ve been talking too much.” Rituu shook his head. “In Jhidnu, I learned that everything has a price! Go on, Jova girl. What are you, civil or wild? How did mister Ell and his lovely wife find you, huh?”
Jova opened her mouth, intending to say all that she knew: that Ma and Da had never told her, had never wanted to talk about it. Ma cut in at that moment, though.
“We found her in the wilds, alone. Poor girl was so lost, we couldn’t just leave her. It must have been just days after she left her hollow; she doesn’t even remember. Ell and I have been taking care of her ever since,” said Ma, looking Rituu directly in the eye, a half-smile on her face.
That was Ma’s lying expression.
Rituu nodded in understanding, although Jova saw Gopal looking at her, brow furrowed and eyes narrowed. They met each other’s gaze, and then Gopal nodded slowly. They both had secrets better left unsaid. Neither would pry into them.
“Jova girl tells me you’re going to Moscoleon? What do you plan to do at the Grand Temple, hmm?” Rituu grinned. It was an innocent question.
“Jhidnu has grown unsafe lately. The plutocrats are not guarding the roads as they should and there is a hostility to the air that was not there before,” Da said. “We go to Moscoleon for the protection of the Holy Keep and of the Ladies Four. Perhaps we shall find more spiritual protection there as well.” Again, it came out too quickly, like Da had rehearsed it.
“Ah! Wonderful!” Rituu looked at his traveling companions. “We go for the same reason. Gopal’s been going on and on about how the roads are unsafe, but perhaps if we were six and not three…” He trailed off, leaving the proposition unsaid.
“Jova, eat quickly, we should go soon,” whispered Ma.
“My chest is still a little uncomfortable,” said Ell, quickly. “I’ll be traveling slow for another few days. Really, we’d just hold you back.”
“Oh, no, you don’t get that excuse.” Rituu patted his heavily bandaged shoulder. “We’ll travel slow together. What do you say? We ate the meal together, we shared our trust. We will walk the same roads anyway, so why not go together?”
Jova couldn’t see the problem. She held Ma’s hand, and looked up, pleading.
Ma shared a glance with Da, and bit her lip. “The rest of the trip is short,” she said. “Perhaps we can travel together for just a little longer.”
Jova smiled. This would be her chance to talk with Sri. And this time, nothing would go wrong.
She traced a figure-eight in the dirt, the shadows and contours barely visible by the light of the fires inside the inn, shrouded in the shade of the night. Jova tapped her stick on the ground, shivering in the chill air. There was a vague, restless itch in her chest, but despite (or perhaps because of) the uncharacteristically cold air, she didn’t feel like moving.
“Jova, dear, what are you doing? Come inside now.” Ma stood behind the frame of the door, frowning. The light from the hearth inside illuminated her silhouette and cast a long, distorted shadow over the sand. “It’s time to sleep.”
Jova scratched her chest and stared out at the distant coast. She didn’t feel like sleeping. Recently she had begun to suspect that sleep was what Ma made her do just to keep her quiet. The eight-year old shifted from her squatting position and sat heavily on the ground, her back turned and arms folded around her knees: a small rebellion, but all the rebellion she had.
The shadow moved, and Jova felt her mother’s arms wrap around her. Jova let her arms fall to her sides, and relaxed. The brief anger she felt at her mother melted away, as quickly as it had flared.
“I’m sorry, little Lady,” Ma said, rocking her back and forth. Her embrace was clumsy, but warm. “But you need rest for tomorrow. We’ve got a long way to walk.”
“We always have a long way to walk,” said Jova, sullen.
“So it shouldn’t be a surprise anymore, dear,” said Ma, with hints of both exasperation and affection. “Come on, I’ll walk you back upstairs.”
Jova’s arm trailed up as she held her mother’s hand. “Where are we going tomorrow?” she asked, as they climbed the wooden steps of the inn. Firelight lit both the top and bottom of the stairs, but the middle was a stretch of inky darkness. Jova clung close to her mother as they ascended.
“We’re going south,” said Ma. “Following the coast. We’ve nearly left the bay and we’ll be at the peninsula, soon.”
Jova took the steps one at a time, climbing the stairs carefully. “Why’s it taking so long?”
“Because it’s a long way.” Ma laughed.
“But why do we have to take the long way?” Jova looked up at her mother, her eyes searching. “We’ve been on the big roads with everybody else before. They go so much faster than the little twisty ones we always take.”
“We take the twisty roads, Jova,” Ma said, as she opened the door, “For your own good.”
“How’s it for my own good if I don’t want to go on the twisty roads? I want to go on the big ones.” Jova made no move to get into bed.
“Sometimes what’s good for you isn’t what you want to do,” said Ma, reaching over and lifting Jova onto her knees. “There are bad people on the big roads, little Lady. Bad people that might want to hurt you.”
Jova paused, thoughtful for a moment. “Will they stop once I’m grown up?”
Ma tilted her head quizzically.
“Because you always say they want to hurt me. Not us. Me. Is it because I’m not grown-up yet?” Jova stared at her mother, her eyes wide and earnest and imploring.
Ma seemed to struggle with her next words. “I’m afraid it doesn’t matter whether you’re grown-up or not, dear. You’re very special.”
Jova laid her head down to rest. “When will I stop being special?”
“Never, my little Lady,” said Ma, kissing her on the forehead and lying down to sleep as well. Da snored and twisted, and the three of them lay together on the thatch, warm in each other’s company.
Never. Jova scrubbed her eyes. Her mother always said she was special, but if small roads and long walks were what special entailed then she wanted no part of it. Jova adjusted herself, trying to get into a more comfortable position, and whispered, “Will there be kids where we’re going?”
Again, the slight pause. “Yes, Jova.”
“Can I play with them? Or are they bad people, too?”
Ma sighed: a deep, long, heavy sound. “I don’t know, Jova. I hope you can. I hope they’re not. We’ll see when we get to Moscoleon.”
Moscoleon: the clandestine haven Jova’s family had been wandering towards for more than a year. Perhaps it had been their destination for longer than that, or perhaps it was a temporary stop just like this inn. Perhaps Moscoleon would just add to the long list of settlements and villages they had wandered through, searching for…something.
Jova scratched the strangely vacant spot on her chest again. It wasn’t actually empty, it just felt that way. “Will I see any kids on the way there?”
“I don’t know, Jova.”
“It’s just that I really want to see another kid like me. With a Ma and a Da. Do they have those in Moscoleon?”
A soothing hand brushed back her travel-worn, dusty hair. “Go to sleep, now, dear. We’ll talk in the morning.”
Jova fell silent, even though her mind still buzzed with questions. Ma was always exceedingly gentle with her, like she was some porcelain ornament that would shatter at the slightest touch, but when she became frustrated or tired, it was evident in her expressions, and that always made Jova feel just a touch guilty. The child laid in bed, and waited until her mother’s breathing slowed.
Then she slipped out of the straw bed, tiptoed to the open window, and hopped out. As agile as a fall monkey, she slipped down the side of the inn without trouble, her dexterous fingers finding handholds in the cracked wood. Isolated as the twisty roads may have been, they had no lack of high trees for a child to practice climbing.
Landing on light feet, Jova took a moment to catch her breath. Her fingers stung, and she sucked at the splinters that dug into them.
She looked back. The old inn was falling apart from damp and age, but at least they had clean beds and hot food. The innkeepers had been almost relieved to see Jova’s family stay the night, and had taken new clothes from the city and fresh meat gratefully in return for a one-night stay. They had all eaten together just an hour ago, and the innkeepers had retired.
There had been no children, though. There never were.
Jova stepped out a little further, opening her arms to feel the full rush of the sea breeze that rippled through the night. Situated on an overhang less than a mile from the coast, the little inn at least could boast an undeniable view.
The beach stretched on, unbroken, as the waves lapped gently against it, and overhead a crescent moon hung low in the sky. The drooping eye of the Lady Fall, Da called it: it watched over everything and everyone but for one night every month, when the agents of the dark could operate in confidence while the Lady looked away.
Jova walked out, alone, enjoying the cool air.
A low, deep growl rumbled through the darkness. Jova did not flinch.
“Hey, Mo,” she said, smiling and reaching out to the snarling beast slouching out of the shadows. “Hey, old fella.”
The weaseldog whined and wagged his tail. He didn’t seem to mind the cold.
Jova’s hand brushed the weaseldog’s back at a mechanical, regular pace, and she sat back down in the sand, just as she had been before her mother brought her back inside.
Jova traced patterns in the sand: a circle, an arc, two lines, flowing and twisting and moving through each other. Imaginary colors danced under her fingers, reds and greens and blues that flowered and spun. Once, Da had given her a bottle of red finger dye from the Jhidnu market; Jova still remembered the coloring with a smile.
After a time, she got up.
Mo raised his head, and after just a small whine of protest, slunk after her. Her feet took her down a road of dirt, one she had walked once already. The first time had been with her parents, though. This time she walked in the opposite direction, alone except for Mo.
The light dimmed on the dirt road as the trees closed in. Even the Lady Fall’s gaze, it seemed, could not penetrate the thick canopy as it closed above her, and the darkness grew deeper.
It unsettled Jova, but not enough to make her turn back. The itching in her chest was too insistent. The little girl felt compelled to go back; it was as if she had left something behind and she had to get it back.
The woods were silent as Jova walked the quiet trail back, but Jova preferred the world that way. She shared the silence with nature. It was said that the Lady Winter spoke through the howl of the wind; that the Lady Summer spoke through the crackle of fire; that the Lady Fall spoke through the snap of dry leaves.
The Lady Spring, however, spoke not a word. Speech was the domain of Lady Spring’s children, but never Spring herself, and haughty though she may be the Lady was content to listen.
Jova shared the silence with the Lady Spring, and smiled. It would be their little secret.
Ma said that Jova didn’t act her age, which Jova took for granted as true. She had never met someone her age, or at least not for very long. There had been some slave children, on the road, but Ma and Da never let her see them, let alone talk to them. As for the wild children, the timid ones always ran on sight and the bold ones always tried to kill her.
Again, Jova wondered what meeting another child would be like. How strange it would have been, how exciting: a truly exotic experience.
Her happy waking dreams were interrupted by the creak of breaking branches. Jova froze, and turned to Mo for help, but the weaseldog had already disappeared into the underbrush. Only by looking could Jova see the two black beads for eyes, hiding in the bushes.
With a grunt, barely audible but still the loudest thing in the night, Jova scaled the closest tree: a thick, stable thing that supported her weight easily, although she had to reach and sometimes jump to reach the next branch.
There was another crack, as something moved in the darkness- towards her. The sounds were loud and obtrusive; the creature moving through the night either did not know or care about the sound it was making.
Jova sucked in breath, and looked down. She hadn’t gained enough height to take her out of range of a lionbear or a giant jackal. She needed to keep going up.
Her current branch was thick and firm, but Jova nevertheless shook it gently once or twice to make sure it would hold her weight. Unsteadily, she rose to a standing position, her hands swimming through the air to keep balance.
The sounds were getting closer. Crack, crack, crack. Not one creature, but many. Jova’s mind spun through the possibilities. A bullwolf pack, a flock of winter geese? The possibilities were near endless. Fauna in Albumere were as widespread and diverse as its people; animals were no exception to the Four Year’s Fallow and were scattered to the winds as infants as well.
Jova shook her head, and concentrated. Whatever was coming from for her, the basic principle was still the same: get to higher ground. She swung her arms, and bent her knees.
Her fingers caught onto the bark, but loose and peeling it split. Jova’s heart jumped to her throat as her fingers scrabbled for purchase on the branch. She found it, but barely. Clinging to a rapidly splintering handhold, Jova kicked her legs wildly to try and swing herself back to safety.
Mo whined and shuffled in the darkness, but before he could come out and help, the source of the noise approached.
Talking, using the path. They were people. Jova’s heart lifted, and then sunk just as quickly.
They could be bad people.
Grunting with exertion but still trying to stay silent, Jova used what arm strength she had to lift herself up to the branch she was clinging to. She made it about half-way before she slumped, energy spent. Her arms strained with her weight, and if she fell it would be at least thrice her height. Why, oh, why had she felt the need to go higher?
“Can’t see for shit,” said a voice. Male, low, gruff. Jova had said that last word once and both Ma and Da had snapped at her. Was that enough to confirm these were bad people? “Lady Summer give us light, are we even on the path anymore?”
“Lady Summer gave us light, it’s just that someone decided to take a piss in it,” muttered a sullen voice. Also male, also low, but with a different timbre to it.
They cursed at each other for a good minute, even as Jova’s grip grew even more tenuous. She gave herself perhaps ten seconds before her stretched and red fingers could hold on no longer.
“Piss all, I knew this was a bad idea,” said the first voice, finally. “Why’d we take the forest road in the first place?”
“Because the plutocrats aren’t as on top of things as they once were, are they? Bandits and brigands on the main road. Jhidnu’s not policing the regular paths as much anymore, so we take the path none of the bandits will use, didn’t we?”
Jova’s hands slipped. She closed her eyes, preparing herself for a long fall. It wouldn’t kill her, but it would hurt…
The sudden feeling of vertigo made her stomach lurch. As she fell, somehow she heard through the pounding in her ears. “Are we lost?” Soft, female.
And young like hers.
The Ladies grant my wish after all, thought Jova, dreamily.
And then she landed with a painful thump in the underbrush and a shock ricocheted through her ankles and up her legs as she tumbled over.
The girl yelled in surprise.
“What was that?” hissed the first. “Gopal, check it.”
“Probably just nothing,” said the second voice, although the quiver in his tone betrayed his doubt. Through the pain, Jova could hear the slick sound of metal on metal. Weapons being drawn.
Immediately, Mo snapped and exploded out of the brush, curling protectively over Jova’s body. More screams, more tension. No, no, Jova thought. It was all going wrong.
The first voice swore. “Back off, I think it’s wild! Sri, get behind me, come on. Just walk away slow…”
They weren’t supposed to just leave! Dizzy, Jova forced herself up and found the blood rushing to her head. She had to say something, she had to make them stop.
“Are you going to Moscoleon?” It was the first thing she could think of to say, and even as she shouted them she felt stupid. The words slurred and her head spinning, Jova nevertheless climbed up and over Mo’s back to gasp again, “Are you going to Moscoleon?”
The first voice was very fond of cursing. “What the hell are you doing back there, girl? Are you hurt? Is that thing yours?”
“I’m going to Moscoleon,” said Jova, her smile tired and a touch giddy. “I can take you there. Out of the forest, I mean. Since you’re lost.”
A hesitant pause. “Yeah. Let’s get you checked out first, girl. You wild? You got a crew nearby?”
“My name is Jova,” she said. “I’m not wild. My parents are nearby, at a traveler’s inn just down the path. It’s better than camping out in the night. There’s a hearth and everything. It’s dark, but I know the way.” She smiled wider.
At the mention of the inn, the men both stood a little straighter, not quite as hunched and wary, and the girl shuffled out from behind the first man’s back. At that, Mo relaxed visibly, his fur flattening to a reasonable size, his teeth no longer bared.
“Her parents, Gopal,” whispered the first man. Not quite low enough so that Jova couldn’t hear, but low enough that she was not part of the conversation: talking as if she wasn’t there. “They could be like us.”
“I doubt they’d be quite like us,” said the second one- Gopal, apparently. There was an odd inflection in his voice when he said ‘us,’ a slight bitterness. “But if there are beds and hot food I say go.”
“What about if she’s lying to us?” said the girl, from the back, in a small whisper. “What if it’s a trap?”
Jova felt her stomach sink. Why did the girl suspect her? What had she done wrong? “I’m not lying and it’s not a trap!” she shouted, and all three jumped. “There’s really a rest stop down there and my parents are really there! I promise!”
The first man clapped his hands together. “The girl promised. I suppose we’ve got to take her word for it now.”
“Rituu, what if she…” The second man trailed off, eying the weaseldog with his hand drumming the hilt of the knife at his belt. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“Do you have a better one, Gopal?” Rituu tromped up the path until he was standing right next to Jova; he smelled of sweat, but Jova did her best not to shrink away. “We go with her or we turn the fuck around, and I doubt that we’d go the same way walking backwards than forwards, know what I mean?”
Gopal still looked hesitant, but he walked forward all the same, pulling the girl behind him.
Jova lead the way happily, skipping as she walked. “It’s not too far from here. I was just walking when I found you.”
Rituu craned his head to look up at the canopy of trees. “You take walks in very odd places at very odd times, Jova girl. Scared the shit- the, erm, crap out of me. Scared me a lot is what I’m saying.”
As he drew level with Jova, the girl noticed how much bigger than her he was. Doubt stirred in her mind.
“Not that I don’t appreciate it,” said Rituu, shouldering his travel pack. It was a worn, dirty thing, made from cheap cloth and leather, like the one that Da wore. “We’re lost and the Ladies drop a little girl out of the sky to find us? Well, I ain’t trading a hammer for nails.”
Jova giggled, at ease with the stranger even as his companions trailed behind them. Truth be told, she did want to fall back and talk with the other girl: there were just so many things she wanted to ask her, so many things she wanted to compare, so many things she just wanted to do. The other girl, however, kept her distance.
“You talk a little funny,” she said, suppressing a smile. “Where are you from? Why are you going to Moscoleon? How long did it take you to get there?”
“Easy, Jova girl. Ask any more questions and I might really think this is a trap.”
“A trap with questions?” Jova cocked her head. The idea seemed strange. “What kind of trap can you make with questions?”
“A trap not to steal your belongings or your life, but your secrets,” said Rituu, laughing. He clapped Jova on the back. “Everybody’s got secrets. People pay a lot for the important ones.”
Rituu turned around, gesturing to his traveling companions. “Come on, she’s not going to bite you. Gopal, tell her about my secrets! Sri, she’s about your age. Come and talk with her.”
Gopal just snorted and turned his head. The girl, Sri, shrank behind Gopal like she had with Rituu, trying to put as many obstacles between her and Jova as she could. Jova pursed her lips.
“Well, I’ll give you a little one for free, Jova girl,” said Rituu, bending low as he walked. He whispered conspiratorially, and Jova had to lean in to hear. “I am secretly the apprentice-heir of a mighty Jhidnu plutocrat.”
From behind her, Jova could hear Gopal say in exasperation, “Oh, not this again.” Jova ignored him, her interest piqued.
“He’s a famous spice merchant, you see. Why, he’s got a thousand personal spices in his vaults made of gold, from all across the south.” Despite the darkness of the night, Jova could see Rituu’s face light up as he crafted his tale. “Flavors like you couldn’t imagine, with herbs from Kazakhal and peppers from the peninsula. And to fuel his business he has a hundred ships.”
“A hundred?” repeated Jova. The number was dizzying. She had seen a Jhidnu trading junk far out to sea once, while she was walking along the bay, with its bright red sails and sweeping oars like tiny, fluttering wings. Just one had seemed impressive enough. A hundred of them, dotted across the ocean… The scene it painted in Jova’s mind was picturesque.
“Oh, yes, a hundred boats. He has them ride all the way to Da’atoa for the thunder spices of the saltmen, which they say grow only during the most violent storms of the Drum Cliffs.”
And Jova saw them in her mind, vibrant and vivid: stony cliffs against a bruised sky, lightning spiking down around the dark silhouettes of the dancing Da’atoan people.
“And I, Jova girl, am making my way to Moscoleon for some very important business,” said Rituu the lost traveler, with his ripped clothes and his worn travel pack. “But that is the only free secret you shall get out of me, now.”
“That secret was free?” Jova grinned, her mind aflame just imagining the secrets that had a price.
“Oh, yes, Jova girl.” Rituu turned around. “Are you sure you don’t want to come and listen, Sri? They’re very good stories!”
“We’re aware,” said Gopal, hugging the girl a little closer to him. “You’ve only told them about four hundred times.”
Everybody laughed at that, all four of them. Jova smiled. Perhaps she could ask Ma and Da if they could go with them, on their way to Moscoleon. They were going the same way, after all, and maybe she could talk more with Sri…
Suddenly, Mo barked. His fur flared again, his head snapped forward. The Lady Fall peered through the trees once more, as moonlight filtered through the now sparse canopy. Jova could see a figure standing in the night, disheveled, hunched over.
“Da!” she cried out. Ma was further away, but turned when she heard Jova’s voice.
“Jova!” Da said, running towards her. His gaze drifted from her to the man she was standing next to. His expression hardened.
Da drew his knife.
And before Jova could stop him, he used it.