Chaff bounced in his seat as the prayer song droned on, craning his head to get a better look at the frozen pool of water at the altar. It was abnormally cold in the House of Winter, compared to the rest of Moscoleon, and Chaff shivered as the gathered sang.
“The winter has come and the snows have now fallen; we’ve locked all our doors and now we are walled in,” they sang. “So be ready to gather, to pray, and to bless; for now we are more even though we are less.”
At the head of the congregation a man in another one of those funny hats lead the singing, standing precariously close to the frozen surface of the altar. He hadn’t let Chaff bring the big guy in, which disappointed the boy to no end. This was the one building he had ever been in that could fit the big guy.
“Be gentle, show mercy in these troubled times; for a cruel world is the one world where one can be kind. Glory in her, and her shining face! Pray for a quick end in the owl’s embrace.”
Chaff looked down quickly as the pontiff passed, and it was just his luck since everyone else bowed their heads then too. They did that often, at these congresses of the faith, although why escaped the boy.
He sneaked a look at the Lady Winter, made of marble, standing at her frozen altar. Maybe she was supposed to do something while everyone was looking away, but she stood still and motionless, little beads of condensation dripping down her wings. Chaff turned instead to the bowed heads around him.
He didn’t see the girl.
It had been like this all day. Chaff had gone to every House of the Ladies he could find, and not one had her in attendance. He had gone to sunrise prayer, morning prayer, and now high noon prayer, but no matter how hard he had searched he had not found her. Perhaps this time he would actually pray, just to see if it worked.
The pontiff passed again, and Chaff ducked his head.
The singing at last ended. From the corner of his eye, Chaff saw the pontiff throw his head up, saw the stark lines etched on the base of his neck. He wondered how they had gotten there. Once, when he was young, he had carved a picture of him and the big guy into the side of a thorn tree. Perhaps pontiffs were the same. Perhaps someone made those marks when the pontiffs were made of wood, before they had become men.
His speech was concluding. “…and in this game of worlds, may fortune be with you.”
“May fortune be with you,” the congregation echoed.
“Fortune,” said Chaff. A greater power than kings or gods.
He walked against the flow when the others began to trickle out, towards the Lady Winter instead of away. She stood before him, wings outstretched, her face kind but her features skeletal.
The Lady of death waited as Chaff approached her.
A pair of sandals stood by the altar, the leather faded from the hundreds of feet that had worn them. Chaff slipped them on and stepped gingerly across the glassy surface of the ice. His thin pants were scant protection from the cold as he knelt before the statue.
“Tell me where she is,” said Chaff, holding up the girl’s tabula. He traced its single crack, waiting. Was this how prayer worked? “Do you know where she is?”
The Lady Winter had no answer for him, just as all the other Lady Winters in the city had no answer for him. Chaff ground his teeth. Where would the goddesses talk to him, if not the holiest place in Albumere?
“Jova,” said Chaff, staring at the Lady Winter’s face. There was no one left in the House now, except a child servant taking a broom to the floor behind him. “Her name is Jova.”
His gaze drifted down from the statue to the altar, to the ribbon of red laid across the pedestal. He wondered who had left it there.
The House was mostly silent now, but for the scrape of the broom’s hairs and the ambient whispers still echoing across the House’s high dome. Was that Chaff’s own voice bouncing above his head? Or were those the voices of prayers past, still asking the Ladies for answers?
Chaff clasped his hands together. He cleared his throat. “What about Sri?” He put the tabula back in his belt. “I never meant to…I just wanted to say goodbye, yeah? Where is she? Is she OK?”
The Lady Winter just smiled. A sad, resigned smile.
“Hadiss?” asked Chaff.
“Veer, and the rest of them?”
Chaff stared at the ground for a long while. He couldn’t bring himself to say it, but if he wouldn’t say it here, in the holiest place in Albumere, where would he say it? Chaff blinked rapidly, and looked up at the statue of the Lady Winter. Arms outstretched, like Duarch Fra Henn, in the plaza that Chaff had thought, however briefly, was his home.
“What about Loom?” he asked. “Is she…are she and Vhajja…are they with you?”
Just a smile.
The boy bowed his head. He wished the big guy could come in here with him. He felt awfully lonely. “Could you tell what she’s like, at least? Jova?” said Chaff. “If you don’t know where she is?”
“She laughed a lot,” said a voice behind him, and Chaff nearly smashed his face into the ice as he turned to look. The cleaning boy stood, leaning on his broom, watching Chaff with a half-wary, half-bemused expression. “She never spoke ill of anyone. She could tell a dull rock from a shiny rock just from the sounds they made.” The boy looked down to hide his smile. “She’d get up every morning before work to help me train with the zealot’s spear and she’d kick my ass every time.”
Chaff slid forward from the altar, until he was walking on solid stone again. He took off the slippers without looking down, transfixed on the boy. “Tell me more,” he said, clutching the altar wall as he stepped down the stairs. “Tell me more about her.”
A pendant around the boy’s neck bounced as he looked up. His eyes were watering. “She’s dead,” he said.
The next thing Chaff knew, he was kneeling over the boy and his fist had drawn back for another swing. “You’re a liar!” he shouted, and his voice echoed through the House. “Liar! Liar! Liar!” screamed the echoes.
The broom in spun in the boy’s hands and Chaff felt a sharp pain in his chest as the boy jabbed him with the handle. Chaff fell back, but before he could find his feet the boy had put the handle of the broom on Chaff’s neck, right under his chin. “It’s true,” said the boy, breathing heavily. “A patrol of zealots found the bodies on the road. Hag Gar Gan horde riders ambushed them.”
Chaff gripped the tabula in his belt. Cracked, but not broken. “That’s not true,” he snarled, from his position on the floor. “Not true.”
The boy’s eyes followed Chaff’s face to his hand, and the broom handle pushed a little harder against Chaff’s throat. “Who are you?”
What could Chaff say? A boy from the grasslands? A traitor to his friends?
“A martyr,” said Chaff, and he batted the broom aside. He gripped the cleaning boy’s collar as he rose. “Now, where is Jova?”
Chaff felt a sharp pain in his wrist as the boy slammed the wooden handle on his hand. “She’s dead,” said the boy, his wooden pendant dangling from his neck. “Let the dead rest.”
“Where is she?” Chaff grabbed the boy’s collar again, but was rebuked just as quickly.
“You’re going to hurt her,” said the boy. “If she’s still alive. If you find her. I don’t know who you are and I don’t know what you want, but I know you’re going to hurt her.”
“You know where she is, yeah?” said Chaff. “You gonna tell me where she is.”
With a hollow crack, the broom hit Chaff over the head. Chaff had no defense against the assault; this boy’s skill as a fighter far surpassed Chaff’s in every aspect. Years of pretending to be Kennya Noni started to come back to him. He needed to be fast, on his feet, get away…
Don’t run. Not this time. Don’t run.
Here, now, he was going to stand and fight. No more running away. Chaff struggled to his feet, even as the staff hit him squarely on the back. No one was here to help him. No one was here to save him now.
“You’re not welcome here anymore,” said the boy, grabbing Chaff by the arm, but Chaff fought and struggled and kicked, and if he couldn’t win at least he could stand his ground. “Leave!”
“She’s going to hurt you too. If you find her dead or alive, it doesn’t matter. You’re going to hurt and she’s going to hurt you back four and four times over.” The boy hit Chaff in the jaw, and Chaff tasted blood in his mouth. He wasn’t trying to beat Chaff away anymore, he was just trying to beat him, but Chaff would not stand down. “You call yourself a martyr? Fine! You’re going to die for her and she’s going to watch.”
The broom broke over Chaff’s head. His ears were ringing and his forearms were already turning black from his bruises. Blinking stars from his eyes, Chaff struggled to stand. One foot before the other, that was all he had to do. Put your feet beneath you. Stand.
“Now,” he said, wiping the blood from his chin with the back of his hand. “You gonna tell me where she is?”
The boy bent down and picked up his broken broom, the jagged wooden splinters stark in the chill light. He tensed, like he was going to stab. Chaff closed his fists and waited, ready.
“Arim!” shouted a voice from above. The man in the funny hat opened the door to a spiraling stairway, his robes askew. He held his hands up in a placating gesture. “What are you doing? You were to clean the floor, not beat this boy half to death.”
“He was asking about Jova,” said Arim. “Wants to find her.” He glared at Chaff, but lowered his weapon.
The pontiff raised his head and turned to Chaff. “The girl named Jova is dead.”
Chaff said nothing. “Liar, liar, liar,” the ceiling still echoed. He glared at the both of them.
Arim and the pontiff exchanged a glance. What were they thinking? Was it finally time for the truth? “Jova,” said the pontiff, very slowly. “Was last seen going to Jhid-.”
The double doors slammed open. When Chaff saw who it was, he couldn’t help but smirk. Lookout loved her dramatic entrances.
“You look like crap,” was the first thing she said. “You really couldn’t go one day without getting the shit beaten out of you? I get the feeling this happens every time.”
“I think we meet up later, yeah? How’d you find me?”
“Who else is dumb enough to bring a fucking camelopard to every House in the city? You’re easy to track.” Lookout grabbed Chaff’s wrist. “We found someone who knew her. Come on, let’s go.”
Lookout’s owlcrow squawked as Chaff drew back. The boy looked pointedly at the pontiff and his servant boy.
“She leave a mark here, too?” asked Lookout, glancing at the two.
The pontiff cleared his throat. “She was last seen going to Jhidnu.”
Lookout stared at him for quite some time. Chaff watched her eyebrows furrowed, watched as her head cocked slightly to the side just as the owlcrow’s turned, heard the hum of a tabula just barely audible even while he stood so close to her.
“Excuse my language, pontiff, sir,” said Lookout, finally. “But you’re a fucking liar. Have some decency. You’re in a holy House.”
And she took Chaff by the hand and led him away. The pontiff folded his arms across his chest, his sleeves embroidered with crescent moons glittering in the narrowing line of light as the boy, Arim, closed the doors behind them.
“Big guy!” shouted Chaff, as the camelopard cantered up to greet him. The camelopard had been eating if not healthier, then more than he had on that ship. He seemed happy, about that.
“Tired of liars,” said Lookout, as she climbed on the camelopard’s back, behind Chaff. “We’re surrounded by them, Chaff. In front of our faces, behind our backs, even inside us. They’re everywhere, and don’t you forget it.”
Chaff just nodded, adjusting in his seat. The big guy still had no saddle, despite Wozek pointing out a few nice and allegedly religious ones as Chaff had roamed the markets. The camelopard would never take one, and Chaff would never impose such a thing on his friend. “Where?”
“Forward, now,” said Lookout, gripping Chaff’s shoulders. Sinndi took to the air with a raucous screech. “Turn when I tell you to turn.”
The boy watched the streets as they rode. He didn’t talk much. His wounds drew a few questioning stares, but there really wasn’t much to it after Chaff had wiped away the last of the blood from the corner of his mouth. It wasn’t much. He had been through worse, and he felt that the people of Moscoleon had seen worse, too.
Lookout was directing him toward the center of the city. He got the impression that he was going up the closer and closer he was to the great temple for which the city was named, and when he turned to look, the poorer slums of Moscoleon did, in fact, slump beneath him.
“Keep going, Chaff,” said Lookout, tapping his shoulder. “He’s neighbors with the Keep, this one.”
Chaff made a face, and stared at the glossy streets ahead of him. “How do you find him?” he asked. He couldn’t imagine wandering into such an upper-class neighborhood without knowing exactly who he was looking for.
“I didn’t,” said Lookout, darkly. “But Wozek’s just popular with everyone, isn’t he?”
The boy didn’t like Lookout’s tone. Wozek had brought them this far, hadn’t he? And now Chaff was so close to finding her. It was thanks to him. Could it have just been his imagination that Lookout bore such animosity towards him?
“I don’t trust him, Chaff.”
Nope. Definitely not his imagination.
“And you shouldn’t either,” said Lookout. She kept looking around her, as if she was convinced Wozek—or one of his people—was watching. “I’m serious. Powerful men don’t get to be powerful by giving away more than they get. He wants something from you.”
Immediately, Chaff’s hand rested on his belt. All three tabula were there, safe and sound. They would stay that way.
“Not that,” said Lookout, rolling her eyes. “Chaff, if I’m going to be honest with you, no one wants that girl but you. Understand?”
That gave Chaff pause. He felt halfway between offended and relieved.
“He wants you. He wants to know what you are, and truth be told, I do to. You and your little friend.” Lookout pointed towards one of the more ostentatious Houses of the Ladies. It had black and white banners flapping from the sides, and lines inscribed in the shape of an eye over a doorway so tall that even the big guy could fit. “Look at that. This city is the most educated, most holy place in the world. Someone has to know.”
“I thought Shira Hay was the most educated place in the world,” said Chaff, as they passed.
Lookout flicked him on the head, and Chaff squirmed. “You’re missing the point, patriot,” said Lookout. “This is an opportunity for answers. Let’s get them.”
“Is the girl here?” asked Chaff.
“Well…no. Word says she isn’t. And, Chaff, that’s another thing. There’s something about her you have to know. She’s-.”
“Not here,” finished Chaff. “Let’s find her, yeah? Find her first. Then you do what you do, and I follow. But first we find her.”
The humming from Lookout’s pocket stopped, and the owlcrow flapped down from the skies. It turned its squashed face toward Chaff, and gave him an almost pitying look. “We’ll talk more later,” said Lookout. “With less ears listening. We’re here.”
The walls of the estate rose high around them; a stark contrast from the red brick of most of Moscoleon, these were the polished white of marble. Formed from hundreds of porcelain shards inlayed in the stone were the marble legions of the Stronghold, hammers ready while the sun shone above them. Their enemy was less recognizable. Chaff hopped off the big guy and knelt, tracing the carving.
“This one looks like the poltergeist!” said Chaff, pointing and grinning. “From the marsh!”
Lookout turned away. “I don’t need reminding,” she said. “They’re the demons of the deep. They represent sin or some shit.”
Some shit was extravagant. Chaff followed the carvings, and the epic battle that they told until he reached the black-iron gate of the compound, and peered through to the gardens. Slaves clipped the hedges while a dirt walkway led to a somewhat less grand house within. It was still one of the richest houses Chaff had ever seen, with grace and aplomb and all the trappings he associated with richness, but all the same he felt somewhat disappointed. A pompous exterior for a measly interior.
“The home of Latius,” said Lookout, folding her arms. “Excuse me, Prince Latius of the Stronghold, proud servant of King Cecis the Third.”
“But he’s dead,” said Chaff, flatly. “Banden killed him.”
“Don’t tell him that, I don’t think he’s realized yet,” said Lookout, with a smirk. “Go on, Chaff, Wozek and that brusher, Prav, are inside.”
“You don’t come with me?”
“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll man the walls with the big guy,” said Lookout. Her fingers drummed on the mosaic. “You go. You’re the runaway guy, after all.”
Chaff nodded, and pushed the gate. It opened without resistance. “Watch out for her,” Chaff mouthed, once he was behind the walls, although he had a feeling Lookout had seen him anyway. She saw everything.
The slaves didn’t make eye contact. They backed away as he approached. Apparently, the wild child in the elector’s scarf had been expected. He followed the murmur of voices, until he stepped around the side of the house to see Wozek and an unfamiliar man drinking mulled wine by a wicker table. Prav the brusher, standing at attendance behind Wozek, gave Chaff a stony nod when the boy approached.
“There he is,” said Wozek, smiling. “The boy with the quest.”
The man Lookout called Latius watched, and Chaff watched back. His hair was fair, his build muscular. His features might have once been handsome, but his nose was crooked like it had been broken a long time ago, and when he opened his mouth to speak Chaff saw that some of the teeth on the left side of his mouth were wooden.
“Your Jova,” he said, his hands folded around his goblet of wine. “Has gone to the Seat of the King.”
Chaff waited. For what, he wasn’t sure. A caveat. A condition. A fight, even. But Latius met his eyes, and there was no lie in them. Even Chaff could tell that much.
“She went with the fieldmen emissaries who came here some months ago,” he said. His gaze never left Chaff; his eyes were blue and cold. “Off to beg the false king for peace. They never made it, I hear, but the patrol counted only a quarter of their number among the bodies. I am not so fortunate that she should be among the dead. The sinful live on, while the righteous suffer for them.” Latius took a long drink. “It’s a pity Alswell didn’t put up more of a fight, though.”
“Their friends were scattered then,” said Wozek. “But we have come together, one by one.” He raised his cup in a toast.
As both drank deeply, Chaff scratched his head. Things had flipped. “Wozek, I thought you liked Banden-.”
“You look terrible,” said Wozek, loudly, cutting him off. Latius was still drinking. “What happened?”
“Got into a fight.”
Wozek mussed Chaff’s hair. “Your plainsman running tricks didn’t help then, I take it? I’ll teach you how a kazakhani fights on the road to the Seat.”
“I’m finding her first, Wozek,” said Chaff, shaking his head, remembering Lookout’s advice. “I’m not going with-.”
“Oh, but you are. We’re sharing the same road. You’re going to the Seat of the King to find this girl. I’m going to the Seat of the King for my people. And Prince Latius here, well, we’ve been talking and he’s thinking of going to the Seat of the King too.” Wozek turned to Latius, and his gaze never wavered. “The last of the marbleman princes, coming out of hiding to stir up the loyalists waiting in the capital.”
Latius leaned back in his seat, and nodded. Chaff didn’t know what was safe for him to say. If he hadn’t known better, he never would have guessed that Wozek was lying, but Chaff was Chaff and not a prince whose job it was to tell when people were lying.
“He wants to put a hammer in Banden’s head,” said Wozek. “And we…well, we’ll bring goodman Latius straight to him, won’t we?”
Latius raised his cup once more. “To better times.”
“To better times,” echoed Wozek.
Chaff began to walk away, to tell Lookout of the news, but Prav stood abruptly in his path. “This Jova,” said Latius, as he put his cup down. “Is not to be trusted. I hope you understand that, boy. She’s as clever as she is evil. She killed one pontiff and turned another. And once you’ve finished with her…”
Latius reached down. Chaff heard the stone scrape as the marbleman lifted his hammer from the ground beside him, and hefted it in his lap.
“I’ll put a hammer in her head, too.”
The boy gripped his hands into fists. His first thought was that he wouldn’t run anymore. He would fight for her.
His second thought was that he couldn’t beat a cleaning boy with a broom. How was he to triumph against a prince, trained in war?
“We’re all in agreement, then,” said Wozek, clapping his hands together. “We all want what’s best for each other.”
Chaff stared at Wozek, and decided right then that when Wozek had run with his bayman circus, he must have been the knife juggler. Only that kind of man would dare something like this.
How many knives, Chaff wondered, did Wozek have in the air? How many knives did Chaff have yet to see?
How many knives were falling towards him?
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…”
“The road to the Temple is watched by the Ladies,” Da sang. “The Ladies! The Ladies! In Moscoleon! Both prayers and blessings alike, they shall these. They say these! They say these! In Moscoleon!”
Jova smiled as Da hummed the old song while he braided her hair. Perhaps a marble warrior’s weave was not so fitting for the occasion, but it was the only braid Da knew how to do.
“The zealots, they guard us, their arms crowned with feathers. With feathers! With feathers! In Moscoleon! Both peasants and lords shall dine together. Together! Together! In Moscoleon!” Da squeezed Jova’s shoulder. “All done now, little Lady. You look beautiful.”
Jova squeezed his hand back. “Thanks, Da.”
She felt Da’s fingers trace her palm. “Your hands are clammy,” he said, softly. “Are you nervous?”
“A little,” Jova admitted. She took a deep breath. “A lot.”
“You shouldn’t be,” said Da, hugging her and rocking her back and forth. “You already did the hard part, and if you’re to be believed you did it on accident.”
“Da, I did do it on-.”
“I know, Jova, I know. I’m just teasing you.” Da stroked her braid. “And there is no such thing as an accident, not here. If the Ladies chose this path for you, then they will guide you safely down it.”
Jova nodded glumly. It was a matter of faith, in the end. All the same…
“I don’t even know what the initiation ceremony will be like,” Jova said. “No one’s telling me. They all say it’s some sort of big secret.”
“Then a secret it shall be,” said Da. “And you will walk into it with your head held high, as proud as the Lady Spring herself. You are brave, my little Lady. Aren’t you?”
“Yes, Da.” Jova sighed. “Is Ma coming back soon?”
“Eventually,” said Da, vaguely. “You know how she gets. She’ll come back with a dead bearcat slung over her shoulder and blood all over her face, but she’ll come back.”
Jova paused, twiddling her thumbs together. “Is she still going to be angry at me?”
“No! No, no, no, Jova, she was never angry with you. She just gets…frustrated, at times.” Da took Jova’s hand as he stood up, and Jova brushed off her coza as she got to her feet. Her stomach lurched as she stood, and she had to rely on her walking stick for support.
It was a small movement: it did not seem as if Da had noticed. Jova straightened and smiled, clicking once to find where the door of the hut was and walking towards it.
“It’s at sun-down, yes?” asked Da, hesitantly. Jova could hear him walking just beside her. “I think you told me, but I suppose this old man’s memory is fading. It is- it is at sun-down, yes?”
“Yes, Da. I don’t know how long it’ll take.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you? I mean, just to walk you there…”
Jova put a hand on Da’s wrist. “I’ll be fine, Da. Honestly. Enjoy your holy day! I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Look at you,” said Da, and his voice was husky. “Not even twelve years and more mature than grown-olds twice your age.” He bent down to hug her again, and whispered, “Jova, by each of the Ladies Four, I am so proud of you.”
“Thanks, Da,” Jova said, and she kissed him on the cheek.
She felt Da stand, and heard him clearing his throat. “Alright, then, little Lady. Go on, shoo! Get it over with! I want you to have your feathers on your arm before your Ma comes back home, alright?”
Jova nodded, and turned to walk down the street. She waited until she heard Da returning to their tenant’s compound before turning the corner, towards Roan’s stables. She had time. There were some things she needed to do.
A chill wind made her shiver, and she turned her ears to the sky. Was that the Lady Fall, whispering an answer to her prayer? Or was it just…the wind?
Jova could not answer these questions, but neither could she help from thinking them. She tapped her way across the Temple Moscoleon, grand city of the Ladies Four, waiting for them to give her a definitive answer.
There was none—not that Jova had been expecting one.
The city was quiet on its holy day. Jova listened, and heard the soft sizzle of peppers and rice, the murmured prayers of the supplicants at the temples, and below it all even the steady trickle of blood on the altar. Jova shivered, and hugged her shoulders. That was a part of Moscoleon Jova had never been able to accept.
Is that what the Ladies demanded for their answers? Sacrifice? Jova felt her hands move unconsciously towards her blindfold. How much more did they want from her? How much sacrifice did the gods demand before they started giving answers?
How much was Jova willing to give?
She walked forward, trying to force the questions out of her head, scratching her chest to get rid of the restless itch stirring inside of it. She would talk to Roan first, then go to Copo’s temple: just putting one foot in front of the other, without worrying about the road ahead.
Just outside Roan’s stables, as she walked the familiar path to the compound, she heard something odd. It sounded like one of Jova and Arim’s sparring matches, the crack and thud of wood on wood. She edged forward cautiously, her walking stick raised just a little bit higher in case she needed it. The wild boys had stopped harassing Roan years ago, but Jova was not so innocent anymore to believe they would disappear forever.
She heard Stel’s hooves cantering across the ground, and Roan’s labored breathing. Her brow furrowed. One animal, one person. There was no one else.
Again, there was a sharp crack. It wasn’t quite the sound of Jova’s walking stick hitting Arim’s spear; there was a snap to it that Jova could not identify, a thinner, keener sound.
Roan shouted and Jova jumped. She had never heard Roan speak so loudly and so harshly before.
“Atoa eri zak das, Raj Mal Azu!” he roared. Snap! Snap! Snap! “Sal iro eri Rho Hat Pan!”
He did not seem to be talking to her. Jova relaxed, slipping behind the edge of the door and listening. Perhaps it was not such a good time to talk to Roan, but Jova’s curiosity had been peaked.
Again, Roan shouted. “Gesh toh shira! Sal iro eri Rho Hat Pan!”
Rho Hat Pan was Roan’s old name: that much Jova knew. She wondered what the rest of the gibberish meant.
She heard footsteps approaching from the side and, bundled with nerves already, snapped out, hitting whoever approached once on the shoulder and then holding the walking stick to the stranger’s neck.
“You already beat the crap out of me once today,” said Arim, his voice sullen. “There’s no need to do it again.”
Jova lowered her walking stick immediately. “I’m sorry, Arim, I- I…” Jova’s mouth went dry, and her chest clenched. She didn’t know what to say.
“Need me to tell you what the horse freak is doing?” Arim’s voice was low, and not directed at Jova. He sounded both vindictive and exasperated.
“OK,” said Jova, meekly, still trying to find the right words to say.
“He’s practicing against a wooden dummy, with a whip. Long sandman whip, it’s got barbs on the end and everything. And he’s wearing all his Hak Mat Do get-up, even the saddle, even though…” Arim paused. “Never mind. Forget I said anything.”
“Part of your promise to Roan?” asked Jova, trying to smile. “You still scared of him?”
Arim didn’t laugh. He didn’t say a word.
Jova felt her heart sinking. She coughed, searching for something to say. “Look, Arim, about what happened…I’m sorry about…”
“What? What are you sorry about, Jova?” Suddenly, Jova felt rough hands push her to the ground, and heard Arim’s voice rising. “What do you want to apologize for?”
“Arim, please,” Jova hissed. “He’ll hear you!” She made no move to stand up.
“And why shouldn’t he?” Arim walked up to Jova. “What don’t you want him to hear?”
“I don’t know,” said Jova, and despite herself she felt tears behind her blindfold. “I just- I don’t- you’re making a scene, Arim.”
“Like you didn’t? Like you weren’t trying to be the miraculously gifted blind girl whenever we fought?”
“Arim, please,” said Jova, trying to keep her voice steady. “Please, don’t be mad at me.”
She heard Arim pacing around her, followed by a frustrated grunt as he kicked the ground. He began to stomp away, his footfalls heavy beside her. “Arim, wait!” Jova rose to her feet and followed, doing her best to at least jog to keep up.
Jova ran too fast. Her foot caught on something hard, and she tumbled to the ground, skidding on her knees.
She heard Arim’s voice above her, but as far as she could tell he made no move to help her up. “Well, Jova? I’m waiting.”
“It- it was an accident. I can’t convince Copo- the pontiff, I mean- otherwise. You’ll get a second chance, Arim. I promise!” Jova stood shakily. “I’ll tell him there’s someone else. I’ll put in a good word!”
“Oh, you’ll put in a good word.”
Jova didn’t say anything. There wasn’t anything else to say.
“You know, if it wasn’t for me, you would have never been able to fight like that. I gave you that practice! I did that! ME!” Arim’s voice was shaking. “Did you have to take it from me? Don’t you have enough already?”
Jova’s mouth opened in surprise. “What?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know. You’ve got everything. You and your cushy little job, your three meals a day. You’ve never been scared of going hungry, and you’ve got masters to watch out for you but they let you walk free. You’ve got people who act like your mom and dad, Jova, or at least as close as you’re going to get in this shithole we live in.” Arim pushed her again, as if daring her to fight back. “That was my one chance! You promised me, Jova! You promised I would be able to have that good of a life!”
“I do,” breathed Jova. “I still promise. I’ll keep my promise. That’s what friends do.”
Arim’s voice was low and full of contempt. “You don’t have friends. Just people who use you and pity you. Can’t you see that, Jova?”
Jova opened and closed her mouth, and the tears started to stain her blindfold. She took a deep breath, and grabbed the knot that was tied around the back of her head. She pulled it loose.
“No, Arim,” she said, slowly, the cloth limp in her hand as cold air rushed around her face. “I can’t see.”
“You freak,” whispered Arim, and he ran. Jova made no move to follow him. There was nothing to say to him even if she did.
She tucked the walking stick under her arm and bowed her head to re-do the knot, behind her ears and snugly over her face, just like Ma always did it. She bumped into a few things on the road as she walked, but honestly Jova did not care. She tied the blindfold tightly, so tight that it hurt.
“I don’t have everything, Arim,” she muttered, under her breath. “I might have a job and parents, but you have your eyes.” She kicked the ground, running her fingers through her hair, wishing she had been able to think fast enough to talk back to the wild boy. Vindictive anger boiled inside of her as she walked.
Da’s braid had come a little loose in the fall. Jova did her best to weave it back into place as she walked to Copo’s temple.
The pontiff was waiting for her. “Had a bit of a tumble, did we?” said Copo, as Jova made her way down the street.
Jova blushed. She felt at once embarrassed and annoyed.
“Ah, children,” said Copo, putting a hand on Jova’s back and ushering her inside the cool, musty interior of the building. “Not to worry, sweet one, the process will be quick.”
“Are you sure?” asked Jova. “I would think that something so important would be…bigger.” Her voice echoed off of the walls of the high-ceilinged temple. As far as she could tell, she and Copo were alone.
“You’ve earned your first feather in the selection, Jova,” said Copo, leading her on up to a flight of steps. Jova took them carefully. “But just the one. As such, it is rather a small affair, although insignificant? Hmm, no, I wouldn’t say that. When you earn your second and third feathers, though, then you shall have an audience. And should you earn your fourth feather, which you very well might, oh, yes, you would be graced by the presence of the Holy Keep herself.”
“But for now? For the first feather?”
“Only I shall be in attendance, for even the Lady Spring knows that only by recognizing our humble beginnings may we know how far we have risen,” said Copo, stroking Jova’s hair. “What a pretty braid! Did you do it yourself?”
“My- a friend helped,” said Jova. She felt dirty for lying in a temple, but hoped that the Lady Fall would forgive her the one secret.
“It is good to have friends,” said Copo, sagely.
“Yes,” said Jova, softly. “It is.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence.
Copo opened the door for Jova as the stairs leveled out, and she curtsied. “Thank you, sir,” she muttered, as she walked inside.
“So cultured, for a free girl,” said Copo, like a mother goosehen clucking over her brood. “Kneel here, go on. Mind your knees now, and just…relax. There is very little you will have to do. You have already proven yourself.”
Jova knelt, slowly, as she heard the low hum and the soft hiss of summer flies setting the torches alight. She heard the clatter of tabula, and Copo muttering to himself as the scent of burning incense began to drift to Jova’s nostrils.
Copo began to sing, circling her by the sound of it. His voice warbled and fluctuated, and he sounded like Roan and his funny foreign language, although his voice changed so much that Jova was having difficulty understanding what he was saying.
She gave up, letting the sound wash over her as she breathed deep the smoking incense. It stung her nostrils and had an acrid, bitter taste, but Jova got used to it very quickly. She thought of the Lady Fall, and made the circle on her forehead very quickly.
Of all the Ladies Four, she wanted to hear most from the goddess of secrets.
Copo’s chant continued, a low, steady hum that surrounded Jova and seemed to worm its way into her bones. She felt her whole body vibrating to the tune, and though she could see nothing of the room a pale blur filled her mind.
It had been so long since she had thought that way- in colors, and shapes. The presence of those thoughts felt almost alien to her.
And suddenly, Copo stopped, and the whispering images disappeared.
“I would show it to most,” said Copo. “But for now you will be allowed to hold it.”
Jova held out her hands, and took something hard, and round. Her fingers traced it, wondering what it might be. And then, her heart lurched.
It was a tabula.
As tabula went, it was the same size as the last one she had held in that glade so long ago, although now her hands had grown to the point that it could fit easily in one palm. She felt, in the center, a roughly hewn hole, big enough for her index finger to slip through. It was crudely cut, hacked and carved through the center.
“As a soldier of the temple, nay, soldier of the gods, you must open yourself in every way you can to the Ladies Four,” said the pontiff, his voice deep and booming.
Jova felt her stomach curl in revulsion at the idea. To cut through someone’s tabula like that felt like some horrid act of self-mutilation, as if someone had drilled through their own skull or as if…well, as if someone had gouged out their own eyes.
Copo took the tabula from her hand gently, and then Jova realized with a sinking feeling what was coming next. She broke into a cold sweat, and it wasn’t because of the burning incense or the small fires around her. What was she going to say? What was she going to do?
She didn’t know whether she should run or stay. She didn’t know whether to stop the ceremony now or let it go for as long as possible. She didn’t know what to do, and so, as Copo began to speak again, she did the only thing she could do. She prayed.
“Jova of the Temple,” he said. “Present your tabula.”
Jova tapped her walking stick on the ground and walls of the stable as she made her way out. She didn’t really need the stick anymore in Roan’s stables, but it gave her sweating hands something to do.
“You see, Copo? This is no place for business. Beggars infest it like roachrats in a marshman barge.”
“How interesting…” said a familiar voice. Jova cocked her head. Could it be? “This is no beggar, Latius, or else if she is she is a very selective one.”
“Pontiff, sir,” said Jova, curtsying. She heard footsteps approaching and then felt a clammy hand stroke the top of her head. She flinched, involuntarily, although the pontiff’s voice was warm and sweet.
“This is where you attend to your work, girl?” he asked.
“They say the man who lives here was once a mighty sandman warlord, and yet he has taken you under his wing. How very interesting,” said Pontiff Copo. “I suppose, though, people like you would be attracted to each other.” There was mirth in his voice, although Jova couldn’t tell what was so funny.
“Don’t taunt her, Copo, you’re making a mockery of me. I formally apologize for my companion’s misconduct, girl.”
Despite herself, Jova was surprised. She should have known from his name that Latius was a marbleman, albeit one of the generals and not a freed slave like Da.
“Who are you, anyway? This Roan’s apprentice-daughter?”
Jova opened her mouth to speak, but before she could she heard hoofs behind her. “Just an assistant,” said Roan. “And I was under the impression that you were being men of business.”
“Meaning you would approach me before my assistants,” he said.
“Proceed, then,” said Latius, icily. “Let us conduct business.”
Jova shrunk back. Both their voices were like Irontower steel, and they clashed like swords as well. She made to excuse herself, but Pontiff Copo put a firm hand on her shoulder.
“Oh, let’s leave them to their business,” said the pontiff. “Us assistants shall have our own private meeting, won’t we?”
Jova hesitated, but Roan and Latius were already leaving. She sighed, and turned to Copo, smiling. It was always good to smile to a pontiff. Perhaps she could learn more about this odd duo, and perhaps…
Jova made the sign of fall on her forehead, tracing a circle on her temple. Perhaps this really was a sign.
“There are seats over there,” said Copo, pressing on Jova’s shoulder. “Come, I will-.”
“I know where they are,” said Jova, doing her best to worm out of the pontiff’s grip. Her smile was beginning to hurt her lips. “I can find my way on my own, thank you.”
“Oh, but I insist,” said Copo, and led her to Roan’s waiting benches anyway. “What a strong young girl you are,” he said, and he stroked the back of Jova’s head again.
Jova did her best to move her head out of the way. “Which house are you of, pontiff sir?” she asked, politely.
“The House of Spring,” Copo said, and Jova heard him thump his chest. “The tattoos are on the small of my back. We keep our chests bare, for are we not proud of that which the Ladies have given us? Would you like to feel it?”
“Erm, no, thank you…”
But Copo had already grabbed her hand, and Jova felt as gingerly as possible the sweaty skin with the tips of her fingers. She supposed the markings must have been exquisite, but even she could not tell what they looked like just from touch.
“They’re very…nice,” said Jova, falteringly.
“Aren’t they? What a sweet girl you are, dear. Remind me what your name was again?”
“Jova, pontiff sir.”
“Ah, Jova. A sweet name.”
Jova nodded thanks, unsure what to say. “You’re Copo, right?” she asked, just to make sure. It was the only thing she could think of, anyway.
“How attentive! Yes, Jova, my name is Copo.”
Jova coughed, and slipped off the bench. “It’s been very nice talking to you. If you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
Copo grabbed her hand with both his, and though he did not pull her back his grip was firm. “Do you like working here, Jova?”
“Well, yes,” she stammered. “It’s very- very rewarding. The animals have good hearts.”
“And what of the man who rides them? Does he have a good heart?”
“Roan?” Jova paused. She had to think about this, although she felt the need to say something quickly because she could feel Copo’s sweat on her hand. “Yes, yes he does. He is very forward but very honest, and has always treated me and my- my friends kindly.”
“You may speak ill against your master, if you wish. You can trust me.”
“My master? No, no,” said Jova quickly. “I am free. I work for wage.”
“You are not a slave? How…interesting.” And again, the pointed pause. “And so you truly do enjoy your work here?”
“Yes, pontiff sir. Very much so, pontiff sir.”
Copo gave a long sigh, and let go. “Ah, more’s the pity. I suppose I will just to have learn to ride then, to see more of you. Would you help me ride, sweet girl?”
“Of course. Just talk with Roan,” said Jova. “Thank you for your business. I must be going now.”
With that, Jova made a hasty retreat back inside the stables. She had never gotten around to cleaning Uten or in fact finishing her breakfast, but her food could wait. She had a feeling that Latius the prince would not be fond of riding dirty molebisons.
“Hey, girl,” she said, rubbing down Uten’s back as she began looking for the comb. Out of all the animals, she had to profess she liked Uten the most. Roan made Jova ride her the most often when they went down to visit the Teeth or else run errands through the city, and Jova couldn’t help but notice the obvious kinship between them.
Uten rubbed her nose in Jova’s side and sniffed, her voice as breathless and wheezy as always. Jova began to comb Uten’s fur with as much care as possible- Uten was the most sensitive among the animals- and the molebison exhaled long and slow, her way of saying that she was content.
Her mind wandered back to Pontiff Copo, and his strange line of inquiry. For some reason, just thinking of the man made Jova’s skin crawl. What had he really been trying to ask her?
Was he trying to somehow besmirch Roan’s name somehow? Get Jova to confess something to start something against the foreign man? But, no, Copo hadn’t even been sure if this was the right place to find him. Jova found it difficult that sweaty, sickly sweet Copo would both take such an immediate dislike to the man and come up with such a convoluted plan to discredit him.
Perhaps Copo had just wanted to know a little bit more about the man his friend was doing business with. Except, he had barely asked about Roan, now that Jova thought about it. It had all been directed at her…
Was it a job? It seemed obvious in hindsight, although Jova felt doubts the moment she thought it. What kind of job would a pontiff have for her? They certainly needed no beggars, and there were so many of the faith lined up to join their ranks they hardly had to go recruiting for them.
Jova thought of the way Copo kept stroking her hair, and shook her head, grimacing. She would need a comb-down herself, later.
She patted down Uten’s left side and squeezed her way around the molebison’s bulk to get to work on the right. No sooner had she done so did she hear a sharp hiss from her side. Her hand tightened on her walking stick.
Not Roan, not Copo, not Latius. Jova furrowed her eyebrows. “Arim?”
“Yeah, it’s me,” said Arim, in a low whisper. “Jova, come on, I need your help.”
Jova smacked a palm against her forehead. “For once, today, could I work in peace? Can’t you see I’m busy right now, Arim? Go away, before he catches you!”
“No, no, no, Jova, you don’t understand, this is important,” said Arim, and the tone of his voice made Jova pause. “Really, really important.”
“What is it, Arim? Is someone in trouble? Did somebody get hurt?” Jova’s grip tightened on her walking stick.
“No, no, nothing like that, but…” Arim lowered his voice even further, so that Jova had to bend down to hear. “You see that pontiff over there? The sort of gangly, shirt-less one?”
“Oh, right, right, sorry. Well, you talked to him, didn’t you? You know who he is?”
“His name is Copo. From the House of Spring, he’s just been tailing that man from the Seat of the King. I don’t get it, Arim, what’s he have to do with you?”
“He’s not just here for his friend,” Arim hissed. “I heard him as I was walking down the street. He’s here for a zealot test.”
Jova sucked in a sharp breath. Was that what he had meant by other business? It had seemed odd for the pontiff to have just wandered in to accompany the banished prince…
“This is it, Jova! This is my one chance! And I’m not-.” Arim paused, and Jova tensed, wondering if he had been caught. There was a pause, and Arim whispered in a lower voice, “And I’m not ready.”
“Arim, don’t say that, we’ve been practicing for months!”
“I’m serious. By all the Ladies Four, I’m serious. I can’t do it, Jova. He’s not going to take me! What do I do? I need you to help me!”
Jova bit her lip. Was this what the Lady Fall had meant, by sending the prince and the pontiff when she did? Was it Jova’s goddess-given responsibility to help Arim join the ranks of the Ladies’ soldiers?
Divine or not, it was certainly part of her responsibility as a friend.
“OK,” she said, nodding. “OK. So what do you want me to do?”
She felt Arim squeeze into the stables with her, and heard his heavy breathing. He really was panicking. “I don’t know!” he hissed. “You’re the smart one.”
“The first thing you have to do is calm down,” said Jova, evenly.
“No, I will not calm down!”
“Shh, shh,” said Jova, waving her hand in the air until she found Arim’s shoulder. She gave him a few pats. “Everything’s going to turn out alright.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I have faith,” said Jova. She smiled. “That’s something you’ll need to have too if you really want to prove yourself.”
“OK. OK, sure. I got faith. I’m all faithed up. Now what? What if he asks me to fight? Jova, I can’t even beat you. What if he asks me to fight a- a slave, or a criminal, or a demon? What do I do? What if he asks me to fight his marbleman friend? Jova, I can’t fight a marbleman.”
“This is not calming down,” hissed Jova, doing her best to keep her voice low too. Arim’s anxiety was infectious. “I’ll think of something, just give me a moment.”
Her fingers drummed on the side of the stables, and she heard Uten shift to scoot away from the bodies cramped inside the small stall. “Arim, what exactly is the procedure for the test? Does he know who you are? Your name or your face?”
“He’s gotten a tip that there’s a zealot-hopeful in his district,” said Arim, stammering. “I don’t know who from, but I can think of who else I’ve told. It must have been Bash, or Izca, or one of them…I swear, I’m going to find them and…”
Jova’s hand waved until she found Arim’s face, then she grabbed his chin and turned it. “Arim, look at me. Focus.”
“But you can’t-.”
She clicked her tongue. “Focus.”
“He- he has a tip,” said Arim, slowly, in-between breaths. “He probably has had a lot of time to prepare, but I’ve never seen him before. Nock told me that the pontiffs only get second-hand descriptions. He’s probably looking for a young wild child who hangs out a lot on this street, but that’s it.”
“And the test? How is he going to test you?”
“It’s different for all of them. I’ve never seen this one before, I didn’t even know he lived in this district!”
“And you’re sure he’s going after you?”
“Positive,” said Arim, and Jova felt his chin shake as he nodded. “I heard him!”
Jova’s lips were dry. It certainly wasn’t a lot to go off of. “But the tests for zealotry, it’s always about fighting, right? You’ve got to prove you’re strong enough.”
“Summer and Spring, yes. And I’m not-!”
“Shh,” said Jova, and she twisted her hand to put a finger on Arim’s lips. She felt a sharp intake of breath from the boy, and he became almost eerily silent very quickly. “And he just needs to see that you’re a good fighter?”
A single nod from Arim.
Jova sighed. She didn’t know if the plan was going to work, but either way Roan would be furious by the time it was done. All the same…
Jova traced a circle on her forehead and thanked the Lady Fall. She would not be on the receiving end of help this time. “You got your spear, Arim?”
“Yes,” said Arim, taken aback. He paused. “Jova? What’s the plan?”
“He wants to see you get into a fight? We’re going to get into a fight.”
Walking stick in hand, Jova strode out of the stables, tugging Arim behind her. “But Jova,” the boy protested, trying to tug back. “I haven’t beaten you for months! You’ll completely ruin me!”
“Not today,” said Jova, firmly, and she threw Arim out into the open. She heard him scramble to his feet, heard the low scrape of the spear as he dragged it up, heard the pontiff sit up and gasp at the sight.
“You attack first,” said Jova, in as low of a whisper as possible. “Go on, Arim, it’ll be OK.”
She couldn’t hear Arim’s response, but moments later she heard quick footsteps approaching and she spun her walking stick to parry the straightforward lunge.
“I thought you said I would win this time?” hissed Arim, in passing as they spun around each other.
“You will,” Jova grunted, through gritted teeth. “Just do your best and I’ll take care of it. No more talking now, not while he’s watching.”
Jova circled Arim slowly, getting ready to go on a counteroffensive should Arim take too long. They had to move quickly, before anyone tried to break up the fight. The key was to make Arim appear impressive, and that meant the fight couldn’t be too one-sided. Jova could only hope that they looked like two experienced fighters sparring more than two children squabbling in the dirt.
Arim did not make a move. Jova braced herself and made the move herself, swinging her walking stick wide. Arim blocked it just in time, and Jova grunted her approval. She spun, aiming lower at Arim’s body, and the parry came quicker. Faster, faster, it had to be faster to make the fight look real.
A flurry of blows followed from Jova until she sensed Arim buckle under the assault. She paused, holding her arms wide to give Arim an opening to counter.
He did so, with gusto. Jova smiled. Arim had the passion of a zealot in battle; it was with training that he would gain the necessary skills. He would be fine.
“Jova! You will be stopping, now!”
Or perhaps they wouldn’t be fine. Jova’s heartbeat matched the rhythm of hoof beats, and she tensed, forcing the fight to move faster. “Come on, Arim, come on,” she muttered, as she swept her walking stick at his legs.
With a roar, Arim jumped and slammed downward, cracking his stick on Jova’s shoulder. He seemed to be taking her “no more talking” rule rather seriously.
“Jova, I command you stop now!” Roan shouted. “Leave the urchin boy alone, you can still walk away! If you do not, I will be-.”
“No,” said Copo, and his voice was suddenly serious. “No, let it finish.”
Jova’s heart leaped. They had done it. She whipped her walking stick around, exchanging another series of showy but slow blows with Arim, before she sensed a particularly well-placed swing coming from him and let it hit. She crumpled to the ground, head ringing but satisfied.
“Jova!” Stel cantered around her in agitation, although Roan made no move to help her up. “You, boy! Leave now, or I will run you down!”
Jova sensed Arim edge up against her, frightened, and she rose quickly. “I’m fine, Roan! Fine!”
“You pick these fights you are not ready for,” hissed Roan. “You push yourself too far! When will you learn that you as you are will never be able to hold your own when fighting the likes of others? And, you boy, step aside! I am telling you to leave, now!”
Jova opened her mouth, but she wasn’t sure what to say. Would saying Arim was a friend make their deception more obvious?
“Master Roan, I apologize! I got a little heated, was all!” said Arim. “You remember me? I rode your staghound a few months back.”
From Roan’s side came the harsh laugh of the marble prince. “Threatening your own clients? Is this how you do business, sandman?”
Roan snorted, but said nothing more. Instead, he rode quickly to Jova’s side and pulled her away. “If our affairs are being concluded,” he said, and his voice was ice, “Then I would like to be resolving my private matters in private.”
“No,” said Copo, speaking up. Jova’s head spun from the number of voices coming from all directions, although thankfully she had been holding back in her fight against Arim. She still had the energy to pull away from Roan and listen. “Of course, why did I not see it before? A blind girl with such a gift must have been chosen by the goddesses themselves. Free and yet so humble and mannered, it cannot have been a coincidence.”
Jova’s racing heart almost stopped. She tried to find Arim, tried to point him out, but she could already feel Copo’s shadow over her.
“I’m not- I haven’t-.” she stuttered.
And then she felt a clammy hand pull away her blindfold, and shrank. The flesh around her eyes still throbbed when touched, and the unusually cold air around eye sockets made her gasp involuntarily. She pulled the blindfold back down immediately, and felt Copo’s hand shaking as she gently pushed it away.
“And so you truly are blind,” said the pontiff. “Yet you fight as one who may see. How interesting.” There was a scrape of gravel, and Copo’s voice was suddenly much closer to Jova’s head. Jova felt a hand on her forehead, and shuddered. “Zealot of the Temple,” said Copo, formally. “I have found you.”
Jova couldn’t say anything. And though she couldn’t see anything, either, she could still feel Arim, hating her.
“Dull rocks,” said Jova. She cocked her head, listening to the clack of pebbles on pebbles. “Shiny rocks. Shiny rocks again. Oh, now you’re just cheating, that was a dull rock and a shiny rock. Dull one’s in your left hand.”
“By the Lady Fall, that’s creepy,” said Arim, although he sounded more amazed than scared. “How the hell do you do it?”
Jova shrugged, trying to hide her embarrassed smile. “They’re very distinctive sounds.”
Arim yawned. “OK, enough fucking around, let’s get this done before you have to go work for the horse freak again.”
Jova bristled. “Don’t call him that.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s just that he-.” There was a distinctive pause. “Forget about it, OK?”
“Forget about what?” asked Jova, standing up. She used her walking stick to steady herself as she found her feet. “You always say that.”
“You can’t make me talk about it,” said Arim, sounding exasperated. “I made a promise to the horse fr- to Roan. You pay attention when you make a promise to a guy like that.” He paused. “How long you known him?”
Jova sniffed. “Three years, about.”
“Three fucking years,” said Arim, under his breath. “And it’s worked? I can’t believe it. By the Lady Fall, he’s lucky.”
“What’s worked? Why’s he lucky?”
“Nothing! Roan’s a scary guy, is all I’m saying.” Jova heard the wooden clunk as Arim picked up his spear. “Scarier than you, even.”
“Is that true?” asked Jova, bemused, twirling her walking stick as she shifted her stance.
“Sure,” said Arim. “Except when you start doing that thing with your tongue. Gives me the shivers, every time.”
Jova smirked and clicked. From what she could hear, Arim was standing to her left, his stance casual, although he tensed the moment he heard her.
“Every time, Jova!”
She hit him on the shoulder with her walking stick. “Are we doing this? Or did you make me wake up early and sneak out of the house just to chat me like a toucanrat?”
“You’re like a slave girl.” Pebbles shifted as Arim stood. “Leave the grown olds, stay with us! No one telling you what to do or when to do it. You don’t know freedom until you’ve got a gang behind your back, Jova.”
“Tell you what,” said Jova. “You beat me and I consider it.”
At the whoosh of air beside her head, Jova raised her walking stick to block. She parried Arim’s swing and shifted to hit back, focusing on the sound of his heavy breathing. The wooden stick connected with his jaw with a loud crack.
Arim lunged, and Jova twirled her stick to bat it aside. She couldn’t tell where Arim was targeting or where the lunge came from, but her spinning stick had a radius wide enough to catch the edge of the spear and force it aside. With a grunt, Jova pushed Arim’s spear down and kicked out where his hand should be.
She missed, her foot instead planting on the wood of the spear. She pushed, using her own walking stick as leverage, and the spear clattered to the ground as it was forced from Arim’s hand.
Immediately, Jova swept her stick low, hoping to catch Arim as he bent to get his weapon back, but no such luck. She waved her walking stick, but it found only empty air.
Three sharp clicks to her left, right, and center found Arim backing away, edging around Jova’s right. She shifted her stance, turning her head to face away from Arim. It let her hear him better with her right ear, and more than that it always threw him off when she hit him without facing him.
She rolled the spear under her foot, moving it just a little closer to her. She waited…
And the moment she felt Arim tug to get his weapon back, she stepped down, hard, using her momentum to throw herself forward. A crunch as something hit the gravel indicated Arim had fallen. She gave him a few thwacks on the side just to drive the point home.
“Ow, I yield, I yield!”
Jova smiled and held out her stick. She felt the force on the other end, and pulled Arim up. The boy’s hands made patting sounds on his clothes as he brushed himself off.
“I hate how you can tell I’m there without even looking at me,” complained Arim. “It’s unfair.”
Jova crossed her arms. “Say that again, to my blindfolded face.”
Arim just laughed. “You don’t get that excuse anymore, Jova. Maybe in the beginning, but by now I’m convinced you’re not actually human.”
“Then what am I?”
“Oh, something mysterious,” said Arim, and the direction of his voice shifted as he circled Jova. “A dark demon from the Teeth, maybe, with unholy powers taken from the depths of the earth and a tabula made of pitch.”
Jova clicked twice, and grinned. She hoped Arim flinched.
She raised her head. The air was getting hot. “Is it sun-up yet?”
“Might be,” said Arim, noncommittally. “Come on, let’s go again.”
“Arim, I don’t want to be late. Roan likes me to be punctual.”
“Oh, come on, you’ve got time. The last fight didn’t count, it went too quick!” Arim put a hand on Jova’s shoulder as she walked away. “How am I supposed to become a zealot if I can’t even beat a girl like you?”
“I’m not sure if I should be offended by ‘girl’ or ‘like you.’ I think I’ll go with both,” said Jova.
“Yeah, so fight me!”
“No, Arim. Go grapple with your boy gang,” said Jova, pushing him off.
She heard him sigh. “At least let me walk you there?”
Jova flung out her walking stick, and it prodded Arim right in the chest. “I can get there on my own, thank you.”
“Not for you, for me,” said Arim, and Jova felt a gentle hand push her walking stick down. “I want to learn all your little tricks. The test can happen any day now! I have to be ready!”
Jova shook her head. “A toucanrat, I swear. Well, come on then, don’t slow me down.”
She heard the patter of Arim’s eager feet as he raced up to walk beside her. “Maybe the pontiffs will be doubly impressed if I make my way through the entrance exams blind-folded.”
“It’s supposed to be a test of faith, not talent,” said Jova, exasperatedly. “Arim, you’ll never make it if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.”
Arim scoffed. “I know fours on four people who got their feathers for the wrong reasons. Bash, Izca, Nock…the way I see it, I’m rounding it out so it’s nice and holy.”
Sometimes, Jova couldn’t believe the wild child’s gall. It was good that it was so early in the morning, or else a pontiff might have been about and overheard. Jova clicked and listened, just in case, but there was no one else on the street.
It was an odd combination of coincidences that had led Jova to these daily sparring practices with Arim. First, Roan had given her the hardened walking stick; then, he had assigned her to groom one of his client’s steeds. It was just Jova’s luck, she supposed, that said client’s assistant aspired to be a zealot and needed someone to practice against.
“I thought you said you didn’t want me slowing you down,” said Arim, smugly.
Jova concentrated on the present. “Shush, you,” she said, striding forward. “I was thinking. You should try it sometime, it’s useful.”
“I’ll think about it,” said Arim. “Wait…no, I won’t.”
“Oh, haha,” said Jova, dryly, knocking Arim out of the way with her walking stick. “You’re very funny. Now, scoot, you really are slowing me down.”
“I’m going, I’m going!” Arim clapped Jova on the shoulder. “It’s right up ahead, so if you just keep walking-.”
“I got this, Arim,” said Jova, shoving her stick into his gut. “Go away. Shoo.”
“Alright, well, I’ll see you around, right?”
It wasn’t until she heard footsteps crunching away that Jova was sure Arim had gone. She sighed, and smiled. She appreciated all that the boy had done for her, but sometimes talking with him was exhausting.
Jova’s walking stick tapped on the ground. Ma had appreciated him, she mused. She had been wary at first, of course, and had no idea what Jova was up to in the mornings, but she seemed to like Arim. Da had taken a more resolute stance, although Jova had no idea why.
She had hardly walked ten paces when someone tapped her on the shoulder. She felt cool shells pressed into her palm, and heard a soft, male voice whisper, “A gift, child.”
Jova rolled the shells in her hand even as she traced the man’s palm. Soft and supple, a palm used to long days indoors and hot baths, no doubt. The sensible thing to do would have been to take the man’s money and leave.
She pushed the man’s hand back, shaking her head. “Thank you, sir, but save your charity for someone who needs it.”
The hand of shells withdrew, although the hand on her shoulder did not. “How…interesting. There is no shame in accepting assistance, child.”
Only a pontiff would preach like that. “I need no assistance, thank you,” said Jova, firmly. “I have my work to attend to.”
“As do I,” said the pontiff. His hand left her shoulder. “Fortune be with you, child.”
“Be it with you too,” said Jova, nodding her hand, waiting until she heard the pontiff’s footsteps walk off behind her, in the same direction Arim had gone, before moving onwards.
Jova was used to being treated like a cripple beggar by now; with her blindfold and her clothes smelling of manure, she could hardly blame them. They were pontiffs of the House of Winter, usually, but sometimes laymen who were feeling holy.
It was odd that men so willing to give their own away were so taken aback when told they could keep it.
She heard the clop of hooves and stopped respectfully, waiting for Roan to speak. After quite some time, he said, “You have been awake for some time.”
How could he tell? Jova brushed down hair, straightening herself. “Morning errands, that’s all.”
A long pause, and then, “The merchant-prince will be here sometime this afternoon. Prepare Yora, then Uten. I am feeling he shall be wanting to try both.”
Jova nodded, and started to walk towards stables. Roan rode at a steady pace beside her.
“Is he the one from the Seat?” asked Jova.
“Of the King, yes,” said Roan. “After all these years, I think he still entertains ideas of riding in and taking back Ironhide’s crown. The revolution had not been kind on him.”
It had not been kind to anyone, Jova noted. The Holy Keep had chosen to seal the Temple from the war, and rumor had it she had burned all the letters from both the old and new king’s envoys. No matter how much Keep Tlai hid, though, Banden Ironhide’s armies needed to get their food from somewhere, and the treacherous roads had made food scarce.
Roan coughed. “Your breakfast is as it is, on the bench. You may eat when you are finished.” And he rode away, without another word.
Jova could smell it as she approached, although only under the various earthy smells of the rest of the stables. For such a graceful creature, Yora sure did poop a lot.
She made soft, reassuring noises as she entered, clicking with her tongue and whispering nonsense under her breath. The staghound was prone to skittishness in the mornings, and Jova did not want to startle him.
She started with the hooves first, brushing her hand gently over them to pick out rocks and wipe away dirt, carefully avoiding the sensitive part of the heel. Roan had once had a hoof pick, but that had been traded away for food nearly a year ago, and Jova supposed Roan had never found the time to replace it. It was valuable, too, forged in the Irontower with their steel magic.
Yora tossed his head, and Jova clicked her tongue for him to hold still. She was determined to do a good job. In these troubled times, Roan had still provided for her, and her family, and if she would not accept the charity of strangers then Jova certainly wouldn’t accept the charity of a friend. These merchant-princes and arena champions, displaced by the revolution, paid generously as well. If Jova did well, they might come back as repeat customers.
Jova’s hand drifted until she found the bristled comb, and with it scraped mud and dirt out of Yora’s long fur.
It took nearly half an hour for Jova to finish, as she had to use her hands and not her eyes to make sure Yora looked presentable. He didn’t seem to mind; the staghound’s tail thumped on the ground happily as Jova rubbed his underbelly and behind his ears. He was like Mo, in that regard.
“Alright, you’re clean,” said Jova. “Don’t go rolling around in the dirt until after the prince is done, got it?” She patted Yora on the back and walked out of her stall.
Uten was next, but as Jova picked up her walking stick and found her way out she smelled the food and her belly rumbled. Roan had said to wait until after she was done, but the food was probably getting cold and the merchant-prince would likely not arrive until late in the afternoon.
Jova bit her lip, and knocked her stick on the door of Uten’s stable, listening. There was no sound in reply.
Well, Jova reasoned, she could let Uten sleep while she had breakfast. It wouldn’t hurt.
She smelled bean stew as she approached. Smoothing out her coza, she sat on the bench and cupped the bowl in her hands, taking a moment to enjoy the warmth on the chill autumn morning. It smelled more robust than usual, although it had gotten a bit cold.
Jova cleared her throat and said, softly, “The Lady Fall bless me, I give you thanks. May I be wise, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
She picked up her spoon, but for some reason her stomach had clenched. She sat, letting her head hang.
“It’s, uh…it’s been a while,” Jova continued. “In case you’re listening, I just wanted to say I’m grateful for what I have. Truly, I am.”
Jova scratched her chest.
“I just…I wanted to ask…” Jova tapped her thumbs on the side of the bowl. “I’ve worked hard. Ma and Da have worked hard, harder than anyone. And people here are always talking about miracles and your presence and I know I don’t always say my prayers or respect the holy days but if there’s anything you want me to do I’ll do it.”
In the stables, Chek snorted. A flygnat buzzed past Jova’s ear.
“I want answers,” said Jova. “That’s what you do, right? Lady Fall? You give answers? Ma and Da have spent the last three years looking, looking for someone like me. You’d approve. They were subtle about it, quiet. But they haven’t found anyone, anyone at all. I don’t have a tabula and I’m starting to get worried because I still don’t know why.”
Jova waited, hoping, listening. Was that the crack of dry leaves? Was the Lady Fall answering?
“I don’t know if you’re punishing me or guiding me or what,” said Jova. “But I want to know why. Please. I promise, I can be worthy. Just- just point me in the right direction.”
Like every other morning prayer before it, there was no answer. Jova slumped, and ate quietly, listening in vain for the answer of the silent goddess. Who else was there to ask besides the Ladies Four?
And then, at that moment, the banished lord arrived.