The boy cried in the shadows of the hollow, his belly rumbling, his eyes red, his cheeks streaked and glistening. He held a disk in his hand, his back pressed against the sap-coated innards of the great tree. The clean clothes that mama had tearfully put on him were already soiled. He had fallen asleep at home, somewhere warm, somewhere safe, but had been jerked awake by the tugging, hurtling through darkness, the world expanding and contracting around him.
He was tired and lonely and scared when the voice shouted, “We got one today, Engers!”
A pair of hands reached inside and pulled the toddler out. The boy blinked his eyes, scrubbing his face in the dappled sunlight. At its high point in the sky, it shone directly down and peaked through the twisted branches of the tree above him, which was surrounded on all sides by high stone walls.
The woman holding him up pursed her lips and turned him from side to side. The boy felt tears emerge in his eyes again, and as he started to cry he felt a sudden harsh pain on the side of his face. He tasted blood in his mouth and began to bawl even louder, until the woman hit him even harder on the head.
The toddler hiccupped once, and fell silent, sniffling despite himself.
“Did you have to be so rough?” asked a teenager standing behind the woman, pulling at the shawl around his shoulders.
“Oh, it just takes a smidge of discipline, young lord,” said the woman. “See? He stopped crying already.”
“May I hold him?” asked the teenager, edging forward.
“Of course, Engers,” said the woman, handing the toddler off to the boy like he was a slab of meat. “How does it feel to hold your first slave?”
The teenager’s hands were clumsy and weak, and he nearly dropped the toddler as he held him under the shoulders. “He feels heavy,” said the teenager, laughing. He turned to the boy and set him down, tickling his nose. “Hey, there, little guy. What’s your name?”
“We don’t let them keep their names,” said the woman, quickly, before the boy could answer. “Even if they do remember them. Best to just start fresh, don’t you think?”
“Oh, alright, then,” said Engers, and he reached into his pocket. “I’ve got a list somewhere, wait a hollow’s hop…”
“I don’t like springborn at the best of times,” said the woman, as Engers examined the long sheet of paper. “But I guess this one will grow into it. He doesn’t look nearly strong enough for good fieldwork, but we’ll try him at it, anyway.”
“Ah! Here’s one I like,” said Engers. “Bax. How about that, little guy? Does Bax sound like a good name?”
The boy looked at the teenager’s honest face, to the woman looming over him, and he nodded his head mutely.
“Speaks as much as the Lady Spring, doesn’t he?” said Engers, grinning. “I’m sorry, Kerry, I was reading: what did you say?”
“Nothing you have to worry about,” said the woman. “One last thing…”
She put her hand on the boy’s back (he flinched) and bent down to pluck the disk out of his hands. The boy reached out, a protest forming on his lips, but at the tightening of the woman’s hand on his back he looked down and didn’t speak. “We’ll just hold onto that for you, Bax.”
“Come on, Bax, let’s go and play,” said Engers, taking Bax’s hand and leading him towards the door in the stone walls. “Shh, shh, it’s OK. Life is nice here in Alswell. Don’t be scared.”
He opened the door, and two giants of men nodded their heads to him as he passed.
“Young lord,” said one, shifting the lance to his other hand to give a little salute.
“M’lord,” said the other, his chainmail rustling as he too saluted.
“Cropper, Hardy,” said Engers, nodding to them as well.
“You should visit Langs,” said either Cropper or Hardy. “He’s had his for a fortnight, he says it’s been getting a bit temperamental.”
“How about that?” said Engers, ruffling Bax’s hair. “You want to go visit Langs?”
“OK,” said Bax, softly.
“He speaks!” said Engers, laughing and clapping, and Bax dared a little smile. “You have a sweet voice, Bax.”
“Thanks,” said Bax.
Bax started when the woman spoke. She was just behind them, but he had not noticed her. “Not ‘thanks’. Thank you, my lord,” she said.
“Thank you, m’lord,” Bax mumbled.
Engers led him on, through a dirt path winding through the field. Neatly cultivated rows of plants surrounded them on all sides, although if Bax stood on tiptoe he could see tiny cabins on the horizon.
He stepped on something thorny and yelped. The woman tittered while Engers examined Bax’s foot and swept the thing aside with a hand. “Nasty thing, the thorny flax,” said Engers, patting Bax’s shoulder. “You get them over the ground sometimes, hollows know why.”
They kept walking, and Bax eyed their boots enviously. He had no shoes, and kept tripping over his own feet as he looked down while he walked.
“These are the flax fields,” said Engers, brightly. “The people out east prefer cotton, but all’s well in Alswell, and all. A little further south we grow tea and sugarcane, and-.”
“He doesn’t need to know the business, young lord,” said the woman, sharply. “He just needs to be able to work it. Probably not a word you said got into his head, poor thing.”
Bax looked down. He didn’t say anything.
“Well, in that case we’ll just—Bechde! Well, I’ll be! We were just going to visit Langs!”
“Engers, this is a pleasant surprise,” said a lady in tight dress, seated on the back end of a wagon trundling around the bend. The waving stalks of flax were so high that Bax had not been able to see her, or her wagon. She waved a fan in front of her face daintily and smiled, showing pretty white teeth. “I was just escorting the workers back around to Greeve.” The lady blinked. “Oh, what’s this? What a darling young boy you’ve got there!”
Bax sniffed. For some reason, all of a sudden, among these bright and happy people, he felt like crying again.
He didn’t listen as Engers and Bechde began talking animatedly. He just stood there, waiting in the hot sun, wondering when he would be able to go home again.
He heard a soft psst and looked up. Poking out of behind the lady, peering through the covers, was a little girl with wide eyes. She waved at him, and made a face at the twitter and chatter of Engers and Bechde. Bax sniggered, and the girl vanished under the tarp again before the lady could see her.
And then Engers took him away, off wherever slaves went in Alswell.
“No more,” sang the field leader. Thunk, went the axe into the tree. “No more.” Thunk. “No more!” Thunk. “Farmer lord.” Thunk.
Bax wiped the sweat from his brow, squinting his eyes as wood chips flew from the tree. “We won’t take-.” Thunk. “No more.” Thunk. “Not ‘til we ask-.” Thunk. “The Ladies Four.”
The rest of the woodcutters hummed with him. They might not have known the words, but they sang with just as much feeling, just as much pain and fatigue in their voices.
“Ask ‘em why-.” Thunk. “My hands are bleeding.” Thunk. Bax tightened his grip on the axe. The blisters on his hands had healed at this point. They would not bleed for another day or two.
“Ask ‘em who-.” Thunk. “Took the hollow seed in.” Thunk. Bax looked up at the great oak hollow they were working around, with its twisting branches and flaking bark. The tabula in its hollow winked innocently, as if they did not hold the terrible power every slave in that clearing knew they did.
“Ask ‘em why-.” Thunk. “That man still breathing.” Thunk. Everyone thought of someone different when they said that. Some resented the farmer lords, and wished them dead with that line. Others prayed for mercy for their fellow slaves as age beat down on their backs as much as the whips of the taskmasters and the heat of the Alswell sun.
“Ask ‘em when-.” Thunk. “This life I’m leaving.” Thunk. With an ominous creak, the oak began to slowly tip over. “Timber!” shouted Bax, backing away as it collapsed in a great, shuddering heap. Loose leaves scattered all over the ground, and with one last gasp the oak came to a rest.
Bax backed away as the taskmaster lead more slaves to load up the tree onto the timber sled, sweat glistening on his chest, breathing heavily. The taskmaster looked up and snapped his whip in Bax’s direction, and the slave flinched. He looked away, as his grasp tightened on the axe.
That man still breathing…
Bax trudged away, to begin work on the next tree. The timber from the oaks was well and good, but it was the hollow at the center of the grove that the farmers really wanted. They would build great stone walls around this one, too, and Greeve would have a steady supply of slaves for as long as he had the clout to keep it from the other farmers.
“All’s well in Alswell, brother?” asked Fisk, leaning on his lance.
“All’s well in Alswell,” said Bax, nodding. He looked up at the trunk of the tree, figuring out where to cut so that it would fall away from hollow at the center. He didn’t want to damage the most precious part of today’s work.
“You go on and rest a little, Bax,” said the alsknight, as Bax began to chop once again. With the arrival of the taskmaster, the singing had stopped. “I can see you sweating enough for a dozen.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Bax, drawing out his words. He didn’t stop working. “Soon as the taskmaster gets done drawing fi’ty line on my back, I’m gon’ have to give that a little cogitating.”
“Heh, you a funny one, Bax,” said Fisk, patting the slave’s shoulder even as Bax drew the axe back for another swing. Bax had to pull back and let his arm fall to prevent himself from decapitating Fisk. “But go on and have a look-see over there. Pretty little filly, isn’t she?”
Bax followed Fisk’s finger and saw Janwye, also hard at work pulling timber onto the sled. Whatever Fisk was imagining, all Bax saw was the grinning little girl in the back of the wagon, making faces at a sad boy to cheer him up. He really did almost decapitate Fisk, then.
“Pretty little filly,” repeated Fisk, licking his lips. “And I’ve love to ride her, know what I mean?”
“She like family,” said Bax, and he swung his axe as hard as he could into the oak. It bit deep, and to his great satisfaction several woodchips went flying into the alsknight’s face. “So you best think real hard about what you say next.”
“Oh, how do you know what family is?” said Fisk, grinning, although anger was smoldering in his eyes. “You had Fallow in the same hollow or something?”
Bax was about to say something testy in reply when suddenly he felt a cold energy seize him. Like some invisible hand tugging at his spine, his body jerked upright and his arms began to swing of their own accord, swing harder and faster than was safe, so that his muscles screamed in protest and the blisters re-opened on his hands. He moved so fast as to be frenzied but so methodically as to be mechanical.
Beside him, the leering smirk had vanished from Fisk’s face; he was now upright and rigid, gripping his lance tightly. His eyes looked like, on the inside, he was screaming.
“No slacking,” growled the taskmaster, and then he moved on.
Fear kept Bax’s arms moving even as the taskmaster walked away. He supposed he should have been lucky, that he had only been commanded not punished, but the total lack of control, the cold realization that he was a prisoner in his own body—that was something Bax did not want to repeat.
Fisk didn’t talk to him anymore. Even if he was an alsknight, the farmers still owned him as much as they owned Bax. If they caught him lax on guard duty, it was back to the fields for him, and the Ladies knew Fisk couldn’t have many friends in the fields if he had become an alsknight.
“No more,” the field leader began again. “No more! No more, my lord…”
Bax laid on the straw and old rags, trying to ignore the smell and heat of the hut, poking his finger through the little hole in the wall. Sometimes winter rats crawled through, and Bax would let their cold breath play over fingers before they snuck away and disappeared. Bax closed his eyes. If only he was a winter rat, who could walk with a sheen of frost on his back to guard against the hot sun, who could squeeze through the tiny cracks and holes in the walls, who could grow fat on crumbs that the farmer lords threw away.
Someone kicked in their sleep next to him, and Bax tried to edge away. It was hard; floor space in the hut was limited, and a dozen people slept here every night. They also cooked here, ate here, and occasionally shat here if they felt like being rude, although none of the farmers actually cared if they did. It was their muck they had to live in, after all.
The taste of cornbread and grease still lingered in Bax’s mouth. He licked his lips. It was more than just hunger that gnawed at his insides. Anticipation crawled inside of him, and Bax could not dismiss it.
Trying to disturb as few people as possible, he rose, tiptoeing over the others towards the door of the hut. No one stirred; they were all sleeping deeply. They needed the rest for the long day they had tomorrow, like today, like the day before, like the day before that.
It was easy for Bax to leave the hut. The farmers posted no guards around the slave quarters; they didn’t need to. It was the tabula boxes and field lords that the alsknights guarded. No matter how far a slave ran in the night, they would always end up in the same place by morning, with whips and brands waiting for them.
No, all the farmers had to do was confiscate any weapons the slaves might have, keep the rope or rock out of reach. Suicide was bad for business.
And even if he found a way, Bax thought, Greeve had so many slaves that the loss of one made no difference. He padded across the dirt, the calluses on his heels scuffing against pebbles and gravel. He didn’t mind so much, anymore. When all was said and done, it was just part of living. Better to keep living, than to be petty.
The only tree in the compound was an old bent willow, its drooping branches waving in some wind only it could feel. Bax sat at its base, his legs straining as he slid down. It had been a harvest day, today. His back was sore and his fingers were covered in scratches and cuts from the flax bolls.
“Hey, Bax,” whispered a voice, and Janwye sat next to him. She yawned and put her head on his shoulder, and he straightened his back a little.
“Comfortable?” he asked, petting her hair. “Do I make a good headrest?”
“Better than the floor,” she said, batting his hand away. “Lady Summer, I’m tired.”
“Mm,” said Bax, softly. “Where’s Mealark?”
“Sleeping.” Janwye snuggled a little closer to Bax. “She had a rough day of it, today.”
Like today, like the day before, like the day before that. Bax’s gut twisted again, not just hunger, not just anticipation this time. “You ever get the sense that we could be doing something better, Janny? Something greater?”
“Every day,” said Janwye. “Actually, Bax, I…”
“Yes?” asked Bax, a little too quickly.
“Oh, Ladies, I’ve been putting this off for too long.” Janwye sat up, her legs folded under her. “Bax, I’ve been meaning to tell you, but I just- I couldn’t find the right way…”
“I’m leaving,” she said. She look on the verge of tears, but she didn’t cry. Janwye never cried.
Bax’s heart plummeted faster than he thought possible. Janwye? Leave? It was so strange as to be surreal. Janwye couldn’t leave. She couldn’t. She was family. “Where? Why?” Bax croaked, his mouth very dry, the pains in his gut forgotten.
“Bechde told me a week ago. An old marbleman, named Marion, he-.”
“She sold you?”
Janwye nodded, looking away. “An offer she couldn’t refuse, she said. She wouldn’t tell me how much I had sold for, but…Bax, I’m scared. I saw him. He dressed like one of their marble generals, and he’s balding and fat and wrinkled and what if he- what if…?”
Bax pulled her in, wrapping his arms around her in a great hug. He rocked her back and forth, whispering comforting nonsense into her ear.
“Anybody else know?” he asked, after a while.
Janwye shook her head. “Bechde said she was already breaking one of the terms by telling me. This man, he doesn’t want anyone to know. You’re the first person I’ve told, Bax.” She pushed her way out of his embrace. “You have to promise me—promise me—that you won’t tell anyone. I don’t want Bechde getting in trouble.”
“Even after she did this to you?” said Bax, incredulously. “Treat you like shit, sell you like a piece of meat?”
“OK, Janny,” he said, after a pause. “I promise.”
Janwye nodded. She turned around and sat against the tree again, sighing. “Oh, Ladies, I said it all wrong. Don’t be worried about me, Bax. I know you’re going to worry. But I’ll be fine. Wherever I’m going, I’ll be fine.”
Bax wasn’t so sure. He stared at his feet, not knowing what to say. “When are you leaving?”
“Can we not talk about it?” asked Janwye. Her voice was rising, and Bax had to put a finger to her lips as the sound began to carry through the night. “Please, Bax? Let’s just not talk about it. Let’s spend this night like we would have if I hadn’t gone and blabbed it all out.”
The way Janwye said it, it made it sound like this was their last night. Bax’s breath caught in his throat. He stared at Janwye for a long time, at the way her hair fell around her face, at the constant emotion and life she had, at the way she moved and talked and breathed. He tried to keep it all in his head and remember, just in case this really was last night they had.
Janwye might never cry, but Bax felt like he might.
He took a quiet breath to calm himself, and then cleared his throat. “But of course, m’lady,” he said, kissing Janwye’s hand like an alsknight would court a fine apprentice-daughter of a farmer lord. “Anything you desire.”
Janwye waved a hand in front of her face and made such high-pitched mock giggle that both of them collapsed in stifled laughter.
“You know, Bax,” said Janwye, as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “I’m a bit glad that Mealark is so tired today.” She groaned, putting her head in her palms. “Oh, shit, that came out wrong, I shouldn’t have said it like that. What I mean is I just-.”
“I know what you meant,” said Bax, and she didn’t need to say anymore after that.
They talked that night, talked about the field groups and Greeve’s court and the work they had to do, and even though Janwye had told Bax not to mention it eventually the conversation came around to what the Stronghold was like, and what they ate, and how they dressed.
“I hear they have gladiators there,” said Janwye. “You know, like pit fighters.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” asked Bax.
“I think…a good thing. At least they give the slaves a chance to fight back.”
“Fighting each other, though? Kicking and biting and scrabbling the dust while some fat general in the stands watches? While he eats grapes and strokes whores?”
“At least they’re fighting something,” said Janwye. “You can’t fight the sun, or the harvest, or the hollows. At least they get a chance to be actual people.”
“You thinking of becoming a gladiator, is that it, Janny?”
She pushed him up against the tree and bared her teeth at him. “You ain’t never seen how hard I fight, Bax boy.”
He laughed and, as Janwye leaned across him, stroked her hair again. She didn’t bat his hand away this time.
“I’ll miss you, Janny.”
She sighed. “I’ll miss you too.”
Kerry fussed around him, straightening his clothes, scrubbing his face judiciously. “Well, you did grow into it, didn’t you?” she said, an old woman now with a bent back and a wheeze in her voice. “Look at you. Nice set of clothes, combed hair, and your lovely springborn voice and no one will ever think you’re a slave unless they see the brand.” She slapped him on the back. “Best keep your shirt on, then, Bax, eh?” She said it like it was a joke, but Bax didn’t laugh.
He went over Engers’s instructions in his head. It was a simple courtship ritual, just the first step in the elaborate Alswell process. Bax would pass the message on to the lady, and give her reply back to Engers.
He adjusted the cravat around his neck and squirmed on the inside. He understood that he had to look the part, but nonetheless he felt puffy.
“Last touch, Bax,” said Kerry, waddling his way with a pair of soft leather boots. Bax stepped inside of them and let Kerry tie the straps. At last, the slave boy was finally good enough for shoes.
“Off you go now, go on,” said the old woman, shooing him away. “Bechde’s manor isn’t far, you know where it is. And don’t get too much dust on those clothes! You’ll have to clean it off yourself.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Bax, bowing his head and backing away. His boots slapped on the stones as he left the chilly castle corridors behind him, and stepped out into the bright Alswell sun. He was already beginning to sweat under his layers of stiff vests and cotton dress shirts.
Bax supposed it was better than fieldwork, but all the same he felt like he had somehow betrayed his brothers and sisters in the working groups as he walked along the fields and saw them, smudges on the horizon, bending and cutting, bending and cutting, bending and cutting.
Someone had to be the messenger for the farmer nobles and their lace-filled, shawl-wearing, puffy society. Better it be Bax, then, the slave reasoned, as he walked along the road. For once, he could stand with his back straight as he walked.
“Finest morning, Lady Bechde,” muttered Bax, under his breath, practicing. “Lord Engers sends his regards and seeks your company in the coming moons. Ahem, finest morning, Lady Bechde…”
The manor was just ahead. Each of the manors technically belonged to Farmer Greeve, but the lords and ladies that were his personal favorites essentially owned the various mansions that dotted the fields. Bax supposed that, at a certain point, they must have all been slaves too, but sometimes the farmers would choose some particularly lucky child to pamper and raise since Fallow. Lady Bechde seemed like one of those children; from what Bax had seen of the perfumed woman, it looked like she hadn’t done a day’s hard work in her life.
The elaborate front of the manor, with its high arches and true-glass windows, loomed before him as he approached. He straightened, preparing himself. If he did a good job at this, Engers might keep him on as a formal messenger, and then Bax would never have to work the fields again.
And then he saw her.
“Janny,” whispered Bax, as she rode out of the courtyard on the back of a beautiful summer elk, its fur russet brown, long and sleek and clean. But she was more beautiful still, her hair combed behind her ears, a plain white shawl around her shoulders. On the other ladies of the Alswell courts it made them look gaudy, but on her it was majestic.
And then he saw the man riding next to her.
He would have, in Bax’s opinion, been the picturesque dashing knight if he hadn’t been so obviously foreign. He rode his horse (and Bax couldn’t tell what kind of horse it was: honestly, it seemed rather dull) with natural skill and ease, but he wore pants of tanned leather and no shirt at all. A barbed whip hung from his side, and his hair, long and greasy, was in a braid that reached his waist. Bax had no small amount of muscle himself from those years in the fields, but this man had the stature and physique of a trained warrior, not a starved worker.
Bax’s mouth went dry. He did not seem like a marbleman, but Bax had not stepped foot outside Alswell since the Fallow. For all he knew, this man could be the epitome of the marble legions.
There was nothing for it. Bax ran, all pretense and manners forgotten as his boots slapped on the dirt path. “Janny!” he shouted. “Janny, hey!”
Janwye reared in the summer elk and looked around in confusion. When she saw Bax, her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Then, to Bax’s great relief, her mouth split in a wide smile.
“Bax!” she shouted, slipping off the elk and running forward. “What the hell happened to you?”
Bax looked down at his cravat and vest and gulped. “I got fancy,” he said, finally. “You- I mean you look…wow.”
The other man rode up behind them and dropped off his horse to the ground, lithe, like some predatory cat. He straightened and gave Bax an intense look-over. “Mosh sag bu,” he muttered, quietly. “Wey ab al, fot hak sen.”
Before Bax could say anything, Janwye looked over her shoulder and said, “Pu al ab! Sen hak Bax, al iro tu sat.”
“You speak foreign,” said Bax, before he could stop himself.
Janwye laughed. “You can thank him for that, he’s too lazy to learn the king’s tongue. That’s Rho Hat Pan.”
“He’s a friend. Just a friend,” said Janwye. She put her hands on her hips. “By all the Ladies, Bax, it’s been so long. I was going to visit, but these damn fields are so big, I had no idea where to start…”
“It’s OK.” Bax kept looking Janwye up and down. She had changed so much. “So, are you…?” Bax couldn’t seem to finish his questions.
“I’m back,” said Janwye, smiling. “For now, at least. As a free woman. I’d figure I’d see what Bechde needs doing, maybe come back around again. Do some favors for some friends, if I need to.” She reached for a pendant around her neck, and Bax noticed for the first time that she was wearing a little wooden disk with a crescent moon inscribed on it.
“Are you going anywhere?” asked Bax, looking at the horse and the elk.
Janwye bit her lip. “Yes, we have to…yes. Stick around though! We’ll be back!”
Bax nodded. “OK, then. I’ll be right here for you, waiting.”
And they hugged each other just once before going their separate ways.
Greeve looked tired. What little hair was left on his head had gone white with stress and age, and there were deep bags under his eyes.
“Banden Ironhide threatens war,” he said, eyes closed, as if just saying the name caused him pain. “The pup swears he will have our food and grain or else he will summon the might that destroyed the Seat of the King and take it by force.”
Bax looked to Engers and Bechde and Langs, all standing at attention before their surrogate father. He stood behind them, with Janwye and Mealark, at attendance and awaiting orders.
He exchanged a glance with Janwye. Even after all these years as a proven free woman, she still stood where the slaves stood: albeit, where the privileged slaves stood, but where the slaves stood nonetheless.
“I’ve sent letters to the Stronghold,” said Greeve, opening his eyes again. They were a clear blue, and still as sharp as ever despite the age that bent his back and wrinkled his brow. “To Jhidnu. To Kazakhal, even, although the Ladies know what good the frog-eaters will do. But for our close allies…it requires a more personal touch.”
As Greeve leaned on his cane and hobbled to his feet, Engers and Langs rushed to his side to help him stand. They helped him to the table at the center of his chambers, upon which the map of all of Albumere was splayed out.
Greeve coughed violently, his body seizing up as he leaned on the table. His three children-apprentices stood by his side, concerned but silent. The proud farmer would take none of their pity.
“Here,” said Greeve, after the fit had passed. “Beyond the mountains. Langs, you will take what supplies you need, what protection you require, to go to Mont Don. Speak to Prince Gaelen, beg him if you must.”
Langs cleared his throat. “Mont Don, my lord? They are…”
“They’re a joke in the Seat,” muttered Greeve. “And that’s exactly how Gaelen, the little guttersnipe, likes it. Don’t underestimate the mountainmen. Make your preparations now, go on. It’s cold up in the north.”
Langs nodded and walked away briskly. “Mealark, come,” he snapped.
“Bechde, you’re going to have to go far, and by foot,” said Greeve. “See Keep Tlai at Temple Moscoleon. They have always been our allies.”
Bechde pursed her lips and said nothing. For once, the lady seemed to be more than just frills and gossip.
“I’d say take a ship, but the saltmen have been getting cheeky. It’s too dangerous. I’d say go through the Seat of the King, but we all know why you can’t do that. The only way is through the deserts of Hak Mat Do.” Greeve sniffed. “Be ready for a long journey, sweet Bechde. Go on, get ready.”
Bechde left, and Janwye turned to follow behind her. Just before Janwye walked away, Bax grabbed her hand. They exchanged a look.
“We’ll talk later,” said Janwye, smiling, and then she left.
Before Greeve could speak again, Engers said, hesitantly, “My lord, if I may…why Bechde? You know she does not have the, erm, fortitude to endure such a long travel. Let me go in her stead.”
Greeve shook his head, and began to cough again. Engers patted him on the back and waited. “I want her as far away from here as possible when this all goes to shit,” said Greeve, shuddering. “And I need you for the hardest part.”
“The hardest part, my lord?”
The old farmer pointed on the map. Bax couldn’t see where, but Engers’s reaction made it clear enough.
“Shira Hay? They- they hate us, my lord.”
“And they’re the only damn ones close enough to help once Ironhide decides to make his move,” snarled Greeve, slamming his fist on the table. “I like it less than you do, Engers, but if we don’t have Shira Hay we won’t live to see any of our other allies arrive.”
“I understand,” said Engers, quietly.
“Go on,” said Greeve. “We’ll discuss the duarchs at length once we’ve gotten things moving around here.”
Engers walked away as Greeve stumbled back to his bed, and Bax fell in behind him.
As the duarch pulled the knife from his gut, Bax felt a sick, hot pain begin to throb throughout him. His fine emissary’s clothes had already soaked all the blood they could, and now he could feel it dripping onto his hands.
He stumbled backwards. Through the red fog that was beginning to envelop his mind, there was some primal instinct to run away, to get back, but the duarch had already grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him in.
Bax felt sudden weakness in his limbs as his pathetic attempts to pull free yielded no fruit. As the duarch put the knife against his throat, he scrabbled against his neck: not to stop the knife, but to grab the box hanging around his neck.
The beetle inside buzzed. This one was for Mealark.
Bax crushed it in his hand and hoped against hope that she would not worry too much about him. Mealark never had been able to calm her nerves.
And then the knife sliced across his throat and Bax could only think of how he was choking, how he couldn’t breathe, how the world was dissolving into red and black and white and nothing.
He stumbled to the edge of the bridge, teetering over the brink, gagging. With a single prod, the duarch pushed him over.
Then he fell towards the water and fell towards the sun, fell up and fell down. A thought drifted across his bleary mind that he should die with a happy memory. He focused. His last thought was of her, of the way her hair fell around her face, of the constant emotion and life she had, of the way she moved and talked and breathed.
With what strength he had left, he reached for the second beetle box around his neck and crushed it. I’m sorry I failed, Janny, he thought. Now stay away from here. Get as far away from this place as possible.
And half a world away, one of the tabula in Janwye’s pack shattered.
Inside the hut, the air buzzed. Chaff sat on the hard stone, pensive, the bricks digging into his skin, waiting for Hurricane or Tattle to say something. They didn’t. Chaff kept his eyes cast down on the ground. He couldn’t bring himself to look in their faces.
“If you need me to find her,” said Lookout. “I know where she is. But I can’t-.”
“Of course you know where she is,” snarled Tattle, and Chaff flinched. In his short time knowing the girl, he had never heard her raise her voice like that. “That’s only thing you’re fucking good for.”
Lookout wrinkled her nose and looked away, but didn’t say anything else. The owlcrow’s screech from on high was audible even inside the hut, though, and it was harsh and angry.
“Amateurs,” said Tattle. “I run a team of fucking amateurs.”
Hurricane put a hand on her shoulder, and immediately Tattle twisted and slapped his hand away. “Don’t touch me, Lonwal,” she hissed.
“What you expect?” he said, his voice accusatory. “You pick gutter rats and kids off the streets. You think you get a crew like we used to run like that? You got amateurs ‘cause you picked amateurs. Ain’t no one’s fault but you’s.”
Tattle buried her face in her palms, and Chaff could see how her shoulders slumped, how she seemed to crumple under some unseen weight. He hugged his knees and traced the tabula on his belt. It was a little comfort knowing that if the girl was ever taken from him like Veer, he would be able to save her.
“She’s not dead,” said Bull, suddenly. The boy had been leaning on a wall in the corner, jaw stuck out, burly arms folded across his chest. His voice was surprisingly soft. “Fieldmen prefer slave over dead.”
“Lucky her,” Tattle said, and there was murder in her eyes as she looked up. “All of you, get out. I need to think.”
Chaff didn’t waste time in sliding over the windowsill and out of the hut. It wasn’t hard to find the big guy once he stepped outside. Wiping crumbling clay off his clothes, he walked very quickly towards the camelopard, still clutching the girl’s tabula tight.
He had barely made it two paces when someone caught him by the collar of his neck, and Chaff flinched. He twisted, arms raised, but Lookout grabbed his forehead and held him at arm’s reach easily.
“You were going to run,” she said. A statement, not a question.
“So?” Chaff said, angrily, trying to pry Lookout’s fingers out of his tangled hair. “You hear her, yeah? Nobody here knows what they doing! I never ever should trust you-.”
“You were going to run,” Lookout repeated. “Like you ran from her.”
“Not my fault,” Chaff muttered.
“It’s not my fault!” Chaff screamed, and he didn’t care that the girl urchins were staring at him as he screamed. He wanted them to know, he wanted all of them to know. “I do as you tell, yeah? I see them come, I run. That’s my job, yeah?”
“Your job is to get us all out,” said Lookout.
“And I get that job today! You throw me into this job TODAY!” screamed Chaff, red in the face. His jaw hurt from shouting and he could feel the blood rushing through his temples. Behind him, the big guy reared and stamped his hooves, tossing his head. “What about your job? You supposed to keep watch out for us, what about that?”
Lookout’s face twitched. The bird overhead landed on her shoulder, its claws digging in tight to her skin, its eyes bright despite the dying sunlight. “That has nothing to do with the fact that you were the one who left her behind. You were the one who-.”
“If you don’t go and try to get closer, it never happens! If you don’t talk to- talk to that slave, it never happens!” Chaff was on the verge of tears now. His fists were shaking. His breath came in great shuddering gasps. The big guy, clearly agitated, had begun to canter to the boy’s side.
“Don’t pin this on me, you dirty, scrawny, little shit of a wild child,” said Lookout, and the owlcrow screamed, a harsh, raucous sound. “If you’re going to blame someone, then blame the girl in that house- the girl with the vendetta and the death wish that dragged us all into this.”
“At least she’s thinking of a way to save her,” said Chaff.
“And you would have helped by running away, would you?” Lookout sneered, and pushed Chaff away. “Go ahead and do it. I’ll find someone better and cheaper than you in no time.”
Chaff choked on his words. He felt so tired. He had felt tired and hungry and desperate for years, and the girl that had masked that for just a few hours had been snatched away. It wasn’t fair, it was cruel, and Chaff had to either blame someone or else believe that the world was just that cruel. And it couldn’t be, not if he wanted to believe it was worth living in.
He put his hand on the big guy’s side, leaning on him for support as Lookout walked away. The bandages around the big guy’s side were soaked red now. They were both hurting. He hugged the camelopard, even as he wished for someone who could hug him back, talk to him, support him, have a face that Chaff could recognize as a reflection of his own. It was a treacherous thought, and Chaff squeezed the big guy all the tighter for it, but he couldn’t help but think it.
He wanted to be friends with someone who owned their tabula. He wanted to be friends with someone who was free.
“It’ll never happen to her, yeah?” said Chaff, leaning on the big guy, gripping the disks in his belt. “So long as we got this, we can find her. We can get her back. We can…” He trailed off, mouth open.
And, in the depths of Chaff’s tired, hungry, desperate mind, lit the spark of an idea.
“Lookout!” he shouted, letting go of the big guy and sprinting towards the girl as she walked away. “Lookout, Lookout, Lookout!”
The owlcrow noticed first, and squawked, and Lookout turned around with a look of utmost confusion. She put a hand on her hips. “What do you want from me now?”
“You- you know where Veer is, yeah?” asked Chaff, breathless. He could feel the pressure under his eyes. He needed to sleep, and soon, but not now. There was no time now.
“Of course I do,” said Lookout, quickly, almost offended. “In the middle of the fucking caravan. But we have no way of getting her out without probably getting caught ourselves, and this time they’ll be ready for us, and-.”
“Do you know where her tabula is?”
Lookout’s automatic response began, but was then cut short. She looked at Chaff, her eyes slowly widening. “Veer doesn’t keep her tabula on her?”
“Yeah,” said Chaff. He stared into Lookout’s eyes, daring just a glimmer of hope.
With a furious humming to egg it on, the owlcrow launched into the sky, wheeling in tight circles that slowly expanded outward as Lookout’s vision glazed over. Chaff bounced on the balls of his feet.
“Do you know where she keeps it?” he asked, biting his lip. “In the house, maybe? In- in one of her favorite places? Where she eats?” It dawned on Chaff just how little he knew about Veer, how much more he could have known if he had just a little more time with her. He would get that time. He was sure of it.
Lookout’s answer was partial and distracted. “She’s got…places. Places that, uh…” And she trailed off, not finishing her sentence. She began to walk forward, and Chaff had to stumble out of the way as Lookout stumbled haltingly down the street.
Chaff looked over his shoulder. Should he tell Tattle and Hurricane? No, it would take too much time.
And, anyway, this was their fight. Their fault. Their battle to win, their chance to redeem themselves.
The boy hauled himself onto the big guy’s back and pushed him on to follow close behind Lookout. Chaff’s mind raced through the possibilities. Where would a girl like Veer, an urchin and a racer and a wild child, hide her tabula, her most precious thing, her one and only resource left to her in the world? Somewhere safe. Somewhere no one would look. Somewhere she could check daily.
She would hide it, Chaff realized, wherever I would hide it.
If only he knew this district as well as he knew his own. Chaff cast his gaze around, his throat dry. How many nooks and crannies would he have to comb? How many hiding places were there in the ruins of the city?
The big guy tossed his head, and Chaff let go of his belt, reminding himself not to channel too much of his emotion into the tabula. It might bleed over into the girl, too, and Chaff certainly had enough anxiety for the both of them. His head was beginning to spin, but he took several sharp breaths, trying to force himself to calm down.
It would be somewhere commonplace, but surreptitious. Not a place people went too often, but a place where no one would question him if they saw him going there.
The whole city pulsed around him. Shira Hay, a chaotic sprawl, unfolded in Chaff’s mind. Where, where, was the best place to hide a tabula in this city?
“Lookout!” Chaff screamed. “What do you see?”
Lookout’s answer was a distracted mutter. “Her friends, her favorite place to eat, where she sleeps, where she walks, the routes she takes, the race road, the rooftops, a quiet place, a quiet place, a quiet place…”
Chaff ran a finger through his hair. How long had it been since Veer’s capture? An hour or two at best. The sun had not yet even fully set. The fieldmen must have figured out by now that Veer wasn’t carrying her tabula on her.
Would they try to break her first, or just kill her?
Thinking and fretting would do no good. Chaff grit his teeth, and despite the sores developing on his thighs and the ache in his legs, he hauled himself onto the big guy’s back once more. It was just like the plains, he reminded himself. This was easier than days on days of endless riding.
“Lookout, get on!” Chaff shouted, as the big guy trotted forward. Dazed, Lookout turned slowly, her eyes unseeing, the tabula vibrating violently in her hands. Chaff reached out to grab her hand and pull her up, and Lookout moved as if she was sleepwalking, brow furrowed, still muttering under her breath. Just how much could that owlcrow of hers see?
“Where to?” asked Chaff, holding tight onto the big guy’s mane. He turned around and grabbed Lookout’s chin, shaking her head. “Lookout, where to? Where do we check first?”
The girl blinked, and she seemed to finally look Chaff in the eye. “There’s the house. Where she sleeps. We could go back and-.”
“Too obvious,” said Chaff, immediately. “Too close to people, too easy to find.”
“She trusted us. She trusted them, at least,” Lookout said. She sounded hurt.
Chaff did not know how much he believed that. She had said so, yes, but to honestly trust someone enough to leave her tabula out in the open for the taking…Veer would have been a fool. “The hut’s not a good place,” said Chaff. “Too easy to get into. Everybody know she live there, yeah? No good, no good.”
“There’s the way she races. We could check her usual routes, maybe she has some kind of hideaway where-.”
“Come on, big guy!” Chaff shouted, not waiting for Lookout to finish. He could not push the camelopard too much, not with the wounds the big guy had suffered from the fieldmen.
He followed the street down where he and Veer had raced just hours ago, the course still fresh in his mind. The evening bustle of the city was beginning to emerge, and even in this broken down corner of the city the people of Shira Hay still found room to mingle and haggle and brawl in the dusk as the Lady Fall’s eye slowly opened. Chaff had to twist and turn through the pods of people, squinting to make out the high rooftops.
Overhead, the owlcrow screeched. A couple people on the street cast wary glances upward, and Chaff in turn kept his eye on them, but in a few seconds they all looked away.
“You see anything?” whispered Chaff. Talking loudly about tabula in a street full of hungry eyes and desperate ears was not prudent.
“Up,” said Lookout, her response terse. Her finger drifted as she pointed toward the building that her owlcrow was circling over. “Up.”
“Take care of the big guy, Lookout,” Chaff said, hopping off the side of the camelopard. “Take care of Lookout, big guy!”
The camelopard brayed an affirmative, although Lookout said nothing else.
Chaff had to feel the handholds out, rather than see them, in the dim light. It was hard work, groping blindly at the stones until his hand found a grip that might not even be sturdy enough to hold his feet. Chaff was glad that all it took was the light of the sun to dispel his blindness. He didn’t think he would have risked the climb if it was for any other reason.
His bandaged hands and feet provided enough traction that Chaff made steady progress. He felt, rather than saw, the stares of other junior Kennya Noni fighters watching him from below, wondering if they dared to challenge this newcomer, but while the danger of a daytime race was thrilling, the danger of a nighttime race was just foolhardy. It was not worth the risk.
All the same, Chaff kept a wary eye on the bare-sleeved racers down below. Some of them, no doubt, had nothing left to lose.
He hauled himself over the lip of the roof, his muscles aching in protest as he tumbled over the side. He laid on the flat clay, breathing heavily, ignoring his spine’s fervent protests as he curled up into a sitting then standing position. The owlcrow landed in front of him, flapping its wings as its claws clicked on the clay, and Chaff did his best not to flinch as he looked into its beady eyes.
“Lookout, where?” he asked, half-shouting in case she needed to hear him from below. The owlcrow preened its feathers once before, with a sudden jerk, hopping and flapping towards an alcove on the roof.
Chaff nearly tripped over his own feet as he ran to the odd depression, and he stuck his hands into the shadows, feeling for something, anything, that felt like a tabula. If he looked at it from the right angle, there was the glint of something in the shadows…
He pricked his hand on something sharp and metal and winced, withdrawing reflexively. A thin line of red oozed down his palm and, grimacing, Chaff reached in with his other hand just to see what it was. It wasn’t a tabula. Tabula didn’t cut.
His heart sank. Just a shattered piece of bronze, from some pot or pail, the hoardings of a spring magpie or some such creature.
Chaff threw the shard aside, and the thin, corroded metal cracked on the tiles. He looked around, trying to quell the fluttering in his chest. It was one roof. There were many more to search.
There were so many more to search.
Chaff could almost feel his own pulse inside his fingers as he climbed back down. It would have been so much easier to let go and fall, but he made the painstaking climb until his feet touched the cold, unyielding ground.
“Where next?” asked Chaff. He tried to climb onto the big guy’s back again, but his legs folded under him before he could. He knelt in the middle of the street, not caring how vulnerable he was, not caring the weakness he showed. He was just so tired.
Lookout stared at him for a while. “I know you’re exhausted,” she said, finally.
Chaff didn’t have the energy to come up with a reply.
“There are too many places. Too many hiding holes in this rotten city, too many streets where Veer liked to go. She never stuck around much in one place.” Lookout paused. “Chaff, it’d be easier to just take Veer back than try and find where she hid her tabula.”
He glared at Lookout. “We’re not giving up,” he said.
Lookout seemed like she wanted to say something testy. Her face twitched as she opened her mouth to speak, but after a moment looking at Chaff, she just said, “OK. We’re not.”
Holding tight onto the big guy’s side, Chaff hauled himself up. “Where now?”
The girl shook her head. “I don’t know,” Lookout said, haltingly. Her voice caught as she said it. “There are too many good places in this city to hide a tabula.”
“I don’t care about good places to hide it,” said Chaff. “Where would Veer hide it?”
“I don’t know,” said Lookout, and Chaff turned to look at the girl’s face contorted in frustration. “I’ve never known- I don’t- Tattle’s always been better with people than me. I just see things. I can’t see inside people’s heads.”
Chaff looked at the ground. There didn’t seem to be anything else to say. The owlcrow flapped overhead, on its lonely patrol in the crepuscular gloom.
Abruptly, Lookout gasped. “They’re moving,” she whispered.
That made Chaff look up. Lookout’s owlcrow had flapped away, screeching, and the boy’s head snapped around to see where it was going. “Who’s moving?”
“The caravan,” said Lookout, hoarsely. “The fieldmen. There’s…there’s an elector with them. Inviting them…somewhere. Gesturing towards the river, towards the bridges, towards the Libraries, towards…oh, shit.”
“Lookout, what is it? Tell me,” hissed Chaff.
“The duarchs. They’ve come out of the towers. They’re getting ready to talk with emissaries.” Lookout choked on a strangled sob, and Chaff’s eyes widened. “We’re out of time. The robbery, the rescues, everything. There’s not enough time.”
Chaff licked dry lips. The echoes of three years ago still seemed to haunt him.
“I know you’re tired, big guy,” said Chaff, rubbing the camelopard’s neck. “But we got to go fast one last time tonight, OK? Just one last time.”
The big guy nodded once, twisting to turn back towards the river.
“Hold tight, Lookout,” said Chaff, lowering his body and gripping the camelopard’s mane. The camelopard started at a slow trot, sidestepping around the pedestrians on the crowded street, but Chaff could already feel the wind starting to stream around his face.
It had worked last time, hadn’t it?
Chaff had barely re-entered the slum where their headquarters were situated when someone stepped in his way. The big guy reared and pranced aside as Bull stood in front of them, bent low as if he was going to tackle the camelopard to the ground.
“Where you guys go?” said Bull, his voice low and guttural. His lips curled like a dog’s as he spoke. “You skipping on us?”
The beginnings of an indignant reply built up in Chaff’s head, but before he could think of something to say Lookout spoke over him. “Bull, they’re moving. The fieldmen are moving! Tell Tattle that we have to-.”
“There’s no need for messages, I can hear you from here,” said Tattle, pushing the door open with her shoulder. She looked odd, standing outside, her skin oddly pale and her hair thin. Inside the hut, there had been a courtly aura to her; now, she looked like any other homeless urchin, except she stood a little taller and spoke a little louder.
Hurricane followed close behind her, and Chaff noticed a reversal there as well. Inside, he had been Tattle’s lackey. Outside, he was a brooding menace.
Tattle clapped her hands together. “Details, Lookout, details!”
“They’re at the bridge now,” she said, closing her eyes. “The electors are standing at the middle while the fieldmen are waiting at one end, on our side of the river. It looks like…like the duarch- no, the arbiters are talking with the farmer lord, the one in the shawl. No one’s moving much. There’s a crowd gathering.”
“What now?” asked Hurricane, low enough so that it was directed only at Tattle but loud enough that the rest of them could hear. “Do we go through with it?”
Blinking rapidly, Tattle twitched her head, as if she was shaking off some buzzing pest. “Through with the plan? We got our supplies. We got a fucking lionox’s weight in stones inside, we got months’ worth of preparation. I know each and every alsknight on that fucking wagon train like they were born in the same hollow as me. I been working this plan over for- for years.” Tattle shook her head again. “And everything that’s happening right now just about fuck that all over twice, so you know what? We’re improvising.”
Tattle kept running her hands through her hair as she looked around, walking into the center of the triangle that Hurricane, Bull, and the big guy formed. “Lookout, scoot up. Lonwal, get on. We have to move fast.”
Hurricane grit his teeth. “I can run faster than-.”
“I need you fresh, ready for action,” said Tattle. “Don’t worry, I can think while I run.” She turned around. “Bull…Bull, you stay on the ground with me.
The boy raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Because you’re fat and you won’t fit and you need the exercise anyways,” said Tattle, exasperatedly. “Now come on, get moving.”
As Hurricane clambered onto the big guy’s back, Chaff gripped the big guy’s tabula and nudged him forward. The tabula began to hum as he lent what strength he had to the camelopard, and the big guy ran forward at a steady pace despite the unprecedented amount of weight on his back.
The hum of two tabula at once was enough to make it feel like the air was buzzing around them. “There’s too many people around the bridge, Tattle, we’re never going to be able to get close,” said Lookout, eyes closed.
“Alright, good,” shouted Tattle, a little breathless as she dashed through the streets. Chaff could see it now; streams of curious watchers gathering towards the Libraries. “Getting close isn’t part of the plan!”
“There’s a plan?”
“There will be! And getting close won’t be part of it!”
They ran, and while Chaff had no idea where the next step would take him, it was better than not moving at all.
People had gathered around the bridge, and they whispered and muttered at the solemn congregation of electors at the center of the bridge. Chaff stopped the big guy once the crowds grew too thick, and nodded to both Lookout and Hurricane to disembark. He rubbed the big guy’s neck as he got off, and whispered, “You did good, big guy.”
The big guy shook his head and nickered.
“Shoo, now,” said Chaff, pushing the camelopard away. “Get some rest.” He craned his head back to look the big guy in the eye. “I’ll be fine. You draw too much ‘tention anyways, yeah? Go and eat and sleep and all that, yeah? I call if I need you.”
The camelopard trotted away, wading through the growing tide of spectators.
“Lonwal! Lookout!” shouted Tattle, as she shouldered her way towards them. A clearing opened around the group; no one wanted to stand too close to an urchin, for any number of reasons.
“Planned out yet?” said Hurricane, taking Tattle’s hand and pulling her forward through the last press of bodies. Bull followed in the gap close behind.
“Still working on it,” said Tattle, breathlessly. “Lookout, I need eyes.”
“You got them,” said the girl, and her voice had lifted back up to her old, confident self again. Chaff stared. The change had been so sudden. “What am I looking for?”
“Wagons, near the bank. See them? Half the alsknights are there, half the alsknights are escorting the big shot fieldmen. She’s…” Lookout stopped talking for a moment. “Never mind,” she said hoarsely.
Chaff opened his mouth to press for more details, but Tattle stuck a palm over it and glared at him. “Walsh?” she asked, after Chaff closed his mouth and looked away.
Walsh? Chaff thought. “With her,” said Lookout. “Same state.”
Tattle nodded. Sweat beaded down her red cheeks. “Tell me what the electors are going to do.”
“It’s formal,” said Lookout, closing her eyes tight. Chaff looked up, and saw that her owlcrow wasn’t the only one flying overhead. A menagerie of screeching, flapping things ducked and wheeled over the bridge. How many were watching with just their own eyes? “It’s public, too. They’re waiting for people to gather, but I doubt they’ll wait much longer. By the Ladies Four, both the duarchs have come out of the towers. Kobarr and Teyya Lay are all dressed up and everything.”
“What does that mean?” Chaff asked, before he could stop himself.
Lookout opened her eyes, and the humming Chaff had long ago stopped noticing fell silent. “They wouldn’t need something this public for a refusal.” She gulped. “I could be very wrong. But I think it’s more likely than not that Shira Hay is going to war.”
Tattle cast a dark look around. “These people aren’t going to be happy about helping fieldmen…” she muttered. Her eyes lit up. “Which is a good thing.”
“Everyone here gets all angry,” said Chaff. “That’s a lotta angry people. How’s that good?”
“This isn’t going to be clean, Chaff,” Tattle said, shaking her head. “But we’ve got an opportunity here and I mean to use it. Bull, Lonwal, get to the edge of the crowd.” Her gaze flickered from Bull’s adolescent face to Hurricane’s near grown old one. “Bull, you go first. Lonwal, stay back. They might still recognize you. I’ll join up with you in a bit, the timing on this one is going to be tricky.”
Terse nods from the both of them, and they set off. “Lookout, stay with me now,” said Tattle, and she had to raise her voice to be heard over the growing chatter of the crowd. “We’re going to give a lot of people a lot of reasons to be angry.”
“And me?” asked Chaff.
“Saving you for last, new kid,” said Tattle, smiling. “Remember what I told you? One race, that’s it. You get out there, by the river, and you wait. Don’t summon your pet yet, I don’t want anyone noticing you until it starts. And when it does, I want you to grab whoever Lonw- Hurricane tells you to grab and run, got it?”
It was simple enough, but Chaff felt that there was some piece of the plan he wasn’t getting. “How will I know when it starts?” Chaff shouted. It seemed like every man and woman, slave and wild, had come out to the bridge now. Were the electors waiting for the whole city to come out?
“Oh, trust me, you’ll know,” said Tattle. “Get going, it’s going to be impossible to get anywhere soon! Come on, Lookout, with me!”
Tattle slipped away, worming through a crack in the push and shove, but Chaff grabbed Lookout’s hand as she turned to leave.
“Lookout!” said Chaff. He met her eyes. “Before we goes, I got to know—what’s with you guys? Who are you, really? ‘Cause you sure ain’t like any urchin I ever see.”
Lookout just smiled, and ruffled Chaff’s hair. “Neither are you. Make it out of this alive and I promise I’ll tell you.”
And she slipped away, leaving Chaff alone, to be buffeted by the surge of onlookers.
Chaff was small enough that navigating the crowds was no great difficulty. He had to duck to make his way through a collection of dirt-smeared nomads, stumbling out into the fringes of the crowd where he could walk unobstructed. He straightened himself, looking for a good place to wait.
At that point, he heard a familiar voice.
“Wazzat? That Stink?”
Chaff froze. His hand fled to his tabula immediately, but he remembered Tattle’s warning. He couldn’t draw attention to himself. Not now. Now until…whatever it was started.
Hook sauntered up to him, grinning ear to ear. The smile didn’t reach his eyes, though, which were bloodshot and wide open. Scrabble wasn’t with him anymore, although lanky Shimmy, a year or two older than Chaff, walked close behind, and Chaff could see Crook watching from the roof.
“What’sa matter, Stinky?” said Hook, swinging the tabula on a string in front of him. He had not yet found a replacement rod, it seemed. “Where your boooyfriend now?”
“No trouble, yeah?” said Chaff, backing up to the safety of the crowd, but like a tide the spectators watching seemed to be pulling away from him.
“No trouble, sure. No hard feelings,” said Hook, and Chaff knew from experience that it was a complete lie.
“Come on, Hook,” said Chaff, grinning weakly. “Big two gon’ say something. Let’s have a look-see listen, yeah?”
He saw Hook’s hand coming but was still too slow to get out of the way. Hook grabbed him by the collar, his face twisted in a mocking smirk. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said. “Look-see listen, alright.”
Chaff closed his eyes. Fighting back would just prolong what was coming, and he needed it to be over quickly.
And then, like the angel voice of the Ladies themselves, Chaff heard the criers shouting, “There will be silence!”
Hook looked up. He didn’t let Chaff go, but he didn’t move either. A hush of anticipation fell over the crowd, and the sudden quiet was almost eerie. All Chaff could hear was the screech of the birds overhead, the seep of the river as it sucked at the pebbles on the shore.
Chaff turned to look and saw two silhouettes standing alone in the center of the bridge. The first man’s voice echoed as he spoke. “Bax of Alswell,” he said, his voice clipped, pointed, and harsh. “I am Kobarr, duarch of the grove that does not move. You speak for Engers of Alswell, whose liege is the farmer Greeve.”
The second man’s voice wheezed, but still his voice carried over the hushed masses. “Bax of Alswell,” he said. “I am Teyya Lay, duarch of the grove that does not move. Your intent is to make Shira Hay an ally against the aggressor Banden Ironhide. Make your case.”
As the Alswell emissary stepped up and began to speak, Chaff recognized it as the same tired speech each of the fieldmen had shouted over Shira Hay for so many weeks. A disgruntled muttering built up among the crowd, and the sudden torpor that had come over them broke slightly.
As people began to move, someone emerged from the fringes. Chaff turned to see Lookout glaring, and closed his eyes. As much as he was glad to have someone on his side, he did not know how good Lookout was in a fight.
“Violence while the duarchs are speaking?” she said, her nostrils flared wide, as the fieldman continued to argue his case. She had affected a different tone of voice, and stood like Tattle, tall and imperious. To his surprise, it seemed like Lookout pretended not to notice Chaff.
And, to Chaff’s even greater surprise, Hook looked down. “Sorry-sorry, ma’am,” he said, backing away, although Chaff could tell he was smoldering. “We was just-.”
“Just what? Are you prepared to make a thorough and convincing case, boy?” said Lookout. Chaff blanched. Boy? Lookout looked barely a summer older than Hook.
“Nothing, elector ma’am,” stuttered Hook, and then Chaff knew.
It was the scarf, the beige scarf around Lookout’s neck. Chaff had almost stopped noticing it, but to Hook, it must have been the first thing he saw. Poor, stupid, simpleton Hook, who did not know that the scarves of the electors were always red, who did not know that women had not been electors for centuries in Shira Hay.
“Leave,” hissed Lookout. “Before you cause further disruption.”
Hook backed away, gesturing for Shimmy to follow. Chaff saw Crook disappear over the lip of the rooftop, and Chaff’s shoulders slumped as he breathed a sigh of relief.
“How did you know?” he began, and Lookout just smirked. Chaff took Lookout’s hand gratefully to stand up. “Who says you’re bad with people?”
He saw Lookout smile before she tried to hide it. “Shut up, before a real elector notices.”
“Where’s Tattle?” whispered Chaff. “You done what you had to do, yeah?”
“Tattle’s with the boys, she’s waiting for the right time to get them moving,” said Lookout. “And I did the best I could.”
Chaff fell silent, as the fieldman Bax concluded his speech. He could only hope that the best Lookout could do was good enough.
“We have considered your argument,” said the first duarch, Kobarr, and from the speed with which he said it was clear that they had already come to a decision beforehand. “And we have decided thus.”
“Bax of Alswell,” said the wheezing one, Teyya Lay. “Approach to receive your arbitration.”
From afar, Chaff could only see the silhouette of the fieldman as he walked forward. He made a dramatic figure against the sun setting over the river.
“So what’s the plan?” hissed Chaff.
“The moment the duarchs announce that Shira Hay is joining the war,” said Lookout. “There’s going to be some…shall we say, discontent. Tattle’s going to take that and see if we can start a small riot with it.”
Chaff’s eyes widened. “A small riot?”
Lookout shrugged. “Just enough to distract the fieldmen. Just enough to grab Veer and Walsh in the chaos. It’s the best plan we got. By the Ladies, it’s the only plan we got.” She hunched. “Shh, get ready, he’s almost there.”
“Alswell is a nation of great bounty,” said Teyya Lay. “Alswell is a nation of peace. This, we know to be true.”
“Here it comes…” muttered Lookout.
“However,” said Kobarr, and Chaff saw a sudden look of consternation flash across Lookout’s face. “Alswell’s peace is one founded on oppression.”
“Alswell’s bounty is one hoarded from the hungry,” said Teyya Lay.
“You have not respected our borders.”
“You have offended our people.”
“You have been arrogant in times of prosperity.”
“You have been self-righteous in times of need.”
“This is our answer, Bax, who speaks for Engers, whose liege is Greeve,” said Kobarr, and before the emissary could run the duarch grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him in close. “Shira Hay will go to Alswell, and Alswell will burn.”
Chaff saw the glint of the knife for just a second before he heard the strangled, gargling choke of the fieldman who had spoken so eloquently. There was a dead silence as the emissary staggered away and tumbled over the edge of the bridge, and a collective breath being held as he fell down, down, down to the water. He hit the river with a dull splash, his blood mingling with the orange light of the sun bleeding over the horizon.
And then everything fell apart. Immediately, the crowd roared, some in outrage, some in shock, but many more in celebration. The solemn cluster of electors on the bridge moved into action, pulling from beneath their great cloaks weapon after weapon, as tabula buzzed and hissed all across the riverfront. Both groups of alsknights reacted immediately, mounts stampeding over civilians who had become casualties of war, and over it all Chaff could hear the high cry of the fieldman noble shouting, “Away! Away! Out of the city!”
Mouth dry, Chaff reached for his tabula. He needed to keep the big guy safe from the chaos. He turned to Lookout, eyes wide. “What now?”
“Now?” Lookout shook her head. “Now, we really have to improvise.”
Veer jerked Chaff’s head to the side, holding his face so that he had to look directly at the caravan of wagons trundling down the road. “You see, you see it?”
Chaff nodded, standing on the big guy’s back to get a better look. The bright colors and floral lace of the Alswell wagons stood out plainly among the more conservative Shira Hay tarps, and that wasn’t even mentioning the entourage of alsknights walking beside them. They weren’t exactly subtle.
“The caravan moves about once every two or three days, to a different part of the city,” said Lookout, dangling her feet over the edge of the roof. Her owlcrow wheeled overhead, and Lookout had a glazed, distracted look in her eyes as she flipped its tabula over and over in her hands. “Dense areas, mostly, where the most people pass per day. Places where they got a lot of listeners. Unfortunately, also places with a lot of witnesses.”
She stood up, and beckoned from above. “Come on, keep moving. We need to follow them to know where they’re going to stop next.”
Chaff squinted as Lookout rose and walked away backwards, still flipping the tabula in her hands as she skipped without looking back over the gap in the roofs. His gaze followed Lookout, then the owlcrow, which was still circling in the overcast sky, beady eyes glinting.
“You see what he sees, yeah?” said Chaff, as he hopped off the big guy and walked down the street to keep pace.
Lookout just grinned. “Sharper than you look,” she said.
Chaff’s hand edged back towards the tabula at his belt. It would have been a great help to see what the girl saw; it would do no end of good in helping find her. Chaff just wished he knew how to do it.
The boy looked back up at Lookout, the question forming on his lips, but the girl had already looked away. The conversation was over. Chaff wasn’t going to ask any more questions, not if he didn’t want to arouse suspicion.
As Chaff’s hand left the tabula, he felt, not for the first time, his curiosity prickle. He had had no idea tabula could borrow the vision of others; what else could the little amber disks do? What power did they hold?
And why did everyone have one?
Chaff felt like he was looking into the hollow of a hollow, at a thousand glittering amber disks beckoning to him, so many details inside of details that they threatened to overwhelm him. Asking why people had tabula was like asking why people were alive at all.
“You coming or nope-not, Chaff?” said Veer, punching Chaff’s shoulder. She giggled. “Don’t think so hard, I think I see-see your brains leaking out yo’ ears.”
He did his best to laugh, but he couldn’t bring himself to meet Veer’s eyes.
The path they took led down to the waterfront. Chaff did his best to hide behind the big guy and sneak past the stalls without the alsknights noticing, but when he saw Veer walking boldly down the road he straightened and followed behind her.
“They don’t care about us, yeah?” said Chaff, just to make sure, in a hushed whisper. His eyes never left the lances in the fieldmen’s hands. “They not gonna hurt us?”
“Too proud,” said Veer. She spoke normally, as they followed close behind in the little bubble of space the caravan left in its wake. “That’s what Hurricane says. Them in their shawls and silks don’t give a shitting shit about urchins like us.”
Chaff rubbed the big guy’s side, and felt the camelopard twitch at his touch. No matter how tender or frequent his apologies were, wounds had been left by his abrupt command of the beast. “What about big guy? Last time they saw him they wanted to…to…”
“Take him? They’d done do it, too, if they thought no one would see.” Veer clapped Chaff on the back. “They wouldn’t-won’t in the street. The farmers need Shira Hay. Ain’t no nomad gonna help them if they see the fieldmen ‘tack us on our turf.”
Chaff wasn’t entirely sure what Veer meant by that; he had been on both sides of attacks by fellow plainsmen in Shira Hay, and no one seemed to have any problem with that. He supposed that was what Hadiss called politics.
“What about when they think no one is watching?” asked Chaff, as the street opened onto the banks of the Gammon. A man wearing a shawl that went all the way down to his elbows barked orders to his men, and then reclined back inside his palanquin. Veer took a step back at that, and Chaff followed her cue, hiding in the shadows beneath the eaves of a riverfront shop.
“If no one’s watching,” said Veer, darkly. “It’s them that should be worried, not us.”
Chaff didn’t ask any more questions after that. He retreated into the corner, brushing the big guy’s hair, eyes flickering around. They were near the edges of the sprawling library complex, a couple minor bridges spanning the river, cheap imitations of the Gammon. A couple off-streets provided ample space for Chaff to duck in and hide, although he didn’t know if the big guy would fit, and worst case scenario this section of the river had a long open space for the big guy to run. In his experience, the big guy could outrun just about anything so long as nothing else got in the way.
Lookout dangled her feet from the rooftop above them. “We do this every few days,” explained Lookout. “Keep tabs on where they are, what they’re doing, what their pattern is. Veer, how you doing?”
“Done-doing fine,” the urchin girl said, her tongue poking through the hole in her teeth as she surveyed the caravan with furrowed eyebrows. She didn’t say anything else.
“Veer looks for ways in, Bull and Hurricane take notes on who they might have to fight, and I…well, I look out.”
“What am big guy and I supposed to be doing?”
“You are our new runaway guy. You look for quick exits, escape routes, anything that can get us out of here in a hurry if things get messy- and I guarantee that things will get messy.”
Chaff chewed his lip. “Well, how does you know that?”
“’Cause I know a lot more about this business than you do,” said Lookout, and she seemed almost smug about it.
The boy scoffed, and turned aside. Look for exits? He had already done that. It seemed silly that the urchin’s crew needed someone to do such an automatic job for them.
Chaff yawned, scrubbing his eyes. The pale light of dusk was starting to fade away, and the exhaustion was beginning to catch up to him. The bruises that were starting to swell across Chaff’s sides were no doubt Hook’s handiwork, and two races in one day were proving to be more than Chaff could handle.
“What you think ‘bout-a-bout waiting by the river?” said Veer. “Wait for them to do their rounds, come in from a side they ain’t expecting.”
“They’d clear us out the moment they saw us,” said Lookout, shaking her head. “And if anybody has a winter animal we’re dead in the water. No, no go.”
“What ‘bout-a-bout a listener? They start a shout, somebody shout back and distract ‘em while I go ‘round-a-round back…” continued Veer, in a low mutter.
Chaff spoke up, suddenly. “Who was the old runaway guy?”
“Hmm?” said Lookout, distractedly.
“Who was the old runaway guy? You said I was the new one. Who was the old one?”
Veer looked nervous, but Lookout just smirked. “Go on up there and ask him yourself,” said Lookout, pointing to the caravan. Chaff followed her finger and saw a brown-skinned boy, scrawny to the point of emaciation, wash a bundle of grey clothes in the river. A collar looped around his neck, and the skin in-between his shoulder blades was a twisted mat of scar tissue.
He did not once look up as Chaff stared at him, and kept his eyes trained on the ground and the water whenever he walked. Chaff shivered, and it was not just from the autumn cold. He was beginning to doubt if running with Hurricane’s crew was a good idea after all.
“Take it as a lesson to be learned,” said Lookout. “He didn’t run away fast enough.”
Chaff looked down at the ground. What was the real lesson? If he didn’t run fast enough, would he be caught, or would he be left behind?
It was only his friends that could betray him, not his enemies.
He jumped as Lookout landed next to him with a heavy thud. “Getting tired of this sitting around,” she said, stretching her arms. “You guys up for a closer look?”
“That’s not such a good idea, yeah?” said Chaff, hesitantly. He rubbed his shoulders, and averted Lookout’s suddenly demanding glare. “The boys is always saying, don’t get close to the fieldmen. They work you hard, the fieldmen. Make you so miserable you wish you is dead.”
“You can’t be part of this crew if you’re scared,” said Lookout. She walked right up to Chaff, until they were almost nose to nose, her voice was a low whisper. “We’re doing big things here. You’re either all-in or you’re out, no middle ground. We can’t risk it.”
Chaff quailed, his fingers drumming on the tabula in his belt, and the big guy tossed his head beside them. Chaff’s gaze met Lookout’s, and he saw in her eyes the same manic expression that had been in Hook’s. His bruises began to throb, despite himself.
“I’m in,” croaked Chaff, gripping the big guy’s fur very tightly. “All in.”
An easy smile returned to Lookout’s face. “Knew you’d say that. See? Everything’s good. The way you’re hanging onto your tabula, they’ll never be able to rip it out of your hands.”
Chaff laughed weakly, although his grip only tightened. It wasn’t his tabula he was worried about.
Veer clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry-worry,” she said, smiling. “If I didn’t know no better, I’d say Tattle and Lookout had fallow in the same hollow. Both fallborn, both pretty-pretty smart, both…” Veer gestured, jaw stretched as she searched for the words.
“Pushy?” offered Chaff.
“Yeah,” said Veer, shoving Chaff forward so that they could keep up with Lookout. “Pushy.”
Chaff walked forward hesitantly as they neared the Alswell caravan, still holding her tabula close to him, as if he could shield it with his body. They were so close that he could hear snippets of their conversation, smell the food cooking inside their tents.
“Hey, hey, Chaffy Chaff,” said Veer. She put a hand on Chaff’s forearm and the boy twitched. “Don’t hold it like that. Next time, hide your tabula somewhere safe. It better that way.” She grinned. “No one can take it even if they catch you.”
“Hide it somewhere else? Don’t keep it on me? Like some animal?” said Chaff. He cocked his head. “That what you do, then, yeah?”
Veer put a finger to her lips, and Chaff shook his head and kept walking.
As the big guy followed behind him, Chaff could hear the camelopard’s stomach rumbling. It was a good sign; the big guy’s stomach only rumbled after he had eaten. Chaff patted him on the side, and the big guy tossed his head, a bass rumble emerging from his throat. When he looked back at Chaff, his eyes were back to their lazy, hooded stare.
Chaff smiled. “I like this. Everything normal, yeah? Everything good.”
The big guy grunted in response. It was probably a yes, although Chaff could never really tell.
“What the what you doing, Chaffy?” said Veer, pushing on his shoulder. “Not so-so close!” The ragged urchin girl took Chaff’s hand and led him to the riverbank, into the muddy shallows. “Over by the water, that’s it. They don’t suspect nothing if all we doing is getting a drink.”
Chaff yelped as he stepped into the frigid waters, but he grew numb to the cold within minutes, and the mud felt good on the soles of his feet. The fieldmen seemed not to care that two urchin children were playing in the water, although Chaff caught one or two surreptitiously evaluating the big guy. An Alswell announcer started to shout, his voice high and loud, as dusk began to fall. More nonsense about the tyranny of the one called Ironhide.
The mud sucked at his feet as Chaff stepped around, the water up to his ankles. He made a mental note that escape via the river was only a last chance resort, and laughed as the big guy sloshed through the water. His laugh died quickly in the odd quiet, unease crept over him as he looked around. “Where’s Lookout?”
Veer, standing next to him, looked hesitant to say anything. Chaff followed her gaze, and jumped, splashing water over both of them, when he saw Lookout stepping right up to one of the Alswell slaves.
He strode two paces through the water, with half a mind to walk up and figure out what was going on, when Veer put a hand on his shoulder. He twisted, trying to calm the jitters in his gut, and met Veer’s eyes. The girl shook her head once, her mouth drawn in a thin-lipped frown.
Chaff waited, not willing to speak, searching Veer’s eyes for an answer. The possibility of betrayal loomed in the back of his head, and he could not dismiss it.
He turned back to Veer, scanning the whole scene. None of the fieldmen seemed to have noticed, still shouting at the top of their lungs at passersby in the streets, but if a patrolling alsknight came back and saw Lookout, then that was it. If Lookout was arranging some kind of double cross, Chaff had no easy out.
The boy caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He twisted, already taking steps to pull his feet out of the muck, but then he stopped. It was Lookout who had moved.
She had touched the slave—the old runaway guy, Chaff realized—tenderly on his back. The slave did not look up, did not move, did not react in any way, but still Lookout traced the scars on his skin. Chaff could not see her expression, but her hand moved lightly, daintily, gently.
A new question was in Chaff’s eyes when he turned back to Veer, but the urchin girl just shook her head once more.
And then he heard the shout.
“Thieves near the slaves! Alsknights, to arms!” Heavy leather boots slapped against the stones as the shouting alsknight began to run. “Walsh, subdue her.”
The tabula’s vibration seemed to find its way into the alsknight’s voice, and no sooner had he spoken did the slave boy straighten and attack. There was no restraint in his action, no semblance of technique or strategy. The slave’s limbs flailed violently, so hard that Chaff could barely see Lookout through the foam; he caught one glimpse of the boy’s water-streaked face, locked in its eternal, mournful grimace, before both disappeared under the river.
That was the least of Chaff’s problems. Two more alsknights dashed at them from the wagons, the rustle of their chainmail a sinister steel whisper as they ran. Chaff moved automatically, splashing through the water to haul himself onto the big guy’s back. He reached out for Veer, slippery fingers trying to catch onto Veer’s hand as the big guy reared and shrieked. Even slogging their way out of the river, the big guy was faster than two men on foot…
Sound shone and light echoed in an explosive mess across the river as the two alsknights each gripped their palms tight, and blurred forms galloped out of the foam of the now turbulent river.
“Go big, big guy!” screamed Chaff, using both of his sweating hands to hold the big guy’s tabula. “GO BIG!”
He would not be a slave. Not then, not now. Not until he found her.
There was a clap like thunder as the big guy bounded out of the river, the water around his hooves evaporating into steam as he charged onto the street. The electors emerging for their night debates and the hunters returning from their day hunts scattered as the big guy pounded through the street.
Clinging onto the big guy’s neck, Chaff turned to see the two alsknights galloping after him, their faces cold and intent. Sweat broke out on the back of Chaff’s neck. It wasn’t the fieldmen he was scared of. At least, not now.
Six Alswell slaves pursued him as well, running so fast that each step looked like it was breaking their own legs. Never had Chaff seen someone—something—run that fast. A burly man, with a face so disfigured by scars that Chaff could not even see his expression, reached out as he began to near the big guy, his red mouth open wide as he sucked in breath. He made no sound as he ran but a desperate wheezing.
“Turn, turn, turn, turn!” shouted Chaff, tugging on the big guy’s neck to send him careening down the nearest street, away from the river and into the inner city. The camelopard’s hooves scrabbled on the cobblestones, and Chaff clenched his teeth so hard his tongue began to bleed.
Their momentum carried them in a wide arc into the street, knocking over more than one stall preparing for the evening market in their mad dash. Chaff heard several more consecutive crashes as the Alswell slaves hurtled into walls, buildings, other people. He looked over his shoulder.
It had barely slowed them down a second.
And close behind them rode the alsknights, not even winded. Six slaves meant three tabula on each, and their own mounts. Chaff’s head swam. How was it even possible to command four different living things at once?
His head snapped back forward. The big guy dodged past pedestrians and stalls, not out of any concern for their fellow citizens but simply because a collision would have slowed him down. The slaves had no such qualms; they plowed through the market, and while they moved with relentless strength and speed, they were beginning to lose ground.
The alsknights, on the other hand, were beginning to gain it.
A fall horse leaped so high for a moment it seemed to be galloping on air. The alsknight atop it reached for the mace dangling at his side, and Chaff tensed. He was far enough ahead that melee weapons would have been useless. Yeah?
It was only as the alsknight swung the mace forward that Chaff saw the glint of amber at the mace’s head.
Something exploded out of the mace, hurtling forward with momentum that did not decrease as the thing grew and grew and grew and landed with such a forceful thud that it cracked the stones on the street with the impact.
It trumpeted, long white tusks sharp and glinting, barreling through the street so fast that the stalls literally exploded into shards of wood and cloth as it passed.
The big guy began to move, and the thrill of fear Chaff felt passed through to the camelopard, but nothing either of them could do could prevent the impact. Numbly, as the creature crashed into the camelopard’s side, all Chaff could think was five tabula. The alsknight had shown complete and total control of five tabula without breaking a sweat.
He skidded across the ground, his bruises flaring and screaming in protest. A hot pain began to throb at the base of his spine, and Chaff could see nothing but red and black as he rolled on the cobblestones, trying to get his bearings.
Chaff saw, dimly, the silhouettes of the alsknights surround him: one on the fall horse, the other on some slim, sinuous steed. He groaned, trying to rise, his hand scrabbling over his belt to keep her tabula safe.
The alsknight on the sinuous animal dismounted. Instead of a mace by his belt, he had a sword. He drew it. The blade distorted until Chaff saw four of them, floating in various positions over his head.
And then someone bashed the alsknight across the head and the sword clattered to the street, harmless. Chaff blinked, hope lighting a fire in his hazy mind, but the movement was still too fast for him to see.
Another blurred figure—or was it the same one?—dragged the other alsknight off his mount. More beat the approaching slaves into submission, and the fieldmen in their heavy armor found themselves in a hurricane of quick blows and body shots.
A smile found its way onto Chaff’s lips. Kennya Noni. The fighters of Shira Hay.
“The fuck you think you’re doing?” snarled a male voice, with a familiar Shira Hay twang. “Tear up a whole street going after a kid.”
“Who do you think you are?” shouted another voice, female. “You horde your food, you steal our people, you march into our city, and you expect us to just give you help when you come begging for it?”
“You expect us to die for you,” said yet another voice. “When you go after us on our own land?”
Politics. It was all politics.
No matter how many tabula they had, the fieldmen were outnumbered. Their faces drawn and pensive, they backed away, not quite running but clearly retreating, and Chaff found himself helped up by a myriad of hands as his head finally began to clear.
“Big guy,” he mumbled, staggering to the prone camelopard’s side. His vision hadn’t cleared yet, but he saw red. Too much red.
“The elephaunt gored him good,” said one of the fighters, taking off the bandages on his wrists to wrap the wounds on the big guy’s side. The fighter opened his mouth to say something else, but when he saw Chaff’s expression he fell silent. “He’ll be fine,” the fighter muttered, quietly, and he stood and left without another word.
Chaff knelt by the big guy’s side, too exhausted to even move from their place in the middle of the street. The crowd ebbed and flowed around him, although no one seemed to notice him. They had fought out of hate for the foreigners, not love for him.
His lungs hurt, his legs hurt, his back hurt. There wasn’t even a distinction between what Hook’s beating had given him and the rest of the day anymore; his entire body felt like a giant bruise. He closed his eyes, trying to block out the pain.
Then Chaff heard footsteps near him, and when the drip-drip of water near him grew to be too much he opened his eyes and looked.
Lookout stood next to him, water dribbling from her clothes onto the street. Her owlcrow still circled up in the sky above her, which would explain why Lookout had her eyes closed while her head turned to Chaff. There were red marks around her neck.
“You alive?” she muttered, eyes still closed, her voice low and gravelly.
“Yeah,” said Chaff.
She nodded. Chaff waited, looking around, even as a sinking feeling began to open up in his gut.
He had reached for her when they were leaving the river, but when he had seen the alsknights mounted he had panicked and…and…
“Lookout, where’s Veer?” asked Chaff, hoarsely.
Lookout didn’t speak for a long time. Finally, she said, “Didn’t run fast enough.”
Chaff sat on the ground, his head spinning and his ears ringing. I guess we friends now, Veer had told him.
And only friends could betray friends.
A hyenavulture flapped its spotted wings and cackled as it circled around Chaff, while the spring lizard shuffled forward and hissed, claws digging into the cracked earth. The merchant tapped a wooden baton on his other palm, shaking his head as he walked up the alley. “What are you doing, kid? Never steal without back-up.”
Chaff pursed his lips, unimpressed. He skipped back, hands held behind his back. “I got back-up.”
“Really? I don’t see it.”
Chaff snorted. “That’s a first, yeah?” He whipped out his tabula and focused. The world contracted around him and, in a sudden flash of bright light, exploded.
With a crack like thunder, the big guy materialized in the cramped alley. He brayed, annoyed, swinging his head at the hyenavulture while he kicked at the grounded spring lizard, and Chaff shrugged as he grabbed the big guy’s fur with one hand, the other holding onto his precious onion. “S’not my fault, big guy, he made me,” he said, shaking his head to clear the traces of the dizzying summoning.
The merchant gripped his own tabula in his hands, screaming and shouting, and suddenly the earth began crack under them as the spring lizard hissed, glaring with its one good eye as the bruised other began to swell.
“Let’s go, big guy!” shouted the boy, swinging on the big guy’s side as the camelopard galloped forward.
With a frustrated scream, the merchant grabbed out at Chaff, but the boy swung himself out of the way easily and gave him a smack on the noggin for his trouble.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” said Chaff, holding the onion in his teeth as he clambered onto the camelopard’s back. “I doesn’t like the stealing either, but I has to, yeah? No other choice, yeah?”
The big guy turned his head to respond but at that point his hoof caught on a widening fissure in the street, and he tumbled over, screaming. Chaff curled up on the camelopard’s back and tried to dodge the worst of the impact, but he still bounced painfully off the cobblestones.
Its legs skimming the ground as it waddled forward, the spring lizard flicked out a forked tongue and held its head haughtily over them.
Chaff snarled, trying to help the big guy up as the merchant approached, breathless, baton in hand. The boy looked around. No one walked on the streets except disinterested passersby and other merchants who would have no sympathy for a common thief. On the roofs, though…
“Wazzat? That Stink?” shouted a familiar voice, and a dirt-smeared, sun-browned face poked over the eaves.
“Ooh-hoo, Stink in some bout’a kind of trouble now,” snickered another voice, from the roof opposite.
Chaff held out his arms expectantly and glared at the roofs.
“Hey, hey, you see that birdy-by up in there?”
“Oh, I sees it,” said the first voice, and on the roof the other boy stood. He hefted a rod with a thin string at the end, holding it over his shoulder as he shielded his face from the sun with his hands. “Good eats on that one, uh-huh.”
The merchant paused, his gaze flickering upward. He crouched and whistled for his hyenavulture, which landed beside him with a heavy thud.
The big guy had regained his feet, but Chaff made no move to mount him again. He stood, watching, resolute. He couldn’t show any weakness- not to any of them.
“Take your damn onion,” snarled the merchant. “Next time, I catch you without your cronies.” And he walked away backwards, not letting his gaze slip from any of them.
“You taking the old man from the one side, I take him from the other?” said the second boy from the roof.
“Mm-hmm, mm-hmm,” said the one with the rod on his shoulder, preparing to run.
“Hey, wait, no,” said Chaff, waving his hands. “We let him go now, yeah? Not worth it.”
The boy with the rod swung himself over the roof, dangling with one hand before dropping neatly on the ground. “You still eating that shit, Stink?”
“Told you not to call me that, Hook,” said Chaff, one hand on the big guy’s side. “I’m not Stink, yeah?”
“You Stink ‘cause you stink,” said Hook, still holding his rod over his shoulder. An amber tabula dangled at the end, and swung as he swaggered forward. “Hey, Scrabble, you think he still Stink?”
“He stink awful,” said Scrabble, landing on the ground as well. He brushed off the bandages on his hands and wrists, rolling his shoulders like the adult Kennya Noni fighters did. “It’s the food he eats. I ain’t never seen him eat him some real meat before.”
“Yeah, why don’t you eat meat, Stink?” Hook gave him a not so friendly shove in the chest. “It’s good. You should try some.”
Chaff looked to the big guy, hoping for an answer, but the camelopard looked away pointedly. “I do,” said Chaff. He gestured with his head to the big guy. “He doesn’t so much, though, yeah?”
Hook glared at Chaff for a good minute before his face split in a wide grin. He punched Chaff in the shoulder, guffawing, and ripped the onion from his hand. The older boy took one large bite before throwing it aside. “Come on, Stink, let’s get on back to the boys.”
Scrabble followed, laughing, and Chaff did his best to smile with them. When both their backs were turned, though, he bent down to retrieve his onion. He wiped off the worst of the dirt with his hand and kept eating, his belly rumbling.
“Mm-mm, don’t you no go riding now,” said Hook, shaking his finger. “What you, some Alswell fieldboy?” He grinned at Scrabble and cackled.
Scrabble puffed out his chest like one of the Alswell farmers. “Get up on that pony, boy. Do some laps for me, boy.”
Chaff laughed weakly with them, although he didn’t leave the big guy’s side.
Hook rubbed his hands together. “Come on, come on. Let’s race, Stinky.”
It wasn’t an offer Chaff could turn down. He bounced on the balls of his feet, chewing his lip. “Alright. Alright, yeah. On my mark?”
“Nope,” said Hook, pushing Chaff down with a nasty grin. Chaff hit the ground, wincing. “On my mark.”
And Hook began to run.
Chaff scrabbled to his feet, whistling for the big guy to follow. Hook was scaling the side of the nearest building, Scrabble close behind him.
Heaving, Chaff struggled to catch up. The cobblestones felt hard on the soles of his feet, and he could already see Hook and Scrabble pulling ahead. Chaff had enough stamina to sprint up to them for a few seconds at most, but he couldn’t hope to beat them in a regular race.
He tightened the bandages on his wrists and leaped. This wasn’t a regular race.
He clambered over the stone walls, onto the clay eaves, and up onto the flat rooftops. Up on the buildings, he could almost look the big guy in the eye. He nodded to the camelopard, and took a deep breath.
His legs screamed as he ran forward, but he had Hook within his sights. Sweat blurred his vision, but he kept his focus constant.
There was a gap in the roofs! Chaff leaped, his arms wheeling to keep balance as he slammed back onto the solid stone. He kept running without slowing, his momentum threatening to send him tumbling forward.
Hook was just ahead of him. Chaff lunged, swinging his fist out to catch Hook’s collar, falling forward recklessly. Hook was ready for him; he spun, swinging his fist out to catch Chaff as he was pulled backwards.
They danced, half-fighting, half-falling as they hurtled across the rooftops. More than once Chaff’s hands and feet scraped painfully against the stone roofs, but he didn’t let himself slow down. Every punch and kick carried him forward, even as Hook tried to knock him back.
There was another break in the buildings. Chaff noticed just as Hook swept his legs out from under him; Chaff threw his arms out behind him to catch his fall, and his neck bounced painfully off the rim of the building. Hook stamped his foot on Chaff’s face, sneering.
“Little help, big guy?” screamed Chaff.
The camelopard bit out and snapped at Hook, even as the men and women inside the building jeered and shouted at the animal to go away. The big guy’s teeth managed to snatch the string and tabula hanging on Hook’s rod, and pulled. The urchin stepped off of Chaff’s face immediately to get it back. Hook’s hand snatched the rod just as the big guy was about to pull it out of reach, and there was a moment of frozen silence as a look of consternation crossed Hook’s face.
Then something exploded out the big guy’s mouth, flapping its wings and screeching as Hook yanked his tabula back.
The kestrelgull circled once before, after a short bark from Hook, diving directly at Chaff’s face. He raised his hands to defend himself, flashes of a night a lifetime ago coming back to him, long talons and pure terror.
“That’s right, that’s right,” cackled Hook. “Stinky don’t like birdses, do you? You gonna do what now, run crying back in your hollow?”
The kestrelgull’s sharp beak tore at Chaff’s forearms, and he felt hot blood oozing down his elbows. He tried to back away, but his head was already hanging precariously over a long, long fall to the ground.
And then Chaff saw out of the corner of his eye Scrabble leap over the gap in the buildings. The look on Hook’s face froze, and immediately the kestrelgull pulled off to join him as he began running again.
Everything was staked on the race in Shira Hay: dominance, position, support. Hook might have wanted to humiliate Chaff, but he wasn’t going to lose his minion to do it.
Chaff rose to his feet unsteadily, watching the two run into the distance. He looked to the big guy, who snorted and tossed his head. Chaff sighed, slumping. He might have had a chance before to win, but now his head pounded and his feet hurts and his arms throbbed.
“Come on, big guy,” he said, clambering onto the big guy’s neck and sliding down. “We go the rest of the way together, yeah?”
The big guy’s neck shifted as he nodded, and he strolled away at a reserved, contemplative pace.
Chaff wondered what the gang would do to him when he returned so defeated from the race. At best, they’d take his dinner and make him sleep outside the hideout for the night. At worst…
Chaff buried his face in the big guy’s fur and sighed. It was tiring to think about.
His hand drifted to his belt, making sure none of his tabula had been dislodged in the hectic run. He held the girl’s tabula a second longer for good luck, and straightened his back, cracking his neck and knuckles.
“Hey, big guy, you want to visit Hadiss?” he said, his voice raising a little at the thought.
The big guy didn’t respond.
“Let’s go check the usual spot,” said Chaff, patting the big guy’s back. “Just to see if he’s there. Just to talk to him before we go back, yeah?”
They set off. After three years of living in the city, Chaff still wasn’t sure where the merchant district began and ended. As far as he could tell, people with stuff simply walked out in the streets and yelled for more stuff until a satisfactory trade was made.
It was a different matter altogether with the butchers’ shops, the bakeries, and the inns. Chaff knew where all those were; his breakfast, lunch, and dinner often came from the choicest scraps they threw out, if he could get to them quick enough.
Hadiss liked the bars around the Twin Libraries best (which Chaff knew to be a bit stingy with their trash). They conveniently combined his three favorite hobbies of drinking, reading, and arguing.
Chaff rode along the edges of the river, watching the sluggish waters trundle past under the great bridge. He looked around, his eyes skimming over the crowds to the scarves among them. He didn’t see Hadiss at first; he heard and recognized his raucous laughter instead.
Standing on the big guy’s back to get a better view, Chaff almost raised a hand and waved. He stopped when he saw that Hadiss was with two others. They wore no scarves, but they were grown old like him, big and burly with their tabula hanging visibly from their necks. They were talking together, laughing and joking.
Chaff sat back down. Friends of Hadiss they may have been, but they were still strangers to him. As a rule, he didn’t trust strangers anymore.
He stared at the passing crowds for some time, and watched as Hadiss crossed the bridge with his friends and walked away.
“Let’s get back to the boys,” said Chaff, softly. He yawned. “Tell me when we gets there, yeah?”
Chaff tried to sleep as the big guy rode, but couldn’t do it. He wasn’t as small as he once was, and found it difficult to balance on the big guy’s back; more than that, he couldn’t bring himself to close his eyes with so many people around them. At the slightest bump or jostle, Chaff would start, hands raised in self-defense.
He crossed his arms and sighed, letting the sounds of the city wash over him. As the big guy passed over the bridge, Chaff’s eyes slid over a group of electors holding debate with some foreigner.
“House Alswell beseeches you,” shouted the foreigner, his fieldman drawl thick in his voice. “Even now the usurper king marches to burn the land that feeds all of Albumere. Will you stand by and let this tyrant rule over you, or will you rise up to stop him?”
“A plea of the heart does you no good in the halls of power,” said one of the electors, his arms crossed. “We have neither the inclination nor the ability to assist you. Take your case to the duarchs, fieldman.”
“Duarchs who will not make a decision until they have heard open debate by the electors!” the fieldman shouted, his voice cracking slightly.
Chaff rode on, not listening. There had been quite a lot of fuss in the last few weeks about Alswell, but as far as Chaff was concerned the fields were too far west to be any concern of his. A couple of the boys entertained fancies every other night or so of riding out and living along the border to raid the farms for easy food, but the reality of the farmer’s slave-catchers always deterred them.
“Nothing worth risking becoming an Alswell slave, yeah?” said the boy to the big guy, as they walked off the other end of the bridge. “The boys is stupid, that’s right. It ain’t worth it.” He crossed his arms and nodded his head, even as his belly started to rumble again.
Chaff could tell when he was near the hangout when he saw the crumbling buildings, their inner walls collapsed to form a kind of network of smaller houses. It reminded Chaff of the stables where Loom-.
He didn’t let himself finish that thought. His chest hurt enough as it was.
“Hey, hey, there he is!” Hook shouted, hopping over a waist-high brick wall, Scrabble close behind him. From the look on Scrabble’s face, Hook had ultimately won the race. “What the double fuck taking you so long, huh? You get lost under the bridge, Stink?”
Chaff didn’t say anything. It would be better for him if he didn’t.
He dismounted the big guy and saw others coming out of the ruined buildings, all with the same dirty clothes and dirty hands and thin faces: Clatter, Crook, Shimmy, Spill. All colleagues, even allies at times- but none of them friends.
Hook’s kestrelgull flapped up from behind the wall suddenly and Chaff flinched. Hook grinned, tapping his rod on the ground.
“Maybe he see a birdy and he piss himself. That it, Stink?”
Chaff led the big guy to his corner of the complex, avoiding eye contact with Hook. He stared at the ground, trying to make it clear that Hook was the superior here. If he didn’t fight back, maybe Hook would be satisfied with his power and position and leave it at that.
And then something cracked on the back of Chaff’s head, and he saw stars.
“What, you too good to talk to me? That it? That fucking it, Stink?!”
Chaff put his hands on the ground and tried to respond, but all the wind was knocked out of him as Hook kicked him, hard, in the stomach. No one made a move to help. They just watched, curious.
“You talk big,” sneered Hook, and his voice was livid. The kestrelgull screeched on his shoulder, flapping its wings wide. “You too good for swearing. You tell me what to do. Ain’t never seen you eat proper food before. I don’t like you, Stink.”
Struggling for breath, Chaff croaked, trying to speak.
“What’s what you say now?”
“Sorry,” Chaff whispered. He rose unsteadily to his feet, clutching the big guy for support. He looked up and met Hook in the eye. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” Hook nodded, walking away. He scuffed his bare foot on the dirt. “Alright. Alright, yeah. You sorry.” He stroked his chin, still nodding, eyes flicking from Chaff to the big guy to Chaff again. “Yeah, you sorry.” He flicked a hand in Chaff’s face and walked back to Scrabble.
And then Chaff reeled backwards as Hook twisted and planted his fist into his nose, and gasped as hot blood gushed down his face. He raised his hands to defend himself, but before he could make one move, Hook was pummeling Chaff’s gut, forcing him backwards against the big guy so neither he nor the camelopard could move.
“I’ll make you SORRY!” screamed Hook. “You sorry yet, Stink?! You fucking sorry?!”
Chaff fell to the ground, and Hook began bashing his rod on the back of his head. The wood splintered on the back of his neck, and Chaff curled up, whimpering. The big guy was bellowing, prancing and trying to find an angle to kick at Hook even as the kestrelgull pecked at his eyes and head.
At that moment, Chaff wished for Loom. He wished for her so bad it hurt more than anything Hook could do to him.
“Back off, Hook,” snarled a voice, and suddenly the beating stopped.
“Loom?” Chaff whispered, deliriously.
But no, it was just another urchin boy. Almost grown old now, standing near twice as tall as Hook and Chaff. Chaff blinked. Kids as old as him usually didn’t come around to the younger hideouts.
Hook stood, breathing heavily. He was red in the face, and a line of spittle dangled from his chin. He wiped his mouth, and stared at the older boy for quite some time. The other boys watched as ever, their eyes dark and sullen.
“We was just messing around, Hurricane,” said Hook, shrugging. “That’s all, that’s all.”
“I don’t care. I said back off, skinny bitch.”
Hook snorted and ripped the tabula and string off the end of his now broken rod. He tossed the pieces of wood at Chaff’s feet and spat on the ground, then walked away. The boy named Hurricane gave one glance over the rest of the gang, and they scattered.
He looked down at Chaff. “They call you Stink?”
“Yeah,” said Chaff. He did not feel like saying more.
Hurricane sniffed. “Sound foreign to me. They make fun of you or somewhat?” He held out a hand.
Chaff took it and stood up. Blood continued to drip down his chin, and he had to lean on the big guy to prevent from collapsing from the twinges in his stomach. Nonetheless, if this almost-grown-old wanted him to stand, he would stand. “Thanks,” he muttered.
“You go on and say sorry, please, and thank you,” Hurricane scoffed. “You a ‘ristocrat. Shit, I’d beat your ass too if I was one of them.”
Chaff tensed, hands gripping the big guy’s fur. He wasn’t sure if he had strength enough to ride, and even if he did the older street urchins were always very, very fast.
“That fella o’ yours,” said Hurricane, pointing at the big guy. “He take more than one?”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, looking at the big guy’s broad back. “Never tried it, but…yeah.”
Hurricane nodded his approval. “Well, saddle up then, ‘ristocrat. You coming with me.”
And Chaff watched the urchin boy walk away, wondering what a stranger could possibly want from him this time.