Chaff bounced in his seat as the prayer song droned on, craning his head to get a better look at the frozen pool of water at the altar. It was abnormally cold in the House of Winter, compared to the rest of Moscoleon, and Chaff shivered as the gathered sang.
“The winter has come and the snows have now fallen; we’ve locked all our doors and now we are walled in,” they sang. “So be ready to gather, to pray, and to bless; for now we are more even though we are less.”
At the head of the congregation a man in another one of those funny hats lead the singing, standing precariously close to the frozen surface of the altar. He hadn’t let Chaff bring the big guy in, which disappointed the boy to no end. This was the one building he had ever been in that could fit the big guy.
“Be gentle, show mercy in these troubled times; for a cruel world is the one world where one can be kind. Glory in her, and her shining face! Pray for a quick end in the owl’s embrace.”
Chaff looked down quickly as the pontiff passed, and it was just his luck since everyone else bowed their heads then too. They did that often, at these congresses of the faith, although why escaped the boy.
He sneaked a look at the Lady Winter, made of marble, standing at her frozen altar. Maybe she was supposed to do something while everyone was looking away, but she stood still and motionless, little beads of condensation dripping down her wings. Chaff turned instead to the bowed heads around him.
He didn’t see the girl.
It had been like this all day. Chaff had gone to every House of the Ladies he could find, and not one had her in attendance. He had gone to sunrise prayer, morning prayer, and now high noon prayer, but no matter how hard he had searched he had not found her. Perhaps this time he would actually pray, just to see if it worked.
The pontiff passed again, and Chaff ducked his head.
The singing at last ended. From the corner of his eye, Chaff saw the pontiff throw his head up, saw the stark lines etched on the base of his neck. He wondered how they had gotten there. Once, when he was young, he had carved a picture of him and the big guy into the side of a thorn tree. Perhaps pontiffs were the same. Perhaps someone made those marks when the pontiffs were made of wood, before they had become men.
His speech was concluding. “…and in this game of worlds, may fortune be with you.”
“May fortune be with you,” the congregation echoed.
“Fortune,” said Chaff. A greater power than kings or gods.
He walked against the flow when the others began to trickle out, towards the Lady Winter instead of away. She stood before him, wings outstretched, her face kind but her features skeletal.
The Lady of death waited as Chaff approached her.
A pair of sandals stood by the altar, the leather faded from the hundreds of feet that had worn them. Chaff slipped them on and stepped gingerly across the glassy surface of the ice. His thin pants were scant protection from the cold as he knelt before the statue.
“Tell me where she is,” said Chaff, holding up the girl’s tabula. He traced its single crack, waiting. Was this how prayer worked? “Do you know where she is?”
The Lady Winter had no answer for him, just as all the other Lady Winters in the city had no answer for him. Chaff ground his teeth. Where would the goddesses talk to him, if not the holiest place in Albumere?
“Jova,” said Chaff, staring at the Lady Winter’s face. There was no one left in the House now, except a child servant taking a broom to the floor behind him. “Her name is Jova.”
His gaze drifted down from the statue to the altar, to the ribbon of red laid across the pedestal. He wondered who had left it there.
The House was mostly silent now, but for the scrape of the broom’s hairs and the ambient whispers still echoing across the House’s high dome. Was that Chaff’s own voice bouncing above his head? Or were those the voices of prayers past, still asking the Ladies for answers?
Chaff clasped his hands together. He cleared his throat. “What about Sri?” He put the tabula back in his belt. “I never meant to…I just wanted to say goodbye, yeah? Where is she? Is she OK?”
The Lady Winter just smiled. A sad, resigned smile.
“Hadiss?” asked Chaff.
“Veer, and the rest of them?”
Chaff stared at the ground for a long while. He couldn’t bring himself to say it, but if he wouldn’t say it here, in the holiest place in Albumere, where would he say it? Chaff blinked rapidly, and looked up at the statue of the Lady Winter. Arms outstretched, like Duarch Fra Henn, in the plaza that Chaff had thought, however briefly, was his home.
“What about Loom?” he asked. “Is she…are she and Vhajja…are they with you?”
Just a smile.
The boy bowed his head. He wished the big guy could come in here with him. He felt awfully lonely. “Could you tell what she’s like, at least? Jova?” said Chaff. “If you don’t know where she is?”
“She laughed a lot,” said a voice behind him, and Chaff nearly smashed his face into the ice as he turned to look. The cleaning boy stood, leaning on his broom, watching Chaff with a half-wary, half-bemused expression. “She never spoke ill of anyone. She could tell a dull rock from a shiny rock just from the sounds they made.” The boy looked down to hide his smile. “She’d get up every morning before work to help me train with the zealot’s spear and she’d kick my ass every time.”
Chaff slid forward from the altar, until he was walking on solid stone again. He took off the slippers without looking down, transfixed on the boy. “Tell me more,” he said, clutching the altar wall as he stepped down the stairs. “Tell me more about her.”
A pendant around the boy’s neck bounced as he looked up. His eyes were watering. “She’s dead,” he said.
The next thing Chaff knew, he was kneeling over the boy and his fist had drawn back for another swing. “You’re a liar!” he shouted, and his voice echoed through the House. “Liar! Liar! Liar!” screamed the echoes.
The broom in spun in the boy’s hands and Chaff felt a sharp pain in his chest as the boy jabbed him with the handle. Chaff fell back, but before he could find his feet the boy had put the handle of the broom on Chaff’s neck, right under his chin. “It’s true,” said the boy, breathing heavily. “A patrol of zealots found the bodies on the road. Hag Gar Gan horde riders ambushed them.”
Chaff gripped the tabula in his belt. Cracked, but not broken. “That’s not true,” he snarled, from his position on the floor. “Not true.”
The boy’s eyes followed Chaff’s face to his hand, and the broom handle pushed a little harder against Chaff’s throat. “Who are you?”
What could Chaff say? A boy from the grasslands? A traitor to his friends?
“A martyr,” said Chaff, and he batted the broom aside. He gripped the cleaning boy’s collar as he rose. “Now, where is Jova?”
Chaff felt a sharp pain in his wrist as the boy slammed the wooden handle on his hand. “She’s dead,” said the boy, his wooden pendant dangling from his neck. “Let the dead rest.”
“Where is she?” Chaff grabbed the boy’s collar again, but was rebuked just as quickly.
“You’re going to hurt her,” said the boy. “If she’s still alive. If you find her. I don’t know who you are and I don’t know what you want, but I know you’re going to hurt her.”
“You know where she is, yeah?” said Chaff. “You gonna tell me where she is.”
With a hollow crack, the broom hit Chaff over the head. Chaff had no defense against the assault; this boy’s skill as a fighter far surpassed Chaff’s in every aspect. Years of pretending to be Kennya Noni started to come back to him. He needed to be fast, on his feet, get away…
Don’t run. Not this time. Don’t run.
Here, now, he was going to stand and fight. No more running away. Chaff struggled to his feet, even as the staff hit him squarely on the back. No one was here to help him. No one was here to save him now.
“You’re not welcome here anymore,” said the boy, grabbing Chaff by the arm, but Chaff fought and struggled and kicked, and if he couldn’t win at least he could stand his ground. “Leave!”
“She’s going to hurt you too. If you find her dead or alive, it doesn’t matter. You’re going to hurt and she’s going to hurt you back four and four times over.” The boy hit Chaff in the jaw, and Chaff tasted blood in his mouth. He wasn’t trying to beat Chaff away anymore, he was just trying to beat him, but Chaff would not stand down. “You call yourself a martyr? Fine! You’re going to die for her and she’s going to watch.”
The broom broke over Chaff’s head. His ears were ringing and his forearms were already turning black from his bruises. Blinking stars from his eyes, Chaff struggled to stand. One foot before the other, that was all he had to do. Put your feet beneath you. Stand.
“Now,” he said, wiping the blood from his chin with the back of his hand. “You gonna tell me where she is?”
The boy bent down and picked up his broken broom, the jagged wooden splinters stark in the chill light. He tensed, like he was going to stab. Chaff closed his fists and waited, ready.
“Arim!” shouted a voice from above. The man in the funny hat opened the door to a spiraling stairway, his robes askew. He held his hands up in a placating gesture. “What are you doing? You were to clean the floor, not beat this boy half to death.”
“He was asking about Jova,” said Arim. “Wants to find her.” He glared at Chaff, but lowered his weapon.
The pontiff raised his head and turned to Chaff. “The girl named Jova is dead.”
Chaff said nothing. “Liar, liar, liar,” the ceiling still echoed. He glared at the both of them.
Arim and the pontiff exchanged a glance. What were they thinking? Was it finally time for the truth? “Jova,” said the pontiff, very slowly. “Was last seen going to Jhid-.”
The double doors slammed open. When Chaff saw who it was, he couldn’t help but smirk. Lookout loved her dramatic entrances.
“You look like crap,” was the first thing she said. “You really couldn’t go one day without getting the shit beaten out of you? I get the feeling this happens every time.”
“I think we meet up later, yeah? How’d you find me?”
“Who else is dumb enough to bring a fucking camelopard to every House in the city? You’re easy to track.” Lookout grabbed Chaff’s wrist. “We found someone who knew her. Come on, let’s go.”
Lookout’s owlcrow squawked as Chaff drew back. The boy looked pointedly at the pontiff and his servant boy.
“She leave a mark here, too?” asked Lookout, glancing at the two.
The pontiff cleared his throat. “She was last seen going to Jhidnu.”
Lookout stared at him for quite some time. Chaff watched her eyebrows furrowed, watched as her head cocked slightly to the side just as the owlcrow’s turned, heard the hum of a tabula just barely audible even while he stood so close to her.
“Excuse my language, pontiff, sir,” said Lookout, finally. “But you’re a fucking liar. Have some decency. You’re in a holy House.”
And she took Chaff by the hand and led him away. The pontiff folded his arms across his chest, his sleeves embroidered with crescent moons glittering in the narrowing line of light as the boy, Arim, closed the doors behind them.
“Big guy!” shouted Chaff, as the camelopard cantered up to greet him. The camelopard had been eating if not healthier, then more than he had on that ship. He seemed happy, about that.
“Tired of liars,” said Lookout, as she climbed on the camelopard’s back, behind Chaff. “We’re surrounded by them, Chaff. In front of our faces, behind our backs, even inside us. They’re everywhere, and don’t you forget it.”
Chaff just nodded, adjusting in his seat. The big guy still had no saddle, despite Wozek pointing out a few nice and allegedly religious ones as Chaff had roamed the markets. The camelopard would never take one, and Chaff would never impose such a thing on his friend. “Where?”
“Forward, now,” said Lookout, gripping Chaff’s shoulders. Sinndi took to the air with a raucous screech. “Turn when I tell you to turn.”
The boy watched the streets as they rode. He didn’t talk much. His wounds drew a few questioning stares, but there really wasn’t much to it after Chaff had wiped away the last of the blood from the corner of his mouth. It wasn’t much. He had been through worse, and he felt that the people of Moscoleon had seen worse, too.
Lookout was directing him toward the center of the city. He got the impression that he was going up the closer and closer he was to the great temple for which the city was named, and when he turned to look, the poorer slums of Moscoleon did, in fact, slump beneath him.
“Keep going, Chaff,” said Lookout, tapping his shoulder. “He’s neighbors with the Keep, this one.”
Chaff made a face, and stared at the glossy streets ahead of him. “How do you find him?” he asked. He couldn’t imagine wandering into such an upper-class neighborhood without knowing exactly who he was looking for.
“I didn’t,” said Lookout, darkly. “But Wozek’s just popular with everyone, isn’t he?”
The boy didn’t like Lookout’s tone. Wozek had brought them this far, hadn’t he? And now Chaff was so close to finding her. It was thanks to him. Could it have just been his imagination that Lookout bore such animosity towards him?
“I don’t trust him, Chaff.”
Nope. Definitely not his imagination.
“And you shouldn’t either,” said Lookout. She kept looking around her, as if she was convinced Wozek—or one of his people—was watching. “I’m serious. Powerful men don’t get to be powerful by giving away more than they get. He wants something from you.”
Immediately, Chaff’s hand rested on his belt. All three tabula were there, safe and sound. They would stay that way.
“Not that,” said Lookout, rolling her eyes. “Chaff, if I’m going to be honest with you, no one wants that girl but you. Understand?”
That gave Chaff pause. He felt halfway between offended and relieved.
“He wants you. He wants to know what you are, and truth be told, I do to. You and your little friend.” Lookout pointed towards one of the more ostentatious Houses of the Ladies. It had black and white banners flapping from the sides, and lines inscribed in the shape of an eye over a doorway so tall that even the big guy could fit. “Look at that. This city is the most educated, most holy place in the world. Someone has to know.”
“I thought Shira Hay was the most educated place in the world,” said Chaff, as they passed.
Lookout flicked him on the head, and Chaff squirmed. “You’re missing the point, patriot,” said Lookout. “This is an opportunity for answers. Let’s get them.”
“Is the girl here?” asked Chaff.
“Well…no. Word says she isn’t. And, Chaff, that’s another thing. There’s something about her you have to know. She’s-.”
“Not here,” finished Chaff. “Let’s find her, yeah? Find her first. Then you do what you do, and I follow. But first we find her.”
The humming from Lookout’s pocket stopped, and the owlcrow flapped down from the skies. It turned its squashed face toward Chaff, and gave him an almost pitying look. “We’ll talk more later,” said Lookout. “With less ears listening. We’re here.”
The walls of the estate rose high around them; a stark contrast from the red brick of most of Moscoleon, these were the polished white of marble. Formed from hundreds of porcelain shards inlayed in the stone were the marble legions of the Stronghold, hammers ready while the sun shone above them. Their enemy was less recognizable. Chaff hopped off the big guy and knelt, tracing the carving.
“This one looks like the poltergeist!” said Chaff, pointing and grinning. “From the marsh!”
Lookout turned away. “I don’t need reminding,” she said. “They’re the demons of the deep. They represent sin or some shit.”
Some shit was extravagant. Chaff followed the carvings, and the epic battle that they told until he reached the black-iron gate of the compound, and peered through to the gardens. Slaves clipped the hedges while a dirt walkway led to a somewhat less grand house within. It was still one of the richest houses Chaff had ever seen, with grace and aplomb and all the trappings he associated with richness, but all the same he felt somewhat disappointed. A pompous exterior for a measly interior.
“The home of Latius,” said Lookout, folding her arms. “Excuse me, Prince Latius of the Stronghold, proud servant of King Cecis the Third.”
“But he’s dead,” said Chaff, flatly. “Banden killed him.”
“Don’t tell him that, I don’t think he’s realized yet,” said Lookout, with a smirk. “Go on, Chaff, Wozek and that brusher, Prav, are inside.”
“You don’t come with me?”
“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll man the walls with the big guy,” said Lookout. Her fingers drummed on the mosaic. “You go. You’re the runaway guy, after all.”
Chaff nodded, and pushed the gate. It opened without resistance. “Watch out for her,” Chaff mouthed, once he was behind the walls, although he had a feeling Lookout had seen him anyway. She saw everything.
The slaves didn’t make eye contact. They backed away as he approached. Apparently, the wild child in the elector’s scarf had been expected. He followed the murmur of voices, until he stepped around the side of the house to see Wozek and an unfamiliar man drinking mulled wine by a wicker table. Prav the brusher, standing at attendance behind Wozek, gave Chaff a stony nod when the boy approached.
“There he is,” said Wozek, smiling. “The boy with the quest.”
The man Lookout called Latius watched, and Chaff watched back. His hair was fair, his build muscular. His features might have once been handsome, but his nose was crooked like it had been broken a long time ago, and when he opened his mouth to speak Chaff saw that some of the teeth on the left side of his mouth were wooden.
“Your Jova,” he said, his hands folded around his goblet of wine. “Has gone to the Seat of the King.”
Chaff waited. For what, he wasn’t sure. A caveat. A condition. A fight, even. But Latius met his eyes, and there was no lie in them. Even Chaff could tell that much.
“She went with the fieldmen emissaries who came here some months ago,” he said. His gaze never left Chaff; his eyes were blue and cold. “Off to beg the false king for peace. They never made it, I hear, but the patrol counted only a quarter of their number among the bodies. I am not so fortunate that she should be among the dead. The sinful live on, while the righteous suffer for them.” Latius took a long drink. “It’s a pity Alswell didn’t put up more of a fight, though.”
“Their friends were scattered then,” said Wozek. “But we have come together, one by one.” He raised his cup in a toast.
As both drank deeply, Chaff scratched his head. Things had flipped. “Wozek, I thought you liked Banden-.”
“You look terrible,” said Wozek, loudly, cutting him off. Latius was still drinking. “What happened?”
“Got into a fight.”
Wozek mussed Chaff’s hair. “Your plainsman running tricks didn’t help then, I take it? I’ll teach you how a kazakhani fights on the road to the Seat.”
“I’m finding her first, Wozek,” said Chaff, shaking his head, remembering Lookout’s advice. “I’m not going with-.”
“Oh, but you are. We’re sharing the same road. You’re going to the Seat of the King to find this girl. I’m going to the Seat of the King for my people. And Prince Latius here, well, we’ve been talking and he’s thinking of going to the Seat of the King too.” Wozek turned to Latius, and his gaze never wavered. “The last of the marbleman princes, coming out of hiding to stir up the loyalists waiting in the capital.”
Latius leaned back in his seat, and nodded. Chaff didn’t know what was safe for him to say. If he hadn’t known better, he never would have guessed that Wozek was lying, but Chaff was Chaff and not a prince whose job it was to tell when people were lying.
“He wants to put a hammer in Banden’s head,” said Wozek. “And we…well, we’ll bring goodman Latius straight to him, won’t we?”
Latius raised his cup once more. “To better times.”
“To better times,” echoed Wozek.
Chaff began to walk away, to tell Lookout of the news, but Prav stood abruptly in his path. “This Jova,” said Latius, as he put his cup down. “Is not to be trusted. I hope you understand that, boy. She’s as clever as she is evil. She killed one pontiff and turned another. And once you’ve finished with her…”
Latius reached down. Chaff heard the stone scrape as the marbleman lifted his hammer from the ground beside him, and hefted it in his lap.
“I’ll put a hammer in her head, too.”
The boy gripped his hands into fists. His first thought was that he wouldn’t run anymore. He would fight for her.
His second thought was that he couldn’t beat a cleaning boy with a broom. How was he to triumph against a prince, trained in war?
“We’re all in agreement, then,” said Wozek, clapping his hands together. “We all want what’s best for each other.”
Chaff stared at Wozek, and decided right then that when Wozek had run with his bayman circus, he must have been the knife juggler. Only that kind of man would dare something like this.
How many knives, Chaff wondered, did Wozek have in the air? How many knives did Chaff have yet to see?
How many knives were falling towards him?
They rose above the sea like great sentinels, each of their faces turned to the waters of Oldsea Strait. There stood the Lady Summer, her ladybug wings extended behind her, hammer gripped tightly in her hand. There stood the Lady Winter, cradling a babe swathed in stone cloth in her arms, her face turned with wistful longing to the sea.
Chaff huddled behind the railing, remembering Duarch Fra Henn’s statue in the plaza outside Loom’s home, his awe and surprise at someone so perfectly captured in the stone all those years ago.
Compared to the Ladies standing before him now, that statue was a pebble to four mountains.
“Close your mouth, chil’, you’ll let the flygnats in,” said Drael. Chaff shut his mouth quickly, although he glared at Drael as he did it. The fieldman sailor, on his part, did not look perturbed. “No sight quite like it, is there?” he said, leaning on the edge of his perch in the crow’s nest. “Makes you wonder if us men in all our years really could make something like that, don’t it?”
“The boy’s got the scarf, let him be the philosophical one,” snapped the captain, and Drael ducked his head. “Just keep your eye on the coast and make sure we don’t sink this bucket before we make it ashore.”
Chaff turned back to face the coast, smiling. Shore. He would miss the sea once they landed at the Temple Moscoleon, but the shore meant they had come at last to the world where she lived, that colorful place inside the tabula that Chaff had only dreamed of since he had seen four summers.
Behind him, Wozek squeezed his shoulder. “Truth be told, Chaff, I’ll be happy once we get off this boat.”
Chaff looked up at him, eyebrow raised. Lookout had made it very clear as to why she wanted to get off the ship as soon as possible, but Wozek had seemed at ease during the entire journey. “Why that?”
He leaned in beside Chaff conspiratorially, leaning on the railing. “I can’t look at your friend without getting nervous. Him standing there, I feel the Ladies may strike us with lightning any minute now.”
“Big guy ain’t causing no trouble, yeah?” said Chaff, bristling.
Wozek ruffled his hair. “Of course not. Now, do me a favor and get everybody above decks, I want to talk to them before we land.”
Chaff was already halfway across the ship before he realized that Wozek had technically given him an order. The boy furrowed his eyebrows and scratched his head. It felt like Wozek had played a trick on him, although how the boy did not know.
“Look at all them trees, big guy,” said Chaff, smiling, giving the camelopard, who was sitting down with his knees curled beneath him, a reassuring pat as he passed. A little clump of hair came loose as Chaff petted him, and Chaff did his best to swallow the lump in his throat. The big guy hadn’t been eating nearly as much as he should have, and over the last fortnight Chaff had watched the skin sag on the camelopard’s bones as his muscle melted away. Chaff hugged the big guy, who smelled of salt and rainwater from the impromptu baths he had been given, and said, “Just a little longer. Don’t get hit by lightning while we wait, yeah?”
The camelopard rumbled weakly, nudging Chaff in the chest with his head.
The boy skipped lightly down the stairs, down into the dimness below the ship. Sunlight peeked through the planks as Chaff went down, accompanied by the glow of Armand’s summerflies, buzzing in their glass jars.
They responded quickly enough when Chaff knocked, and asked no questions when he told them who had sent him. Chaff was beginning to like Wozek’s people. They were always friendly to him, always willing to offer help or teach him new things. Bori even ruffled Chaff’s hair as he passed, like an older brother would, and Chaff smiled.
When he came to Lookout’s room, though, his smile faded. He could hear her through the door, gasping and sobbing.
“Lookout?” he asked, timidly, tapping his knuckles on her door.
Inside, the owlcrow squawked, and Lookout said something incomprehensible. Chaff opened the door slowly. Wozek had been to see her quite a lot during their voyage. Was she scared? Had she been hurt? It didn’t sound like she was in pain so much as…
“By the Ladies,” whispered Lookout, the biggest smile Chaff had ever seen on her face. Her eyes were red and there was a little snot under her nose, but she didn’t seem to care. The open porthole was turned toward the approaching coast. “We found land.”
Chaff peered through the porthole. “Yeah,” he said, bemused. “That’s land.”
She hugged him then, picking him up and spinning him around with giddy laughter. “Do you know what this means, Chaff?” she said, cackling as she set the boy down. Chaff stumbled, his head spinning more than it ever had in any storm on the barge. “I can sleep at night without my bed rolling under me! I can walk more than ten feet without falling into the ocean! No more hardtack. No more maggotweevils in the cheese. No more fish. Chaff, I have to tell you something.”
“What?” asked Chaff, and he couldn’t help but giggle at Lookout’s frenzied expression.
“I fucking hate fish.”
Chaff laughed. “Big guy don’t like fish so much either, yeah?” Land, land, land. It made everybody happy, didn’t it? “Come on, Lookout. Let’s go up, Wozek wanna say something afore we land.”
They ran up together, and they couldn’t stop laughing. Everybody always called Chaff a kid, but this was the first time in a long time that he had felt like one.
Wozek was already speaking, his people arrayed around him in a semi-circle. He did not stand higher than them, but they all kept a respectful distance. When he saw Chaff and Lookout approach, he nodded, smiling, a twinkle in his eye. He didn’t seem angry, although Chaff saw how his eyes darted from Lookout to him, and then back to Lookout.
“Get supplies, make peace with the Ladies if you feel the need,” continued Wozek, addressing his people, hands folded behind his back. “They take shell here, but there’s a barter’s market or two if you’re willing to look for them. Don’t quarrel with the pontiffs. Bori, Sevra, if you think it would be wise, there are places for the child…”
Sevra, the woman who had nursed a crying babe the entire trip, held her child closer to her. They had told Chaff, all the way in Kazakhal that they were waiting for the Fallow, that for that reason the child had not yet even been given a name. Chaff frowned. Bori and Sevra had only just grown old from the looks of it. They couldn’t have been more than ten years older than him.
“It is not the way of kazakhani, but…”
“This is not Kazakhal,” said Sevra. “Don’t worry, Wozek. We’ll take care of it.”
“Take all the time you need,” said Wozek, and he gripped the woman’s shoulder. The rest of his people hung their heads in a solemn moment of solidarity. “The rest of you,” he said, stepping back again, “Do what needs to be done. We spend two days in the Temple, and then we’ll head north, by the spice road. Go on, pack your things, we’ll be landing soon.”
The crowd dispersed. Chaff was about to walk away, when he noticed Lookout staring. He followed her gaze to Wozek, raising a hand and waving the captain over, as the city loomed closer and closer on the horizon. “You’ll be sailing back to Kazakhal, I take it?” he said, in not quite a hushed voice.
“Might tour Lowsea for a spell,” said the captain, back straight and tone formal. “Waters are warm there. Might find work there.”
“Honest, I take it?”
The captain shrugged. “No promises, Wozek. I take the jobs I can find.”
“Well, if you find yourself in the Maw, tell the brushers how I’m doing,” he said. “Tell them to watch the Seat. Things are changing for us, captain, I can feel it. The kazakhani will have a place in the new world.”
The woman nodded, her pockmarked face unable to hide her doubt. “To be honest, Wozek, I can’t ask for much better than my place in the old one.”
Wozek chuckled. “You and the big lug both, eh? No worries, captain, you can keep it. The sea’s not going anywhere.” He clapped her on the back, as he walked away. “We’ll talk more ashore, keep this kapaz afloat until we get there.”
Too late, Chaff realized he was staring. He turned away quickly, but Wozek had already noticed.
“No need to hide, goodman Chaff, there’s no need to be afraid,” said Wozek, and Chaff looked up meekly. Beside him, Lookout had not moved. She stood coolly by while Sinndi, her wide eyes unblinking, followed Wozek with her stare.
“What did you mean, about-?” Chaff began, but Wozek put an arm around his shoulder and walked him away before Chaff could finish.
“So you’re here,” said Wozek. He looked out to the steadily approaching shore, his expression almost wistful. Chaff really wasn’t paying him much attention, though—he was trying to turn back to Lookout, although every time he did Wozek would squeeze his shoulder harder and Chaff would have to turn back around. “I heard something about finding a girl?”
Chaff flinched. Immediately, his hand went to his belt, but all his tabula were still there.
“Your altercation with Gopal and Sri was hard to miss,” said Wozek. “I won’t pry if you don’t want me to. I only wonder where you plan on going next. We are here, after all. Have you given any thought to my suggestion?”
“Dunno,” was all Chaff managed to mutter. “You don’t leave for a while, yeah?”
“Two days,” said Wozek, again. His eyes never left Chaff’s face.
“Then I tell you in two days,” said Chaff. He ducked under Wozek’s arm and walked away, and didn’t look back. He huddled by the big guy’s side, scratching the camelopard’s neck while he turned his thoughts away from whatever Wozek wanted from him and instead to Moscoleon. How big was it? Surely it couldn’t be bigger than Shira Hay. Chaff had heard it said many times that Shira Hay was the largest of the nations of Albumere (although it was also the emptiest), but from what he could see the city of Moscoleon dwarfed the city of Shira Hay. For one terrifying moment, the thought crossed Chaff’s mind that, like the great statues, the templemen were a hundred times greater than him.
The step pyramid at the center of the city gleamed as they approached. Chaff squinted, trying to get a better look at the shining point at its peak. Lookout had told him they killed people up there, although Chaff still didn’t understand why. Apparently the Ladies asked them to.
Chaff kept his eyes fixed on that golden point until at last they arrived.
A man with blue lines etched into the skin on his forehead, bare-chested with a length of wool around his waist, waved them over from the dock. The captain waved back, and as the ship came into port, the man raised his floor-length skirt and prepared to board. Chaff watched with interest, eyes fixed on the hat on the man’s head. It was shaped like a bowl, open towards the sky like it would collect water when it rained.
“See that, big guy?” he said, and the camelopard raised his head slowly to stare at the man’s strange hat. In Chaff’s experience, people with funny headwear were often the ones in charge.
“Pontiff, sir,” said Wozek, as the captain stepped aside. The pontiff’s eyes went from the captain to Wozek, but he made no comment. “Is there a problem?”
“Routine inspection,” said the pontiff, with a pleasant smile. Behind him, four more people were coming up onto the boat. They too were bare-chested, with feathered arm bands and long spears in hand.
“Last time I was here, the gates of Moscoleon were open to all,” said Wozek, his smile just as pleasant. “By land and by sea.”
“No doubt they were,” said the pontiff, nodding, as half his entourage went below decks while the other two split up and began looking around above. “But the last time you were here, there was no war in Albumere. The Holy Keep wishes the Temple to remain pure in these troubled times.”
On the other side of the ship, one of the pontiff’s spearmen yelped. Wozek’s spiderwhale emerged from the waters, warbling a deep bass rumble. Wozek himself just bowed, holding out his arm to show the pontiff the way.
Chaff had had enough of waiting. The city was right there, and yet all these people were just milling around, waiting for the man with the funny hat to have his fill of the sights. “Up, up, big guy,” said Chaff, patting the camelopard’s side. “Time to get some food in you, yeah?”
“Don’t let the beast off,” said the pontiff, as he saw the big guy rise. “Not until the inspection of the ship is completed.”
Chaff hauled himself onto the big guy’s back. “Not my ship, yeah? I got somewhere to go.”
“Boy’s got a powerful urge to make his peace wit’ the Ladies,” snickered Drael, as he climbed down from the mast. “Can’t hold his piety in no longer, can he?”
The pontiff ground his teeth. “Not until we’ve looked at the ship.”
“That what the Lady Fall tell you to do?” continued Drael, laughing. “Holy pontiff, got the tattoos and all, fo’ced to wait on the docks and look at some dirty migrant cargo hold. You doing the Ladies’ work, you are.”
The big guy strolled by Lookout, as Chaff sat astride him. The boy’s gut hummed with anticipation as he waited for the zealots to drag the captain’s crates of textiles and Kazakhal woodcarvings up from the hold, and for Wozek’s people to lay out their meager belongings on the deck.
Chaff glared at the woman with the spear as she made him hold out his scarf and book. He snatched them back when she tried to touch them, though, and she snarled, muttering something about wild children as she walked away.
“You’ve some extra tabula among you,” said the pontiff. “People?”
“Livestock, mostly,” said Wozek. “A companion or two among them. We take what we get, in the marsh.”
The pontiff nodded, and Chaff watched the shadows fall across his face as his hat dipped and rose. “Summon them now. One at a time.”
It was a slow and meticulous process. Chaff met Lookout’s gaze and rolled his eyes, and she looked longingly at the dock just feet away and sighed dramatically. Moscoleon’s harbor was nowhere near as busy as Kazakhal’s, and Chaff could only see a small contingent of fishing boats and a single lonely Jhidnu skiff floating in the water. There wasn’t another living soul there.
The kapaz barge rocked slowly as more animals—flapping, hissing and screeching—emerged from the most unlikely shadows and nooks. “Thank you, that’s enough,” said the pontiff. He nodded to his zealots, who stomped away soundlessly. “The Temple is open, friends and pilgrims. May fortune be with you.”
“Fortune be with you,” echoed Wozek, and he whistled for his people to follow as they finally set foot on the soil of Moscoleon.
Chaff hopped off of the big guy once they had cleared the dock. He couldn’t help it. He dug his toes into the dirt and laughed out loud, and danced and spun as he ran off into Moscoleon, the big guy close behind him.
“Chaff?” shouted Lookout. She pointed to the wall, and creaking wooden gates that were being pulled back for Wozek’s people to pass. “The city’s that way.”
The boy wasn’t listening. He waded (actually waded) through foliage so dense it went up to his waist, putting his hands on the peeling bark of the trees, through the leafy fronds of the ferns, over the perfumed petals of the flowers. He didn’t realize that a place could be filled with so much life. In Shira Hay, grass had been as ubiquitous as dirt. In Kazakhal, the grass had been replaced by mud. Here, they had both been usurped by color.
“You do realize that half that shit is poisonous, right, Chaff?” shouted Lookout. “Chaff?”
Whatever Lookout had said, it couldn’t have been that important. “Eat up, big guy!” giggled Chaff, slinging himself on the camelopard’s back as the big guy browsed hungrily.
Lookout jogged up to him, panting. “Well, OK, I guess the upper half isn’t poisonous. Chaff, listen to me. Chaff! Don’t eat anything.”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, distractedly. He wanted to stand on the big guy’s back to get a better look, but the camelopard was too weak for that. The boy craned his head instead to take it all in. There was a winter quiet to the jungle, even if not a flake of snow seemed to have ever touched the ground here, but Chaff could still see movement, hear the sounds. Overhead, a macawsnake slithered through the air, while froghoppers chirped in the well-filled basins of flowers shaped like bells.
This was what the amber shadows of her tabula had been hiding for so long. Chaff felt his gut churn at the thought of having this paradise so close to him for so long without being able to see it.
“OK, Chaff, it’s plenty pretty,” said Lookout. “Let’s get back now.”
“Why you in such a rush?” Chaff giggled as the big guy snapped and pulled at a branch and leaves showered down around him. “You’re looking forward to this, yeah?”
Lookout tapped her fingers on her thigh, looking over her shoulder. Tap. Tap. Tap. “I just got a feeling. You can frolic in the flowers after, let’s go find somewhere to sleep. And something to eat. By the Ladies, I’m starving. And no fish.”
Chaff pursed his lips. “Take care of yourself, big guy,” he said, slipping off of the camelopard’s back. The big guy snorted, too busy eating for a proper response. “You get yourself in trouble, I’m watching, yeah?” said Chaff, patting his tabula.
The boy followed Lookout, wrapping his scarf tighter around his neck and mouth as they approached the gate. Prav the brusher was waiting for them, standing rather stiffly in-between two more of the feather-armed spearmen as the children approached.
“Follow quick now, goodman Chaff, goodwoman Lookout,” said Prav. “Wozek’s gone ahead to look for lodgings. There’s tenements for pilgrims all throughout the city, he says, permanent and temporary alike. Pontiffs will take their tax, of course, but that’s to be expected.”
Chaff was having trouble concentrating on Prav’s words. There were too many things to take in, even inside the walls of the city. Colorful quilt clothes lay across stands where woodcuts and holy icons were hocked like bush meat on a stick. All the buildings were made of a reddish clay, and up above the altar at the top of the great pyramid glittered.
“It’s a big city,” said Lookout, shouldering her pack of things. Sinndi squawked on her shoulder. “You got two days.”
“I got you, too,” said Chaff, and he grinned at her.
Lookout punched Chaff in the shoulder. “Sure you do.”
Chaff breathed deep, and fell in behind Prav, smiling wide. This would work. He was sure it would.
On the first day Chaff learned that he loved the ocean. He loved the feeling of the planks rolling underneath him, he loved the smell of sea salt in the air, and he loved the gentle caress of the waves against the hull of the Kazakhal kapaz barge as it plowed around Oldsea towards the Moscon Peninsula. He was going a world away, and the ghosts of the past could no longer haunt him.
Every day thereafter, Chaff learned something new. Prav taught him how he charted his way across the sea, and how, when the treacherous stars shone overhead, he used arithmetic like the electors to find his way. Armand showed him fat mackerelcod and searobins that he fished straight out of the ocean, although the silent mudmaker would not tell Chaff how it was done or even what the fish were called. Wozek had even let him ride on the spiderwhale’s back as it swam beside the boat, and Chaff had clung onto its slippery skin in a half-terrified, half-exhilarated joy.
Today, he learned how much Lookout hated the sea.
“You want something else to eat?” asked Chaff, watching Lookout’s breakfast drift away on the waves.
“No, Chaff, the last thing I want to do is eat…” grumbled Lookout. She was breathing heavily, and her face was pale and sickly. Surreptitiously, Chaff checked her leg, but it seemed whole and healthy enough. Whatever Lookout’s sudden bout of sickness was, it had nothing to do with her old injury.
“It’s just that you spit it all out,” said Chaff. Shadows under the water nibbled away at the food falling from the sky as he stared. “You gotta be hungry again, yeah?”
“If you try to feed me anything, I will puke on you,” said Lookout. She hobbled away, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “I’m going to go lie down.”
Chaff watched Lookout go, his back on the railing. He looked toward the big guy, who was standing by the mast and glaring unceasingly at the crow’s nest. “How you doing, big guy?” he asked.
The camelopard did not look at Chaff, but one of his nostrils flared. Chaff didn’t know if the big guy was trying to stave off Lookout’s sickness or if he really was just that mad about a place for humans to go that was taller than him.
“Why she sick?” asked Chaff. He dug one of his fingers into his mouth and ran his nail along his teeth. “Something she eats? Am I going to be sick too?”
The big guy had no answer for him. Chaff couldn’t even remember what he had for breakfast; fish were involved, he was sure, although he couldn’t remember what kind. A lot of things were getting harder to remember.
“It ain’t what she et,” said one of the crew, poking his head out of the crow’s nest. The moment the sailor revealed himself, the big guy lowered his head and began waving it side to side, and Chaff got up immediately. It turned out he was mad about someone being above him.
“Easy there, big guy,” said Chaff, putting a comforting hand on the big guy’s side. “Don’t want you knocking down the sails now.” He squinted at the sailor in the crow’s nest. Stubble had grown all around the man’s chin. His skin was brown, his hair was unkempt, and his clothes were both. He wore a single brass stud in his left ear, and looked at Chaff with eyes that seemed much too sharp for a man so filthy. “Who you? What you say?”
“It ain’t what she et,” repeated the man up above. He leaned on the railing of his little platform, grinning at the big guy. “Sea sickness, it be called. The moving and the rocking and the rolling gets to some people. Not you, though, eh? Took to it right away, you did.”
“She gets sick from moving?” asked Chaff, face wrinkled in confusion. “But she moves all the time, yeah? How come now?”
“You ever feel the earth quaking ‘neath your feet, chil’? The shaking and shuddering and heaving is enough to make anyone lose their stomach,” said the man, perched comfortably on his nest so high. Overhead, a few winter gulls circled, and Chaff eyed them nervously. They were perhaps the only part of the sea that he did not like.
He did remember earthquakes. Why, the earth itself had rolled beneath his feet in the Quiet Marsh not so long ago. That had made him sick with fear. Perhaps Lookout was just afraid.
“Storm’s coming, too,” continued the man. “The winds of the Lady Fall tell us, if you speak her tongue. Waves are getting worse. You can taste it in the air.”
“Storms is good, yeah?” said Chaff, staring where the man stared. The sky was so blue it hurt, but if the man said a storm was coming then a storm must have been coming. “Lots of water. Drinking water, not the salty yuck.”
The man laughed. “You don’t know seasick until you’ve been in a proper Oldsea storm, chil’.”
Chaff glared at him. He wasn’t sure what the man was laughing at, but he was fairly certain that he was the butt of the joke.
Leaning back over the railing, the man raised an eyebrow. “Does Wozek’s pup have teeth? You have something to say to me?”
The boy looked down, his cheeks red. He didn’t mean to get caught. He was about to take the camelopard and walk away, when a little voice whispered in his head.
How do you ever expect to get closer to where you want to go, if you’re always running away?
You’re always running away.
Chaff turned around and stood as straight as he could, his chest puffed out. “Don’t laugh at me!” he shouted, up to the man in the crow’s nest. Up at the head of the barge, he could see out of the corner of his eye Wozek and some of the men he was talking to look up.
“So he can bark,” said the man, smiling. There was a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Can he bite?”
“Don’t talk to me like that,” said Chaff. “Or I’ll set the big guy on you.”
The man’s grin grew wider. “He can climb, can he?”
Chaff put a hand on the big guy’s tabula. “I can make him.”
He clapped his hands together and hooted. Chaff stared at him, nonplussed. “Word to the wise, chil’, but tabula can’t make anyone do anything they just can’t do. You can’t make that beast climb no more’n I can make a fish fly.” He grinned. “Or turn a yellow-bellied kid like you into whatever it is you want to-.”
“Will you stop antagonizing him, Drael, you fieldman bastard?” said Wozek, intervening. Part of Chaff felt indignant, that he couldn’t finish the fight alone. The other part felt relieved, that he wouldn’t have to.
“No offense meant, goodman Wozek,” said Drael, dipping his head. “Just teaching this here chil’ the way of the world. You’d think he’s just had his Fallow, the way he prattles on.”
“I can say that about you too,” said Wozek, and he put an arm around Chaff’s shoulder. Chaff squirmed. It didn’t feel like Wozek being so much protective as possessive. “And what’s that I hear about a storm?”
Drael grinned. “It’s coming.”
“Yes, well, tell the captain next time before us,” snarled Wozek, and he spun around, taking Chaff with him. The big guy was about to follow, but Wozek put a hand up. “Chaff, keep the beast here. The boat’s shaky enough as it is, we don’t want to go tipping it over.”
“You stay back, big guy,” said Chaff, doing his best to turn around with Wozek’s firm hand still on his shoulder. “And eat his stinky hair next time he come out, yeah?”
The big guy, who had looked annoyed at being told to stay, flicked his ears and straightened, mollified by the prospect of revenge.
“Of all the things you just had to bring along, it was him,” sighed Wozek, as he led Chaff away. “All the other animals we left in the city to summon on the other side, but the one thing you couldn’t go without…” He looked down at Chaff and ruffled his hair, like a man petting a houndbeast. “Ah, well. So long as it’s just this one time and I don’t have to drag him back to Kazakhal.”
Back to Kazakhal? Chaff wondered Wozek meant by that. Of course, he and the big guy were sticking together. Perhaps Wozek meant that Chaff wasn’t coming back either. He didn’t know where he was going after he found Jova—Jova, Jova, that was her name, Jova—but he was sure it wouldn’t be Kazakhal. Perhaps she would know.
“Pay no mind to Drael,” Wozek continued. “He’s an alsval idiot who runs his mouth, but he means well.”
“He sounds different from the fieldmen I knew,” said Chaff. Drael’s accent was somehow sharper and faster than the Alswell drawl Chaff had grown used to listening to.
Wozek nodded. “Got ears like the Lady Fall, don’t you? You’re right, he’s not your typical fieldman.” Wozek looked over his shoulder at the mast. “A farmer picked him up right after Fallow and brought him to the Seat of the King. He’s only been free for about three years.”
That made Chaff look up. “That was when the revolution started!”
Wozek smirked and ruffled his hair. “Can’t get anything past you, can I? He was one of Banden’s men, that’s right. Only good thing about him, in my opinion.”
“Why-?” Chaff began, but he was cut off.
“Captain!” shouted Wozek, waving towards a woman at the steering wheel. “Drael has something to tell you.”
The woman looked up, nodded, and moved past them without another word. The captain didn’t talk to Chaff much, except when the big guy needed feeding: as far as he could tell, she was capable, intelligent, and diligent in her work. But even if she was the captain, always, always, Wozek was in charge.
“You wanted to say something to me, Chaff?” asked Wozek, after the captain had gone.
“I’s just wondering why you coming with us.” Chaff looked at his feet (clean of mud and dirt for perhaps the first time in his life), and twiddled his thumbs. “It’s weird, yeah? Coming all this way just for me. Bringing everybody with you.”
Wozek smiled. “Chaff, I mean nothing by this, but it’s not all about you. Everybody here wants to go.”
Chaff looked around. Wozek’s people turned their heads away when he stared at them; was it just his imagination, or were they avoiding his gaze?
“We go to Moscoleon first. You’ll finish your business there, and we’ll prepare for our journey further north to the Seat of the King,” said Wozek. He knelt down to so that he could look Chaff in the eye. “We want to join Banden. We want to be part of his revolution. And I hope you’ll join us.”
The boy stared at Wozek, unsure what he was asking. He had never been part of a revolution before. He didn’t know what that entailed.
Wozek put a gentle hand on Chaff’s shoulder, not pushy, just present. His smile was still friendly, his eyes still reasonable. “Your talent would be…appreciated.”
That made Chaff take a step back. Lookout had warned him about this.
Immediately, Wozek let Chaff go. He seemed to have known that he had crossed a line. How did he know? How could he read people’s faces so easily? “It’s OK if you don’t want to,” he said. “I won’t push you. But I strongly encourage you to consider it.”
“Why are you doing it? Do you know the king?” Chaff asked, before he could stop himself. He bit his tongue. He hadn’t meant to sound so impudent.
“I wish I did,” said Wozek, wistfully. “I saw him once, giving one of his speeches. It was like…like having the Lady Summer’s fire poured into my ears. His words made light, his voice burned away lies until all I saw was truth. The Fifth Age of man has come, Chaff, and the time for kings is no more. I want to be part of that. We all do.”
It sounded like a load of nonsense to Chaff, but he had the sense at least to not say that out loud. There was something that irked him, though. “I thought Banden was a king, though?” he asked. Had he remembered it wrong?
“No,” snapped Wozek, quickly. “No. His opponents and enemies are the only ones that call him a king, even as they also name him traitor and usurper. He knows he is just a man. He knows he has killed the last king of Albumere.”
Chaff looked back down. How could just one man cause this much…pain? Banden’s war had pushed Loom to her betrayal. His war had sent the fieldmen into Shira Hay, and his war had sent the nomads out. And what was he even fighting for? Chaff could understand killing someone for food, for clothes, for a bed to sleep in and for the safety of the things that were precious to him. But freedom? Freedom was nebulous. Freedom had never fed Chaff or kept him warm at night.
Wozek squeezed Chaff’s shoulder. “I’ll let you think about it.”
He walked away, and he left Chaff alone, among the bustling crew. The sailors’ face were drawn with worry: not despair or fear, just a tense, tight anxiety. Chaff looked ahead and saw an advancing line of bruised clouds on the horizon. The waves were getting choppier and more violent, and the wind was picking up strength. Perhaps Drael wasn’t such an idiot after all.
Chaff backed out of the way as the crew set to rigging the sails, to turning the wheels, to greasing the hinges or whatever it was they did to steer the barge. By the mast, the big guy was starting to stamp his hooves, his eyes rolling as people ran around and under him.
“Hey, hey, big guy,” said Chaff, ducking around the sailors to make his way to his friend. “It’s OK. Shh. Got nothing to worry ‘bout. Just a little rain, yeah? Maybe there’s lightning. We hold some bark up, get hit, and you eat the burned bit. You like the burned bits, yeah? Course you do. Course you do, big guy.”
Despite the crescendo of activity around him, Chaff felt no fear. How could he? He was by the sea, and he liked the sea. It made him feel safe, even as the clouds advanced and the winds grew stronger.
“I’m not running away this time,” said Chaff, out loud. He held the big guy close, and the camelopard towered above him, warm and close. Together, they were indomitable. “No running away no more, that’s right.”
“Chaff!” shouted Wozek, as he started to head below decks. “It’s going to get miserable up here. Get down, where it’ll be dry.”
Chaff looked up at the camelopard. “Nah. If the big guy stays, I stay. I don’t like leaving my friends behind.”
Wozek’s face changed slowly. First he looked concerned, then a slow smile spread across his face, and then he hid it. “I see,” he said. And then he walked away, down, where Chaff’s other friend was sleeping.
Chaff didn’t know what he said wrong. He looked from Gopal to Sri, his mouth very dry. Suddenly, there seemed to be too many people in the tavern. It was too hot, too noisy, too confined. He wanted to be back in the plains again, with nothing but the grass around him. He didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want to watch their faces turn from shock to confusion to anger.
“Say that again,” said Gopal, and the soft wood of the table was beginning to splinter and crack under his white knuckles.
“I don’t know what it means,” said Chaff, quickly. He looked to Sri for help, but he couldn’t even see her eyes for the hair that had fallen around her face. She seemed dark, now. Brooding. Dangerous. “I just-.”
“Say it. Again.”
“The Jova girl,” whispered Chaff, meekly. “I wanted to find the Jova girl.”
“Is this some kind of trick?” hissed Gopal, standing up. The bench scraped against the floor as he stood, a long wooden moan, and heads began to turn. “Some kind of joke?”
“I’m not- I’m not smart,” Chaff babbled. “I don’t know what it means, yeah? If-.”
“Are you mocking me?” Gopal grabbed Chaff’s scarf and pulled him close by it, so that if Chaff tried to move he would just tighten it around his neck. He blinked rapidly, his eyes misting over. “We save you. We guide you. We walk together for weeks and today, you- you dig this out of the past?”
“Sri, tell him!” said Chaff, trying to keep his voice steady even as it cracked with panic. “Tell him I don’t know what any of it means!”
“I never told you her name. I haven’t said that name in three years,” said Sri, slowly. Her voice didn’t change pitch at all. “Chaff, why are you going to Moscoleon?”
“For the girl, to find the Jova girl! I have- I…” Chaff couldn’t bring himself to say it. Lookout had spent a long time earning his trust, and even then her seeing the tabula had been mostly accidental. To just tell someone? After Loom and Vhajja had nearly ripped her away? He couldn’t risk it.
“Jova girl,” said Gopal. “That was what Rituu called her. Why are you calling her that? Who are you?”
None of the marshmen in the tavern were talking now. Chaff could see Lookout trying to push her way through the clustered tables and people out of the corner of his eye, but he didn’t dare break eye contact with Gopal. He was too afraid to.
“Rituu was the better man among us,” said Gopal. There was a look in his eyes that reminded Chaff too much of madness. “He was the thinker. The traveler. The storyteller. I was the brigand. The thief. The killer. And the Ladies left me, and sent you, so where does that leave us?”
His fists tightened around Chaff’s throat, and the boy gasped as he began to struggle for breath.
“Goodman Gopal,” said Wozek’s steadying tone, and he was smiling despite the obvious tension in the air. Marshmen had risen from their seats, hands resting on their weapons or their tabula. “Let him go.”
“Not until I get answers,” growled Gopal, his hands shaking even as he pulled Chaff up and out of his seat.
“Jhidnai! Remember yourself! This is not the place for you to get them,” snapped Wozek.
“Are you in on this?” Gopal let Chaff fall, heaving, onto the table, while his eyes darted around the room. “Are you all in on this?”
“Gopal. Be reasonable. Sit down,” said Wozek, his voice calm and steady.
“Not until you tell me who this shit is and how the hell he knows- how he knows…” Gopal looked around, breathing heavily. “Did you tell him? Did you tell him who killed Rituu? What are you doing, Wozek, why are you-?”
Wozek put a hand on Gopal’s shoulder and he fell silent immediately. “Sit. Down.” He turned around, his smile jovial, his shoulders relaxed. “Everyone, go back to your meals! There’s no need for fuss.”
And the marshmen obeyed, just like that.
But Gopal would not sit down. “Who is he? How does he know that girl’s name?”
“Obviously someone must have told him,” said Wozek, the epitome of reasonableness. “Now you’re just getting yourself more worked up the way you are. Sit. Food is coming, and-.”
“Then why,” said Sri. “Does he want to find her?” She turned to Chaff and looked straight at him. Her soft and gentle eyes were ablaze with anger, and coming from her Chaff felt his very bones tremble with fear. “Why does he want to find the girl who killed my dad?”
Chaff didn’t know what to say. He was lost and confused and didn’t know what Sri meant. It was only as he searched her eyes for an answer did he remember her story. “The girl on the road to Moscoleon? She’s…Jova?”
Sri nodded, once. Her fists were tightening. Chaff didn’t know a lot about people, but even he could tell her patience was shortening.
“But you said it wasn’t anyone’s fault,” said Chaff, shaking his head. He was remembering Sri’s story correctly, wasn’t he? “You said you didn’t blame anyone anymore!”
Suddenly, Chaff’s head was knocked to the side. He sat, gasping, his cheek stinging as Sri drew back her palm to slap him across the face again. “I don’t know who to blame anymore! I don’t know what’s going on!” she screamed. “Chaff! Why are you going to Moscoleon?”
Chaff could only shake his head. He recognized the look in Sri’s eyes; he recognized the pain, and the regret, and the fear. It was as if…
As if someone had brought up Loom in front of him. That was what he was seeing.
Just what exactly had Jova done?
“Chaff, you can’t just- you can’t just say something like that and not answer, you can’t just…” Sri’s hands gripped tight around Chaff’s scarf, pulling him forward. “Chaff, answer me! Chaff?”
The boy stared blankly at the ceiling, lost within his thoughts. Why was he going to Moscoleon? Why was he trying to find her? “That’s my name. That’s me. I’m Chaff,” he finally croaked. “I’m the part that no one wants. I’m the part you throw away. You want answers, yeah? I don’t got none. I’m dumb. You gotta find her and ask her, like everyone else.”
Sri hit him, hard, with nothing held back. She wasn’t the friend Chaff had spent weeks coming to know. She was the girl in the marsh, prepared to kill a stranger on her turf. Chaff’s head snapped back as he tasted blood on his lip, and he tensed, getting ready for a fight.
Before he could move an inch, Sri let go. Lookout stood over the fallen girl, her back to the window, her face a mask of shadows.
The bench fell and scraped on the ground as Gopal jumped to his feet. “Don’t touch her,” snarled Gopal, and before anyone could stop him there was the hum of tabula.
The table broke clean in half as the bathawk burst from the darkness beneath it, screaming. It was nothing but wings and fanged teeth, flapping and screeching as its yellow eyes sought out Chaff. At last, they found him. They focused, and narrowed.
Talons planted themselves on Chaff’s chest, pinning him to the ground. They raked slowly across his chest, then caressed his face as Jiralla looked at him with evil, yellow eyes. Chaff’s vision swam. This had happened to him before, but it hadn’t happened to him. He knew the part that came next. The pressure, and the piercing…
Fwip! Something flitted through the air so fast and so sudden that every head in the tavern turned to look. Fwip! Fwip!
And then Jiralla collapsed over him even as Chaff dug a feathered dart out of his thigh.
“You vouched for them, Wozek,” said the mudmaker with the large earrings. “And see where that got us. I should call you oathbreaker and expel you from the city.”
“You came here fast, Vizdak,” was all Wozek said in reply.
“You didn’t go far,” was Vizdak’s curt answer.
Chaff blinked. Bile began to bubble in the back of his throat, as his vision dissolved into runny colors, like sunlight on the water. He tried to stand, but he could hardly tell up from down.
“I hope you didn’t kill them,” said Wozek, his voice as calm and reasonable as always.
Chaff wasn’t conscious long enough to hear Vizdak’s answer. He collapsed onto his back, the weight of the fallen bathawk heavy on his chest, the vomit dribbling out of the side of his mouth as he dreamed.
The marshmen’s leering faces glared at him. He was sitting in the center of the tavern, surrounded by people that hated him, and he spun, searching for an escape. He saw Loom’s face in the crowd, then Vhajja’s—then Hadiss, and Veer, and Lookout, and Sri. They all turned to strangers in the end, though. They were all strangers in the end.
The faces began to hiss and spit like summer snakes, and as Chaff closed his eyes and covered his ears they glowed and glowed until he saw them behind his eyelids, burned on his pupils. They became the night stars, spinning and twirling and cackling as an old man laughed, “She doesn’t want you. She doesn’t want you.”
Chaff rose to run, but the stars caught him with barbed whips of golden light, and he could not move at all. “Let me go!” he screamed. “Let me go!”
And the bark-made man stepped up to him, grabbed his chin, and whispered, “Never.”
Chaff woke up rocking, like he was in a mother’s cradle, except he had long since forgotten who his mother was. He was lying in a straw mattress, and the fibers clung to his hair as he tried to sit up. His pounding head wouldn’t let him, and he fell back, groaning. There was still dried puke on the corner of his lip.
He turned, and saw Wozek sitting in a corner, watching, unmoving. “Heal yourself, boy,” he said, watching, arms crossed.
It took a great effort to speak. Chaff breathed heavily, holding back another convulsion as his stomach twisted. He shook his head. “Can’t.”
Wozek rose, and began to walk away.
“No!” Chaff said, sweat breaking out on his forehead as he reached for Wozek. “Don’t go.” His arm fell, and the boy closed his eyes, trying to collect his thoughts. “Where?”
Wozek waited until Chaff opened his eyes. “We found a boat,” he said, simply.
Chaff shook his head. “Where are they?”
“Gopal and Sri have gone their own way. I had a feeling they would want to…leave all this behind,” said Wozek.
The boy slammed his fist on the side of his bed’s wooden frame. “Where?” he spluttered, and he reached for his belt, where he kept his tabula.
At last, Wozek understood. “Goodwoman Lookout is fine. Same condition as you, but fine. And…your beast is on the ship. Unhurt.”
Chaff slumped into his bed, relaxed at last.
“I will let you rest,” said Wozek, and he walked away.
The boy stared at the low ceiling of the room, trying to let his breathing subside. What was this, a sick bay? An animal pen? He doubted they would afford a foreign street urchin the luxuries of a private room.
As Chaff laid there and let himself breathe, it hit him that Gopal and Sri were gone. They had left. He hadn’t gotten a chance to say a proper goodbye. He blinked back the tears. All he had wanted to do was say a proper goodbye. The Ladies never gave him the chance to say a proper hello. Couldn’t they let him at least say goodbye?
“Goodbye Gopal,” he whispered, to no one. “Goodbye Sri. In Shira Hay, we give each other departure gifts, yeah? It’s a promise we meet again someday. I was going to get you one, but I didn’t- I didn’t have the time to find one ‘cause you left so soon…”
It was no use. They had gone. What were the chances they’d appear a second time?
And they had known her. That made Chaff’s eyes widen. They had known the girl. They called her Jova. Chaff gripped his pounding head, trying to remember every detail he could of Sri’s story. The girl had been traveling to Moscoleon; she was in Moscoleon. Except, Sri had been traveling to Moscoleon, and she wasn’t there, was she?
It didn’t matter. It was a start. It was the right direction. It was forward.
But there had been more to the story. She had nearly died. Chaff took out her tabula and looked at it, tracing a finger down the crack. She couldn’t be dead. For once, this wasn’t just wishful thinking: if she was dead, then the tabula would have broken. She had nearly died. She was still alive.
And for the first time in his life, Chaff thanked the Ladies, for saving her.
The door opened, and Chaff heard Lookout’s frustrated voice shouting, “Look, I see him! He’s not dead. Now go back up the stairs! You’re not even going to get your fucking neck below decks, stop trying, you’ll just make it worse!”
There was the unmistakable sound of hooves, and Chaff sat up.
“Big guy, I’m good!” he shouted. “Get going, shoo! You a camelopard on a boat! Never been a camelopard on a boat before, yeah? Enjoy it!”
Beyond the door, something snuffled, snorted, and stomped away. Lookout stepped into Chaff’s pen, looking frazzled, the owlcrow on her shoulder equally so.
“Hey, Lookout-,” Chaff began, and the girl turned on him.
“Why the hell are you speaking SO LOUD?” she screamed, breathless already.
Chaff gaped, unsure if she was being serious.
Lookout promptly slid onto the floor, grabbing her head. “Fuck this place. Fuck mudmakers and their poisons. Fuck Kazakhal. I am so glad we are leaving.”
“Are you even supposed to be in here?” asked Chaff, blearily.
“No,” said Lookout, bluntly. “But fuck the kazakhani. And fuck their bigotry, and fuck their rules, too.”
They sat there in silence, as the boat rocked beneath them. Chaff wondered how they were going to fit a camelopard up there without the boat sinking. He wondered how they were going to feed the camelopard.
“Well,” said Lookout, her eyes still closed. “That trip into the city was an unmitigated disaster, don’t you agree?”
“Yeah,” said Chaff.
“We didn’t even get our food,” she snorted. “I really wanted to try their winter snail bread. I hear it’s cool, like peppermint.”
“You’re very energetic, yeah?” said Chaff. As Lookout’s eyebrows furrowed and her forehead creased, Chaff added, quickly, “I like energetic! I…need energetic now.”
The boat rocked. It reminded Chaff of the swaying grass, and he felt a little closer to home. Lookout said, finally, “I’m just glad we’re leaving this place behind. Lot of unpleasant memories, if you know what I mean.”
“…Yeah,” said Chaff.
Lookout scoffed. “Course you do,” she muttered. There was a pregnant pause between them, as neither of them spoke. Then Lookout said, stiffly, “Now…I know it’s not my place, and if you want me to shut up then just say it, but…” She sighed. “Chaff, what did you say to them that made them so angry?”
Chaff turned his head away, and fell back into the straw.
“They looked real upset,” said Lookout. “Whatever you said…I mean, we gotta make sure it doesn’t happen again, right? That was a close one.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Chaff,” Lookout said, shaking her head. “Listen to yourself. How do you ever expect to get closer to where you want to go, if you’re always running away?”
Again, Chaff had no answer.
“I never notice before,” breathed Chaff, staring. “Can I touch it?”
“No, you cannot.”
“But look at it! It’s so big, yeah? How you keep that in your pants?”
Chaff reached for the spiderwhale’s tabula again, but Wozek slapped his hand away. “I just wanna see!” Chaff whined, looking hurt.
Wozek rolled his eyes. “I let you hold it once, wasn’t that enough?”
“That was just for a little bit, yeah? I wasn’t even paying attention, then.” Chaff steered the big guy a little closer to the spiderwhale, craning his neck to get a better look. “How come it’s so much bigger than yours? Mine’s as big as the big guy’s, yeah?”
“Really, now? I would like to see that, goodman Chaff.”
Chaff reached for his belt before he froze and paused. He narrowed his eyes and glared at the marshman.
“Exactly,” snapped Wozek, once he saw Chaff’s expression. “That’s what it feels like to have people pry at your tabula, boy. Not good, right? Intrusive. Invasive.”
“I just wanted to see…” grumbled the boy, but not loud enough for Wozek to hear. Before he could say anything further, Wozek held up his hand, and the spiderwhale came to an abrupt halt.
“Wozek!” shouted Prav the brusher from the top of the hill up ahead. “You’ll want to see this!”
“Budge aside, you old lug,” said Wozek, swinging over the spiderwhale’s side. He didn’t say a word to Chaff as he left to join the brusher to scout ahead, up over a hill framed by the tilted pines.
Chaff watched him go, and sighed forlornly. “He important, yeah?” said Chaff, reining in the big guy. “Ain’t got no time for us at all.”
The camelopard flicked an ear, as if he didn’t mind at all that Wozek had no time for them.
Chaff looked back. He had ridden ahead to talk to Wozek, but now that the marshman no longer had the patience to host him, Chaff was left with no one to talk to. “No point in going back,” said Chaff, adjusting himself. He laid on the big guy’s back, staring at the sky. “Just like the old days, yeah?”
A cold but bright winter sun shone overhead. It didn’t snow this far south, but Chaff’s toes still throbbed from when he had crossed the frost-crusted wet lands further north barefoot. He lay in the warmth, pretending he was in the plains again, surrounded by the softly waving grass.
It would take more than that, though, to bring the boy back to the old days. The grass had changed, and so had the chaff.
Chaff furrowed his eyebrows. Everything he had done to get here…had it been for the better? And if it was, why did he feel so guilty about it?
He craned his head up, but the long muddy road was empty as far as he could see. Wozek and Prav had gone quite far ways ahead of the rest of the group, although Chaff supposed that was what leaders and brushers did.
He wasn’t sure where he fit in there, for he wasn’t a leader or a brusher, but here he was.
Chaff reached for his belt, and held her tabula up in front of him. It had been a long time since he had looked into it. It had been a long time since it had answered.
The tabula formed a single circle of shadow over Chaff’s face as the sun shone overhead. The birds were silent, and the bugbeasts had all burrowed inside their dens to sleep the winter away long ago. He was alone.
It buzzed at his lightest touch, as if eager for him to use it. And yet…
He slipped the disk away in his belt. It didn’t feel right, not when he felt so twisted up inside. Chaff had seen what happened to the big guy when he was distressed and he used the camelopard’s tabula; he didn’t want to load all his bad feelings on her.
“What you think, big guy?” he asked, staring at the sky. “What you think it’s like when we meet her?”
The big guy didn’t answer.
“Jova,” said Chaff, eyes glazing over. “Jova.” He wondered what it meant.
The camelopard moved. He walked away to go browse on the pine needles, and Chaff had to hold tight onto the big guy’s back to balance himself. Chaff sat up as the big guy ate. “You sure you eat that?” he asked. “What if it make you sick?”
The big guy snorted and glared at Chaff.
“Yeah, OK,” said the boy. “Not a lot to eat lately. I gets it.”
He paused, watching the big guy chew placidly.
“Hey, big guy, lemme try some,” he said, standing up and tearing off a handful of rubbery green shoots. The last time he had tried camelopard food, he remembered it had not gone well, but…well, this was different camelopard food.
He bit and chewed and gagged all in one fluid motion, and rolled over to spit it out and clawed at his tongue to get the taste out.
The supplies from Wozek’s village had lasted long enough to get them here, although they had not stayed there long. There had barely been twenty people among them, but Chaff still had difficulty remembering all their names and faces.
He sighed. He had been traveling with them for weeks now and he could only really tell apart a quarter of them. There was mudmaker Armand, who didn’t talk much and wore face paint like he had stitched his mouth shut. Then there was the couple, Bori and Sevra, and their unnamed child, who still had a Fallow coming for him. The rest…well, the rest were a complete blur.
What Chaff had found most interesting about all the marshmen, though, was how they listened to Wozek. One stern talk from him about the dangers of the Quiet Marsh and the coming winter, and they had unanimously decided to leave. It wasn’t much they were leaving behind—a few ramshackle huts with roofs made of woven reeds and soggy fireplaces—but leave it behind they did, without question.
“He doesn’t even need tabula,” said Chaff, as he waited. “Just words, yeah?”
Chaff wondered what it would be like, to speak words with such power. Vhajja had been able to do it, and he was an old man, weak and frail. Hurricane had done it, and he had never needed to use those big muscles in their place.
A dark blot flapped across the sky, and instinctively Chaff flinched. Sinndi he had grown used to, but up there wasn’t Sinndi. The owlcrow had been recuperating and hadn’t flown for some time. Lookout wouldn’t let Chaff try to fix her; she said it would draw attention. Wozek hadn’t said anything either to his people, and Chaff supposed that if two smart people thought he should keep it a secret, then he would keep it a secret.
It was frustrating, not being able to do anything.
A sudden screech cut across the sky. Chaff flinched again, nearly falling off of the camelopard as Jiralla dived, snatching the dark blot out of the air like it was a piece of low hanging fruit. The bathawk wheeled with a limp form in its claws, feathers shedding from the corpse and fluttering back down to the earth.
Chaff looked around. The rest of them must have been close.
Lookout was, of course, the first to see him. “Chaff! There you are,” she shouted, jogging up the road to him.
“You surprised?” asked Chaff, grinning.
“Pssh, no,” said Lookout. “I knew where you were. I could see the big guy from half a mile away.”
The camelopard held his head up high, as if he was proud of that.
The rest of the group was not far behind, talking and laughing and living. Chaff waved to Sri, who clung to Gopal’s side as they approached, and gave her an encouraging smile.
“Wozek’s up ahead?” said Lookout, hands on her hips. It was more of a statement than a question.
“Yeah, him and the scout-man brusher.”
“Then what are you doing waiting here, you dummy?” Lookout clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s get going.”
“Hup, big guy,” said Chaff, squeezing the big guy’s sides. “Lookout says go, we go.”
The camelopard’s hooves sunk into the soft dirt as they climbed. “What do you see?” asked Chaff, craning his neck. He stood on the camelopard’s back, swaying precariously as he clung by one hand to the big guy’s neck.
“Careful, Chaff, you’re going to fall,” said Lookout.
“I just pick myself up then,” said Chaff. “I can-.” And then the big guy crested the hill, and whatever the boy was going to say faded on his tongue immediately.
It was the second city Chaff had ever seen in his life. On top of that little hill, he saw it all: Kazakhal, spread across the bay. The houses stood on rickety wooden stilts, just feet above the water, while its citizens drifted past on rafts and canoes. It was like an antmole-hill that Chaff had once seen, a complex network of channels and waterways that wove around each other in one huge organic sprawl. Despite the winter chill, marshmen sat shirtless on their porches, feet dangling in the still waters while out further into the bay fishing skiffs and great aquatic beasts prowled.
The whole place smelled like fish and smoke, which set Chaff’s belly rumbling. He jumped off the big guy’s back and dashed down the hill, trying to get closer to the city, but Lookout held out a hand.
“Easy there. Look,” she said. She pointed down the hill, to where Wozek and Prav were talking at the wooden pier that led like a road into the rest of the city. A mudmaker with hoop earrings as large as Chaff’s hands stood before them, arms crossed, leaning on a staff with his leg in a splint. While he talked he kept looking straight at Chaff and Lookout.
“Goodman Wozek,” he said, in a loud voice, meeting Chaff’s eyes. “You and your people are of course welcome to the Maw. But you know our laws. Those two are not kazakhani. They are not allowed here.”
Wozek looked behind him, and beckoned for Chaff to come over. “No need to hide and skulk, boy, just face him.”
Chaff met Lookout’s eyes, and together they edged forward.
“I was wary at first, too, Vizdak, but this boy has proven himself a true friend of Kazakhal,” said Wozek, putting a hand around Chaff’s shoulder. It was oddly tight, and the runner in Chaff wanted to squirm free. He held himself back, meeting the mudmaker’s painted face warily. “The girl, too, I can vouch for.”
“Vouching or no vouching,” said Vizdak, shrugging his bare shoulders. Black and white spirals had been painted along his shoulders, and they flowed into shapes like tongues of flame on his arms and the backs of his hands. “It’s not a matter of what they’ll do, but what we’ll do. You know how it is with foreigners.”
“They’re children,” said Wozek, and Chaff had a moment of déjà vu as he remembered Gopal using the same argument not too long ago. “What harm can they cause?”
“Ask the gargani wild child who broke my leg and sent me moaning off to guard duty.” Vizdak tapped his cane on the dock. “I always say, if they’re old enough to live on their own, they’re old enough to kill on their own.”
“Alright, alright,” said Wozek. “But they’ll be under my watch and my people’s the whole time. Prav here has the sharpest eyes of any man or woman in Kazakhal, don’t you, Prav?”
The brusher didn’t say anything, although his smirk was answer enough. Beside him, Chaff saw Lookout make a face. “You’ll get that title back once I leave Kazakhal, Prav,” she muttered, darkly, under her breath, and Chaff couldn’t help but giggle.
“He’ll catch them before they even have the chance to stir something up. We’re here two days at most. We’re finding a boat, and then we’re leaving, all the way to Oldsea Strait. No fuss, no trouble.”
Vizdak adjusted his stance. He pursed his lips, and looked from Chaff to Lookout to the big guy and Sinndi. “One day,” he said. “And the beasts stay out here, where I can see them, until you leave.”
“Perfectly reasonable,” said Wozek, giving the mudmaker a firm handshake, careful not to smudge his paints. He turned to his brusher. “Prav, go and tell the others. The animals stay here.”
Prav nodded and went jogging back, just like that. “Doesn’t even need a tabula,” muttered Chaff, as Vizdak hobbled aside and let them past.
“You stay, big guy! Relax a little!” Chaff shouted, and the camelopard dipped his head as if nodding, although that might have just been him trying to get Sinndi off of his head. Chaff turned to Wozek as they, with Lookout, walked down the dock. “Why don’t we just shove him away and run by?” he asked, once he was sure the mudmaker guard was out of earshot. “He can’t fight back at all, with that leg, yeah?”
“Only use force when you absolutely have to. Most of the time people just need a little talking to before they see sense,” said Wozek, shaking his head. “Besides, he was a mudmaker. He’d poison you dead before you even thought of running past him.”
Chaff hopped as he walked, listening to the hollow thunk of the wooden boards beneath his feet. “Yeah, OK,” he said. “Why he trying to stop us then? What’s that all about?”
Behind them, Wozek’s people were filing onto the dock, clutching their belongings to their sides and staring around the city with nervous, apprehensive looks. Wozek looked back on them, his eyes scanning over them, before he turned back to Chaff. “You are not one of us. Not kazakhani.”
“What are we then?” asked Chaff.
“Shiralhane. The lonely people.” Wozek pointed towards Gopal and Sri. “Them? They are jhidnai. You are both just…different kinds of people. Kazakhani don’t like different.”
Wozek fell silent, then, and Chaff did too. He stopped hopping on the planks, and the awe he had first felt when he had first seen Kazakhal was being subdued by a growing sense of fear.
The people here had pouting, swollen faces, and stomachs distended by hunger. Their clothes were grimy and tattered. There was no sense of grandeur here, nothing like Shira Hay with its libraries and its fountains and its statues. As Chaff fell behind Wozek and Lookout so that they could all fit on the narrow walkway, he stepped lightly and carefully: he felt like the whole thing might collapse at any moment, as the hut beside him sagged on its stilts. As he passed the open window, a pair of hooded eyes watched him go from deep within the shadows.
This city was barely surviving.
Something cracked underneath him, and Chaff yelped. Before he could fall into the muddy waters, though, Lookout caught his arm.
“I knew you were going to fall,” she said, pulling him up. “Just a matter of when.”
“I get up, don’t I?” said Chaff, brazenly, although his hands were shaking.
“Shouldn’t have been jumping around so much,” said Lookout.
“I wasn’t jumping. Not that time at least.” Chaff walked on, staring at his feet. “Why do they all live here, Lookout?” he asked, finally. “There’s dry land, just over there. It’s better living there, yeah?”
“It’s home,” said Wozek, before Lookout could answer. “It wasn’t always like this. See that, out there?” He pointed to the waters where the fishing boats sailed and the turtlesharks swam. “We call it the Maw of the Deep, and every year it gets a little bigger and a little hungrier. People just…got used to it. Inertia keeps them here. They don’t know what’s good for them.”
“In-er-sha,” repeated Chaff, slowly. “That some kind of monster?”
“Close enough,” said Wozek, and he stopped. “Here, we are.”
This hut was larger than the others. It smelled of cooking fires and alcohol, and next to the entrance of the doors (which, unlike many others Chaff had seen, looked functional), something was scrawled in large, ugly letters.
“What’s that say, Lookout?” he asked.
Lookout squinted. “F…” she began. “Fuck King Ironhide.” She coughed, and looked away.
Wozek crossed his arms. “Like I said,” he growled, darkly. “People don’t know what’s good for them.” He opened the door for Chaff and Lookout. “Sit in the back, please, we don’t want to cause any trouble.”
It was dark and smoky inside. The low buzz of chatter didn’t change as Chaff and Lookout walked in, but they drew glares and odd looks from the tables they passed. “I didn’t realize the philosophers let them in so young,” said a balding, yellow-toothed man. He batted at Chaff’s scarf as he passed, and he shied away. “Plainslords think little kids are smarter than us, eh?”
“Don’t have to be smart,” muttered his drinking partner, eying his mug morosely. “Just got to be willing to stick a knife in an alsval back.”
“Oaf,” snarled Lookout, and she pulled Chaff away.
Chaff felt more on edge than usual. Being among this many people felt like being tossed into a pit full of hungry piranhawolves. “Let’s sit by the window, Lookout,” said Chaff, trying to avoid eye contact with the other patrons.
“Sure, this place is stuffy enough as it is.”
Chaff eyed the rippling waters as he sat on the bench, wet with damp, and twiddled his thumbs. He wasn’t sure what else he was supposed to do in this place, besides wait. “Can you swim, Lookout?”
“It’s not going to come to that,” said Lookout, peering out the little square of light and air. “We’re not going to have to jump into the bay to get away from these people.”
“Yeah, but can you swim?”
“Sure I can,” said Lookout, although her fingers had begun drumming on the table. She looked at Chaff and raised an eyebrow. “You can swim?”
“I don’t remember,” Chaff admitted.
“You don’t remember how to swim?”
“I don’t remember if I can or not.”
Lookout stared at him for a full ten seconds. “That’s comforting,” she said, finally, and slumped with her chin in her palms and her elbows on the table, watching the door. Wozek’s other people were trickling in—sitting, Chaff couldn’t help but notice, on the other end of the room.
“What’s he doing?” Lookout muttered, as Wozek finally came in. The marshman began talking with a man in clothes stained with grease, who seemed to own this little shack. As he did so, people Chaff had never seen before kept shaking Wozek’s hand, giving him little two-fingered salutes, or calling at him from across the room.
“He that important?” whispered Chaff.
Lookout didn’t respond. She was staring intently at him, a rigid expression on her face. “Remember when he was talking to that guy with the earrings?” she said. “How did he put it? We’re finding a boat. We’re leaving in two days.”
“Maybe he wants to come with us,” said Chaff. He smiled at the thought. He rather enjoyed Wozek’s company, even if Wozek didn’t very much seem to like his. The man always had interesting things to say. “Maybe he can help us find her.”
“Maybe,” said Lookout, distractedly. “But…why? He took us this far already. He got his people where they needed to go, and they seem happy enough. What’s his game?”
Chaff didn’t say anything. He didn’t know. Also, he was hungry, and he was wondering if he might be able to steal a bite of salted fish while the man sitting next to them wasn’t looking.
At last, someone acknowledged them, sitting in their corner. It wasn’t Wozek, though.
Gopal sat heavily on the bench on Lookout’s side, while Sri sat next to Chaff. She kept looking over her shoulder, as if she was scared someone might attack them from behind.
“All the foreign folk, shoved into a corner, eh?” said Gopal. Sri gave him a pity laugh, while Chaff stared blankly at him. It took him a few seconds for him to realize Gopal was trying to be funny.
“Well,” said Gopal, clearing his throat. “I guess this is it. Here we part ways. You’ll be off to Moscoleon before the day is out, and we…won’t.”
“You’re staying here?” said Chaff, surprised. He hadn’t expected the two other foreigners in Wozek’s group to spend a second longer than they had to in this crumbling city.
“We’ve spent our fair share of winters here. We’ll be fine.”
Chaff stared at his thumbs for a while, as the talk and chatter continued around him. His belly rumbled. “Meet up one more time before we go?” he said, to Sri. “I gotta say goodbye the proper way.”
Sri ducked her head, and the hair fell around her face. “Okay. We’re not saying goodbye yet. Let’s…let’s share a meal first. The Shira Hay way.”
Chaff nodded, and smiled.
“I’ll go check with Wozek to see if he can get us some food,” Lookout said, rising. She walked away quickly, brushing past Gopal in her haste.
They sat there for a little while, not saying anything, just watching the light play on the water outside. Finally, Sri spoke.
“There’s something I don’t get about you,” said Sri, as they sat there, together. “All this time, we’ve been traveling together…I’ve never once seen you pray. Never once seen you use the Ladies’ names. Never once seen you acknowledge them at all. Why are you going to Moscoleon, if not to find the gods?”
“I’m not going to find the gods,” said Chaff, shrugging. He had thought that was obvious. “What’s gods and kings to me? I’m going to find her.”
“The Jova girl.”
And though the buzz of talk did not stop, there was suddenly a deathly silence.
The world laid out before her, the people and the animals and the naked trees all perfect pieces on a board that she shared with only the Ladies themselves. She soared through the fog bank, watching as the marsh radiated out from the poltergeist’s haunt. The great root snaked, fat and sluggish, through the marsh, until it disappeared into the earth farther north, but the bloated creature was nowhere to be seen.
A distant prod touched Lookout’s shoulder, but she paid it no attention. She was flying now. She was free.
To the west, the marsh broke off into the parched Redlands, like a faded scar on the horizon. Even with an owlcrow’s eyes, she could only just see the border of Shira Hay, and it grew ever smaller as she flapped away. In a way, Lookout was glad to leave the plains behind. Too many memories.
To the east, the marsh melded into Kazakhal proper, which, to Lookout’s great relief, looked substantially less wet than the marsh. She missed having dry feet.
Something shoved Lookout so hard she nearly fell off her perch, and her concentration broke.
It took her a moment, as always, to get her bearings again. She clutched a hand to her head, waiting for the nausea to subside. She knew she shouldn’t have pushed Sinndi so hard, especially not so soon after Al Innai had hurt the owlcrow, but the bird healed fast and Lookout needed to know that none of Al Innai’s friends had followed them.
Plus, she needed something to get the image of Al Innai, bleeding into the mud, out of her head. What better than the daily vision of the gods themselves? Up there, she felt more than safe. She felt indomitable.
She opened her eyes to Chaff’s face grinning at her, and although she always felt like her human vision was blurry and inadequate, she could still make out the boy’s crooked teeth, his matted hair and his mud-spattered skin.
“What,” she said, slowly, swaying as the boy’s jarraf walked underneath her. “Do you want?”
The boy looked away. “Just checking to see if you OK. Innai-Innai did bad on you. You got to take it easy, yeah?”
“I know that,” said Lookout, and she did. There was a difference between knowing and doing, though. She didn’t say that to Chaff, though; she just looked at him, waiting for him to say more.
Chaff met Lookout’s eyes for just a second before he ducked his head and scurried away, returning to a rather animated conversation with Sri.
Lookout bit her lip. Had she been too harsh on him? Arrogance and aggression were forces of habit by now.
Once, a long time ago, Lookout had tried to submit. She stayed out of the way of the bigger children, never looked them in the eye, and obeyed every order they gave her. That, she had realized, and Walls had taught her, was the quickest way to get hurt in the streets.
Flowers had fragrant aromas, and within hours their petals were crushed to paste. Cactus plants had spines and needles, and no one dared touched them. She wouldn’t be crushed. She wouldn’t be an easy target.
All the same, sometimes Lookout regretted how lonely the thorns made her.
She touched Sinndi’s tabula again, and it hummed to life. In the skies, she was free.
While on the ground the trees shaded her, like oppressive titans with hands outstretched to block the sun, up in the air they couldn’t even reach her. They grasped for her like children, the last of the autumn leaves shedding from their now skeletal frames, and Lookout danced above them, untouchable.
Lookout held back, just a touch. She couldn’t tell what Sinndi was feeling, or how much the flight was taxing her, but she knew it must have been hard. With a little mental nudge, she pointed the owlcrow back to their little party, and gratefully the bird began to fly her way back.
The girl let go, after that, trusting the owlcrow to find her own way back. If any of Al Innai’s friends really were hiding in ambush, it would be up to Wozek and his spiderwhale to catch them, not her.
She picked at the scab on her forehead, even though she knew she shouldn’t. Now that she had started, though, she couldn’t stop. She scratched at it three times, before she let her hand fall. Three was a good number. It was her number.
Her fingers began a nervous tap on her leg, and she did that three times, too, before she stopped. Then, since she had already started, she scratched her nose three times. Three by three. A good number of times to do things.
She regretted it immediately. She wanted to shake her head or run her fingers through her hair, but she knew that would just start the cycle all over again, and once her brain started to obsess over the numbers and the patterns and the sequences and the way she absolutely had to do things, it would never stop.
Enviously, she looked at Chaff. For a boy so troubled, it still must have been so much more peaceful to live inside his head.
Lookout adjusted her seat on the camelopard’s back, and tried to block out the fact (again) that with Wozek, they were now five people traveling together. Three was a good number. Four was a holy number. Five was a bad number. It was so close to being a good number, but not quite.
She assured herself that there were four animals—Sinndi, the camelopard, the bathawk, and the spiderwhale—and that with five made nine. Three by three. That calmed her nerves for now.
The camelopard stepped over a particularly large puddle, and Lookout gripped onto his mane for support. As he lifted his long legs over it, the beast shot Lookout a disdainful glare, and Lookout let go apologetically. She rode with her hands holding ever so gently to the sides of his neck, doing her best to keep her balance.
It was like riding the winds with Sinndi; it was all about minor adjustments. It wasn’t so bad, though. Lookout decided that with all this practice she was getting the hang of riding the big guy.
She looked to Chaff again. Lookout was honestly grateful to the boy; he had a kind of generosity she never would have expected from a street urchin of Shira Hay. At the same time, though, he knew the wild laws. He knew what he had to do to survive.
Lookout watched the skies. Sinndi was due to arrive soon.
Twiddling her thumbs, Lookout wondered if she should say something to the boy. Thanks for lending her his animal, maybe. Or an apology for being so brusque. Lookout wondered how to word it. Sorry for being rude. No, that was too many words. Sorry for talking badly- sorry for- sorry I was- I am sorry.
I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry.
Three by three. A good number, even if Lookout wanted to say so much more.
She was rehearsing in her head when she spied a glance towards Chaff again. He was still talking with Sri, a wide smile on his face, clearly enjoying himself. He didn’t need to be bothered now. He didn’t want Lookout spoiling the mood.
Chaff, noticing, glanced to make eye contact, but immediately Lookout turned aside, a bored and disinterested expression on her face.
The girl rubbed the bridge of her nose when Chaff turned away again. Was he or wasn’t he angry with her? Was she supposed to apologize or thank him? She could read the facial expressions of a bird better than that of a boy, and that was saying something. Lookout had never been good with people.
Maybe she had just spent too much time around Sinndi. The subtle cock of the bird’s head, the glint in her beady eyes, even the harshness of her screech all carried meaning for Lookout that human faces simply didn’t. Even Jiralla, the bathawk that followed Gopal, was easier to understand than the marshman himself.
She had never told anyone this. After all, who would understand?
Beside her, Chaff was regaling Sri with tales of the marsh. “And then everything just stops, yeah? The man made of wood, he as creepy as a creeper, he walks up to the poltergeist. Poltergeist just walks away, feet going boom-boom-boom. Then the man comes for us…”
No, they definitely didn’t want Lookout interrupting them. She bowed her head and kept her distance.
She didn’t want to admit it, but that might have been the reason why she wandered away in the first place. Just so Chaff, who seemed to like Sri so much, could have his space—and so she wouldn’t have to watch.
How was she supposed to know a murderous psychopath had been waiting to pick her off when she split from the group?
Well, she was supposed to know. She was Lookout. She knew…everything.
She knew facts and dates and little useless pieces of information that stuck in her head like grit. She didn’t know people, but she knew names and reputations and territories and everything else there was to know about people except who they actually were. She knew how to read. She definitely knew how to read. Slowly, yes, but she knew how to read.
Lookout knew how to read Chaff’s book.
She knew where it was, too, tucked away inside the scarf that now hung around the camelopard’s neck. “Excuse me, elector big guy,” she said, drawing the leather-bound book out and flipping through its damp pages. Though the ink had blurred and the fringes all had dark stains, it was legible enough.
Walls had always loved books, and therefore she had loved books because…well, the reasoning wasn’t important.
He had broken into the Libraries once. She didn’t even remember the name of the book he stole, some thin pamphlet that had fallen apart a week after it was taken out of the libraries. At first they had thought the electors had put some kind of decaying curse over any book that left their shelves, but then Lookout had realized it was just bad paper and shit glue.
This book wasn’t like that pamphlet. It carried a certain portent to it, a certain weight that no loose scraps of paper could ever carry. It felt knowledgeable.
“The Song of Mazzia, the Wandering Man,” read Lookout, flipping open the cover. “A book of moral instruction.” She pursed her lips. The Wandering Man was a concept that only the electors talked about. He was the perfect plainsman, the epitome of what it meant to be from Shira Hay. He was thoughtful, curious, quick-witted, and male. “That’s me disqualified,” Lookout muttered, under her breath, as she kept reading.
It was hard work. She was not overly familiar with the letters, and the smudged ink only made it harder to read. Lookout had learn literacy the same way she had learned arithmetic: by stealing it. Tattle and Walls and even Hurricane had always said that education was the way to a better life, and she had believed it even when they didn’t.
The book began slowly, and even slower for Lookout, who had to decipher each word and letter in turn.
Mazzia, it said, was the first disciple of Raggon and Gahhay, the founders of Shira Hay. That made Lookout pause. She didn’t know how much of this book was true, but it had to be a very old book indeed if it was telling stories of the time before kings, when the empire of the Hak Mat Do was still strong. Perhaps it was all just one big fib. Lookout read on.
There was something in there about a quest, an epic journey that the Ladies themselves sent Mazzia on. They spoke to him, it said. They answered his questions. At that point, Lookout knew it was all a lie.
The goddesses never answered anyone’s questions.
Familiar talons wrapped lightly on Lookout’s shoulder, and she looked up, closing the book. That was enough reading for today.
“Hey,” she said, stroking one finger along the side of Sinndi’s face before tucking the book back away into Chaff’s scarf. She didn’t need to say anything else. Words only ever seemed to get in the way, for Lookout.
The owlcrow ruffled her wings, her wide eyes staring inquisitively at Lookout. Her feathers shone like black bronze in the dim light.
“Nothing’s the matter,” said Lookout. She made sure it was she said just three words. The tic got worse when she was nervous or flustered. “Go away, shoo.”
Sinndi knew when to leave her master alone. She glided away silently, keeping low to the ground and hopping on occasion when her wings would not support her. Lookout watched her go, her head pounding, her body aching, and not entirely sure what her heart was doing.
“That’s enough!” shouted Wozek, and Sinndi wheeled as the marshman held up his hand to stop. “We’ve gone far enough. Food, now, then sleep. The village is just a day’s more travel away.”
Almost automatically Lookout reached for Sinndi’s tabula, but she stopped and held herself back. Sinndi needed her rest.
“Goodman Gopal! You have supplies?”
“Enough for Sri and I,” said Gopal, raising a leather satchel. “Would you like bread, Wozek?”
“All is well, I have enough,” he said. “Goodman Chaff? Goodwoman Lookout?”
Lookout turned her head away. She knew they should have taken the time to gather supplies, but where would they have taken it from? They had no time at all. “We left under…pressed circumstances,” said Lookout, and it was true.
“Come then,” said Wozek. “Sit. Eat!”
Lookout dismounted slowly, wondering why Wozek would take the time to be so kind to them. Obviously Chaff had done him quite a favor in…doing whatever he did to the spiderwhale, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Wozek owed them nothing. He knew this marsh, and thanks to Chaff, he had the beast that could rip any one of them to shreds if he wanted to. He was the one with power, and he was the one in control.
So what did he want?
“Come on, Lookout!” said Chaff, tugging on her sleeve, and she nearly tumbled off of the boy’s camelopard. He did not seem to have a care or fear in the world as he sat in the little circle the others had formed.
At first, there was no room in the circle for her, but then Chaff asked Gopal to budge aside and make space.
“We have dark rye bread,” said Wozek, pulling the food out from a pack slung over the spiderwhale’s back. “Peppers, salted chickenbeef, some red onions…”
“Can I have some of that?” asked Chaff, suddenly.
Wozek held up a raw reddish-purple bulb. “The onions?”
“No, no,” said Chaff, pointing. Lookout followed his finger, and raised a quizzical eyebrow. “That.”
“This?” Wozek laughed. “This is animal feed. Raw fish for this big old lug.”
Chaff looked down, his eyes drifting as if he was confused himself, but then he shrugged. “I kind of want it though, yeah?”
“I thought you liked onions,” Lookout quipped, staring at him.
“The big guy can have the onions, he likes them too,” said Chaff, shaking his head. “I just…want to eat some fish.”
Wozek, with his mouth slightly open and his eyebrows furrowed, looked slightly taken aback. With no one else to turn to, he met Lookout’s eyes, and she shrugged. “He wants fish, let him have fish,” she muttered. “Long as the big beast doesn’t mind.”
The marshman shook his head, as he continued to pull food from his pack. “And the rest of Albumere thinks kazakhani are strange,” he said, and Gopal and Sri laughed. “For you, goodwoman Lookout?”
“Just the bread,” she said, hugging her knees to her chest. She didn’t want to ask for anymore. Sharing a full meal’s worth of food with Wozek would make him fully her friend.
She took the half-loaf of bread with a curt nod, and broke off a few crumbs to feed Sinndi. Of course, the owlcrow would have preferred meat—mousefrogs or grubs dug from the dirt—but here bread would have to do.
Three pinches of bread, just to be safe.
“If you are heading east,” said Wozek, as they ate. “Then you could take a boat from the Maw. Sail around Oldsea, dock somewhere along the peninsula. Better and faster than walking, if you have the stomach for it.”
“Where’s the Maw?” Chaff asked, and Lookout rolled her eyes at his ignorance even if she wasn’t quite sure herself.
Wozek smiled. “The bay of Kazakhal. The city itself lies along its shore. I can guide the way, if you are planning to go there.”
“Where are you planning to go?” asked Lookout, suddenly. She turned straight to Wozek, her brow furrowed. (Had she been too harsh? Too sudden? Too rude, again? Lookout couldn’t tell.) “Where are you planning to go?”
There was a moment’s silence. Behind him, Wozek’s spiderwhale rumbled. “I’m sorry?”
“Were you going somewhere, before you met us?” asked Lookout. She wanted answers. She wanted explanations. “Are you going somewhere? Or do you just have the time on your hands to show us the whole way there?”
Wozek cleared his throat. “If you do not want me-.”
“No!” said Chaff, immediately. He shot Lookout something between a glare and a confused plea. “If it’s quicker, we go that way, yeah?”
Chaff turned to Lookout, as if waiting for her confirmation, and suddenly all eyes were on her. She rubbed her elbow, looking down. If just one of them stopped looking at her, the number would be good again…
“Sure, yeah,” said Lookout, not making eye contact with any of them. “Just curious, was all.”
Wozek nodded, looking satisfied. “To answer your question, goodwoman Lookout,” he said. “I am keeping my land safe. I am keeping my people safe. Now that the winter is near upon us, some shall be fleeing south, also to the Maw. Food is easier to come by, there, and the journey is not so long if the snows have not set in.”
That seemed to be good enough for Chaff, and who was Lookout to say otherwise? She ate her bread slowly, piece by piece, considering if maybe she should store it somewhere and eat it later. She did not feel like sharing a meal with Wozek. He was the fifth. It was a bad number.
“We are both very grateful,” said Wozek, patting the spiderwhale’s side. Its eighth leg dangled limply in the air, and its eight-eyed expression was unreadable. “We just want to do our fair share in kind.”
He smiled, then, a disarming and charming smile.
Almost unconsciously, Lookout’s fingers drifted to her tabula. It hummed ever so slightly, but that was all she needed. Lookout’s vision blurred and shifted, until she was seeing from a space just a few inches from her head, with eyes that could count the number of hairs on Wozek’s lip. She ate her bread mechanically, as she saw through the eyes of the owlcrow.
The smile was lost on Sinndi. Birds didn’t have lips or teeth. And perhaps she was just seeing things, but when she looked at him—at the cock of his head, the glint in his eyes, the lilt of his voice—all Lookout saw was a liar.
As he saw Lookout raise the tabula, Chaff’s heart plummeted. Automatically, he began to stumble to his feet, but he knew he was too far to stop her. “Lookout, stop!” he shouted, hoping she would hear over the pounding footfalls and roar of the poltergeist. “Stop!”
His breath caught in his throat as the tabula began to hum.
Chaff squinted. From the first step he had taken into Kazakhal, everything seemed like such a surreal blur that he was unsure what was real and what wasn’t, but as he watched he saw an ethereal green patina begin to build over the surface of the disk. It wasn’t quite there: it flickered and twisted like fire, although Lookout did not seem to feel or even notice it.
Something was emerging out of the mist. Chaff’s mouth became very dry. Was it her? What would he say to her? How would he apologize?
It wasn’t though.
The bark-made man had returned.
It held out its hand, a single finger extended, and touched Lookout on the shoulder. Her entire body seized, and the humming stopped abruptly. The tabula fell to the ground, landing with a splash in the water.
Chaff looked from the bark-made man to Lookout, utterly and totally lost as to who he should be running from and who he should be attacking, when the big guy tossed his head and began to gallop forward, bleating.
“Big guy doesn’t like you, I doesn’t like you, yeah?” muttered Chaff. Behind him, the poltergeist was gaining ground, and fast. There was no time to think.
He charged, screaming.
The bark-made man raised a hand, and suddenly Chaff collapsed, face-first, into the water. Behind him, he heard a loud splash, although he did not know from what. The boy tried to stand, but it was like a crushing weight had fallen suddenly on his back. He managed to at least raise his head out of the water, but that took all the energy he had. Chaff laid there, spluttering and gasping, as a dull buzzing rang in his ears.
And then it stopped. All sound ceased. Nothing moved. There was no mumble from the poltergeist, no sound from Wozek or Lookout, not even ripples in the water. The marsh was so quiet that Chaff could hear the beating of his own heart, the gasp of his own breath, the trickle and slosh of his own blood.
“She is a vector,” intoned a flat, grating voice. Each word fell like the gavel of an arbiter, final judgment that brooked no argument. “I cannot allow contact.”
Chaff clutched his head, crying out in pain. Whatever was speaking, it wasn’t human. It made his head pound and his insides twist up, and he fell to his knees, gasping. Through blurred eyes, he saw the poltergeist kneeling behind him in the same position.
The poltergeist moaned as it clutched hands made of vines to its head, retching water back into the marsh as it shrank in size. Chaff couldn’t tell what it was saying anymore; from what he could actually hear, it was all half-crazed gibberish.
The only thing that moved was the bark-made man as it strode through the Quiet Marsh. Not even the mist seemed to stir, except when it parted to make room for the man.
Chaff’s neck was stiff as stone. He twisted it painfully, bit by painstaking bit, as the bark-made man passed.
It held up a wooden hand, right over the poltergeist’s malformed head. Again, in the same grating voice, it said, “Return to dormant state.”
The poltergeist cried out as it began to wade away, moaning and sobbing. “Back it calls us, back to sleep,” it said, staggering through the marsh. “Can’t hear us cry, can’t hear us weep. No mercy the warden knows, no mercy…”
The bark-made man followed the poltergeist a distance, then turned to consider the rest of them. Lookout was still on the ground, clutching her chest, while Wozek laid frozen against the back of the spiderwhale, who had been silently bleeding into the water.
“No risk of compromise present,” said the bark-made man, matter-of-factly. “Further action is unnecessary.” It took a step forward, before it paused. It turned towards Chaff, and though the boy had always been bad at reading faces, somehow he could tell the expression of contempt and disdain on its featureless, wooden face. It was in its eyes, the amber slits that narrowed as it focused on Chaff. “Do not return here, martyr,” it said, looking directly at him.
And then it strode away into the fog, without another word.
Chaff gasped as the weight on him was suddenly lifted. He nearly fell back into the water as his muscles, weak from stress and fatigue, gave out under him. He held onto the big guy for support, even as the big guy’s knees folded under him and the camelopard collapsed into the mud.
Chaff looked over his shoulder, but now there really was no hint of the bark-made man. There wasn’t even a trace of the poltergeist. All there was…
The boy looked away. All that was left was Al Innai, dead. Chaff hugged his waist, and kept his eyes wide open, because every time he closed them he saw himself being torn in two like he was a tuft of grass in a giant’s fingers.
“Why’s he talking to me?” Chaff muttered, as he thought back to the bark-made man. “I didn’t do nothing, yeah?”
The big guy had no reply. Chaff gave him a conciliatory pat, and made to stand up.
Immediately, his shoulder sent a shock of pain through him. Chaff shut his eyes tight, gripping his elbow as he rotated his arm slowly. He gasped as his arm popped back into place, blinking tears away as he crested whatever threshold of pain there was for moving his arm back into place. The muscles still hurt like nothing else, but at least Chaff was functional.
“Lookout?” he called, uncertainly, as the girl flopped over in the mud. She did not seem to care that her beige scarf was now, for all intents and purposes, black, or that she was sinking slowly into the mud as she laid there with her arms outstretched. Chaff walked over to her, and bent to retrieve his three tabula.
He held the girl’s very close. It was fortunate that the bark-made man had come when it did, although why it had come at all was still a mystery to Chaff.
The boy brushed his thumb over the tabula’s crack, turning it over in his hands. The green fire was gone, and seemed to have left no mark or burn or trace at all. The tabula was the same as before, unblemished. Chaff closed his eyes, ready to peer through the tabula’s surface and check on the girl again, but the moment the humming started his head began to spin. He stopped, and waiting for the nausea to pass. He did not have the energy for this.
“Chaff!” said Lookout, and the boy looked up. The girl was holding one hand up to the sky, her hair splayed and tangled around her head. “I fucking love being alive.”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, smiling. He took Lookout’s hand and pulled her up. “What’s the matter with you, huh? How’re you getting all the way out here?”
“Son of a bitch ambushed me,” said Lookout, staggering to her feet. Sinndi landed on her shoulder, hooting.
Chaff raised an eyebrow, and eventually Lookout turned away.
“And, yes, I will admit to wandering off on my own. I was just having a peek around since you and Sri seemed to have, uh, occupied each other.”
Chaff was amazed to see Lookout blush. They had been seconds away from being eaten by a rampaging swamp monster and she was embarrassed about this? The boy was flabbergasted.
“And then the son of a bitch ambushed me,” said Lookout, glaring at Chaff. “Although I suppose I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.”
There was an awkward silence as both Chaff and Lookout pointedly did not look in the direction of Al Innai’s body. Chaff pursed his lips. Finally, he said, “Nah. He dead, yeah? He can’t do nothing to you.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” said Lookout, putting an arm around Chaff’s shoulder and leaning on him as the pair limped away. She whistled for Sinndi to fly, but the owlcrow remained resolutely perched on her shoulder and refused to budge. Lookout sighed, and craned her head to look manually, with human eyes. “Where’s the cavalry?”
And that was when Chaff noticed Wozek kneeling before the spiderwhale, as red pooled in the marsh. His stomach dropped. The beast was still moving, but it didn’t have long. Wozek knelt before the animal, cradling its monstrous head, and Chaff could only imagine how he felt. It must have been like losing the big guy, and that was something Chaff did not even want to think about.
The two had met them barely an hour ago, and they had already saved Chaff and Lookout’s lives at the cost of one of their own. If only the boy could do something…
Chaff had an idea. One death had already proven false today. Perhaps he could make it two.
“Sorry, Lookout, I gotta hurry!” shouted Chaff, shoving Lookout’s arm off of him as he splashed through the water.
Lookout nearly fell over as Chaff bounded away. “Chaff, what the hell are you doing?”
“Mystical healing bullshit!”
Chaff waded forward, through the water. He had no idea if this was going to work, but he had to at least try.
Wozek’s cap had been lost in the fight. His bare chest was spattered with blood and marked by raw red lines where the vines had snapped at him. He was speaking in low, soothing tones to the twitching animal. “There you are, you big lug,” said Wozek, his eyes closed, his voice shaking slightly. “We had a good run, didn’t we?”
“Wozek!” shouted Chaff, practically showering water onto the ground as he stepped back onto dry, sturdy land. “Wozek, give me the tabula!”
Wozek whipped around. “The plainsboy? I can’t just give you her-.”
“You save my life,” gasped Chaff, sprinting forward. “Let me save hers.” He held out his hand as he stood before Wozek, heart thumping in his chest. “You got nothing to lose, yeah? Trust me.”
The marshman looked at Chaff for just a second before the spiderwhale shifted behind him, a mournful song rumbling from its throat. He did not hesitate after that, dropping the amber disk in Chaff’s outstretched palm. He did not say a word, just watched.
Chaff closed his eyes tight and focused. The tabula remained inert in his hands. He blinked, sweat beading down his forehead. How had he done it? What was he supposed to focus on? He couldn’t remember. Was it the wounds? Good health? The face of the person he was trying to heal?
His fingers drummed on the tabula. Now, of all times, he needed his leaky memory to come through for him. What had he focused on?
Chaff closed his eyes, focused, and did not let another thought through his head. He focused on the feeling of the tabula shaking in his hands, the tingle of the mist on his skin, the gritty dirt under his feet. He focused on the other soul, beating right next to his, and he felt…fire.
The visions he had seen all those years ago in that terrifying moment when the tabula began to break had been surreal, too bizarre to remember in their entirety. The second time, with Lookout, all Chaff had felt was utter terror at what he thought was his impending death. Now, he felt calm. He felt something more primal, more animal, a deeper, inexplicable force that surrounded him, as Chaff felt a fire in his chest swell until his whole body was filled with warmth. For some reason, the poltergeist’s words began to echo in his head. Our essence is energy, it had said. And energy-
A furious clicking sound broke Chaff’s focus. He opened his eyes, and saw the spiderwhale standing, its side whole and healed, two of its three legs firm and steady again. The third, it seemed, was beyond repair, although the leaking blood had stopped and the spiderwhale stood well enough with seven.
Suddenly, muscled arms wrapped around him. Chaff gave an undignified squeak as Wozek picked him up bodily. “With all the strange things I’ve seen today,” he said. “I shouldn’t be surprised.”
Chaff blinked. He was not exhausted but rejuvenated. He looked around, wide-eyed, as if seeing the marsh in a new light, and as he looked at the spiderwhale again he could see its beady eyes meeting his. Chaff stared at her, as Wozek crushed him in a hug that Chaff swore was going to break his ribs, and gave the beast a curt nod.
It could have just been his imagination, but the animal closed its eyes and inclined its head, as if nodding back.
Wozek finally let go, and Chaff gasped as he could breathe again. Lookout, Sinndi, and the big guy had all caught up with him.
“I don’t know what they teach you in those libraries,” said Wozek, stroking his stubble and shaking his head. “But they should keep teaching it. That’s the last time I’ll even consider turning down a plainsman in my marsh. You’re damn useful.” He paused. “And damn nosy, too.”
Chaff shared a look with Lookout, and smiled. It was true.
“I need to find the little family, Gopal and Sri. If you don’t mind, could you stay here? It’d be easier to rendezvous in a fixed location.”
“Not a problem,” said Lookout, shoving Chaff aside. “Right here, then?”
Wozek nodded. The spiderwhale moved to follow as he walked away, but he raised a hand. “Oh, no, you big lug. You stay here and rest. I can handle myself just fine out there.”
Watching the muscles moved in his toned back and shoulders as Wozek walked away, Chaff believed him.
“Man of the hour, huh?” said Lookout, as Wozek left. She patted Chaff on the back. “Come swooping in at the last second to save the day, is that right?”
Chaff shrugged sheepishly.
“That thing you did…you think you can do it again?”
The boy looked around. “I think so. Nobody else hurt, though, yeah?”
“Everybody’s fine. But, like he said. It’s damn useful.” Lookout stared at Chaff, and her expression was pensive. “I mean, Wozek seems like a nice guy, but…if it’s all the same to you, Chaff, I wouldn’t do that in front of anyone else. People might want to use you.”
“OK,” said Chaff, and that was that.
Lookout shook her head. “Look at you, anyway. Fit as a fall hopper. By the Ladies Four, I’d assume that those kinds of tricks with a tabula would be tiring as fuck.”
Chaff grinned, ear to ear. “I feel real good, Lookout.”
“You remember my theory, on how tabula worked?” Lookout stared at Chaff, her frown deepening. “I’m just wondering, about this healing people thing. If it doesn’t cost you energy…what else are you losing?”
This was getting too abstract for Chaff. “You need patching up, Lookout?” he asked, staring at the dried blood on Lookout’s forehead.
She held a hand to her head, as if she had just noticed the injury there. “No, I’m- I’m good.”
“You sure? It looks pretty bad, yeah?”
“Chaff, I’m fine.” Lookout furrowed her eyebrows, as if her own statement confused her. “I’m fine.”
They stood there, together, waiting. Behind them, the big guy seemed to be having something off a stand-off with the spiderwhale, while Sinndi perched himself comfortably on the camelopard’s back. A little sound had returned to the Quiet Marsh, although Chaff still heard no signs of life but for them.
“Chaff…” began Lookout again. “I saw what was in that tabula.”
The boy froze. His hands darted protectively to his side, and he tensed immediately.
“Relax, kid. This is a sore spot for you, I get it, but we’re just having a conversation, OK? Conversation between friends. That’s it.” Lookout folded her arms and looked at Chaff. “How long have you had it?”
“Since the Four Years’ Fallow, yeah? I always had it,” said Chaff.
“Don’t bullshit me, Chaff. I know better than that. Did you pick it up before you joined our crew? After? Somebody want you to run this girl out of the city or something?”
“I always had it,” said Chaff, shaking his head. “Nobody told me to do nothing with her.”
Lookout straightened. “So you mean to tell me, Chaff, that you picked this tabula up when you’re four years old, and you’ve been carrying it around for, what, seven years?”
“And you don’t think that’s strange?”
Chaff shook his head.
“That you’ve had it for this long, and you’ve never summoned the girl, and nothing has happened? Her Fallow time didn’t come up? The tabula didn’t activate on its own?” Lookout gaped. “You never once wondered about that? Chaff, you’re dumb.”
“Yike,” muttered Chaff. Now that Lookout mentioned it, of course it seemed a little strange. He had always assumed that it had just…turned off somehow.
“Four years is all you get, Chaff. Ever. Doesn’t matter if you’re grown-old already, if you’re separated from your tabula for four years, then assuming it hasn’t been broken and no one’s messed with it since, then you go back like that.” Lookout snapped her fingers. “Just like that. Of course it never happens because anyone stupid enough to lose their tabula isn’t going to survive another four fucking years. By all the Ladies, Chaff!” Lookout held her head in her hands. “I know you’re telling the truth because no one would try to tell a lie this stupid.”
Chaff was beginning to feel very uncomfortable. He hugged his sore shoulder and scuffed the dirt with his foot. “Doesn’t matter, yeah? Everything works out the way it should, that’s right.”
“Of course, yeah, it doesn’t matter,” said Lookout, shrugging. “It just begs the question…why?” She looked at Chaff. “Which one of you is lucky, and which one is special?”
The boy stared at the tabula, and not for the first time wondered who was really on the other side.
“OK, moving on. Ignoring that.” Lookout gripped Chaff’s chin and held his face up. “Look at me, Chaff, look at me. What was the plan? Why are you carrying it around? Why can’t you summon her? Was it something you saw her do in there, or- or are you planning on selling it, or what?”
“I’m going to give it back,” said Chaff, and this time there was no hesitation in his voice. He met Lookout’s gaze squarely. “I’m going to find her, and give it back.”
Lookout scoffed. She backed away, halfway between laughing and stunned silence. “You’re serious? Chaff, you can’t be…” She paused. “You are. That was why you left Shira Hay?”
“That’s why I come to Shira Hay.”
Chaff stood, resolutely, as Lookout paced. This was something he would not yield on. He didn’t need Lookout’s approval to finish his journey.
“When’d you make this plan, huh? When you were four summers old?” Lookout gripped Chaff’s shoulders. “Grow up, Chaff. There are better things to be spending your time on than this impossible quest. You’d be better off without this.”
“No!” Chaff said. He could feel his pulse pounding in his temple. “No, no, no.”
“Is that all you can say?” said Lookout. “Is that your whole argument? No? Is that what you’re going to tell the world when you find that she’s already been raped and killed, assuming that you find her out of all the people in Albumere? I’m telling you this because I care about you, Chaff, and I’m in this with you too. Move on. Live.”
“No, Lookout, I won’t!” said Chaff, stomping his foot down. Behind him, all the animals had fallen very still, and silent.
“Why, then? Why is this so important to you?”
“I was four years old when the world took me away!” Chaff screamed.
Lookout didn’t say anything. The marsh did not make a sound. He stood there, panting for breath, rubbing the tears from his eyes.
“I was four years old,” said Chaff. “I didn’t see another human being for another four years. That’s half my life, yeah? Half my whole life the only other face I knew was hers. Not my mama’s. Not my papa’s. Hers. So don’t tell me I’d be better off without her, because that’d just mean everyday I’ve forced myself to keep living since the hollow took me away has been for nothing.”
Chaff’s face was ruddy and red. He could barely keep himself from breaking down as the nerves and fatigue and stress clawed at the crumbling pillars that held up his sanity.
“What’s so great about life, anyway?” asked Chaff, his voice low. “Why’s it worth it without her?”
Lookout took a step forward, and Chaff flinched. She didn’t move to strike him or hurt him, though.
“If it’s that important to you,” she said, holding him close. “Then fine. OK. But, Chaff, I mean it when I say it gets better. You’ll find something worth fighting for. Something else.”
Chaff didn’t say anything. The thought that there was something more was almost heretical.
“Come on, then. Enough of this,” said Lookout, letting him go. She sat heavily on the ground. “Hey, you still got that book? Let’s take a peek.”
The boy dashed to the big guy’s side and, to his utter shock, found that the book was intact. “Thanks, big guy,” he said, grinning, and the camelopard spat on his face by way of reply.
“Hey, Lookout,” Chaff said, as he handed the heavy volume over to the girl. “I got a question.”
“Go for it,” she said, opening the cover delicately. “I know the answer.”
Chaff thought back to the bark-made man, who was already fading into a distant memory. There was something it had said that stuck with him, though. “What’s a martyr?” he asked, as they settled down to read and wait.
Lookout stared at him for a long time. “It means…” She paused. “Well, Chaff, it means someone who dies for his cause.”
Adrenaline pumped through Chaff’s body like liquid fire. In that instant, he took in everything around him. Visibility was significantly impaired by the thick mist, as was mobility by the mud and marsh water. Al Innai seemed to stand on the only piece of dry land in sight, wrapped as it was by the engorged tree root. Straight-backed pines jutted from the water, with even straighter branches fanning out in every direction. They would take his weight, Chaff was sure. Would they take a grown man’s?
In that split second, Chaff made his decision. “Up and out, big guy!” he shouted, leaping onto the strait of dry land. He weaved past Al Innai, heading straight for the tallest tree he could see. It was still nothing compared to the behemoth that the great root fed, but it was a start. It could have been just an inch higher than Al Innai’s reach and Chaff wouldn’t have cared, so long as he was safe.
Al Innai turned leisurely, tossing a limp owlcrow onto the ground. The bird twitched weakly, its wings bent at grotesque angles, but Chaff did not have time to worry about that.
“Give us a little chase, wild child,” said Al Innai, rolling his head and cracking the bones in his neck. “Give the Ladies a little entertainment tonight.”
Chaff jumped, wincing as his calloused feet found purchase on the rough bark. He looked over his shoulder. Where was the big guy?
The camelopard cantered towards him, towards safety, when Al Innai struck. Chaff gaped in utter shock as Al Innai took one long stride forward, and with his other leg pivoted and swept under the big guy’s body. While he was under the camelopard’s belly, Al Innai forced his hands upwards. For a brief moment, the man hoisted the five-meter beast bodily off the ground, and the camelopard’s hooves kicked at empty air.
Then Al Innai pushed. Essentially flipping the big guy to his side, the Kennya Noni fighter heaved the camelopard off of him, and the big guy landed with a shuddering thud on the ground. His breath not even labored, his walk measured and composed, Al Innai strolled back towards Chaff, leaving the boy’s friend kicking and struggling in the mud.
Pragmatism kicked in. Chaff hauled himself upward, digging in with his hands and feet as he desperately gained height. His arms were thin, and scrawny: he had never been quite as fast as the other racers.
At last, Chaff reached a branch so thin and whippy that it could not hold even his weight. He looked down, and immediately regretted it. It was a dizzying drop down, and Chaff knew from experience that the water would do nothing to soften the fall. It would hit him harder than a brick wall. He tightened his grip. This was the safest place for him to be. His friends on the ground, however…
“You crazy, yeah?” shouted Chaff, as Al Innai walked, apparently unconcerned, up to the base of the tree. “You come all this way, Innai-Innai? Just for me?”
“You walk with me, you follow my rules. You break my rules, I lay down the law.” Al Innai craned his head upward as he approached. “Royya left after your little escapade, you know that? Crazy bitch just disappeared. That, and your little friend, and so your run took out half my fucking group. Half my manpower, half my eyes. You think I’m just gonna let that go?”
“So you go through the whole marsh?” shouted Chaff, incredulously. “Just to get me?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, kid, I’ve got nowhere to go back to. Shira Hay is at war.” Al Innai cracked his knuckles. “It’s real simple, kid. You made my life miserable. Now I’m gonna end yours.”
And he leaped.
Chaff could not believe how fast Al Innai moved. The boy had been right about the tree not holding the grown man’s weight, but that wasn’t stopping the plainsman. Al Innai clawed at the tree, launching himself up bark that crumbled even as he climbed.
The boy cast wild eyes around. His treacherous sanctuary had ensnared him. The other trees stood a taunting distance away from him, beckoning with their outstretched branches. Chaff braced himself. It was a manageable distance.
He shook his head. These were not the roofs of Shira Hay anymore. A wild jump could send him flying past his target, and while Chaff might not have been the smartest urchin on the block, he had survived all those years by not taking unnecessary risks.
The only out was down.
Chaff could waste no time regretting his decision. He took a deep breath and hopped to the next lowest branch, just as Al Innai crawled up to meet him. The fighter’s hand grabbed Chaff’s ankle, and Chaff felt his stomach leap to his throat as he pivoted around Al Innai’s arm.
Dangling upside down, Chaff had a second to react. The boy reached out for the nearest branch, and despite his misgivings, pulled. Using the branch as a platform to propel himself out of Al Innai’s grip, Chaff dragged his body down. Gravity helped, and Al Innai let go with a startled grunt as the boy hurled himself towards a fall that would kill him. They were both falling now, scraping at the trunk of the tree and each other as the ground raced towards them.
His fingers dug into the bark. Chaff roared in pain as the wood snapped and stabbed at his hand, long splinters digging into his fingernails, but he could not let go. He flailed as he fell, and his other hand closed around a sturdy support.
Tears rose unbidden in Chaff’s eyes as his arm jerked. There was an audible, hollow sound: the click and pop of bone as Chaff’s shoulder was pulled out of its socket. He hung there, fingers frozen out of shock, his dislocated shoulder throbbing.
Blinking rapidly, Chaff looked around. He had seconds before his hand gave out and let go. Where was the enemy? Where was Al Innai?
He dropped, and a jarring pain ran through his body as he landed on his tailbone. Chaff winced, propping himself up on his uninjured arm. His vision spun as he tried to get his bearings; everything below was mud brown, everything above was misty white. Al Innai could have been two feet from him and he wouldn’t have been able to tell.
“Big guy?” shouted Chaff, his mouth dry. “Lookout?”
He stumbled forward, and his foot prodded a body. Chaff fell to his knees. “Lookout?” he whispered, holding her chin, her face. Blood crusted the side of her head, and her head was twisted at an odd angle. She wasn’t moving.
“Lookout?” Chaff asked, again. He blinked tears from his eyes, and they had nothing to do with the pain in his shoulder. “Lookout, I need you.”
She didn’t respond.
Uncontrollable gasps began to shake Chaff’s body. “Lookout, please, please,” he whimpered. “It…it does get tiring. Leaving people behind. It gets tiring, yeah? So please don’t leave me behind. Please, Lookout, please. I don’t want to live in a world of strangers.”
He grabbed Lookout’s wrist and shook her arm. He couldn’t see anything but a watery blur, couldn’t hear anything but a static buzz. But he could feel the ache in his chest. He could feel the black loneliness surround him again. He could feel…
Chaff could feel a pulse.
Cold relief washed over him at the same time as a wave of fear. He had to get Lookout out, now. He wouldn’t go through losing her again.
Chaff could barely breathe, his muscles hurt so much, as he put his arms under Lookout’s shoulders and began to drag her away. She was bigger than him, and heavier, although that wasn’t saying much. Chaff dragged her through the mud, panting, sweating. “Big guy!” he shouted. “Big guy, I can use some help!”
He searched the mist for the big guy’s familiar silhouette, but it was nowhere to be seen. Where had he gone? Had he, too, been injured when Al Innai had pushed him aside? “It’s me you want, Innai!” shouted Chaff, cheeks flushed. “It’s me! Leave the rest of them alone!”
“Make me,” growled a voice from behind him, and before Chaff could turn or run, something hit him in the back of the head so hard he nearly blacked out.
He crawled backwards out of pure reflex, as Al Innai advanced on him. It struck Chaff just how calm the Kennya Noni fighter was, how deliberate and relaxed his actions were. How many times had he laid down his law? How many times had he killed children in the wilds?
“You don’t pay attention to what I tell you to do,” said Al Innai, and he pressed his foot on Chaff’s chest. Mud splattered Chaff’s shirt. “Why should I pay any heed to you?” Al Innai stared at Chaff. His expression seemed almost bored, except for his eyes. They were alight, and burning with anger a sane man couldn’t hope to achieve.
Chaff couldn’t respond. Half submerged in mud and marsh water, he couldn’t seem to draw breath as Al Innai pressed and pressed, and black spots were beginning to appear in his already spinning vision.
“Maybe I’ll bury you instead of your book. Maybe the Lady Fall will like you if you’re still squirming,” Al Innai mused, as Chaff’s weak fingers clawed ineffectually at Al Innai’s ankle.
The boy’s head fell to the side. He saw him again, a silhouette in the mist. The bark-made man watched with eyes made of amber, always at a distance, never quite close enough for Chaff to make out the details.
Chaff didn’t have the breath for words anymore, but he had enough energy to mouth the word.
“Help,” he whispered.
And then several things happened at once.
A bass roar filled the marsh, a deep and terrible sound that shook Chaff’s very bones. The thunderous bellow continued to crescendo, and as Chaff stared at the wooden man’s silhouette something else emerged from behind it in the mist.
The poltergeist of the marsh had swollen to three or four times its previous size. It barreled past the bark-made man, sweeping him aside with a crushing blow that Chaff swore could have toppled one of the great hollow trees of Shira Hay. The poltergeist seemed more beast than man, a writhing mess of vines and sloshing water that galloped forward on all fours, and even as it ran it seemed to grow in size.
At the same time, the big guy arrived. Eyes wild, prancing with nervous energy, the camelopard ran straight for Chaff—and he wasn’t alone.
Behind him rode the marshman Wozek, and the monstrous spiderwhale. Gopal and Sri were there, too, clinging for dear life to the spiderwhale’s back. “Where the hell are you taking-!?” shouted Wozek, but he stopped. He had seen.
Al Innai didn’t have time to cry out. He stepped off Chaff’s chest, eyes widening, mouth gaping, and was just about to sprint away when a vine-made hand with too many fingers closed around his waist. Chaff gasped for breath, unable to take his eyes away from the Kennya Noni fighter as he kicked and struggled in the now gargantuan poltergeist’s fist.
“Piece of the father, tried to kill our brother,” mumbled the poltergeist, in the same, mournful tones, except now its voice echoed throughout the marsh. “Doesn’t he know? Our essence is energy, and energy never dies.”
Al Innai beat his fists on the poltergeist’s hand, but the poltergeist did not even seem to notice.
“Our essence is energy,” it repeated, its sad green eyes flickering. “And energy never dies.”
Its other hand closed around Al Innai’s head, and Chaff could hear Al Innai’s terrified scream suddenly muffled by the mass of vines and plant matter. There was a creek, a groan like timber falling as the poltergeist’s arms stiffened, and then the poltergeist pulled.
Chaff saw Al Innai’s spine rip out of his body as his entire torso was torn from his waist. Blood spattered the ground, dark scarlet rain that landed on Chaff’s face. The boy felt ready to be sick as both halves of Al Innai’s body fell from the poltergeist’s hands: his head and shoulders crushed to a pulp, his lower body leaking guts and shit.
The boy backed away, twitching and shuddering, as slowly, inexorably, the poltergeist’s face turned towards them. The jade fire in its eyes seemed to burn hotter than the sun and stars.
“Hunger, hunger, can’t be sated,” it muttered, staring. “Green star, mother of spiders, she’s inside me. Can’t be helped. Sorry, sooorrry.” Its voice deepened and distorted on the last word, as it took a step forward.
“Lookout, wake up!” shouted Chaff, pulling at the girl’s shoulders. He slapped her cheek, the adrenaline overriding the pain in his shoulder and chest. “Lookout, we have to go! We have to go now!”
The big guy nickered and reared, biting down on Chaff’s collar and pulling him away. Behind him, the spiderwhale clicked and hissed, as Wozek shouted for Gopal and Sri to get to safety.
“Big guy, we can’t go now! Lookout!” Chaff struggled and twisted, his shirt tearing as he tore free. His tabula clattered into the mud as he stumbled away, but he didn’t care. “We can’t go without her! We’re not leaving her behind!”
The first impact between the poltergeist and the spiderwhale was nowhere near close enough to touch Chaff, and yet it still knocked him off his feet. The poltergeist cracked a fist over the spiderwhale’s back that could have crushed a house flat, while the beast dug mandibles into the poltergeist’s waist from which water leaked like blood. A humming so loud that it echoed with their titanic blows came from Wozek, as the marshman held on tight to the spiderwhale’s back.
Chaff watched with shock and awe as he knelt in the mud, his body taxed to the limit.
And overhead, he heard a familiar screech.
Sinndi’s flight was crooked, yes, barely even off the ground, but she was flying. And if the owlcrow was conscious, that meant…
“What the fuck did you do, Chaff?” shouted Lookout. She gripped her head as she rose, stumbling away from the fight the moment she raised her head. “Where’s Al Innai? Did he summon that?”
Her gaze slid downwards to the body, or at least half a body, sinking into the swamp, and she rolled over, retching.
“Let’s go now, big guy,” said Chaff, limping forward. “Now’s the time to go, yeah?” He bent down to collect his tabula, but no sooner had he done so when another impact knocked him flat.
“Essence burning, five in one,” said the poltergeist, staggering away towards Chaff and Lookout. The spiderwhale was alive, as was Wozek, but three of the spiderwhale’s great legs looked to have been snapped in two and it was bleeding profusely from its right side. “There shall be four, and a fifth to come.”
“Chaff…” muttered Lookout. “Please tell me you’re on good terms with that thing.”
Chaff answered by running. He didn’t know how he was going to get out of this one, but running seemed like a good way to start.
“All rivers flow to the sea,” muttered the poltergeist. Chaff tripped! He went sprawling into the mud, the tabula in his hands falling into the mud. They tumbled out, three golden disks that reflected the green fire in the poltergeist’s eyes. “All rivers flow to me.”
As Chaff struggled to rise, he saw Lookout bend down to collect his tabula. She looked at them, and then at Chaff, and then at the monster looming above him.
“Fuck it,” said Lookout, grabbing one of the tabula. “Whatever you’ve been holding out on us, Chaff, it better be good.”
Chaff looked up. It wasn’t his tabula, or the big guy’s. It had a single crack running down its face.
“Not here,” Chaff whispered, tears running down his mud-streaked face. “Not here.” But there was nothing he could do to stop her.
The spiderwhale clicked its mandibles together, bare inches from Chaff’s face. Eyes that were almost comically small compared to the rest of its body leered at him, and he shrunk behind the body of the big guy as it stared at him hungrily.
The man on its back slipped off easily, landing with a splash in the marsh water. “Strangers do not come often to the Quiet Marsh,” said the man. He stood like some fierce apparition before them, brown skin decorated with dyes and paints and tattoos. “Goodman Gopal, you let those who are not kazakhani walk so freely?”
Gopal shrugged. “You let me walk free, Wozek, when I first came. They deserve at least that chance.” He seemed entirely unperturbed by the presence of the massive spiderwhale, although Jiralla flapped agitatedly overhead. The bathawk was barely restrained violence and anger, snapping and squawking from a perch that had not yet been knocked askew by Wozek’s behemoth.
Wozek crossed his arms. “There was no war, then. Now I hear of such things as the Rape of Alswell from my messengers, and have cause to fear for my people. Two plainsmen come to my home. What would you have me do?”
“What children could bring war here?” asked Gopal. “The plainsmen have never been bloodthirsty. You have nothing to fear.”
The marshman considered Gopal for a moment, before turning back to Chaff and Lookout. “Let me see your tabula,” he said. “Just a precaution.”
Chaff met Lookout’s eyes, and she nodded. He dug his disk out of his belt and held it in front of him, close to his chest. He didn’t have much else of an option, with the eight-eyed beast staring down at him.
“They’re not slave spies either,” said Gopal, exasperatedly. “They just want to get through the marsh.”
Wozek’s face darkened immediately. “To where?” he asked. “The city of Kazakhal? The Maw? Or the deserts beyond?”
“Moscoleon,” said Chaff. “The Temple Moscoleon.” He hadn’t told Gopal or Sri that yet (or, now that Chaff thought about it, even Lookout), but at those words both Gopal and Sri immediately stiffened. He wondered if he had said something wrong.
“Pious,” remarked Wozek. He nodded. “Well, who am I to stop a pair of faithful pilgrims? Come, I shall go along with you. You are welcome to spend the night with us, so long as you spend just the night.”
He lifted himself bodily onto the back of the spiderwhale, slinging himself into the saddle on the creature’s back. Chaff had heard before the marshmen followed strength above all other things, but just how strong did one of their leaders have to be? The boy patted the big guy on the side. “No riding now,” he whispered. “We separate, we harder to catch, yeah?”
The big guy tossed his head, and did not take his eyes off of the spiderwhale. Wozek sat comfortably atop his mount, waiting for Chaff and Lookout to move first.
“Come on,” said Sri, pulling on Chaff’s hand. “We don’t want to keep Wozek waiting.”
“Who is he?” Chaff whispered, as they walked away. He tried to keep his voice low, although the marsh was so quiet that his voice carried anyway.
Sri looked over her shoulder. She, like Gopal, did not seem concerned by the spiderwhale or the man riding it. “He’s the leader of the village down the way. They come and go with the seasons, but he always makes sure to visit us when they’re here.”
“He impatient or something?” asked Chaff.
“Just very important,” said Sri. “He has places to be, people to talk to.” She leaned over and whispered, much quieter, “They say he used to run with a Jhidnu traveling circus before he came to Kazakhal. He’s very much kazakhani now, though.”
Chaff was about to respond when the sudden crashing footfalls of the spiderwhale began in earnest, as the beast stepped clear over the two of them. Chaff had to jump out of the way of its massive tail as Wozek steered it forward, and shielded his book with his body as water splashed over them.
He exchanged a look with the big guy, and they slogged on. The further in they walked, the deeper the marsh grew, and Chaff was beginning to tire of wading through the muck. Goosebumps spotted his bare skin, and he was cold and dripping and exhausted. The sun was up there somewhere, but its warmth could not penetrate the fog or the mist.
“So…” said Sri, softly. “You’re going to Moscoleon?”
Chaff nodded. He was about to tell Sri why, but then bit his tongue. Perhaps it was better not to.
“We were going to go there, once.” Sri’s expression was distant. “I would be careful. The road is dangerous, even when it doesn’t seem like it.”
“OK,” said Chaff, simply. He looked around, trying to think of something to say to fill the awkward silence. “Thanks for defending us back there, yeah?”
Sri shook her head. “That was all Gopal. I think he feels like he owes something to…your people.” She looked Chaff in the eye, and Chaff did not break her gaze. She had rather pretty eyes, bright and brown, that were too often hidden behind the hair falling around her face. “Chaff, did I ever tell you about Rituu?”
Chaff pursed his lips. If she had, he didn’t remember it. “Who that?” he asked.
“He was like a dad to me,” said Sri. “He and Gopal took me in when I was just a kid. They bought me off a slave auction, and then they freed me, just like that. He and Gopal…they loved each other.”
Sri stopped. Chaff turned to look at her; she seemed apprehensive, and was biting her lip, waiting for Chaff to answer. “Yeah?” he said. “So?”
“You don’t think that’s…weird?”
Chaff made a face. “Nah,” he said. “Love’s like kings and gods, yeah? What’s it got to do with me? People always yelling about the Ladies and the Seat and the revolution, but if they don’t do nothing to me then they don’t mean nothing to me. Maybe some elector in the Libraries got something to say ‘bout it, but not me, yeah?” He gestured for Sri to follow. “Come on! They’re getting ahead of us.”
Sri smiled and bounded ahead to catch up.
“So what about this Rituu?” asked Chaff. “Why he so special?”
“He was the biggest fibber there ever was, for one,” said Sri. “Just the grandest imagination there ever was, always telling stories about how he was the prince of this nation or that or how he had sailed past the three seas when he wasn’t yet grown-old. And he did have quite a few really amazing true stories. He was from Shira Hay, you know? Wandered all across the south, even went up north as far as Mont Don once.”
“Where’s he now?” asked Chaff.
Sri paused. She looked down. “In the owl’s embrace,” she said, her voice firm but her tone somber. “With the Lady Winter. That’s what I was telling you, about the road being dangerous. When I had seen seven summers, we, Gopal and Rituu and I, all decided to go to Moscoleon. It had gotten dangerous in the east, with the plutocrats pulling their guardsmen off the roads and the king not doing anything about it, and we just thought…it’d be a better place to go. You know that song, The Road to Moscoleon?”
Chaff shook his head.
Sri hummed the tune, singing softly, just like she had sung the old marshman children’s rhyme. “The road to the Temple is watched by the Ladies. The Ladies! The Ladies! In Moscoleon! Both prayers and blessings alike, they shall these. They say these! They say these! In Moscoleon! It just seemed like a good place to go.” She sighed, deeply. “So we took the back road, and one day, while we’re going through it, we meet this girl. She leads us back to an inn, and we find out that she’s been adopted by a couple too—a man and a woman, not like Gopal and Rituu.”
The path had become much easier to walk with the spiderwhale clearing a path for them, although Chaff did not pay much attention to what was up ahead. He focused on Sri.
“Rituu decided that it was a good time to teach me how to use a tabula. I was a slave first, even if only for a little bit, so I never had one of my own. The girl takes her first, too. The plan was to learn together.” Sri closed her eyes and shook her head. “It just went wrong. She summoned her beast first. It was too strong, too aggressive, too powerful. I don’t know why she did it alone, but she couldn’t control it. And the wounds…she must have died. I can’t imagine anyone surviving that.”
It was like the kids in the ghettoes that didn’t belong to a gang or a crew. Easy mistakes to make, with no one to watch out for them, got them killed on Albumere.
“She was just a kid, the kind to rush into things. She didn’t know any better, and it was no one’s fault. It was like a wild child dying, it just happened. But the woman who took care of her, she was so angry.” Sri held up her hands like she was holding something. “We all found that girl, lying there, at the same time. The woman got Rituu by the throat, and she kept screaming, ‘You did this!’ Over and over again. ‘You did this, you did this!’ Gopal tried to stop her, but she had this beast, this animal that came after me and…he had to choose. We didn’t fight, we just ran.”
There was silence. Sri’s story was over. Chaff looked ahead, and realized that Gopal and Wozek hadn’t been talking either. Their heads were just slightly turned their way, and their mouths were shut.
Sri cleared her throat. “So be careful, OK? Be careful on the road to Moscoleon.”
“You hear that, Lookout?” said Chaff. “We gotta…” He stopped. “Lookout?”
He spun around. She was nowhere to be seen. Immediately, sweat broke out on Chaff’s forehead. Hadn’t Sri’s story been about a girl who wandered off on her own? And now Lookout was somewhere, by herself, in this cursed marsh?
“Come on, big guy,” he said, dragging himself out of the water and onto the big guy’s back. “You seen her? You know where to go?”
The big guy’s long neck twisted as he looked from side to side. Even if he hadn’t seen her, he had better chances than Chaff ever would.
“Wait, Chaff!” shouted Sri. “This marsh is dangerous! You could drown!”
“She could drown!”
The pounding of the spiderwhale’s feet stopped, as Wozek turned. “What is the boy doing?” he shouted. “Where is he going?”
“I be right back!” shouted Chaff. The big guy bounded out of the water, twisting to go back the way they had come. Chaff felt a sudden, horrible vertigo as the big guy’s hoof slipped in the mud and his knee buckled, but the camelopard righted itself before falling into the marsh. Bleating, the big guy slowed just enough to prevent another fall. Even so, Chaff’s mouth became very dry. The big guy had sunk to his knees in that pit; how deep might Lookout have fallen?
To his surprise, Wozek was not following him. Chaff supposed it made sense: so long as he ran away from Wozek’s village and not towards it, he wasn’t a threat. All the same, if their positions were reversed, Chaff would have stopped Wozek to make sure he wasn’t going back to get help or allies to-.
Chaff shook his head. That was an urchin’s way of thinking. The urchins were treacherous, murderous scumbags, and thinking like them wouldn’t help find Lookout. Just the opposite, in fact.
There were no tracks in the water, but Chaff saw footprints in the mud on higher ground. “Up, up,” he said. “That way, big guy.”
A white mist clung around them, so dense that Chaff could barely see at all. He kept looking over his shoulder; he knew the way back to Sri and Gopal, he was sure of it, but nonetheless it would be very easy to get lost in the fog…
He yelped and grabbed for the big guy’s mane as the ground sloped steeply upward. “Lookout!” he shouted. “Where you go? We gotta get back to them, yeah? They gon’ show us the way out, that’s right.”
The Quiet Marsh had only its usual response.
Chaff did not know how long he walked back, calling for Lookout. He needed to find her. He couldn’t just leave her behind. Every step forward, though, felt like he was getting left behind himself. How long would Sri wait for him? How long until Wozek decided enough was enough?
“Lookout!” shouted Chaff. “If I do something wrong, I sorry!”
He looked around, waiting.
A figure moved in the mist, and Chaff froze. His heart beat very fast. It looked like a man, and the last time he had seen a man in the mist it had been less than settling. At this moment, he wanted nothing more than a torch: not to light the figure, but to burn it.
He heard a faint mumbling. “Little by little, big guy,” said Chaff. “You see what I see?”
The big guy flicked his tail and nickered.
“Quiet now,” whispered Chaff, as they approached the shadow. The mist swirled, so that at one moment it seemed to be just ahead of them, and the next it was several body-lengths away. The closer they got, the less human it appeared, and Chaff was just about to give it up as a tree stump or rock when it moved again.
“Lookout?” he called out, forgetting his own admonition to be quiet. “You there? We can use you right now…”
Again, he heard a low mumbling. He strained his ears, but couldn’t make out the words. “You stay, big guy,” he said, slowly clambering off the camelopard’s back. “Don’t you go running off too, I don’t have no patience to go looking for you.” The boy reached into his belt and his tabula, ready as he approached the figure.
He caught the end of its muttering. “…to the sea,” it sighed, in a deep, mournful voice, so deep that it seemed to shake Chaff’s very bones. “All rivers flow to the sea. All rivers flow to me…”
Chaff edged forward, resolving in his heart of hearts that Kazakhal was the weirdest place on Albumere.
The figure shambled forward slowly, wading through the water. Chaff could make out something that looked vaguely like a head, draped with vines like dreadlocks, and its hunched back, all covered in moss and vegetation. It stumbled forward, deeper into the mist, and hesitantly Chaff followed.
“What you doing standing there, big guy? Let’s go!” hissed Chaff.
The big guy tossed his head, annoyed, and descended back into the water to follow.
Chaff followed at a safe distance, although he didn’t know what distance was safe for this thing. Its arms were like rope made out of twisted roots, and they descended into the water, going too deep for Chaff to see where they ended. In fact, Chaff could only see the creature from its waist up, as the rest of its body swayed and rocked through the water.
“All rivers flow to the sea,” it continued to mumble. “All rivers flow to me.”
“You know where Lookout is?” Chaff asked, his voice small and quiet. The shambling thing did not respond, and Chaff shrugged at the big guy. “It like a two-part beastie, yeah? Like a plantman or something. Can humans be part of two-part beasties? It’s not like we two-part alr-.”
The monster cut Chaff off as it can began to make heaving, retching sounds. Chaff watched with horrified fascination as it stopped, swayed, and swelled, the vines that seemed to either make up or surround its body expanding until finally brackish water began to spew from approximately where its mouth should have been. Great waves of the stuff hit Chaff in the chest, and he had to cling to the big guy’s leg for support as it washed over him. The creature continued to vomit water into the marsh, the vines covering its body tensing and twisting and snapping as it did.
“Yike,” gasped Chaff, spitting water out of his mouth. He had fallen under, but the hand holding the wobbling book had managed to stay dry. “You take this, big guy, I don’t want to deal with it no more,” he muttered, tying it around the camelopard’s neck with his scarf. He looked back at the shambling figure, which had resumed its plodding journey forward.
“How long you think it’s been doing that?” he breathed, as he followed further. It was against his better judgment to stay so close to something he understood so little, but Chaff’s curiosity itched to be sated. He had to know just what this thing was. Perhaps Lookout had thought the same, and by following it he would find her.
Another shadow loomed in the mist, and Chaff held his breath. It grew larger and larger as they approached, and as the details and shapes began to break through the fog Chaff realized what it was.
It was a gigantic tree root. Like some bulbous, bloated snake, it stretched on in front of Chaff; its full size could not even be seen for the fog, but Chaff was sure it had to be massive.
“How’d that song go again, big guy?” asked Chaff. “The one Sri sang us? Poltergeist that haunts the hollow, hung himself where none could follow…” Chaff hummed tunelessly to himself as he gently touched the great root. He followed along it, behind the poltergeist of the marsh, but he could see neither the trunk of the root nor the tree it fed.
“Must be a big tree,” said Chaff, to the big guy. “A real big tree.”
He heard it again. A distressed, choking sound echoed through the marsh, and even though Chaff lagged so far behind the poltergeist, he could still feel the waves lapping at his submerged legs. He stared at the ground, thinking. If Sri was to be believed, the poltergeist was located at the center of the marsh.
Perhaps, Chaff thought, the exact center.
Chaff followed the poltergeist, wondering just how long it would take a man, even a man such as it, to puke an entire swamp into existence. He made a face. “That’s really gross,” he said, to the big guy, and the big guy flicked an ear in agreement.
They caught up to the thing easily, it moved so slowly. Chaff wondered if he was the first to think of the theory. Surely other people had seen this thing; surely they had left with their lives? The poltergeist hardly seemed to be a threat at all. Perhaps, Chaff thought, with a little glow in his heart, he wasn’t as dumb as he thought he was. He wanted to tell Lookout.
“All rivers flow to the sea…” the man continued to mumble. “All rivers flow to me…”
This was taking too long. “You talk, yeah? You tell me where my friend is, that OK?” said Chaff, and he reached out to tap the poltergeist on the protrusion that appeared to be its shoulder.
The poltergeist stiffened immediately. It turned so that its waist looked like a twisted up roll of cloth, and stared at Chaff. Its arms dangled by its sides, and while at first Chaff had assumed the thing didn’t have a face, now he saw two spots in its “head,” glowing points like jade green fire.
Then it tackled him into the water, moaning. Chaff coughed and spluttered, struggling to sit up, but the weight of the thing held him down. He managed to hold his head above the water and sucked in breath, spitting the marsh out of the corners of his mouth. It took a few seconds for him to realize that the poltergeist was not holding him down. It was just…holding him.
“Father, father,” it moaned. “Brother, son. War we lost, can’t be won. Father, father, we did wrong. Now he’s got us, now we’re done. Took us apart and put us back together! Arms for legs, eyes for ears, disk made of sap where our hearts should be!”
Chaff stared at the poltergeist, at its burning green eyes, inside the slack jaw made of vines, not even sure where to begin his questions. Before he could, though, he heard a sudden humming.
The surface of the water rippled as the vibrations shook the marsh itself. The poltergeist slid off of Chaff, and the boy fell back into the water. When he emerged, wiping the grit of the swamp from his eyes, Chaff saw it again. The man made of bark, standing just so he was shrouded in the mist.
“Brother, brother, sister fair,” mumbled the poltergeist, shambling away, resuming its lonely walk. “You’re not going anywhere…”
Chaff ignored it. He did not have time for the ravings of an old ghost. It was the master he wanted.
The humming had stopped as soon as the poltergeist walked away, and the bark-made man had disappeared as soon as the humming had stopped. Chaff grit his teeth together, running as fast as he could through the deepest part of the marsh, searching for a figure in the mist.
There! He saw it! Chaff set out in a headlong run, determined to catch him.
Chaff stumbled to a halt when the figure came into view. It was not the bark-made man. It was a man made of flesh and blood, with a prone Lookout lying at his feet, with a struggling Sinndi in his hands. His hair was tangled and disheveled, and there were shadows on his face like he had not slept for days.
“Found you,” whispered Al Innai, with murder in his eyes.
Grinning ear to ear, Chaff raised his foot. “Look at this, Lookout! My toes are all wrinkled!”
“That is…adorable, Chaff,” deadpanned Lookout. “That is so interesting.”
Chaff wiggled his toes, immensely proud of his himself. “It’s ‘cause we been walking in water all day, yeah? I don’t walk in water much. Just the river every week or two when I need a wash.”
“You are very intelligent,” said Lookout, not looking up. If Chaff didn’t know any better, he’d say she wasn’t listening to him.
A straight, rigid tree emerged from the mud like some jagged tooth. She leaned against it, fiddling with her tabula. Sinndi sat on the branch above her, wings tucked firmly by her sides, her flat face turning slowly, side to side. Ever since the run-in with the bathawk, Lookout had been wary of sending her owlcrow up to scout again.
Chaff tapped the big guy on the side, when it became clear Lookout wasn’t interested in talking. “You ever see this many trees all together, big guy?” said Chaff, looking around. “There’s a name for a grove this big, yeah? Gotta be. All these trees so straight and skinny too.”
His neck outstretched, his big lips pulled back to reveal teeth shaped like tombstones, the big guy cast a baleful look in Chaff’s direction. He flicked his ear, and continued to browse the nearby foliage, although there were so few leaves here that Chaff wasn’t sure if it was worth the effort.
“You standing real straight, big guy,” said Chaff, craning his head up to look at him. The big guy’s head was so high up that Chaff felt he could lose him in the morning fog. “What, you don’t like trees being taller than you?”
The big guy snapped off an entire branch with his teeth, dropped it to the ground, and began to pulverize it with his hooves. Chaff took that as a yes.
“This place different, yeah?” said Chaff, swatting away something that was buzzing around his ear. It flew away with a forlorn hum, and Chaff watched it go. He noticed suddenly the quiet of the marsh. The river Gammon had always been loud with the sound of merchants; the waterholes by the groves had always been crowded within a few hours. Yet, here, there was not a sound. It was like someone had stuffed cotton in Chaff’s ears, and he became intensely aware of the sound of his own breathing, the rise and fall of his chest.
“How you doing, big guy?” asked Chaff, uncomfortably aware of the loudness of his own voice. “You doing OK? Them two marshmen gonna come back soon, don’t you worry.”
No response. Evidently the big guy didn’t feel like talking either (not that he ever did). Chaff tried Lookout again.
“What you doing, Lookout?”
“Sleeping,” she said. “Can’t you see that I’m sleeping, Chaff? I am obviously asleep.”
“Oh. OK.” Chaff sat in the mud, hugging his knees. “You having nice dreams?”
Lookout scrunched up her face, pinching the bridge of her nose. “The very best.”
“What’s it about?”
Lookout sighed. She looked at Chaff, met his gaze, and pursed her lips. Above her, Sinndi focused her gaze on Chaff as well. “It’s a memory, actually,” Lookout said, finally. “About a boy named Walls.”
Chaff sniggered. Even by Shira Hay wild child standards, it was a funny name. “Walls?” he asked. “I gotta know the story behind that.”
“It’s not a long one. Kind of stupid, actually. We were a team back in the day. The Lookout on the Walls, you know?”
Chaff raised an eyebrow. “You are…on him?” he asked, slowly.
Shifting from her place on the tree, Lookout stood straight and rolled her eyes. “And his mind goes straight to the spring flowers. Should have known better than to bring that up around a boy your age.”
“Do I say something wrong?” asked Chaff, blinking. He stared at Lookout, confused.
Lookout paused. Both Chaff and Lookout stared at each other for a long time; Chaff was waiting for an answer, while Lookout seemed wary. “That wasn’t innuendo?” she asked, finally.
“Chaff, you’re dumb,” said Lookout, although she seemed relieved. “Moving on.” She closed her eyes and leaned back against her tree.
“Wait, wait, wait!” Chaff jumped to his feet, mud clumps falling onto the ground and his feet. “I want to know more. What’d you guys do together? As a team?”
A small grin split Lookout’s lips, although she didn’t open her eyes. “Stole things. All kinds of things. Food at first, then little trinkets. Walls broke into the Twin Libraries once. You know the electors keep their best books chained to the shelves? Didn’t stop him. Snapped it, stole it, got away. That was the other reason for his name. Not a single wall could keep him out, or in.”
Chaff imagined this Walls character like Shimmy: thin, lanky, always full of nervous energy. Shimmy was always climbing things, too. “Was he part of Tattle’s crew once?” asked Chaff.
The grin vanished from Lookout’s face. “Yeah. Once.”
Her sudden change in mood made Chaff step away. As he tried to think about what he had said wrong, something dawned on Chaff. That day, by the river, when they had wandered too near the Alswell wagon…the boy Lookout had talked to, the slave…
“Lookout,” he said, slowly. “Was he the old runaway guy?”
Lookout didn’t speak for at least a minute. The quiet of the marsh swirled around them, dense and thick as fog. “They got his name wrong. Called him Walsh after they caught him.”
Chaff was silent, thinking about how he had replaced Lookout’s close friend. It felt all wrong. He didn’t run fast enough, Lookout had said, all that time ago. It had seemed so callous at the time, but now it just seemed…hurt.
“He was stupid. We were stupid. Everyone thinks it, but we were cocky enough to try it, you know? Rob the fields. Rob one of the farmer’s mansions, even. Hurricane was dead-set on going back, and Walls thought that he was good enough to get out, I suppose.”
“But you can find him, can’t you?” asked Chaff. He held the girl’s tabula tightly in his hands. “You can always find the people that are important, yeah?”
Lookout’s head rolled as she turned to look at him. “I told you, Chaff. They burned him. They hung the body over the bridge.” Her voice shook. “We were going to steal him back. The whole crew promised, once we got out, that we were going steal him back. And then we lost Veer, too…”
Chaff stared at the ground. Lookout had tried so hard to get her friend back, but before she had been able to do it Albumere had killed him.
That wouldn’t happen with the girl. He wouldn’t let it happen to the girl.
“Do you miss them?” asked Chaff, after a while. “Him? And Veer?” Veer had been nice to him, Chaff remembered. If not nice, at least friendly. She deserved more than what he had been able to give her.
“I’m asleep,” said Lookout, and she really did sound tired now. “I’m dreaming, Chaff. It’s the best dream. Please don’t wake me up.”
He crept away without saying anything. “Watch out for her,” said Chaff, patting the big guy on the side, and the big guy flicked his ear in response. “I’m going to go find the guides. We want to get going, yeah?”
Chaff walked away without looking back, his feet squelching in the mud. He needed a moment to himself.
The quiet became that much more apparent when Chaff was alone. He made sure to keep the big guy in sight, but as the distance grew between them, the silence around Chaff deepened, and the fluttering in his gut grew. Lookout’s story had been disconcerting. Chaff furrowed his eyebrows. It wasn’t fear he was feeling…
It had shaken his conviction, he realized. Chaff shook his head. That was such a dangerous thought that he could not risk dwelling on it. He would find the girl. They would find each other. Lookout’s story might have had a sad ending, but his would not.
Alone, in the oppressive, cold silence of the marsh, Chaff couldn’t be sure of that.
He focused on the task at hand, looking around for his two guides. What were their names again? The girl was Sri, and the man was Gopalla or something like that. Or was the bathawk Gopalla? Either way, they had been true to their word. The bread had been fresh, and despite Lookout’s reservations the spring snails had been rather good: firm and chewy, with a crunchy shell. According to Gopalla, they were delicacies in Kazakhal.
Chaff hugged his shoulders. Was it just his imagination, or was the mist getting thicker? The big guy was nothing more than shadowed blur, and more than once Chaff mistook him for another one of the tall straight trees when he turned back to check. Perhaps it was time to go back.
He was just about to turn around when he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a figure in the mist. Chaff turned to wave, relieved that he hadn’t wandered all this way for nothing. He began to walk towards his guide, smiling.
Except it wasn’t his guide at all. Chaff blinked. It didn’t even seem to be human. It was shaped like a man, certainly, but what would have been its skin was just bark and wood.
It was just a funnily shaped tree.
Disappointed, Chaff turned back, but then he froze. Trees didn’t have eyes.
He twisted around, and the man-shaped tree was still there. On what looked like its head, there were two slits, jagged slots that glowed amber-gold. As Chaff watched, the wood began to pull away where its mouth would have been, and this third opening was filled with the same amber-gold light.
“Chaff!” shouted Lookout. “Chaff, they’re back!”
Attention torn, Chaff dashed back to human company. The quiet and the fog were unnerving him. He looked over his shoulder, but the trees—man-shaped or otherwise—were gone. A trick of the light? Chaff scrubbed his eyes. A man could go crazy in these swamps.
“You want to be careful walking this place alone,” said the man, eying Chaff. “The ground is treacherous.”
Chaff nodded, although to him it seemed that the trees were much more dangerous. “You find a way?”
“This way,” said the marshman, pointing. He began to walk. Chaff looked upward, but the man’s beast was nowhere to be seen. Lookout walked ahead, constantly craning her neck while Sinndi stayed right by her side. The owlcrow looked somewhat smug, like she was enjoying the coddling.
The girl fell in step beside him. Chaff considered her for a moment. She was willing to help him through the marsh; perhaps she could be trusted with other information as well. Chaff asked, in a low whisper, “Hey, what’s this place called?”
Sri looked over her shoulder, as if Chaff could be talking to someone else, and then turned back to him, her mouth a little open. “Kazakhal,” she said, finally.
“Well, yeah,” said Chaff. “But…this place. It got a name?”
“The Quiet Marsh. That’s what the folks in the village call it, anyway.”
It was a fitting name. Chaff stared at the trees of the Quiet Marsh, trying to think of a way to phrase his next question. His thoughts were interrupted as the man beckoned for them to follow. They took a winding path across a particularly deep stretch of water; Chaff held out his arms for balance as he put one foot carefully in front of the other. It was beginning to dawn on him that he didn’t know how to swim.
“Yike,” he said, turning back and watching the big guy follow. “That could be a problem.”
To his credit, the big guy simply waded through the water. His entire lower body was drenched by the time he re-emerged, but he had a placid, almost bored expression on his face as he joined Chaff’s side, dripping with brackish water.
“Spooky place, yeah?” said Chaff, as Sri joined him on the other side.
Sri’s features were not the same as the older man’s, but she had the same serious, pensive expression. When Chaff spoke, though, she smiled just a little. “Yeah. Spooky.”
“Does anything live out here in the marsh? Anything scary?” asked Chaff, looking around.
“Little marshkids sing a song about the poltergeist,” said Sri. “If I can remember how it goes…” She looked like she was concentrating hard. When she was sang, the tune was high and slow, and her voice was breathy. “Poltergeist that haunts the hollow, Hung himself where none could follow. Rope it snapped and now he’s drowning, Face stretched long and now he’s frowning.”
Chaff looked at her. It seemed rather dark for a children’s rhyme.
“Mutter, mutter, ‘geist on the tree, ‘All the rivers flowing to me.’ Dancing feet from lover spurned. Listen all now, lesson learned.” Sri took a deep breath. “Have your say and tarry not. On the noose you’ll prance and rot, Lest the poltergeist you be: Hang yourself where none can see.”
The boy waited until he was sure she was done, and then asked, quietly, “What does that mean?”
“They say that a man used to live in this marsh, just like us,” said Sri. “He fell in love with a beautiful woman, as beautiful as the Lady Spring herself. When she rejected him, he hung himself in his Fallow-born hollow, but his soul was trapped inside the amber sap and he never found a way out, and that’s why he became the poltergeist. He haunts the very center of the Marsh; he doesn’t say anything anymore, just mutters gibberish under his breath.”
“What’s he look like?” asked Chaff. His curiosity had already been piqued, but this story about haunted hollows and marsh ghosts was interesting enough for him to listen on its own merit.
“Like a regular man, but all covered in vines. His neck is all wrong from when the rope snapped, and his face has a great big frown on it, like this.” Sri put her fingers in her mouth and pulled her lips down, making a grotesque face that Chaff had to laugh at. Suddenly, Sri lunged at him, holding out her hands like she was some swamp monster herself, and Chaff jumped. Sri bowed her head. “My joke,” she said, quietly.
Chaff slapped her on the back, and laughed. “You really got me, yeah?”
Sri smiled. “Yeah.”
Chaff looked around. Now not only the trees were alive, but the vines and the swamp muck as well. This poltergeist didn’t sound like the bark-made man he had seen—but if that wasn’t it, then what was? “What about the hollows?” Chaff asked. “What are the hollows like here?”
The change on Sri’s mood was astounding. While before she had been at best mildly amused, now she was positively beaming. “They’re like nothing you’ve ever seen!” said Sri. “It’s so strange, but they’re nothing at all like cypress or juniper that you find here. I thought they might be like black gum for a while, but they flower a month or two after, and the flowers are this dark orange, not at all like the regular green-white. All the other hollows in the regions I’ve visited, in Jhidnu and Hak Mat Do, are just like the local trees, but the ones in Kazakhal are so different!”
Biting his lip, Chaff wondered if he might be able to sneak a word in edgewise, but from the looks of it he wouldn’t.
“I’ve been tracking their movements whenever I can—Gopal only lets me go so far on my own—but these hollows all move in strict circles. Isn’t that weird?”
Chaff nodded very slowly.
“All the other hollows have these winding patterns; they trade off, so the newest wave of young wild children is always isolated from the most dangerous of the wild animals. It’s not perfect, but there’s definitely a pattern to it. But the hollows in Kazakhal don’t seem to coordinate at all!”
“You know a lot about trees,” said Chaff. He felt like he had taken on a bit more than he could handle.
Sri looked away, a little embarrassed and a little proud. “It helps to study them. They’re very…reliable. No surprises.” Sri fiddled with her thumbs. “I’ve been meaning to ask…since you are from Shira Hay…what are they like there?”
“They move all the time. Every day, it seems.” Chaff scratched his nose. “And the water follows them, yeah?”
Sri nodded eagerly. “And the species? What kinds of trees are they?”
Chaff didn’t even have an educated guess for this one. “Hey, Lookout!” he shouted. “You know what kind of trees we got in Shira Hay?”
Lookout turned around, and scoffed. “Course I do,” she said. “We got thorntrees.” She stopped.
From Sri’s expression, it was evident she was waiting for more, but she made do with what she had. “Acacia,” she said, nodding. “See? A native plant, just like in the east. It’s so consistent, except here! And I know it’s not due to Fallow spreading them around because plants don’t have tabula.”
“Maybe hollows do?” suggested Chaff. He still felt a little lost.
“Do they? I don’t know!” And for some reason, Sri looked overjoyed by the fact. “There’s so much to learn. I read some scrolls while we were in Hak Mat Do, and I’ve already got some theories of my own, but there’s-.”
“Like what?” asked Chaff, genuinely curious. “What theories?” And in the back of his head, he made sure to remember that Sri, too, could read.
“I’ve looked at the numbers,” said Sri. “And you know something? There are so many more mentions of hollows in the older texts. It’s not just because they were more respected or venerated, either. They were actually more frequent. Chaff, I think…” And at this she lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I think the hollows are dying.”
Chaff stared at the tabula in his hands. Sri’s information felt like another piece to the puzzle that was Albumere, but he had only a quarter of the pieces and did not even know where to begin to fit it. It was frustrating.
“Slowly, yes. It’s all very gradual. But think of the consequences! What happens to us if the hollows die out? What happens to tabula?” Sri looked ahead, with a wistful look in her eyes. “I just need more information. Have you ever been to the Twin Libraries?”
He nodded vigorously. He had left his scarf on the big guy’s back, but he still had his book under his arm. He wasn’t ready to show that to Sri, though.
“What I would give to spend a day there,” said Sri, shaking her head. “And if they gave me pen and ink, that’d be just…perfect.”
“Maybe next time I show you the way through Shira Hay, yeah?” suggested Chaff.
“Yeah. Maybe,” said Sri, and though she smiled and nodded, the excitement seemed to have died down. Chaff personally wondered how anyone could be so passionate about trees, but he supposed everyone had their own personal quirks. He flipped the girl’s tabula over in his hand, and wondered once again where she might be.
Was she as smart as Sri? What were her trees, her one subject that she could just be passionate about? Chaff promised himself he would find out.
His thoughtful mood was interrupted when he saw movement in the forest ahead of them. Gopal had edged behind a nearby tree, and Lookout was scrambling backwards as fast as she could, as Chaff heard heavy, thundering footsteps. It didn’t take long for him to see it.
It had eight eyes, and eight legs. Mandibles clicked on the sides of its mouth as it approached, and blubber hung off its bulky frame as it crashed through the trees. Fins protruded limply from the creature’s back, and its long, wide tail made a wide swathe in the mud as it advanced. It had a wide, blocky nose, and when it opened its mouth behind its mandibles, Chaff saw rows and rows of teeth on red gums.
After drinking in all these details, though, Chaff’s lasting impression was that the spiderwhale was much, much bigger than the big guy.
“Goodman Gopal! Goodwoman Sri!” shouted the man sitting comfortably on the beast’s back. He was bare chested, and wore only a length of cloth tied around his waist and a Kazakhal flat cap.
The spiderwhale came to a stop so close to them Chaff could feel the heat of its body. The man’s gaze drifted from Sinndi, to Lookout, to the big guy, to Chaff. “And who are your new friends?” he asked, coldly.