He couldn’t forget the way she had screamed.
Like one of the Ladies themselves, she had stood over Han Luratah—a man Darpah had seen dismember scores of fighters in the pits—and she had screamed. The blessing of steel hadn’t save him. And when Darpah had edged close to look, he had seen chips of white on the red grass, and nearly fainted from queasiness.
The way she had stood over him…
The ends of her blindfold had been trailing in the wind, as had the bandages around her hands. Blood had been dripping down her face and down her arms. And the screaming had gone on and on. It had scared him.
It had inspired him.
Darpah could feel the anger inside him, righteous and hot. The screaming still rang in his ears. It made him want to drive nails into his hands and feel that pain again, and fight with bleeding palms and bleeding eyes. Just the thought made his heart beat a little faster.
The little man shook his head, curling up on his cot. That wasn’t a proper way of thinking. He would be punished for that.
They do not know your thoughts, said a treacherous voice in the back of his head. In here, you are free. Darpah shook his head, holding his hands over his ears. No, no, he was a slave, a good slave. He would never be free. He wasn’t meant to be.
Darpah curled up on his cot, fetal, hugging his knees to his chest. He admonished himself, silently. He was a grown man, driven to quaking and shivering like a child by just the memory of what he had seen. This just wouldn’t do. There was work to be done: productive, worthwhile work that would make the master very pleased.
All the same, Darpah could not find the strength in him to rise just yet. He sat on his cot, breathing heavily. He needed to rest before he could work. Yes, this was all in the master’s best interest. A little rest and he’d be much more productive.
Darpah buried his head in his hands, and although he shed no tears, his breath came in short, ragged gasps. What was happening to him? He used to be such a good slave.
No, whispered the treacherous voice, the evil little voice that Darpah simply could not silence. You used to be such a good man.
The man ran his hands through his hair, curling up tighter in himself, trying to contain his sobs. If he was too loud, the other slaves would wake up, and then master would know something was wrong and Darpah would have to tell him, Darpah would have to tell him.
Unless you had your tabula.
Darpah shot to his feet. He didn’t care if he woke the other slaves, as he stepped over his cot and across the straw flooring of the slave room. He pulled his robe roughly over his head, trying to occupy himself with the morning rituals that would banish the voice of dreams and fancies. He wouldn’t listen to the voice. He was a slave. There was only one voice he listened to.
He does not suspect you. You manage his affairs so closely, whispered the voice, as Darpah stepped into the sunlight, folding his hands into his sleeves. He sees the thief in Dandal. He sees the fighter in Chetan. He sees neither in you. But they’re there. You are both thief and fighter.
Other slaves had left a tub of water outside the quarters for them to wash with. Even in the gloom of dawn, Darpah could see that it was dirty and murky, but as he dipped his hands he thanked the master that it was cold. He washed his face, hoping to quiet the voice of rebellion that had haunted Darpah ever since he had been ripped from his parents’ arms into the master’s.
The voice had fallen silent. Darpah dared a nervous smile. He had long ago equated silence with bliss, and as he let the water drip down his chin he reveled in the simplicity of his thoughts. Nothing was wrong. It was very simple, what he had to do.
Darpah walked along the corridor, watching the sea sparkle like jade through pillars. He had the master to thank for that. Without him, he would not have the beauty of the sea, or the breath of the air, or the comforts of this house. He owed it all to the master.
Sovar-l’hana did not make Albumere’s seas. Nor does he rule its skies. He is a small man who casts a long shadow and thinks himself a giant.
“And I cast no shadow at all,” muttered Darpah, to himself. “I am nothing and no one.” A couple attendants, sweeping the hallways and trimming the shrubbery, glanced in Darpah’s way as he passed, but none of them said anything. He knew he talked to himself and they knew it, too. The master’s fidgety little assistant wasn’t worth more than a glance, though.
A little part of him grew angry at the thought, but anger was no emotion for a slave. He bit it down, bowing his head and moving on.
With the departure of Jova the blind, Darpah had thought that perhaps the voice would quiet. It had always been there, it was true, ever since Darpah had been a child, but when Jova had arrived it had gained new strength and conviction. There was something inspiring about the girl. Perhaps it was the way she bore herself, or perhaps it was simply the fact that she had made it so far without a tabula.
Running his fingers through his hair, Darpah shook his head once more. This simply would not do. Jova was inspiring, yes, in the same way a demon of the deep was inspiring. She tempted him towards treachery and chaos, and he would have none of that. He needed to be his best, after all, in the presence of his master.
The doors to the master’s private quarters were impressive, to say the least. They had the same white gleam as the rest of the compound, although they were made of polished oak, and were accented with red paints highlighting the inlays. There stood the proud Ab Ha Al, who founded the city in the days of the desert empire. And there, a passage from the Jade Shanty. Gorgeous. All by the work of the master.
A carpenter made that door. An artist painted it. The historians remembered Ab Ha Al, and the sailors sang the Shanty. Even the wood came from the strength of a lumberjack’s ax. Sovar-l’hana made none of that. He has no right to it.
Darpah knocked softly, and coughed. It was the least offensive way he had of introducing himself.
“Come in and get me dressed,” said an irate voice, and Darpah scurried inside.
The master sat on his bed, naked but for his smallclothes. His gut dripped over his waist, and his cheeks were flushed ruddy. The sheets were a mess, although the baywoman pleasure slave Darpah had escorted to the master last night was already gone. As Darpah approached, he could smell wine.
A bit early for that.
“Shut up,” growled Darpah. He jumped, as he realized he had said it out loud. “M-master! I didn’t mean- I wasn’t talking to- I was…”
“Ha!” said the master, standing and holding his arms out. Darpah slipped a shirt of fine silk over the master’s shoulders, even though his cheeks were red with shame. “My mad dog. It’s a wonder I trust you with anything.”
“I thank you for your trust, master,” said Darpah, pulling the master’s trousers up. He’d have to ask the tailor for a bigger pair. Again. His eyes flickered over the room, looking for other things that needed doing. A good slave did his master’s work without prompting. “Shall I fetch you more parchment? You’ve run out.”
“No more letters for me,” said the master. He lowered his arms with a heavy sigh. “They’ve done what they had to do. Irontower, Ironhide. They’re all so obsessed with that damn metal, ha! Iron rusts. Real blades are made of paper, real poison made of ink. Words are weapons, and this is war.”
“Very wise, master.” Darpah began to make the master’s bed, as the master himself stepped out onto his balcony to survey the city. Like a god.
When will you learn? He is no god.
“You are sure our friends in Irontower received my missives?” asked the master. He didn’t look back, but Darpah knew him well enough to know when he was worried. This was the fourth time he had asked that question.
“Thun is well on his way,” said Darpah, bowing. “He is well protected.”
The master clicked his fingers. “Bring me the tabula. I want to see.”
You see? He thinks nothing of you. Use that. Darpah’s hands hovered over the lacquered box, as a mix of emotions so conflicted that he could not tell them apart bubbled in his gut. It was temptation, it was salvation, it was both…
The master would not be so careless as to leave Darpah’s tabula in the very box Darpah had been sent to retrieve. And even if he was, Darpah could not betray his trust like that. The master was like a god. To him, Darpah owed everything.
The soldier’s tabula hummed as the master whispered, “Show me.” The tabula in the box rattled too, although that was just Darpah’s shaking hands. Take all of them. Unleash them. The power is yours, wield it.
The master put the disk back and closed the box shut. The clasp clicked with a kind of dread finality, and half-relieved, half-disappointed, Darpah put the box away.
“It was convenient Dal Ak Gan came when he did,” mused the master, staring out the balcony. Darpah stood at attendance, ready to act if he needed to. “I hope La Ah Abi knew of his arrangement with the pyramid lords. Correspondence with them might be difficult if she did not, and I hate to think that they never find out I killed a man for them.”
“It would be most unfortunate,” said Darpah.
“Ha! Unfortunate? It would be heretical! I’d have done something for free!” The master turned, resting his elbows on the rail as he leaned back. Suddenly, his face screwed up in an expression of consternation and anger. “What the hell are you still doing here?”
Darpah was used to his violent temperament, and so for once did not quake or mumble. That would only invite more abuse. He bowed his way out of the room as the master watched him go, his potbelly poking out from his shirt. He was right, of course. Darpah had been lazy to spend so long in his presence.
There was so much to be done. Contracts needed to be drafted for the trade deal with Ashak-g’hopti, and the caravans from the west had fallen silent again. The master could not be bothered with petty affairs such as these. Darpah would have to arrange all that. Too much, too much work to be done.
It only made his nerves worse, then, when he found himself stopping in the garden. All the same, he couldn’t help himself. It was too curious a sight to see.
Chetan sat on the marble bench, feeding his mothsnake the rat half of some creature he had caught. There was a gentleness to his expression that Darpah did not often associate with that gnarled face: too often it was twisted in pain as he limped along on that gnarled leg.
Normally, Darpah would have just passed him and moved on. It wasn’t inappropriate behavior: Chetan could care for the master’s animal like soldiers cared for their army’s swords. Darpah had no reason to stop.
But stop he did. He twiddled his thumbs together. He took a step forward. He took a step back. Then he took another step forward.
“Watch where you walk,” rasped Chetan, his voice even more hoarse than usual. He must have just woken up. “Darpah? You hear me? Watch where you step.”
Darpah mumbled an apology, staring at his feet. In the dirt of the garden, a few ladybugs crawled. He edged around them, taking delicate steps. He hadn’t known Chetan to be particularly religious, but Darpah supposed no one wanted to earn the ire of the Lady Summer.
“Sovar want something from me?”
Before he could stop it, a little gasp emerged from his lips. To use the master’s name—his old name, his common name—without the honorific attached to it bordered on sacrilegious. “No, I- I just wanted t-to walk in the garden,” said Darpah, unable to contain his stutter. “The master does not-.”
“Use his fucking name.”
Now, that was inappropriate behavior. Chetan was even more irritable than usual today, but Darpah knew how to deal with him. The master was the master, and should be addressed as such. It was an honor to serve him, and defiance would only merit them pain.
Darpah couldn’t say any of that. The words just wouldn’t come to him. All he could think of, for some reason, was the screaming of Jova the blind.
“May I sit?” asked Darpah, finally. Chetan’s nod was so small that Darpah might have just imagined it, but he sat anyway. The mothsnake turned its head toward him, forked tongue flickering out under vacant, compound eyes.
“Sitting’s no task for slaves,” wheezed Chetan, leaning back and stretching out his legs. Darpah tried not to look. It made him queasy. “He’ll be wroth if he sees.”
“He’s been drinking,” said Darpah, his voice barely above a whisper. “He won’t see.”
“Hmm,” grunted Chetan, and fell silent. They sat together, watching the bare branches sway in the wind. The ladybugs disappeared into the mulch. It struck Darpah as odd that they would emerge so late into winter, but the pontiffs did say that they were warmed by the Lady Summer’s fire.
Darpah felt no such fire. He bent over, stuffing his hands in his sleeves. The rising sun did little to warm him.
“Word on the street is that the Waves are rising,” said Chetan. He didn’t look at Darpah.
The slave attendant blinked. The Waves, the city of light’s commoner class, were not ones for raising their heads. The Waves went where the Wind blew, as the saying went. But recently…
“The master makes me read his letters to him,” said Darpah. He bit his lip. Why was he saying this? He didn’t give himself time to doubt himself. “Banden Ironhide has been sending letters to all the plutocrats. He won’t allow any bayman caravans over the spice road until the slaves are freed, he said. Wh-which is ridiculous, of course. I- I would have no home if I was freed. No work. No safety.”
Chetan coughed, his whole body shaking as he hacked out a mouthful of phlegm. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Aye. We’d be in the streets. We’d have nothing.”
You’d have yourself! You’d be free!
“But the Waves are rising,” said Chetan, again. “And with King-not-a-King Ironhide to lead them…they may drown this city yet.”
Darpah shuddered. Just how many had heard the screaming of Jova the blind?
“Will you take me to Sovar-l’hana, now?” asked Chetan. He shifted, preparing to rise. “I’ll be glad of it if you tell me first. These old bones need to know before they have to spend a night under the streets.”
Darpah stared at the dirt, where the ladybugs had gone. He wanted them to come back, wanted to watch them scurry through their simple, little lives and lose himself among them. But they were gone. “I- well, I don’t want to…but…I’m supposed to tell the master when…” Darpah couldn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t know where it was going.
“We’re not his dogs, you know. No matter how much he tells us we are,” said Chetan. It was the most rebellious statement Darpah had ever heard him say. If the master knew, he would be furious. He would punish them. Just the thought made Darpah whimper.
Chetan watched him, and the scars over his mouth stretched as he laughed. “Ah, the Ladies know me. Of course we’re his dogs. And no dog wants to be a bad dog, even if they all want to be wolves.”
Screams, and waves, and wolves, and little voices that might have just been dead thoughts rising again. It was too much.
Darpah started to cry. Great, fat tears rolled down his cheeks as he sucked in breath, but it felt like his chest was collapsing, felt like someone had put needles in his blood and they were poking at him, all over his body. He felt, dimly, Chetan’s hand on his shoulder—awkward and clumsy, but there nonetheless. Darpah did not know how long he cried. A shamefully long time. There was work to be done.
And when he had at last regained control of himself, when at last his eyes were dry, he asked, softly, “Which street?”
“You said the w-word on the street was that the Waves are rising,” said Darpah. He sniffed, and rubbed his nose. “Which street?”
Chetan looked at him for a long time. “I’ll show you, if you like. Another day, when there’s more time.”
“Thank you, Chetan,” said Darpah, and he rose. For the first time in a long time, he noticed how heavy the collar on his neck was, noticed how empty his belly was and how bent his back was. “Excuse me. Sovar-l’hana has much work for me to do.”
Darpah began to hurry away, but not before Chetan made one last remark. “You didn’t say it,” he wheezed. “You didn’t call him master.”
No, Darpah realized, with a start. He hadn’t.
And it felt good.
Jova had heard a peckerbeetle once in her life. It had bored into the side of the tree near her house in Moscoleon and had spent the rest of the day knocking its beak against the trunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. The incessant rhythm had been enough to drive a seeing man to madness, but to Jova it had been near torture.
Sovar-l’hana’s writing was worse. Scribble. Scribble. Scribble. Dip, tap-tap. Jova wasn’t sure if she had ever heard Sovar-l’hana without the constant scratch of his quill.
He wasn’t even writing contracts, for Jova’s sale or anyone else’s; from Darpah’s neurotic mutterings, Jova had learned that the slaves prepared those, and “the master” just signed off on them. By extension, Jova had learned that Darpah could read, write, and apparently understood Jhidnu trade law. It was odd, how a man like that could be so educated and yet so servile.
Jova shook her head. It wasn’t odd, with a tabula. She had never known the terror of having her soul held by another person. Who was she to judge?
She flexed her fingers. She was in some position to judge. Her palms were far from healed, but they no longer leaked blood, which Jova supposed was a good thing. Darpah had just changed the bandages a few hours ago, starting half-conversations with Jova while stopping and admonishing himself the whole time, but her hands were still grimy and slick.
The master tapped his knuckles on the desk, and the air rippled. So quick was the summoning that Jova barely heard the hum of the tabula.
A part of her wished she had met Sovar-l’hana under different circumstances. A man like him must have known everything there was to know tabula. Perhaps even something that would have helped Jova.
“It’s done,” said Sovar-l’hana, and Jova cocked her head. Which dog had he summoned this time? “Give him the girl, and this as well. If the seal breaks before it gets where it needs to go, both the intended recipient and I will be very displeased. And you know how I am when I’m displeased, ha!”
“Ay,” muttered the man. Too subdued to be Dandal. Too insolent to be Darpah.
“Good morning, Chetan,” Jova muttered, as the slave limped to her side.
“How is it good?” he growled back, and yanked on her chain. Jova stumbled after him, doing her best to follow without knowing where he was leading her. She resisted the urge to claw at the collar around her neck. As she had laid there in the slave pens last night, she had realized something: everyone wore the chains, but only she had to follow them. Like an animal that couldn’t be reasoned with, she had to be pulled and tugged where she needed to go.
Was this what Ma had meant, that bad people would hurt her if they knew her secret? That they would no longer treat her as a person?
Jova stumbled down the steps of Sovar-l’hana’s mansion, her head bowed. She had never been treated as a person. These men treated her like beasts, it was true, but Ma and Da, as loving as they had been, had handled her like a fragile object that could be broken at any time. Arim had used her as a path to a better life. The Hag Gar Gan had seen her as an amusing pet at best.
Rho Hat Pan had lived some kind of redemptive fantasy through her. She had been a convenience for him, nothing more.
It dawned on Jova that no one, in her entire life, had ever acted as if she was her own person, and she didn’t even have a tabula for them to hold. That was just how people were.
Chetan, as direct and business-like as he was, walked slowly. Sometimes, Jova would stop, and he would have to tug and pull on her chain to get her moving again. When he did, he would wince and stumble, and Jova took some small pleasure in that. It was her rebellion, as little as it was.
She stopped doing that, after nearly half an hour of walking, though. It must have been hard on him, with his limp, and it had quickly turned from rebellious to cruel. Was he really taking her all the way to the city limits?
It must have been so convenient, summoning and all the ways it could be exploited. One tap of the finger and Chetan had been whisked from Ladies knew where to do his master’s bidding. There were so many ways it could be used, if only people were a bit more trusting. If only, Jova thought, they could afford a bit more trust.
Jova scratched her chest. She never had the chance to try, but after everything that had happened, perhaps it was better that she hadn’t.
It was slow progress. A couple times, as she followed the sounds of his steps, Jova nearly passed Chetan. She settled for walking beside him, listening to his unsteady gait and the clink of her chains.
She didn’t know how much longer she had in Jhidnu. If they truly were leaving, then she had not long at all.
She wouldn’t miss the city much. She had been so young when she left, so afraid and so confused, that it hadn’t felt like home in the slightest. But Mo was here, and she had hoped to find her parents, to at least speak to them before she was taken away…
“I’m going to ask you a question,” said Jova, as they walked. “Is that all right?”
“Harder to break than you seem,” growled Chetan. “You’re bought and paid for. Ask your question if you want, but mind your tongue around master Doshrigaw.”
“Where did you get your limp?”
Chetan didn’t answer her. He just hobbled on, and Jova followed him. She didn’t mind the breaks in the conversation; she was used to them. Finally, as he pulled her down a street corner, he spoke. “There’s a story behind it.”
“Then tell me a story,” said Jova. She bit her lip. Was that too impudent?
“You’re surrounded by stories, girl,” said Chetan. “City’s full of them, and they’re all tragedies. Darpah’s got a story. Dandal, the arrogant sod, he’s got a story. Sovar has two stories, before and after he earned the name l’hana. Everyone you know has got a fucking story.”
“You’re the only one I know with a limp.”
“Really? You’re not the only blind girl I know, or the only zealot, or the only one who’s missing her tabula, even.” Chetan’s grip loosened on Jova’s chain. His tone grew wistful. “There’s no point in knowing my story, girl. What do the names Jetta and Krish and Kal Matushew mean to you? You’ll just forget. The only story that matters is your own.”
The city of light grew more subdued, quieter and less rank, as they walked further and further from its center. Jova could no longer hear the moans from beneath the streets. “Is that what you tell yourself, when you’re nailing our hands to the walls?” asked Jova.
“It’s the truth, little girl,” said Chetan, although it was without his customary growl. He sounded tired, not angry.
“The truth is that all people have stories. You tell yourself that they don’t matter.”
Chetan wheezed. It almost sounded like he was laughing. “Little girl, you are too wise to be a slave.”
“As are you,” said Jova. “I just wish you were kinder.”
“And I wish you were crueler. There’s all kinds of pain on Albumere. It makes people swell with all manner of sin, until there’s no room left for kindness.”
They lapsed into silence, as Jova wondered about the mystery of Chetan’s limp.
“Could I tell you a story, then?” she asked, as they walked.
“Speak, if you will. I shall not stop you.”
“It’s from the scripture of Moscoleon,” said Jova. She furrowed her brow; her memory was foggy, but she could remember it well enough. It had been one of her favorites, when she had sat at the feet of Pontiff Zain and listened to his booming voice. “It’s about the Lady Summer, and how she earned her wings.”
She didn’t miss Chetan’s derisive grunt. They did not hold the goddesses in particularly high esteem, in Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, but they held to them, nonetheless. What other gods were there to worship? The walking trees? The demons of the Deep?
“She, the youngest and least of the Ladies, called to them. ‘Come, sisters, I have a new game!’ she said. They flew down to meet her, and her heart grew sick with envy, for she could not yet fly. ‘See the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs? Whoever smites the most shall be the winner.’”
“‘What is the wager?’ said the Lady Fall, who cared not for the game but wished to know more of her sister’s heart.”
“‘I do not like this game,’ said the Lady Winter, who was gentle and loving. ‘What have the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs done to wrong us?’”
“Nothing, said the Lady Spring, for her sister was not yet worthy to speak to.”
“The Lady Summer had a plan, from the start. ‘If I win this game,’ she said, ‘then the loser shall give me their wings. Spring, you bear the wings of the lady bird. Winter, you bear the wings of the owl. Fall, you bear the wings of the bat. You have all had them for so long, while I have had none. It is only fitting that we share.’”
“The Lady Spring nodded, and her sisters agreed in turn. Though her sisters were swift in the air, the Lady Summer looked upon the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs, and burned them with her light. She crushed them with her hammer, and delighted in her slaughter, for though she could not fly, she felt no need to as a titan among lesser things. She won by a great score, and returned to her sister’s full of pride.”
“But the Lady Winter looked upon her with sadness, for she had not slain a single one of the antbeetles, or the flies, or the wandering bugs, but put them in a long sleep with her breath. And the Lady Fall looked upon her with knowing, for she had listened to the secrets of all those who had curled in the shadows to die before taking their small lives. And the Lady Spring looked upon her with no feeling on her face, and spoke thus: ‘You have won your game, and for this we shall not give you our wings, but make you new wings, wings of your own.’”
“The Lady Summer’s joy lasted for but a second, for then the Lady Spring turned her into a beetle, with wings dyed the color of the blood she had spilt, with dark spots like all the bodies she had crushed, and the sun no longer shone and the first night came. The Lady Summer fled into the world, and hid, for though she had wings, now she was a small thing. She saw the Lady Spring wander the world, and with Summer’s fire restore life to the flies she had crushed, and thus were born the summer flies, who still light the way by night, and the Lady Summer saw a great beauty in the things she had killed.”
“She saw their beauty, and yet did not dare to follow it, for in the dark of the night all manner of things that could kill a little beetle still lurked. For the first time, the Lady Summer felt pity.”
“The Lady Spring restored the Lady Summer on the first dawn of the first morning, but left her the wings: a lady bug’s wings, red, dotted with black. ‘Take you your hammer,’ said the Lady Spring. ‘And with it, lend strength to the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs, for you know both the minds of the hunter and the hunted.’”
“And the Lady Summer wept, for this was the first time she had seen her sister smile, and she joined her sisters in flight, for now she was worthy. Every night, when the suns dips below the horizon, the Lady Summer becomes a lady bug again, and is led by the summer flies, to remember what it is to be small.”
Jova stopped. The images—the light of the summer flies, the fluttering of the beetle wings, the Lady Summer’s great marble hammer—danced in her mind like a dream long forgotten.
“Well told. Perhaps in another life you could have been a pontiff,” said Chetan, his voice very hoarse. “But it is a story for children. I do not see what it proves.”
Jova reached out, feeling for Chetan’s hands, and he did not resist when she put her ruined palms over his. “Take you your hammer, and with it lend strength to us,” she said. “For you know both the minds of the slaver and the enslaved.”
Chetan’s wheezing grew harsher, until he was bent double with hacking coughs. “I am no champion,” he said, when he had gathered the strength to speak. “Kindness ill fits me still, little girl.”
Jova let his hands go, and bowed her head once more. She wasn’t sure why she had said that to him, this man who had driven nails into her hands. Perhaps it was because it pained her to know a good man did such terrible things. Perhaps it was because he was not a good man at all.
“Go. Take these letters, and deliver them to your new master. He is waiting,” said Chetan, giving her a push in the right direction. It was some kind of encampment, by the sounds of it, well beyond the limits of Jhidnu-by-the-Sea. “I will not see you again.”
“And I have never seen you,” said Jova, as she shuffled away. “But despite what you think, I will remember you, and the little part I played in your story.”
“Farewell, little girl,” said Chetan, firmly, and he turned and limped down the path, back to the city of light.
As Jova walked, clutching the two rolls of parchment in her hands, towards the sound of people packing and preparing for the trip to Irontower, she realized why she had told Chetan the story of the Lady Summer’s wings.
He had, in his own, twisted way, treated her like a person. No one tortured an animal. And he’d listened to her, even if he still disagreed. He’d said she had a story.
Odd, how the Ladies worked like that.
“Slothful Sovar-l’hana is too fat to come himself,” droned a voice, almost bored, in a nasal monotone. Jova had heard it before, but had trouble placing it. “I should have expected as much.” The voice drew closer to her, and she felt hands take the letters out of her grip.
“Letters for Thun Doshrigaw,” said Jova, keeping her head low. She didn’t know much about the towermen. No one did. Until then, she would expect the worst.
“Then he is ever so pleased to have received them,” said the man, and she heard the sound of the seal breaking. “You, there! Take her with the rest.”
“Yup,” said a female voice. Heavy. Low. This one Jova recognized.
“Dock?” she hissed, as someone else took her chain. It was disconcerting, being pushed and pulled by so many people at once.
Something was pushed into Jova’s hand, something wrapped in cloth with a handle and a hard surface beneath. “Don’t talk,” said Dock. “They ain’t seen me yet.”
“Don’t talk,” Dock repeated. Simple, blunt, matter-of-fact. “Only two towermen. Rest are Hag Gar Gan, contracted as guards and escorts. My job, or it should have been. And slaves. Remember our deal?”
Kill Dal Ak Gan. Earn your freedom. Jova nodded, keeping to Dock’s “don’t talk” rule.
“We walk past. You stab. He dies. I get you out,” said Dock. Jova could smell the manure of horses, the Do Yash spices that the sandmen liked so much. “Mounts can’t follow us into the city. You ready?”
Sweat began to break out on Jova’s brow. The knife, wrapped in cloth, felt like it would tumble out of her clumsy hands. A question came to mind, but she bit it back. She wasn’t to talk, or say Dock’s name. But, like the question of Chetan’s limp, she couldn’t help but wonder: why couldn’t Dock do this herself? Didn’t she own her own tabula?
Everybody had their own story. Jova had met so many people since she had left Moscoleon, and she had barely scratched the surface of what those stories were.
“On your left,” said Dock. “Get ready.”
Jova’s grip tightened. Why did Dock need her? Why did Dock want Dal Ak Gan dead so badly? Obviously the mercenary had been wronged, but Dock was in far more danger than a simple grudge demanded.
It didn’t matter. Jova would kill Dal Ak Gan, and she would earn her freedom. She could return to Jhidnu, and continue the search for her mother and father, and she would never again have to bow to the likes of Sovar-l’hana and his cabal of slavers.
Chetan was right. This was a cruel world that left no room for kindness.
But even as Jova wrapped her fingers around the handle of the dagger, she knew she didn’t believe that. Those other men she had killed had been out of fear, necessity, panic. And right now she knew that no matter what she chose to do, she would live either way. Dal Ak Gan would not. She didn’t need to do this.
“Do it now,” whispered Dock. “Do it.”
Where was Alis? What good were Dock’s promises to her?
Jova was just a knife to her. Not a person. What did it say about the world, that the only time Jova felt she had been treated as a person was when she was being dragged by a chain through the streets?
Dock’s probably going to kill me, Jova thought, almost as an afterthought, as she dropped the dagger. It rolled out of her hands, tumbling out of the cloth, and that was when the chaos started.
The mercenary did not scream out a protest or howl in frustration. She merely shoved Jova aside and reached for the ground. Jova heard it, detail by tiny detail. The crunch of dirt as Dock stepped forward and swept the dagger up, the rush of air as Dock flipped it a hair’s breadth from Jova’s face, the concentrated grunt as she plunged it into Dal Ak Gan’s back.
A horse screamed, and there was a crack like a bone snapping. Dock was knocked onto her back, skidding across the ground. The sandmen shouted, the hum of tabula beginning at once all around her. Was that La Ah Abi shouting? Was that Dep Sag Ko, mounting his eelhound? She heard barking, harsh and fierce.
Strong hands gripped Jova by the arm, and she was lifted bodily into a burly man’s arms. The rhythm of horse hooves was familiar to her.
“Anjan! Ell! Now is the time!” screamed a voice that Jova had never been so happy to hear in her entire life.
“Rho Hat Pan?” she whispered, as Stel reared and nickered. “…Roan?”
“Lies are not becoming me, Jova girl,” grunted Roan, and there was a crack of a whip as the shouting grew louder, angrier. “You see how all things are falling apart when the truth is not told? Why, in the name of the Ladies, were you part of that harebrained Dock’s schemes?”
Jova still did not understand. She clutched Roan’s chest, too shocked to make sense of the sounds around her, too confused to care. Before she knew what she was doing, Jova hit him in the chest. “You told me the truth was a shield!” she shouted, unable to hold back tears that were equal parts relief and anger. “You- you told me…”
“Zat, zat, Stel!” shouted Roan, and the horse galloped hard. The bouncing nearly jostled Jova from her seat, but she clung onto Roan even tighter. “Sometimes shields must be being lowered, Jova girl. And sometimes…I am making mistakes. Anjan! Ell!”
The barking grew louder. It was no eelhound that was making that noise.
“My little Lady,” sobbed Ma, and she clutched Jova close as Roan let her down from his horse. There was still shouting from behind them, and Roan quickly turned, shouting in the imperial tongue and snapping his whip.
“You came back to us,” said Da. He sounded sickly and hoarse, but happy.
Jova was speechless. Nothing made sense anymore. Minutes ago, she had been preaching to the man who tortured her, she had been about to become an assassin, and now people who betrayed her had always been loyal and people who loved her had never left. “I never got the chance to say goodbye,” said Jova, and she hugged her parents tightly.
“And you’ll never need it,” whispered Anjan, holding Jova close. “Never again.”
“Anjan! Ell! Remember yourselves!” shouted Roan. “Clear a path! Jova—upon Stel. There is little time for explaining. Take this.”
As Mo’s barks turned from happy to vicious, as she heard Da draw his knives and heard Ma’s vicious scream, Jova clambered behind Roan. It felt somehow right to be there, again.
Roan pressed something into her hand, as he kicked Stel into a full gallop. Jova felt it, struggling to maintain a hold as Stel bounced beneath her. It was two things, actually: a tabula, still warm from Roan’s touch, and what felt like a wooden disk, about the same size but with a rougher surface pockmarked with cuts.
Jova heard the men and women in front of them scatter as Roan snapped his whip. For a moment, it sounded less like a whip and more like the marble hammer, and the pack on his back felt like the shell of a lady bug’s wings. He remembered what it was to be small. Perhaps he had always remembered.
“Roan,” Jova said. This time, she knew the question to ask. She opened her mouth to speak…
And someone else cut her off. “Stop and return to your people,” said the man she knew as Thun Doshrigaw. “Now.”
They did not slow at all. “He is unarmed and unarmored,” muttered Roan. “We will ride past him.”
Jova began to speak, but something held her tongue. A feeling, in the pit of her stomach.
Then something slammed into Stel so hard that it sent both of the horse’s riders tumbling into the grass. Dimly, Jova heard the humming of a tabula, and the presence of another man, where previously there had been none. Jova heard a clank of metal, and a chill ran down her spine. Her stomach dropped as she realized what had happened. All the ways summoning could be exploited…
A man in full armor would never have been able to catch a man on horseback. But a man in full armor could very easily stand in his way.
She scrambled to her feet, still clutching the tabula and the disk in her hands. “Roan! Roan!” she cried, clicking her tongue. He was a distance ahead of her, lying on the ground, struggling to sit upright.
“At the Irontower, show them the badge. Be telling them: let the dead rest.”
And if Jova had been afraid before, she was terrified now. “Roan, what do you mean? Am I still going to Irontower? Why do I-?”
Stel screamed for one soul-wrenching, blood-curdling moment before something cut her screams short. A sound, like meat being sliced.
The ground beside her exploded in a shower of dirt, and Jova realized with a start that the tabula in her hands was humming. The energy of her fear and shock must have translated into it, and now Uten stood, huffing in distress, beside her.
“Come on, Roan, let’s go!” Jova shouted, pulling on Roan’s arm, but she had not the strength to pull him up. When she tried to adjust her grip, she cried out in pain as her palms opened up again, and blood began to trickle down her fingers. And the rattle of armor grew closer, slowly, steadily, inexorably.
“Let the dead rest, Jova girl. Do not mourn me,” said Roan. He pushed Jova away, his stumps of legs unmoving. “I will tell Janwye you still think of her.”
Jova moved automatically, clambering on top of Uten, gripping the molebison’s fur and trying to point her towards the smithsworn warrior. She would fight him off, she would…
And then she heard the thud of the broadsword. Like meat being sliced.
Her whole body tensed. Jova screamed, and whatever rational, human part of her remained shrank back into the dark corners of her mind. The tabula hummed until it felt like the whole world was shaking with her, and a different blindness settled on her. Black became red, and all was forfeit to her rage.
The smithsworn raised his sword to prepare a defense, cutting Uten along the side, but that was all he managed to do. Uten slammed into him with a blow that would have flattened a lesser man, Jova still screaming on her back. The molebison slammed her paws on the man’s helmet, again and again, and Jova felt each blow viscerally through the animal. It wasn’t just the shudders of the impact, it was as if she was the animal itself.
She felt everything. Felt the man’s skull shatter inside his metal helmet. Felt his blood oozing out through the cracks. Felt a sorrow that threatened to overwhelm her as she realized that no matter how much of this man’s life she took away, she would never get Roan’s back.
The thing that bothered Jova the most was the damp. She hadn’t felt properly dry in ages, her clothes constantly stained and dirty with rainwater, seawater, and other more foul things that dripped down from the grate above her.
But the cruelest thing about Jhidnu’s penance cells, Jova realized, was the sound. The music, the festivities, and the merriment aboveground was just loud enough to carry down below, and Jova could but sit and wait and listen to the echoes. Since Dock and Darpah had come, no one had bothered to visit her. Except…
One night, while Jova slept, she awoke to the feeling of hot breath on her face. She held very still as she flexed her stiff fingers, listening to the panting right above her. “Mo?” she whispered, and the weaseldog barked, the sound echoing all throughout the cells.
She sat up, and scratched the back of his head behind his ears, although the chains were stretched taut for her to do so. “How the heck did you get down here?” Jova whispered, to Mo’s happy whines. The cells maintained no real guards—after all, who would pay for them?—but she still didn’t want to risk Mo being found and caught.
The weaseldog just panted, his warm body curled at Jova’s feet.
“Is this where you’ve been hiding?” asked Jova. “How’d you end up in a dump like this, huh, Mo? Why don’t you go home? Why don’t you go back to Ma and Da?”
As always, Mo didn’t answer. Jova didn’t expect him to. She leaned back, stroking his fur as she waited for more time to pass, and after an hour he slipped out from her grasp and trotted away. Then Jova was alone again, listening to the sounds of freedom beyond the bars of her cell.
Jova had strange dreams in that dank darkness. She felt a presence reach out to her, beating at her, beating like waves against the shore at the high cliffs of her very consciousness. She dreamed of the cursed pyramid and the man made of wood and a voice older than the u-ha’s that rasped in a tongue Jova had never heard before.
She lost track of time, in the cells. The sun only barely shone through into her cell, and sometimes at night it got far hotter when someone dropped a torch over her grate or a summer animal stood above her and she had to roll aside to avoid the drifting cinders.
Then, one night, she woke to the sound of the leather boots stepping on the floor and labored breathing. She felt heat on her face, much closer than if an errant torch had been dropped above her, and held up a hand to shield her face from the heat.
“Slave is awake?”
Jova rattled her collar chain as she sat up. “Is it time to go?” she asked.
“Slave is alert.”
She felt rough hands haul her up, and Jova gagged as the collar strained on her neck. “Who are you?” she rasped, struggling to speak around the ring pressing against her throat.
More leather manacles were wrapped around her wrists and ankles, so that Jova was held taut between chains on all sides. She couldn’t move at all. Whoever had spoken to her was working away studiously, from the sounds of it. His breath whistled as if from a tube. It sounded painful.
When he spoke again, his voice was nasally and ragged. “Do you know of Banden Ironhide?”
Jova wasn’t sure what to say. It was as if she had been asked if she knew who the Ladies Four were. “Of course I do,” she said, and with her throat pressed tight against her collar her voice sounded just as raspy. “Everyone does.”
“Hrm. Have you heard of his hounds?”
At this, Jova shook her head. The rusted iron links rattled.
“They say he has three. Candidos, the winter hound, whose bite will kill a man slow.” The man tightened the chains holding Jova’s arms, and she winced as they stretched painfully above her head. “Viridos, the fall hound, whose ears hear the tread of all spies that sneak around our new king.” Suddenly, a leather glove gripped Jova’s chin, and sweat began to break out on Jova’s brow as she felt breath against her cheek. “Aurudos, the summer hound, whose coat burns with his passion.” The fire of his torch came close to Jova’s face, and she could not turn away as her skin tingled, then stung, then burned.
The man pulled the torch away, and Jova gasped with relief. The cool damp of the cells felt suddenly good. “Who are you?” Jova asked again, as her head hung and dirty, unkempt hair fell around her face.
“Banden Ironhide, the king who is not a king, keeps three hounds,” said the man. “Sovar-l’hana does the same.”
Jova shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“Darpah, the simpering pup, helps the master with his business. Dandal, that vicious mutt, he helps the master with his business.” Jova heard a scraping, like something being drawn from a sheath. The sound was too short for it to be a full length sword, more like one of Da’s knives…
Then something was driven into her palm, and Jova screamed. Every chain holding her down rattled as her body jerked and twisted, but Jova was fully immobile. She heard the man’s wheezing breath terribly, terribly close to her ear.
“I, too, help the master with his business.”
Jova felt blood run down her palm, and cried out as the blade or the spike or whatever it had been was removed. She tried to move her fingers, but the pain was so blindingly sharp that she could not even tell if her hand was responding. Jova wouldn’t be able to hold a staff for weeks.
She heard footsteps, as the man moved from one side of her to the other. “No,” she whispered, shaking her head, trying to move away, but she couldn’t. “No, no, please, no…”
“The journey was a long one, I hear,” said Sovar-l’hana’s third dog. “Across the Barren Sands twice, from Moscoleon to Hak Mat Do, from Hak Mat Do to here. You suffered some losses, no doubt. People died. And you, well, you have gone through some suffering yourself, haven’t you?”
The tip of a nail traced lightly across Jova’s sensitive face, and she cringed. The nail painted across her face a line of blood—her blood—that stuck to her skin, and she could not rub it away.
“You think you know pain? The world is still full of horrible things yet, little girl. You don’t know the half of it.”
Jova howled as her other palm was impaled. Her whole forehead was covered in sweat, the pain bouncing like echoes through her body, or maybe that was her screaming, echoing through the underground cells.
“I learned- I’m sorry- I’ll be a good…a good slave…” gasped Jova, sucking in breath even as she held back her screams.
“You’re impudent. Demanding. Righteous. You’re not a slave. Not yet.”
Jova’s whole body tensed as the man, Sovar-l’hana’s nameless hound, held the torch up to her once again. This time, he held it up to one of Jova’s bleeding hands, so close that she could feel her flesh melting, feel it roasting.
The man coughed, hacking phlegm out as he tried to speak. “Where is your tabula?”
“I don’t- I don’t know,” gasped Jova, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Please, if you just stop, I’ll-.”
The burning end of the torch pressed hard against her palm, and Jova didn’t know what she was feeling anymore. A hard hand slapped her cheek as her head rolled, and her ears rang as the man said, “Do you think you are in any position to offer me anything? I stop when I choose to stop. Where is your tabula?”
“It’s- it’s…” Jova gulped, her limbs trembling. “It’s in Moscoleon. I’m a zealot, it’s in a House of Spring, with the pontiff C-Copo.”
The heat left Jova’s one hand for one throbbing second before the other was set ablaze as well. “Where is your tabula?”
“I told you! D-didn’t I tell you?” Jova screamed, her voice high and plaintive. She wasn’t the blind zealot of Moscoleon anymore, she wasn’t any mercenary’s assassin, she wasn’t a devil with no soul. She was just an eleven year-old girl, and she was burning.
“Where is your tabula?”
“In, in, in the jungle, the Moscoleon jungle,” she stuttered, her mind racing. “I l-lost it, when the tribe attacked. I lost it in the fighting, I swear I did, I lost it!”
The torch fell aside, and Jova tensed, waiting. Where would he burn her next? What would Albumere take from her this time?
“I will return in the morning,” said the man, and Jova heard his limping footsteps padding away. He did not untie Jova’s new chains. He did not say anything else as he was leaving. The wounds on Jova’s hands had been burned closed, cauterized by the torch, but that was hardly a comfort to her.
Before he left, though, he did say one other thing.
“I am Chetan,” he said. “Since you asked.”
Jova did not reply. She slumped, her tears drying on her cheeks. That night, she dreamed of nothing but iron spikes and fire.
A bucket of water dumped over her head woke her in the morning, and she felt her stiff limbs fold under her as the chains were unlocked and she fell to the floor. Shivering violently, she curled up for warmth, but someone grabbed her under her armpit and hauled her to her feet. Jova gasped as her dress was wrenched off of her, but her limbs, thin from days of disuse, were too weak to fight back.
She wrapped her arms over her chest and bowed her head, preparing herself for the worst, but rough hands grabbed her forearms and made her hold her palms out. Jova turned away.
Cloth wrapped around her hand, and Jova dared to relax her arm. “The other one,” rasped Chetan, and Jova held out her other hand, while still trying to hide her nakedness as best she could.
She drew breath. “You’re not going to…to…”
“Torture you?” wheezed Chetan. “No, little girl. I just wanted to ask you a question.” Jova felt something wrap around her eyes as another dress was pressed into her hands. She slipped it on once her new blindfold had been tied, though her skin was still wet and cold.
Chetan gripped her very suddenly by the collar. “Inconvenient, though. No tabula. Rush job. This is not the cleanest way to do things, but…” Chetan pulled her in closer. “If you shame Sovar-l’hana with your new master, then, well, back here you come. It will last longer than one night.”
Jova nodded. Her hands throbbed, and she didn’t dare try to push Chetan away. She did, however, summon the courage to ask one question. “New master?”
“You’re being sold,” said Chetan. He coughed, and it seemed to shake his entire body. “Rented, I should say, really. Whoever buys you only has the four years. Look pretty, make it worth it.”
He led her away by her collar, and Jova stumbled behind him. Blind, hands crippled, barely able to walk. Her stomach rumbled. Sitting there in that cell, it had been easy to forget how few the meals were, but now that she was up and walking again the hunger pangs hurt more than even her hands.
She shrunk back from the heat of the sun as they began to walk up the hewn stone stairs leading back aboveground, but Chetan pulled on her collar and she followed after him.
The auction house was not far. Jova could feel its marble steps under her feet, could hear the soft mutter of attendants and the quiet murmur of the buyers within. She had seen them before, years ago: not gaudy like the Jhidnu show houses, but with a subtler sophistication. These were places of business. She hadn’t been allowed in, of course, but the great auction houses of the bay were hard to miss, even from the street. Jova had pretended they were palaces, when she was little.
Chetan took her around the back of the palace. Jova expected it to be rotten and filthy, like the cells beneath the city, but it…well, it wasn’t. It was barren, yes, but clean. Professional. The sliding wood panel in the back slid open almost soundlessly, and inside Jova heard no voices speak, only the shuffling of feet and the scrape of chains. Beyond some curtain or panel, Jova heard Sovar-l’hana’s bark of a laugh.
“Wait,” said Chetan. “You’ll be called.” And he limped away, past the curtain that separated Jova and the livestock from the actual people.
Jova flexed her fingers. The motion made her hands scream out in protest, but she needed to do something besides stand here, mill around, and wait to be handed off to someone who was in the right place at the right time when a richer man died.
Something touched her arm, and Jova flinched. The touch was light, though, gentle, and furtive. “Jova?”
“Alis!” Jova said, and she turned quickly, hiding her hands behind her back. She didn’t want the girl to see her as more of a cripple than she already was.
When Alis spoke again, she sounded hurt. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No, Alis, no, I just…” Jova reached out, putting her hand as lightly as possible on Alis’s shoulder. “You see the bandages on my hands?”
Jova felt Alis’s shoulders move as she nodded. “They’re red.”
Jova withdrew her hand, after that. “They’re…well, they’re like my eyes. They’re hurt and I have to cover them up.”
“Forever?” asked Alis.
“No, not forever,” said Jova, and she smiled for the little girl. “I hope,” she added, as an afterthought.
Jova felt a soft hand grip her wrist, carefully placed just above the wrap on her palm, and for a moment the seething anger inside her left. “Where were you?” Alis asked, and Jova wrapped her arm around the little girl’s head and held her close.
“In a cave for demons,” she said. “Sneaking around, right under your feet.”
“Dandal said you were in the sewers,” said Alis, plaintively.
Jova smirked. “Oh, he was down there, too. He lives there. That’s why he’s so stinky all the time, didn’t you know?”
Alis giggled. “What about-?”
And then she froze. Her hand fell from Jova’s wrist; she didn’t even push Jova’s hand aside as she turned around and began to walk away. Outside, Jova heard the hammer of a gavel as the last slave was sold and the hum of a tabula as the next was brought out.
“Alis!” she hissed, as the little girl stumbled away. “Don’t be afraid.”
The girl did not respond. She just kept marching away, outside, to be sold, and this time Jova could not save her. She couldn’t even save herself.
She turned her head to listen as Sovar-l’hana began the sale of Jova’s last companion. Everyone else had gone. Alis was the only one that Jova had left, and from the sounds of it, she was going to be sold off for a bag of Da’atoa salt.
An anger, white hot inside her, burned from a place in Jova that she did not know existed. Her lip curled in a snarl. Any person on Albumere was worth more than a bag of salt, and here the plutocrats were, trading them around like livestock. It wasn’t right.
But what could she do about it? She had no eyes and, right now, no hands. There was no fighting back.
So when Chetan came to retrieve her, she bowed her head and followed and said not a word. There was murmuring outside, blocked out by the curtain separating the slaves from the buyers. Chetan stood by, waiting and wheezing, coughing as Jova listened.
“A rare and exotic treat from the far south,” said Sovar-l’hana, not quite shouting but not quite quiet either. “I give you the blind zealot of Moscoleon!” Jova stumbled out, Chetan dragged her chain, to utter silence. It wasn’t unexpected. She wasn’t sure how much fanfare she really deserved to receive anyhow.
“She’s a little girl,” said a male voice, disdainful and exasperated.
“Well, if I were trying to get you interested, Ashak-g’hopti, I would have brought a little boy. Ha!” said Sovar-l’hana, and that earned a few chuckles.
“You brought her out on a leash,” said the plutocrat named Ashak-g’hopti, as Chetan let the collar dangle behind her back and limped away. “A leash! Is this some scam?” Jova stood, listening to the sounds echo. It was a big room, with many people in it. Most of them were silent. She and Sovar-l’hana stood on a stage above the rest of them, and if Jova strained her ears she could hear the bought slaves filed in a line in the back.
“I bring it out on a chain because it is not a girl, or a boy, at all. It is something unnatural, something you will only ever have the chance to see but once in your whole lifetime.”
“You lost the cripple’s tabula and you’re trying to push her onto us,” snorted Ashak-g’hopti. “Enough tricks, Sovar-l’hana, show us the real merchandise.”
Sovar-l’hana cleared his throat. “Jova, walk to me.”
For one frozen moment, Jova considered disobeying, but then she heard the sliding sound of a nail being drawn from a leather pouch, and her heart stopped. Was it real? Was it a memory? It didn’t matter, so long as she didn’t face that again. She wouldn’t lose her hands, too.
She clicked her tongue, getting a better feel for the room, before stepping forward towards the plutocrat. She had to avoid the pots and pans laid out on the stage, as well as the foodstuffs in the burlap bags (she smelled peaches from the north) and the sacks of tin coins strewn on the ground. As she walked, she heard a murmur from the crowd, and paused.
“Keep going,” said Sovar-l’hana, and she took a few last steps until she was standing right next to him. Her heart was in her throat. She couldn’t fight him in her condition, but if she unwrapped any of her bandages and choked him, this smug man, this slaver…
“Not a step out of place!” Sovar-l’hana said, as Jova bowed her head and waited. “An exquisite piece! A rare opportunity! And she has been broken, too. Jova, do you recognize your master’s voice?”
“I’ll always remember your voice,” said Jova. She meant it.
“And you will obey any order that voice gives? Ha!”
“Just give me an order.” And see what I do with it.
Ashak-g’hopti spoke. “A carpet from Maaza Parsi, in Shira Hay. You see the weave? A western style, near the Cove. Exquisite.”
“Fish,” said a foreign voice that boomed like thunder. “The biggest spring tuna we have caught in months.”
“A broadsword from Irontower,” said a third voice. “Master’s work, not an apprentice’s.”
“I’m a merchant, not a warrior,” said Sovar-l’hana, chuckling. “Ha! What would I need with a sword, Thun Doshrigaw?”
“Plate armor, then,” said the man from Irontower. “It will be made to fit and sent to you at once.”
A carpet, a fish, a sword. That was what these men thought Jova was worth. Her eyebrows furrowed. Theirs was an evil trade. Only Dal Ak Gan’s life might buy her freedom, but they all deserved to die.
“Armor. Ha! Everyone needs armor,” said Sovar-l’hana. “To Thun, then, unless anyone has anything better.”
There was no answer.
“Mahashma, Thun Doshrigaw. Off you go then, girl,” said Sovar-l’hana, as he scribbled away on his parchment. Someone tugged on her collar chain, although she did not know who. “You’re going to Irontower.”
The night passed, and Jova waited. When the morning came at last, Jova had to remove the blindfold from Mo (she couldn’t just leave it on the weaseldog), and sneak back into the compound. “Why don’t you go home, Mo?” she whispered, as she rubbed the sides of his head and readied herself to go. The animal just panted and whined. “Why don’t you go home?”
The day passed, and Jova obeyed. Rho Hat Pan brought a box of tabula already marked to Sovar-l’hana at his request, and when the slaves were lined up for inspection she did exactly as she was told exactly when she was told to do it. She ate thin gruel with the other slaves, washed Sovar-l’hana’s fine clothes in a wooden tub, and advertised her own auction in the streets.
The night passed. Jova slept through a Jhidnu street fair as she waited, the sizzling of kebabs and Mo’s hungry whines still in her ears the next morning. Tensions had been growing between the Waves, the common folk, and the Winds, the plutocrats, as Banden Ironhide’s war escalated, but that night at least they reveled together as one people. The only ones who seemed concerned about the movements in the west were the Foam, those philosophers and middle-class thinkers, and no one ever listened to the Foam.
The day passed. Sovar-l’hana took to calling Jova “the zealot with no eyes,” and got a hearty chortle or two watching her stumble her way around his quarters before she was dismissed. She found Alis later that day and held her hand as she told the girl about her memories of the colorful fish that swam in the Bay of Jhid, about the saltwater hollows that roamed the sea bed and about the great barges that sailed above them. Jova did not know any baychild games, so they played Summer-Sign-Knock after until the slaves were called back into their quarters. Jova sneaked away just a few minutes later, but she did not find Mo that night.
The night passed. The day passed. Sometimes Mo appeared and sometimes he didn’t, and the time turned to liquid and dribbled past Jova’s hands as she waited and waited for her parents to find her. Had something happened to them? Had Mo somehow been separated from them? Fourteen days and nights passed as Jova waited.
On the fifteenth morning, Jova stirred and stretched. She had spent the night curled in a huddled ball, and she woke with her nose running and a winter chill in her bones. Her limbs ached as she stretched them, and she had to lean on the alley wall as she stood.
Mo hadn’t shown up last night, but Jova had tried to stay awake waiting for him. Judging by the dew now on her arms and face, she had failed.
The city did not rest, even in the dim hours of the morning, but there was a certain drowsiness to it. Jova limped forward, flexing her stiff limbs as she felt her way back. It was not far to the master’s—to Sovar-l’hana’s—compound. She caught herself as she thought it. Sovar-l’hana was not her master. Jova was and would be free.
She paused, as the blood began to flow through her again. She had just woken. Back in Moscoleon, she would have been on her knees, praying to the Ladies, giving thanks for…whatever it was she was to be thankful for.
Jova kept walking. This was not Moscoleon. This was Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, which held but one lady, and her name was Fortune.
As she stepped onto the steps of the compound, her fingers tracing up the chilly marble railing, she heard footsteps approaching. She tensed. Did she have time to hide? The footsteps were coming directly toward her; there was nothing to hide behind. She bowed her head instead, the collar heavy around her neck, hoping against hope that no one would notice a slave on the steps of the compound.
Except this wasn’t no one. Jova could hear his panting from halfway down the passage, and her fingers tightened. She mentally prepared herself for another encounter with Dandal the dog, even as she heard his wheezing breath come closer.
It had taken Jova several days to realize just how plump Dandal was. He was strong to be sure, but there was a fat to him that weeks of hard travel had stripped from Jova and the others. He did a servant’s work, not a soldier’s.
He did this often, Jova had also come to learn. He seemed to enjoy bullying the other slaves. His privileged position as—well, not exactly Sovar-l’hana’s favorite, but close to it—gave him small power and made him feel like a big man. For the most part, Jova let him at it. Bruises healed easily. Grudges did not.
Except the moment Dandal grabbed her, Jova knew this time was different. He kept her at arm’s length and said not a word, keeping all his usual insults and jibes to himself.
“Dandal?” asked Jova, trying not to let her fear betray as she stumbled after him. “Dandal, sir?”
No reply. Jova heard a slave housemaid put a hand on Dandal’s shoulder and stop him in his tracks. “Dandal-jan,” she said, in rustic wave-speak, the strange accent thick on her voice. They said those baymen who spent too long at sea started to talk strangely, the words getting mixed up as the salt got to their heads. “Worried you look. She does do wrong?”
“She’s not a girl at all,” snarled Dandal. “The slaves all knew it, she’s a devil. Get back, Abhay.”
Devil? Jova couldn’t believe such a quick change of heart. The slaves had been at the compound for a fortnight now, with Hag Gar Gan tribesmen eating and drinking in Sovar-l’hana’s guest halls. Surely they had heard the whispers before. What had changed?
She could feel the blood pounding in her fingers as Dandal dragged her along, to the horrified intake of breath from the slave woman. Jova let herself be carried along, and conserved her strength. It was no use to struggle here.
He took her past the gardens, where Jova heard the clip-clip of slaves pruning the hedges, and past Sovar-l’hana’s office, the open aired chamber where he had met Dal Ak Gan and Dock (a meeting whose resolution Jova had not dared to ask for). Dandal dragged Jova past the slave quarters, where she and Alis slept, past the guest quarters, where the tribesmen had spent an uneasy two weeks, and finally up to the master’s own private quarters.
The door opened and Dandal threw her inside, standing in the doorway as she struggled to her feet.
It was colder than she had expected in Sovar-l’hana’s bedroom. Jova heard the rustle of a very thick piece of cloth to her side, the same place where a wall should have been. A curtain of some kind, pulled to the side?
Shivering, still sore from her sleep, she listened closely. Sovar-l’hana must have been up and awake; she could hear the telltale scratch of his quill and parchment in the corner of the room. A low breeze snaked into the room through the open wall, and carried with it sounds of the city stirring.
Jova waited, her mouth dry, as Sovar-l’hana wrote.
Finally, with the soft crinkle of paper, Sovar-l’hana finished. “Fetch, dog!” said Sovar-l’hana, barking a laugh as Dandal walked around Jova to pick up the piece of paper. Her muscles tensed. Was it time to run? No, not yet. “Have Gorram ride it up north, before the snows set in.”
“Snows have already set in, master,” said Dandal, taking the paper.
“Ha! Then before they get worse, you hear? Get going, shoo! This letter’s more important than your head.”
Dandal hesitated. “Should I leave you with…this?”
“Your loyalty is truly touching, Dandal, but when I give you an order you obey it,” said Sovar-l’hana, and the jovial undertone to his voice had been replaced by something altogether darker.
The dog left without another word.
“Oh, get up off the floor, girl,” snapped Sovar-l’hana, once Dandal had left. Like a cloud on a sunny day, his bad mood had passed quickly and without comment. “You’re not old enough to be on your knees in a master’s bedchambers, ha!”
Jova stood, brushing off her cotton slave dress, keenly aware of the weight of the leather collar on her neck. The chain dangled off to nowhere, but she could feel its pull either way.
“Pour us some tea, then, blind little zealot,” said Sovar-l’hana, sitting heavily back at his desk as he rolled another sheet of parchment out from under his paperweight. “Go on, with your fancy seeing eye trick. Pour some tea.”
Even as Jova set to work, her mind was buzzing. The plutocrat had not dragged her here just for the pouring of tea. He had enough personal assistants, for that. And what was that, Dandal had said? She was a devil. He was scared to leave her alone with his master. What had they learned?
Jova sniffed, as her feeling hands found the teapot. There was an odd smell coming from somewhere, outside the open wall. Probably just another street cook.
“How obedient. How utterly obedient,” said Sovar-l’hana, as Jova brought a trembling cup to his side. Both the cup and the plate were smooth porcelain, and Jova could not imagine how fantastically expensive they must have been. “You know, I never liked routines. Schedules. Hrm. Give a man wood and nails and he’ll box himself in, ha!”
The girl waited patiently, standing at attendance.
“I’ve got some rituals, though.” The chair creaked as Sovar-l’hana leaned into it. “I told the masons, when they made this place for me, I told them I don’t want walls. Let me see the sea in the morning. Let me see the sea when I work. Let me see it.”
“A noble request, master,” said Jova, quietly.
“Ha! Noble! If I wanted a balcony so I could piss into the street you’d call it noble,” said Sovar-l’hana, rising. “But I do see this city, its high tides and low tides, its ebb and flow. I keep my finger on its pulse, and sure enough it tells me: war or peace? A buyer’s market or a seller’s? Who’s the talk of the town tonight?”
Jova stood still as Sovar-l’hana paced.
“And this morning, I see…you.”
The pacing stopped, just as Jova began to shift her stance. If she had to make a run for it, she would. Sovar-l’hana was no fighter.
“Imagine my surprise when I see my little blind zealot sleeping in the street like a common beggar!” He clapped Jova on the back, and Jova could not help but flinch. “I think, why is she doing this? Just because she can’t see her collar doesn’t mean they can’t, ha! This puzzles me for a long time, girl. I don’t know what to think. I decide to bring you here, and ask you for myself.”
The plutocrat gave Jova a push, and she stumbled onto the balcony, where the odd smell was getting stronger. Jova heard the buzzing of flies.
“That you, girl?” said the master, his tone harsh. “With the funny old snout and the big teeth?”
Jova’s stomach roiled as she reached out and felt the limp snout under her hands, as the pigwolf lay rotting in the sun. She felt the blood still hot from the hole in his gut, and could not help but remember Izca choking as an arrow pierced his heart, begging for his mama. “Oh, Fang…” she whispered, her fingers and hands shaking.
“Fang, is it? Not Jova?” Something tugged at Jova’s dress, and suddenly lights flashed in her head as she was pressed, hard, against the balcony railing. She squirmed her way out of Sovar-l’hana’s grip, gasping, but she had nowhere left to run. “I was so angry, you see, girl. I thought I had been cheated. Dal Ak Gan was a good friend, my trusted friend, and he gives me a box of pig and sheep and calls them man. What does he plan to do, steal them all back after the sale? Ridiculous, ridiculous, just ridiculous.”
Sovar-l’hana took a step forward, and Jova took a step back.
“But, of course, the other tabula work. They work just fine. And I remember what they say about you, about the girl with no eyes and no soul,” he said. “I remember how obedient you are. How utterly obedient. Too obedient. Never fought back at all.”
Jova felt the stone rails against her back, and knew there was nowhere left to go. She was cornered and unarmed. She couldn’t think her way out of this one.
“You’re my property,” said Sovar-l’hana. “I don’t kill my property, I sell it. Tell me, girl. Be obedient one more time. Where is it? Where do you hide it?”
Jova said not a word. Sovar-l’hana was wrong. There was fight left in her yet.
The master straightened. Jova could feel his shadow growing over her. “If you’re going to be difficult, then you should know, devil, that there are more ways to break a slave than one. The Hag Gar Gan gave you too much freedom. I will not make that same mistake.”
If there was a time to run, now was it. Jova launched herself forward, tackling the now upright Sovar-l’hana, hitting him in the knees. He crumpled as she slammed her full body weight at him, and she had to struggle over his flailing arms to get away and start running. Click, click, click. The door was to her left, and down the hall freedom waited.
“Chetan! Krish!” shouted the plutocrat, and Jova heard the hum of tabula-work. She had barely a second to react before, out of nowhere, something hissed and wrapped rustling scales around Jova’s neck. Feathery feelers swept across her face as sharp fangs bit into her shoulder.
Immediately, Jova felt her body go numb. The next step she took she collapsed, as whatever was around her neck flapped away. Jova jerked violently, her body refusing to obey her brain. A little foam rose in her mouth as she struggled to breathe, but she was choking on nothing, on the poison, on the emptiness inside her. She couldn’t feel her right arm or her right leg or her right side anymore, and the numbness was spreading. Soon all of her would dissolve away and join her eyes in whatever box the Ladies kept the pieces of her body, and Jova would truly be nothing.
She felt rough hands drag her away before she slipped into unconsciousness.
Jova dreamed of the sea. It rose up to meet her, its face blocky and somber, water streaming out of hewn jade grates where its mouth should have been. It cradled her, holding her close, and her heart beat fast as it moaned with a kind of hungry desperation. It held her so tightly that she thought it might smother her whole, and she felt her throat seizing, choking.
She woke up gasping, clawing at the collar around her neck. She tried to stand, and the collar caught. With a rattle of chains, Jova fell back down, groggily trying to get her bearings.
“Oh! Oh, Ladies, she’s awake,” muttered a familiar voice. A good few feet away, Darpah scuffed his shoes on the stone—it sounded like stone, at least—floor. “You’re awake.”
Jova lay on her back, breathing slowly, listening to what was around her. Wherever she was, the sounds echoed, bouncing down a long hallway into what sounded like a hundred different rooms. Water dripped from the ceiling into little puddles on the floor, which explained why Jova felt so damp and filthy. Above her, she heard…wagon wheels rattling and street vendors shouting, the sounds of Jhidnu awoken.
“I’m underground?” asked Jova, and her voice was raspy and dry.
“Er, yes,” said Darpah. “Yes, you are.”
Jova tugged on the chain at the end of her slave collar. No longer was it just for show; now it was fixed to some point on the wall, and it was a short chain indeed. Jova put her hands on her stomach and laid down in the damp and the muck. Her blindfold was gone, and she flinched whenever a drop hit her face. “Am I going to die?” she asked, finally.
Darpah spluttered and stammered and couldn’t seem to get a word out in-between. Jova waited. It wasn’t as if she had anywhere to go.
“You’re- well, you- master still intends to sell you,” Darpah said, at last. The rest of the dungeons or the cells or wherever Jova was were silent but for Darpah’s coughing. “You’ve been bad. Oh, Jova, you’ve been bad.”
Jova did her best to smile, although she heard Darpah flinch when she raised her head, her eyes unhidden. “Sorry if I caused you any trouble.”
“You’ve been bad, you’ve done wrong, I shouldn’t be talking to you…”
“What is this place?” asked Jova, talking over Darpah’s mumbling.
“The penance cells, under the streets. It’s to- well, what it’s supposed to do is- when everyone is walking above you, it reminds you how…low you are. All the plutocrats use them. The master uses them quite a lot.” Darpah fell silent. Jova did not press further, but he kept talking after a pause anyway. “It’s where slaves go if they’ve done wrong. Where bad slaves go. I’m not a bad slave, I shouldn’t be here…”
“Did Sovar-l’hana send you here?”
“Oh, no! No, no, no. Ladies, no. He doesn’t- he’s not aware.” Darpah shook his head, biting his lip. “It’s public, you see. The idea is that you don’t- that, well, your privacy- sometimes the wild children come down to mock you. But they won’t harm you! They’re not allowed to touch you! But sometimes they do throw, well, things…”
Jova let him ramble on, until finally Darpah said, “It’s just, well, they wanted to see. And I couldn’t say no, but I had to check that you wouldn’t shout or scream or anything, and I must make sure they don’t do anything to master’s property, so, erm…”
Jova sat as straight as she could. “Who wanted to see?”
“You can come in now, madam, just- just, oh, be careful, please…”
“Not a madam,” said the woman, as she approached. She wasn’t alone. Her footsteps were powerful and strong, and her voice was low and husky. Jova shook her head to clear her still ringing ears. She felt like her whole body was humming with anticipation.
“Ma?” she asked.
“Never married neither,” said the woman, and Jova’s heart sank as she recognized the voice. Her days of waiting, it seemed, still were not over. Perhaps Ma would never come.
Dock the mercenary squatted on the ground, and didn’t say anything for a long time. Jova got the sense that she was being looked over. “Blind Jova. The girl with no tabula.”
“You know?” said Jova, before she could stop herself.
“Everybody this side of the bay knows,” snorted Dock. “That’s his angle. You’re a freak show, ain’t you? It got the circus masters listening. Got the plutocrats listening. Got the other freaks listening.”
“What do you want?” asked Jova. She couldn’t keep the suspicion out of her voice.
Dock didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, she said, “You. Slave man. Leave.”
Jova almost laughed at the courage Darpah managed to summon in his reedy little voice. “I can’t leave you with the master’s slave. I don’t know what you’re going to do to her and I can’t risk-.”
“Fine. Shut up,” said Dock. “Hey, Smarty. Memorize his face.”
By way of answer, the man named Smarty grunted.
“If he says anything, kill him. If I die, kill him.”
Smarty grunted, and Darpah whimpered.
Dock adjusted herself, and drew a little closer to Jova. “Answer me true. You the one that killed that sandman bitch in the desert?”
It was Jova’s turn to keep silent. The water dripped down the sides of the grating above as Dock waited. Jova considered lying, but what did she have to gain from the silence? Her most grievous crime, the one she had escaped persecution for all her life, was already well known. Jova gave an almost imperceptible nod.
“Good. You ready to kill another one?”
Jova nodded again. There was less of a pause, this time.
“Way I see it, girl, I put a knife in your hand, nobody’s gon’ grab your tabula and make you put it down. You got the opportunity. You got the in.”
“They’re never going to take these chains off me, now,” said Jova, her voice hoarse.
“Did I say it’d be easy?” snapped Dock. “I’d do it myself, but he’s turned that fucking mansion into his own summer-burnt fortress. You do this, you never worry about chains again. You hear what I’m saying? Give me Dal Ak Gan’s life, and I give you your freedom.”
There was a faint voice of protest in the back of Jova’s head. This is wrong, it said. This is evil. But it had been a long time since Jova had listened to that voice. This was an evil place, with evil people. She could not sit and wait for her parents to rescue her any longer, wherever they were, for whatever reason they had abandoned her.
But there was one thing she would not give up.
“Another slave. A girl named Alis. She goes free, too.”
“That’ll be harder,” said Dock. She didn’t go into details as to why. She didn’t need to.
“She goes,” Jova repeated. She turned her face directly towards Dock, her expression set, and although her ruined eyes saw nothing she heard Dock draw back.
“The girl goes,” repeated Dock, and Jova let her shoulders slump. The mercenary stood up. “Talk details later. Can’t spend too long here.”
“Wait,” said Jova, and she raised her hand. It was not chained, but Jova couldn’t stand all the way without pulling her collar taut. “Mahashma?”
Jova heard Dock smirk. Her hand, rough and calloused, pockmarked with scars, closed around Jova’s. “Mahashma.”
And then Dock left, taking Darpah and the rest of her mercenaries with her. The rest of her mercenaries, that was, but for one. Jova slumped against the wall, listening to the dripping of the cells and the footsteps overhead, wondering how many men she would have to kill before she could be free.