The words seemed to echo in her head, unreal, distant. She had never anticipated this.
“Jova of the Temple,” he said. “Present your tabula.”
Jova wiped her sweating palms on her coza, holding her breath. What could she say? Was there to say?
She phrased her words carefully. “Why do you want it?”
There was a soft clank of metal on tile, and suddenly Copo’s voice grew closer. “Do you not trust me, zealot of the Temple? I have shown you what needs to be done.”
Jova suppressed a shudder. Even if she had a tabula, she wasn’t sure she could go through with that. She thought long and hard before speaking. It would not do to lie in the House of Spring. “I was told not to tell anyone where my tabula was,” said Jova, haltingly. “I was told that if I ever did, I would no longer be free.”
She felt cold, clammy hands on her bare shoulders. “And who told you that, sweet girl?” asked Copo.
“A- a friend.”
“A friend,” repeated Copo, and Jova could hear the disdain in his voice. “Do you trust the prattle of a wild child over the word of a trusted pontiff, Jova?” And his hand slid down her arm.
Jova tried to squirm out of the way, but Copo would not let her. “I’m sorry, pontiff sir, I just-.”
“It is true, you will no longer be free,” said Copo, and his grip tightened. Jova’s heart was beating in her throat now. “You will serve the Ladies, and all those who speak for the Ladies. Now, sweet girl, please, present your tabula.”
The incense made Jova’s head spin. “I don’t- I don’t have it.”
“You don’t have it?” repeated Copo, a hint of disbelief, of incredulity in his voice. “Did you lie, Jova? Are you truly the sandman’s slave? Or are you some common animal, who left its tabula behind in the hollow tree after the Fallow?”
“Pontiff sir, is there any other way?” asked Jova, breathlessly. “Anything else I can do to prove my devotion to-.”
“Answer my question, zealot,” barked Copo, and Jova flinched. “It would be easier for all of us if you would just tell me- where is your tabula?”
Jova twisted out of his grip, and fell onto the hard floor, falling on her hands and bruising her knees. She felt a hand grab her shoulder, and before she could stop herself she reacted. Her hand found her walking stick, and she twisted, hitting Copo hard. From the sound of the crack of wood, and the way Copo’s body moved, Jova could tell she had hit something boney. His face?
His voice, when he spoke again, was a nasal whine. “That was very bad of you to do, sweet girl. Very, very bad.”
“I- I’m so sorry,” gasped Jova, but her words were cut short as the pontiff grabbed her by the collar and dragged her away. She kicked and struggled, but Copo grabbed her with both hands and hauled her anyway, with prodigious strength for one who had seemed so soft and plump.
One of his palms was coated with something hot and sticky. Jova’s heart leaped to her throat. She had made a pontiff bleed in his own house. Even if she made it out of this alive, would she ever walk free in the streets of the Temple again? The pontiffs were a tightly knit, exclusive group. They would hear of this, they would all hear of this.
There was a clatter of tabula, and Copo finally let Jova go. She crumpled onto her knees, listening to Copo muttering under his breath, a low and constant stream of unintelligible words.
Her mind raced through the possibilities. What was Copo going to do? Would it be worse than what would happen if she ran? She had struck a pontiff in his own house; she did not know the ramifications because no one had ever had the gall to do it. Jova flinched as she heard Copo sweep aside what sounded like a whole hollow of tabula. Just how many slaves did the pontiff have?
Jova did her best to sit still as she heard the tabula hum. She did her best not to wretch out of fear and anticipation as she felt the heat from the summoning wash over her. She didn’t move as she heard claws clack on the tiles.
But the moment she heard the beast hiss, hiss like that monster from three years ago, Jova couldn’t take it. She spun, hitting anything within reach with her walking stick and bolted, tongue clicking rapidly as she sprinted to whatever exit she could find.
She could barely hear the sound over the pounding of her ears, and the echoes twisted and distorted as she ran.
She slammed into the frame of the door—was it even the door? Was it just the wall? A window in the pontiff’s high tower?—and she felt her away across the room, the snarl of the beast just behind her. She twitched; she spun.
Her walking stick cracked against the beast’s muzzle, and she could hear it stumbling back, whining. Jova’s grip tightened, and the space around her eyes throbbed. Not again. Never again.
Tense, she shifted her stance, listening intently. Back pressed against the wall, she didn’t dare speak lest she miss some vital movement, some unexpected attack.
But there was no pretense to Copo’s movements as he strode forward, his sandals slapping loudly on the floor. Jova clicked rapidly, trying to get an image of where the beast was in relation to him. It seemed to be pacing behind him, its movement erratic and irregular.
“Just tell me where your tabula is, sweet girl,” said Copo, his voice ragged and breathless. “I’m sorry that it has come to this, but I will use force if I must to prevent the intrusion of the Deep into a house of the Ladies- will you stop making that infernal sound!”
Copo grabbed her by the shoulder, and Jova shrieked. Her head was pounding, her heart was beating too fast to think properly.
The beast at Copo’s side snarled, and before Jova could stop to think she had batted aside Copo’s arm, spinning and cracking her cane once more over the beast’s head. She felt claws lunge for her thigh and stepped back reflexively, so that the beast caught instead only onto the loose petals of her coza. She lunged forward, and her stick caught in what must have been the beast’s mouth.
At the same time, the beast had charged. With a squelch, Jova’s walking stick sank into something firm but pliable. She heard the beast gag, felt it writhe and flop on the end of her cane. Its claws scrabbled on the base of her stick weakly as it struggled to back away. Jova felt a moment’s indecision.
Then she pulled her walking stick free and heard the low wheeze of the animal limping away. She was not a monster. She did not kill for no reason.
But Jova had barely had time to catch her breath when Copo’s arms closed around her neck. “Cease this immediately, girl!” he shouted. “Let go of your weapon!”
Jova could hear the low hum building up once more, and she knew she could not face a second beast, not if the first one had time enough to recover. Should she submit? But then what would she do? Copo would demand and demand her tabula and she would not be able to produce it.
She could not beat anything Copo summoned.
There was only one solution, then.
Jova twisted, trying to worm her way out of Copo’s grip. He tried to hold on, but Jova kept twisting and twisting until she broke free. The hum had stopped; Copo’s concentration had broken.
Not enough. Jova had to ensure her permanent safety. She brought her cane against the side of the pontiff’s face, and felt her hands shaking from more than just exhaustion.
The hum had started again, and Jova stabbed blindly down, trying to separate Copo’s tabula from his grip. “I’m sorry,” Jova shouted. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
Copo gasped pitifully as Jova’s blind attacks jabbed and struck his soft flesh. In the corner, the beast whined, but made no move to come closer.
Jova paused, head spinning, trying to think straight. “Oh, Ladies,” she whispered. “Oh, pontiff, I didn’t- I’m so- oh, Ladies, oh, Ladies…”
If she just took a moment to think, a moment to breathe. Damage had been done, yes, but she would find a way to fix it. She didn’t have to resort to violence. This was Moscoleon. It was a holy city. She didn’t-.
Copo grabbed her by the throat, and Jova screamed. She hadn’t even heard him get up over the buzzing in her ears, but now she could feel the man’s hand squeezing tighter and tighter around her neck.
She flailed. All those months of careful practice and technique with Arim left her just as much as Arim had. She hit every part of Copo’s body she could find, swinging so hard that she thought her walking stick might snap. She heard wood impact on Copo’s elbow several times before he finally let go, and when he did Jova did not stop. When she found his face, she did not stop.
When her walking stick finally snapped, Jova had gathered her senses enough to run.
Sound, touch, smell: all the senses Jova had come to rely on blurred as she stumbled out of the pontiff’s house. She felt so weak she would collapse down the long stairs, but somehow she made it down without falling. There was no miraculous strength this time, no one to take away the fatigue. It had seemed the Ladies had forsaken her.
The cold air outside of the den of still burning incense hit Jova hard, but it did not so much as brace her as shock her. She felt more disoriented now, not less. Where was there to go now? What was there to do?
She fell into a familiar rut; she staggered down the road to Roan’s stables, mouth dry, hands shaking, leaning on the splintered end of her walking stick as she limped down the street. It was good that it was a holy day. It was good that the streets were empty.
Jova hoped they stayed that way.
She couldn’t remember stumbling through the streets or falling through the backdoor of Roan’s stables. She didn’t know how she had managed to find her way back, disoriented as she was, but forces of habit came back easily in times of crisis. Jova lay on the straw and dirt, hugging her chest, unmoving, until Uten smelled her and began hissing and spitting. She shifted a little then, but only slightly.
Then she heard the pounding of Stel’s hooves, heard Roan shouting indistinctly. Roan gasped as he entered the stables—the strongest display of emotion Jova had heard from him in three years—and heard a thud like Roan had fallen from his horse.
There was an odd scraping, like something was sliding on the ground, and Jova finally sat up.
“You are not being alright,” said Roan, breathlessly, and it was a statement, not a question. Jova shook her head mutely. Something touched her shoulder, and she flinched, but it was just Roan’s calloused hand, rough and hesitant.
“What are you doing on the ground like that, Rho Hat Pan?” said an unfamiliar voice. “Do you need help? Here, I will-.”
“Silence,” spat Roan, and the venom in his voice made Jova flinch again. “Get your steed, Janwye. We will be discussing the Walkers at a later date. Right now, this girl is hurting and in need of assistance.”
“Roan…” Jova croaked, as the stranger’s footsteps pattered away. “Roan, he tried to…he asked for my…” She stammered into silence, unsure what was safe to tell him, what was safe to tell anyone.
“Take my hand, Jova,” said Roan, and he pressed Jova’s palm into his. He clicked his tongue and Jova heard Stel approach. With an audible grunt, Roan lifted himself up onto his steed. Jova didn’t know why, but it seemed to be costing him a great deal. Had he injured himself practicing earlier that day?
“Hold onto my hand,” said Roan. “We are returning to your Anjan and your Ell.”
Ma and Da. Jova choked back a sob, of relief, not grief. She was beginning to realize just what Arim had meant by having everything.
“You are taller,” said Roan, gently, as they walked out of the stables, Jova taking small, stuttering steps like she was newly blinded again. She couldn’t seem to hear her environment over the buzzing in her ears. “You have been growing since I first met you.” He spoke like he spoke to the animals, kindly and softly.
Despite herself, Jova felt her panic subsiding. She did not feel quite as shaken as they entered the familiar road back to the tenement.
“Jova,” said Roan, still gentle. “Please tell me what happened.”
Jova did not speak for some time, putting one stuttering foot in front of the other. “What happens if I hit a pontiff?” she asked, finally.
Roan’s silence was dark, and brooding. “How many times?” he responded.
Jova didn’t answer.
“Jova…is that your blood?”
Jova scratched her chest, shaking her head to clear the thump-thump-thump of her heart. “Some of it is,” she muttered.
“But not…all of it.” There was a pause, and then Roan tugged Jova’s hand. “Come. We must be walking a little faster.”
They were halfway down the street when Jova heard footsteps approaching rapidly, someone running. She tensed, but Roan tightened his hand and said, “Shhh. It is a friend with which I do business. She is being impatient.”
It was the woman, Janwye. “Roan, I do not appreciate this. I would expect more of a brother-.”
“Your initiative is admirable, Janwye, even if your discretion is lacking,” snapped Roan. “Be speaking of these things with Zain and I, no one else. We have polite company present.”
There was an annoyed scoff, followed by an almost sarcastic, “My apologies, milady. May I speak of more mundane politics with you, then, Roan?”
“That you should be saving for later too,” said Roan, and his tone was icy.
“For all I know, Alswell is burning as we speak. There is no later. I have heard nothing from the other envoys in Shira Hay and Mont Don! We have not rested since we left Alswell and it has still taken us weeks to reach Temple Moscoleon. We need the Holy Keep and we need you to-.”
“I said later,” repeated Roan, and the woman fell silent.
As Jova’s feet began to crunch on the gravel of the compound, she listened intently for her mother and father. Her nerves were tingling again; without Roan’s soothing voice, the full enormity of what she had done threatened to overwhelm her. She waited and waited in the empty square of the tenement, and she let go of Roan’s hand and sank to her knees when no one seemed to be coming.
“Zain!” snapped Roan, as Stel tossed her head and paced on the gravel. “Zain, come out!”
The resident pontiff’s feet crunched on the ground as he walked. Jova heard a small intake of breath from Zain, but before the pontiff could say anything Roan shouted, “Where is Anjan? Where is Ell?”
“The woman is, as I understand it, still out hunting,” said Zain, his voice soft and calm. “The man left for the market at least an hour ago. Something about enjoying his holy day. If I may ask…”
“No, you may not,” Roan said. Stel nickered, and Jova hugged her knees. She could still hear every impact of her walking stick on Copo’s face, still feel them shuddering through her bones.
Only the wind spoke for a few seconds, like the Lady Fall laughing. Jova’s brow furrowed. What part of the Ladies’ plan was this?
“The girl, through no small set of happy accidents,” said Pontiff Zain, and there was a hint of disapproval in his voice, “Was going to become a zealot. If she struck down someone inside a house of the Ladies…”
“I’m certain she did not,” said Roan, riding away from Jova to talk privately with the pontiff.
“You’re certain,” Zain repeated.
“She would not do such a thing,” said Roan. A temporary silence. “However, I have not asked fully.”
“Look at her,” hissed Roan, and although his voice was low Jova could still hear him. “What kind of trauma do you think she has just gone through?”
“What kind of trauma do you think she just inflicted?” the pontiff of winter hissed back. “The blood is on her hands, Roan! On her staff!”
“You think a blind little girl is capable of- of what, killing a grown man?”
“If she passed the first test of zealotry, I have no doubts as to what she is capable of and who she learned it from.”
“Not to interrupt your personal dramas, gentle sirs,” said a third voice, Janwye. “But I am running out of time. If I am to speak with the Keep before-.”
“Enough! ENOUGH!” shouted Roan, and Jova felt herself back away instinctively. “There is a girl who is injured and frightened and needs to be taken care of! She is more important to me than that fat slug of a pontiff, Zain! Yes, more important than all of Alswell, Janwye!”
Jova felt that she should have been flattered, but all she could feel was frightened. She thought she had heard Roan’s anger before, but never truly had she heard such rage and pain in the man’s voice.
“Listen to yourself, Roan,” said Zain, his voice doubly low. “You are losing control. There are other things at stake here.” Jova could not hear the rest of what he said.
She kept waiting, kept hoping that Ma or Da would return. She could feel the blood crusting on her fingers and forearms, now.
“Rotten to the core,” said Roan, suddenly, his voice much louder than the pontiff’s. “Not our concern.”
“If that is what you think,” said Zain, and his voice rose too, “Then leave this city.”
Stel’s hooves stamped on the ground, like frustrated hammers on a shattering anvil. “You would abandon me now, brother?”
“You are not being abandoned, Roan. Be calm and trust me.” A heavy sigh came from the cluster of grown-olds, presumably from Zain. “Janwye, where are the travelers you came with? The other fieldmen?”
“North and west, in a farming village on the jungle paths,” said Janwye. “But I don’t understand…”
Zain talked over her. “You will go there, Roan.”
“Where the zealots of the jungle will ambush and kill me?”
“Where the zealots of the jungle will join you. Janwye, you shall receive your audience as soon as is possible. Tonight, if I can. Make your best case, because once you step into the chamber of the Holy Keep I cannot help you. Roan, take your mounts, take as many supplies as you can. Leave quickly, before…before incriminating evidence is found. You are going west.”
Jova felt lost. She was eavesdropping on a conversation far beyond her magnitude, far beyond anything she had ever experienced.
“Why?” said Roan. “What do I tell the zealots that ask why I uprooted my entire business here?”
“You will tell them,” said Zain. “That you, and your little girl, are going to save Alswell.”
“The road to the Temple is watched by the Ladies,” Da sang. “The Ladies! The Ladies! In Moscoleon! Both prayers and blessings alike, they shall these. They say these! They say these! In Moscoleon!”
Jova smiled as Da hummed the old song while he braided her hair. Perhaps a marble warrior’s weave was not so fitting for the occasion, but it was the only braid Da knew how to do.
“The zealots, they guard us, their arms crowned with feathers. With feathers! With feathers! In Moscoleon! Both peasants and lords shall dine together. Together! Together! In Moscoleon!” Da squeezed Jova’s shoulder. “All done now, little Lady. You look beautiful.”
Jova squeezed his hand back. “Thanks, Da.”
She felt Da’s fingers trace her palm. “Your hands are clammy,” he said, softly. “Are you nervous?”
“A little,” Jova admitted. She took a deep breath. “A lot.”
“You shouldn’t be,” said Da, hugging her and rocking her back and forth. “You already did the hard part, and if you’re to be believed you did it on accident.”
“Da, I did do it on-.”
“I know, Jova, I know. I’m just teasing you.” Da stroked her braid. “And there is no such thing as an accident, not here. If the Ladies chose this path for you, then they will guide you safely down it.”
Jova nodded glumly. It was a matter of faith, in the end. All the same…
“I don’t even know what the initiation ceremony will be like,” Jova said. “No one’s telling me. They all say it’s some sort of big secret.”
“Then a secret it shall be,” said Da. “And you will walk into it with your head held high, as proud as the Lady Spring herself. You are brave, my little Lady. Aren’t you?”
“Yes, Da.” Jova sighed. “Is Ma coming back soon?”
“Eventually,” said Da, vaguely. “You know how she gets. She’ll come back with a dead bearcat slung over her shoulder and blood all over her face, but she’ll come back.”
Jova paused, twiddling her thumbs together. “Is she still going to be angry at me?”
“No! No, no, no, Jova, she was never angry with you. She just gets…frustrated, at times.” Da took Jova’s hand as he stood up, and Jova brushed off her coza as she got to her feet. Her stomach lurched as she stood, and she had to rely on her walking stick for support.
It was a small movement: it did not seem as if Da had noticed. Jova straightened and smiled, clicking once to find where the door of the hut was and walking towards it.
“It’s at sun-down, yes?” asked Da, hesitantly. Jova could hear him walking just beside her. “I think you told me, but I suppose this old man’s memory is fading. It is- it is at sun-down, yes?”
“Yes, Da. I don’t know how long it’ll take.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you? I mean, just to walk you there…”
Jova put a hand on Da’s wrist. “I’ll be fine, Da. Honestly. Enjoy your holy day! I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Look at you,” said Da, and his voice was husky. “Not even twelve years and more mature than grown-olds twice your age.” He bent down to hug her again, and whispered, “Jova, by each of the Ladies Four, I am so proud of you.”
“Thanks, Da,” Jova said, and she kissed him on the cheek.
She felt Da stand, and heard him clearing his throat. “Alright, then, little Lady. Go on, shoo! Get it over with! I want you to have your feathers on your arm before your Ma comes back home, alright?”
Jova nodded, and turned to walk down the street. She waited until she heard Da returning to their tenant’s compound before turning the corner, towards Roan’s stables. She had time. There were some things she needed to do.
A chill wind made her shiver, and she turned her ears to the sky. Was that the Lady Fall, whispering an answer to her prayer? Or was it just…the wind?
Jova could not answer these questions, but neither could she help from thinking them. She tapped her way across the Temple Moscoleon, grand city of the Ladies Four, waiting for them to give her a definitive answer.
There was none—not that Jova had been expecting one.
The city was quiet on its holy day. Jova listened, and heard the soft sizzle of peppers and rice, the murmured prayers of the supplicants at the temples, and below it all even the steady trickle of blood on the altar. Jova shivered, and hugged her shoulders. That was a part of Moscoleon Jova had never been able to accept.
Is that what the Ladies demanded for their answers? Sacrifice? Jova felt her hands move unconsciously towards her blindfold. How much more did they want from her? How much sacrifice did the gods demand before they started giving answers?
How much was Jova willing to give?
She walked forward, trying to force the questions out of her head, scratching her chest to get rid of the restless itch stirring inside of it. She would talk to Roan first, then go to Copo’s temple: just putting one foot in front of the other, without worrying about the road ahead.
Just outside Roan’s stables, as she walked the familiar path to the compound, she heard something odd. It sounded like one of Jova and Arim’s sparring matches, the crack and thud of wood on wood. She edged forward cautiously, her walking stick raised just a little bit higher in case she needed it. The wild boys had stopped harassing Roan years ago, but Jova was not so innocent anymore to believe they would disappear forever.
She heard Stel’s hooves cantering across the ground, and Roan’s labored breathing. Her brow furrowed. One animal, one person. There was no one else.
Again, there was a sharp crack. It wasn’t quite the sound of Jova’s walking stick hitting Arim’s spear; there was a snap to it that Jova could not identify, a thinner, keener sound.
Roan shouted and Jova jumped. She had never heard Roan speak so loudly and so harshly before.
“Atoa eri zak das, Raj Mal Azu!” he roared. Snap! Snap! Snap! “Sal iro eri Rho Hat Pan!”
He did not seem to be talking to her. Jova relaxed, slipping behind the edge of the door and listening. Perhaps it was not such a good time to talk to Roan, but Jova’s curiosity had been peaked.
Again, Roan shouted. “Gesh toh shira! Sal iro eri Rho Hat Pan!”
Rho Hat Pan was Roan’s old name: that much Jova knew. She wondered what the rest of the gibberish meant.
She heard footsteps approaching from the side and, bundled with nerves already, snapped out, hitting whoever approached once on the shoulder and then holding the walking stick to the stranger’s neck.
“You already beat the crap out of me once today,” said Arim, his voice sullen. “There’s no need to do it again.”
Jova lowered her walking stick immediately. “I’m sorry, Arim, I- I…” Jova’s mouth went dry, and her chest clenched. She didn’t know what to say.
“Need me to tell you what the horse freak is doing?” Arim’s voice was low, and not directed at Jova. He sounded both vindictive and exasperated.
“OK,” said Jova, meekly, still trying to find the right words to say.
“He’s practicing against a wooden dummy, with a whip. Long sandman whip, it’s got barbs on the end and everything. And he’s wearing all his Hak Mat Do get-up, even the saddle, even though…” Arim paused. “Never mind. Forget I said anything.”
“Part of your promise to Roan?” asked Jova, trying to smile. “You still scared of him?”
Arim didn’t laugh. He didn’t say a word.
Jova felt her heart sinking. She coughed, searching for something to say. “Look, Arim, about what happened…I’m sorry about…”
“What? What are you sorry about, Jova?” Suddenly, Jova felt rough hands push her to the ground, and heard Arim’s voice rising. “What do you want to apologize for?”
“Arim, please,” Jova hissed. “He’ll hear you!” She made no move to stand up.
“And why shouldn’t he?” Arim walked up to Jova. “What don’t you want him to hear?”
“I don’t know,” said Jova, and despite herself she felt tears behind her blindfold. “I just- I don’t- you’re making a scene, Arim.”
“Like you didn’t? Like you weren’t trying to be the miraculously gifted blind girl whenever we fought?”
“Arim, please,” said Jova, trying to keep her voice steady. “Please, don’t be mad at me.”
She heard Arim pacing around her, followed by a frustrated grunt as he kicked the ground. He began to stomp away, his footfalls heavy beside her. “Arim, wait!” Jova rose to her feet and followed, doing her best to at least jog to keep up.
Jova ran too fast. Her foot caught on something hard, and she tumbled to the ground, skidding on her knees.
She heard Arim’s voice above her, but as far as she could tell he made no move to help her up. “Well, Jova? I’m waiting.”
“It- it was an accident. I can’t convince Copo- the pontiff, I mean- otherwise. You’ll get a second chance, Arim. I promise!” Jova stood shakily. “I’ll tell him there’s someone else. I’ll put in a good word!”
“Oh, you’ll put in a good word.”
Jova didn’t say anything. There wasn’t anything else to say.
“You know, if it wasn’t for me, you would have never been able to fight like that. I gave you that practice! I did that! ME!” Arim’s voice was shaking. “Did you have to take it from me? Don’t you have enough already?”
Jova’s mouth opened in surprise. “What?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know. You’ve got everything. You and your cushy little job, your three meals a day. You’ve never been scared of going hungry, and you’ve got masters to watch out for you but they let you walk free. You’ve got people who act like your mom and dad, Jova, or at least as close as you’re going to get in this shithole we live in.” Arim pushed her again, as if daring her to fight back. “That was my one chance! You promised me, Jova! You promised I would be able to have that good of a life!”
“I do,” breathed Jova. “I still promise. I’ll keep my promise. That’s what friends do.”
Arim’s voice was low and full of contempt. “You don’t have friends. Just people who use you and pity you. Can’t you see that, Jova?”
Jova opened and closed her mouth, and the tears started to stain her blindfold. She took a deep breath, and grabbed the knot that was tied around the back of her head. She pulled it loose.
“No, Arim,” she said, slowly, the cloth limp in her hand as cold air rushed around her face. “I can’t see.”
“You freak,” whispered Arim, and he ran. Jova made no move to follow him. There was nothing to say to him even if she did.
She tucked the walking stick under her arm and bowed her head to re-do the knot, behind her ears and snugly over her face, just like Ma always did it. She bumped into a few things on the road as she walked, but honestly Jova did not care. She tied the blindfold tightly, so tight that it hurt.
“I don’t have everything, Arim,” she muttered, under her breath. “I might have a job and parents, but you have your eyes.” She kicked the ground, running her fingers through her hair, wishing she had been able to think fast enough to talk back to the wild boy. Vindictive anger boiled inside of her as she walked.
Da’s braid had come a little loose in the fall. Jova did her best to weave it back into place as she walked to Copo’s temple.
The pontiff was waiting for her. “Had a bit of a tumble, did we?” said Copo, as Jova made her way down the street.
Jova blushed. She felt at once embarrassed and annoyed.
“Ah, children,” said Copo, putting a hand on Jova’s back and ushering her inside the cool, musty interior of the building. “Not to worry, sweet one, the process will be quick.”
“Are you sure?” asked Jova. “I would think that something so important would be…bigger.” Her voice echoed off of the walls of the high-ceilinged temple. As far as she could tell, she and Copo were alone.
“You’ve earned your first feather in the selection, Jova,” said Copo, leading her on up to a flight of steps. Jova took them carefully. “But just the one. As such, it is rather a small affair, although insignificant? Hmm, no, I wouldn’t say that. When you earn your second and third feathers, though, then you shall have an audience. And should you earn your fourth feather, which you very well might, oh, yes, you would be graced by the presence of the Holy Keep herself.”
“But for now? For the first feather?”
“Only I shall be in attendance, for even the Lady Spring knows that only by recognizing our humble beginnings may we know how far we have risen,” said Copo, stroking Jova’s hair. “What a pretty braid! Did you do it yourself?”
“My- a friend helped,” said Jova. She felt dirty for lying in a temple, but hoped that the Lady Fall would forgive her the one secret.
“It is good to have friends,” said Copo, sagely.
“Yes,” said Jova, softly. “It is.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence.
Copo opened the door for Jova as the stairs leveled out, and she curtsied. “Thank you, sir,” she muttered, as she walked inside.
“So cultured, for a free girl,” said Copo, like a mother goosehen clucking over her brood. “Kneel here, go on. Mind your knees now, and just…relax. There is very little you will have to do. You have already proven yourself.”
Jova knelt, slowly, as she heard the low hum and the soft hiss of summer flies setting the torches alight. She heard the clatter of tabula, and Copo muttering to himself as the scent of burning incense began to drift to Jova’s nostrils.
Copo began to sing, circling her by the sound of it. His voice warbled and fluctuated, and he sounded like Roan and his funny foreign language, although his voice changed so much that Jova was having difficulty understanding what he was saying.
She gave up, letting the sound wash over her as she breathed deep the smoking incense. It stung her nostrils and had an acrid, bitter taste, but Jova got used to it very quickly. She thought of the Lady Fall, and made the circle on her forehead very quickly.
Of all the Ladies Four, she wanted to hear most from the goddess of secrets.
Copo’s chant continued, a low, steady hum that surrounded Jova and seemed to worm its way into her bones. She felt her whole body vibrating to the tune, and though she could see nothing of the room a pale blur filled her mind.
It had been so long since she had thought that way- in colors, and shapes. The presence of those thoughts felt almost alien to her.
And suddenly, Copo stopped, and the whispering images disappeared.
“I would show it to most,” said Copo. “But for now you will be allowed to hold it.”
Jova held out her hands, and took something hard, and round. Her fingers traced it, wondering what it might be. And then, her heart lurched.
It was a tabula.
As tabula went, it was the same size as the last one she had held in that glade so long ago, although now her hands had grown to the point that it could fit easily in one palm. She felt, in the center, a roughly hewn hole, big enough for her index finger to slip through. It was crudely cut, hacked and carved through the center.
“As a soldier of the temple, nay, soldier of the gods, you must open yourself in every way you can to the Ladies Four,” said the pontiff, his voice deep and booming.
Jova felt her stomach curl in revulsion at the idea. To cut through someone’s tabula like that felt like some horrid act of self-mutilation, as if someone had drilled through their own skull or as if…well, as if someone had gouged out their own eyes.
Copo took the tabula from her hand gently, and then Jova realized with a sinking feeling what was coming next. She broke into a cold sweat, and it wasn’t because of the burning incense or the small fires around her. What was she going to say? What was she going to do?
She didn’t know whether she should run or stay. She didn’t know whether to stop the ceremony now or let it go for as long as possible. She didn’t know what to do, and so, as Copo began to speak again, she did the only thing she could do. She prayed.
“Jova of the Temple,” he said. “Present your tabula.”
Jova tapped her walking stick on the ground and walls of the stable as she made her way out. She didn’t really need the stick anymore in Roan’s stables, but it gave her sweating hands something to do.
“You see, Copo? This is no place for business. Beggars infest it like roachrats in a marshman barge.”
“How interesting…” said a familiar voice. Jova cocked her head. Could it be? “This is no beggar, Latius, or else if she is she is a very selective one.”
“Pontiff, sir,” said Jova, curtsying. She heard footsteps approaching and then felt a clammy hand stroke the top of her head. She flinched, involuntarily, although the pontiff’s voice was warm and sweet.
“This is where you attend to your work, girl?” he asked.
“They say the man who lives here was once a mighty sandman warlord, and yet he has taken you under his wing. How very interesting,” said Pontiff Copo. “I suppose, though, people like you would be attracted to each other.” There was mirth in his voice, although Jova couldn’t tell what was so funny.
“Don’t taunt her, Copo, you’re making a mockery of me. I formally apologize for my companion’s misconduct, girl.”
Despite herself, Jova was surprised. She should have known from his name that Latius was a marbleman, albeit one of the generals and not a freed slave like Da.
“Who are you, anyway? This Roan’s apprentice-daughter?”
Jova opened her mouth to speak, but before she could she heard hoofs behind her. “Just an assistant,” said Roan. “And I was under the impression that you were being men of business.”
“Meaning you would approach me before my assistants,” he said.
“Proceed, then,” said Latius, icily. “Let us conduct business.”
Jova shrunk back. Both their voices were like Irontower steel, and they clashed like swords as well. She made to excuse herself, but Pontiff Copo put a firm hand on her shoulder.
“Oh, let’s leave them to their business,” said the pontiff. “Us assistants shall have our own private meeting, won’t we?”
Jova hesitated, but Roan and Latius were already leaving. She sighed, and turned to Copo, smiling. It was always good to smile to a pontiff. Perhaps she could learn more about this odd duo, and perhaps…
Jova made the sign of fall on her forehead, tracing a circle on her temple. Perhaps this really was a sign.
“There are seats over there,” said Copo, pressing on Jova’s shoulder. “Come, I will-.”
“I know where they are,” said Jova, doing her best to worm out of the pontiff’s grip. Her smile was beginning to hurt her lips. “I can find my way on my own, thank you.”
“Oh, but I insist,” said Copo, and led her to Roan’s waiting benches anyway. “What a strong young girl you are,” he said, and he stroked the back of Jova’s head again.
Jova did her best to move her head out of the way. “Which house are you of, pontiff sir?” she asked, politely.
“The House of Spring,” Copo said, and Jova heard him thump his chest. “The tattoos are on the small of my back. We keep our chests bare, for are we not proud of that which the Ladies have given us? Would you like to feel it?”
“Erm, no, thank you…”
But Copo had already grabbed her hand, and Jova felt as gingerly as possible the sweaty skin with the tips of her fingers. She supposed the markings must have been exquisite, but even she could not tell what they looked like just from touch.
“They’re very…nice,” said Jova, falteringly.
“Aren’t they? What a sweet girl you are, dear. Remind me what your name was again?”
“Jova, pontiff sir.”
“Ah, Jova. A sweet name.”
Jova nodded thanks, unsure what to say. “You’re Copo, right?” she asked, just to make sure. It was the only thing she could think of, anyway.
“How attentive! Yes, Jova, my name is Copo.”
Jova coughed, and slipped off the bench. “It’s been very nice talking to you. If you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
Copo grabbed her hand with both his, and though he did not pull her back his grip was firm. “Do you like working here, Jova?”
“Well, yes,” she stammered. “It’s very- very rewarding. The animals have good hearts.”
“And what of the man who rides them? Does he have a good heart?”
“Roan?” Jova paused. She had to think about this, although she felt the need to say something quickly because she could feel Copo’s sweat on her hand. “Yes, yes he does. He is very forward but very honest, and has always treated me and my- my friends kindly.”
“You may speak ill against your master, if you wish. You can trust me.”
“My master? No, no,” said Jova quickly. “I am free. I work for wage.”
“You are not a slave? How…interesting.” And again, the pointed pause. “And so you truly do enjoy your work here?”
“Yes, pontiff sir. Very much so, pontiff sir.”
Copo gave a long sigh, and let go. “Ah, more’s the pity. I suppose I will just to have learn to ride then, to see more of you. Would you help me ride, sweet girl?”
“Of course. Just talk with Roan,” said Jova. “Thank you for your business. I must be going now.”
With that, Jova made a hasty retreat back inside the stables. She had never gotten around to cleaning Uten or in fact finishing her breakfast, but her food could wait. She had a feeling that Latius the prince would not be fond of riding dirty molebisons.
“Hey, girl,” she said, rubbing down Uten’s back as she began looking for the comb. Out of all the animals, she had to profess she liked Uten the most. Roan made Jova ride her the most often when they went down to visit the Teeth or else run errands through the city, and Jova couldn’t help but notice the obvious kinship between them.
Uten rubbed her nose in Jova’s side and sniffed, her voice as breathless and wheezy as always. Jova began to comb Uten’s fur with as much care as possible- Uten was the most sensitive among the animals- and the molebison exhaled long and slow, her way of saying that she was content.
Her mind wandered back to Pontiff Copo, and his strange line of inquiry. For some reason, just thinking of the man made Jova’s skin crawl. What had he really been trying to ask her?
Was he trying to somehow besmirch Roan’s name somehow? Get Jova to confess something to start something against the foreign man? But, no, Copo hadn’t even been sure if this was the right place to find him. Jova found it difficult that sweaty, sickly sweet Copo would both take such an immediate dislike to the man and come up with such a convoluted plan to discredit him.
Perhaps Copo had just wanted to know a little bit more about the man his friend was doing business with. Except, he had barely asked about Roan, now that Jova thought about it. It had all been directed at her…
Was it a job? It seemed obvious in hindsight, although Jova felt doubts the moment she thought it. What kind of job would a pontiff have for her? They certainly needed no beggars, and there were so many of the faith lined up to join their ranks they hardly had to go recruiting for them.
Jova thought of the way Copo kept stroking her hair, and shook her head, grimacing. She would need a comb-down herself, later.
She patted down Uten’s left side and squeezed her way around the molebison’s bulk to get to work on the right. No sooner had she done so did she hear a sharp hiss from her side. Her hand tightened on her walking stick.
Not Roan, not Copo, not Latius. Jova furrowed her eyebrows. “Arim?”
“Yeah, it’s me,” said Arim, in a low whisper. “Jova, come on, I need your help.”
Jova smacked a palm against her forehead. “For once, today, could I work in peace? Can’t you see I’m busy right now, Arim? Go away, before he catches you!”
“No, no, no, Jova, you don’t understand, this is important,” said Arim, and the tone of his voice made Jova pause. “Really, really important.”
“What is it, Arim? Is someone in trouble? Did somebody get hurt?” Jova’s grip tightened on her walking stick.
“No, no, nothing like that, but…” Arim lowered his voice even further, so that Jova had to bend down to hear. “You see that pontiff over there? The sort of gangly, shirt-less one?”
“Oh, right, right, sorry. Well, you talked to him, didn’t you? You know who he is?”
“His name is Copo. From the House of Spring, he’s just been tailing that man from the Seat of the King. I don’t get it, Arim, what’s he have to do with you?”
“He’s not just here for his friend,” Arim hissed. “I heard him as I was walking down the street. He’s here for a zealot test.”
Jova sucked in a sharp breath. Was that what he had meant by other business? It had seemed odd for the pontiff to have just wandered in to accompany the banished prince…
“This is it, Jova! This is my one chance! And I’m not-.” Arim paused, and Jova tensed, wondering if he had been caught. There was a pause, and Arim whispered in a lower voice, “And I’m not ready.”
“Arim, don’t say that, we’ve been practicing for months!”
“I’m serious. By all the Ladies Four, I’m serious. I can’t do it, Jova. He’s not going to take me! What do I do? I need you to help me!”
Jova bit her lip. Was this what the Lady Fall had meant, by sending the prince and the pontiff when she did? Was it Jova’s goddess-given responsibility to help Arim join the ranks of the Ladies’ soldiers?
Divine or not, it was certainly part of her responsibility as a friend.
“OK,” she said, nodding. “OK. So what do you want me to do?”
She felt Arim squeeze into the stables with her, and heard his heavy breathing. He really was panicking. “I don’t know!” he hissed. “You’re the smart one.”
“The first thing you have to do is calm down,” said Jova, evenly.
“No, I will not calm down!”
“Shh, shh,” said Jova, waving her hand in the air until she found Arim’s shoulder. She gave him a few pats. “Everything’s going to turn out alright.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I have faith,” said Jova. She smiled. “That’s something you’ll need to have too if you really want to prove yourself.”
“OK. OK, sure. I got faith. I’m all faithed up. Now what? What if he asks me to fight? Jova, I can’t even beat you. What if he asks me to fight a- a slave, or a criminal, or a demon? What do I do? What if he asks me to fight his marbleman friend? Jova, I can’t fight a marbleman.”
“This is not calming down,” hissed Jova, doing her best to keep her voice low too. Arim’s anxiety was infectious. “I’ll think of something, just give me a moment.”
Her fingers drummed on the side of the stables, and she heard Uten shift to scoot away from the bodies cramped inside the small stall. “Arim, what exactly is the procedure for the test? Does he know who you are? Your name or your face?”
“He’s gotten a tip that there’s a zealot-hopeful in his district,” said Arim, stammering. “I don’t know who from, but I can think of who else I’ve told. It must have been Bash, or Izca, or one of them…I swear, I’m going to find them and…”
Jova’s hand waved until she found Arim’s face, then she grabbed his chin and turned it. “Arim, look at me. Focus.”
“But you can’t-.”
She clicked her tongue. “Focus.”
“He- he has a tip,” said Arim, slowly, in-between breaths. “He probably has had a lot of time to prepare, but I’ve never seen him before. Nock told me that the pontiffs only get second-hand descriptions. He’s probably looking for a young wild child who hangs out a lot on this street, but that’s it.”
“And the test? How is he going to test you?”
“It’s different for all of them. I’ve never seen this one before, I didn’t even know he lived in this district!”
“And you’re sure he’s going after you?”
“Positive,” said Arim, and Jova felt his chin shake as he nodded. “I heard him!”
Jova’s lips were dry. It certainly wasn’t a lot to go off of. “But the tests for zealotry, it’s always about fighting, right? You’ve got to prove you’re strong enough.”
“Summer and Spring, yes. And I’m not-!”
“Shh,” said Jova, and she twisted her hand to put a finger on Arim’s lips. She felt a sharp intake of breath from the boy, and he became almost eerily silent very quickly. “And he just needs to see that you’re a good fighter?”
A single nod from Arim.
Jova sighed. She didn’t know if the plan was going to work, but either way Roan would be furious by the time it was done. All the same…
Jova traced a circle on her forehead and thanked the Lady Fall. She would not be on the receiving end of help this time. “You got your spear, Arim?”
“Yes,” said Arim, taken aback. He paused. “Jova? What’s the plan?”
“He wants to see you get into a fight? We’re going to get into a fight.”
Walking stick in hand, Jova strode out of the stables, tugging Arim behind her. “But Jova,” the boy protested, trying to tug back. “I haven’t beaten you for months! You’ll completely ruin me!”
“Not today,” said Jova, firmly, and she threw Arim out into the open. She heard him scramble to his feet, heard the low scrape of the spear as he dragged it up, heard the pontiff sit up and gasp at the sight.
“You attack first,” said Jova, in as low of a whisper as possible. “Go on, Arim, it’ll be OK.”
She couldn’t hear Arim’s response, but moments later she heard quick footsteps approaching and she spun her walking stick to parry the straightforward lunge.
“I thought you said I would win this time?” hissed Arim, in passing as they spun around each other.
“You will,” Jova grunted, through gritted teeth. “Just do your best and I’ll take care of it. No more talking now, not while he’s watching.”
Jova circled Arim slowly, getting ready to go on a counteroffensive should Arim take too long. They had to move quickly, before anyone tried to break up the fight. The key was to make Arim appear impressive, and that meant the fight couldn’t be too one-sided. Jova could only hope that they looked like two experienced fighters sparring more than two children squabbling in the dirt.
Arim did not make a move. Jova braced herself and made the move herself, swinging her walking stick wide. Arim blocked it just in time, and Jova grunted her approval. She spun, aiming lower at Arim’s body, and the parry came quicker. Faster, faster, it had to be faster to make the fight look real.
A flurry of blows followed from Jova until she sensed Arim buckle under the assault. She paused, holding her arms wide to give Arim an opening to counter.
He did so, with gusto. Jova smiled. Arim had the passion of a zealot in battle; it was with training that he would gain the necessary skills. He would be fine.
“Jova! You will be stopping, now!”
Or perhaps they wouldn’t be fine. Jova’s heartbeat matched the rhythm of hoof beats, and she tensed, forcing the fight to move faster. “Come on, Arim, come on,” she muttered, as she swept her walking stick at his legs.
With a roar, Arim jumped and slammed downward, cracking his stick on Jova’s shoulder. He seemed to be taking her “no more talking” rule rather seriously.
“Jova, I command you stop now!” Roan shouted. “Leave the urchin boy alone, you can still walk away! If you do not, I will be-.”
“No,” said Copo, and his voice was suddenly serious. “No, let it finish.”
Jova’s heart leaped. They had done it. She whipped her walking stick around, exchanging another series of showy but slow blows with Arim, before she sensed a particularly well-placed swing coming from him and let it hit. She crumpled to the ground, head ringing but satisfied.
“Jova!” Stel cantered around her in agitation, although Roan made no move to help her up. “You, boy! Leave now, or I will run you down!”
Jova sensed Arim edge up against her, frightened, and she rose quickly. “I’m fine, Roan! Fine!”
“You pick these fights you are not ready for,” hissed Roan. “You push yourself too far! When will you learn that you as you are will never be able to hold your own when fighting the likes of others? And, you boy, step aside! I am telling you to leave, now!”
Jova opened her mouth, but she wasn’t sure what to say. Would saying Arim was a friend make their deception more obvious?
“Master Roan, I apologize! I got a little heated, was all!” said Arim. “You remember me? I rode your staghound a few months back.”
From Roan’s side came the harsh laugh of the marble prince. “Threatening your own clients? Is this how you do business, sandman?”
Roan snorted, but said nothing more. Instead, he rode quickly to Jova’s side and pulled her away. “If our affairs are being concluded,” he said, and his voice was ice, “Then I would like to be resolving my private matters in private.”
“No,” said Copo, speaking up. Jova’s head spun from the number of voices coming from all directions, although thankfully she had been holding back in her fight against Arim. She still had the energy to pull away from Roan and listen. “Of course, why did I not see it before? A blind girl with such a gift must have been chosen by the goddesses themselves. Free and yet so humble and mannered, it cannot have been a coincidence.”
Jova’s racing heart almost stopped. She tried to find Arim, tried to point him out, but she could already feel Copo’s shadow over her.
“I’m not- I haven’t-.” she stuttered.
And then she felt a clammy hand pull away her blindfold, and shrank. The flesh around her eyes still throbbed when touched, and the unusually cold air around eye sockets made her gasp involuntarily. She pulled the blindfold back down immediately, and felt Copo’s hand shaking as she gently pushed it away.
“And so you truly are blind,” said the pontiff. “Yet you fight as one who may see. How interesting.” There was a scrape of gravel, and Copo’s voice was suddenly much closer to Jova’s head. Jova felt a hand on her forehead, and shuddered. “Zealot of the Temple,” said Copo, formally. “I have found you.”
Jova couldn’t say anything. And though she couldn’t see anything, either, she could still feel Arim, hating her.
“Dull rocks,” said Jova. She cocked her head, listening to the clack of pebbles on pebbles. “Shiny rocks. Shiny rocks again. Oh, now you’re just cheating, that was a dull rock and a shiny rock. Dull one’s in your left hand.”
“By the Lady Fall, that’s creepy,” said Arim, although he sounded more amazed than scared. “How the hell do you do it?”
Jova shrugged, trying to hide her embarrassed smile. “They’re very distinctive sounds.”
Arim yawned. “OK, enough fucking around, let’s get this done before you have to go work for the horse freak again.”
Jova bristled. “Don’t call him that.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s just that he-.” There was a distinctive pause. “Forget about it, OK?”
“Forget about what?” asked Jova, standing up. She used her walking stick to steady herself as she found her feet. “You always say that.”
“You can’t make me talk about it,” said Arim, sounding exasperated. “I made a promise to the horse fr- to Roan. You pay attention when you make a promise to a guy like that.” He paused. “How long you known him?”
Jova sniffed. “Three years, about.”
“Three fucking years,” said Arim, under his breath. “And it’s worked? I can’t believe it. By the Lady Fall, he’s lucky.”
“What’s worked? Why’s he lucky?”
“Nothing! Roan’s a scary guy, is all I’m saying.” Jova heard the wooden clunk as Arim picked up his spear. “Scarier than you, even.”
“Is that true?” asked Jova, bemused, twirling her walking stick as she shifted her stance.
“Sure,” said Arim. “Except when you start doing that thing with your tongue. Gives me the shivers, every time.”
Jova smirked and clicked. From what she could hear, Arim was standing to her left, his stance casual, although he tensed the moment he heard her.
“Every time, Jova!”
She hit him on the shoulder with her walking stick. “Are we doing this? Or did you make me wake up early and sneak out of the house just to chat me like a toucanrat?”
“You’re like a slave girl.” Pebbles shifted as Arim stood. “Leave the grown olds, stay with us! No one telling you what to do or when to do it. You don’t know freedom until you’ve got a gang behind your back, Jova.”
“Tell you what,” said Jova. “You beat me and I consider it.”
At the whoosh of air beside her head, Jova raised her walking stick to block. She parried Arim’s swing and shifted to hit back, focusing on the sound of his heavy breathing. The wooden stick connected with his jaw with a loud crack.
Arim lunged, and Jova twirled her stick to bat it aside. She couldn’t tell where Arim was targeting or where the lunge came from, but her spinning stick had a radius wide enough to catch the edge of the spear and force it aside. With a grunt, Jova pushed Arim’s spear down and kicked out where his hand should be.
She missed, her foot instead planting on the wood of the spear. She pushed, using her own walking stick as leverage, and the spear clattered to the ground as it was forced from Arim’s hand.
Immediately, Jova swept her stick low, hoping to catch Arim as he bent to get his weapon back, but no such luck. She waved her walking stick, but it found only empty air.
Three sharp clicks to her left, right, and center found Arim backing away, edging around Jova’s right. She shifted her stance, turning her head to face away from Arim. It let her hear him better with her right ear, and more than that it always threw him off when she hit him without facing him.
She rolled the spear under her foot, moving it just a little closer to her. She waited…
And the moment she felt Arim tug to get his weapon back, she stepped down, hard, using her momentum to throw herself forward. A crunch as something hit the gravel indicated Arim had fallen. She gave him a few thwacks on the side just to drive the point home.
“Ow, I yield, I yield!”
Jova smiled and held out her stick. She felt the force on the other end, and pulled Arim up. The boy’s hands made patting sounds on his clothes as he brushed himself off.
“I hate how you can tell I’m there without even looking at me,” complained Arim. “It’s unfair.”
Jova crossed her arms. “Say that again, to my blindfolded face.”
Arim just laughed. “You don’t get that excuse anymore, Jova. Maybe in the beginning, but by now I’m convinced you’re not actually human.”
“Then what am I?”
“Oh, something mysterious,” said Arim, and the direction of his voice shifted as he circled Jova. “A dark demon from the Teeth, maybe, with unholy powers taken from the depths of the earth and a tabula made of pitch.”
Jova clicked twice, and grinned. She hoped Arim flinched.
She raised her head. The air was getting hot. “Is it sun-up yet?”
“Might be,” said Arim, noncommittally. “Come on, let’s go again.”
“Arim, I don’t want to be late. Roan likes me to be punctual.”
“Oh, come on, you’ve got time. The last fight didn’t count, it went too quick!” Arim put a hand on Jova’s shoulder as she walked away. “How am I supposed to become a zealot if I can’t even beat a girl like you?”
“I’m not sure if I should be offended by ‘girl’ or ‘like you.’ I think I’ll go with both,” said Jova.
“Yeah, so fight me!”
“No, Arim. Go grapple with your boy gang,” said Jova, pushing him off.
She heard him sigh. “At least let me walk you there?”
Jova flung out her walking stick, and it prodded Arim right in the chest. “I can get there on my own, thank you.”
“Not for you, for me,” said Arim, and Jova felt a gentle hand push her walking stick down. “I want to learn all your little tricks. The test can happen any day now! I have to be ready!”
Jova shook her head. “A toucanrat, I swear. Well, come on then, don’t slow me down.”
She heard the patter of Arim’s eager feet as he raced up to walk beside her. “Maybe the pontiffs will be doubly impressed if I make my way through the entrance exams blind-folded.”
“It’s supposed to be a test of faith, not talent,” said Jova, exasperatedly. “Arim, you’ll never make it if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.”
Arim scoffed. “I know fours on four people who got their feathers for the wrong reasons. Bash, Izca, Nock…the way I see it, I’m rounding it out so it’s nice and holy.”
Sometimes, Jova couldn’t believe the wild child’s gall. It was good that it was so early in the morning, or else a pontiff might have been about and overheard. Jova clicked and listened, just in case, but there was no one else on the street.
It was an odd combination of coincidences that had led Jova to these daily sparring practices with Arim. First, Roan had given her the hardened walking stick; then, he had assigned her to groom one of his client’s steeds. It was just Jova’s luck, she supposed, that said client’s assistant aspired to be a zealot and needed someone to practice against.
“I thought you said you didn’t want me slowing you down,” said Arim, smugly.
Jova concentrated on the present. “Shush, you,” she said, striding forward. “I was thinking. You should try it sometime, it’s useful.”
“I’ll think about it,” said Arim. “Wait…no, I won’t.”
“Oh, haha,” said Jova, dryly, knocking Arim out of the way with her walking stick. “You’re very funny. Now, scoot, you really are slowing me down.”
“I’m going, I’m going!” Arim clapped Jova on the shoulder. “It’s right up ahead, so if you just keep walking-.”
“I got this, Arim,” said Jova, shoving her stick into his gut. “Go away. Shoo.”
“Alright, well, I’ll see you around, right?”
It wasn’t until she heard footsteps crunching away that Jova was sure Arim had gone. She sighed, and smiled. She appreciated all that the boy had done for her, but sometimes talking with him was exhausting.
Jova’s walking stick tapped on the ground. Ma had appreciated him, she mused. She had been wary at first, of course, and had no idea what Jova was up to in the mornings, but she seemed to like Arim. Da had taken a more resolute stance, although Jova had no idea why.
She had hardly walked ten paces when someone tapped her on the shoulder. She felt cool shells pressed into her palm, and heard a soft, male voice whisper, “A gift, child.”
Jova rolled the shells in her hand even as she traced the man’s palm. Soft and supple, a palm used to long days indoors and hot baths, no doubt. The sensible thing to do would have been to take the man’s money and leave.
She pushed the man’s hand back, shaking her head. “Thank you, sir, but save your charity for someone who needs it.”
The hand of shells withdrew, although the hand on her shoulder did not. “How…interesting. There is no shame in accepting assistance, child.”
Only a pontiff would preach like that. “I need no assistance, thank you,” said Jova, firmly. “I have my work to attend to.”
“As do I,” said the pontiff. His hand left her shoulder. “Fortune be with you, child.”
“Be it with you too,” said Jova, nodding her hand, waiting until she heard the pontiff’s footsteps walk off behind her, in the same direction Arim had gone, before moving onwards.
Jova was used to being treated like a cripple beggar by now; with her blindfold and her clothes smelling of manure, she could hardly blame them. They were pontiffs of the House of Winter, usually, but sometimes laymen who were feeling holy.
It was odd that men so willing to give their own away were so taken aback when told they could keep it.
She heard the clop of hooves and stopped respectfully, waiting for Roan to speak. After quite some time, he said, “You have been awake for some time.”
How could he tell? Jova brushed down hair, straightening herself. “Morning errands, that’s all.”
A long pause, and then, “The merchant-prince will be here sometime this afternoon. Prepare Yora, then Uten. I am feeling he shall be wanting to try both.”
Jova nodded, and started to walk towards stables. Roan rode at a steady pace beside her.
“Is he the one from the Seat?” asked Jova.
“Of the King, yes,” said Roan. “After all these years, I think he still entertains ideas of riding in and taking back Ironhide’s crown. The revolution had not been kind on him.”
It had not been kind to anyone, Jova noted. The Holy Keep had chosen to seal the Temple from the war, and rumor had it she had burned all the letters from both the old and new king’s envoys. No matter how much Keep Tlai hid, though, Banden Ironhide’s armies needed to get their food from somewhere, and the treacherous roads had made food scarce.
Roan coughed. “Your breakfast is as it is, on the bench. You may eat when you are finished.” And he rode away, without another word.
Jova could smell it as she approached, although only under the various earthy smells of the rest of the stables. For such a graceful creature, Yora sure did poop a lot.
She made soft, reassuring noises as she entered, clicking with her tongue and whispering nonsense under her breath. The staghound was prone to skittishness in the mornings, and Jova did not want to startle him.
She started with the hooves first, brushing her hand gently over them to pick out rocks and wipe away dirt, carefully avoiding the sensitive part of the heel. Roan had once had a hoof pick, but that had been traded away for food nearly a year ago, and Jova supposed Roan had never found the time to replace it. It was valuable, too, forged in the Irontower with their steel magic.
Yora tossed his head, and Jova clicked her tongue for him to hold still. She was determined to do a good job. In these troubled times, Roan had still provided for her, and her family, and if she would not accept the charity of strangers then Jova certainly wouldn’t accept the charity of a friend. These merchant-princes and arena champions, displaced by the revolution, paid generously as well. If Jova did well, they might come back as repeat customers.
Jova’s hand drifted until she found the bristled comb, and with it scraped mud and dirt out of Yora’s long fur.
It took nearly half an hour for Jova to finish, as she had to use her hands and not her eyes to make sure Yora looked presentable. He didn’t seem to mind; the staghound’s tail thumped on the ground happily as Jova rubbed his underbelly and behind his ears. He was like Mo, in that regard.
“Alright, you’re clean,” said Jova. “Don’t go rolling around in the dirt until after the prince is done, got it?” She patted Yora on the back and walked out of her stall.
Uten was next, but as Jova picked up her walking stick and found her way out she smelled the food and her belly rumbled. Roan had said to wait until after she was done, but the food was probably getting cold and the merchant-prince would likely not arrive until late in the afternoon.
Jova bit her lip, and knocked her stick on the door of Uten’s stable, listening. There was no sound in reply.
Well, Jova reasoned, she could let Uten sleep while she had breakfast. It wouldn’t hurt.
She smelled bean stew as she approached. Smoothing out her coza, she sat on the bench and cupped the bowl in her hands, taking a moment to enjoy the warmth on the chill autumn morning. It smelled more robust than usual, although it had gotten a bit cold.
Jova cleared her throat and said, softly, “The Lady Fall bless me, I give you thanks. May I be wise, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
She picked up her spoon, but for some reason her stomach had clenched. She sat, letting her head hang.
“It’s, uh…it’s been a while,” Jova continued. “In case you’re listening, I just wanted to say I’m grateful for what I have. Truly, I am.”
Jova scratched her chest.
“I just…I wanted to ask…” Jova tapped her thumbs on the side of the bowl. “I’ve worked hard. Ma and Da have worked hard, harder than anyone. And people here are always talking about miracles and your presence and I know I don’t always say my prayers or respect the holy days but if there’s anything you want me to do I’ll do it.”
In the stables, Chek snorted. A flygnat buzzed past Jova’s ear.
“I want answers,” said Jova. “That’s what you do, right? Lady Fall? You give answers? Ma and Da have spent the last three years looking, looking for someone like me. You’d approve. They were subtle about it, quiet. But they haven’t found anyone, anyone at all. I don’t have a tabula and I’m starting to get worried because I still don’t know why.”
Jova waited, hoping, listening. Was that the crack of dry leaves? Was the Lady Fall answering?
“I don’t know if you’re punishing me or guiding me or what,” said Jova. “But I want to know why. Please. I promise, I can be worthy. Just- just point me in the right direction.”
Like every other morning prayer before it, there was no answer. Jova slumped, and ate quietly, listening in vain for the answer of the silent goddess. Who else was there to ask besides the Ladies Four?
And then, at that moment, the banished lord arrived.