Jova traced the shawl of the lady, so soft that it felt like her fingers were tracing air. She sat on a velvet cushion, her legs folded under her, and when Bechde touched her hand the lady’s touch was smooth as silk. “How charmed,” said Bechde, and the Alswell drawl made her voice simply drip with elegance. “Oh, Ladies, however did Janwye find a precious gem like you in that stew of a city? You’ve made the whole trek across the sands worth it, darling, honestly.”
It sounded like a lie to Jova’s ears, but she smiled anyway. It was a happy lie, and it did her no harm to believe it. “Thank you kindly, missus,” she said, bowing her head.
“Oh!” said Bechde (and the way she said it Jova thought the fieldwoman might swoon from sheer emotion). “How mannered! When this horrid affair is all done and over, you simply must stay with us at the manor in Alswell, Jova, I insist.”
Horrid affair. Bechde made it sound like it was something minor, like someone needed to clean the house instead of win a war before she could go home. Jova scratched her chest. Was the lady of Alswell simply that absent-minded?
“Would you like something to eat? Something to drink?” The wagon creaked as Bechde rose, and Jova could feel the humid jungle air flow in once Bechde opened the tarp. “Quele, would you be so kind as to fetch us a bite?”
The alsknight at attendance outside was a woman, but had a deep, rumbling voice. “We still have the pomegranates from Hak Mat Do, m’lady.”
“Oh, that’d be just lovely,” said Bechde, and Jova heard chainmail rustle as Quele walked away. Bechde sat down again opposite her in a rustle of cloth. “You’ll love them, Jova, they were grown directly in Do Yash. They’re a bit tart, but the juices are delicious, even if they are a bit messy.” Bechde laughed, high and airy, and Jova couldn’t help but laugh with her.
The girl smoothed out her coza and sat a little straighter, wondering how long it had been. Janwye had escorted her down the jungle path and left immediately to have her audience with the Holy Keep, while Roan had been falling in and out of consciousness for the rest of the night. Jova had been left in the care of Janwye’s liege, Bechde, and all her various attendants and slaves, left to sit and stew and wait for something to happen to her.
Jova’s fingers tapped on her knees. She needed to do something.
Something rustled beside her, and instinctively Jova clicked her tongue to get a better image. She didn’t get much; the canvas of the wagon didn’t make a very good surface for the sound to bounce off of, but she had the vague impression of something blocky being pushed through the entrance.
“Just the pomegranates, my dear,” said Bechde, kindly. “Thank you, Quele, you may go now.”
Bechde took Jova’s hand and put something round and firm in it gently. Jova turned the hard fruit over in her hands, but she couldn’t seem to peel it like she would a Jhidnu orange or bite into it like she would a Moscoleon tomato.
“I am so impressed by you, Jova, darling,” Bechde said, as she began to cut her own. “I mean, look at you! You’ve taken this disability of yours and made it something to be proud of. It’s like your own special little power, isn’t it?”
Jova’s grip tightened on the pomegranate until she thought it might burst. No, it isn’t, she wanted to scream. No, it’s not! It helps, but it can’t replace colors. It can’t bring back sunsets or art or human faces. It’s not a power, it’s a burden! If you’re so impressed, you can HAVE IT.
“Yes,” she said, out loud. “I suppose it is.” And she waited for Bechde to finish with the knife so she could use it to cut her own.
“Oh, no, no, I insist,” said Bechde, taking the fruit back from Jova’s hand. “What was I thinking, just handing it off to you? No, darling, it’s much better if I do it, honestly. Look, you can have mine, and I’ll eat this one.”
“You don’t have to-,” Jova began, but Bechde shushed her and cut her off.
“It’s really quite alright, darling. Here, have it! The seeds are to die for, honestly.”
Jova felt a metal disk being placed on her lap, and she felt the edges of the plate hesitantly. On it, she traced six slices of the fruit, and she let out a little gasp of surprise. “Is this all mine?”
“Why, yes, of course! Although, if you can’t finish it, please do tell me. I’ll give it to Quele, she does so hate to waste food.”
All hers. Jova picked out one of the seeds hesitantly and bit into it, and immediately her tongue vibrated with the sensation. Sweet and tart, just like Bechde had said, with a hint of a crunch as she chewed. Jova slowed to savor every bite, a great smile on her face. All hers. It would have taken Da days on end of extra work just to buy one for the whole family, and Ma would have had to trade in a whole day’s worth of kill for a chance at exotic fruit. Jova would have to ask Bechde if she could take some back to Ma and Da.
Jova caught herself, and bit her lip. She had to stop thinking that way, not if she wanted to make the journey any less painful. How long it would take, anyway? How long would Ma and Da be forced to worry? Jova knew that she could not stay at home, but if they were already waiting for Janwye to finish then why couldn’t Ma and Da just meet up with her before they went? It was Roan’s decision, and it didn’t make sense.
Speaking of Roan, Jova still had to talk to him. A shiver went down her spine involuntarily, and she shuddered as she remembered the emptiness where his legs should have been, the almost too-smooth stumps where they ended. What kind of accident must he have been in, to have lost both his legs?
An accident, Jova reasoned, much like the one that lost both her eyes. Something he blamed himself for, something he lived with day in and day out, something he wished simply never had the chance to happen.
If Roan was anything like her, his accident would have been like that.
“Jova, darling, were you listening?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Jova, distractedly. She shook her head, massaging her temple. “I was just thinking a bit too hard.”
“Oh! What about? Please do tell me.” Bechde leaned forward and whispered, “It can be our little secret.”
The grown-old sounded older than even Ma, and yet she had such child-like enthusiasm, such infectious affection, that Jova couldn’t just say no. “Life,” said Jova, vaguely. “My friends. My home.”
Bechde laid her hand over Jova’s. “I miss home, too,” she said. “But I think you’ll find that the parting just gives you more reason to finish the journey. Don’t be afraid, Jova. I was scared when I left Alswell, but if I hadn’t I would have never had the chance to meet you! Things will work out in the end.”
Jova smiled. Perhaps the lady of Alswell wasn’t so absent-minded after all. “What’s your home like, Bechde?” she asked. “I want to know!”
“All’s well in Alswell, darling,” said Bechde. “It’s so much more open than here! There is so much clutter in Moscoleon, but in Alswell we’ve got wide open fields, pretty little houses with the most charmed balls and parties, and a sky so blue it’d make you cry, darling—honestly, it is a picture.”
Jova ate delicately, keenly aware of the marbleman table manners Da had once taught her now that she was in Bechde’s company. “I remember blue skies in Jhidnu,” said Jova. “I- I don’t know so much about Moscoleon, but most mornings I can feel the fog here.”
“Jhidnu? Jhidnu-by-the-Sea? You’ve been there? Why, darling, I never knew!”
“Eigh- four years,” said Jova, catching herself. Her four years before the Fallow, just like everyone else’s, would just have to go unaccounted for. “We stayed in the city proper once, but Anjan and Ell didn’t like it. It was too busy for them, they said. We stayed to the back roads in the Jhidnu wilds mostly, staying at traveler’s inns, camping by the trail.”
“And for you to be so young.” Bechde sounded positively astounded, but Jova did not know why. It had been normal life for her—for many people, in fact, living outside of the merchant city. “Tell me, Jova, were you…were you savage?”
“Wild?” Jova paused. Was she? She was neither slave nor wild. She fell into the crack in-between. “…No,” she said, finally. It wasn’t a lie. “Anjan was, though. And we met quite a few on the road, although they left us alone for the most part.”
“What are they like?” asked Bechde, breathlessly. “Wild children, I mean. We don’t have them in Alswell, you see, and we met hardly any when we were crossing the Vigil Sands…”
That got Jova’s attention. “There are no wild children in Alswell?” she asked, sitting straight. “Does the Fallow not call to them?”
“Oh, no, no,” said Bechde, dismissively. “We find the hollows, you see. Guard them, even. The animals we let out, and the children we collect to civilize. It’s all very progressive; we have no truck with that superstitious nonsense the Wilder tree-worshippers believe.”
“Oh,” said Jova, and she couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Another answer had been waved in front of her face, and it had been snatched away just as quickly. She scratched her chest again. “Well, um…we didn’t see many wild children, either, honestly. They keep to themselves in Jhidnu. Some of them attacked us while we were traveling, most just ran away.”
Bechde was not to be dissuaded. “How do they learn to speak the king’s tongue? Do they wear clothes? Is it true that they have some kind of bond to the wild beasts?”
Jova pursed her lips. Honestly, she had never given those questions much thought before. “I suppose they must remember the language from before they were called,” said Jova. “And from each other, I suppose.” Her eyebrows furrowed. “I saw some wild children without clothes, some with. Those were stolen, probably. And their bond comes from the tabula that they take with them.”
“The children take tabula?”
Jova nodded. “Anjan did it, after her Fallow. She summoned Mo—a weaseldog, I mean—and kept his tabula ever since.”
“Before the Fallow?” said Bechde, aghast. “The children wouldn’t have the constitution for it! And the animals would be so young.”
“Well, it’s just like anywhere else,” said Jova, a little confused. “They take care of each other. Don’t you have early summoning in Alswell? Don’t any of your children disappear before the Fallow?”
She heard Bechde’s dress rustle as the woman shifted across from her. “Yes, I suppose I see your point,” said the lady, and her tone for once was subdued. “It’s just so very strange to think of it that way. So how do you get slaves in Jhidnu, then? Where do they come from?”
Jova thought back. “Adventurers and explorers,” she said. “I saw a few at market once, trying to sell them away. They find hollows in the wild and take just the one tabula. It’s bad luck to take more than one.”
“Amazing,” whispered Bechde. “Truly amazing, isn’t it? All the ways people on this world live!”
“I suppose it is,” said Jova, although she did not feel amazed. It felt like all the ways the people on Albumere survived, but she would hesitate to call what the emaciated, desperate children lurking in the bends of the forest paths did living.
“Ladies, you’d think I wouldn’t be so parched in a place so humid,” said Bechde, and she opened the tarp again. “Quele, would you be so kind and fetch me Fosen? Oh, and put some tea on the kettle!”
“Cropper’s making tea right now, m’lady. For himself. Says it helps his stomach aches.”
“Oh, well, leave the old fart to his griping and groaning then. Just water, for myself and the little one. And don’t forget Fosen, it’s absolutely boiling in here!”
The alsknight marched away to do her lady’s bidding.
“Do you keep tabula of your own, Jova?” asked Bechde, politely, as Jova finished off her pomegranate. She wondered who or what Fosen was as she ate.
“No, I don’t,” the girl said. “Once, I tried to keep one, but…well, no. No, I don’t.”
“Oh! A darling girl like you, without companion? A travesty. We will remedy that immediately!” Bechde said. “What about the charming old molebison you came riding in on? Is that one yours?”
“Roan’s. He owns all the animals.”
“Roan…? Oh, Rho Hat Pan! Yes, Janny did tell me about the name change. It’s remarkable, really, that the savage finally decided to call himself something the rest of us could pronounce.” Bechde said it so casually that Jova almost did not notice the veiled insult, but she couldn’t help but wonder if Bechde was actually being offensive or just absent-minded again. “Do you fancy the molebison?”
“Uten is nice,” said Jova, nodding. “I like her.”
“Then I shall purchase her for you from Rho Hat Pan at once!”
Jova choked. She bent over, hacking and coughing, and managed to stutter out, “Bechde, really, there is no need—I already work with her so much, you don’t have to-.”
“Oh, but I insist,” said Bechde, clapping her hands together. “There is nothing like holding the tabula yourself. As soon as the man wakes, I will ask him about it. Really, Jova, it’s no concern to me, and you are such a darling child, you deserve something nice.”
“Really, Bechde,” said Jova. “Thank you. But I don’t need charity.”
The lady fell silent. “Well, if you’re certain,” she said, and she sounded slightly disappointed. She recovered quickly. “Ah! Here’s water. Come, Jova, come. No leather skins for us; this is a porcelain cup all the way from Jhidnu, made special for drinking.”
Jova took the cup, cool and smooth in her hands. It felt like an awful lot of bother to go through just to have a sip of water, as someone (either Bechde or Quele) poured water into her cup.
“And here’s Fosen,” said Bechde, and Jova heard the click of some kind of clasp. Fosen was a box?
The hum of a tabula and the breeze that swirled around them inside the wagon said otherwise. Whatever Bechde had summoned croaked in the corner, and the lady cooed as she picked it up.
“Usually we just let the wild animals go, but Greeve let me keep this one,” said Bechde. “I’ve raised him ever since he was a little fall tadpole. Come on, Fosen, give us a little breeze.”
The toad croaked again, and Jova felt a gentle gust against her face. She had to admit, it felt nice, although how the animal was generating the wind she had no idea (and she had not the inclination to find out).
“You can hold him, go on,” said Bechde, and Jova hurried to find somewhere to put the plate of fruit and the porcelain cup and all of Bechde’s little trinkets and baubles before she picked up the fall toad. “He’s a sweetie, honestly.”
He felt slick and slimy, and so bulbous that Jova wasn’t entirely sure where his head was. The girl laughed nervously, cupping the toad in her hands as cool wind continued to play across her hands and face, until Bechde clicked her tongue and the toad hopped off and away.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to get you the molebison?” said Bechde. “They can be such wonderful companions.”
“I’m sure,” said Jova, nodding. “I-.”
And then she heard shouting from outside. She twitched, head snapping up as she tried to hear the sound through the canvas of the wagon.
“What is it, Jova?” asked Bechde, real concern in her voice. “Is something wrong?”
Jova took several seconds to answer, distracted by the faint shouting. “Do you hear that?”
“I…oh, my.” The toad croaked in protest as Bechde scooped him up and opened the wagon entrance. “Janny’s come back.”
Jova stood to her feet immediately and near fell out and onto the ground as she hurried to leave. She stumbled and turned her head, listening to the source of the shouting. It was Janwye’s voice, and just her voice: she was alone. The jungle absorbed some of the sound, but it grew louder and louder as she got closer.
“Janny?” shouted Jova, standing on tiptoe. “Janny, what are you doing?”
“We must go!” she was screaming. “Quele! Cropper! Get lady Bechde, tell her we must go now!”
“Janwye!” shouted Bechde, taking the steps off of the wagon lightly. “What’s going on? Did something go wrong? Will the Temple support us?”
Janwye was standing next to them now, in the little camp of fieldmen, alsknights and slaves alike. She breathed heavily, sucking in breath between words. “The Temple…the Temple…” she muttered, distractedly. “I…the Temple is fine. Bechde, look! Look at this.”
And Jova heard a hard clink, and a sharp gasp from Bechde.
“Whose was it?” breathed Bechde, and Jova realized with a start that the clink had come from the fragments of a tabula. It had broken; whoever or whatever was linked to it had died.
“This one was Bax’s. Not- not his, but we made a system- Bechde, I- he…” Janwye seemed too distraught to finish her sentences. “Something’s gone wrong in Shira Hay. We have to go help!”
“Janny, Shira Hay is weeks away,” said Bechde. “Do you even know what went wrong?”
“N-no, but Bechde- oh, Ladies, Bechde…”
“Breathe, Janny, go on. Have a seat, that’s it,” said Bechde, and her voice was soft and calm and motherly. “Now explain to me what happened. Fully, in all the details.”
“My friend in the Temple got me an audience,” said Janwye, and she spoke so rapidly that she tripped over her words. The friend, Jova assumed, was Zain. “Keep Tlai listened and I gave my address and I think it went well but I can’t entirely be sure because she wouldn’t give me a straight answer afterwards and I stayed in the house of the pontiff for the night and when I woke up the tabula had broken and I ran straight here and now we have to go, Bechde, please.”
“Patience, Janwye!” shouted Bechde. The sudden silence rang as Janwye stopped talking, and Jova felt unease creeping in her stomach. Janwye had told her about the system her friends had made: if one of those tabula had broken, that meant something had gone very wrong indeed…
“So we do not know the Keep’s answer?” asked Bechde, after Janwye had a moment to compose herself. “We do not know how or if they will help the cause?”
“Zain can figure out a way to tell me, but we have to move fast! If Bax is in trouble, then-.”
“Do we know, Janwye? Yes or no?”
“No,” said Janwye, after a pause. “No, we don’t.”
“Then we stay. We do what Greeve told us to do, alright?”
“Yes, Bechde. I will…I will return to the Temple now.”
“Oh, Janny,” whispered Bechde, and Jova heard the rustle of her voluminous dress. Jova clicked, and the blurred molded shape that bounced back could only mean that Janwye and Bechde were close together, embracing. “There is nothing we can do now but pray, and see how fortunate we are! We are in the most holy place in all of Albumere. Where better to entreat to the Ladies than here?”
“Yes, lady Bechde,” said Janwye, hoarsely. “Thank you, lady Bechde. I will go now.”
“Bring someone with you at least?” said Bechde, and her dress rustled as she moved away. “Quele, or Cropper. For protection. If something happened to Engers and his people…I don’t want a repeat out here.”
Jova heard the clip-clop of hooves before the voice spoke. “I will go with her,” said Roan, his voice so low it sounded as if he might fall off of Stel at any time. Had he only just recovered?
“No, you won’t,” snapped Janwye. “It’s too dangerous for you to go back into the city. You are going to stay here with Jova.”
Yes, Jova thought, and her fists tightened as she heard Roan get closer: Roan, who had lied to her, Roan, who had used her, Roan, who had abused her blindness. We are going to stay right here.
And you are going to tell me the truth.
The boy cried in the shadows of the hollow, his belly rumbling, his eyes red, his cheeks streaked and glistening. He held a disk in his hand, his back pressed against the sap-coated innards of the great tree. The clean clothes that mama had tearfully put on him were already soiled. He had fallen asleep at home, somewhere warm, somewhere safe, but had been jerked awake by the tugging, hurtling through darkness, the world expanding and contracting around him.
He was tired and lonely and scared when the voice shouted, “We got one today, Engers!”
A pair of hands reached inside and pulled the toddler out. The boy blinked his eyes, scrubbing his face in the dappled sunlight. At its high point in the sky, it shone directly down and peaked through the twisted branches of the tree above him, which was surrounded on all sides by high stone walls.
The woman holding him up pursed her lips and turned him from side to side. The boy felt tears emerge in his eyes again, and as he started to cry he felt a sudden harsh pain on the side of his face. He tasted blood in his mouth and began to bawl even louder, until the woman hit him even harder on the head.
The toddler hiccupped once, and fell silent, sniffling despite himself.
“Did you have to be so rough?” asked a teenager standing behind the woman, pulling at the shawl around his shoulders.
“Oh, it just takes a smidge of discipline, young lord,” said the woman. “See? He stopped crying already.”
“May I hold him?” asked the teenager, edging forward.
“Of course, Engers,” said the woman, handing the toddler off to the boy like he was a slab of meat. “How does it feel to hold your first slave?”
The teenager’s hands were clumsy and weak, and he nearly dropped the toddler as he held him under the shoulders. “He feels heavy,” said the teenager, laughing. He turned to the boy and set him down, tickling his nose. “Hey, there, little guy. What’s your name?”
“We don’t let them keep their names,” said the woman, quickly, before the boy could answer. “Even if they do remember them. Best to just start fresh, don’t you think?”
“Oh, alright, then,” said Engers, and he reached into his pocket. “I’ve got a list somewhere, wait a hollow’s hop…”
“I don’t like springborn at the best of times,” said the woman, as Engers examined the long sheet of paper. “But I guess this one will grow into it. He doesn’t look nearly strong enough for good fieldwork, but we’ll try him at it, anyway.”
“Ah! Here’s one I like,” said Engers. “Bax. How about that, little guy? Does Bax sound like a good name?”
The boy looked at the teenager’s honest face, to the woman looming over him, and he nodded his head mutely.
“Speaks as much as the Lady Spring, doesn’t he?” said Engers, grinning. “I’m sorry, Kerry, I was reading: what did you say?”
“Nothing you have to worry about,” said the woman. “One last thing…”
She put her hand on the boy’s back (he flinched) and bent down to pluck the disk out of his hands. The boy reached out, a protest forming on his lips, but at the tightening of the woman’s hand on his back he looked down and didn’t speak. “We’ll just hold onto that for you, Bax.”
“Come on, Bax, let’s go and play,” said Engers, taking Bax’s hand and leading him towards the door in the stone walls. “Shh, shh, it’s OK. Life is nice here in Alswell. Don’t be scared.”
He opened the door, and two giants of men nodded their heads to him as he passed.
“Young lord,” said one, shifting the lance to his other hand to give a little salute.
“M’lord,” said the other, his chainmail rustling as he too saluted.
“Cropper, Hardy,” said Engers, nodding to them as well.
“You should visit Langs,” said either Cropper or Hardy. “He’s had his for a fortnight, he says it’s been getting a bit temperamental.”
“How about that?” said Engers, ruffling Bax’s hair. “You want to go visit Langs?”
“OK,” said Bax, softly.
“He speaks!” said Engers, laughing and clapping, and Bax dared a little smile. “You have a sweet voice, Bax.”
“Thanks,” said Bax.
Bax started when the woman spoke. She was just behind them, but he had not noticed her. “Not ‘thanks’. Thank you, my lord,” she said.
“Thank you, m’lord,” Bax mumbled.
Engers led him on, through a dirt path winding through the field. Neatly cultivated rows of plants surrounded them on all sides, although if Bax stood on tiptoe he could see tiny cabins on the horizon.
He stepped on something thorny and yelped. The woman tittered while Engers examined Bax’s foot and swept the thing aside with a hand. “Nasty thing, the thorny flax,” said Engers, patting Bax’s shoulder. “You get them over the ground sometimes, hollows know why.”
They kept walking, and Bax eyed their boots enviously. He had no shoes, and kept tripping over his own feet as he looked down while he walked.
“These are the flax fields,” said Engers, brightly. “The people out east prefer cotton, but all’s well in Alswell, and all. A little further south we grow tea and sugarcane, and-.”
“He doesn’t need to know the business, young lord,” said the woman, sharply. “He just needs to be able to work it. Probably not a word you said got into his head, poor thing.”
Bax looked down. He didn’t say anything.
“Well, in that case we’ll just—Bechde! Well, I’ll be! We were just going to visit Langs!”
“Engers, this is a pleasant surprise,” said a lady in tight dress, seated on the back end of a wagon trundling around the bend. The waving stalks of flax were so high that Bax had not been able to see her, or her wagon. She waved a fan in front of her face daintily and smiled, showing pretty white teeth. “I was just escorting the workers back around to Greeve.” The lady blinked. “Oh, what’s this? What a darling young boy you’ve got there!”
Bax sniffed. For some reason, all of a sudden, among these bright and happy people, he felt like crying again.
He didn’t listen as Engers and Bechde began talking animatedly. He just stood there, waiting in the hot sun, wondering when he would be able to go home again.
He heard a soft psst and looked up. Poking out of behind the lady, peering through the covers, was a little girl with wide eyes. She waved at him, and made a face at the twitter and chatter of Engers and Bechde. Bax sniggered, and the girl vanished under the tarp again before the lady could see her.
And then Engers took him away, off wherever slaves went in Alswell.
“No more,” sang the field leader. Thunk, went the axe into the tree. “No more.” Thunk. “No more!” Thunk. “Farmer lord.” Thunk.
Bax wiped the sweat from his brow, squinting his eyes as wood chips flew from the tree. “We won’t take-.” Thunk. “No more.” Thunk. “Not ‘til we ask-.” Thunk. “The Ladies Four.”
The rest of the woodcutters hummed with him. They might not have known the words, but they sang with just as much feeling, just as much pain and fatigue in their voices.
“Ask ‘em why-.” Thunk. “My hands are bleeding.” Thunk. Bax tightened his grip on the axe. The blisters on his hands had healed at this point. They would not bleed for another day or two.
“Ask ‘em who-.” Thunk. “Took the hollow seed in.” Thunk. Bax looked up at the great oak hollow they were working around, with its twisting branches and flaking bark. The tabula in its hollow winked innocently, as if they did not hold the terrible power every slave in that clearing knew they did.
“Ask ‘em why-.” Thunk. “That man still breathing.” Thunk. Everyone thought of someone different when they said that. Some resented the farmer lords, and wished them dead with that line. Others prayed for mercy for their fellow slaves as age beat down on their backs as much as the whips of the taskmasters and the heat of the Alswell sun.
“Ask ‘em when-.” Thunk. “This life I’m leaving.” Thunk. With an ominous creak, the oak began to slowly tip over. “Timber!” shouted Bax, backing away as it collapsed in a great, shuddering heap. Loose leaves scattered all over the ground, and with one last gasp the oak came to a rest.
Bax backed away as the taskmaster lead more slaves to load up the tree onto the timber sled, sweat glistening on his chest, breathing heavily. The taskmaster looked up and snapped his whip in Bax’s direction, and the slave flinched. He looked away, as his grasp tightened on the axe.
That man still breathing…
Bax trudged away, to begin work on the next tree. The timber from the oaks was well and good, but it was the hollow at the center of the grove that the farmers really wanted. They would build great stone walls around this one, too, and Greeve would have a steady supply of slaves for as long as he had the clout to keep it from the other farmers.
“All’s well in Alswell, brother?” asked Fisk, leaning on his lance.
“All’s well in Alswell,” said Bax, nodding. He looked up at the trunk of the tree, figuring out where to cut so that it would fall away from hollow at the center. He didn’t want to damage the most precious part of today’s work.
“You go on and rest a little, Bax,” said the alsknight, as Bax began to chop once again. With the arrival of the taskmaster, the singing had stopped. “I can see you sweating enough for a dozen.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Bax, drawing out his words. He didn’t stop working. “Soon as the taskmaster gets done drawing fi’ty line on my back, I’m gon’ have to give that a little cogitating.”
“Heh, you a funny one, Bax,” said Fisk, patting the slave’s shoulder even as Bax drew the axe back for another swing. Bax had to pull back and let his arm fall to prevent himself from decapitating Fisk. “But go on and have a look-see over there. Pretty little filly, isn’t she?”
Bax followed Fisk’s finger and saw Janwye, also hard at work pulling timber onto the sled. Whatever Fisk was imagining, all Bax saw was the grinning little girl in the back of the wagon, making faces at a sad boy to cheer him up. He really did almost decapitate Fisk, then.
“Pretty little filly,” repeated Fisk, licking his lips. “And I’ve love to ride her, know what I mean?”
“She like family,” said Bax, and he swung his axe as hard as he could into the oak. It bit deep, and to his great satisfaction several woodchips went flying into the alsknight’s face. “So you best think real hard about what you say next.”
“Oh, how do you know what family is?” said Fisk, grinning, although anger was smoldering in his eyes. “You had Fallow in the same hollow or something?”
Bax was about to say something testy in reply when suddenly he felt a cold energy seize him. Like some invisible hand tugging at his spine, his body jerked upright and his arms began to swing of their own accord, swing harder and faster than was safe, so that his muscles screamed in protest and the blisters re-opened on his hands. He moved so fast as to be frenzied but so methodically as to be mechanical.
Beside him, the leering smirk had vanished from Fisk’s face; he was now upright and rigid, gripping his lance tightly. His eyes looked like, on the inside, he was screaming.
“No slacking,” growled the taskmaster, and then he moved on.
Fear kept Bax’s arms moving even as the taskmaster walked away. He supposed he should have been lucky, that he had only been commanded not punished, but the total lack of control, the cold realization that he was a prisoner in his own body—that was something Bax did not want to repeat.
Fisk didn’t talk to him anymore. Even if he was an alsknight, the farmers still owned him as much as they owned Bax. If they caught him lax on guard duty, it was back to the fields for him, and the Ladies knew Fisk couldn’t have many friends in the fields if he had become an alsknight.
“No more,” the field leader began again. “No more! No more, my lord…”
Bax laid on the straw and old rags, trying to ignore the smell and heat of the hut, poking his finger through the little hole in the wall. Sometimes winter rats crawled through, and Bax would let their cold breath play over fingers before they snuck away and disappeared. Bax closed his eyes. If only he was a winter rat, who could walk with a sheen of frost on his back to guard against the hot sun, who could squeeze through the tiny cracks and holes in the walls, who could grow fat on crumbs that the farmer lords threw away.
Someone kicked in their sleep next to him, and Bax tried to edge away. It was hard; floor space in the hut was limited, and a dozen people slept here every night. They also cooked here, ate here, and occasionally shat here if they felt like being rude, although none of the farmers actually cared if they did. It was their muck they had to live in, after all.
The taste of cornbread and grease still lingered in Bax’s mouth. He licked his lips. It was more than just hunger that gnawed at his insides. Anticipation crawled inside of him, and Bax could not dismiss it.
Trying to disturb as few people as possible, he rose, tiptoeing over the others towards the door of the hut. No one stirred; they were all sleeping deeply. They needed the rest for the long day they had tomorrow, like today, like the day before, like the day before that.
It was easy for Bax to leave the hut. The farmers posted no guards around the slave quarters; they didn’t need to. It was the tabula boxes and field lords that the alsknights guarded. No matter how far a slave ran in the night, they would always end up in the same place by morning, with whips and brands waiting for them.
No, all the farmers had to do was confiscate any weapons the slaves might have, keep the rope or rock out of reach. Suicide was bad for business.
And even if he found a way, Bax thought, Greeve had so many slaves that the loss of one made no difference. He padded across the dirt, the calluses on his heels scuffing against pebbles and gravel. He didn’t mind so much, anymore. When all was said and done, it was just part of living. Better to keep living, than to be petty.
The only tree in the compound was an old bent willow, its drooping branches waving in some wind only it could feel. Bax sat at its base, his legs straining as he slid down. It had been a harvest day, today. His back was sore and his fingers were covered in scratches and cuts from the flax bolls.
“Hey, Bax,” whispered a voice, and Janwye sat next to him. She yawned and put her head on his shoulder, and he straightened his back a little.
“Comfortable?” he asked, petting her hair. “Do I make a good headrest?”
“Better than the floor,” she said, batting his hand away. “Lady Summer, I’m tired.”
“Mm,” said Bax, softly. “Where’s Mealark?”
“Sleeping.” Janwye snuggled a little closer to Bax. “She had a rough day of it, today.”
Like today, like the day before, like the day before that. Bax’s gut twisted again, not just hunger, not just anticipation this time. “You ever get the sense that we could be doing something better, Janny? Something greater?”
“Every day,” said Janwye. “Actually, Bax, I…”
“Yes?” asked Bax, a little too quickly.
“Oh, Ladies, I’ve been putting this off for too long.” Janwye sat up, her legs folded under her. “Bax, I’ve been meaning to tell you, but I just- I couldn’t find the right way…”
“I’m leaving,” she said. She look on the verge of tears, but she didn’t cry. Janwye never cried.
Bax’s heart plummeted faster than he thought possible. Janwye? Leave? It was so strange as to be surreal. Janwye couldn’t leave. She couldn’t. She was family. “Where? Why?” Bax croaked, his mouth very dry, the pains in his gut forgotten.
“Bechde told me a week ago. An old marbleman, named Marion, he-.”
“She sold you?”
Janwye nodded, looking away. “An offer she couldn’t refuse, she said. She wouldn’t tell me how much I had sold for, but…Bax, I’m scared. I saw him. He dressed like one of their marble generals, and he’s balding and fat and wrinkled and what if he- what if…?”
Bax pulled her in, wrapping his arms around her in a great hug. He rocked her back and forth, whispering comforting nonsense into her ear.
“Anybody else know?” he asked, after a while.
Janwye shook her head. “Bechde said she was already breaking one of the terms by telling me. This man, he doesn’t want anyone to know. You’re the first person I’ve told, Bax.” She pushed her way out of his embrace. “You have to promise me—promise me—that you won’t tell anyone. I don’t want Bechde getting in trouble.”
“Even after she did this to you?” said Bax, incredulously. “Treat you like shit, sell you like a piece of meat?”
“OK, Janny,” he said, after a pause. “I promise.”
Janwye nodded. She turned around and sat against the tree again, sighing. “Oh, Ladies, I said it all wrong. Don’t be worried about me, Bax. I know you’re going to worry. But I’ll be fine. Wherever I’m going, I’ll be fine.”
Bax wasn’t so sure. He stared at his feet, not knowing what to say. “When are you leaving?”
“Can we not talk about it?” asked Janwye. Her voice was rising, and Bax had to put a finger to her lips as the sound began to carry through the night. “Please, Bax? Let’s just not talk about it. Let’s spend this night like we would have if I hadn’t gone and blabbed it all out.”
The way Janwye said it, it made it sound like this was their last night. Bax’s breath caught in his throat. He stared at Janwye for a long time, at the way her hair fell around her face, at the constant emotion and life she had, at the way she moved and talked and breathed. He tried to keep it all in his head and remember, just in case this really was last night they had.
Janwye might never cry, but Bax felt like he might.
He took a quiet breath to calm himself, and then cleared his throat. “But of course, m’lady,” he said, kissing Janwye’s hand like an alsknight would court a fine apprentice-daughter of a farmer lord. “Anything you desire.”
Janwye waved a hand in front of her face and made such high-pitched mock giggle that both of them collapsed in stifled laughter.
“You know, Bax,” said Janwye, as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “I’m a bit glad that Mealark is so tired today.” She groaned, putting her head in her palms. “Oh, shit, that came out wrong, I shouldn’t have said it like that. What I mean is I just-.”
“I know what you meant,” said Bax, and she didn’t need to say anymore after that.
They talked that night, talked about the field groups and Greeve’s court and the work they had to do, and even though Janwye had told Bax not to mention it eventually the conversation came around to what the Stronghold was like, and what they ate, and how they dressed.
“I hear they have gladiators there,” said Janwye. “You know, like pit fighters.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” asked Bax.
“I think…a good thing. At least they give the slaves a chance to fight back.”
“Fighting each other, though? Kicking and biting and scrabbling the dust while some fat general in the stands watches? While he eats grapes and strokes whores?”
“At least they’re fighting something,” said Janwye. “You can’t fight the sun, or the harvest, or the hollows. At least they get a chance to be actual people.”
“You thinking of becoming a gladiator, is that it, Janny?”
She pushed him up against the tree and bared her teeth at him. “You ain’t never seen how hard I fight, Bax boy.”
He laughed and, as Janwye leaned across him, stroked her hair again. She didn’t bat his hand away this time.
“I’ll miss you, Janny.”
She sighed. “I’ll miss you too.”
Kerry fussed around him, straightening his clothes, scrubbing his face judiciously. “Well, you did grow into it, didn’t you?” she said, an old woman now with a bent back and a wheeze in her voice. “Look at you. Nice set of clothes, combed hair, and your lovely springborn voice and no one will ever think you’re a slave unless they see the brand.” She slapped him on the back. “Best keep your shirt on, then, Bax, eh?” She said it like it was a joke, but Bax didn’t laugh.
He went over Engers’s instructions in his head. It was a simple courtship ritual, just the first step in the elaborate Alswell process. Bax would pass the message on to the lady, and give her reply back to Engers.
He adjusted the cravat around his neck and squirmed on the inside. He understood that he had to look the part, but nonetheless he felt puffy.
“Last touch, Bax,” said Kerry, waddling his way with a pair of soft leather boots. Bax stepped inside of them and let Kerry tie the straps. At last, the slave boy was finally good enough for shoes.
“Off you go now, go on,” said the old woman, shooing him away. “Bechde’s manor isn’t far, you know where it is. And don’t get too much dust on those clothes! You’ll have to clean it off yourself.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Bax, bowing his head and backing away. His boots slapped on the stones as he left the chilly castle corridors behind him, and stepped out into the bright Alswell sun. He was already beginning to sweat under his layers of stiff vests and cotton dress shirts.
Bax supposed it was better than fieldwork, but all the same he felt like he had somehow betrayed his brothers and sisters in the working groups as he walked along the fields and saw them, smudges on the horizon, bending and cutting, bending and cutting, bending and cutting.
Someone had to be the messenger for the farmer nobles and their lace-filled, shawl-wearing, puffy society. Better it be Bax, then, the slave reasoned, as he walked along the road. For once, he could stand with his back straight as he walked.
“Finest morning, Lady Bechde,” muttered Bax, under his breath, practicing. “Lord Engers sends his regards and seeks your company in the coming moons. Ahem, finest morning, Lady Bechde…”
The manor was just ahead. Each of the manors technically belonged to Farmer Greeve, but the lords and ladies that were his personal favorites essentially owned the various mansions that dotted the fields. Bax supposed that, at a certain point, they must have all been slaves too, but sometimes the farmers would choose some particularly lucky child to pamper and raise since Fallow. Lady Bechde seemed like one of those children; from what Bax had seen of the perfumed woman, it looked like she hadn’t done a day’s hard work in her life.
The elaborate front of the manor, with its high arches and true-glass windows, loomed before him as he approached. He straightened, preparing himself. If he did a good job at this, Engers might keep him on as a formal messenger, and then Bax would never have to work the fields again.
And then he saw her.
“Janny,” whispered Bax, as she rode out of the courtyard on the back of a beautiful summer elk, its fur russet brown, long and sleek and clean. But she was more beautiful still, her hair combed behind her ears, a plain white shawl around her shoulders. On the other ladies of the Alswell courts it made them look gaudy, but on her it was majestic.
And then he saw the man riding next to her.
He would have, in Bax’s opinion, been the picturesque dashing knight if he hadn’t been so obviously foreign. He rode his horse (and Bax couldn’t tell what kind of horse it was: honestly, it seemed rather dull) with natural skill and ease, but he wore pants of tanned leather and no shirt at all. A barbed whip hung from his side, and his hair, long and greasy, was in a braid that reached his waist. Bax had no small amount of muscle himself from those years in the fields, but this man had the stature and physique of a trained warrior, not a starved worker.
Bax’s mouth went dry. He did not seem like a marbleman, but Bax had not stepped foot outside Alswell since the Fallow. For all he knew, this man could be the epitome of the marble legions.
There was nothing for it. Bax ran, all pretense and manners forgotten as his boots slapped on the dirt path. “Janny!” he shouted. “Janny, hey!”
Janwye reared in the summer elk and looked around in confusion. When she saw Bax, her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Then, to Bax’s great relief, her mouth split in a wide smile.
“Bax!” she shouted, slipping off the elk and running forward. “What the hell happened to you?”
Bax looked down at his cravat and vest and gulped. “I got fancy,” he said, finally. “You- I mean you look…wow.”
The other man rode up behind them and dropped off his horse to the ground, lithe, like some predatory cat. He straightened and gave Bax an intense look-over. “Mosh sag bu,” he muttered, quietly. “Wey ab al, fot hak sen.”
Before Bax could say anything, Janwye looked over her shoulder and said, “Pu al ab! Sen hak Bax, al iro tu sat.”
“You speak foreign,” said Bax, before he could stop himself.
Janwye laughed. “You can thank him for that, he’s too lazy to learn the king’s tongue. That’s Rho Hat Pan.”
“He’s a friend. Just a friend,” said Janwye. She put her hands on her hips. “By all the Ladies, Bax, it’s been so long. I was going to visit, but these damn fields are so big, I had no idea where to start…”
“It’s OK.” Bax kept looking Janwye up and down. She had changed so much. “So, are you…?” Bax couldn’t seem to finish his questions.
“I’m back,” said Janwye, smiling. “For now, at least. As a free woman. I’d figure I’d see what Bechde needs doing, maybe come back around again. Do some favors for some friends, if I need to.” She reached for a pendant around her neck, and Bax noticed for the first time that she was wearing a little wooden disk with a crescent moon inscribed on it.
“Are you going anywhere?” asked Bax, looking at the horse and the elk.
Janwye bit her lip. “Yes, we have to…yes. Stick around though! We’ll be back!”
Bax nodded. “OK, then. I’ll be right here for you, waiting.”
And they hugged each other just once before going their separate ways.
Greeve looked tired. What little hair was left on his head had gone white with stress and age, and there were deep bags under his eyes.
“Banden Ironhide threatens war,” he said, eyes closed, as if just saying the name caused him pain. “The pup swears he will have our food and grain or else he will summon the might that destroyed the Seat of the King and take it by force.”
Bax looked to Engers and Bechde and Langs, all standing at attention before their surrogate father. He stood behind them, with Janwye and Mealark, at attendance and awaiting orders.
He exchanged a glance with Janwye. Even after all these years as a proven free woman, she still stood where the slaves stood: albeit, where the privileged slaves stood, but where the slaves stood nonetheless.
“I’ve sent letters to the Stronghold,” said Greeve, opening his eyes again. They were a clear blue, and still as sharp as ever despite the age that bent his back and wrinkled his brow. “To Jhidnu. To Kazakhal, even, although the Ladies know what good the frog-eaters will do. But for our close allies…it requires a more personal touch.”
As Greeve leaned on his cane and hobbled to his feet, Engers and Langs rushed to his side to help him stand. They helped him to the table at the center of his chambers, upon which the map of all of Albumere was splayed out.
Greeve coughed violently, his body seizing up as he leaned on the table. His three children-apprentices stood by his side, concerned but silent. The proud farmer would take none of their pity.
“Here,” said Greeve, after the fit had passed. “Beyond the mountains. Langs, you will take what supplies you need, what protection you require, to go to Mont Don. Speak to Prince Gaelen, beg him if you must.”
Langs cleared his throat. “Mont Don, my lord? They are…”
“They’re a joke in the Seat,” muttered Greeve. “And that’s exactly how Gaelen, the little guttersnipe, likes it. Don’t underestimate the mountainmen. Make your preparations now, go on. It’s cold up in the north.”
Langs nodded and walked away briskly. “Mealark, come,” he snapped.
“Bechde, you’re going to have to go far, and by foot,” said Greeve. “See Keep Tlai at Temple Moscoleon. They have always been our allies.”
Bechde pursed her lips and said nothing. For once, the lady seemed to be more than just frills and gossip.
“I’d say take a ship, but the saltmen have been getting cheeky. It’s too dangerous. I’d say go through the Seat of the King, but we all know why you can’t do that. The only way is through the deserts of Hak Mat Do.” Greeve sniffed. “Be ready for a long journey, sweet Bechde. Go on, get ready.”
Bechde left, and Janwye turned to follow behind her. Just before Janwye walked away, Bax grabbed her hand. They exchanged a look.
“We’ll talk later,” said Janwye, smiling, and then she left.
Before Greeve could speak again, Engers said, hesitantly, “My lord, if I may…why Bechde? You know she does not have the, erm, fortitude to endure such a long travel. Let me go in her stead.”
Greeve shook his head, and began to cough again. Engers patted him on the back and waited. “I want her as far away from here as possible when this all goes to shit,” said Greeve, shuddering. “And I need you for the hardest part.”
“The hardest part, my lord?”
The old farmer pointed on the map. Bax couldn’t see where, but Engers’s reaction made it clear enough.
“Shira Hay? They- they hate us, my lord.”
“And they’re the only damn ones close enough to help once Ironhide decides to make his move,” snarled Greeve, slamming his fist on the table. “I like it less than you do, Engers, but if we don’t have Shira Hay we won’t live to see any of our other allies arrive.”
“I understand,” said Engers, quietly.
“Go on,” said Greeve. “We’ll discuss the duarchs at length once we’ve gotten things moving around here.”
Engers walked away as Greeve stumbled back to his bed, and Bax fell in behind him.
As the duarch pulled the knife from his gut, Bax felt a sick, hot pain begin to throb throughout him. His fine emissary’s clothes had already soaked all the blood they could, and now he could feel it dripping onto his hands.
He stumbled backwards. Through the red fog that was beginning to envelop his mind, there was some primal instinct to run away, to get back, but the duarch had already grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him in.
Bax felt sudden weakness in his limbs as his pathetic attempts to pull free yielded no fruit. As the duarch put the knife against his throat, he scrabbled against his neck: not to stop the knife, but to grab the box hanging around his neck.
The beetle inside buzzed. This one was for Mealark.
Bax crushed it in his hand and hoped against hope that she would not worry too much about him. Mealark never had been able to calm her nerves.
And then the knife sliced across his throat and Bax could only think of how he was choking, how he couldn’t breathe, how the world was dissolving into red and black and white and nothing.
He stumbled to the edge of the bridge, teetering over the brink, gagging. With a single prod, the duarch pushed him over.
Then he fell towards the water and fell towards the sun, fell up and fell down. A thought drifted across his bleary mind that he should die with a happy memory. He focused. His last thought was of her, of the way her hair fell around her face, of the constant emotion and life she had, of the way she moved and talked and breathed.
With what strength he had left, he reached for the second beetle box around his neck and crushed it. I’m sorry I failed, Janny, he thought. Now stay away from here. Get as far away from this place as possible.
And half a world away, one of the tabula in Janwye’s pack shattered.