He couldn’t forget the way she had screamed.
Like one of the Ladies themselves, she had stood over Han Luratah—a man Darpah had seen dismember scores of fighters in the pits—and she had screamed. The blessing of steel hadn’t save him. And when Darpah had edged close to look, he had seen chips of white on the red grass, and nearly fainted from queasiness.
The way she had stood over him…
The ends of her blindfold had been trailing in the wind, as had the bandages around her hands. Blood had been dripping down her face and down her arms. And the screaming had gone on and on. It had scared him.
It had inspired him.
Darpah could feel the anger inside him, righteous and hot. The screaming still rang in his ears. It made him want to drive nails into his hands and feel that pain again, and fight with bleeding palms and bleeding eyes. Just the thought made his heart beat a little faster.
The little man shook his head, curling up on his cot. That wasn’t a proper way of thinking. He would be punished for that.
They do not know your thoughts, said a treacherous voice in the back of his head. In here, you are free. Darpah shook his head, holding his hands over his ears. No, no, he was a slave, a good slave. He would never be free. He wasn’t meant to be.
Darpah curled up on his cot, fetal, hugging his knees to his chest. He admonished himself, silently. He was a grown man, driven to quaking and shivering like a child by just the memory of what he had seen. This just wouldn’t do. There was work to be done: productive, worthwhile work that would make the master very pleased.
All the same, Darpah could not find the strength in him to rise just yet. He sat on his cot, breathing heavily. He needed to rest before he could work. Yes, this was all in the master’s best interest. A little rest and he’d be much more productive.
Darpah buried his head in his hands, and although he shed no tears, his breath came in short, ragged gasps. What was happening to him? He used to be such a good slave.
No, whispered the treacherous voice, the evil little voice that Darpah simply could not silence. You used to be such a good man.
The man ran his hands through his hair, curling up tighter in himself, trying to contain his sobs. If he was too loud, the other slaves would wake up, and then master would know something was wrong and Darpah would have to tell him, Darpah would have to tell him.
Unless you had your tabula.
Darpah shot to his feet. He didn’t care if he woke the other slaves, as he stepped over his cot and across the straw flooring of the slave room. He pulled his robe roughly over his head, trying to occupy himself with the morning rituals that would banish the voice of dreams and fancies. He wouldn’t listen to the voice. He was a slave. There was only one voice he listened to.
He does not suspect you. You manage his affairs so closely, whispered the voice, as Darpah stepped into the sunlight, folding his hands into his sleeves. He sees the thief in Dandal. He sees the fighter in Chetan. He sees neither in you. But they’re there. You are both thief and fighter.
Other slaves had left a tub of water outside the quarters for them to wash with. Even in the gloom of dawn, Darpah could see that it was dirty and murky, but as he dipped his hands he thanked the master that it was cold. He washed his face, hoping to quiet the voice of rebellion that had haunted Darpah ever since he had been ripped from his parents’ arms into the master’s.
The voice had fallen silent. Darpah dared a nervous smile. He had long ago equated silence with bliss, and as he let the water drip down his chin he reveled in the simplicity of his thoughts. Nothing was wrong. It was very simple, what he had to do.
Darpah walked along the corridor, watching the sea sparkle like jade through pillars. He had the master to thank for that. Without him, he would not have the beauty of the sea, or the breath of the air, or the comforts of this house. He owed it all to the master.
Sovar-l’hana did not make Albumere’s seas. Nor does he rule its skies. He is a small man who casts a long shadow and thinks himself a giant.
“And I cast no shadow at all,” muttered Darpah, to himself. “I am nothing and no one.” A couple attendants, sweeping the hallways and trimming the shrubbery, glanced in Darpah’s way as he passed, but none of them said anything. He knew he talked to himself and they knew it, too. The master’s fidgety little assistant wasn’t worth more than a glance, though.
A little part of him grew angry at the thought, but anger was no emotion for a slave. He bit it down, bowing his head and moving on.
With the departure of Jova the blind, Darpah had thought that perhaps the voice would quiet. It had always been there, it was true, ever since Darpah had been a child, but when Jova had arrived it had gained new strength and conviction. There was something inspiring about the girl. Perhaps it was the way she bore herself, or perhaps it was simply the fact that she had made it so far without a tabula.
Running his fingers through his hair, Darpah shook his head once more. This simply would not do. Jova was inspiring, yes, in the same way a demon of the deep was inspiring. She tempted him towards treachery and chaos, and he would have none of that. He needed to be his best, after all, in the presence of his master.
The doors to the master’s private quarters were impressive, to say the least. They had the same white gleam as the rest of the compound, although they were made of polished oak, and were accented with red paints highlighting the inlays. There stood the proud Ab Ha Al, who founded the city in the days of the desert empire. And there, a passage from the Jade Shanty. Gorgeous. All by the work of the master.
A carpenter made that door. An artist painted it. The historians remembered Ab Ha Al, and the sailors sang the Shanty. Even the wood came from the strength of a lumberjack’s ax. Sovar-l’hana made none of that. He has no right to it.
Darpah knocked softly, and coughed. It was the least offensive way he had of introducing himself.
“Come in and get me dressed,” said an irate voice, and Darpah scurried inside.
The master sat on his bed, naked but for his smallclothes. His gut dripped over his waist, and his cheeks were flushed ruddy. The sheets were a mess, although the baywoman pleasure slave Darpah had escorted to the master last night was already gone. As Darpah approached, he could smell wine.
A bit early for that.
“Shut up,” growled Darpah. He jumped, as he realized he had said it out loud. “M-master! I didn’t mean- I wasn’t talking to- I was…”
“Ha!” said the master, standing and holding his arms out. Darpah slipped a shirt of fine silk over the master’s shoulders, even though his cheeks were red with shame. “My mad dog. It’s a wonder I trust you with anything.”
“I thank you for your trust, master,” said Darpah, pulling the master’s trousers up. He’d have to ask the tailor for a bigger pair. Again. His eyes flickered over the room, looking for other things that needed doing. A good slave did his master’s work without prompting. “Shall I fetch you more parchment? You’ve run out.”
“No more letters for me,” said the master. He lowered his arms with a heavy sigh. “They’ve done what they had to do. Irontower, Ironhide. They’re all so obsessed with that damn metal, ha! Iron rusts. Real blades are made of paper, real poison made of ink. Words are weapons, and this is war.”
“Very wise, master.” Darpah began to make the master’s bed, as the master himself stepped out onto his balcony to survey the city. Like a god.
When will you learn? He is no god.
“You are sure our friends in Irontower received my missives?” asked the master. He didn’t look back, but Darpah knew him well enough to know when he was worried. This was the fourth time he had asked that question.
“Thun is well on his way,” said Darpah, bowing. “He is well protected.”
The master clicked his fingers. “Bring me the tabula. I want to see.”
You see? He thinks nothing of you. Use that. Darpah’s hands hovered over the lacquered box, as a mix of emotions so conflicted that he could not tell them apart bubbled in his gut. It was temptation, it was salvation, it was both…
The master would not be so careless as to leave Darpah’s tabula in the very box Darpah had been sent to retrieve. And even if he was, Darpah could not betray his trust like that. The master was like a god. To him, Darpah owed everything.
The soldier’s tabula hummed as the master whispered, “Show me.” The tabula in the box rattled too, although that was just Darpah’s shaking hands. Take all of them. Unleash them. The power is yours, wield it.
The master put the disk back and closed the box shut. The clasp clicked with a kind of dread finality, and half-relieved, half-disappointed, Darpah put the box away.
“It was convenient Dal Ak Gan came when he did,” mused the master, staring out the balcony. Darpah stood at attendance, ready to act if he needed to. “I hope La Ah Abi knew of his arrangement with the pyramid lords. Correspondence with them might be difficult if she did not, and I hate to think that they never find out I killed a man for them.”
“It would be most unfortunate,” said Darpah.
“Ha! Unfortunate? It would be heretical! I’d have done something for free!” The master turned, resting his elbows on the rail as he leaned back. Suddenly, his face screwed up in an expression of consternation and anger. “What the hell are you still doing here?”
Darpah was used to his violent temperament, and so for once did not quake or mumble. That would only invite more abuse. He bowed his way out of the room as the master watched him go, his potbelly poking out from his shirt. He was right, of course. Darpah had been lazy to spend so long in his presence.
There was so much to be done. Contracts needed to be drafted for the trade deal with Ashak-g’hopti, and the caravans from the west had fallen silent again. The master could not be bothered with petty affairs such as these. Darpah would have to arrange all that. Too much, too much work to be done.
It only made his nerves worse, then, when he found himself stopping in the garden. All the same, he couldn’t help himself. It was too curious a sight to see.
Chetan sat on the marble bench, feeding his mothsnake the rat half of some creature he had caught. There was a gentleness to his expression that Darpah did not often associate with that gnarled face: too often it was twisted in pain as he limped along on that gnarled leg.
Normally, Darpah would have just passed him and moved on. It wasn’t inappropriate behavior: Chetan could care for the master’s animal like soldiers cared for their army’s swords. Darpah had no reason to stop.
But stop he did. He twiddled his thumbs together. He took a step forward. He took a step back. Then he took another step forward.
“Watch where you walk,” rasped Chetan, his voice even more hoarse than usual. He must have just woken up. “Darpah? You hear me? Watch where you step.”
Darpah mumbled an apology, staring at his feet. In the dirt of the garden, a few ladybugs crawled. He edged around them, taking delicate steps. He hadn’t known Chetan to be particularly religious, but Darpah supposed no one wanted to earn the ire of the Lady Summer.
“Sovar want something from me?”
Before he could stop it, a little gasp emerged from his lips. To use the master’s name—his old name, his common name—without the honorific attached to it bordered on sacrilegious. “No, I- I just wanted t-to walk in the garden,” said Darpah, unable to contain his stutter. “The master does not-.”
“Use his fucking name.”
Now, that was inappropriate behavior. Chetan was even more irritable than usual today, but Darpah knew how to deal with him. The master was the master, and should be addressed as such. It was an honor to serve him, and defiance would only merit them pain.
Darpah couldn’t say any of that. The words just wouldn’t come to him. All he could think of, for some reason, was the screaming of Jova the blind.
“May I sit?” asked Darpah, finally. Chetan’s nod was so small that Darpah might have just imagined it, but he sat anyway. The mothsnake turned its head toward him, forked tongue flickering out under vacant, compound eyes.
“Sitting’s no task for slaves,” wheezed Chetan, leaning back and stretching out his legs. Darpah tried not to look. It made him queasy. “He’ll be wroth if he sees.”
“He’s been drinking,” said Darpah, his voice barely above a whisper. “He won’t see.”
“Hmm,” grunted Chetan, and fell silent. They sat together, watching the bare branches sway in the wind. The ladybugs disappeared into the mulch. It struck Darpah as odd that they would emerge so late into winter, but the pontiffs did say that they were warmed by the Lady Summer’s fire.
Darpah felt no such fire. He bent over, stuffing his hands in his sleeves. The rising sun did little to warm him.
“Word on the street is that the Waves are rising,” said Chetan. He didn’t look at Darpah.
The slave attendant blinked. The Waves, the city of light’s commoner class, were not ones for raising their heads. The Waves went where the Wind blew, as the saying went. But recently…
“The master makes me read his letters to him,” said Darpah. He bit his lip. Why was he saying this? He didn’t give himself time to doubt himself. “Banden Ironhide has been sending letters to all the plutocrats. He won’t allow any bayman caravans over the spice road until the slaves are freed, he said. Wh-which is ridiculous, of course. I- I would have no home if I was freed. No work. No safety.”
Chetan coughed, his whole body shaking as he hacked out a mouthful of phlegm. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Aye. We’d be in the streets. We’d have nothing.”
You’d have yourself! You’d be free!
“But the Waves are rising,” said Chetan, again. “And with King-not-a-King Ironhide to lead them…they may drown this city yet.”
Darpah shuddered. Just how many had heard the screaming of Jova the blind?
“Will you take me to Sovar-l’hana, now?” asked Chetan. He shifted, preparing to rise. “I’ll be glad of it if you tell me first. These old bones need to know before they have to spend a night under the streets.”
Darpah stared at the dirt, where the ladybugs had gone. He wanted them to come back, wanted to watch them scurry through their simple, little lives and lose himself among them. But they were gone. “I- well, I don’t want to…but…I’m supposed to tell the master when…” Darpah couldn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t know where it was going.
“We’re not his dogs, you know. No matter how much he tells us we are,” said Chetan. It was the most rebellious statement Darpah had ever heard him say. If the master knew, he would be furious. He would punish them. Just the thought made Darpah whimper.
Chetan watched him, and the scars over his mouth stretched as he laughed. “Ah, the Ladies know me. Of course we’re his dogs. And no dog wants to be a bad dog, even if they all want to be wolves.”
Screams, and waves, and wolves, and little voices that might have just been dead thoughts rising again. It was too much.
Darpah started to cry. Great, fat tears rolled down his cheeks as he sucked in breath, but it felt like his chest was collapsing, felt like someone had put needles in his blood and they were poking at him, all over his body. He felt, dimly, Chetan’s hand on his shoulder—awkward and clumsy, but there nonetheless. Darpah did not know how long he cried. A shamefully long time. There was work to be done.
And when he had at last regained control of himself, when at last his eyes were dry, he asked, softly, “Which street?”
“You said the w-word on the street was that the Waves are rising,” said Darpah. He sniffed, and rubbed his nose. “Which street?”
Chetan looked at him for a long time. “I’ll show you, if you like. Another day, when there’s more time.”
“Thank you, Chetan,” said Darpah, and he rose. For the first time in a long time, he noticed how heavy the collar on his neck was, noticed how empty his belly was and how bent his back was. “Excuse me. Sovar-l’hana has much work for me to do.”
Darpah began to hurry away, but not before Chetan made one last remark. “You didn’t say it,” he wheezed. “You didn’t call him master.”
No, Darpah realized, with a start. He hadn’t.
And it felt good.
The night passed, and Jova waited. When the morning came at last, Jova had to remove the blindfold from Mo (she couldn’t just leave it on the weaseldog), and sneak back into the compound. “Why don’t you go home, Mo?” she whispered, as she rubbed the sides of his head and readied herself to go. The animal just panted and whined. “Why don’t you go home?”
The day passed, and Jova obeyed. Rho Hat Pan brought a box of tabula already marked to Sovar-l’hana at his request, and when the slaves were lined up for inspection she did exactly as she was told exactly when she was told to do it. She ate thin gruel with the other slaves, washed Sovar-l’hana’s fine clothes in a wooden tub, and advertised her own auction in the streets.
The night passed. Jova slept through a Jhidnu street fair as she waited, the sizzling of kebabs and Mo’s hungry whines still in her ears the next morning. Tensions had been growing between the Waves, the common folk, and the Winds, the plutocrats, as Banden Ironhide’s war escalated, but that night at least they reveled together as one people. The only ones who seemed concerned about the movements in the west were the Foam, those philosophers and middle-class thinkers, and no one ever listened to the Foam.
The day passed. Sovar-l’hana took to calling Jova “the zealot with no eyes,” and got a hearty chortle or two watching her stumble her way around his quarters before she was dismissed. She found Alis later that day and held her hand as she told the girl about her memories of the colorful fish that swam in the Bay of Jhid, about the saltwater hollows that roamed the sea bed and about the great barges that sailed above them. Jova did not know any baychild games, so they played Summer-Sign-Knock after until the slaves were called back into their quarters. Jova sneaked away just a few minutes later, but she did not find Mo that night.
The night passed. The day passed. Sometimes Mo appeared and sometimes he didn’t, and the time turned to liquid and dribbled past Jova’s hands as she waited and waited for her parents to find her. Had something happened to them? Had Mo somehow been separated from them? Fourteen days and nights passed as Jova waited.
On the fifteenth morning, Jova stirred and stretched. She had spent the night curled in a huddled ball, and she woke with her nose running and a winter chill in her bones. Her limbs ached as she stretched them, and she had to lean on the alley wall as she stood.
Mo hadn’t shown up last night, but Jova had tried to stay awake waiting for him. Judging by the dew now on her arms and face, she had failed.
The city did not rest, even in the dim hours of the morning, but there was a certain drowsiness to it. Jova limped forward, flexing her stiff limbs as she felt her way back. It was not far to the master’s—to Sovar-l’hana’s—compound. She caught herself as she thought it. Sovar-l’hana was not her master. Jova was and would be free.
She paused, as the blood began to flow through her again. She had just woken. Back in Moscoleon, she would have been on her knees, praying to the Ladies, giving thanks for…whatever it was she was to be thankful for.
Jova kept walking. This was not Moscoleon. This was Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, which held but one lady, and her name was Fortune.
As she stepped onto the steps of the compound, her fingers tracing up the chilly marble railing, she heard footsteps approaching. She tensed. Did she have time to hide? The footsteps were coming directly toward her; there was nothing to hide behind. She bowed her head instead, the collar heavy around her neck, hoping against hope that no one would notice a slave on the steps of the compound.
Except this wasn’t no one. Jova could hear his panting from halfway down the passage, and her fingers tightened. She mentally prepared herself for another encounter with Dandal the dog, even as she heard his wheezing breath come closer.
It had taken Jova several days to realize just how plump Dandal was. He was strong to be sure, but there was a fat to him that weeks of hard travel had stripped from Jova and the others. He did a servant’s work, not a soldier’s.
He did this often, Jova had also come to learn. He seemed to enjoy bullying the other slaves. His privileged position as—well, not exactly Sovar-l’hana’s favorite, but close to it—gave him small power and made him feel like a big man. For the most part, Jova let him at it. Bruises healed easily. Grudges did not.
Except the moment Dandal grabbed her, Jova knew this time was different. He kept her at arm’s length and said not a word, keeping all his usual insults and jibes to himself.
“Dandal?” asked Jova, trying not to let her fear betray as she stumbled after him. “Dandal, sir?”
No reply. Jova heard a slave housemaid put a hand on Dandal’s shoulder and stop him in his tracks. “Dandal-jan,” she said, in rustic wave-speak, the strange accent thick on her voice. They said those baymen who spent too long at sea started to talk strangely, the words getting mixed up as the salt got to their heads. “Worried you look. She does do wrong?”
“She’s not a girl at all,” snarled Dandal. “The slaves all knew it, she’s a devil. Get back, Abhay.”
Devil? Jova couldn’t believe such a quick change of heart. The slaves had been at the compound for a fortnight now, with Hag Gar Gan tribesmen eating and drinking in Sovar-l’hana’s guest halls. Surely they had heard the whispers before. What had changed?
She could feel the blood pounding in her fingers as Dandal dragged her along, to the horrified intake of breath from the slave woman. Jova let herself be carried along, and conserved her strength. It was no use to struggle here.
He took her past the gardens, where Jova heard the clip-clip of slaves pruning the hedges, and past Sovar-l’hana’s office, the open aired chamber where he had met Dal Ak Gan and Dock (a meeting whose resolution Jova had not dared to ask for). Dandal dragged Jova past the slave quarters, where she and Alis slept, past the guest quarters, where the tribesmen had spent an uneasy two weeks, and finally up to the master’s own private quarters.
The door opened and Dandal threw her inside, standing in the doorway as she struggled to her feet.
It was colder than she had expected in Sovar-l’hana’s bedroom. Jova heard the rustle of a very thick piece of cloth to her side, the same place where a wall should have been. A curtain of some kind, pulled to the side?
Shivering, still sore from her sleep, she listened closely. Sovar-l’hana must have been up and awake; she could hear the telltale scratch of his quill and parchment in the corner of the room. A low breeze snaked into the room through the open wall, and carried with it sounds of the city stirring.
Jova waited, her mouth dry, as Sovar-l’hana wrote.
Finally, with the soft crinkle of paper, Sovar-l’hana finished. “Fetch, dog!” said Sovar-l’hana, barking a laugh as Dandal walked around Jova to pick up the piece of paper. Her muscles tensed. Was it time to run? No, not yet. “Have Gorram ride it up north, before the snows set in.”
“Snows have already set in, master,” said Dandal, taking the paper.
“Ha! Then before they get worse, you hear? Get going, shoo! This letter’s more important than your head.”
Dandal hesitated. “Should I leave you with…this?”
“Your loyalty is truly touching, Dandal, but when I give you an order you obey it,” said Sovar-l’hana, and the jovial undertone to his voice had been replaced by something altogether darker.
The dog left without another word.
“Oh, get up off the floor, girl,” snapped Sovar-l’hana, once Dandal had left. Like a cloud on a sunny day, his bad mood had passed quickly and without comment. “You’re not old enough to be on your knees in a master’s bedchambers, ha!”
Jova stood, brushing off her cotton slave dress, keenly aware of the weight of the leather collar on her neck. The chain dangled off to nowhere, but she could feel its pull either way.
“Pour us some tea, then, blind little zealot,” said Sovar-l’hana, sitting heavily back at his desk as he rolled another sheet of parchment out from under his paperweight. “Go on, with your fancy seeing eye trick. Pour some tea.”
Even as Jova set to work, her mind was buzzing. The plutocrat had not dragged her here just for the pouring of tea. He had enough personal assistants, for that. And what was that, Dandal had said? She was a devil. He was scared to leave her alone with his master. What had they learned?
Jova sniffed, as her feeling hands found the teapot. There was an odd smell coming from somewhere, outside the open wall. Probably just another street cook.
“How obedient. How utterly obedient,” said Sovar-l’hana, as Jova brought a trembling cup to his side. Both the cup and the plate were smooth porcelain, and Jova could not imagine how fantastically expensive they must have been. “You know, I never liked routines. Schedules. Hrm. Give a man wood and nails and he’ll box himself in, ha!”
The girl waited patiently, standing at attendance.
“I’ve got some rituals, though.” The chair creaked as Sovar-l’hana leaned into it. “I told the masons, when they made this place for me, I told them I don’t want walls. Let me see the sea in the morning. Let me see the sea when I work. Let me see it.”
“A noble request, master,” said Jova, quietly.
“Ha! Noble! If I wanted a balcony so I could piss into the street you’d call it noble,” said Sovar-l’hana, rising. “But I do see this city, its high tides and low tides, its ebb and flow. I keep my finger on its pulse, and sure enough it tells me: war or peace? A buyer’s market or a seller’s? Who’s the talk of the town tonight?”
Jova stood still as Sovar-l’hana paced.
“And this morning, I see…you.”
The pacing stopped, just as Jova began to shift her stance. If she had to make a run for it, she would. Sovar-l’hana was no fighter.
“Imagine my surprise when I see my little blind zealot sleeping in the street like a common beggar!” He clapped Jova on the back, and Jova could not help but flinch. “I think, why is she doing this? Just because she can’t see her collar doesn’t mean they can’t, ha! This puzzles me for a long time, girl. I don’t know what to think. I decide to bring you here, and ask you for myself.”
The plutocrat gave Jova a push, and she stumbled onto the balcony, where the odd smell was getting stronger. Jova heard the buzzing of flies.
“That you, girl?” said the master, his tone harsh. “With the funny old snout and the big teeth?”
Jova’s stomach roiled as she reached out and felt the limp snout under her hands, as the pigwolf lay rotting in the sun. She felt the blood still hot from the hole in his gut, and could not help but remember Izca choking as an arrow pierced his heart, begging for his mama. “Oh, Fang…” she whispered, her fingers and hands shaking.
“Fang, is it? Not Jova?” Something tugged at Jova’s dress, and suddenly lights flashed in her head as she was pressed, hard, against the balcony railing. She squirmed her way out of Sovar-l’hana’s grip, gasping, but she had nowhere left to run. “I was so angry, you see, girl. I thought I had been cheated. Dal Ak Gan was a good friend, my trusted friend, and he gives me a box of pig and sheep and calls them man. What does he plan to do, steal them all back after the sale? Ridiculous, ridiculous, just ridiculous.”
Sovar-l’hana took a step forward, and Jova took a step back.
“But, of course, the other tabula work. They work just fine. And I remember what they say about you, about the girl with no eyes and no soul,” he said. “I remember how obedient you are. How utterly obedient. Too obedient. Never fought back at all.”
Jova felt the stone rails against her back, and knew there was nowhere left to go. She was cornered and unarmed. She couldn’t think her way out of this one.
“You’re my property,” said Sovar-l’hana. “I don’t kill my property, I sell it. Tell me, girl. Be obedient one more time. Where is it? Where do you hide it?”
Jova said not a word. Sovar-l’hana was wrong. There was fight left in her yet.
The master straightened. Jova could feel his shadow growing over her. “If you’re going to be difficult, then you should know, devil, that there are more ways to break a slave than one. The Hag Gar Gan gave you too much freedom. I will not make that same mistake.”
If there was a time to run, now was it. Jova launched herself forward, tackling the now upright Sovar-l’hana, hitting him in the knees. He crumpled as she slammed her full body weight at him, and she had to struggle over his flailing arms to get away and start running. Click, click, click. The door was to her left, and down the hall freedom waited.
“Chetan! Krish!” shouted the plutocrat, and Jova heard the hum of tabula-work. She had barely a second to react before, out of nowhere, something hissed and wrapped rustling scales around Jova’s neck. Feathery feelers swept across her face as sharp fangs bit into her shoulder.
Immediately, Jova felt her body go numb. The next step she took she collapsed, as whatever was around her neck flapped away. Jova jerked violently, her body refusing to obey her brain. A little foam rose in her mouth as she struggled to breathe, but she was choking on nothing, on the poison, on the emptiness inside her. She couldn’t feel her right arm or her right leg or her right side anymore, and the numbness was spreading. Soon all of her would dissolve away and join her eyes in whatever box the Ladies kept the pieces of her body, and Jova would truly be nothing.
She felt rough hands drag her away before she slipped into unconsciousness.
Jova dreamed of the sea. It rose up to meet her, its face blocky and somber, water streaming out of hewn jade grates where its mouth should have been. It cradled her, holding her close, and her heart beat fast as it moaned with a kind of hungry desperation. It held her so tightly that she thought it might smother her whole, and she felt her throat seizing, choking.
She woke up gasping, clawing at the collar around her neck. She tried to stand, and the collar caught. With a rattle of chains, Jova fell back down, groggily trying to get her bearings.
“Oh! Oh, Ladies, she’s awake,” muttered a familiar voice. A good few feet away, Darpah scuffed his shoes on the stone—it sounded like stone, at least—floor. “You’re awake.”
Jova lay on her back, breathing slowly, listening to what was around her. Wherever she was, the sounds echoed, bouncing down a long hallway into what sounded like a hundred different rooms. Water dripped from the ceiling into little puddles on the floor, which explained why Jova felt so damp and filthy. Above her, she heard…wagon wheels rattling and street vendors shouting, the sounds of Jhidnu awoken.
“I’m underground?” asked Jova, and her voice was raspy and dry.
“Er, yes,” said Darpah. “Yes, you are.”
Jova tugged on the chain at the end of her slave collar. No longer was it just for show; now it was fixed to some point on the wall, and it was a short chain indeed. Jova put her hands on her stomach and laid down in the damp and the muck. Her blindfold was gone, and she flinched whenever a drop hit her face. “Am I going to die?” she asked, finally.
Darpah spluttered and stammered and couldn’t seem to get a word out in-between. Jova waited. It wasn’t as if she had anywhere to go.
“You’re- well, you- master still intends to sell you,” Darpah said, at last. The rest of the dungeons or the cells or wherever Jova was were silent but for Darpah’s coughing. “You’ve been bad. Oh, Jova, you’ve been bad.”
Jova did her best to smile, although she heard Darpah flinch when she raised her head, her eyes unhidden. “Sorry if I caused you any trouble.”
“You’ve been bad, you’ve done wrong, I shouldn’t be talking to you…”
“What is this place?” asked Jova, talking over Darpah’s mumbling.
“The penance cells, under the streets. It’s to- well, what it’s supposed to do is- when everyone is walking above you, it reminds you how…low you are. All the plutocrats use them. The master uses them quite a lot.” Darpah fell silent. Jova did not press further, but he kept talking after a pause anyway. “It’s where slaves go if they’ve done wrong. Where bad slaves go. I’m not a bad slave, I shouldn’t be here…”
“Did Sovar-l’hana send you here?”
“Oh, no! No, no, no. Ladies, no. He doesn’t- he’s not aware.” Darpah shook his head, biting his lip. “It’s public, you see. The idea is that you don’t- that, well, your privacy- sometimes the wild children come down to mock you. But they won’t harm you! They’re not allowed to touch you! But sometimes they do throw, well, things…”
Jova let him ramble on, until finally Darpah said, “It’s just, well, they wanted to see. And I couldn’t say no, but I had to check that you wouldn’t shout or scream or anything, and I must make sure they don’t do anything to master’s property, so, erm…”
Jova sat as straight as she could. “Who wanted to see?”
“You can come in now, madam, just- just, oh, be careful, please…”
“Not a madam,” said the woman, as she approached. She wasn’t alone. Her footsteps were powerful and strong, and her voice was low and husky. Jova shook her head to clear her still ringing ears. She felt like her whole body was humming with anticipation.
“Ma?” she asked.
“Never married neither,” said the woman, and Jova’s heart sank as she recognized the voice. Her days of waiting, it seemed, still were not over. Perhaps Ma would never come.
Dock the mercenary squatted on the ground, and didn’t say anything for a long time. Jova got the sense that she was being looked over. “Blind Jova. The girl with no tabula.”
“You know?” said Jova, before she could stop herself.
“Everybody this side of the bay knows,” snorted Dock. “That’s his angle. You’re a freak show, ain’t you? It got the circus masters listening. Got the plutocrats listening. Got the other freaks listening.”
“What do you want?” asked Jova. She couldn’t keep the suspicion out of her voice.
Dock didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, she said, “You. Slave man. Leave.”
Jova almost laughed at the courage Darpah managed to summon in his reedy little voice. “I can’t leave you with the master’s slave. I don’t know what you’re going to do to her and I can’t risk-.”
“Fine. Shut up,” said Dock. “Hey, Smarty. Memorize his face.”
By way of answer, the man named Smarty grunted.
“If he says anything, kill him. If I die, kill him.”
Smarty grunted, and Darpah whimpered.
Dock adjusted herself, and drew a little closer to Jova. “Answer me true. You the one that killed that sandman bitch in the desert?”
It was Jova’s turn to keep silent. The water dripped down the sides of the grating above as Dock waited. Jova considered lying, but what did she have to gain from the silence? Her most grievous crime, the one she had escaped persecution for all her life, was already well known. Jova gave an almost imperceptible nod.
“Good. You ready to kill another one?”
Jova nodded again. There was less of a pause, this time.
“Way I see it, girl, I put a knife in your hand, nobody’s gon’ grab your tabula and make you put it down. You got the opportunity. You got the in.”
“They’re never going to take these chains off me, now,” said Jova, her voice hoarse.
“Did I say it’d be easy?” snapped Dock. “I’d do it myself, but he’s turned that fucking mansion into his own summer-burnt fortress. You do this, you never worry about chains again. You hear what I’m saying? Give me Dal Ak Gan’s life, and I give you your freedom.”
There was a faint voice of protest in the back of Jova’s head. This is wrong, it said. This is evil. But it had been a long time since Jova had listened to that voice. This was an evil place, with evil people. She could not sit and wait for her parents to rescue her any longer, wherever they were, for whatever reason they had abandoned her.
But there was one thing she would not give up.
“Another slave. A girl named Alis. She goes free, too.”
“That’ll be harder,” said Dock. She didn’t go into details as to why. She didn’t need to.
“She goes,” Jova repeated. She turned her face directly towards Dock, her expression set, and although her ruined eyes saw nothing she heard Dock draw back.
“The girl goes,” repeated Dock, and Jova let her shoulders slump. The mercenary stood up. “Talk details later. Can’t spend too long here.”
“Wait,” said Jova, and she raised her hand. It was not chained, but Jova couldn’t stand all the way without pulling her collar taut. “Mahashma?”
Jova heard Dock smirk. Her hand, rough and calloused, pockmarked with scars, closed around Jova’s. “Mahashma.”
And then Dock left, taking Darpah and the rest of her mercenaries with her. The rest of her mercenaries, that was, but for one. Jova slumped against the wall, listening to the dripping of the cells and the footsteps overhead, wondering how many men she would have to kill before she could be free.
A sudden sharp force yanked at Jova’s ear, and Mo began to bark and snap. Jova slid on the marble steps, clutching her ear and the meaty hand that held it in pain. “You got a lick of sense, child?” growled a voice. “No begging here.”
“Stop, please, stop!” shouted Jova, as she tried to twist her way out of the man’s grip. “Sir, I’m with the- the traders, I was told to wait out-.”
“Back, you mutt,” snarled the man, and Mo began to bark even more violently. “I said get back!” The man threw Jova down onto Mo, and the girl could feel the beast squirm his way free out from under her with a kind of violent fervor. “Get out of here, the both of you!”
“I don’t know the way,” babbled Jova, quickly, keeping her arms around Mo to hold the weaseldog back. “I was told to wait out here.”
“Tell that to someone else. We’ve got important business here today.”
“Yes,” said Jova, her frustration mounting. “I’m part of that.”
“We’ll see about that,” the voice growled, and Jova felt a hand around her collar. She did her best not to resist, even as Mo’s barking turned into a sudden, very low, very dangerous growl.
“No, Mo, stay back! Stay back, it’s OK!” said Jova. “Just stay here! Wait for me!”
The weaseldog whined, and Jova heard his claws clicking on the street as he backed away. “Yeah, beat it,” said the man, and he yanked on Jova’s collar. “You’re with them, you say? Well, let’s go and ask them, shall we?”
He stormed off, Jova following at a somewhat bemused if wary pace. He seemed to be taking a vindictive pleasure in dragging Jova to her supposed doom.
“They’re foreign, but I bet you knew all that already, since you’re so intimately familiar with them all,” sneered the man, as Jova was led through the open air corridor that Darpah had lead her halfway through. “Hak Mat Do warriors, they are. They’ll skin you and eat you for wasting their time, I bet they will.”
Jova said nothing. She didn’t think that continued contradictions would get her anywhere.
Their footsteps began to echo louder, longer; although the open wind still blew unobstructed to her side, they must have entered some kind of high vaulted room or chamber.
Something clicked sharply on the ground. “Dandal!” snapped a voice. Male, with a rhythmic cadence. “Didn’t I say that I was meeting?”
“Apologies, master, sir, but I found this ragamuffin begging on your steps,” said Dandal, lifting Jova higher. Jova did her best to smile and wave. “Said she was one of the sandfolk you was talking with, didn’t she?”
“She is,” said Dal Ak Gan, dryly. “Why did you feel the need to tell me?”
Jova could almost hear the man, Dandal, deflating. He let go of her shirt, which was now wrinkled at the collar, and her heels touched on the ground once more.
“Just thought…that…” muttered Dandal. He didn’t finish.
The unfamiliar voice snorted from somewhere ahead of Jova. “You are like a cathound bringing me dead sparrowmice. Go, off with you, go and hunt somewhere else.”
Dandal put a hand on Jova’s shoulder, and Jova was about to turn back and walk away herself when the plutocrat said, “Leave her. We have seen the best of your wares, Dal Ak Gan, now let us see the worst of them.”
The man scoffed, but didn’t say anything back. Instead, he bent down, close to Jova’s ear. “You make any noise,” he whispered. “Any fuss. And I’m throwing you back out on the street quick as thinking, and not a one’s going to notice.” Jova swallowed and nodded, and Dandal shoved her aside and walked away, grumbling all the while.
She turned back around and clicked. The sounds echoed off of the high ceiling, and it took her a moment to gauge her surroundings. She found her way up to what seemed like a carved, stone desk, and bowed her head in respect as the plutocrat took her hand with a firm, almost callous grip.
“You blinded this one?” said the plutocrat.
“Already blind,” said Dal Ak Gan. Jova cocked her head. From the echoes and the shapes of the sound, there was someone else standing next to him, of similar height and build. Who was it?
The plutocrat guffawed. “How generous of you! And does she have any skills?”
“Stablehand,” grunted a voice from by Dal Ak Gan. Jova turned her head immediately. Dock the mercenary was evidently part of the negotiations as well.
“And she is seeing with her tongue,” said Dal Ak Gan. “You heard her. Click, click, and she walks as well as any man. A circus master would be paying good money for a spectacle like her, no?”
The plutocrat patted the back of Jova’s hand, his palms hot and dry. Jova took it as her cue to leave, and backed away, standing by Dal Ak Gan’s side. She needed to stay right where she was needed. What if she was gone and they tried to recall her with her tabula? She couldn’t risk it. She stood there, waiting, the perfect and obedient attendant.
A quill scratched at parchment with a constant, raspy whisper. Every ten seconds there was a glass clink, as the quill tapped on the side of the ink pot. Jova waited and listened, her heart beating fast.
Dal Ak Gan patted her on the shoulder, an awkward, fumbling kind of contact. “Worry not,” he said, and it seemed more to himself than to her. “Sovar-l’hana is a fair trader. He will care for you up to auction.”
It was not Sovar-l’hana, or whatever his convoluted plutocratic name was, that Jova was worried about. Ma and Da were out there somewhere. They had to be. Jova had only spent a second with Mo when that man, Dandal, had dragged her away, but she would have recognized the weaseldog anywhere.
The scribbling continued. A brisk wind blew through the patio that made Jova’s sweating cheeks tingle. It never snowed in Jhidnu—it was too warm even in the winter—but the wind from the sea still made Jova shiver.
“The staghound will sell for much,” said Sovar-l’hana, his melodic accent thick in his brazen voice. “I already have a buyer, although we shall see how much he is willing to pay when auction-time comes. Silly of me to take a fat Wind’s word before I see his money, eh?” He guffawed, like he had something extraordinarily funny. No one else laughed.
Dip. Tap, tap. Scribble, scribble, scribble.
“We have quite an international audience for this one. An envoy from Irontower has come, and raiders from Da’atoa shall be in attendance as well. Some of them will be needing safe escort home.” Sovar-l’hana put his quill down with a definitive click. “I believe in convenience, friend. You will receive your cut of the profit, of course, but if you would be to pick up an extra job for you and your tribe once the sale is done…”
“Sale first,” growled Dock. “We’ll see about other jobs once we see the money.”
Jova bit her lip. Dal Ak Gan’s silence made her uneasy. Even easygoing Dep Sag Ko had been complaining about the mercenaries for days. What was Dal Ak Gan, whose own authority was being subverted, thinking?
“Mm,” said Sovar-l’hana, and even he sounded a little annoyed. “Very well. This has been a scheduled auction for some time. The usual plutocrats will be in attendance, looking to buy for personal use, resale, and so on. A smithsworn towerman will be there as well, looking for laborers to man the valleys, as well as a crew of saltmen looking to return to the islands by spring. You are not my only supplier, but you are one of the biggest.”
Restless, Jova turned her head to the side. When would she be able to leave?
“The starting prices will be high. Everyone this side of Lowsea knows me, and my reputation. You won’t even need a tabula to command my slaves. Look, look, see here. Dandal! Darpah!”
Jova had only just met the both of them, but she recognized their footsteps immediately. Dandal’s were loud, crashing, almost petulant, while Darpah, the skittish little servant from before, scuttled forward like a beetlemouse.
“My two dogs,” said Sovar-l’hana, jovially. “Darpah, if I told you to jump into the bay and drown, would you do it?”
“Yes, master,” said Darpah, quickly.
“And Dandal—if I told you to bend Darpah over and fuck him in the ass, would you do it?”
Jova didn’t miss Darpah’s terrified whimper as Dandal sneered, without hesitation, “Yes, master.”
Sovar-l’hana actually slapped his knee, then, giggling like a loon. Once he had recovered, he snapped his fingers for the two to leave, and leave they did. “So you see, everybody wants one of Sovar-l’hana’s slaves. We split what we get, half and half. First pick is yours. Mahashma, no?”
Jova heard Dal Ak Gan begin to speak when Dock growled, “No tin chips. Food, clothes, weapons.”
Sovar-l’hana’s wicker chair creaked as he leaned back in it. “That’s why you get first pick. Although, mind, this is a civilized event. If you wish to be in attendance, I expect you to clean up and behave yourselves.”
“That can be arranged,” said Dal Ak Gan, finally squeezing his say in.
“So long as we get what we came for,” growled Dock.
“Mahashma,” said the plutocrat, and Jova heard the sound of their hands clapping together. “Now, about this escort…”
“Who? How far?” said Dock.
“-That, I think, is for me to ask.” Dal Ak Gan shifted, and Jova heard the almost imperceptible creak of leather and fiber as he gripped the handle of his whip. “Once you are paid, our contract is over. We are being separated, no?”
Dock took a step forward just as Jova took a step back. They weren’t going to fight, were they? Not here. They might have made their livings off of violence and brutality, but they were practical as well.
“Still our job to take,” the woman mercenary said.
“Still ours to keep,” replied Dal Ak Gan.
Jova heard the scrape of a chair against the floor as Sovar-l’hana stood. “Keep your barbarisms to yourselves! This is my home and you will follow my rules. Work out your differences like civilized people, or I’ll see to it that the both of you are on the summer-burnt auction block with the rest of my slaves when the time comes!”
“We should go now,” whispered a voice, and Jova jumped. Darpah moved so quietly and so stealthily that even she had not heard him approach. “Come, girl, I’ll show you where the slaves sleep.”
Darpah took her hand and lead her away, and Jova did not resist.
“Oh, oh, I do get so worried when the master is angry,” muttered Darpah, distractedly, as he led Jova down a maze of corridors that too late did she realize she would be utterly and hopelessly lost in without his help. Sometimes she could feel the open air to her side and sometimes she couldn’t; sometimes she felt the heat of torches and sometimes she didn’t. It was a confusing mix of directions and sensations that she could not keep head nor tail of.
She pulled back, and Darpah paused, his sleeves scraping together as he wringed his hands. “I don’t know if this is the way I should go,” she said. “Maybe I should get back to…back to my masters.”
“Oh, no, no,” said Darpah, and he put a gentle hand on Jova’s. “Sovar-l’hana is your master now. They shook on it, didn’t they? They signed the contract. Mahashma. You’ll stay with us until auction. It’s only lucky that you were already here, I expect master to summon the rest soon…”
Only lucky indeed. Fortune be with her, sometimes Jova felt she was too lucky for her own good. The Ladies gave, and mortal men paid; in Jhidnu of all places, she had to be aware of that.
“The master does so hate it when things don’t go exactly the way he wants them to,” muttered Darpah. “He likes everything to be perfect. Exactly perfect. Watch your step.”
Jova edged forward slowly, and a wave of muggy air hit her. It was humid and hot inside; the air was stale and still.
“It’s not the, erm, cleanest,” said Darpah. Jova stepped forward, her feet brushing against the frames of bunks and cots. She treaded lightly, trying not to step on anyone’s belongings, before she realized how foolish that was.
This was a room for slaves. They had no belongings.
“We have plenty of room though! Since the, er, the last group just moved out.” Darpah sat at the foot of one of the musty cots, and Jova turned around to face him. She found that people were more comfortable when she looked at them, even when she couldn’t actually look back. “The beds are nice. There are hardly any ratworms at all at night, and they don’t carry any sickness.”
There was such plaintive, earnest gratitude in his voice that Jova felt sorry for him. Did he really think this was the best his life could get? A pest-infested bed and constant servility to a man who thought him less than human?
“Oh, oh, but let’s not take a hammer before nails,” said Darpah. “Back or the front. It, erm, it depends on your preference. Whether you want to do deal with other slaves or masters.”
“Slaves or masters?” echoed Jova.
“Stay in the back, the masters will punish you for lagging behind. Sleep in the front, and the, erm, the others will always be walking past you. Pushing, shoving, fighting.” Darpah coughed. “I…prefer the back.”
“So this is it?” said Jova. She spun around, feeling the grimy floor under her bare feet. It was beginning to dawn on her that this was not just another stop on the road. This…this was where the Hag Gar Gan left her. Where Rho Hat Pan left her.
Darpah didn’t say anything. His collar rattled, and Jova assumed he had nodded.
Jova sighed. “Darpah…if I speak honestly with you, you will keep my confidence. Mahashma?”
“Mahashma,” said Darpah, quickly. Too quickly. Did he intend to betray her that fast, run tattling off to his loved master? Or was he simply that starved for human interaction?
It didn’t matter much either way. Jova didn’t intend on staying here long.
“Why do you do it?” asked Jova. “Act like this is all good for you?”
“Oh, but it is,” said Darpah, eagerly. “It is, it is. I’ve served as the master’s assistant since Fallow. I’ve never gone hungry and I’ve never had to fight anyone. I learned manners. I was –educated! I know how to be useful. This is good. It is a good life.”
“But what about freedom? Haven’t you ever wanted to be free? To belong to yourself?”
Darpah lapsed into stuttering silence.
“He said it himself: he treats you like a dog.”
When he spoke next, his voice was soft and timid. “What’s wrong with that? I’m not a bad dog. I don’t live in the streets like a…like a cur. I get fed. And I’m- I’m wanted. I’m needed. I’m loved. In a fashion.”
“In a fashion,” repeated Jova. She didn’t know what else to say to him. She didn’t know if there was anything left to say.
Darpah’s slippers squeaked on the floor as he hurried away. “I must be off. He’ll be summoning the others soon. He’s a powerful man, the master.” He paused at the door. “Stay. Here. Um.” And he ran away, muttering under his breath.
Jova waited all of a minute before she ducked out of the slave dormitory and started to feel her way down the walls. She didn’t know the way out. But she knew how to get there.
“Dandal!” she shouted. “Dandaaaal!”
Her voice echoed around the labyrinthine confines of Sovar-l’hana’s manor. It didn’t take long for the dog to snap at the bait; Jova heard thunderous footsteps approaching her, and she stopped, waiting for him to approach.
“Didn’t I say?” said the man, furious. He gripped Jova’s collar and tugged harshly, and Jova stumbled as he began to drag her away. “Didn’t I say that if I heard one peep, I was throwing you out?”
Jova didn’t say a word. She relaxed as much as possible, letting Dandal drag her to the outside.
“Let’s see how you like a night of real begging.” Dandal spat. “One night on the streets, that’ll break you. Roll call isn’t until morning. No one’s going to miss you all day, will they? And we’ll see, we’ll see, the state you’re in once the sun comes…”
It was better than Jova had hoped for. She had hoped only to escape notice by merit of all the other slaves arriving at the same time. If she had all night, so much the better.
“Not a sound,” hissed Dandal, clapping a hand over Jova’s mouth, as they entered some kind of enclosed space. “Negotiations are ongoing.”
Jova’s heart quickened at the thought of Dal Ak Gan and Dock negotiating. She didn’t see how it could end well for either of them.
And suddenly she was in Jhidnu again. The smells and sounds hit her first, and then the street quickly followed. She groaned, wiping her bleeding lip, as Dandal shouted, “And get off the fucking steps, will you?”
It wasn’t the cleanest exit, but it got her out. Jova stood shakily, and began to hobble down the side of the street, back bent and head bowed. She was a beggar, nobody, no one worth noticing.
“Mo,” she whispered. “Mo!” she shouted. Where was he? Had he left? Maybe Ma had summoned him already.
Jova felt panic rising in her chest. She needed Mo, and her parents. One way or another, this was her last chance to be free.
The girl stood alone in the bustling streets, breathing heavily. She could barely think, her head was spinning in so many different directions. She would have to find Ma and Da, first. She would have to make sure Alis came with them. She would have to do so many things, prepare so many new plans…
And if a single part of it failed, then Jova would have lost her chance.
Her thoughts were quelled by a warm presence under her hand. “Hey, Mo,” she said, smiling. She scratched the back of his head and his belly, her fear evaporating at the weaseldog’s presence. Mo was family. He had always been family.
“You stay right here with me,” said Jova, hugging his neck. She knelt, and began to untie her blindfold. The weaseldog whined as she wrapped it around his head, but he did not resist. Then she sat, getting ready for the long wait.
If Ma looked through the tabula, there was no way she could see Mo and not see Jova. If Ma summoned the weaseldog, then the blindfold would have to be enough of a clue for them to know. Jova had never learned her letters, even before she was blind. It was the only hint she had to give. She had all night to wait.
“You stay right here,” said Jova, stroking Mo’s fur. “You stay right here until they find us.”
The air smelled like oranges. It smelled like stale beer and perfumes, and eastern spices, and offal. Music filled the air, the soft lilt of lyres and harps, even as more indelicate tunes sang out, plucking the heartstrings of the lonely.
It had been a long time since Jova had been in Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, but it was just as she remembered it.
She stood by Dep Sag Ko and his animals, the image of obedience. She would only get so many second chances. There was a kind of tranquility to it, a peace that kept Jova calm even as she stood on the roaring streets of the city of light.
The Hag Gar Gan slavers were less tranquil. Dep Sag Ko kept flinching whenever a bayman, bold as they were, walked up to him, and his fear made the animals skittish. This was not their place, among the clustered buildings and streets, facing the sea with the thick jungles to their backs. This place was a long, long way from home, for them.
“Eat,” muttered Dep Sag Ko, sliding his skewer off the fire. Jova held the thigh of chickenfrog gingerly, her fingertips dancing on its burning surface as grease dripped down its side. Her eyebrows furrowed. A whole length of freshly cooked meat, just for a slave like her?
The strangeness of it was not enough to stop Jova from eating hungrily, panting as the hot food scalded the inside of her mouth.
“The animals are needing cleaning,” said Dep Sag Ko, his fingers drumming on his leg. “Gen, Jova? Looking very nice. Presentable.”
Jova nodded. Dep Sag Ko really must have been worried, if he had forgotten that Jova was the last person he could ask to make anything look nice.
She didn’t question him, though. She walked away, hands by her sides, the cotton slave dress heavy on her shoulders. Other members of the tribe could handle their own mounts; Dep Sag Ko wanted Jova to prepare only those that were for sale.
Uten and Yora, then, as well as the few other animals that the slavers had caught on the way. Not Lo Pak the eelhound. Not Stel. Not, as Jova remembered with a lump in her throat, Cross. The elk was gone, and so was Janwye. All Jova had left now was memories.
Jova felt oddly hollow, thinking about doing all the old, familiar routines, but with these new and unfamiliar animals. She missed Chek, and his mulishness. The new animals were still afraid of her, still flinched at her touch and shied away at her presence.
She felt her way around the edge of the stables, hands feeling the bamboo walls as she edged her way around. Already her feet were sticky with dirt and loose straw; Dep Sag Ko didn’t like eating by the inn, and Jova had been unable to voice any objections. He seemed to prefer it out here by their temporary stables, amid the earthy smells and sounds.
To her surprise, the stable gate was already open. Jova felt a small surge of indignation. The animals could have wandered free at any time, and no one would have been wiser. That kind of carelessness was what had made the journey across the spice road from Hak Mat Do so arduous and dangerous…
But the gate had been left open because there were people still inside. Jova shrank back immediately, her ears pricked. That was unmistakably Dal Ak Gan’s voice, speaking in the imperial tongue.
“I do not trust them, and I do not like this,” he said, in a low whisper that Jova could just hear over the ambient noise of the city. Her skill with the language was getting better. Weeks of practice, listening to them speak, had helped. “Since Ya Gol Gi disappeared, I have had forebodings, blood-sister.”
La Ah Abi answered. “We needed them. Their swords and the arms that are holding them. It is too late to go back now.”
“Yes,” said Dal Ak Gan, and he sounded bitter. “But you remember, La Ah Abi. The slaves knew we were coming.” There was silence from both of them, for a long stretch. Jova quivered, not sure if she should walk in and interrupt their conversation. If she was caught, it would be the end of her.
“Soon they shall be paid, and then they will be on their way. You need not worry about them.”
“They knew, blood-sister. These fieldmen knew we were coming.” Dal Ak Gan stamped his foot, and for a moment Jova remembered who this man really was: not her leader, not her benefactor, but the man who had wrapped his arms around Janwye’s neck and held them there until she choked to death. “That woman, that who Rho Hat Pan loved so, she knew we were coming. How? Ya Gol Gi was so quick to kill her, and now he is gone. The fieldwoman noble was her master, and now she is gone…”
“You see candle-flames on the water and think them stars,” said La Ah Abi, her voice soothing and calm. “Today, your blood runs hotter than mine. Your mind is fevered. Your eyes are clouded.”
Dal Ak Gan said nothing. Jova waited, steeling herself to walk in like she had not heard a thing.
And then she heard the telltale clip-clop of hooves behind her, and she nearly ran in through the stable gates.
Both Dal Ak Gan and La Ah Abi shifted the moment she walked through, their feet scraping on the dirt of the stable. “Ya, girl,” barked La Ah Abi. “Dep Sag Ko is sending you?”
Jova bobbed her head, trying to keep her voice steady as her heart thumped in her chest. “Cleaning the animals, ma’am,” she said, arms crossed respectfully behind her back even as she tried to swallow her fear. Had Rho Hat Pan seen her? Would he give her away?
“Mm,” said La Ah Abi, shortly. “Be doing it then.” Then she strode away, curtly and briskly.
Dal Ak Gan was not so quick. The hairs on the back of Jova’s neck tingled, as though she could feel his eyes on her. When he spoke, it was slow and thoughtful, like he was considering the words himself. “You are knowing these animals so well,” he said, as if he had suddenly realized something. “Rho Hat Pan’s animals.”
It wasn’t a question. It was a statement, one that Jova did not dare deny.
“Are you knowing Rh-?”
“Dal Ak Gan!” shouted the man himself, as he rode in behind Jova. Stel snorted as she came to a halt just behind the girl, and then they all stood there, in silence. Was Jova just imagining the tension? Was her fear getting the better of her?
Somewhere in the streets, a performer had begun to sing. It was a bayfolk song, all thumping beats and undulating vocals. It seemed oddly jarring, with the quiet that continued to dominate the little stable.
“Clean the animals,” said Dal Ak Gan, finally. “The Waves are coming.”
He strode briskly away, and though Jova’s hearing was keen she did not hear him say a word to Rho Hat Pan as he walked away.
It was just the two of them, then. Jova clenched and unclenched her fingers, not knowing what to say. The last time they had spoken, Rho Hat Pan’s voice had been accompanied by the roaring fires. He had thrown her into the river, to drown, to die. Except…
She was not dead. She had set three slaves free and nearly escaped herself, and still the tribe did not suspect a thing. Not even the Ladies could give someone such fortune.
“You are being born in this city,” observed Rho Hat Pan, finally. Jova turned around, surprised. It was the first time he had talked to her like an equal in a very long time.
Rho Hat Pan exhaled, a long heavy sigh. “Are you knowing it well?”
“No,” said Jova. “I was very young.” What was he trying to do? Rho Hat Pan—or, at least, the Roan Jova had once known—never just made small talk.
Beside her, Jova heard Uten plodding in her direction. She put a steadying hand on the molebison’s snout, running her fingers through her fur idly while Rho Hat Pan sat there in silence. Neither of them talked. Down the street, there were a few cheers and the clink of those odd Jhidnu coins as the song concluded.
As always, Jova had questions for him, too many questions for her to properly sort out. There was only one she could ask, in the end.
“I have found my people,” said Rho Hat Pan, hoarsely. “I have been lost for a long time. I am coming home.”
“And the Dream Walkers?” Jova wanted to spit and point at him, accuse him of betraying his order, of betraying her, but she did not even know what the Dream Walkers wanted to do, what goal he could have possibly betrayed. As far as she knew, this was part of their clandestine plan, whatever it was.
He never was good at filling in the silence. Once or twice, Jova heard him begin to speak, before he stopped and cut himself off. At last, he said, “You will learn soon enough that we work in many places, in many ways.”
That was hardly the answer Jova wanted. It was hardly an answer at all. She drew herself up, and though she could only face his general direction, she hoped he could see her face twisted in anger. “Did you forget that they killed Janwye?”
She waited for him to answer. She almost wanted him to say something trite, something cold. Let the dead rest. If he said let the dead rest, then that would solidify his betrayal and Jova would kill him next. By all the Ladies Four, she would kill him next if he-.
“I will never forget.”
All Jova’s rage twisted and writhed. All of a sudden, it had nowhere to go.
“Clean the animals, devil girl,” said Rho Hat Pan, darkly. He began to ride away, whatever business he had in these stables evidently abandoned. “Do it quickly.”
And he left Jova again, with just as many questions as before.
She trudged away, sweeping the area for a clean brush. She doubted the innkeepers would have one lying out in the open for her to use, but she had forgotten to get one from Dep Sag Ko and she didn’t want to turn back now.
“I guess you’ll show up as you are,” said Jova, leaning against Uten and stretching her aching back. The molebison supported her placidly, snuffling in the dirt. Jova scuffed her feet on the stable earth too, hands on her hips. “Can’t expect a blind girl to do a good job, can they?”
Jova made a mental note to check on Alis. The girl had just been able to walk again without splints, to Jova’s delight. Alis told her that the burns were healing well, although Jova didn’t know how much she trusted Alis’s quiet, understated word. When there was a chance, she would check on her again.
Jova’s thoughts wandered. She had to admit, she liked being back in a city again—any city. She had never really entered Hak Mat Do proper, and being back among so many people for the first time since she had left home was oddly cathartic. This city especially was so full of life, so full of little stories, so full of hope that Jova couldn’t help but smile. She breathed it all in, the scent of cumin and cinnamon and peppercorn. For now, at least, Rho Hat Pan and his mysteries would not bother her.
From the gate, there was a polite cough, and Jova shook her head. She turned her head to the side, to better hear whoever was there. No one she knew coughed politely.
“You are with the tribe Ak Gan?” said the voice. Clipped, soft, male, and ostensibly well-mannered.
Jova cocked her head. The tribe had no name for itself; to the Hag Gar Gan, there was no need. But she supposed, if it made this polite little man happy, she would humor him. She nodded yes, and wondered how he knew the tribe’s name when they didn’t even know it existed.
“Ah.” Jova could almost hear the man’s furtive glance in the way he said it. “May I speak with your master?”
Jova pursed her lips, wondering if it was wise to bring a stranger to Dep Sag Ko. What did he want, anyhow?
“Oh, I’m sorry,” muttered the man. “Erm. Kaga iro pak gha zea wa tu?”
Jova moved from Uten’s back and stood straight. “I speak the king’s tongue,” she said, and the man made a surprised little squeak. “Do you need anything?”
There was a simpering desperation in the man’s voice. “If I may just speak with-.”
“If you need the animals, I can bring them.”
The man spluttered. “Well, I suppose- I just think it’d be wise to ask- are you sure?”
“The Hag Gar Gan are in the business of selling slaves, not commanding them,” said Jova. She meant it to be reassuring, but it came out as bitter.
“Oh, well, alright,” said the man, and his fingers drummed on the bamboo walls of the stable. “Just the one, if you please, though. Ladies know we don’t want to…to herd this crowd down the streets.”
One was fine with Jova. If it was for a good impression, Jova knew who to bring. “Enjoy yourself here, Uten,” said Jova, patting the molebison on the side. “I’ll be back later. Come on, Yora!”
The staghound padded forward, and Jova knew his stride would be long and graceful, his stature poised and respectable.
“Do you like animals?” Jova asked, politely, as she led Yora out of the stable.
The man’s terrified shudder as the staghound sniffed his face was all the answer that Jova needed.
“What’s your name?” she asked, instead. She closed the gate behind her, and held out a hand. “I’m Jova.”
There was a dumbfounded silence, and then the man said, his voice a little lower and a little less formal, “Darpah. I- I’m sorry, it’s just been such a long time since anyone asked…” He shook Jova’s hand, and his touch was light and timid, as if at any moment Jova might try to tear his hand off.
“It’s nice to meet you, Darpah,” said Jova, smiling. It was hard to tell his age from his voice. He was a grown man to be sure, but he could have been anywhere from twenty to forty summers old.
“Yes. Erm. Likewise,” said Darpah, and he let go like he was releasing a vicious animal from his hands. “Um. I shall show you the way, and you shall…not cause any fuss. Mahashma?”
It had been such a long time since Jova had heard the phrase, yet she still remembered it to this day. How could she forget? It was the catchphrase of every plutocrat on Albumere. “Mahashma,” she said. Good deal.
As they walked, Darpah kept making little mumbling noises. “I. Erm. Do you need help? I could, um, hold your hand if you…”
Jova clicked her tongue by way of response, and Darpah mumbled himself into submission.
With Yora following close behind her, they walked through the street. There were no pious philanthropists in Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, no, not at all. The pedestrians pushed and shoved past Jova, and twice she nearly fell flat onto her back as baymen and woman rushing about their business barreled past her. She learned to sidestep them quickly enough. It was just a matter of getting to know the city, and its people.
“It’s not such a distance,” said Darpah. “Oh, I do hope we don’t keep them waiting…”
“It might be faster if we ride,” suggested Jova, as the claws on Yora’s paws clicked gracefully on the cobblestone road behind her. Her pace was languid and serene, compared to how Jova had to dodge past the baymen on her path.
“Oh, no, no, I don’t- that’s not- I don’t ride,” said Darpah, and Jova heard a soft clink coming from near his head as he shook it. Earrings, jewelry? He didn’t seem the type. What else could it be?
A collar. Bayman slaves wore collars made of leather, with iron chains that trailed down their backs.
Darpah’s behavior made a little more sense, now.
“Watch your step,” said Darpah, kindly, and Jova edged carefully onto the stone steps leading to the patio of…something. The hand that wasn’t guiding Yora along felt the long stone columns and balconies as they walked. They must have been very close to the bay.
“I’ll, er…I’ll show the beast in.” Darpah tapped Jova lightly on the shoulder. “Perhaps you could…wait outside? Master doesn’t like to see slaves around the patio. Oh, but it just wouldn’t be right to…to leave a girl like you out in the street…” The slave sounded so miserable that Jova was tempted to hug him and tell him it would be OK.
“Behave, Yora,” she said, and she handed the reins off to Darpah. “I’ll be just outside.”
“If you’re sure…” Darpah muttered, taking the rein like it was a live pillsnake and treading lightly away. Jova took a moment to enjoy the sea breeze, before continuing on her way. She traced her steps back to the stone stairs that led into the rest of the compound, and wondered what exactly this ornate patio led into. What if there was an entire palace above her head, and she didn’t even know it? She sat on the steps, imagining.
The streets were full of sounds as well as smells. The slap of leather boots on the stone was the most frequent, but Jova heard hoof beats and drumbeats, and the constant, lively chatter of the baypeople.
She thought back to her conversation with Rho Hat Pan. She may not have known the city well, but if she managed to get Alis and escape into the city of light, she felt like she could make it. Just the two of them, alone. It would be hard, but it wouldn’t be impossible.
There was the padding of paws on the street, and it was getting closer. At first, Jova thought it was Yora, but it was the wrong direction for that, and Yora’s walk was always more stately. Perhaps it was a stray. Perhaps…
“Fang?” Jova asked, holding out a hand. She had done her best to keep track of the pigwolf, but she had even less of an idea of its whereabouts ever since the fire on the river.
The animal was extraordinarily comfortable with her, and Jova marveled at her fortune to find a beast so friendly on a chance foray into the city. It had thick, matted fur, and a long, sinuous body, and a face with stiff welts on the side, and a happy growl that seemed all too familiar…
Jova’s heart dropped, then it leaped into her throat. Her cheeks flushed. Her breath caught.
The weaseldog panted happily, and Jova realized that she and Alis might not be so alone after all.