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.”
He was a young man again, his skin smooth and unwrinkled, his back straight and unbent. Tay Yi Ah stood in the void, wearing his Fallow-given name like a length of fine cloth, the burden of being the tribe’s shaman temporarily forgotten.
The darkness shuddered. Tay Yi Ah looked up. This was the first among visions, which all the shamans saw when they were first initiated. To see it again was a sign of great portent.
Although he knew what was coming, it did not fail to take Tay Yi Ah’s dream-breath away. Stars filled the void around him; there was no ground beneath his feet, so like a crucible the shifting points of light surrounded him.
He floated, suspended in nothing, and watched as three stars fell from the sky and came hurtling towards him. One burned green, like jade. Another shone white, the gleam of marble. The last was gold, with a pulsing amber glow.
“Raj Mal Azu,” whispered the young man. “A god, one.”
He took a step forward, and suddenly Albumere was beneath his feet. The earth felt cool between his toes, and he stood there, naked, as the stars landed. The twisted tree spiraled out of the earth, so tall that it touched the sky itself, so that the stars rippled at its touch. Its branches were made of human hands and feet, and at the very top they melded together into a face with translucent golden skin and pupil-less eyes.
“Lives in worlds two,” recited Tay Yi Ah. “Has faces three.”
It turned towards Tay Yi Ah. The outline of a wooden skull could be seen behind filmy skin, and its eyes stared unblinkingly at Tay Yi Ah. A pulse like a heartbeat ran through the whole length of the tree, spiraling into its roots and deep into the ground.
“And holds a court of ladies four and lords five.”
The green and white stars burned. Shadows seemed to stand behind them that Tay Yi Ah could not make out, as tall and great as the twisted tree. Around the white star they stood. The first to emerge had high cheekbones and an angular face. She had ladybird wings humming on her back, and was unashamed of her bare skin. Glowing runes traced themselves along the small of her back, geometric lines with hard corners and an unrecognizable pattern.
The second had softer features and curled hair that framed her gentle face. Owl wings curled around her as she stood, hiding her body from view, but Tay Yi Ah could still see the lines carving themselves into the base of her throat.
The next Tay Yi Ah almost did not notice. She stood in the shadows, bat wings stretching on her back. She had a small nose and mouth, and her eyes were cunning and swift. It might have been Tay Yi Ah’s imagination, but the glowing lines seemed to form a third eye upon her forehead.
The last flexed her stocky arms as she emerged, runes forming on her shoulders. Ladybug wings buzzed on her back, as she rolled her neck and stretched her arms. Her hair was cut short like a boy’s, and her features were square and hard. She alone looked at Tay Yi Ah, a direct challenge at the mortal who dared look upon her.
His essence trembled at her gaze. Tay Yi Ah turned away, and stared instead at the figures surrounding the green star. They were not nearly as human, hulking beasts and monsters made out of rock and wood and water. He saw only four, and some did not even look human. They were too distant to make out, too alien to recognize.
A long, somber creak made Tay Yi Ah turn once again to the twisted tree. Its mouth was opening slowly, ever so slowly, and its branches were held out in such a way that it looked to be pointing towards Tay Yi Ah. The stars began to shake violently overhead, as the earth beneath Tay Yi Ah began to hum.
“You do not understand.”
The u-ha blinked, and he felt such a fatigue in his bones that he considered turning over and dying right then and there. Pale rainbows danced over his face as the crystal shards in the net overhead shook with the swaying of the tent.
“You do not understand,” repeated Dal Ak Gan, standing with his feet planted and his arms crossed. “Kharr Ta would never do business with us after that. We had to leave. There was no other choice.”
“Then when,” growled Dock the mercenary. “Are we getting paid?”
The u-ha stared up, not listening. He was looking at the Lady Winter, and he was telling her no.
Blood sloshed through the old man as he found the strength within himself to sit upright. He knew he was dying. Not of any affliction or disease: no, he was dying of old age. Even the youngest u-ha could tell that, if the tribe had one.
The u-ha smacked toothless gums together. He had forgotten a long time ago what it was like to be hungry. He couldn’t chew meat, fruit didn’t agree with his stomach, and his bowels protested just about everything else. He supposed, though, that he could use some morning stew.
His shaking hand clasped the handle of his cane. Eyes that could barely make out his fingers an inch from his face scanned the room, and with some reluctance the u-ha stood from his sleeping furs.
He walked between Dal Ak Gan and Dock, both of whom had fallen silent once they had seen the u-ha rise.
He walked towards his pots and pans, and set about making stew. It took him a couple minutes to get the fire started, and while he fumbled with the match and wood both the others watched in silence.
Finally, Dock cleared her throat. “Want to ask him where to go?” she said, in the king’s tongue, and the contempt was evident in her voice. “Ask.”
The u-ha snorted. In his day, a foreigner would have treated a son of the emperors with a little more respect. If anything, she deserved their contempt. She was an impudent, hot-blooded, money-grubbing scoundrel who had lost (and, indeed, never had) the blessing of the old way.
All this, the u-ha muttered under his breath as he scraped oats into the bubbling pan of milk. Of course no one heard him. No one ever listened, these days, except for Dep Sag Ko, and he was an oaf.
“U-ha,” said Dal Ak Gan, his tone reverential. At least that man knew respect. That was why he was still chieftain. He knew who deserved his respect and who didn’t. “We have lost the way. We have many slaves but none shall buy them. We are not welcome in the city of our forefathers.”
Hak Mat Do was not the city of their forefathers. It belonged to the pyramid lords. What did the free-riding people of the steppes know of those dusty necropolises? Only the young of Albumere assumed that Hak Mat Do and Hag Gar Gan were one and the same.
All this, the u-ha said. Dal Ak Gan did not have a response. He just waited.
With glacial slowness, the u-ha watched his porridge simmer. Outside, he could hear a continuous buzzing, all the insects of Albumere swarming in the afternoon heat. Winter was near upon them. This would be one of the last times he would hear such a thing again. It might be the last time.
Impatience radiated from Dock, but even she knew not to interrupt the venerated u-ha. She had sense enough for that, at least.
He scooped the porridge out with a wooden spoon. He put the porridge in his mouth. He ate the porridge. Dock and Dal Ak Gan waited. The air buzzed outside.
The u-ha’s hand dug around his chest of medicines and supplies, and he drew out a little glass jar. It was full of worms and beetlebeasts, their tiny tabula dumped inside of a small wooden box next to the jar. Broken amber fragments littered the bottom of the box, but quite a few lived yet.
The old man shook a few out into his porridge, and watched them squirm inside the gruel for several seconds before capping the jar again. He put the jar gently back in the chest; glass was expensive, as were the services of a bug catcher.
He began to eat again, slowly. A stagbeetle twitched, half-drowned amid the oats, but the u-ha had no teeth to chew it with. He swallowed the thing whole, even as worms and grubs slithered into his gut. He put the bowl aside, and waited with Dock and Dal Ak Gan for the creatures to die.
Open disgust was evident on Dock’s face, while Dal Ak Gan was expressionless. The u-ha tapped his net of crystals, and watched the lights shimmer.
The stagbeetle died.
He emerged from the seas at the end of the world, his blocky head made of hewn jade, water spilling up out of the grate where his mouth should have been. A titanic hand reached out to smother the tiny fishing skiff, except his intent was not to smother at all. He cupped the boat in his palm and held it up to his face, watching it, observing it.
Terrified sailors tossed their cargo overboard into the sea creature’s hand: Jhidnu spices, lengths of fine silk, golden and silver peaches from the bay. But what did a god care for the trinkets of men?
His fingers closed slowly. Now was the time for smothering.
Spices and silk and golden peaches. The spirits pointed to Jhidnu. Jhidnu would take their slaves. The closest and most amicable market in the east, they could take the spice road through Hak Ger and be at the boy within a month. The winter would make the journey harsh, but the plutocrats would never turn them away like the pyramid lords had.
All this, the u-ha said.
“To Jhidnu,” said Dal Ak Gan, in the king’s tongue. “There are so many plutocrats that at least one of the Wind will buy from us there. It will be easy for you and your men to find new work, too, in the city.”
“You finished talking with your spirit man?” said Dock, crossing her arms.
Dal Ak Gan’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, I am.”
“Then let’s take this outside.”
They locked eyes. The air buzzed. Then, Dal Ak Gan said, stiffly, in the imperial tongue, “Excuse us, u-ha.”
They stepped outside, and the u-ha returned to his porridge.
He stared at it, his face wrinkled in disgust. The bugs and worms were fine—he had eaten many of those in his long service as the tribe’s u-ha—but the thin gruel was already making his intestines squirm. He was an old man. His hands shook and his shit leaked.
The u-ha looked at the Lady Winter, and told her no. Not today.
Inside his gut, the worms shriveled and died.
Her image graced the pyramids. On every slab of marble and limestone, they carved her and her great stone mask. She could only barely be called human: abnormally tall and slender, with arms like lengths of wire and wings made of glass. They prayed before her and she answered.
She had won the war against the world for them. She had forged a place for man in the unforgiving wilds. She had raised monuments of stone in the name of the greatest empire Albumere had ever seen.
The wild savages had become unruly again? The Ladies would descend upon them, their retribution swift and terrible. New colonies to the north and west needed building? Stone would raise itself from the ground, fully formed settlements ready to be lived in. She had given them greater steel magic than Irontower, better boats than Jhidnu, more knowledge than the Twin Libraries of Shira Hay had held in four ages of kings combined.
Then she had abandoned them, and the prayers of Hak Mat Do fell on deaf ears.
It had taken years of training to become the tribe’s wise man. Eating bugs was the easiest part. Learning the medicines, reciting the histories, understanding the essence of the world: that had been what becoming u-ha entailed. Even now, the old man did not fully understand the portents of his dreams and visions.
He blinked rheumy eyes. When he was young, before his hair had turned silver and his teeth had rotted out, he had thought his mentor was unstoppable, indomitable, and privy to all the secrets of Albumere. Now he realized the previous u-ha knew less than he did. Did they truly understand the dreams?
Coughing, the u-ha picked up his porridge again. Food first, then philosophy, even if it seemed to bring more going out than going in. He wouldn’t let something like an upset stomach kill him, not when he had survived so much more.
He ate slowly, mechanically, eyes wandering. The burned slaves had been treated as best they could; they were with the others now, away from the u-ha’s tent and tabula. They had left the river, and Hak Mat Do, and Kharr Ta, behind them. It was time to go a new way. They would make it. They were Hag Gar Gan; they always made it.
The u-ha stared up at the net of crystals. It inspired the same awe in him as it had in the days of his youth. If he had done his duty right, then there should have been another young u-ha with him to marvel at their beauty.
Except, there wasn’t. The u-ha was alone in his wise man’s tent, and he knew that for this tribe at least there would never be another. There simply wasn’t the time.
All the little deaths in his stomach brought him back, to when there was all the time in the world.
There shall be four, and a fifth to come.
A single cloud drifted across the full moon as it stared down upon Albumere, a pale white eye in the night.
He hung upside down, water streaming down his face, his hands and feet bound to the underside of the world itself.
Lightning sundered the tree, murdering one god’s people for the sake of another’s.
There was only one god.
The part that loved her and the part she gave him spiraled through the past, locked in such a tender embrace that Tay Yi Ah cried in remembrance.
“U-ha!” shouted a voice, interrupting the old man’s reminiscence. He opened his eyes, his cheeks wet and his hands shaking. “Dal Ak Gan says you are awake!”
Dep Sag Ko walked inside, his burly frame blocking out most of the ambient sunlight.
“And up you are, old man,” he said, clapping his hands together. He slid the plate of porridge aside. “Come on, let’s get you some sunlight. La Ah Abi has some leftover rhubarb, for your stomach.”
The u-ha sighed inside. The oaf meant well for sure, but sometimes he was simply tiresome.
“Can you walk? Do you need me to carry you?”
The old man brushed his hand away, standing slowly as he planted his cane in the ground. He was in no rush. He hobbled forward, as Dep Sag Ko stood like some overeager sparrowdog beside him. His infernal bird squawked from his shoulder, preening its feathers.
“Dal Ak Gan says we are going to Jhidnu,” said Dep Sag Ko. “Lo Pak will like it there. And you! The sea salt will do you good, I think.”
What did Dep Sag Ko know of sea salt? He had never known the spray of the ocean waves on his face. He had never seen the titans rise from the mist, the stoic guardians at the edge of the world. He had never known the sea.
All this, the u-ha said. Dep Sag Ko just laughed.
“Then I’ll get my chance soon, won’t I? You sure I don’t need to carry you? It would be no trouble.”
The old man grimaced at the idea and kept edging forward. Snakes bit their own tails, but horses rode straight. Slowly and steadily, he made progress. Always progress.
The u-ha stepped out into the sunlight, and squinted down at the camp. His people huddled around little fires, cooked in broken pots, and squatted in hide tents. His face turned up in a sneer. They were the first people of this world, and he could barely distinguish them from their slaves. They deserved better than this.
He looked upon the slaves, and the one he was searching for looked straight back at him, even though she didn’t have eyes.
“Dream Walker,” the u-ha whispered.
She knew. Rho Hat Pan knew. They knew. The knowledge of the u-ha were the echoes of a dying order, but the Walkers knew. They had to know.
“Tired, u-ha? Need help?”
The u-ha waved him away, as he walked among the remnants of the Hag Gar Gan. Tired? Of course he was tired. He had clung to life for eighty summers and he was dying.
But if the Ladies wanted his life, they would have to come to take it personally. Then, he would find out why they had abandoned his people. Then, he would find out how to bring them back.
He hobbled forward slowly. He was in no rush.
Jova sat, and listened. She held her chin in her hands, snippets of conversation in both the king’s and imperial tongue floating past her.
“He didn’t die of his wounds,” said the woman named La Ah Abi, in the imperial tongue. Jova was learning the language quickly, although it helped that many of the Hag Gar Gan riders spoke bluntly and simply. “He couldn’t have. He was riding fine just hours before he disappeared.”
Mumbling came from the other corner of the tent. “U-ha says his face was drawn and grey when he last saw him. He says Ya Gol Gi could have easily been hiding it.”
“Then why didn’t he try to find help?” snapped La Ah Abi. “He had time.”
“Snakes are chasing their own tails,” sighed Dal Ak Gan. “I am having two stories to listen to. One would have me believe that Ya Gol Gi was a rat of a man who went to curl up and die alone, for the vulturewasps to pick at his bones—which, to be honest, I have no trouble believing.”
The u-ha spat angrily. “U-ha shames you, and warns you not to speak ill of the dead,” said Dep Sag Ko. “U-ha says Ya Gol Gi’s essence will bring bad fortune on our tribe in his next life if he is not honored.”
Dal Ak Gan coughed. “That same story would also have me believe that Ya Gol Gi was stoic and stalwart enough to not burden us with his impending death—which, to be honest, I do not believe at all. And yet the other story is saying that something other than his wounds killed him. If so, what?” And Dal Ak Gan waited, as the silence went on.
“Girl, the wine,” said Dep Sag Ko, snapping his fingers. “Za, za, I need a drink.”
Jova had already poured the cup much earlier; Dep Sag Ko was a thirsty man, and she found it easier to pour the wine beforehand at her own pace, rather than fumble with the stopper and cup whenever he called. She held it out, with a deferential bow of her head.
“Lo Pak came back, when Ya Gol Gi didn’t. The beast didn’t seem spooked at all.” Dep Sag Ko sighed. “Perhaps a wild animal got him,” he said, vaguely. “Perhaps the storm was too much.”
“The man lived through the No-Hand War,” scoffed La Ah Abi. “He scurried out of Do Yash while holding his guts inside him with his bare hands. No storm killed him.”
“Then what? Then who?” After a pregnant pause, Dal Ak Gan finally said it. “Rho Hat Pan?”
Jova retreated back into her little alcove, where no one would bother her or even notice her. They did not know. They did not even suspect. Jova flexed tingling fingers. She was going to get away with it.
“That is what even the slaves say. Didn’t Ya Gol Gi beat the man? Didn’t they hate each other? The slaves have known him for longer than any of us, and they say this Rho Hat Pan is meticulous and cruel. They say he leaves no job unfinished.”
“They say, they say,” Dep Sag Ko snorted, and he began to speak in the imperial tongue. It was getting harder and harder for Jova to follow their conversation. “But I see, I see! Rho Hat Pan is not leaving my sight until after Lo Pak comes back. He cannot have done it.”
Dal Ak Gan slammed his fist into his palm, and Jova flinched. All three of them began to shout over each other, and she shrunk even further back into her corner. She jumped as she touched someone leaning on the other side of the tent tarp, and slid away.
Jova knew who was waiting outside. Dock and the mercenaries wanted to know why their liaison was missing, and when they were getting paid. The caravan was mere hours away from the city of Hak Mat Do, and now that they had braved the desert they could focus their attention on each other.
Jova’s heart fluttered at the thought of the markets that thrived in the shadow of the pyramids, not just at the horror of it but the uncertainty. How much longer could she maintain her ruse? Who would she belong to when she arrived?
No one. Jova gripped her hands into fists. She belonged to herself.
Suddenly, Jova felt a hand on her shoulder. She touched it gingerly: it was cold, and clammy, and wrinkled. The shaman u-ha breathed heavily as he hobbled forward, and leaned in close to Jova’s ear. “The dead rest,” he said, in his heavy accent.
The incomplete phrase made Jova feel uncomfortable, on-guard. This man was not one of them, whoever they were, although to be fair Jova did not think she was either. She did not draw away from the u-ha, but she did not answer him either. He was just an old man, chasing an idle dream that he scarcely knew the full significance of.
The u-ha’s hand traced down Jova’s arm, until he came upon the cuts and scratches around her hands and wrists. He pulled and prodded at Jova’s skin unashamedly, and Jova winced at the pain. “Raj Mal Azu…” muttered the old man. “Gup ak siz an ima? An ima gar ga?”
Jova shook her head. “I’m sorry…” she muttered. “I don’t understand.”
“The…first,” rasped the u-ha. “You are meeting…gup ak siz, gup ak siz, first among lords…”
“What are you doing, old man? Leave Jova alone, you have pestered her enough already.” Dep Sag Ko’s voice approached, and promptly dragged the u-ha’s hand away. “What is he asking you now?” asked Dep Sag Ko, at Jova. “Teeth grinders? Loud snorers?”
Jova gave him an obligatory laugh, and in a way she felt grateful. Even if Dep Sag Ko’s jokes weren’t funny, at least he was trying to make her happy. The same couldn’t be said for many others in the group.
As Dep Sag Ko walked away to resume the conversation, Jova held her forearms, tracing the scratches and cuts. She had assumed that they had come from her fight with Ya Gol Gi, from his barbed whip or his sharp nails, but she was just now beginning to realize that Ya Gol Gi had never hit her arms.
The storm? The sand? They couldn’t have made such clean cuts. The only other thing that had happened in the desert was her collapse in Ral Zu.
Jova hugged her arms to her sides, and wondered what the ball of green fire in her gut had been—and what it had done to her.
She was distracted by the rustle of the tent flap opening. “The trader’s coming up the river,” said Dock, her voice a deep rumble. “The foreign one.”
“They are all being foreign,” said Dal Ak Gan, and Jova could hear the exhaustion in his voice. This was not a man whose patience Jova wanted to stretch.
“The western one.” Jova heard Dock plant her feet in front of the entrance, and the mercenary growled, “You gonna trade up?”
“Certainly going to try,” said Dal Ak Gan. His voice was hard, his tone brooking no argument.
“We gonna get our cut?”
“We’ll see,” said Dal Ak Gan, and Jova heard Dock stumble as she was shoved out of the way.
“Ya Gol Gi was easier to work with,” said Dock, to his retreating back. “Knew what we wanted. No nonsense in getting it.”
“If you are so unsatisfied, I am making this deal with you,” shouted Dal Ak Gan’s fading voice. “If we find Ya Gol Gi’s killer, he’s all yours.” Dal Ak Gan stepped outside, leaving Dock in the tent with his two Hag Gar Gan lieutenants.
Jova turned away, and hoped Dock wouldn’t notice her. She didn’t think the mercenary’s punishment would be particularly imaginative, but it would be…direct. And effective. How could Jova outwit someone who thought so simply? How could she talk her way past someone who spoke so little?
If she got turned over to Dock, it was over.
“La Ah Abi,” said Dep Sag Ko, his voice dripping with false grace. “The honor of negotiating with harr Dock is being yours. U-ha and I must go and speak with this trader. Jova, come! And bring the wineskin.”
Dutifully, Jova collected the wood goblet (the wine pre-poured), and the skin, and ducked out the tent, clicking her tongue to find the square of open air that led outside. She heard just the slightest of movements beside her as she did so, as Dock drew away from her. Perhaps she had just been getting out of the way of the blind girl, but perhaps…
Ya Gol Gi had always meant “devil girl” maliciously. Dep Sag Ko sometimes said it as a joke. Who among the tribe actually believed it?
It had been hot inside the tent, but outside it was even hotter. Jova did not envy the line of slaves sitting, baking under the sun, and counted her blessings that Dep Sag Ko and the u-ha had taken an interest in her, and taken her as an assistant.
At least they had the river, though. Jova had heard the sluggish trickle of the wide River Kaza long before they had arrived at its shore, but it wasn’t until she stood before it that she realized its magnitude. Standing on the edge of the Kaza and listening to the waves had been like standing on the high cliffs of the Moscon Peninsula and listening to the ocean.
Jova remembered the ocean, from when she had lived in Jhidnu. A softly undulating landscape of its own, the warm waters of Lowsea had always been host to a trading barge or two. In her years in Moscoleon, though, she had forgotten its majesty; there was something about the ocean that the sinkholes of the peninsula would never be able to match, a kind of primal awe that soothed the itch in Jova’s chest just a little.
“Follow me, Jova!” said Dep Sag Ko, and Jova shook her head and brought her thoughts back to the present. “Up on the boat. Can your secret devil eyes see it, or shall I be carrying you?”
“I’ll be fine,” said Jova. “Although it would be easier if I had a walking stick,” she added, somewhat hopefully.
Dep Sag Ko laughed, like Jova had said the funniest thing he had ever heard. “And let you beat my face in like you are beating that fat templeman pontiff?”
Jova froze. Her fists tightened. How did he know?
“Rho Hat Pan is telling me all sorts of stories,” said the sandman beastmaster. “Our sweet little devil girl is not so sweet after all, eh? I am not knowing who is more interesting, him or you.”
Her footsteps fell hollowly on the wooden boat as she boarded. Jova kept her head low, trying to mask her expression. What other stories had Rho Hat Pan been telling? What other stories would he tell? By Dep Sag Ko’s demeanor, he had not betrayed Jova’s secret yet, but it was only a matter of time.
As Dep Sag Ko put a hand on Jova’s shoulder, indicating for her to stop, Jova wondered where Rho Hat Pan was. There were at least ten or twelve other tribe members for him to meet; he was, as always, too busy for Jova.
Anger bubbled in Jova’s gut at the thought of Rho Hat Pan getting chummy with his new tribe. Perhaps it was for the better that Dep Sag Ko didn’t give her a walking stick, after all.
A harsh squawk interrupted Jova’s thoughts. Like a crowbeast’s but higher pitched, it came from the cabin of the ship. The aracari bird on Dep Sag Ko’s shoulder screeched in response, only to elicit an even louder answer from the bird in the cabin. The two birds began to flap their wings and screech at each other, until Jova’s head spun with the noise and chaos.
“Dep Sag Ko!” barked Dal Ak Gan, from inside the cabin. “Eri fha pa zu ara cari!”
“May I remind you,” said a voice, in an even, clipped tone, also from inside the cabin, “What we agreed on about using a language we can all understand?” Jova drew back instinctively. The voice reminded her of Copo.
“My apologies, Kharr Ta,” said Dal Ak Gan, gruffly. “I was just telling Dep Sag Ko to shut his bird up. So we may conduct business in peace.”
“Nevertheless, your incivility is insulting,” said Kharr Ta. Jova assumed he was the slave trader. He spoke like a plainsman, quickly, with an almost rhythmic cadence. “I leave the city at great personal energy and expense-.”
“You had to take an hour’s ride upriver,” snapped Dal Ak Gan. “A child could navigate the Kaza with his eyes closed, and you know the situation with the pyramid lords. They will not let any of us into the city.”
“And so you make me come to you.” Though not a word more was said, Jova could hear hostility in the silence.
“The wine,” muttered Dep Sag Ko. As Jova prepared to pour, he hissed, “Not me. Him.”
Jova edged forward cautiously, her feet treading lightly on the thick Shira Hay carpet, careful not to bump into anything. Incense wafted around Jova as she made her way around polished oak tables and low western-style couches.
A cold hand, with long, slender fingers, took the wineskin from Jova’s hand. Kharr Ta sniffed. “Cheap Hag Gar Gan swill,” he said, but he took it anyway.
“So,” said Dal Ak Gan, and the tribe leader grunted as he took a seat opposite Kharr Ta. “To business.”
“To business,” said Kharr Ta, and Jova heard him take a deep drink. “As I understand it, you are a direct people, so I too will be direct. You have with you a strong, useful, good stock. Templeman zealots, alsknights, even a smattering of children to be trained and sold later. They will make you rich, if you can sell them.” Kharr Ta paused. “And you will not be able to sell them.”
Neither Dal Ak Gan nor Dep Sag Ko said a word. Jova stepped back, waiting to be called again, even as she listened intently.
“Do you know who you caught? Do you know exactly who these people are?”
“Alswell nobles. A zealot patrol getting them to the Seat of the King. Merchants and pilgrims,” said Dal Ak Gan. “The fieldmen of all people should understand that this is just business. They are too far away for any kind of retribution.”
“The Rape of Alswell continues,” said Kharr Ta. “I left a lucrative business behind in Shira Hay because war fever has gripped the region. Refugees flee east and west, north and south, to escape the fighting, and the nobles you caught—the ones you are so confident you can sell without consequence—were the ones who were going to stop it. The farmers will not overlook this.” Kharr Ta raised his voice. “Do you understand? The slaver who buys from you will never trade with Alswell again. That is assuming he survives the wrath of Greeve or any of his lesser farmers.”
“You said you would be direct,” said Dal Ak Gan, and his tone was like ice. “Be direct.”
“You have no product. No product, no sale. No sale, and you are wasting my time.”
Jova thought of the mercenaries waiting outside, and the slaves lined up on the shore. She stood and waited, as flygnats and fall mosquitoes buzzed around her. The boat swayed with the sluggish flow of the Kaza. Finally, Dal Ak Gan spoke.
“You said it yourself. You are spending energy and expense to be here. It was not just to tell us that we had nothing to sell.”
“For you, I am willing to take the risk,” said Kharr Ta, and Jova could almost hear the oily smile in his voice. “But you must understand that I am your only potential buyer. Ordinary prices will not be sufficient here.”
“The bastard’s a plainsman,” growled Dep Sag Ko, in a low voice. He must have been talking to the u-ha. “What fucking risk is he taking that he doesn’t already have? Alswell’s never gonna trade with the prick anyway.”
“You shall see them first,” said Dal Ak Gan. Jova had been listening to the emotion in people’s voices for years, but she could not glean anything from Dal Ak Gan’s tone.
“The children first. The plutocrats of Jhidnu know I sell well-trained children.”
Dal Ak Gan snapped his finger, and Dep Sag Ko left the cabin. Jova was about to leave, but Dal Ak Gan said, “You, girl! Stay.”
Jova edged forward, hands clasped in front of her. She stood and waited, as Kharr Ta began to pace around her and inspect her. “How old are you?” he asked Jova, directly.
“Eleven summers, sir,” said Jova, respectfully. She listened carefully as the man walked around her, as attentive as possible. It was obvious that his ship was luxuriantly furnished, yet that spoke only of his wealth, not his business policies. If she was sold to this man—this Kharr Ta—was escape possible? He did not seem as lenient or as trusting as the Hag Gar Gan tribe.
“Too old for those who want trained slaves. Too young for those who want workers. This is your first offering?” asked Kharr Ta, his voice full of disgust. “Is she actually…disabled?”
“Yes, but no less functional. She-.”
“Enough, Dal Ak Gan. I will not be insulted like this.” Kharr Ta stopped pacing and turned to the tribe leader. “By all the Ladies Four, what did you think I would pay for an eleven-year old blind girl? Did you even think before you offered her to me?”
“If you don’t like her,” said Dal Ak Gan, his tone even. “Then we can move on. Girl, tell Dep Sag Ko to bring the next one in.”
Jova curtsied, backing away. She clicked to find the door, but when she did the bird in the cabin screeched again, and she scurried away, trying not to agitate anyone further. “Dep Sag Ko!” shouted Jova, walking up to the railing of the boat. “He wants the next one!”
“Da, Jova,” said Dep Sag Ko, from the shore. “U-ha, let that girl go, she needs to go in. Come on, little one.”
“OK,” said a soft voice. Jova turned immediately. She recognized it.
“Alis!” she whispered, as the girl passed.
“Jova.” Alis held Jova’s hand for just a second, but that was all they had. She walked away, and Jova was left alone once again, her gut twisted with worry. She had not seen Alis for some time, but Alis was still her friend. Alis was someone she needed to protect.
Jova turned her head, wondering where she was to go next. She was about to take a step off the boat, when she paused.
She was not a slave. She belonged to herself. She would find a way to be free. Jova walked along the railing, putting one hand in front of the other, until her palm brushed against something flat and wooden. It did not seem to be useful to her, and she was about to walk away, when she held the thing in her hands.
Plank by plank she felt it. It was concave, with sides as long as she was tall, and a bottom that dipped out. One plank lay across it, although for what Jova could not tell. Jova kept her ears pricked, hoping no one would come and stop her, but there seemed to be no one on this side of the boat. Kharr Ta’s crew seemed to be elsewhere, and the Hag Gar Gan tribe was otherwise preoccupied.
She bent down, and her hand closed around a wooden shaft. She had half a mind to take it as a walking stick, when she realized what it was.
An oar. That meant the thing next to it was a raft, perhaps, or a boat: a small one, no doubt, one that could only fit one person.
Space for one person, though, was all she needed.
Jova licked dry lips, trying to find out exactly the size of the craft. What had Dal Ak Gan said? A child could navigate the Kaza with his eyes closed. From here, downriver, it went into the city of Hak Mat Do, where Jova could find supplies enough, if not for the journey home, then at least to survive. She would leave no tracks in the river, and could disappear into the city once she arrived. The Hag Gar Gan did not have boats themselves, and Kharr Ta did not care enough for her to follow.
She would have to do it later, of course, at night when they all slept or when they were preoccupied. But she would do it.
Jova straightened. Kharr Ta could not leave just yet.
He didn’t know it, but he had just brought Jova the means of her escape.
The itch in Jova’s chest had grown to be blazing, but Jova could not raise her hand to scratch it. Her hands were bound and numb from lack of blood flow, and her feet were starting to lose feeling too as she sat on her legs. Her blindfold was dirty and wet, but Jova did not hold out hope that any of the slavers would come to change it.
“It’s just some bug’s tabula,” snorted the sandman tasked to watch over them. Jova wasn’t sure what his name was; all of the words in the imperial tongue sounded the same to her. He was only speaking the king’s tongue because the foreign mercenaries were with them. “Who’d bother with a beast like that?”
“Sentimental,” grunted the mercenary: she had some wild name, Dock or Dent or something like that. “Reckon she was sentimental.”
Jova felt sick when she realized they were talking about Janwye. She shifted, biting her lip. At least one of Janwye’s friends was still…
It hurt to think about. Jova shifted, waiting for someone to come and unbind her. She knew that Roan was nearby, among the other crippled and disk-less, but she did not dare call out for him lest she draw attention to herself.
She had heard one of the mercenaries calling them “disk-less.” She knew she did not have her tabula, but she had no idea so many didn’t either. Had she really been hiding among this many like her all this time?
No, that couldn’t be it. There were a hundred other more mundane reasons here. Their master could have died, it could have been lost in the fighting, or they could be hiding it. Jova felt odd sitting among all these people who allegedly no longer had tabula. It was as if the thing that made her special had been somehow invalidated, like she was just another slave.
It should have made her feel safe. She had excuses for her secret, her dangerous secret. It shouldn’t have made her sad.
Jova wondered how the others must feel. To have no tabula, to not know where something so integral to one’s self was: they were all cripples here.
“Ya Gol Gi!” shouted a deeper voice. Something squawked from the voice’s direction: that would be the bird of the beastmaster, then. He was the one who had taken Uten, Stel, and Yora. Jova had heard of no sign of Chek in the last four days they had been traveling. “Iro tu seti-seti? Yash pey na ha, po rut. Zat!”
“Dep Sag Ko tells us that Dal Ak Gan is wanting us to get on with checking the disk-less,” said the sandman, who Jova was fairly certain was called Ya Gol Gi, although all these sandman names were starting to blur in her head.
“Dull work,” grumbled the mercenary.
“You want to keep feeding and cleaning them?”
“Got a headache,” she growled. “Been using tabula too much. I don’t need this bullshit.”
There was no reply.
Jova felt her heart speed up. It had been a simple matter of surviving the last few days: walk when she was told to walk, stop when she was told to stop, eat what food she had and sleep with what time there was left. She had been alone; neither Bechde nor Roan nor Alis had been with her, and so she had retreated within herself, protecting her sense of who she was. She was Jova. She was free.
But what were they doing, now that they had stopped?
“At least we left that blasted jungle behind,” said the woman mercenary. “I don’t want any beast sniffing out the blood.”
“Su tay, su tay. No worries. Only coyotesnakes and little fall lions out here.”
“Hrmph,” said the mercenary, not sounding convinced. Jova was less concerned with that, and what the sandman slaver had said.
Whose blood? What were they going to do that was going to draw blood?
Scabs had grown on Jova’s back where the barbed whip had torn at her flesh. She flexed her shoulders as best she could, and waited with bated breath.
Jova heard footsteps as Ya Gol Gi hoisted one of the crippled slaves up. The slave’s voice was thin and reedy, but Jova’s sharp ears could still hear what he said.
“It- It was on my master,” said the slave. “He died when- when you…he died. I couldn’t get it back. I promise. I’m not hiding anything!”
“No worries, friend!” crooned Ya Gol Gi, and Jova heard him give the slave a pat. “So you are not having your tabula? And you are telling the truth?”
“Yes,” the slave said, in-between sobs. “Yes, yes.”
“Dock, let him go free. We cannot be selling him and we cannot be feeding him.”
The slave began to cry freely. “Truly? You…you will let me go?”
“Yes, of course! What fool trader will take a slave with no tabula? We are only having so much food, too. You are on your own, friend.” Ya Gol Gi’s voice was light and cheerful. “Leave his bonds on, though, Dock. We can spare the rope.”
“But- but how will I walk? How will I leave?” babbled the slave, his voice rising in pitch even as it grew further in distance. Jova heard something being dragged across the dirt.
“He’ll make noise,” said Dock, ignoring the slave. “Raise a fuss. Attract attention. I told you, I don’t want to deal with wild animals.”
“Only coyotesnakes and little fall lions out here,” said Ya Gol Gi, dismissively. “Little stomachs. Easy to feed.”
A cold rush ran down Jova’s spine, as the man began to scream. Everyone could hear him now. There was a sharp crack, and the man fell silent, and then it was just the sound of Ya Gol Gi pulling the next person in the throng up onto their feet.
Jova waited. The slaves were systematically processed: some were taken away, others were patted down until their tabula was discovered. The ones that didn’t have tabula were the ones that were in danger. Jova’s secret did not make her safe at all.
She needed to survive. If she could live, she could escape. How could she convince them that she had a tabula—not only that she had it, but that it was easy to find? That it was worth the effort of finding it?
Jova’s head spun with the lies she was trying to weave. What story would she tell? It had to be as close to the truth as possible. Roan had her tabula! But what would happen when they searched Roan and did not find it? They would hurt him as well, and Jova could not let that happen. Perhaps Janwye had it—but then Jova’s tabula was as good as gone, and so was she.
Before Jova could think anymore, they were upon her. They had moved so fast.
A rough hand tore off her blindfold. Jova’s skin throbbed as her ruined eyes were exposed to the open air, and she bowed her head, trying to hide her face. She could not, though, before a man’s hand raised her chin. The one called Ya Gol Gi scoffed.
“She is not a girl but a devil,” he sneered. “Look at this ugliness!”
“I can see,” said Dock, flatly.
“We should be burning her for the sake of the Lady Summer,” said Ya Gol Gi. “It is ill luck to be hosting a demon of the deep in our midst.”
“She is…novel. There are always eccentrics on the shadow market.”
Jova waited for them to finish, her heart pounding in her throat, as they discussed selling or throwing away her life as easily as if she was a loaf of bread.
A hand grabbed her shoulder and hauled her up. “Where’s your tabula, devil girl?” said Ya Gol Gi. “Tell us! Or are you mute as well as blind?”
“Pocket,” said Jova, her voice hoarse and dry.
The hand closed around one of the disks in Jova’s pocket. That would be Alis’s. “What a pretty girl,” said Ya Gol Gi, after a brief hum from it. “And yet she is not you. Are you stealing away the tabula of from-Fallow children, devil girl?”
Jova shook her head. “Friend.”
“Summon her,” said Ya Gol Gi, and Jova heard a grunt of indignation from Dock.
“I told you, I got a headache,” snapped Dock. “That bitch bit me when we took her out. I don’t need this.”
“Dock, I have been checking all-.”
“We in no rush,” said Dock, firmly, and that seemed to be that.
When Ya Gol Gi spoke next, it was to Jova. “What about you? Do devils have tabula?”
“Yes,” said Jova, hoarsely. “…Pocket.”
A rough hand dug in her pocket again, and Ya Gol Gi pulled out the second tabula in Jova’s pocket. It was Fang’s, Izca’s old pet. It was Jova’s only chance at survival. Don’t check it, Jova thought. Don’t check it, don’t check it.
“You up for this?” said Ya Gol Gi, scathingly. Dock’s stony silence was all the answer he needed. Jova heard the beginnings of a hum, and tightened her bound hands into fists. If she was going to die, she was going to die fighting. She would make Ma and Da and the Ladies Four proud.
“Bha wea vat, Ya Gol Gi! Sai ali Raj Mal Azu no chok ro baten zat!”
Something was thrown on the ground, and Ya Gol Gi shouted, “Ilen ta set, crippled one! You dare speak in such a way to me? You deserve never to be spoken to in the imperial tongue, you soft, weak, templeman infant. Your life sullies the people of Hag Gar Gan, stains our free power and dishonors who we are. Never presume that you are one of us again!”
“Sal iro et a Hag Gar Gan. Sal iro Rho Hat Pan,” said Roan. Jova felt a mix of hopeful and betrayed. Hopeful because Roan was so close to her; betrayed because Roan had never bothered to seek her.
“You are not Rho Hat Pan. You will never be Rho Hat Pan,” said Ya Gol Gi. “Run, crippled one. Run on your little stubs of legs.”
He hit Roan, hard. Ya Gol Gi laughed, as if he took a vindictive pleasure in it, and Jova stood and waited for him to finish. She was glad that Ya Gol Gi had been distracted, although she wished it was a different distraction.
Jova searched for a distraction of her own, as the beating continued. She needed a plan. If the slavers mistook Fang’s tabula as hers, what could go wrong? If they used it at all, then the truth would become apparent immediately. She would have to be perfectly obedient at all times, so as to give them no reason to ever use her tabula.
No. Jova cupped that small spark of hope in her heart. She would have to be perfectly obedient at all times but one.
Ya Gol Gi returned. Roan had fallen silent. And Jova, despite herself, had to speak. She couldn’t believe someone could be so unabashedly…evil.
“Why do you do this?” asked Jova. “Why are you so cruel?”
“Why do you ask me questions that annoy me so?” Ya Gol Gi bent down, his breath hot in Jova’s ear, and Jova knew that trying to reason with this man had been a mistake. “Perhaps tonight I shall teach you about cruelty. I will put my dick into you and make you scream with pleasure.”
“Then I’ll bite it off.” Jova did her best not to let the pulsing, pounding fear in her chest escape into her voice or expression. “My hollow was a pale, twisted thing from the Teeth of the Abyss, and I am a girl of the deep. I do not have eyes but I have very sharp teeth wherever you put it.”
Ya Gol Gi paused, as if considering her. Sweat beaded down Jova’s forehead. “Devil girl,” he spat, finally, and walked away.
Dock snapped her fingers. “Come, girl.”
“Where are we going?” asked Jova.
Her skull snapped forward as Dock hit her behind the head. “Ya Gol Gi is right. You are annoying.”
Jova said nothing. She bowed her head and followed, edging forward slowly with her tied ankles, painfully aware that she still wore no blindfold. Occasionally she clicked her tongue to get a better picture of where Dock was. It surprised her how much less clutter there was here: no trees, no wild jungle growth, not even wagons for supplies. Just human shapes, with steeds jostling and wandering among them.
“What are you doing?” asked Dock, as Jova clicked her tongue.
Jova bit her lip. “Just…seeing.”
“Well, stop it.” Dock sounded uncomfortable, and Jova did stop, although she couldn’t help but wonder just what she looked like with no blindfold. If she was the one who scared the grizzled slaver mercenary, that changed things.
“You wait here,” said Dock. She stripped off the ropes around Jova’s wrists and ankles, and Jova couldn’t help but wince as blood returned painfully to her extremities. “No running. We’ll catch you.”
No, you won’t, Jova thought, as she heard Dock walk away. But even as she thought it, she knew this was not the time to run. She couldn’t leave behind Roan or Bechde or Alis. They had to get out somehow, too.
Even then, she knew she wouldn’t make it far. She was a blind girl in open terrain running from the most skilled riders on Albumere. She had to be smart about her escape.
“There she is,” said an oddly warm voice. Something squawked from its direction. The beastmaster? “Everyone is whispering that our nets are catching devils now!”
Jova turned, unsure what to make of the situation.
“Blind beast, sniff out your blind girl,” said the beastmaster, and Jova felt a familiar warmth nudging her side.
“Uten!” Jova exclaimed, hugging the molebison’s snout. Uten grunted and sniffled, making a happy wheezing sound as Jova stroked her fur. To Jova’s surprise, Uten had been kept extraordinarily clean well-groomed.
The beastmaster let them embrace; it was a small kindness, but one Jova did not fail to notice. “Gen, u-ha?” he said, to another person. “Iro ka at bet.”
An old man’s voice, too low for Jova to hear, muttered something in reply.
One hand on Uten’s snout, Jova stood straight and waited.
“Do you always keep…it like that?” said the man. “It might become infected. Or inflamed. And it gives the Lady Fall a muse for my nightmares tonight.”
“I used to wear a cloth over it,” said Jova, as politely as she could. “It was taken away.”
There was a rustle of cloth, and suddenly Jova felt a cloak that was far too big for her draped over her shoulders. The hood hung over her face and obstructed her hearing, but the furs were soft and warm, if a bit musty.
“Th-thank you,” stuttered Jova, unsure what to say.
“I cannot be speaking to you otherwise,” said the man. “Your face is giving me the chills.” He cleared his throat. “Now, I am Dep Sag Ko. What is your name?”
“Jova,” she said. “It is…nice to meet you, Dep Sag Ko.” Talking to him, she almost forgot that this man was part of the group that had attacked, killed, and captured so many of her traveling companions.
“Jova,” repeated Dep Sag Ko. “Very good. Now, Jova, I have an important question to ask you. Are you ready?”
“What the fuck does this thing eat? I have tried cabbage, straw, meat, and my left hand, and this intransient animal takes to none of them.”
“She grazes,” said Jova. “If you let her walk on her own for a little while she’ll find her own food to eat. It’s normal if she eats the grass and the dirt, she’s usually just looking for worms. And sometimes I feed her winter crickets as a treat.”
“Ah,” said Dep Sag Ko, sagely. “Da, u-ha? Hak yash crickets.”
Once again, the old man mumbled something back in reply.
The beastmaster put a hand on Jova’s shoulder. “You are taking care of this animal, Jova?”
Jova nodded. “And some others.”
“Then you stay with me,” said Dep Sag Ko. “You do as you do. No fuss, no trouble. We go to the market, I sell you to a cushy pyramid lord, and you make me a ton of money. Agreed?”
Jova just barely inclined her head, and she did not say anything. Even in this situation, she felt guilty about making false promises under the eyes of the Ladies.
Dep Sag Ko patted her shoulder. “So easy this way, huh? Not like the others. You are not so bad for a templegirl zealot.”
A blush rose on Jova’s cheeks. “I’m not actually a-.”
“You wear the bandages of the zealots,” said Dep Sag Ko, prodding the bandages that Izca had tied around her wounds before he had fallen. “You wear the coza of a templegirl. You train your own steed and you speak like one from Moscoleon. Not a thing you can hide from Dep Sag Ko! Of course you are a zealot! Unless…you mean to say you are not a girl at all? Did you misspeak, little devil?”
There must have been something Jova could say, but she did not know what. She kept her mouth shut, as Dep Sag Ko guffawed at his own joke.
Suddenly, Jova heard a soft whine.
“Shoo! Go away!” Dep Sag Ko paced away, and Jova heard the snuffling and snorting of Fang as the pigwolf retreated. She bit her lip. Had the beast really come this whole way? Did that change anything about her tabula situation?
“It’s been following the new catches since we left, trying to get an easy kill,” snorted Dep Sag Ko, walking back. “I swear, it is the same beast that killed Ri Har Po. I should skin it and roast it over a pit.”
Jova gulped. If Fang died, his tabula would break—and she would be exposed.
“Found him near you, actually,” said Dep Sag Ko, pushing on Jova to walk as they moved away. “What do you say? Fly back and bring me his soul, devil girl?”
“Let the dead rest,” Jova muttered, remembering what Roan always said. It was automatic, thoughtless, and unprovoked. It wasn’t really directed for anyone.
But the moment she said it, they stopped. The old man began to mumble and mutter in a feverish rasp, and although Jova could not understand a word he was saying, Dep Sag Ko seemed to be listening intently.
“My u-ha—my, how do you say, my shaman—he wishes you to go with him. He wants very much to hear everything you know about, er…sleepwalkers?” Dep Sag Ko paused in his translation.
Jova listened intently. On Albumere, the old were the wily: the only ones still alive at that age were the ones who were willing to do anything to survive. This shaman u-ha was important.
“He wishes to know about…the walkers…of dreams.”
“The Dream Walkers,” whispered Jova. She remembered a wooden badge and an unfulfilled promise, what seemed like a lifetime ago.
“Yes,” said Dep Sag Ko. “Tell him everything.”