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.
She emerged from the waters like a devil from the deep, and Alis could not help but scream. The monster climbed aboard the boat with her long hair dripping, her limbs tensed and bent like a spider’s, her scarred eyes pointed straight towards Alis. Click, click, click, she went, like a bell with no tone, announcing the coming embrace of the wide-eyed owl. The Lady Winter herself had sent one of her reapers to collect Alis’s soul.
Not as if they would find it on her. Not as if Alis would ever hold it again.
With every click, the monster twitched like a bird, her movements jerky, erratic, and irregular. She advanced through the flames, and Alis whimpered as she struggled to pull free of the fallen beam. It lay flat across her legs, wooden debris all around her waist, and Alis had long ago stopped feeling the burning.
The injustice of it all made Alis’s eyes sting. She pulled and twisted, but could not struggle free. Of course she had been the last one to get out. Of course the fire had reached the cabin only as she was leaving.
“I’m coming for you, Alis!” shouted the monster. “Tell me where you are! You have to tell me where you are!”
Alis’s eyes widened. She recognized that voice.
“Jova?” she called out, her voice hoarse and weak.
“Keep talking to me!” Something splashed overboard near the side of the ship, and the shouts and screams of others trying to put the fires out echoed in the night. “Alis, I need you to keep talking to me!”
Alis didn’t know what to say. Perhaps it had been the flickering shadows cast by the firelight, or the fear roiling in her gut, or the spinning stars above her, but Alis had not recognized Jova. She had been scared of her.
She is here to help.
Jova stopped, her whole body tensed. “Alis?” she called out again, even as the slaver’s cabin crumbled even further. “Where are you?”
Was Jova scared? Alis didn’t want her to be scared. “Don’t be scared!” she shouted.
And then Jova was beside her, her hands under the wooden plank, her face twisted in a grimace of concentration. She pulled, hard, but Alis felt the debris over her body budge only a little.
The fires burned hot around them. “Can you get me out?” asked Alis, every word carefully articulated despite their dire straits. Alis wasn’t very good at talking. She needed time to think about the words, time to lay them out piece by piece and present them.
“Only if you help,” grunted Jova, gasping and tugging. She backed away, and Alis could see the sheen of perspiration on her forehead. It wasn’t just the effort of pulling the planks away. The fires were getting closer.
Alis clawed at the ground again, trying to worm her way free, but as ever she could not. Where had the other kids gone? The grown-olds who had been taking care of her? Why was Jova the only person who had come to help her?
She is special.
“Together, Alis!” shouted Jova, over the crackling flames. “You push, I pull! Ready?”
“You have to tell me when you’re ready, Alis!”
The little girl planted her hands on the floor. The fire danced in a circle around them, like spectators at a gruesome sport. It was a game to them, as they cackled and watched. If Alis lost…
She set her brow, shaking her head to clear the hair from her eyes. She hated losing. Not games, not people, not anything.
“I’m ready, Jova,” she said, and braced herself. She would not end up like her friend in the jungle. He had lost the game, and now he laid asleep, cold and prone and alone. There was too much for Alis to do for her to fall into that kind of endless dream.
“Then when I say go, push,” said Jova. “Get ready, Alis! Make it count!”
“I’m ready, Jova,” repeated Alis, and she was.
Alis shoved as hard as she could, her high voice crying out as she began to push against the ground. She saw the planks crack and split where Jova dug herself in, and inch by inch the great beam lifted off of her.
Even as she pushed for space, Alis began to crawl forward. Her cotton pants ripped as she moved, threads of fabric tangling in the splinters, but that was the least of Alis’s concerns. The flames danced higher, a perfect circle around their little arena, and blinking tears from her eyes, Alis struggled her way free.
And as the pressure was relieved, the pain hit her.
It was as if every sensation from when her crushed legs had become numb under there had come rushing back. Her very pulse, pounding in her calves and thighs, made Alis’s whole body twitch and tense. She could barely breathe or hear or move.
“Keep going, Alis!” shouted Jova. The wooden beam slipped from her hands, and she sunk to her knees to catch it. “You have to keep going!”
Alis couldn’t. It was too much. Perhaps her friend in the jungle had it right all along.
This is shock. This is fear and pain. Will you lose to fear and pain?
No. Alis hated losing.
Fear is fire, said a voice like echoing memories, although Alis did not know what she was remembering. It laid down the words for her, piece by piece, slowly and carefully so that she could understand. Unchecked, it will burn away everything you are.
Stiffly, Alis’s arm reached out. She pulled herself forward, and that little movement caused Alis to convulse in shock.
Fire is hunger. It will never be sated, no matter how much you feed it.
Alis’s eyes fixed on the sky, on a single bright point overhead. The flames had obscured every other star in the sky, but this single bright point shone for Alis. It drifted lazily down to the horizon, and Alis reached out for it. Reach out, pull. Reach out, pull.
Do not submit to fear.
By fractions, Alis pulled free.
Jova collapsed next to her, and Alis saw dimly that her fingers were littered with splinters and scrapes. The water from the river had nearly evaporated completely in the heat, and thin lines cut across both of Jova’s forearms.
Live. She will not unless you do, whispered the voice. Alis felt the pain in her limbs growing even as her consciousness receded. She looked up, and saw movement past the flames. A person?
I will visit again when the summer comes, fallborn. It is my sister’s turn now, although she hates fire so.
And suddenly the flames leaped higher, the perfect circle around Alis and Jova broken as the fires ate hungrily at the ship.
Alis’s vision flickered as she saw the person burst through the flames. He was a legless man, who sat astride a horse whose eyes were bulging and rolling in their sockets but whose body was perfectly calm and controlled.
Jova stood immediately, her whole body tense. She did not say a word.
The man on the horse took one look at the both of them, and Alis saw him grimace.
“She needs help,” said Jova, and she put her arms under Alis’s shoulders and knees. Alis shut her eyes tight and froze as Jova lifted her, the movement sending spasms through her body.
Rough hands grabbed her and slung her over the back of the man’s horse. Alis felt detached, a ghost tied by some invisible string to a doll that others could toss around at their mercy. She laid across the horse’s back, too weak to even cry anymore.
Nobody moved. Even as the fires grew so hot that it seemed as if the walls of the cabin were dripping away, nobody moved.
“Why are you here?” said the man, finally.
“Roan,” said Jova. “Rho Hat Pan. Sir. This isn’t the place-.”
“I am seeing you with u-ha. I am knowing what you spoke of with him.”
“-or the time to talk about this. Look at her! She needs help!”
The horse stamped a hoof so hard that the plank beneath her cracked. Alis jolted on top of the animal’s back, and she clung on, gasping for breath. As Jova and the man began to shout over each other, she raised her head and peered over at her legs. Almost immediately, she turned away. She didn’t know which was worse, the blood or the burns. She didn’t have the words to describe it.
“Where is Bechde?” shouted Rho Hat Pan.
“Gone,” snarled Jova.
“She is not with you. You…” And suddenly Alis jerked forward as the horse galloped towards Jova. The man’s arm bulged as he gripped Jova by the collar and lifted her entire body upwards, and then he directed all three of them straight toward the fires.
Alis did not know how they survived it. All she could remember was orange and red light, and the heat, a flaring heat so great that it was almost cold again.
“You are wanting to go? Let us be going,” snapped Rho Hat Pan, and from what Alis could see of his twisted face, he was livid. Bags under his eyes and unkempt stubble did nothing to alleviate the sheer malice Alis felt radiating from this man.
They stood at the edge of the burning boat, as the stars sunk from the sky and the river sloshed beneath them. “Let us see how well you swim,” Rho Hat Pan said. He held Jova out over the railing, firelight illuminating her face while it darkened his. “If you are so eager to leave, then leave. You are frustrating, devil girl.”
“She needs help,” Jova repeated. She turned to face him, her expression unyielding, her ruined eyes somehow daring the man to make good on his threat. “If you tire of one cripple, take on another.”
Alis saw the man tense, even as her eyelids began to flutter. It was getting harder and harder to stay alert. It would have been so much easier to just sleep…
The last thing she saw was the man letting Jova go, before she fell into unconsciousness.
Alis had no dreams that night. She felt nothing, saw nothing, heard nothing. There were no mysterious voices, no mystic figures, no shadowed silhouettes. There was nothing she didn’t understand, nothing to confuse her or lead her astray. In a way, she was grateful. She wanted sleep, and only sleep.
When she woke, it was to shouting. Alis kept her eyes closed. She wanted to cover her ears and roll away. She had had enough of shouting.
She remembered the voices, but the names eluded her. There were so many of them, in so many different dialects and languages, that it was hard to keep track of them. The first man was the slaver, the one who owned the boat. The second was the new leader of the group, the one who—Alis realized this with some resentment—was supposed to be watching out for her.
“What was your plan, Dal Ak Gan? Hmm? What did you intend to accomplish via…via arson and sabotage!?”
“I had no plan, Kharr Ta. We didn’t know-.”
“Oh, well, that was obvious.”
“We didn’t know what was happening, either.”
It sounded like business as usual. Alis didn’t know how grown-olds usually talked about trading things, but she assumed it had to sound something like that since they did it so much. She opened her eyes, and immediately closed them again. Harsh light shone directly down on her face, although it did not feel like she was lying in the sun.
She moved her arms, and felt straw padding under her. It was, if not comfortable, at least amenable. Her friend in the jungle was not given a straw bed to lie on. The bodies that had been piled up after the raid were not given straw beds to lie on. Straw bed was a good sign.
She tried to move her legs, and failed.
Alis opened her eyes again and raised her head, squinting through light. Long splints ran down both her legs, locking them firmly in place. The girl tried to move, but she could barely even raise herself up to a sitting position.
Shielding her eyes, she looked up. The light was coming from a crystalline bauble, dangling from the tent’s ceiling. It was one of many, all hung from a net that stretched across the entire tent, catching the light and shooting it all over the tarp and the ground and the skins spread on the dirt. Whenever someone touched the tent, the whole thing wobbled, and colors flew everywhere.
A soft, wheezing sound came from the opposite side of the tent, and Alis looked to see an old man giving her a toothless grin. Alis smiled. She liked this tent.
“I like this tent,” she said, and the old man nodded sagely, like he already knew.
He was sitting next to a bubbling pot, and Alis eyed the fire underneath it uneasily. Her fixed legs had quite a bit to say, on the dangers of fire.
Outside, the men were still shouting. Their voices grew a bit louder as the tent flap opened, and then a bit softer as they were muffled again. Another one of those hide-wearing, charm-yielding men walked in. He wore a necklace of bones and strings around his wrist. There was a bird on his shoulder, who gave Alis a critical once-over before hopping onto the man’s other side.
He held a boy in his arms, and barely even looked at Alis before saying…well, Alis really had no idea what he was saying. The words were so fast and so sharp that Alis couldn’t even tell the individual sounds. Everybody in the group talked like that, and Alis tried so hard to keep up that her head hurt.
The old man responded, and the man with the bird laid down the boy.
“Biggest trader in all of Shira Hay throws a tantrum when one of his boats catches just a wee bit on fire,” said the man with the bird, putting his hands on his hips. He rolled his eyes. “Not like they’re setting things on fire down there,” he muttered, and he ducked under the flap and walked away.
Alis looked at the boy. He had welts and burns all along the side of his body; half the hair on his head was gone, his face looked like the blackened side of burnt meat, and the rest of his body was wrapped tightly in old cloth. As she watched, the old man came hobbling over. He had a ladle in his hand full of whatever was in the cauldron, and he dripped large dollops of steaming green paste onto the boy’s side.
“What,” said Alis, carefully. “Are you doing?”
The old man muttered for quite some time under his breath as he administered to the boy, until, finally looking up at Alis and seeing her blank expression, he said, “I…save.”
As the old man continued, she said, slowly, “Do you know Jova?”
“Where is she?”
The old man smacked his lips together. His ladle now empty, he walked slowly back to the pot. Alis watched him as he went, watched his wrinkled brow furrow deeper still, watched his rheumy eyes glaze over as he thought.
“Devil girl,” he began, just as slowly as Alis. “Comes from Kaza. Dripping allwhere. Had three tabula, but poof! Gone. I say to Dep Sag Ko this, but Rho Hat Pan say no. Is to do with Walkers.”
With his cane, the old man tapped the net above and the baubles and light-catchers danced once again. Alis laughed in delight.
“Talk to spirits. Guide me. They say, trust Rho Hat Pan. Keep devil Jova alive. I say no thing to Dal Ak Gan.” He pointed a cane at Alis. “You say no thing to Dal Ak Gan. No thing to no one.”
Alis shook her head, her silence promised.
“Ota wa, gul hay ak ar. Sleep, go,” said the old man. He trudged out of the tent, even as the shouting went on, and on, and on.
Alis couldn’t sleep, though. Her aching legs wouldn’t let her. Instead, she stared, transfixed, at the dangling ornaments. They were like the stars in their constant movement and their bright lights. Stars during the day. They really were beautiful.
Beside her, the boy stirred. He stared groggily upward, his face slack and drooping like he was only half conscious.
“I’m alive,” he said, finally.
It was all thanks to the old man. The old had saved him. “The old man saved you,” said Alis.
He turned to Alis, and the little girl had to turn away from the horrific burns on the side of his face. “Who saved you?” he croaked, a thin line of drool dripping out of his mouth.
Alis paused. What was she supposed to say? Just another slave, someone on the boat? Jova, or the blind girl, or the devil? Should she say anything at all?
Finally, Alis found the right words. She said them carefully, piece by piece, just to make sure she meant it.
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.
Jova coughed. There was a certain guttural quality to the imperial tongue that she just couldn’t get right, and her throat was dry and hoarse from trying. “Sal iro Jova,” she said. I am Jova. “Hal de gha Hak Mat Do.” I am going to Hak Mat Do.
“Better,” said Dep Sag Ko. “But you still are sounding like a templegirl.” He thumped his chest. “Gha. Back, from your throat.”
Jova opened her mouth to speak again, but she choked on her own saliva and bent over in a fit of coughing. While Dep Sag Ko waited for her, Jova rushed to catch up, still wheezing as she ran. She couldn’t risk lagging too far behind.
“No rush, no rush,” said Dep Sag Ko, as Jova’s feet crunched over the loose sand. It felt warm, so grainy that it was almost fluid under her bare feet. “Eri zat, Jova. Eri zat.”
Jova nodded. Her vocabulary was fragmented, incomplete, and coming together piecemeal, but nonetheless she was beginning to learn the imperial tongue. It made her feel a little less foreign, a little less out of place, here under the burning desert sun, among the dunes of the Barren Sands. Dep Sag Ko called them Hak Ger. Three deserts—the Vigil Sands, the Dream Sands, and the Barren Sands—surrounded the sandmen homelands, and according to Dep Sag Ko the Barren Sands were the most dangerous of them all.
“Pass me my water, my tongue is dry,” said Dep Sag Ko. “You may drink some—only some—for yourself.”
“Yes,” said Jova, reaching for the leather skin on Uten’s saddle. The molebison walked beside her, and had no mount, but it seemed to be an unspoken rule that slaves did not ride. It made sense, even if it was not the most practical for the slow pace the slavers made. “Here you are, Roan.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” said Jova, biting her tongue. She had said it without thinking, and regretted it immediately. Thinking about Roan reminded Jova how absent he was. What excuse could he have to neglect Jova for so long?
She passed a water skin to one of those excuses, and Dep Sag Ko made loud, gulping sounds as he drank deeply. Jova supposed it was unreasonable to think Roan would have the freedom of movement to find her, but all the same, she missed her friend. She wished she had him back.
“Ya ota, u-ha?” asked Dep Sag Ko, loudly, and the old man muttered what sounded like a negative. “He doesn’t want any.”
Dep Sag Ko passed the water skin back to Jova, and she clicked her tongue to find Uten again. It took quite a bit of coordination, to hook the skin back in place as she walked up the dune, all while she tried to keep pace with Dep Sag Ko.
“Be careful with that,” said Dep Sag Ko, worry creeping into his voice. “It is a marbleman saddle. Very special. Very important.”
“Is this what you buy with your slaves?” asked Jova.
“No buying.” Dep Sag Ko seemed proud. “I take it. My blood-brothers and blood-sisters in this tribe see that I have taken a marble soldier’s saddle right out from under his marble ass, and are saying to themselves, ‘Dep Sag Ko is a mighty warrior! He is strong! And bold! And handsome!’” The aracari bird on Dep Sag Ko’s shoulder squawked, as if in agreement.
Jova couldn’t help but smile. Dep Sag Ko was awfully silly sometimes.
“Keh, u-ha?” said Dep Sag Ko, as the shaman began to grumble again. “Aya, zea ba va ota al pu. He wants his water now.” Dep Sag Ko sighed as Jova passed the water skin back to him. “Confused old man is not as young as he used to be.”
As they crested the dune, Jova felt the sand slip out from under her. She began the slow walk down, as she listened to the sound of the long line of travelers ahead and behind her. It was supposed to be a short journey, but the minutes stretched into hours stretched into days.
“He has more energy since you spoke to him,” said Dep Sag Ko, as he passed the now nearly empty water skin back. “I have not seen him this way for quite some time.”
“I didn’t have much to say,” said Jova, sheepishly. Truthfully, all she had said was that there was a better man to ask in this very group.
“To the Lady Summer, the sun’s fire seems small. Even if you do not think it is much, you are giving him much more than he had before.” Dep Sag Ko sighed. “All morning and all night, he is asking me, ‘Where is Rho Hat Pan? May I speak with Rho Hat Pan? Tell me more about Rho Hat Pan!’”
“What does he know about the Dream Walkers? Why is he so interested?”
“Not my place to say,” said Dep Sag Ko. “Not my place to ask.”
Jova fell silent. She didn’t want to ask too many questions if they were starting to annoy her master. She trudged through the sand, her head hanging. Uten snuffled and snorted beside her, sweltering under her thick coat of fur. When Jova moved to stroke her back, she felt that she might burn her hand; hopefully, there would be shade for the big creature soon.
“When will the winter come? This is the longest autumn I have ever lived through, and it may as well be summer,” muttered Dep Sag Ko. “I forgot how fucking dry it was out here. And boring. Nothing but sand, sand, sand. Wa ro Raj Mal Azu!”
Jova furrowed her eyebrows. “Who is Raj Mal Azu?” she asked, after a pause.
“Raj Mal Azu,” said Jova. “It sounds like a name. I know there’s Dal Ak Gan, the leader of the tribe. There’s La Ah Abi, his second in command. And Ya Gol Gi, the one that talks to the mercenaries. But everyone keeps bringing up Raj Mal Azu and I don’t know who he is.”
When Dep Sag Ko laughed, it was loud and genuine. “Raj Mal Azu is the most important person of us all. She is the Ladies Four.”
Jova cocked her head. “One name for all four of the goddesses?”
It sounded like Dep Sag Ko wanted to say something when the u-ha cut him off. He spoke the king’s tongue with a heavy, almost unintelligible accent, and his voice quivered as he rasped, “Not goddesses. God. A god one, who lives in worlds two, has faces three, holds a court of ladies four and lords five.”
Before Jova could respond, Dep Sag Ko snapped, “Enough nonsense! The heat is getting to you, u-ha.”
The old man lapsed back into the imperial tongue, and as he and Dep Sag Ko argued, Jova bowed her head and clasped her hands together, thinking. What kind of warped religion did they have in Hak Mat Do, where there were more gods than four? No matter how much the pontiffs of Moscoleon had argued, they had always agreed on one thing: there were only Ladies Four.
The thought of more was at the same time revelatory and terrifying. Jova had never considered that there might be others.
“Ladies Four, if there are powers even higher than you, powers opposed against you,” Jova muttered. “…Tell me.”
Although Jova heard no answer, she had to have faith that she would.
A familiar voice, speaking in the imperial tongue, made Jova jump. Ya Gol Gi approached her from behind, and Jova ducked her head. He talked with Dep Sag Ko in friendly, jovial tones, although Jova was too busy trying to escape his attention to attempt to translate what he was saying.
“Hello, darling,” said another voice, and this time Jova raised her head.
“Bechde,” she whispered.
“He really is intolerable, isn’t he?” Bechde put a light hand on Jova’s left shoulder: nothing overt, just a little touch to let Jova know she was there. “Although I suppose I can expect nothing more from a sandman brute.” Bechde sighed. “It is good to see that you are still…well.”
Jova knew what Bechde had wanted to say instead. She supposed that she should count herself fortunate, that she was still alive. “And you, Bechde? Are you well?” she asked, quietly.
“Well enough,” said Bechde.
“Have they…mistreated you?”
Bechde did not answer for a long time. “What they do is not important. Lady Spring give me pride, I do not bow. I do not submit to savages.”
Jova was taken aback. “Don’t let them hear you say that,” she hissed. “It’s not safe, Bechde.”
“I am the heir-daughter to the most powerful Farmer of Alswell. These are petty men who peck like ratcrows at the scraps their betters feed them. I do not fear them. They shall not touch me.”
Bechde’s audacity made Jova’s gut squirm with fear, but at the same time she had to admit that there was something comforting about her confidence.
“Look you now,” said Bechde. “The great pyramids of Hak Mat Do.” She sniffed. “It is smaller than I imagined it.” Bechde tugged on her hand as they slowed to a halt. “That’s odd. We’re stopping here, so far from it.”
As Bechde talked, Jova heard a different conversation. “Why ain’t we going towards it?” said Dock, some distance away. A desert wind carried her voice along with stinging grains of sand Jova’s way. “There’s shade.”
“It is Ral Zu,” said Ya Gol Gi. “The cursed pyramid. It carries old magic, from the days of the lost empire. Best not to disturb it.”
Dock snorted, not convinced, even as Jova turned away and thought hard. Ral Zu. She had heard that name before, she knew it.
Beside her, Uten fell with a heavy thump on the sand. She was breathing heavily, and reeked of animal sweat. Similar sounds of people stopping and resting echoed along the line, and the sandman leader’s loud voice shouted, “Fha bu yuri des! One hour rest!” Jova sat down beside Uten, even as she dug in her head for a long gone memory.
“They even have night and day backwards,” grumbled Bechde, as she sat beside Jova.
As Jova sat there, letting her tired legs rest, it came to her. She was surprised she still remembered, she had heard the name so long ago. The unfinished pyramid is deep in one of the most inhospitable parts of the desert, Roan had once told her. Foolhardy grave robbers go there, perhaps, but they do not return. It was the fifth pyramid, made by the emperor with four sons, the one that had whispered in his dying moments, “There shall be four, and a fifth to come.”
Jova hugged her knees and wondered what Roan had meant. It was one thing among many that Roan had refused to extrapolate on. And speaking of Roan…
“See where he comes, in his little throne!” shouted Ya Gol Gi, loud enough that even Jova, sitting so far from him, could hear. He enunciated the words of the king’s tongue oddly; at a stretch, Jova could imagine it as Roan’s deliberate, pause-filled speech. “Why does the cripple get carried when we must sweat and hike through Hak Ger?”
Roan did not answer. Jova hid a smile. The slavers would learn soon enough that they would have to wait a while for Roan’s responses.
“Is he too proud to even speak to me now?” said Ya Gol Gi, mirth in his voice. Jova heard footsteps on the sand as he drew nearer. “Speak, crippled one. Open your mouth. Or does your tongue end in a little stub now too?”
Nothing. Roan did not say a word.
“I grow tired of walking. Were you tired of walking? Is this why you are cutting your legs off, so you may be carried around like a babe before Fallow? Come, crippled one. Come here and show me that old pride, that which makes you say you are one of us.”
Roan spat his response. Jova couldn’t make out the words, but a whisper spread throughout all of the sandmen in attendance.
“You are joking!” Ya Gol Gi laughed. “Only a free man can challenge for a place in the tribe. It is a custom reserved for heroes and chieftains, and you are hero to no one and chieftain to crippled men. I should strike you now for your impertinence.”
Jova turned her head away. She didn’t want to listen to another beating, but before she heard Ya Gol Gi so much as touch Roan a wheezing voice muttered a single word, and Ya Gol Gi fell silent. All the sandmen nearby stopped talking as well, and both the mercenaries and slaves quickly followed suit.
Total silence had fallen on their section of the camp before the u-ha spoke again. His spokesperson Dep Sag Ko translated in a voice loud and clear. “U-ha wishes to know if you are the one called Rho Hat Pan.”
“Sal iro,” said Roan. I am.
“U-ha wishes to see the badge.”
There was no sound except the desert winds. “Eri,” said Roan. “I am sorry, u-ha. I cannot.”
Jova listened closely. Was that anger in Roan’s voice? Confusion? What did he think, now that this shaman knew his secret? Did he wonder who had told him?
The old man began to speak again only after a deliberate pause. “U-ha would like to remind you that he holds the tabula of all the crippled,” said Dep Sag Ko. “He-.”
Roan cleared his throat. “Sok chu tali mog sash han. Na baten da chok ro Ya Gol Gi?”
The shaman coughed once. Then he coughed again, and again, and he began to wheeze so hard it sounded like someone had poked a hole in his wrinkled lungs. It took Jova a while to realize he was laughing. He muttered in-between breaths, too soft for Jova to hear.
“U-ha says…” Dep Sag Ko paused. “Let him give the challenge.”
Ya Gol Gi made an indignant noise, halfway between a yelp and a gasp. “U-ha,” he said. “I insist, you cannot-.”
“U-ha says this slave templeman speaks the old tongue better than you,” said Dep Sag Ko, talking over him. “U-ha has seen nothing but sand all day. He is bored.” When Ya Gol Gi began to speak again, Dep Sag Ko added, “U-ha would like to remind you that you can still decline his challenge. Publicly. Before the tribe. In front of everyone.” Jova swore she could hear a smile in Dep Sag Ko’s voice.
Swearing under his breath, Ya Gol Gi snapped to Dep Sag Ko. “Give me his mount! The staghound!” Jova heard Yora whine as Ya Gol Gi mounted him. She clenched her fists. Bechde was right, this Ya Gol Gi was intolerable. “My whip!” he shouted. “And you, crippled one? What is your weapon? Can you even ride?”
“The horse,” said Roan, simply. “Come here, Stel. If you have her saddle, I would appreciate it. If you do not…I do not need it.”
Ya Gol Gi’s voice was impatient. “And your weapon?”
“I do not need that either.” Jova heard Stel nickering, and it was amazing how that dull old horse made Roan sound so much more like himself as, with a grunt, Roan lifted himself onto her back.
The slaver snorted. “Oh, this shall be entertainment indeed.”
Jova heard hooves crunching through the sand as the two men, now both mounted, began to circle each other. The people watching—both the slavers and the slaves—backed away, giving them a wide berth. Jova shifted as far back as she could, although tired Uten blocked her way and refused to stir.
“Zazo, Ya Gol Gi?” asked Roan.
“Zazo, crippled one,” sneered Ya Gol Gi. “I am ready. Go ahead and-.”
It happened so fast that Jova wasn’t sure if she could follow even if she could see them. Roan roared, Stel whinnied, and then there was a flat snap like ribs cracking. Something landed heavily in the sand, and Ya Gol Gi groaned from his place on the ground.
U-ha began to cough and wheeze again. Jova held her breath. She didn’t know what she was waiting for—applause, perhaps, or a cheer—but there was only Ya Gol Gi’s groans and his faltering steps as someone dragged him up.
“U-ha says he has lived eighty summers and he has never seen a rider’s challenge happen so fast,” said Dep Sag Ko, and he sounded slightly stunned. “He says you hold up the reputation of your order and more.”
“I would have challenged Dal Ak Gan,” said Roan, and he seemed to say this in the king’s tongue very deliberately. “But it is rude to take a stranger’s tribe from him.”
“U-ha cannot give you back your tabula until he speaks with Dal Ak Gan, but…” Dep Sag Ko’s voice lifted. “U-ha likes you.”
Jova stood. She didn’t care that there were sullen whispers all around her, that Ya Gol Gi was seething, or that Roan’s meteoric rise had to have consequences. Roan was free, and she would be too.
“I will take my animals back,” said Roan. A statement, not a question.
“Da, blood-brother. Who am I to keep a beastmaster from his companions?”
Jova beamed as she heard Stel’s familiar, stately gait approaching her and Uten. “Roan,” she began. “I-.”
A hoof as hard as stone hit her in the chest, and she fell backwards, her head swimming. “Move aside, devil girl. I have no time for you,” he said, and his voice was low and dangerous. There was no hint of mirth or mercy in his voice. He clicked his tongue. “Come, Uten.”
The molebison shifted heavily, stepping over Jova as the girl tried to clear her head. Even as he walked away, Jova could not process what had happened. What ruse was Roan maintaining? Why had he done that? I have no time for you. What did that mean?
But even as Jova tried to understand him, one cardinal truth surfaced in her mind: Roan did not lie. He told only the truth.
“I always knew he never stopped being one of them,” muttered Bechde, darkly, as Rho Hat Pan left them behind, and Jova couldn’t find it in herself to disagree. He had been growing more and more distant, more and more cold, and now that Jova knew his secret she simply wasn’t useful to him anymore. She could not gratify his fantasy of being whole again, but this Hag Gar Gan tribe could.
Jova’s mouth became very dry, as she realized the full import of that fact. She knew his secret.
And he knew hers.
The other slavers had drawn away, clustering around the newest member of their tribe or else going to spread the news down the line. The other slaves, curious to see what would happen to one who had just so recently been one of them, trickled away slowly. Even Bechde stood to see where Roan was going.
There was no one to watch over her. No one to stop her. Jova tightened her fists. She knew what she had to do.
She turned and slid down the sand dune, breaking into a sprint as fast as she could. A fortuitous wind blew behind her back; she could only hope it was strong enough to cover her tracks. Jova ran as quietly as possible, breathing through her nose, stepping lightly even as she sprinted for all she was worth away from the camp. Lady Summer give me strength, she prayed. Lady Spring give me fortune.
This was her only chance. Roan knew her secret. That was why she ran, Jova told herself, even though she knew it wasn’t true. She ran because she was hurt. She ran because she was lonely. She ran because she wanted to be anywhere else but here, where the last remnant of home had betrayed her.
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.”
Blood was in the air. He could feel it and taste it; it was in his lungs and on his skin. An iron, metal taste, one that made his heart quicken and his nerves tingle.
The fall toad crawled out of his hiding space, puffs of air swirling around him as he cleared the air of the foul stench. The sac on Fosen’s throat dilated quickly, although not too much for fear of making too loud a sound.
A transparent membrane slid over Fosen’s eyes, as he crawled out from beneath the decomposing log. It had been moist and dark and safe under it, but Fosen couldn’t stay in there forever. All the movement had stopped and the danger seemed to have passed, but Fosen still moved with extreme caution. His steps were light and gentle; the leaves barely bent as he walked across the mulch on the forest floor.
Movement! Fosen froze and twitched, as a mass of humans marched past to his side. He dove into the matted vegetation, eyes unblinking as they came past. They were the new humans, the ones that made Fosen nervous; he did not know what to keep track of, with all their clothing that jangled and rattled and shook as they moved. Perhaps it was not so safe to move.
Fosen continued to crawl, always on wary of something that could hurt him, harm him, kill him. Everything else—food, rest, shelter—was a tertiary concern. Secrecy was paramount now, secrecy and security, and in secrecy he would find security.
A nervous croak escaped Fosen’s throat as he moved through the mulch. He stuck to the shadows, beneath the bushes and verdant ferns, but here the litter had decayed to the point that Fosen had to wade more than walk.
Another wave of humans marched past, and Fosen sunk into the underbrush to watch and wait. They carried with them a limp body, an arm dangling over the makeshift stretcher: a thin line of red traced delicately down the arm, around its hand, and off its finger. Fosen’s heart quickened. Blood was never a good sign.
As Fosen watched, the body was dumped unceremoniously into a nearby ditch. He could taste the foul stench even from here, and though rot was often perfect bait for food, now was not the time.
It was not as if he could have caught prey if he even had the opportunity. Being fed slugworms and winter crickets all his life had not exactly honed his skills as a hunter, and Fosen knew it. The fall toad was fat, pampered, and thoroughly domesticated.
But even he knew what fear felt like, and right now he was afraid.
He crawled on, little puffs of air clearing a path for him as he walked. It drained his essence, but the speed was worth it. He had to get away from this place. Distance was key. Distance and secrecy, then security.
More movement! No matter which way the fall toad seemed to turn, there seemed to be more of the rattling men around him, dragging bodies both dead and alive around the jungle, snapping the long leather tongues they held in their hands. Fosen retreated once more underneath a decomposing log, the bark flaking away as he pushed himself into the small crack between wood and ground, and held his breath as the men passed.
To his horror, the man sat down. He was joined by two others, all sitting in a circle, and Fosen had no way of getting out without falling in their line of sight. He kicked his back legs in vain, hoping against hope that he could somehow dig his way out the other side, but there was no such luck.
“Dal Ak Gan,” said a voice opposite him. The pitch was high, a tone that Fosen recognized as a human female, like mistress. Mistress was good to him, but somehow Fosen did not think this human would be as charitable. “What are we doing with the young ones?”
“How many are we having?”
“Two boys, migrants and vagabonds. And a girl, barely past Fallow. There are others, older, ten years or so, but we have dealt with them.”
“Chain them and sell them. The pyramid lords will be buying children for a high price.”
It did not sound the same as the language mistress and her people usually spoke (although Fosen could barely tell the difference between the human’s sibilant hissing and clicking at the best of times), but the fall toad understood well enough. All human speech had been open to him since he had first touched the golden disk, before mistress had taken it away.
Perhaps another might have wondered why that was, but Fosen did not waste his time with idle thoughts. It let him understand mistress’s orders and intentions, and so long as he could keep it that way he would not question why.
The woman rose, and her curved blade flashed in the sun. It dangled loosely from her hand, but Fosen could not help but fixate on it. “Others hold the children’s tabula,” said the woman. “One boy we are holding now until he speaks, the other swears his owner is dead. The girl does not cooperate.”
“You have searched them?”
The woman scoffed. “Hollow-born foals are blind and weak, but even they know to stumble towards the sun. Of course I have searched them.”
Fosen saw the man’s feet shift in front of him, but the man did not rise from his position. He was still far too close for Fosen to make his escape without being caught. “I am meaning no offense, La Ah Abi. Many things are easily forgot when the blood runs battle-hot, no?”
The woman stomped over and Fosen quailed. She punched the man in the shoulder, although her face was too far up for Fosen to see her expression. “Even when your heart is cool as winter you are forgetful, Dal Ak Gan.”
“And yours runs as the summer always, blood-sister mine.”
The man rose to grip the woman’s wrist, and Fosen saw his opportunity. His squat legs could only take him so far with a single hop, but the fall toad summoned a small gust to propel him forward, out into the open. He just need to move fast, get around the leg and out of sight, before…
“Dal Ak Gan! See here!”
Another one? Fosen bunched into a ball and tumbled back into the safety of the shadows, throat dilating in frustration. He had barely made four bodylengths of progress before the second man hopped lightly off his steed, an eelhound that began to sniff at the ground the moment the man dismounted. Fosen curled even further into himself, holding the air tight and still around him to keep his scent from traveling too far into the air.
This second man was dressed in a prodigious number of furs and skins, and flybeasts buzzed around his face, which was shiny with perspiration. A necklace of bone charms hung around his neck, as did a number of braided strings around his wrists. Smudged face paint streaked his cheeks, although Fosen could not tell what color, and he had pale scars running up his bulky forearm.
A black bird with brilliant scarlet plumage around its eyes and a massive bill streaked with yellows and greens hopped and squawked on the man’s shoulder. The translation was less precise here, but Fosen could still tell the general feeling from the animal. Joy. Triumph. Celebration.
“Dep Sag Ko!” said Dal Ak Gan, embracing the man fully and giving him a hearty thump on the back. “Good hunting, friend?”
“As good as the Lady Summer’s,” said the man with the beasts, smiling and revealing chipped teeth.
“And does your quarry still breathe?”
Dep Sag Ko shrugged. “Most do. Lo Pak was hasty with one, though. We shall be eating mule meat tonight.” At the sudden slump in Dal Ak Gan’s shoulders, he quickly continued, “Worry not, Dal. The staghound will more than make up for what was lost in trade.”
Fosen had more pressing concerns than the cluster of humans, though. The eelhound’s sniffling and rooting was bringing it closer and closer to Fosen’s hiding spot, and unless he moved soon he would find himself inside the jaws of the lanky, serpentine beast.
Its slick, pointed head swung dangerously close to the fall toad’s location. Fosen held back a nervous croak. The eelhound’s skin had an odd sheen to it, like slime, and while Fosen was no stranger to warty, mucus-covered skin, the eelhound also had a coat of thin, greasy fur that made Fosen nervous somehow. It had a prominent underbite, filmy yellow eyes, and a saddle with a carved marble handhold on its back. Occasionally, gills on the side of the eelhound’s neck would flap uselessly when it drew breath.
The eelhound drew closer, a soft growl in the back of its throat. Try as Fosen might, he couldn’t keep all the air around him still forever. Some little scent had to leak out, and the eelhound was starting to catch it.
Fosen waited, as the searching snout drew closer and closer. He began to fill his lungs with air. A powerful enough gust would both blow him away and slow the eelhound down, if he aimed right. All he had to do was wait…
The bird on the man’s shoulder screeched loudly, and the searching snout, bare inches from Fosen’s face, pulled away. The eelhound barked and hissed at the bird, which had started to hop back and forth on Dep Sag Ko’s shoulder. Snarling, the eelhound padded away, sometimes leaping up to snap at the bird with its serrated teeth.
With a great sigh of relief, Fosen relaxed. He had forgotten, though, about the essence charged winds building in his lungs, and so when he breathed out he found himself propelled backwards immediately, tumbling over the leaves as he skidded to a stop in the jungle floor.
He rolled over slowly, each movement precise and deliberate. Had they seen him? Did they see him moving?
No one and nothing had noticed. He was safe.
As Fosen began to crawl away, he noticed the same little clusters all over the former camp: the new humans stood casually, talking, nursing their wounds, while the old humans were nowhere to be seen, and always the stench of the corpse-filled ditch followed him. Fosen wondered where mistress was. He hoped she was still alive.
Fosen paused, right at the border of the trees. Freedom was so close; he could escape into the jungle and never be afraid of these men or any men ever again. Food was plentiful, as where places to hide, for a fall toad. He could just leave.
But Fosen was fat, pampered, and thoroughly domesticated. He wouldn’t make it a day without mistress.
The fall toad crawled back into camp, his wide eyes constantly panning to see if he could find where all the old humans had gone. New tents were being erected already over the still burning embers of the old campfires; they could almost have been the same tents, except these were more patchwork, more dirt-smeared, more primal in a way. Like Dep Sag Ko’s necklace, bones hung over the entrances of the tents, except these were much larger. Femurs swayed like wind charms and skulls leered at Fosen as he made his way further into the camp.
Fosen had only just ventured into the interior of the camp when he heard the sound of a person being struck. His bulging eyes rolled as he searched for the source, and he saw motion next to the smoking remains of the old fire.
The legless man did not cry out or yell as he was struck across the face. He sat on the ground, his hands resting almost peacefully across his stubby legs, as the other man slapped him across the face.
“You are still insisting you are one of us?” snarled his assaulter, pacing in a circle around the man. “A cripple does not carry the name of the Hag Gar Gan. Never make the mistake of thinking you are still one of us. Now, what is your name?”
The legless man looked the slaver straight in the eye and said, evenly, “Rho Hat Pan.”
The slaver hit him so hard this time that the legless man keeled over, a line of blood oozing from the side of his mouth. Fosen could see him coughing and struggling to rise, but the slaver put a foot on the legless man’s back and forced him down. “Tell me your name again, cripple.”
As Fosen drew closer, he could see that the legless man looked barely conscious. Still, he managed to mumble, “Rho Hat Pan.”
He didn’t rise this time, knocked to the ground by the slaver’s blow. The legless man groaned and rolled over, but could not seem to get up, and the slaver, to his credit, scoffed and walked away. Fosen made his way onward.
There was already a collection of the captured around that smoking pit, and Fosen inspected each of them carefully. One had a missing arm; another seemed to have no tongue in her mouth. Many more had much more recent injuries, gashes in their sides that had been clumsily bandaged and bruises swelling around their faces. None of them, however, were his mistress.
Fosen heard footsteps behind him and dove into the midst of the gathered slaves. None of them seemed to notice the little toad in their midst, and so Fosen hid among them as the slaver returned, with company.
Dal Ak Gan, the man from before, was with him, looking authoritative. Fosen recognized an alpha when he saw one, even a human alpha. Dal Ak Gan was in charge here. It was good to remember that.
The blindfolded girl, that came trudging quietly along, Fosen remembered. She had been with mistress a scant few days ago, and had filled mistress with feelings of happiness and nostalgia. And there had been something about her essence, something that had Fosen paying attention. He wasn’t sure how to describe it. Her essence seemed strangely…
The blind girl knelt with the others, and Dal Ak Gan looked over them and crossed his arms. “These are the unfit?” he said, in the guttural other language, to the slaver. The slaver nodded. “You have searched them for tabula?”
The slaver rolled his eyes. “Who would trust a cripple with tabula, Dal Ak Gan? It is not worth my time.”
Dal Ak Gan looked as if he was about to say something sharp in response, but as his eyes flickered between the crowd of slaves and his subordinate, he seemed to decide against it. “And where is the one you say is causing trouble?”
Before the slaver could respond, the legless man croaked, “I am here.”
Dal Ak Gan’s eyebrows rose. It was a human response, Fosen knew, of surprise. “He speaks the imperial tongue. How has a son of the steppes become so lost, hmm?”
The slaver put a hand on Dal Ak Gan’s shoulder and whispered something in his ear. Dal Ak Gan nodded slowly.
“Not this one. I see.” Dal Ak Gan surveyed the crowd again. Then, he said, in a much more familiar language, “Give me the one who is called Janwye.”
While none of the slaves pointed fingers, there was a noticeable shift in their stances: the slight edging away, the subtle turning of their heads. Fosen shrunk back as Dal Ak Gan followed those signals, walking amongst the crowd without a care in the world, until he reached a woman bound with so much rope that she could scarce budge an inch.
“She knew,” said the slaver, in the coarse, other language. “She was having a summer elk with her, too. Almost burned us to death.”
Dal Ak Gan did not acknowledge him. He knelt in front of the woman Janwye and held up her chin. One side of her face was so heavily bruised it did not even seem human anymore.
Fosen knew Janwye. He knew she was one of mistress’s friends. He hoped nothing bad happened to her, but even as he watched he knew he could not do anything to prevent it.
“How is it that you are knowing we are coming?” asked Dal Ak Gan. “Were we clumsy? Or did one of my own alert you? This is a perplexing secret to me, fieldwoman.”
Janwye jutted her jaw out and did not say a word. She was silent and defiant.
Dal Ak Gan stroked the bruised side of her face, and Janwye flinched. “You are noble, fieldwoman, but the time for that is over. Go on. Tell me how you are knowing.”
Janwye turned her head to meet the other man’s eyes, and for just a moment held his gaze. She opened her mouth slowly…
And spat right in his face.
Dal Ak Gan rose, wiping his cheek with the back of his hand, and Fosen could not see his expression. The feelings radiating from him were that of anger, contempt, indignation.
“She probably just saw our tracks. Nothing to worry about. There is no traitor in our midst, Dal Ak Gan,” leered the slaver, staring at Janwye. “Why don’t we just kill her?”
“No!” shouted the legless man immediately. “Forgive her, rider-lord. She is- she is sick in the head.”
Dal Ak Gan looked from his slaver to his slave, his lips pursed in thought. Suddenly, Fosen wanted nothing more than to be away from this. He needed to know where mistress was.
The legless man struggled to sit upright, and then began to crawl forward to Dal Ak Gan. “I supplicate myself to you, rider-lord. Son of the goddesses, free-as-the-wind lord, true heir to the lost empire. She is not well in the head. I- I can speak with her. She knows things, I am sure. She will tell you what she knows.”
Fosen watched as Dal Ak Gan circled around behind Janwye. The legless man did his best to follow, as the other slaves cleared a wide space around him, but he could only crawl so fast. He was like Fosen in that way, the toad supposed.
“She will fetch a high price in the shadow markets!” shouted the legless man. He was almost crying now. “Let her face heal. You have not seen her at her best. She is beautiful! She is beautiful, rider-lord!”
A twinge in essence drew Fosen’s attention. It might have just been his imagination, but he thought he saw a sad smile flicker across Janwye’s face.
“Imagine what she will buy you! Gorgeous silks, or the best blades that Irontower can forge. Or- or you may keep her for yourself! But she must live for that, rider-lord. She must live.”
Dal Ak Gan nodded slowly, putting his hand on Janwye’s shoulder. “Speak with her then, brother lost. Tell her to comply.”
“Janwye,” said the legless man. “Janwye, you must-.”
And then Dal Ak Gan wrapped his arm around Janwye’s neck and squeezed, hard. The legless man roared and leaped forward, but the other slaver caught him and pressed him down.
Janwye convulsed and flailed, a strangled choke escaping from her throat as she fought against the ropes binding her. Fosen could tell that the air was no longer moving in her lungs, that her breath was slowly running out. He summoned his essence and pushed, trying to help her, blowing tiny gusts of air into her mouth. It was an exertion from such a distance, but it was all he could do.
It was not good enough. Janwye’s face reddened as Dal Ak Gan, his expression unmoving, continued to strangle her. Her twitching eventually subsided. Eventually, Dal Ak Gan let her go, and she fell to the ground, eyes glazed, staring at some fixed point ahead of her.
“Janwye…” the legless man sobbed, reaching out for her. Dal Ak Gan stepped on his hand and the legless man slumped, crying into the ground. “Janwye, Janwye…”
“This is what happens,” said Dal Ak Gan, in his thick accent, “When any of you think to cross us. Nothing and no one can save you.” He twisted his foot on the legless man’s hand, but the legless man did not even seem to care anymore.
The two slavers walked away, leaving the body among the crippled and the injured. Fosen crawled away. He needed to find mistress.
Although now, he did not see the point. If the humans could not save each other, how could he?