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?
Jova traced the shawl of the lady, so soft that it felt like her fingers were tracing air. She sat on a velvet cushion, her legs folded under her, and when Bechde touched her hand the lady’s touch was smooth as silk. “How charmed,” said Bechde, and the Alswell drawl made her voice simply drip with elegance. “Oh, Ladies, however did Janwye find a precious gem like you in that stew of a city? You’ve made the whole trek across the sands worth it, darling, honestly.”
It sounded like a lie to Jova’s ears, but she smiled anyway. It was a happy lie, and it did her no harm to believe it. “Thank you kindly, missus,” she said, bowing her head.
“Oh!” said Bechde (and the way she said it Jova thought the fieldwoman might swoon from sheer emotion). “How mannered! When this horrid affair is all done and over, you simply must stay with us at the manor in Alswell, Jova, I insist.”
Horrid affair. Bechde made it sound like it was something minor, like someone needed to clean the house instead of win a war before she could go home. Jova scratched her chest. Was the lady of Alswell simply that absent-minded?
“Would you like something to eat? Something to drink?” The wagon creaked as Bechde rose, and Jova could feel the humid jungle air flow in once Bechde opened the tarp. “Quele, would you be so kind as to fetch us a bite?”
The alsknight at attendance outside was a woman, but had a deep, rumbling voice. “We still have the pomegranates from Hak Mat Do, m’lady.”
“Oh, that’d be just lovely,” said Bechde, and Jova heard chainmail rustle as Quele walked away. Bechde sat down again opposite her in a rustle of cloth. “You’ll love them, Jova, they were grown directly in Do Yash. They’re a bit tart, but the juices are delicious, even if they are a bit messy.” Bechde laughed, high and airy, and Jova couldn’t help but laugh with her.
The girl smoothed out her coza and sat a little straighter, wondering how long it had been. Janwye had escorted her down the jungle path and left immediately to have her audience with the Holy Keep, while Roan had been falling in and out of consciousness for the rest of the night. Jova had been left in the care of Janwye’s liege, Bechde, and all her various attendants and slaves, left to sit and stew and wait for something to happen to her.
Jova’s fingers tapped on her knees. She needed to do something.
Something rustled beside her, and instinctively Jova clicked her tongue to get a better image. She didn’t get much; the canvas of the wagon didn’t make a very good surface for the sound to bounce off of, but she had the vague impression of something blocky being pushed through the entrance.
“Just the pomegranates, my dear,” said Bechde, kindly. “Thank you, Quele, you may go now.”
Bechde took Jova’s hand and put something round and firm in it gently. Jova turned the hard fruit over in her hands, but she couldn’t seem to peel it like she would a Jhidnu orange or bite into it like she would a Moscoleon tomato.
“I am so impressed by you, Jova, darling,” Bechde said, as she began to cut her own. “I mean, look at you! You’ve taken this disability of yours and made it something to be proud of. It’s like your own special little power, isn’t it?”
Jova’s grip tightened on the pomegranate until she thought it might burst. No, it isn’t, she wanted to scream. No, it’s not! It helps, but it can’t replace colors. It can’t bring back sunsets or art or human faces. It’s not a power, it’s a burden! If you’re so impressed, you can HAVE IT.
“Yes,” she said, out loud. “I suppose it is.” And she waited for Bechde to finish with the knife so she could use it to cut her own.
“Oh, no, no, I insist,” said Bechde, taking the fruit back from Jova’s hand. “What was I thinking, just handing it off to you? No, darling, it’s much better if I do it, honestly. Look, you can have mine, and I’ll eat this one.”
“You don’t have to-,” Jova began, but Bechde shushed her and cut her off.
“It’s really quite alright, darling. Here, have it! The seeds are to die for, honestly.”
Jova felt a metal disk being placed on her lap, and she felt the edges of the plate hesitantly. On it, she traced six slices of the fruit, and she let out a little gasp of surprise. “Is this all mine?”
“Why, yes, of course! Although, if you can’t finish it, please do tell me. I’ll give it to Quele, she does so hate to waste food.”
All hers. Jova picked out one of the seeds hesitantly and bit into it, and immediately her tongue vibrated with the sensation. Sweet and tart, just like Bechde had said, with a hint of a crunch as she chewed. Jova slowed to savor every bite, a great smile on her face. All hers. It would have taken Da days on end of extra work just to buy one for the whole family, and Ma would have had to trade in a whole day’s worth of kill for a chance at exotic fruit. Jova would have to ask Bechde if she could take some back to Ma and Da.
Jova caught herself, and bit her lip. She had to stop thinking that way, not if she wanted to make the journey any less painful. How long it would take, anyway? How long would Ma and Da be forced to worry? Jova knew that she could not stay at home, but if they were already waiting for Janwye to finish then why couldn’t Ma and Da just meet up with her before they went? It was Roan’s decision, and it didn’t make sense.
Speaking of Roan, Jova still had to talk to him. A shiver went down her spine involuntarily, and she shuddered as she remembered the emptiness where his legs should have been, the almost too-smooth stumps where they ended. What kind of accident must he have been in, to have lost both his legs?
An accident, Jova reasoned, much like the one that lost both her eyes. Something he blamed himself for, something he lived with day in and day out, something he wished simply never had the chance to happen.
If Roan was anything like her, his accident would have been like that.
“Jova, darling, were you listening?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Jova, distractedly. She shook her head, massaging her temple. “I was just thinking a bit too hard.”
“Oh! What about? Please do tell me.” Bechde leaned forward and whispered, “It can be our little secret.”
The grown-old sounded older than even Ma, and yet she had such child-like enthusiasm, such infectious affection, that Jova couldn’t just say no. “Life,” said Jova, vaguely. “My friends. My home.”
Bechde laid her hand over Jova’s. “I miss home, too,” she said. “But I think you’ll find that the parting just gives you more reason to finish the journey. Don’t be afraid, Jova. I was scared when I left Alswell, but if I hadn’t I would have never had the chance to meet you! Things will work out in the end.”
Jova smiled. Perhaps the lady of Alswell wasn’t so absent-minded after all. “What’s your home like, Bechde?” she asked. “I want to know!”
“All’s well in Alswell, darling,” said Bechde. “It’s so much more open than here! There is so much clutter in Moscoleon, but in Alswell we’ve got wide open fields, pretty little houses with the most charmed balls and parties, and a sky so blue it’d make you cry, darling—honestly, it is a picture.”
Jova ate delicately, keenly aware of the marbleman table manners Da had once taught her now that she was in Bechde’s company. “I remember blue skies in Jhidnu,” said Jova. “I- I don’t know so much about Moscoleon, but most mornings I can feel the fog here.”
“Jhidnu? Jhidnu-by-the-Sea? You’ve been there? Why, darling, I never knew!”
“Eigh- four years,” said Jova, catching herself. Her four years before the Fallow, just like everyone else’s, would just have to go unaccounted for. “We stayed in the city proper once, but Anjan and Ell didn’t like it. It was too busy for them, they said. We stayed to the back roads in the Jhidnu wilds mostly, staying at traveler’s inns, camping by the trail.”
“And for you to be so young.” Bechde sounded positively astounded, but Jova did not know why. It had been normal life for her—for many people, in fact, living outside of the merchant city. “Tell me, Jova, were you…were you savage?”
“Wild?” Jova paused. Was she? She was neither slave nor wild. She fell into the crack in-between. “…No,” she said, finally. It wasn’t a lie. “Anjan was, though. And we met quite a few on the road, although they left us alone for the most part.”
“What are they like?” asked Bechde, breathlessly. “Wild children, I mean. We don’t have them in Alswell, you see, and we met hardly any when we were crossing the Vigil Sands…”
That got Jova’s attention. “There are no wild children in Alswell?” she asked, sitting straight. “Does the Fallow not call to them?”
“Oh, no, no,” said Bechde, dismissively. “We find the hollows, you see. Guard them, even. The animals we let out, and the children we collect to civilize. It’s all very progressive; we have no truck with that superstitious nonsense the Wilder tree-worshippers believe.”
“Oh,” said Jova, and she couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Another answer had been waved in front of her face, and it had been snatched away just as quickly. She scratched her chest again. “Well, um…we didn’t see many wild children, either, honestly. They keep to themselves in Jhidnu. Some of them attacked us while we were traveling, most just ran away.”
Bechde was not to be dissuaded. “How do they learn to speak the king’s tongue? Do they wear clothes? Is it true that they have some kind of bond to the wild beasts?”
Jova pursed her lips. Honestly, she had never given those questions much thought before. “I suppose they must remember the language from before they were called,” said Jova. “And from each other, I suppose.” Her eyebrows furrowed. “I saw some wild children without clothes, some with. Those were stolen, probably. And their bond comes from the tabula that they take with them.”
“The children take tabula?”
Jova nodded. “Anjan did it, after her Fallow. She summoned Mo—a weaseldog, I mean—and kept his tabula ever since.”
“Before the Fallow?” said Bechde, aghast. “The children wouldn’t have the constitution for it! And the animals would be so young.”
“Well, it’s just like anywhere else,” said Jova, a little confused. “They take care of each other. Don’t you have early summoning in Alswell? Don’t any of your children disappear before the Fallow?”
She heard Bechde’s dress rustle as the woman shifted across from her. “Yes, I suppose I see your point,” said the lady, and her tone for once was subdued. “It’s just so very strange to think of it that way. So how do you get slaves in Jhidnu, then? Where do they come from?”
Jova thought back. “Adventurers and explorers,” she said. “I saw a few at market once, trying to sell them away. They find hollows in the wild and take just the one tabula. It’s bad luck to take more than one.”
“Amazing,” whispered Bechde. “Truly amazing, isn’t it? All the ways people on this world live!”
“I suppose it is,” said Jova, although she did not feel amazed. It felt like all the ways the people on Albumere survived, but she would hesitate to call what the emaciated, desperate children lurking in the bends of the forest paths did living.
“Ladies, you’d think I wouldn’t be so parched in a place so humid,” said Bechde, and she opened the tarp again. “Quele, would you be so kind and fetch me Fosen? Oh, and put some tea on the kettle!”
“Cropper’s making tea right now, m’lady. For himself. Says it helps his stomach aches.”
“Oh, well, leave the old fart to his griping and groaning then. Just water, for myself and the little one. And don’t forget Fosen, it’s absolutely boiling in here!”
The alsknight marched away to do her lady’s bidding.
“Do you keep tabula of your own, Jova?” asked Bechde, politely, as Jova finished off her pomegranate. She wondered who or what Fosen was as she ate.
“No, I don’t,” the girl said. “Once, I tried to keep one, but…well, no. No, I don’t.”
“Oh! A darling girl like you, without companion? A travesty. We will remedy that immediately!” Bechde said. “What about the charming old molebison you came riding in on? Is that one yours?”
“Roan’s. He owns all the animals.”
“Roan…? Oh, Rho Hat Pan! Yes, Janny did tell me about the name change. It’s remarkable, really, that the savage finally decided to call himself something the rest of us could pronounce.” Bechde said it so casually that Jova almost did not notice the veiled insult, but she couldn’t help but wonder if Bechde was actually being offensive or just absent-minded again. “Do you fancy the molebison?”
“Uten is nice,” said Jova, nodding. “I like her.”
“Then I shall purchase her for you from Rho Hat Pan at once!”
Jova choked. She bent over, hacking and coughing, and managed to stutter out, “Bechde, really, there is no need—I already work with her so much, you don’t have to-.”
“Oh, but I insist,” said Bechde, clapping her hands together. “There is nothing like holding the tabula yourself. As soon as the man wakes, I will ask him about it. Really, Jova, it’s no concern to me, and you are such a darling child, you deserve something nice.”
“Really, Bechde,” said Jova. “Thank you. But I don’t need charity.”
The lady fell silent. “Well, if you’re certain,” she said, and she sounded slightly disappointed. She recovered quickly. “Ah! Here’s water. Come, Jova, come. No leather skins for us; this is a porcelain cup all the way from Jhidnu, made special for drinking.”
Jova took the cup, cool and smooth in her hands. It felt like an awful lot of bother to go through just to have a sip of water, as someone (either Bechde or Quele) poured water into her cup.
“And here’s Fosen,” said Bechde, and Jova heard the click of some kind of clasp. Fosen was a box?
The hum of a tabula and the breeze that swirled around them inside the wagon said otherwise. Whatever Bechde had summoned croaked in the corner, and the lady cooed as she picked it up.
“Usually we just let the wild animals go, but Greeve let me keep this one,” said Bechde. “I’ve raised him ever since he was a little fall tadpole. Come on, Fosen, give us a little breeze.”
The toad croaked again, and Jova felt a gentle gust against her face. She had to admit, it felt nice, although how the animal was generating the wind she had no idea (and she had not the inclination to find out).
“You can hold him, go on,” said Bechde, and Jova hurried to find somewhere to put the plate of fruit and the porcelain cup and all of Bechde’s little trinkets and baubles before she picked up the fall toad. “He’s a sweetie, honestly.”
He felt slick and slimy, and so bulbous that Jova wasn’t entirely sure where his head was. The girl laughed nervously, cupping the toad in her hands as cool wind continued to play across her hands and face, until Bechde clicked her tongue and the toad hopped off and away.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to get you the molebison?” said Bechde. “They can be such wonderful companions.”
“I’m sure,” said Jova, nodding. “I-.”
And then she heard shouting from outside. She twitched, head snapping up as she tried to hear the sound through the canvas of the wagon.
“What is it, Jova?” asked Bechde, real concern in her voice. “Is something wrong?”
Jova took several seconds to answer, distracted by the faint shouting. “Do you hear that?”
“I…oh, my.” The toad croaked in protest as Bechde scooped him up and opened the wagon entrance. “Janny’s come back.”
Jova stood to her feet immediately and near fell out and onto the ground as she hurried to leave. She stumbled and turned her head, listening to the source of the shouting. It was Janwye’s voice, and just her voice: she was alone. The jungle absorbed some of the sound, but it grew louder and louder as she got closer.
“Janny?” shouted Jova, standing on tiptoe. “Janny, what are you doing?”
“We must go!” she was screaming. “Quele! Cropper! Get lady Bechde, tell her we must go now!”
“Janwye!” shouted Bechde, taking the steps off of the wagon lightly. “What’s going on? Did something go wrong? Will the Temple support us?”
Janwye was standing next to them now, in the little camp of fieldmen, alsknights and slaves alike. She breathed heavily, sucking in breath between words. “The Temple…the Temple…” she muttered, distractedly. “I…the Temple is fine. Bechde, look! Look at this.”
And Jova heard a hard clink, and a sharp gasp from Bechde.
“Whose was it?” breathed Bechde, and Jova realized with a start that the clink had come from the fragments of a tabula. It had broken; whoever or whatever was linked to it had died.
“This one was Bax’s. Not- not his, but we made a system- Bechde, I- he…” Janwye seemed too distraught to finish her sentences. “Something’s gone wrong in Shira Hay. We have to go help!”
“Janny, Shira Hay is weeks away,” said Bechde. “Do you even know what went wrong?”
“N-no, but Bechde- oh, Ladies, Bechde…”
“Breathe, Janny, go on. Have a seat, that’s it,” said Bechde, and her voice was soft and calm and motherly. “Now explain to me what happened. Fully, in all the details.”
“My friend in the Temple got me an audience,” said Janwye, and she spoke so rapidly that she tripped over her words. The friend, Jova assumed, was Zain. “Keep Tlai listened and I gave my address and I think it went well but I can’t entirely be sure because she wouldn’t give me a straight answer afterwards and I stayed in the house of the pontiff for the night and when I woke up the tabula had broken and I ran straight here and now we have to go, Bechde, please.”
“Patience, Janwye!” shouted Bechde. The sudden silence rang as Janwye stopped talking, and Jova felt unease creeping in her stomach. Janwye had told her about the system her friends had made: if one of those tabula had broken, that meant something had gone very wrong indeed…
“So we do not know the Keep’s answer?” asked Bechde, after Janwye had a moment to compose herself. “We do not know how or if they will help the cause?”
“Zain can figure out a way to tell me, but we have to move fast! If Bax is in trouble, then-.”
“Do we know, Janwye? Yes or no?”
“No,” said Janwye, after a pause. “No, we don’t.”
“Then we stay. We do what Greeve told us to do, alright?”
“Yes, Bechde. I will…I will return to the Temple now.”
“Oh, Janny,” whispered Bechde, and Jova heard the rustle of her voluminous dress. Jova clicked, and the blurred molded shape that bounced back could only mean that Janwye and Bechde were close together, embracing. “There is nothing we can do now but pray, and see how fortunate we are! We are in the most holy place in all of Albumere. Where better to entreat to the Ladies than here?”
“Yes, lady Bechde,” said Janwye, hoarsely. “Thank you, lady Bechde. I will go now.”
“Bring someone with you at least?” said Bechde, and her dress rustled as she moved away. “Quele, or Cropper. For protection. If something happened to Engers and his people…I don’t want a repeat out here.”
Jova heard the clip-clop of hooves before the voice spoke. “I will go with her,” said Roan, his voice so low it sounded as if he might fall off of Stel at any time. Had he only just recovered?
“No, you won’t,” snapped Janwye. “It’s too dangerous for you to go back into the city. You are going to stay here with Jova.”
Yes, Jova thought, and her fists tightened as she heard Roan get closer: Roan, who had lied to her, Roan, who had used her, Roan, who had abused her blindness. We are going to stay right here.
And you are going to tell me the truth.