Janwye began to shout out, but Roan covered her mouth quickly, muffling the sound. Jova tensed, and her hand gripped Alis’s so tight she worried she might hurt the girl, but she did not dare emerge from her hiding place and speak out.
A low whispering came from where Janwye and Roan were speaking, so soft that not even Jova could hear.
Her knuckles loosened slowly, and Jova just realized that she had been breathing heavily. Her brow furrowed. What had happened between her and Roan? Before, Roan had been like another parent to her, someone she could always rely on to protect and guide her. Now…now she was scared of him.
The pit in Jova’s chest seemed to open a little wider. How had things gone so wrong?
“What are you doing?” hissed Janwye. She was trying to keep her voice down, Jova could tell, but her temper was flaring, too. “If the Hag Gar Gan are coming, I have to go back and warn lady Bechde! The rest of the group! We must arm ourselves!”
“Remember yourself, Janwye,” said Roan. “Remember why we are here.”
“I am here to save my people! I am here to prevent the deaths of those I care for!” shouted Janwye. “You are here because you could not control your apprentice and let the girl kill a man when you pushed her too far!”
A cold rush ran over Jova’s skin, and a sick wave of nausea began to build in her stomach.
“Let the dead rest,” said Roan, and he sounded more tired than offended. “Janwye, please. Let the dead rest.”
“Only after they have died, Roan,” snarled Janwye. “And my people are not dead yet.” There was silence. The jungle air pressed in around them, hot and humid and stifling. “I’m going, Roan,” said Janwye. “Just try and stop me.”
Jova heard Stel take a single step, and Roan beginning to speak, when there was a sudden, heavy impact. Janwye let out a choked yell—a frustrated, angry sound—and then Jova heard her storm off, her boots thudding heavily on the ground.
Stel was padding around the jungle floor, her hooves kicking up leaf litter, as Jova heard something scrape across the undergrowth.
“He’s on the ground,” said Alis. “How’s he going to get back up?”
Jova raised her head. She heard Roan’s soft grunt, another impact on the ground, his tired sigh. “Come on, Alis,” she said, tugging on the little girl’s hand. “He’s one of my friends. Let’s go talk to him.”
Jova could feel the mid-morning sun starting to creep through the canopy as she trudged hesitantly across the path to Roan’s side. Alis followed close behind her, although her steps too were hesitant and uncertain.
“Do you need help, Roan?” asked Jova, after his customary silence.
“I am not thinking so,” said Roan, as he grunted again. Stel snorted and Jova heard her hooves trot, and then Roan fell back onto the ground again. It sounded like he was trying to lift himself up.
“You’re on the ground,” said Jova, pointedly.
Roan sniffed. “The truth, I admit. Another truth, then, I must be saying, is that a blind girl cannot be helping me now. It is very hard, what must be done.”
Jova was not about to contradict him, and so stood waiting with Alis, as Roan grunted and sweated and heaved himself up onto Stel’s back. It took him several minutes, long minutes of silence and waiting that only served to make Jova’s pounding heart beat faster, but when he was done he seemed to be in full control of Stel again.
“You should let her take a break,” said Jova, reproachfully. “You ride her too hard. All the time, every day. Let her rest for once.”
“I am lending her my strength, and she is lending me hers. She will be fine. She has been fine.”
“Even when she has to run? To escape?”
She waited for Roan to finish thinking, for all the pieces to fall into place in his head. “How much did you hear, Jova?” he asked.
Jova did not give a real answer. “When were you going to tell me?” she retorted.
“Sooner than you are thinking,” said Roan. There was a weariness to his voice, a resigned sadness and fatigue. “You should be going too, Jova. Find the animals, and hide somewhere far from here, before it begins.”
He did not sound nearly as urgent as he had when he was talking to Janwye. Jova scratched her chest. “Where do I hide?” she asked.
Roan didn’t say anything. He wasn’t moving, either.
“Where do I hide, Roan?” Jova repeated. “I left Jhidnu to hide in Temple Moscoleon. I left Temple Moscoleon to hide among the fieldmen of Alswell. Now I am leaving the fieldmen of Alswell to hide somewhere else. Where do I hide, Roan?”
“Ladies guide you, you will find a place.” Stel stamped her hooves on the ground, as Roan began to move away. “I must be finding Janwye, now. Be safe, Jova.”
“Roan, you promised-.” Jova began, but he was already gone. She stood, alone, holding a lost girl’s hand and listening to the murmur of the jungle.
It was now of all times that she wondered where Ma and Da were. How had Zain explained it to them? Were they worrying for her, even now? Wouldn’t it have just been better for them to come with her? Now more than ever, she felt angry at Roan for tearing her away from her family so suddenly.
She wasn’t angry that Roan had never told her all the secrets he had promised to tell, that he had never let her into whatever clandestine society he served. She was just angry that he had left her. He had promised to care for her, to protect her, to watch out for her, and even if he was doing that, it didn’t feel like it. It felt like Jova had been left to fend for herself.
For the first time in what must have been her whole life, Jova had no one to care for her.
She felt the grip on her hand tighten. Jova braced herself. She had someone to care for herself, now. People to watch out for. Responsibilities to shoulder. She did not have the leisure to sit by herself and mope.
Jova raised her head and listened. She needed to find the animals, but she had no idea if Roan had brought them with him or if they had been left back in the camp.
“Lady Fall give me clarity,” she muttered, spinning around, as if that would help. She could feel Alis stumbling beside her. “Where, oh where, does Roan want me to go?”
The pressing sense of urgency had left with Janwye; now Jova felt only an oppressive unease and foreboding, a tingling in her gut she could not shake. Her stomach clenched even tighter when she heard a strangled sob beside her.
“Alis?” she asked, and she felt the little girl’s shoulders shake. “Alis, please don’t cry.”
“I want to go,” said Alis, quietly, in-between sobs. “I want to go, I want to go, I want to go.”
“Come on, then,” said Jova, pulling the girl along as gently as she could. “We’ll go, see? We’re going. We’re going.”
Jova walked into the undergrowth, going as she promised she would, but not knowing where. She held Alis’s shoulders and smiled as wide as she could. “Smile with me, Alis,” Jova said. “Go on, it’ll make you feel better.”
Alis did not reply.
“Are you smiling, Alis? I can’t tell if you are, but you must,” said Jova. Keep smiling. Pretend long enough and it might become real.
“Mm-hmm,” Alis said, although it sounded like she was lying.
Jova wasn’t sure what else to say. She wished Ma or Da was there, or even Mo. They always knew how to cheer her up. Jova gave Alis a quick hug, feeling the warmth of the little girl’s body against her, and patted her on the shoulder.
As they walked, Jova clicked her tongue. She didn’t want to walk headlong into a tree or something silly like that, and besides that she needed some way of finding Roan’s animals. Uten wasn’t exactly the most vocal of companions.
When the sound bounced back, Jova froze. It was like there was a line of rocks in the foliage, but as Jova clicked her tongue again, she realized with a shudder down her spine that rocks didn’t move.
If she concentrated hard, she could pick out the sound of whispering from the undergrowth.
“Alis,” she said, very slowly and very softly. “Turn around. Don’t say anything. And don’t…don’t look scared, OK?”
Alis didn’t say anything. Jova did not know what Alis looked like, though.
As she listened closer, Jova began to make out the whispers, although it did her little good. They spoke in Roan’s foreign tongue—the imperial tongue, the language of Hak Mat Do—and Jova could not understand a word. Once or twice she heard snippets that she could understand, in voices very different from the guttural growls of the sandmen, but she was so nervous she could not process what they were saying.
Jova clicked her tongue one more time. If the slavers were lying in ambush, she did not want to alert them as to her knowledge of their presence; if she was fast, she could get away in time. But she had to know where the enemies were, and what they were doing.
The Hag Gar Gan sandmen had not moved. They were still and silent now, so still that Jova might have once again mistaken them for stones or logs if she did not know better.
“Walk faster,” she muttered to Alis, and they sped up their pace. If they could make it back to the camp in time, amid the safety of grown-olds and alsknights and zealots, then there was a chance…
Something snapped behind her. A dry leaf, an old twig, it did not matter. Before Jova could help herself, she turned her head to listen.
“Ilo ya gek! Zat! Zat! Zat! She is knowing!” The underbrush around Jova exploded with activity, and Jova stumbled over her feet as she fell into a sprint.
“Run, Alis, run!” Jova shouted, but she could barely keep pace herself with the little girl without fear of tripping and sprawling over a root or a bush. She stumbled her way through the foliage blindly, hands groping at the air as she tried to get away.
The voices were still shouting. “Dep Sag Ko, La Ah Abi! Rally the mercenaries, the attack is starting!” More voices carried from further down in the jungle. “One of them knew! That fieldwoman knew! Attack now!”
Alis began to wail, her little legs incapable of keeping up the headlong sprint, and Jova collapsed, chest heaving from the zigzagging path she had taken through the jungle. She crawled forward, struggling weakly to get back up on her feet.
And then a whip snapped above her head.
Alis screamed, but before Jova could rise to help her, a searing line of pain blazed across her back. Jova gasped, her body tensing, as the barbs on the whip ripped out of her skin, and she felt hot blood oozing down her back.
She heard the crack of the whip snapping over her head and rolled to get out of the way, leaf litter and mulch clinging to her wounds as she tumbled over the forest floor.
Jova felt panic rising within her, the same panic that she had felt in the house of Copo, the same panic that had caused her to beat into the man’s face over and over and over, and Jova felt so wretched that she thought she might be sick if she wasn’t already scared witless.
And then the Hag Gar Gan man above her choked and gurgled, and something fell heavily to the ground. “By the light of the Lady Summer!” shouted a familiar voice. “You! Will! DIE!”
The horror of what had just happened was only matched by an overwhelming sense of relief. That man is dead, Jova thought, breathing heavily. Dead. I shouldn’t feel happy. But it was either him or me. Him or me.
“Fang! Hold the others back!” shouted the zealot, and Jova heard the pigwolf pawing at the ground, snorting and snarling.
Gentle hands turned her over, and Jova cried out as the zealot tried to wipe the dirt from the wounds on her back.
“It hurts, Izca,” Jova muttered, doing her best to sit upright, but every time her back moved it flared with pain. “Where’s Alis? Is she alright?”
“She’s fine,” said Izca. “You, on the other hand…”
Jova cried out as something was wrapped tight around her back and chest.
“I’m sorry, I’m being rough,” said Izca, hurriedly. “But I have to get you patched up quickly so we can get out of here soon.”
“What’s- what are- augh!” Jova grit her teeth as Izca continued to bind her wounds.
“These are the bandages of the zealots,” said Izca, misinterpreting her question. “We all wear them, as a symbol of- well, there’s a long story behind them, but we really don’t have time for that now.”
Jova’s head spun as she rose, but Izca’s steadying arm held her up. “Come on, up we get, that’s it. You, too, little one. I’ll get you out of here.”
The sounds of fighting were breaking out all around them. Shouts and screams rang through the forest, and Jova shuddered at the sounds of nets and whips and cages. She shut it out and kept walking. Them or me, Jova thought. This is the real world. It’s either them or me.
But am I worth it?
“There’s a barricade back at the camp,” said Izca, leading them along. “Don’t worry. I know you’re tired, but we just need to get a little further. Keep up, Fang! We’ve got to watch out for our little ladies.”
Jova would have laughed if she had the strength for it. Even when she wasn’t trying to think about it, the past found ways to keep up with her.
“Izca, where’s Janwye? Where’s Roan?” Jova asked. The pain was receding to a dull throb in the back of her head now. If she concentrated on something else, it wasn’t so bad.
Izca drew breath to speak, but no speech came out. His breath was cut short so abruptly and so suddenly that Jova did not realize what had happened until Izca tumbled to the ground.
The second and third arrows zipped through the air and from the sound of the impact hit Izca squarely in the back.
“Izca!” shouted Jova, trying to turn the man over, get his face out of the ground. The shafts of the arrows in his back snapped as Jova began to turn him, and Jova paused, her heart beating in her throat. What if she forced the arrows deeper into his body when she turned him over? What if she needed to keep the wound facing up to keep the blood from flowing out? She couldn’t just leave him with his face in the dirt, though! She had to move him.
She dragged Izca on his side, but the man was too heavy for Jova to move more than a few inches. He began to shudder and shake, and when he tried to speak a sick gargling noise came out.
“It’s going to be OK, Izca,” Jova said, reaching for the bandages around her own chest, which were already slick and stained with blood. She winced as she began to peel them away. They had never been hers in the first place.
Izca made no move to stop her, but he made no move to do anything else, either. “Ladies…” he muttered, his voice oddly infantile. He could barely speak, his whole body shuddering as Jova tried to put pressure on his wounds. “Ladies, no…please…mama, mama…”
What mama? Jova thought, bitterly. To her knowledge, she was the only one who had ever had a mama in all of Albumere.
Fang whined as the bond between animal and owner was severed, although Jova heard no tabula crack. It must be in some pontiff’s house somewhere, with the little hole drilled through it to mark his service to the Ladies Four. Where were those Ladies now? She let her hands fall to her sides, slick and hot with blood, and bowed her head.
Izca died without last words. Jova did not know how to save him.
“Alis, get away,” she said, rising unsteadily to her feet. Izca’s spear, the one he had used to kill Jova’s attacker, had fallen out of his hands. Jova picked it up and braced herself. There was no running anymore. She could only hope that whoever had fired those arrows didn’t have any left.
She turned her back, keeping her ears pricked. Even with the screams and shouts, Jova could hear the footsteps coming up behind her, trying to sneak up on her. Every step was like a drum beat to Jova, impossibly loud, and every beat of her own heart likewise. She was aware of every part of her body except the parts that hurt the most.
Perhaps that was the point.
Jova shed no tears as she stepped over Izca’s corpse, her heart hard and numb. She had barely known him. He was not important to her.
Her fingers tightened on his spear, even as the little voice in the back of her head whispered, “Lie.”
“Alis,” she said, to the little girl, as she heard the man get closer. “I said, get away!”
At that moment, Jova twisted and lunged, catching the slaver just as he was about to toss his net over the two of them. Soft footsteps Jova could only hope were Alis’s faded away, and Jova turned towards the man. There was something cathartic about putting all of her focus into one thing.
The man snarled, swearing in that savage tongue as Jova stepped on the net that had fallen out of his hands and swept it away. Jova heard acutely the sharp metal scrape of a weapon being drawn, and readied herself.
At the sound of the first step, Jova twisted, cutting a shallow wound in the man’s side but failing to pierce flesh. His weapon’s reach was short: it was a dagger or knife of some sort, and he seemed intent on closing the distance between them. Jova couldn’t let that happen.
She stabbed forward, trying to push the man back, but he was nimble and sidestepped her easily. Her spear became an impromptu staff as she beat at his shoulders and arms, just barely staying out of reach of the blade slicing through the air.
It was too little. She was not strong enough to keep a fully grown man at bay. Jova found her arms growing weaker and weaker as the pain on her back grew and grew. One blind swing later, and the man had grabbed her spear and tossed it contemptuously aside.
Jova breathed deeply, hoping only that Alis had gotten away, that Ma and Da would not grieve her long.
And then Fang, Izca’s pet, Izca’s cowardly, bumbling pet, slammed into the man’s side and began to show just how much of a wolf he was. The murderer’s screams were drowned out by Fang’s baying and howling, and Jova heard approaching shouts and yells as other people were drawn by the sound.
Jova crawled forward, and after patting down Izca’s body she found Fang’s tabula. She slipped it in her pocket, right next to Alis’s. Jova was about to crawl away, when she stopped. Before she left him, Jova held Izca’s hand tightly. “Lady Winter come quickly,” she muttered, her voice breaking. “He served you as faithfully as any.”
Jova made no move to pick up Izca’s spear again. Arms shaking, legs weak, she sat and waited for whoever was coming to come, not knowing whose side they were on or what they were going to do to her.
She was alive, but she was tired. And she could fight back no longer.
Izca was so helpful sometimes that it irked Jova. The zealot apologized profusely even when he hadn’t done anything wrong, and hardly seemed to be the staunch warrior Jova imagined one who had earned his feathers to be.
His help wasn’t even the standard charity of a templeman, who was bound by the Lady Winter to be generous and giving. Jova knew the people that gave that kind of charity: they were more concerned about themselves than her. It was a generalized, almost self-righteous kind of charity, as if they still expected something in return. But Izca seemed like he was actively seeking Jova’s forgiveness for something, like he wanted to make amends for something he had done, although what it was Jova could not tell and he would not say.
Jova held Uten’s reins a little tighter, her ears pricked as she kept track of where Izca was, his footsteps mingling in with the march of the Alswell caravan, and where Roan rode, Stel’s hooves ahead a ways in front of her.
It had taken some explaining on their part to justify their presence. Roan, evidently, did not have the same flair for the dramatic Zain had: the way he had explained it, they were not saviors. They were simply friends of the fields, bringing mounts and supplies and support in the difficult journey ahead. With Janwye to vouch for them, Bechde had allowed them to travel with the group. (“And I would be fool to let such a delightful young girl slip away from me so easily,” she had said, patting Jova on the head.)
Jova still had difficulty framing it in her head. The way she understood it, the caravan was split into two groups: the fieldmen who had come originally from Alswell, and now the small contingent of zealots that were escorting them back through the jungles.
Roan and Jova (and a few merchant hopefuls, Jova had not failed to notice) seemed to fall outside those categories. Some pilgrims had emerged from the city to travel with the caravan for the safety of numbers, and the alsknights agreed to protect the civilians in return for much needed supplies. With them, the caravan numbered perhaps four or five score in total.
They were headed for the Seat of the King, where the simple travelers would split off and go their own separate ways while the official retinue would try to negotiate a peace with the new king, Banden Ironhide, before war began in earnest. It seemed simple enough, in theory.
And, yet, the politics of the process continued to evade her. No one knew whether war had yet even begun, with Moscoleon so cut off from the rest of the world and Alswell so far away: Janwye was convinced that disaster had happened in Shira Hay, and dark mutterings circled through the travel-weary and homesick fieldmen. The number of zealots Keep Tlai had sent was nowhere near a real fighting force; they were symbolic, an indication of the Keep’s support, but if so then they symbolized only a tentative alliance. “Not enough,” Jova kept hearing, as the alsknights managed their slaves, as Janwye talked with Bechde. “Not enough.”
Jova flinched as long jungle fronds reached out at her, and ducked down so that she was a little closer to Uten’s bulk. Only a few had brought riding animals; the winding jungle paths were no place for majestic riders on galloping steeds, and more than once Uten had stumbled or tripped through the thick creepers and foliage.
The caravan, for the most part, was silent as it walked. A few pilgrims had tried to start a traveling song, but the thick jungle air had quickly taken away their breath and the natural chorus of the peninsula drowned them out easily.
Jova remembered her first journey through the Moscoleon paths as an almost surreal dream, the unnatural strength that had graced her in the days following her accident giving her the ability to forge through what would have otherwise been an impossible route.
It was only later, on her more frequent trips between the city and the Teeth, the caves where she had trained, that Jova had realized how taxing the thick air, the hot sun, the heady perfumed flowers could be.
“We’ll want to stop soon,” said Izca, walking beside Jova. Jova sighed internally. It sounded almost like he was trying to force a conversation. “It’s getting dark. Find a sinkhole, get some rest, light some fires. Not enough light gets through the trees during the day as it is. Once it’s nightfall we won’t be able to see a damn thing.”
“No, we won’t,” said Jova, scratching an itch under her blindfold. She decided not to comment.
“Big beasties start waking up at dusk,” the zealot continued, and Jova could hear the clack of Izca’s spear as he used it to sweep something aside from the path. “Pantherapes, spring tigers, that kind of thing. Definitely don’t want to mess around with those when it’s pitch black out.”
“Mm,” Jova grunted. She really didn’t have much to add to what Izca was saying.
Izca cleared his throat. “Funny, how this whole system works, isn’t it? We call him the king, but really what does he rule except a league of nations that hates him? I mean, I- uh, sorry, I was just- I was thinking about it, since we’re going to the Seat of the King and all that…”
Why was Izca trying so hard to talk to her? Jova could understand if the zealot was just a naturally friendly person, but from his tone of voice and his constant stuttering it seemed a great effort for him to just come up with small talk. Jova shifted on Uten’s back, pulling on her reins as she heard the caravan diverge to the right.
“I mean, he doesn’t have much authority, does he?” Izca babbled on. “We watch out for ourselves. I don’t think we even really need a king. He doesn’t do us much good, does he? And this one- well, we didn’t even choose this one, did we? Assassination and revolution, it’s really all just out of control…”
“Izca,” said Jova, and she tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t offend him. “You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to. I’m fine on my own.”
Izca fell silent for a moment. His feet made little stomping sounds as he trudged through foliage, clumsy and loud. “The Lady Summer demands that we are brave. The Lady Winter asks us to embrace that which we fear the most, and the Lady Fall wishes that we look to our past, so we may perfect our future. I must do what the Ladies ask of me,” he said, and his voice had a kind of quiet fervor that took Jova by surprise. That’s what it means to be a zealot, thought Jova. Not a fluke like me, not looking for opportunity like Arim. You have to actually believe.
She wasn’t sure if she was ready to believe, again. Not after what Roan had done, not after the fate that the Ladies had strung her along. What did they mean, to dangle so many opportunities and answers and hopes in front of her, only to snatch them away? How was she supposed to worship goddesses that were so cruel?
“I’m sorry,” said Izca, suddenly. “If you want me to leave you alone, I’ll leave you alone.”
Jova raised her head, letting the sounds of the world wash over her. Perhaps her prayer had not yet been fully answered. Perhaps she still had a path to walk. One asks for a reward for her faith, said a distant voice, in a sunlit grove from what seemed like a lifetime ago. The other has faith to sustain her, and understands that it is its own reward.
“One of my friends—his name is Ell—once told me that the zealot tests can happen at any time because they symbolize that we’re always being tested,” said Jova, before Izca could leave. “That it’s not just one hour of one day that we have to prove ourselves, but every hour of every day.” She turned to Izca’s direction, and gave him her best friendly smile. If the zealot thought it his religious duty to befriend a blind girl, then who was she to say otherwise? “I like it when you talk about the Ladies.”
“They saved me,” said Izca, and the stuttering had faded from his voice. “The drink promised it could, my wild brothers promised they could, hatred and fear and anger promised they could, but it was the Ladies that saved me. I’m not proud of who I was. Of the people I hurt, loved ones and strangers alike.”
There was a long pause after that, as Uten stepped over some obstruction in the path and the caravan continued its lonely march through the jungles. Jova wondered who Izca was thinking about, in the silence.
“This is my way of making amends. Of recovering. And if you don’t remember me, then…then that’s good. I don’t want to remember that person, either. But all the same, I have to ask for forgiveness. I’m sorry, Jova. For what I was. What I did.”
Jova took a deep breath. It still ate at her, tantalizingly close to the light of recollection, but the mystery of Izca and Fang, she decided, was one that she would leave alone. She didn’t have to remember.
It took her a moment to find Izca’s shoulder, but when she did she patted it gently. “I forgive you,” she said. Jova did not move her hand. She felt as if there was something more she had to say, but she didn’t know what. “Everyone deserves a second chance,” she said, finally, and she pulled away.
Izca sniffed. It was a prolonged sniff, as emotional as sniffs could be, and Jova couldn’t help but smile a little as Izca said, gruffly, “Thanks.”
They didn’t say any more as they continued walking, but this time the silence did not feel quite so uncomfortable.
Uten rumbled underneath her, shifting the furry hump that Jova sat on. The molebison walked close to the ground, and Jova could almost feel each step as Uten’s paws dragged along the ground. Jova tightened her grip. She had never ridden this long and her legs were sore and chafed. She doubted Uten had ever walked this long either, and she rubbed the back of Uten’s head, gently so as not to disturb her sensitive skin. “There now,” she whispered. “We’ll rest soon.”
“You control her so well,” said Izca, appraisingly. “She’s not yours, is she?”
“No, she’s Roan’s,” said Jova, wondering how Izca had known. Had he been an old client of Roan’s, somewhere in those three odd years? Jova shook her head. She had promised herself not to pry.
“Hmm,” said Izca. Jova sensed an air of disapproval from the man, but he said no more on the subject. There was a snuffling to the side as the pigwolf, Fang, returned to him, and Jova brushed down Uten’s fur and whispered comforting gibberish into her ear as the molebison smelled danger.
For a long time, Jova just rode. The temperature dropped rapidly with the sun: although the air was still thick and humid, moisture still beading on her cheeks and forehead, a coolness tinged it now that made it easier to breathe. The night reminded her of the walks she used to take in the Jhidnu wilds, peaceful and unbroken, listening to the chorus of the Lady Spring. The twitter of the birds, the background hum of the Moscoleon insects, the waking cries of the animals of the dusk: the jungle pulsated around her.
Uten came to a sudden halt, and Jova gripped the molebison’s back tightly. “They’re signaling to make camp,” said Izca, putting a reassuring hand on Jova’s arm. “We’re stopping for the night.”
Jova grinned. She was glad of it; she did not know how Roan managed riding for so long, when her legs were raw and aching from only a couple hours on Uten’s pondering back. She swung herself over the side and slipped off easily, using Uten as an anchor as she felt her way forward. She clicked, but there was so much background noise in the jungle it was difficult to concentrate on the echoes.
She did hear Fang whimpering again, though, and Izca said, his voice betraying his nervousness, “It sounds like some kind of batbeast, doesn’t it? I’ve got to admit, it’s a bit frightening.”
Jova scuffed her foot on the ground. “Sorry about that,” she muttered, biting her tongue. She forgot how much the clicking unnerved people sometimes.
“No, don’t be! Fang’s a coward, that’s all,” said Izca, quickly. He cleared his throat. “Well, it was nice- it was nice talking with you, Jova. And walking with you. I’ve got to go with the other zealots now, but, erm…”
“We’ll see each other tomorrow,” said Jova, nodding in Izca’s direction. “Bye now! It was nice meeting you.”
Izca coughed and mumbled some kind of reply, but even Jova could not make out what he had said before the zealot stumbled off to some other group in the caravan.
Jova stood next to Uten, listening to the relieved chatter of the travelers as they made camp, to the dull whoosh and crackle of fires being lint by flint and summer animals. The molebison beside her grunted, and Jova wasn’t sure how to comfort her. Who would she break bread with? Whose fire would she sit beside? Izca’s company had alleviated it, but Jova was just beginning to realize that Roan had not approached her once on the march through the jungle.
Was she no longer useful to him now that she knew? Jova felt a cold tingling in her gut. Roan had always been distant and reserved, but there had been a protectiveness to him that made Jova feel safe. Had she fled her home with a man who simply no longer cared for her?
“Roan?” Jova said, hesitantly, to the darkness, but no one answered. She trudged forward, trying her best not to run into people as she navigated the camp. “Roan, where are you?”
Beside her, Uten snorted and snuffled. Roan still had her tabula. Perhaps she would know the way.
“Come on, girl,” said Jova, rubbing her side. “Let’s go and find him.”
Uten did not move. She swung her snout Jova’s way and gnawed a little at Jova’s hand; she was hungry. “Sorry, Uten,” whispered Jova. “Roan’s got all the feed. That’s why we have to find him.” She tugged at the molebison’s reins and reluctantly the creature began to walk.
She kept her ears pricked for Roan’s voice, but the sandman rarely raised his voice when he spoke at all and she had little hope on that front. After she was sure she had walked the length of the camp and back searching for him, Jova gave up.
“Change of plans,” she said, to a disgruntled Uten. “We’ll find Janny, and eat with her tonight.” Even as she began to walk where she knew the Alswell emissaries were set up, worry crawled in her gut. She was sure she made an obvious sight, a blindfolded girl tugging around a clumsy, blind brute of an animal back and forth through the camp. Where had Roan gone? Why hadn’t he tried to find her?
Jova missed Ma and Da.
As she was walking towards the head of the camp, where she had heard the fieldman slaves making their cooking fires and the alsknights laying down their lances, she heard something in the underbrush. Not some chirp, or twitter, or snarl. It was high-pitched, single cry.
It was human.
Jova froze. What was she to do? Her first thought was to find Roan, but, well, she had tried that already and to no luck. Janwye or Bechde, then? Maybe even Izca? But the crying grew louder and more fervent and Jova knew that if she ran away now she might never come back.
With Uten as a pillar of stability and safety beside her, she walked away from the warm fires into the chittering, seething undergrowth of the jungle. Dark possibilities danced in her head. What if it was not a human, but some animal skilled at mimicry, luring her away to be eaten whole? What if it was a demon of the deep, taking the form of a child and even now was planning to steal away Jova’s face and set her blood boiling?
But as drew closer to the source of the crying, and as the crying grew closer to her, it sounded so plaintive and pathetic that Jova had difficulty imagining it as anything dark or scary or dangerous.
“Hello?” she said, tentatively, to the muffled darkness. “Is anyone out there?”
And she heard footsteps on the mulch, right in front of her. Jova bent low and clicked, trying to place the person.
Immediately, the crying became screaming. Jova clapped her hands over her mouth, and cursed herself. The toddler, for it evidently was some kind of toddler, had a high-pitched, grating scream, and Uten stamped her feet and moaned at the ear-splitting sound.
Jova cursed herself as she reached out blindly to find the child. What must it have looked like to the child, to see the great lumbering hulk of Uten accompanied by the clicking, blind-folded form of Jova? They must have seemed like demons of the deep themselves.
“Shh, it’s alright, I’m not going to hurt you,” said Jova, holding her hands up to show that she meant no harm, having no idea how old the child was or if it even understood a word Jova was saying. She did her best to smile, but that only seemed to make the crying and screaming louder.
And now the demon is reaching out to grab the kid and is showing all its teeth to eat it. Great job, Jova, whispered a voice in her head, and Jova put down her hands quickly and sealed her lips. She had no idea what to do, until she felt Uten move suddenly beside her.
“Uten, wait!” she shouted, fearing the worst when she heard something hit the ground, hard. The decaying jungle mulch deadened the sound of the impact, but it was still loud enough that Jova feared someone had been hurt.
The crying stopped. For a moment, Jova feared the worst.
Then the child hiccupped and sniffed, and Jova’s palpitating heart slowed. She gripped her hair. Things were going too fast, she needed a moment to process what was happening.
Who was this child? Where had he or she even come from? By all the Ladies Four, was it a boy or a girl? Jova staggered over to Uten’s side, and then shuffled her way forward until she came into contact with the child.
He (Jova was guessing) had been pinned down by Uten’s large paw, and he whimpered slightly whenever the molebison moved. Jova put what she hoped was a comforting hand on the boy’s arm. “We’re not going to hurt you,” said Jova, gently. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
She felt, suddenly, a swelling in her chest, one she could not quite place. It was parts surprise, parts fear, parts anger, and she gripped the boy’s hand tightly. “I’m Jova,” she said. “Jova.”
From his voice, he sounded young, far too young to be out in the wilds alone. Jova’s mind shuffled through all the possibilities. Farmers lived out in the jungles, she knew, but never in areas so dense and thick with foliage. Some of the wild zealots lived out here as well, but how could a wild zealot be so young unless-.
And then it came to Jova.
“You came from the Fallow,” she whispered, and the child whimpered as Uten shifted her weight. Jova traced her hand down the child’s arm, until she found, grasped in his tiny little hand, a disk-shaped object. He let go of it quickly, and Jova cupped it in her own palms, not knowing what to do with the tabula.
“Get off, Uten,” she said, softly. “He’s no harm to anyone.”
The molebison snorted and backed away, and Jova heard the leaves crunch as the child stood shakily. He seemed too terrified for words, and stumbled away almost immediately once he was free.
“Wait!” Jova shouted, rising from her crouching position. She held out the child’s tabula. “This is yours!”
The child had not gone far. Restraining herself from clicking, Jova edged forward until she found the kid, sitting on the ground, sniffling to himself. It sounded like he was crying again, although not as loudly.
“Here you are,” said Jova, trying to push the tabula back onto the child, but he wouldn’t take it. Jova knelt, ready to shove the tabula into the child’s lap and be done with it, when her knee bumped against something on the ground. Curiously, she felt it. Clammy, and pliable, but with a hard surface underneath…
Jova felt hair and realized she was holding the head of a corpse.
She felt as if she was going to puke. She reeled away, gagging, her lungs seizing up. The corpse’s skull had been small and round, barely large enough to be more than a toddler, and the skin had felt oddly swollen and distended. There had been no smell, although the body was cold, and for the first time in her life Jova realized what it meant to be wild.
Jova traced the sign of winter over the base of her throat, and prayed to the Lady that this child’s death had been merciful and kind. She had no idea what to make of the living one, left to cry over the corpse. Did he even fully understand what had happened?
“Let’s get away from here,” said Jova, pulling on the child’s hand. “Come on, let’s go.”
The child would not stand, no matter how hard Jova pulled. She could not just leave him here. Whatever might have killed the first child might come back. It might, to Jova’s horror, still be here. They had to go.
And as she tried to coax him to leave, the second shocking thing happened that night.
She heard a great thump, and every tree overhead rustled: a wooden creak, like the bending of falling timber, except this creak went on and on and on and never seemed to stop. The child’s crying went completely silent, Uten bellowed and backed away, and Jova heard the rhythmic impacts slowly getting closer, like footfalls.
The walking tree passed, and though Jova could not see an inch of it, she could feel its power reverberating through the ground, feel its sheer weight and age with every step. She stood, frozen, as the hollow marched away, having deposited its young burden, the branches rusting and whispering in some ancient tongue that Jova could not hope to begin to understand.
It seemed to last both an age and no time at all. The hollow’s passing somehow demanded respect, a quiet, a reverential pause, like standing when a pontiff entered the room. Jova stood in that clearing for quite some time after it had passed, and wondered how many people in Albumere could truthfully say they had witnessed something so arcane and so eternal.
Then she heard the galloping of hooves, and knew that Roan had, at last, found her.
“Jova!” he shouted, rearing Stel in as the horse whinnied, and it was as if the spell of the hollow’s passing had been broken. The boy began to cry again, even louder than before, and the normally quiet Uten snorted and bellowed. “What are you doing, so far from camp?”
“Did you see it, Roan?” said Jova, unable to keep the amazement from her voice. “Did you hear it?”
“Was I seeing what?” asked Roan. His voice straddled the edge between concerned and suspicious.
Jova shook her head, not knowing how to say it. It must have made footprints, it must have made echoes, it must have made some kind of after effect. “A hollow, Roan,” whispered Jova. “I heard it! It was right in front of me! One of the hollows, and it was walking!”
“Many things can be mistaken for another in the dark,” said Roan, flatly. “We must not be letting our imaginations get ahead of our realities.”
“No, Roan, I swear I heard it!” said Jova, but even as she said it she felt a twinge of doubt. What had truly made those shuddering footsteps? No one had ever seen the hollows move before. Who was she to be the first?
Roan hissed suddenly, and Jova realized what she had been standing next to. “The dead child, Jova. Is this your doing?”
Jova shook her head mutely.
For at least a minute, Roan did not speak. Stel paced around Jova as he assessed the situation, and finally he said, “Come, Jova. We must be returning, now.”
As Uten began to shuffle away, the boy began to whimper again. “What about him?” asked Jova.
“We shall leave him be,” said Roan. “Such is the way of wild things.”
Jova felt a pit in the bottom of her stomach, and remember the cold clammy face she had just touched. “He’ll die out here,” said Jova, holding the child’s hand tightly.
“He may yet survive.” Roan said it with the weariness of one who had resigned himself to the way of the world long ago. “He has been claimed by the Ladies. It is his fate to be wild.”
“I’m not going to leave him to be killed out here, with no one to care for him,” said Jova, staunchly, and she knew in her heart that she meant it. No one deserved the fate of the corpse on the ground.
Roan did not speak for some moments. When he did, his voice was cold, and harsh. “You hold his tabula, then, Jova,” he said. “You now own your first slave.”
The humidity of the jungle pressed in on all sides. Even if they had wanted to strike a fire in the growing midday swelter, Jova wasn’t sure if they could, so instead the fire pit at the center of the camp remained cold and barren.
She could hear Stel’s labored breathing and the swish of her tail, could almost envision Roan, a proud lord with a face she had never seen, sitting astride her. Except…
Except she had to cut the image off halfway, because Roan had no legs.
Jova felt like she had been taken advantage of. She felt stupid and indignant and angry and more than a little hurt. How had she gone all those years without noticing? How had three years passed without anyone telling her, anyone letting her know?
Roan’s a scary guy, Arim had once told her. By the Lady Fall, he’s lucky.
The girl’s hand balled into fists. Roan had always been meticulous about his business, keeping careful record of all his clients, of the appointments and times and transactions and loans. No doubt he had been just as meticulous with his secret.
There was nothing else for it. Jova would have to confront him.
She took a deep breath and walked out from behind the cover of the wagon, clicking her tongue to get a better picture of where Roan was. She walked straight towards him, back straight, chest out, head held high.
Roan said not a word.
Jova stood with her hands by her side, waiting for Roan to at least honor her by speaking. He didn’t. He was as impassive and silent as ever.
“I know,” Jova said, quietly. She felt that she didn’t have to elaborate. They both knew what she meant.
“I was thinking I was lucky,” said Roan. His voice was hoarse and raspy. It sounded as if he had not yet fully recovered from the blow Latius had dealt him. “At first, at least. But then, after such a long time, I am thinking that perhaps it is the Ladies’s will that you never know. That I am being given a second chance.”
Jova bristled. “A second chance for what? What exactly did you need a second chance for, Roan?”
Roan didn’t speak for several seconds. Jova did not move. The quiet murmur of the rest of the camp, waiting in quiet anticipation of Janwye’s return, hummed around them.
“When I am first meeting you,” said Roan, and his tone was contemplative. “I did warn you.”
The girl’s brow furrowed. She thought back to that day, so many years ago: desolate from her recent accident, she had been sitting quite alone in the door of the hut, waiting out the sun, when Roan had approached her with almost no provocation. She remembered no warning.
“When I asked you for your secret, as to why Anjan and Ell would watch over you, you would not tell me.” The direction of Roan’s voice changed as Stel began to pace around the little clearing in the campsite. The horse was evidently growing restless. “Then, when you are asking me what miracle I came to Moscoleon for, I am telling you that shall be my secret.”
It had been so long ago. Had Roan really told her that?
“And I did tell you of the miracles in Moscoleon, blind Jova,” said Roan. “I am telling you of the man with no tongue who may sing again, of the man with no legs who can run again, and of the girl with no eyes who may see again.”
“Is there a man with no tongue I just haven’t noticed?” asked Jova, testily. “Has he been walking aside you all this time and I just haven’t seen him?”
“You are bitter,” said Roan, a statement so blunt and obvious that Jova felt her temper rising. “Come. Have we not both felt the miracle of the Ladies? You have been given sight with your tongue, and Stel…Stel is as loyal a steed as I could wish for, as steadfast and as constant. I can ride faster than any man could run with her. Are we not both blessed?”
Jova felt suddenly that the blindfold was uncomfortably hot around her head. She stamped her foot. “That’s not the point, Roan.”
“Then what is, as you say, the point, blind Jova? Have I offended you in some way? Have I hurt you or harmed you?”
“You used me, Roan. I don’t know why you did it, but you used me. You took advantage of the fact that I was blind to…to hide the truth.” Jova stumbled forward, reaching out for Roan, not knowing if she wanted to hold him or strike him. “You were scared of the truth. You feared it. And you told me—you taught me—that the truth was something I wasn’t supposed to be afraid of.”
Jova found Roan’s hand, and gripped it tightly. “How am I supposed to believe that now?” she asked.
Roan did not say anything. His pause stretched on long, and Jova waited and waited, her grip tightening, her heart quickening, almost begging for an answer.
Jova let go of Roan’s hand and reached for Stel, for the place where Roan’s legs should have been. She felt only the horse’s well-cleaned hair: the hair, she reminded herself, that Roan had never let her clean, because Roan used Stel as his replacement legs. “How did you hide it for so long?” she asked, finally.
“When I first saw you, when Anjan and Ell and you came to the tenement to ask for residence, I asked Zain not to mention my…disability. Later, I approached your friends—your parents—and asked the same. You remember? When I first spoke to you, I left you to ask Anjan and Ell these questions. They complied if only because I gave sustenance and pay.” Roan sniffed. “Your Anjan and Ell love you, Jova, but they are also very practical. Is it not strange that you, of all of them, brought in the most for your family?”
Jova let her hand fall and massaged the bridge of her nose. The fact that the tendrils of Roan’s plans crept so far into her life was not comforting.
“Many people you and I would be speaking with I would rely on not to mention my being…my being…” For once, Roan struggled for the words.
“Your being crippled,” said Jova, her voice harsher than she thought it would be. She spoke before she had a moment to catch herself. “You’re crippled, Roan. That’s the truth. Admit it.”
Another lengthy pause followed. Silence, silence, filled by the twitter and croak of the jungle animals hiding in the underbrush. “My being crippled,” Roan said, finally. “They would not say it out loud out of courtesy. Such is the way of the templemen. My clients I would warn specifically, the others I would simply…trust not to say.”
And that was it. Roan said no more. That was his master plan, how he had hidden the secret from Jova all this time. She couldn’t believe it. It couldn’t have been that simple to hide it from her.
Yes, it could have, whispered an insidious voice inside of her. To hide it from a blind girl as stupid and ignorant as you.
Jova’s fists clenched a little tighter.
“I thought it was providence,” said Roan. “I thought perhaps the Ladies had looked kindly on me and given me this one gift. And yet…now I am thinking they heard our contract.”
Despite her anger, Jova found her curiosity piqued. “What contract?”
“Did I not say that I would not ask for your secret, if you did not ask for mine? And when you revealed that secret, when you told me that Anjan and Ell were your mother and father, the Ladies saw fit to reveal mine. It was only proper.”
“So you’re saying all this was planned?”
“As is everything, blind Jova.”
Jova straightened. “If that is what you believe, crippled Roan.”
Roan laughed, a short, sharp bark. “We do not see the teeth of pups until they bite,” he said. “You have grown much. You are much more than the sad girl who did not smile that I saw lurking in the shadows.”
Was she? Jova did not feel it. Every second she spent outside of Moscoleon’s walls made her feel like those years in the Great Temple had been sheltered, an illusion, fake. She had no friends left to say goodbye to, no future in the city beyond execution, and now no family to rely on. Was that all growing up?
“Can I ask again, Roan?” Jova said. “Why? Why me?”
“The answer is still the same,” said Roan. “I have told no other lies, Jova. The truth is still being the truth.”
As much as Jova wanted to believe him, she wasn’t sure if she could.
“And what of you, Jova?” asked Roan, and Stel paced a little closer to Jova. “What secrets have you kept from me?”
“That’s different. I-,” said Jova, immediately, but Roan cut her off.
“You are not telling me that you are strange, Jova. That you are not like others of this world. And though I am suspecting, I am not knowing. I am not saying. I am not telling. Accusations demand accusations, answers demand answers. What have you not told me, Jova?”
“What is there to say?” asked Jova, crossing her arms. Her coza swished around her legs as she turned to face Roan, but Stel was beginning to circle around her to the point that Jova could not tell where Roan was standing. “I told you what I needed to tell you. My family is Anjan and Ell. I didn’t leave them when the Fallow came. It’s something I’ve lived with since I was born. I never thought it was strange. Answers demand answers, Roan. When did you lose your legs? Why didn’t you tell me?”
The pacing stopped. Stel’s hoof beats ceased. “I didn’t tell you, Jova,” said Roan, slowly. “Because I could not bear to see you look at me the same way so many others look at you. I did not tell you, Jova, for the same reason you refuse charity.”
Silence followed. Roan stopped moving. He stopped talking. He let the words hang in the air, and for a while Jova did not speak either.
“I was born in a child’s haven in the wilds of Jhidnu,” said Jova. She could give Roan that, at least. “They don’t have those in Moscoleon, I think.”
“Nor in Hak Mat Do,” said Roan. “Please explain, Jova.”
“I don’t remember much of it. I guess you would call it a place for truce. No one fights, no one steals. Everyone watches out for each other, but only as long as they have the baby. It’s bad luck to stay once the baby is gone. They say it weakens the magic of the Ladies.”
Stel nickered at that, and Roan sounded curious. “The magic?”
“Just superstition,” said Jova, quickly. “Protective magic, blessings, that kind of thing. The power that keeps the wild animals from attacking the haven. I don’t know how much of it is true.”
Roan did not speak. Jova knew that this was one of those pauses where Roan thought very hard about what had just been said, carefully categorizing it into the shelves in his brain where this information was stored. “And what if the child is grown?” he asked.
“They stop believing you, I suppose. My parents stayed the four years, and then…and then they stayed a little while after. The Fallow came and it went. My tabula never called to me. I was never summoned. The people got angry at them, so they ran.”
“I see,” said Roan. He made no other comment.
“We didn’t stop moving for years after that. We tried to stay in Jhidnu once, but it was hard to find work under the plutocrats, and once, when they asked for us to show tabula…things got ugly.” Jova sat down, next to the blackened pit where the fieldmen had last lit their fire. She scratched her chest, remembering.
She shook her head. Roan would get no more from her, at least not today. She had come to confront him, not give him more of what he wanted.
“I took Stel in only after my accident,” said Roan, after he waited to make sure Jova’s story was over. “My mentor, Marion, offered her to me. She is not strong, I am saying. She is not fast! She is not hardy! She has no power! What a strange creature, I am telling Marion. Aga kuar han: to ride it would be shame.”
Roan paused. “Do you never think it strange that the wild beasts of Albumere are made of the pieces of each other? That the only ones who seem whole are those touched with the might of the Ladies? Does it not seem strange to you that we remember what those pieces are, but not why they have been melded together?”
Her thoughts turned to Mo, the weaseldog. It had never been brought to her attention before. Jova assumed it was the natural order of things. A plain, normal horse like Stel defied that order. Just like…
Just like Jova.
A chill ran down Jova’s spine. It was like she had just touched the corner of the temple at the center of Moscoleon; a piece of the whole revealed to her, suggestive of the whole’s complexity, its grandeur, its might, but not enough to see the whole itself.
“Stel is important to me for many of the same reasons you are important to me. She reminds me of a world that could have been, a world before, a world that once was.” One of Roan’s pauses followed, and he sighed heavily. “At times, she reminds me of a world where I was called Rho Hat Pan, where I was foolish young man who did not bear quite so heavy a burden on my shoulders.”
It seemed like Roan would speak again when sudden shouting roused the Alswell camp to life. Jova jumped to her feet, ears pricked, while Stel nickered and stamped her hooves on the ground. Roan said, sharply, “Janwye has returned.”
Jova bowed her head. Their talk was over. But, just as Roan was about to leave, he bent down and whispered into her ear, “See, Jova? A secret for a secret, a truth for a truth. All of life is giving and taking. Something must be sacrificed before something can be earned.”
The way Roan said it made Jova’s skin crawl. She stood by the fireless pit as Roan rode away, hugging her chest. She wasn’t sure what she had gone into the conversation hoping for, but despite that still she felt she had not gotten what she expected.
“Ready the caravan!” shouted Bechde’s voice, loud and forceful. “Make haste! We will spare not a second while our brothers and sisters at home suffer!”
Jova’s mouth was dry. How had the negotiations gone? What verdict had Keep Tlai passed? Had Janwye made it out unscathed?
No one was there to answer her. Jova gripped her shoulders tight. She had work to do. She would finish that first.
Clicking her way to Roan’s corner of the encampment, it did not take her long to find the warmth radiating from three equine bodies, all tethered to a single wooden stake hastily drive into the ground.
“Let’s get that off you,” muttered Jova, pulling the stake out, and a chorus of bleats and snorts and bellows answered her in thanks over the growing din of the fieldmen breaking camp. Jova rubbed Chek’s side, holding his reins in one hand while making sure all the packs were still on his back. They had not even had time to unpack; under her negligence the fall mule had born the burdens all night.
“Sorry, buddy,” Jova muttered, rubbing the mule under the chin. He snorted, and a blast of cold air hit Jova square in the face. It was a welcome respite from the heat. “You’re going to need to carry these just a bit longer.”
She moved on to Yora, brushing him down, making sure he was fit too travel too. Her mind wandered as her hands did the familiar routes. A staghound: was this really so strange? What else would he be? A stag and a hound? Jova tried to compute the logistics in her head. Would Yora have two tabula? Would his separate halves be somehow linked? It didn’t make sense.
Uten, she saved for last. The sheer bulk and stoicism of the molebison was always comforting. Jova let her hand rest on Uten’s side for a second longer after she had finished her inspection.
If something happened to Roan, if she was somehow separated from this motley herd…
It would be nice to have at least one of them by her side. Bechde had seemed so willing to pay and to please, it would have been a shame to turn down such an opportunity.
Jova’s grasp tightened, and Uten hissed at the sudden yanking on her fur. “Sorry, girl,” said Jova, giving her as gentle a pat as possible on the back of her head, where she liked it. “Sorry about that.”
Jova wrapped the reins of the three mounts in her hand and shook her head. She had to focus. If she was distracted she would start to hurt the people closest to her.
Someone passed her. Roan?
“Do you need help with any- oh, Ladies.” It was not Roan. Someone young, although still much older than Jova, male. He sounded as if he had seen a ghost.
Jova moved the reins from one hand to another, furrowing her eyebrows. Did she know this man? He had a Moscoleon accent, not an Alswell one. “Thank you,” said Jova, slowly. “But I don’t need any.”
The man still stood there. He did not move. Jova felt uncomfortable trying to walk around him, but, not knowing what else to say, asked as politely as she could, “I’m sorry, but who are you?”
“You don’t remember? I’m-.” The man coughed and cleared his throat. “I’m, er, I’m just a zealot of the Temple, sent by Keep Tlai to assist you. Well, erm, not you, that is, but the city of Alswell. Well, not the city, per say, but- oh, shit, this is all so wrong…”
There was something familiar in the man’s voice, but Jova could not place it.
“Are all these yours?” asked the zealot, after a pause. “They’re a handsome lot of animals.”
“They belong to my master, Roan,” said Jova, slowly. “Will you be coming with us? Is the Temple going to help Alswell?”
“So that was the horse freak,” hissed the zealot, under his breath. It was only Jova’s keen hearing that caught it; she wasn’t sure if anyone else would have heard it, so soft was the zealot’s voice. “I, erm, yes,” he said, louder. “We will escort you as far as the Seat of the King, and we will give you our support in negotiating a peace.”
The Seat of the King? It was still far, far away, but it was not Alswell, not the battlefield itself that Bechde had told her the war would be fought on. “You’re not…fighting?”
“We will not be hasty, like Keeps and crusades past,” said the zealot. “We will try and stop the bloodshed before it starts.”
Jova’s heart leaped. Perhaps she would be returning home sooner than she thought. “How many zealots are coming?” she asked, rapidly. “How long do you think the journey will last?”
“I’m sorry, girl, I’ve just got my second feather,” said the zealot, and there was a bit of apprehension in his voice. “I honestly have no idea how long the journey will take. It, erm, it looks like we’re going to get moving soon. Are you sure you don’t want any help?”
Jova tugged on the reins and walked away with Chek, Yora, and Uten in tow. “I can manage,” she said. “I’m Jova, by the way. What’s your name?”
“You don’t- well, I suppose…” The zealot took a deep breath. “I’m Izca. I, erm…it’s nice to meet you, Jova.”
Izca. Again, the name rang a familiar bell, but one Jova did not recognize. Had Arim mentioned an Izca as one of his friends?
A sudden snarling made Jova snap to attention, but the zealot’s gentle laughter and a happy growling made her relax. “This is Fang,” said Izca. “Dirty little pigwolf. He looks nasty but don’t worry, he’s a big old coward and a real softie.”
Izca and Fang. Jova scratched her chest. She had heard these names before, she knew she had, she just couldn’t remember where…
“It looks like everyone’s just about packed up,” said Izca. “And the Alswell lady is calling everyone together over yonder.”
Izca must have pointed towards Bechde, because Jova had no idea which direction he was indicating. Listening to the general mass of people moving towards the end of the camp deeper in the jungle, she clicked her tongue just once to get a better idea of where they were going.
Immediately, the pigwolf, Fang, recoiled and whimpered, a high-pitched mewling sound not unlike the one Mo made whenever he was afraid. Jova held a hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry, I- I didn’t mean to…”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Izca, talking over her. “Let’s just go and see where we’re all going, OK?”
“OK,” said Jova, following the zealot’s footsteps as he walked away. Izca and Fang. Where had she heard that before?
And Jova walked down the jungle road, away from the city, trying to dredge up memories of the past.
Jova turned her waist, feeling the leafy skirt twirl around her legs. “What am I wearing?”
“The dress of a templegirl, which they are calling coza,” said Roan. “It is your clothes that mark you as one from Jhidnu. You are safer as long as you are looking like them. Soon you shall be speaking as them, acting as them, believing as them. They will come to accept you.”
“Really? Did that go well for you?” muttered Jova, darkly.
Roan did not say anything.
Jova smoothed out the strips that made up the skirt. They were thick and waxy, and felt odd brushing against her legs. “Does my m- does Anjan approve of this?”
She would have asked herself, but Ma had already left. The family separated most mornings as soon they woke, although Ma never left without kissing Jova on the forehead and Da always made sure to say goodbye.
“Your Anjan approves of very little.”
Jova scratched her chin, not sure how to respond. It may have been one of Roan’s jokes.
There was a sharp hollow sound, as Roan tapped the head of a crate. “Will you eat as we ride?”
Jova held her hands out until she felt the hot steam from the morning’s meal under her palms. She lowered her hands until she felt the edges of the plate, and then pulled it towards her.
“The Lady Summer bless us, we give you thanks,” Roan began, as Jova started to eat. She pushed the bowl away quickly. “May we be strong, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
“Fortune be with you,” Jova repeated, and began again.
Jova supposed it was kind of him. Roan gave Jova the same bean gruel every morning, the same cornbread and tomato stew every afternoon. He sent her home with supper for the whole family, too, although he never ate with them.
“Ride?” asked Jova, coughing as she swallowed a mouthful that was too hot for her. She did her best not to stain her new skirt as she wiped her chin with her hands. “Am I not cleaning and feeding them today?”
“Today is a holy day,” said Roan. “We shall have no customers today.”
Jova traced the rim of her bowl. “But I’m still working?”
“Yes. Will you eat as we ride?”
Jova’s fingers curled at the same time as her stomach. “I’ll finish quickly,” she said, under her breath, and did her best to gulp down the rest. She used her fingers to wipe up the rest; Ma had told her off for it, once, but it was the only way she had of making sure she ate all of it.
Roan waited patiently while Jova ate. She wondered what he did in those periods of silence. He did not speak or move (not, at least, in ways she could hear).
With a sigh, Jova put the bowl down. “Done,” she announced.
Roan did not waste time with a reply; Jova found he rarely did. He clicked his tongue, instead. “Here, Uten!”
Jova walked forward. Her steps were longer now, although she still kept her hands up like a lizardant’s antennae. “Hey, old girl,” she said, brushing Uten’s side. The molebison was amicable enough if properly fed, and among the three Jova spent the most time with her.
There was a scrape, and another tap on the wooden crate. “Stand, Jova.”
Jova did as she was told, and a moment later Roan’s hands around her waist lifted her onto Uten’s back. Jova felt her gut clench, but did her best to keep her face straight.
She had ridden Uten twice so far, both times under Roan’s careful instruction. The rest of the time, she preferred to simply walk around the edge of the ring as she led Uten on her daily rounds. One hand on the wall, stumbling, shambling, barely making any progress- it was still better than this.
The girl bent down and hugged the molebison close. She felt the steady breathing of the beast under her, felt the heat radiating from her body. The skin under her blindfold suddenly itched and stung, and Jova’s breathing quickened.
There was nothing to anchor onto. Jova’s only reference point was Uten, and as the animal moved she felt a dizzying sense of vertigo. Very quickly, Jova lost sense of how far away the ground was.
“How are you, Jova?” Roan’s voice was cold, and distant.
“Adjusting,” said Jova. “Easy, Uten, easy.”
“We shall be going then. Just be holding on. I will lead the way.” Jova heard the clink of tabula from Roan’s direction.
“The other animals?” asked Jova.
“They will not be coming with us. Only Stel and Uten, today.”
Jova shifted, trying to get into a more comfortable position around Uten’s back hump. Uten rolled her shoulders, disgruntled as she always was by pressure or loud noises, but a sharp click from Roan made her stop.
“Where are we going, Roan?”
“Where the life is taking us, Jova.”
That was all the answer Jova was going to get. She hugged Uten even closer, and tried not to think about how much the animal swayed as she walked.
As they rode, Jova listened. The sounds of the city were familiar to her, by now, although as they entered the main pilgrimage routes Jova had to concentrate to parse the different noises. A woman’s voice drifted past; then, the hesitant muttering of wild children entering the city; the low hum of a zealot, concluding his morning prayer.
Jova cocked her head. A pontiff was speaking, to the soft scribble of quills on papyrus, so quiet that perhaps only Jova could hear. Scribes?
The sinking feeling in Jova’s gut distracted her too much to keep listening. Her fingers tightened on Uten’s fur. She tried to tell herself that it wouldn’t have done her much good, anyway. Reading wasn’t something she saw people do often. She wouldn’t have needed it.
It stung, all the same.
Uten came to a halt, so suddenly that Jova nearly toppled over her head. “Roan?”
“Quiet, girl,” said Roan. “I am making a purchase.”
There was a pocket of silence to Jova’s left. She reached out, hesitantly, and found that perhaps after reaching arms-width in the air was noticeably cooler. The shade under a trading stall?
A clatter of shells indicated the exchange. Jova still wasn’t quite sure about the concept of money, but Roan had promised, after many lengthy silences, to keep her pay restricted to more concrete things.
“Here,” said Roan, and Jova found a hard slate pressed into her hand.
“What is it?” asked Jova, turning it over, as they began to move through the street again. They rode side by side to talk, although some chafed at the blockage in the road.
“A woodcut of the Lady Winter. You are winterborn, no?”
“Oh,” said Jova, feeling the etchings with her thumbs. The sinking pit in her stomach grew. “Yes, I am. Um, thank you, Roan. I’m sure it’s…very beautiful.”
“Come, blind Jova,” said Roan. “The life is taking us somewhere else now.”
Jova flipped the woodcut over in her hands. What had Roan meant, by giving it to her? Was it another reminder of his sacred truth? Jova’s grip tightened.
The woodcut must have been colored. Dyed blue and white, the colors of the Lady Winter. She traced the lines, trying to picture in her mind how the woodcut must have looked, but ultimately it was pointless.
Jova bit her lip and gripped her blindfold. She wanted to rip it off and show the world what she would never see.
She held the woodcut so hard she thought it might snap. The anger built inside of her, boiling until Jova felt it stream out of her eyes like lava.
She didn’t notice how quiet it was until Roan said, “Stop.”
Jova sniffed. The air was musty and stifled, and the sounds of the city had faded to a muted hum. Without even seeing, Jova felt a stillness around her. She opened her mouth to ask Roan where they were, but closed it quickly. She didn’t feel ready to talk.
Roan wasted no time. He snapped his fingers, and Jova listened to the echo bounce off the walls. He grunted in approval.
“Uten, come.” As the molebison shuffled forward, Jova rubbed her eyes and listened. Where were they? What kind of work did Roan have for her here? He had said it was a holy day. Was this another Moscoleon ritual, like the strange chants and dances of the pontiffs? Jova dangled the woodcut from the tips of her fingers, trying not to ruin it with her sweaty palms.
Roan’s hands grabbed her wrists, and she nearly shrieked. “Hold it to your face, like so. Do not slant it such.” Roan paused as he guided Jova’s arms up. “You were crying.” A statement, not a question.
“Yes,” said Jova, anyway. She turned her head, doing her best to hide it. “Sorry.”
“Do not be sorry. There is nothing to be ashamed of.” Roan coughed. “I formally apologize for any offense I have given you.”
Jova lifted her eyebrows. “No, I…you don’t have to…” She shook her head, and smiled. “Do not be sorry. There is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Hmm.” Roan tilted the woodcut forward, and let go of Jova’s hands. She heard Stel move away, although nothing of what Roan was doing.
“Ell says that,” said Jova, trying to keep the mood light. Her arms were starting to feel stiff. “The formal apologies.”
“True, it is a marbleman tradition.”
“I thought you said you were from Hak Mat Do?”
“As was Des To Hem, when he first saw Mason’s Peak,” said Roan. “But then he went on to build the greatest fortress Albumere has ever seen. Snakes are biting their own tails, but horses are riding straight- I left the south many times before coming to Moscoleon.”
“Is that where you learned to fight?” asked Jova.
There was a dangerous silence, and then Roan said, “Some ways. Jova, if you-.”
“I only asked because Ell learned there, too,” said Jova, quickly. She rolled her shoulders, still holding the woodcut up to her face. “He’s- he’s really good with a knife.”
“Is this truth? The weapons of the marble soldiers are the hammer and shield. Knives are for slaves to cut their master’s meat.”
“Well, he learned there. I don’t know how much they meant to teach him.”
“Hmm,” said Roan. He did not inquire further, but Jova could have sworn he was amused. Hmm was as close to a laugh as she was going to get.
“Roan,” Jova said, finally. “What are we doing here?”
“Hold it to your face, Jova. Make this sound, shhh.” Roan blew air out through closed teeth. “Shhh, like that. Shhh.”
Jova would have thought that Roan had gone crazy if she didn’t know better. She shook her head, letting the woodcut fall. “What’s the point of-?”
“You are working for me. This is truth,” said Roan, grabbing Jova’s wrists and forcing the woodcut back up. “Do as I am saying, blind Jova, eyeless Jova. Shhh.”
“Shh,” said Jova, hesitantly, holding the slate in front of her face. “Shh.”
“Move it away from your face, like so,” said Roan, pulling on her wrists. “Keep making the noise. Shhh. Move it back to your face.”
Teeth clenched to make the sound, Jova could not make any protest.
Roan let go of her wrists. “Do it yourself, now. Listen closely. Listen to the way it changes.”
Jova moved the slate back and forth in front of her face, feeling stupid. She furrowed her eyebrows. As long as she had to do it, she might as well try to follow Roan’s instructions.
The difference was subtle, an odd flux to the sound as it moved towards her, and a reverse as it moved away. Jova paused, catching her breath. Roan took the slate gently out of her hands.
“Shh, remember, shh. I will move it now. When it comes close to your head, duck.” Jova’s hands curled in front of her chest, and Roan pushed them down. “With your ears only. No hands.”
“Roan, I…” Jova turned her head. “I appreciate it. But this is…”
“This is Moscoleon. Where a man with no tongue can sing again, where a man with no legs can run again, and where a girl with no eyes can see again.” Roan clicked his tongue at Stel and Uten, who had been growing restless standing still. “Come, Jova. You are working for me. For this, you will be paid.”
Jova set her teeth together and blew air out through them. She did her best to listen, but the slate came at her so fast that when she tried to duck she ran her head straight into the wood.
“Again,” said Roan. “I did not expect you to succeed on your first try.”
Jova shifted on Uten’s back, tense. She couldn’t sit much straighter or move any quicker without fear of slipping off.
She waited, and waited, but Roan seemed to be trying to catch her off-guard. She paused to breathe, and at that moment felt a sharp pain on her forehead.
Hands clenched on her temple, Jova growled. There had been some warning, but only some, as she felt the heat reflect from the slate back onto her skin, but how by all the Ladies Four was she supposed to hear it coming?
“Again,” said Roan. “Listen closely. Listen for the subtleties of the sound.”
“Where did you learn this?” asked Jova, nose wrinkled. “In-between old legends about pyramids and riding to the Stronghold?”
If she listened closely- really listened- there was…something. That little wave in the sound, although whether the slate was moving towards or away from her Jova could not tell. Roan wasn’t just holding the woodcut still or moving it straight forward; he was waving it back and forth, back and forth.
Before Jova realized what she was doing, she had ducked. The slate clipped her forehead as it passed, but it hadn’t slammed into her nose like before.
There was a pause. “I did not expect you to succeed on your third try, either.”
Jova felt a hand on her hair. A single pat. She couldn’t help but smile. From Roan, that was like a hug and a kiss.
“We will practice more like this. Then, from the left and from the right. Prepare yourself, Jova.”
Jova was so concentrated on listening that she didn’t realize how much time had passed. She felt self-conscious sometimes, and then her attention wavered. It wasn’t as if she could walk around all day saying “shhh,” but sometimes…sometimes she saw it. Knew where it was without reaching out to touch it or asking Roan or holding it herself.
The feeling would flit past in her mind, and dance out of reach before she could grab it, but it was there.
“Click now,” said Roan. “Like so.” Like when he signaled for Stel to move, Roan clicked.
Jova tapped her tongue on the top of her teeth, and clicked. Her lips felt sore from shhing so much, anyway, although she wasn’t sure how clicking would work.
Suddenly, she felt Roan’s hands around her waist, and she dropped onto the floor, wheeling her arms for balance. “Click again,” said Roan. “Listen to the way it sounds.”
It sounded like a click, just a click. Jova breathed deeply through her nose. It would do no good to get frustrated.
Roan held her hand, and pulled gently. “Count the steps. Tell me when we reach ten.”
Jova nodded, whispering under breath. “…eight…nine…ten.” She tugged on Roan’s hands to get him to stop.
“Click again. Face that way, face the wall, it’ll be easier. Click. Listen.”
Was it supposed to sound different? Jova’s click sounded like a click. There was no other way to describe it.
“Gentle, now. Easy.” Jova only just realized how Roan’s voice sounded different. He spoke to her like he spoke to Stel or the other mounts. His voice was softer and kinder. “Take your time. Click. Listen. Walk.”
Jova would have said something, but between all the clicking and walking she couldn’t find the focus to put together a sentence.
“Practice now, Jova. I must go, but I will be returning. Uten will stay. Call for her in case you…in case you need to reorient yourself.”
Roan left before Jova could respond. She listened as the hoof beats faded away, and then slumped and sighed. She rubbed her ears. Jova didn’t know if it was possible for ears to be sore, but they certainly felt that way.
Click. Listen. Walk. The pattern made it easy, but the lack of results made it much, much harder. Jova shuffled backwards and forwards from the walls, slowly turning her head while clicking to get a full view. She bent low, imagining she was like Gopal’s bathawk. Click. Listen. Walk. Click. Listen. Walk. Click. Listen.
Jova heard voices, followed by a low growl. Her heart skipped a beat. Roan’s enemies?
“You swear you saw him come in here?”
“How could I miss him? Rode in here with that little blind shit, you know.” The voices were distant, but getting close. Jova clicked before she remembered to stop herself, and clapped her hands over her mouth, horrified.
“You hear that?”
“Yeah, I heard. Any idea what it is? Burn it all, it’s dark in here.”
“Like a fucking batsnake or something.”
Jova slowly lowered her hands from her mouth. Roan was right, there was no way she could fight them off on her own, not the way she was now.
But Jova had an idea.
“Come on, let’s just find the horse freak and get this over with. I’m sick and tired of putting up with all this.”
“Treats the brute, right, you know? Parading around the city like that. I got bruises, Deid, they’re swollen and shit.”
“Fucking Lady Spring, what the hell was that?”
“It’s just rats with wings, Izca, calm down. What’s wrong with Fang?”
“He’s scared, that’s what. Rats with fucking wings, my ass. I’ve half a mind to just call out to the horse freak. Hey, s-!”
There was a sound of scuffling in the distance, followed by the splash of bodies hitting water. Just where had Roan taken her?
“He’ll bolt, you idiot. Keep quiet.”
Jova edged forward, until her hands found Uten’s warmth. “Gonna need your help in a bit, girl,” she whispered, petting her like she petted Mo.
“Hey, hey, Deid, look…what lives down here?”
“Catbirds that spit rainbows when you pet them, now stop being such a jumpy fallborn and get your ass-.”
“Deid, Deid, it’s getting closer.”
Faintly, Jova heard something whine. “Now, Uten,” she whispered, wiping her mouth. “Say something for me.”
Uten rolled her head and, after a moment, obliged.
The molebison, normally so quiet, didn’t have a thunderous roar. It was wheezy, almost breathless, and yet somehow that made it that much more terrifying as the sound slithered and crawled around her. Jova shivered involuntarily.
She smiled, nonetheless, at the sounds of swearing and fading feet.
It was not long before she heard horse hooves pounding past outside again. “Jova!” Roan shouted. “I saw the boys running out of here. Are you-.”
“I’m fine,” said Jova.
“I took care of it.”
There was a pause. “They looked…petrified.”
Jova just smiled.
“You are a frightening little girl,” said Roan. A statement, not a question.
“I do my best,” said Jova, patting Uten. She chose to enjoy the silence that followed.
“I found a pillow,” said Roan. “Braided, finely made. Come, Jova. I shall hold up either the woodcut, or the pillow. Shh or click, whichever you are comfortable with. Soon you will tell one from the other.”
Jova moved towards Roan’s voice, doing her best to take full steps and not edge forward. “Roan…” she said, and she was smiling. Her heart was pumping fast; she felt almost giddy. “You said you wouldn’t teach me anything.”
“I will not teach you how to fight,” said Roan, imperiously. “But you, sad little girl, may learn to see. You may learn to smile.”
Jova nodded. “Thank you, Roan. Honest.”
Roan’s pause followed. “Come, Jova. We have barely begun.”
“Were you being born blind?”
“No,” said Jova. “It was an accident.” She felt her way across the stables, her fingers combing through the long hairs of the animals.
“I am finding this truth hard to believe,” said Roan, the steady clip of Stel’s hooves close behind Jova. “Was it an illness?”
“I didn’t get sick, if that’s what you mean,” said Jova. She did not elaborate.
“Your eyes were removed?”
A delicate way of putting it. Jova nodded, although she was not sure if Roan could see her.
“Like a pontiff’s sacrifice on the altar,” said Roan. “Except most of the sacrifices lose their lives with their eyes.” Jova wasn’t sure if he meant it as a joke or no.
Jova paused. “I had help.” It was the first time she had admitted it to anyone, including herself.
Roan’s silence was pointed.
“There was…an energy,” said Jova. “Someone helped me.”
“Someone, and not something?”
“Someone, something, whichever you prefer. I misspoke,” said Jova, a little irritated. “This is the city of miracles, isn’t it? Maybe the Ladies Four chose to save me.”
“You speak as if that was a lie,” said Roan. “And yet if the Ladies Four had not saved you, then you would not be speaking to me.”
“So you really think it was them?”
“You are here, are you not? So am I. So are the rest of us. We are all being saved by the Ladies Four, every day.”
“You think so?” asked Jova.
“At times they are subtle,” said Roan. “At times they are more blatant. We are all facing such times.” He sighed. “Some of us more often than others.”
Jova’s hand stopped. The steady breathing of the creature under her palm indicated it was asleep. “Does we include you?”
“It does. I am owing my life to the Ladies. There are those in this city who detest my presence.”
It was Jova’s turn to be silent. She waited, trusting Roan to continue.
He did not. “This one is called Uten,” said Roan. “A good and holy name. She is a molebison, and prefers the dark and the quiet. You shall wash and feed her, and lead her on walks if she seems agitated.”
Jova blew air out of her lips. “How am I supposed to do that?”
“Do not worry so. You shall not need to walk any of the others.”
“What makes Uten any different?” asked Jova, rubbing the fur on the animal’s side. It was soft and plush and thick, and felt good under her fingers.
“Because she is as blind as you. You shall make do.”
Jova bit her lip. She moved her hand away from the molebison’s side, and crossed her arms. It made her feel adrift and unbalanced, but Roan needed to see that she was unhappy. “Do you mean to be cruel?”
“No,” said Roan. “The truth should not offend you, blind Jova.”
Jova turned her head and snorted.
There was a pause. “Perhaps, though…” said Roan, hesitantly. “I am being too forward with this truth. I formally apologize.”
He waited. Jova let her arms fall to her sides. “I forgive you,” she said, and did her best to smile. She tried to think of a change of topic as the stifling Moscoleon night swirled around them. Roan had promised Ma to escort Jova safely back when they both returned to the compound, but he made no move to turn back: at least, not in a way Jova could hear.
“You don’t have many mounts, for a riding instructor,” said Jova, innocently. She counted only three: Yora the staghound, Chek the fall mule, and now Uten the molebison. Four, perhaps, if she included Stel, but Jova doubted Roan would ever let anyone else ride his personal mount.
“Most bring their own. It does only little good to learn to ride one type of beast, and then ride using the tabula of another. Yora is for those newcomers who seek grace and beauty. Usually they are ostentatious and easily offended, but they pay well and for that I appreciate their business.”
Roan paused again. “Have I said something funny?”
“Do you tell them that to their faces?”
“I used to, but I am finding I keep more clients if I do not. This is truth that I am wishing is not true.”
Jova used the walls of Uten’s stable to find her way out. She reached out, and a hand took hers. It was rough and calloused, and its grip was so firm it hurt.
“As I am saying,” said Roan, as they began to walk away. Stel moved slowly, so that Jova could keep pace. “Chek is sturdy and persistent, for those who wish to see if a beast of burden is a good investment. And Uten is powerful and strong, and is much sought after by the zealots who wish new ways to spread the word of the Ladies Four. She is blind, but blindness is no issue with a good rider and a strong tabula, and she can endure blows that would fell lesser beasts.”
“Truth,” said Jova, automatically.
Jova shook her head. “Nothing, I’m sorry. It’s just…a game I played.”
“I will expect less frivolity from a child as grown as you. Games such as these are having no point.”
Especially not with you. It’s boring if there’s only ever one answer. Out loud, Jova just said, “Yes.”
They walked on, at a glacially slow pace. “Are you sure I can’t ride with you?” said Jova, helpfully.
Roan’s answer was immediate and flat. “No.”
Jova turned, hand outstretched, trying to grab Roan. “I could hold onto your waist and not let go. It wouldn’t be that hard.”
There was a scrape of cloth and leather as Roan shifted in his saddle. “No, Jova. We shall walk as we are now.”
Meekly, Jova drew back. “Sorry,” she muttered.
Silence flowed back in. Jova squirmed. She had been prepared to do anything to prove herself capable, but this was not the anything she had had in mind.
“You scratch your chest,” said Roan, suddenly.
“You scratch your chest,” repeated Roan. “When you are agitated. You are not noticing.”
Jova let her hand fall. She squirmed, tapping her fingers on her thighs. Was Roan telling her to stop or just making an observation? “It just itches from time to time.”
Jova was beginning to hate Roan’s lengthy pauses. She shuffled forward, waiting.
“You have a pet name, blind Jova. Your friends, they are calling you little Lady.”
The girl said nothing. She waited for Roan to reach his point.
She waited and heard only silence, as bleak as the darkness behind her blindfold. But then, ever so softly, so soft that Jova, as intensely focused as she was in listening, could barely hear it, Roan spoke.
“There will be four, and a fifth to come.”
A shiver went down Jova’s spine. She did not know why. Perhaps it was the tone of Roan’s voice: so quiet and distant, when normally it was stiff and forceful.
Roan said nothing else; he probably had not even intended Jova to hear in the first place. But Jova would not be assuaged.
“What do you mean?”
A blank silence. Roan did not acknowledge her, at least verbally, although Stel’s pace stuttered slightly.
“Four, and a fifth to come. What does that mean?”
“Nothing,” said Roan, quickly.
Jova tugged at his hand. “Lie.” Roan came to an abrupt halt, and Jova stopped too. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck tingle. Was Roan looking at her? The stern, narrow-faced man in Jova’s imagination had eyes as cold as ice.
“It means nothing.”
“I don’t believe you.” Jova paused. “Are you scared of the truth?”
“Never, blind Jova.”
“Then prove it. Tell me what you mean.” Jova felt strangely electric. In this situation, Ma or Da would weave some fantasy about Jova before telling her to sleep; Rituu might have leaped into some fable in his alleged backstory. But Roan…
Roan would not lie.
“Are you familiar with the pyramids of Hak Mat Do?”
Jova cocked her head. “What do those have to do with anything?”
Without warning, Stel reared. Roan shook Jova’s hand free, and began to trot around her as he repeated, more forcefully, “Are you familiar with the pyramids of Hak Mat Do?”
Jova shook her head, mutely.
“They are enormous. Far into the dry desert, beyond the bounds of the city, but still very visible even from so far away. Their construction predates even the Seat of the King; they are as ancient as the lost empire of my people.”
“In the time before the First Age, before the First King, the empire of the Hak Mat Do ruled Albumere.” Roan sighed. “It was centuries ago, and yet the pyramid lords still cling to their forgotten legacy.”
Jova pursed her lips. She had known Hak Mat Do was old, yes, but powerful? Never.
“If you must know, Jova, there is a fable, and the fable is saying this. The emperor who built the pyramids ruled Hak Mat Do at its peak. It was said that his fortune had been granted to him personally by the Ladies Four, and never was the empire being richer or more powerful.”
Dusty old Hak Mat Do? Jova shook her head. For its power to no longer even be a memory, it must have fallen far.
“This emperor had four sons. He is loving each of them dearly.”
“What happened when he lost them to the Fallow?”
Jova perked up. Had his sons been like her? “Did the Ladies let him keep them?”
“No.” Stel’s hoof beats came to a stop. “The day before each of their fourth birthdays, the emperor smothered them. He was spiteful, and would rather kill his beloved sons than give them away.”
Not like her, then. Jova hung her head, grasping her hands together.
“For each of them, he ordered the construction of a grand tomb: Sag Gar, Dosh Mi, Zut Hal, Ya En. Summerborn, fallborn, winterborn, springborn. With the death of the fourth child, he had cheated each of the Ladies Four, and none were left to vouch for him. It is said they struck him down with an affliction. His skin burned like fire, and every morn he would wake bleeding from a dozen places, as if knives were cutting at him from the inside.”
“As he lay dying, he ordered for a fifth pyramid, Ral Zu. Many assumed it was to be his tomb, but he insisted that it be completed before his death. It was far from the other four, much smaller. It consumed him; finishing it became his sole goal. And at night, he whispered again and again: there will be four, and a fifth to come. The fifth, he would say, in his lucid moments, would change Albumere forever.”
“But…” Jova said. “If the fifth would be the end, why did he want to build it so badly?”
“Who knows? Ral Zu was never finished. Travelers shun it. They say it is cursed, but only because of the words of a senile old man, warped by time and superstition. So you see, blind Jova, it means nothing.”
“Then why did you say it?”
Roan paused. “Because I hoped I was wrong. Because we are looking for something more than ourselves, and sometimes our imaginations take us too far. I was being foolish.”
“No, you weren’t,” said Jova, and she smiled in the direction of Roan’s voice.
Again, silence. “One cannot live on starlight and dreams. Come, Jova. You must rest. Work will be hard tomorrow.”
Obediently, Jova took Roan’s hand as they began to walk away once more.
“Does everybody in Hak Mat Do know this story?”
“I do not know,” admitted Roan. “A Hak Mat Do teller told it to me, and I remembered it. I had not heard it beyond my own tribe.”
“What about Ral Zu?”
“The unfinished pyramid is deep in one of the most inhospitable parts of the desert. Foolhardy grave robbers go there, perhaps, but they do not return.”
“Did you go into the deserts often?”
“No. I am Hag Gar Gan. My business was in the steppes, not the deserts.”
“And what was your business?”
There was silence. And suddenly, Stel reared. Jova felt herself being thrown aside, skidding on her knees across the dirt road. She crumpled, shouting more in shock than from pain, her hands automatically flying up to shield her face.
Something hard and heavy shattered on the ground, a deep whump followed by a sharp crack. Jova could only crawl away from the impact, hands outstretched for cover.
“Back, Jova!” Roan shouted. Stel screamed, a high hoarse sound, as something else crashed into a wall near Jova’s head. Jova shrieked, falling backward, as stone dust rained on her face and arms.
“Go back where you came from, sandman!” shouted a voice. It was male, a middling tone. A teenager?
“Horse freak!” shouted another voice, similarly male and mid-toned, but with a different timbre.
Their words were slurred and their voices dipped and rose erratically. Jova found the corner of the wall that the projectile had hit, and slid behind it, whimpering. She could hear Stel’s frantic hooves a short distance away, but they were punctuated continually by shattering rock and Stel’s screaming.
“You remember when I say there are those who detest my presence?” shouted Roan. “These are such people. Go now, Jova, hide!”
Jova’s hands tightened. Her temple pounded. Running and hiding and crying- what did that prove? That she couldn’t take herself, that she was weak and needed coddling.
Jova stood up and shouted into the darkness. “Hey! Back off!”
“Who the fuck are you?” shouted the first voice. Something barked and snapped near the teenager, and Jova flinched. The voice laughed. “It’s a whole troop of freaks here. You, too, baygirl! We don’t want cripples and foreigners at the Temple!”
Jova took a deep breath, steeling herself. “I said back off!” She jumped as a brick shattered near her feet, but stood her ground. “You don’t- you don’t want to tell your friends you got beat by a little blind girl.”
They laughed first- then one of them shouted in pain and the other swore loudly. Jova smiled. Even she could recognize the sound of a horse charging.
There was a slick whistle, and the thunk of wood. Roan made no sound as he fought, but Stel whinnied loudly and often. She snorted as Jova heard her hooves impacting flesh. The male voices swore and shouted, but soon enough their footsteps faded into the distance.
Jova edged forward, hands reaching out until Roan took one.
“We did pretty good, didn’t we?” said Jova, smiling.
“We?” Roan’s voice was low, and he was breathing heavily.
“Yeah! I distracted them, you-.”
A sharp slap across Jova’s face made her fall to the ground. Her hand gravitated towards her cheek as her lips quivered; she could taste blood inside her mouth.
“You put yourself in needless danger. Your deception was obvious, your inability to defend yourself even more so. Do not do it again.”
“I just thought I could help. With the two of us-.”
“They were drunk and angry. They would have had no qualms about brutalizing a girl such as yourself, even as young as you are, do you understand?”
Jova choked on her protest. “Who were they? I thought this was a holy city.”
“The Temple is holy. The rest of Moscoleon is just a city, no different from the rest of Albumere,” said Roan.
There was the silence that Jova hated so, broken only by Stel’s labored breathing. “I’m sorry,” Jova muttered. “I just thought-.”
“You did not think,” snapped Roan, and his even tone broke. “You are blind. You are young. You are a girl. You cannot defend yourself. This is truth. Accept it.”
“No!” Jova shouted. Her head was still pounding and her ears were buzzing. “No, I won’t! If it’s true, then I’m going to change it!”
Roan did not say a word.
“You- you fought them off. You could teach me.” The blindfold around Jova’s was damp and her voice was breaking. “Please?”
Silence. An endless silence, a stifling darkness, emptiness all around her.
“I hired you, blind Jova. I took you as a worker, not a pupil. Focus on staying as one, rather than aspiring to be the other.”
Jova stood there, numb, her hands shaking. She didn’t know what she had expected.
“Come,” said Roan. “Your friends will be waiting. Stay behind me, follow the sound of Stel’s footsteps. Do not talk.”
Jova followed. She did not talk.
And silence reigned in the eternal night.