We do not fear the wrath of this world, for we are the free.
We are the walkers of the waking dream. We stand together as one, for we are brothers and sisters, a family of those who have none. We are the pieces of each other, we are the stars innumerable in the shifting night sky.
We are sworn to Albumere’s secret. We remember the world as it should be. We see the monsters that slumber at its core. We know what they dream. We know what they have done.
And though we shall heal this broken world, though we shall bind the wounds that make us bleed, though we shall make Albumere whole again…
We shall let the dead rest.
-The First Creed of the Dream Walkers
Blood was in the air. He could feel it and taste it; it was in his lungs and on his skin. An iron, metal taste, one that made his heart quicken and his nerves tingle.
The fall toad crawled out of his hiding space, puffs of air swirling around him as he cleared the air of the foul stench. The sac on Fosen’s throat dilated quickly, although not too much for fear of making too loud a sound.
A transparent membrane slid over Fosen’s eyes, as he crawled out from beneath the decomposing log. It had been moist and dark and safe under it, but Fosen couldn’t stay in there forever. All the movement had stopped and the danger seemed to have passed, but Fosen still moved with extreme caution. His steps were light and gentle; the leaves barely bent as he walked across the mulch on the forest floor.
Movement! Fosen froze and twitched, as a mass of humans marched past to his side. He dove into the matted vegetation, eyes unblinking as they came past. They were the new humans, the ones that made Fosen nervous; he did not know what to keep track of, with all their clothing that jangled and rattled and shook as they moved. Perhaps it was not so safe to move.
Fosen continued to crawl, always on wary of something that could hurt him, harm him, kill him. Everything else—food, rest, shelter—was a tertiary concern. Secrecy was paramount now, secrecy and security, and in secrecy he would find security.
A nervous croak escaped Fosen’s throat as he moved through the mulch. He stuck to the shadows, beneath the bushes and verdant ferns, but here the litter had decayed to the point that Fosen had to wade more than walk.
Another wave of humans marched past, and Fosen sunk into the underbrush to watch and wait. They carried with them a limp body, an arm dangling over the makeshift stretcher: a thin line of red traced delicately down the arm, around its hand, and off its finger. Fosen’s heart quickened. Blood was never a good sign.
As Fosen watched, the body was dumped unceremoniously into a nearby ditch. He could taste the foul stench even from here, and though rot was often perfect bait for food, now was not the time.
It was not as if he could have caught prey if he even had the opportunity. Being fed slugworms and winter crickets all his life had not exactly honed his skills as a hunter, and Fosen knew it. The fall toad was fat, pampered, and thoroughly domesticated.
But even he knew what fear felt like, and right now he was afraid.
He crawled on, little puffs of air clearing a path for him as he walked. It drained his essence, but the speed was worth it. He had to get away from this place. Distance was key. Distance and secrecy, then security.
More movement! No matter which way the fall toad seemed to turn, there seemed to be more of the rattling men around him, dragging bodies both dead and alive around the jungle, snapping the long leather tongues they held in their hands. Fosen retreated once more underneath a decomposing log, the bark flaking away as he pushed himself into the small crack between wood and ground, and held his breath as the men passed.
To his horror, the man sat down. He was joined by two others, all sitting in a circle, and Fosen had no way of getting out without falling in their line of sight. He kicked his back legs in vain, hoping against hope that he could somehow dig his way out the other side, but there was no such luck.
“Dal Ak Gan,” said a voice opposite him. The pitch was high, a tone that Fosen recognized as a human female, like mistress. Mistress was good to him, but somehow Fosen did not think this human would be as charitable. “What are we doing with the young ones?”
“How many are we having?”
“Two boys, migrants and vagabonds. And a girl, barely past Fallow. There are others, older, ten years or so, but we have dealt with them.”
“Chain them and sell them. The pyramid lords will be buying children for a high price.”
It did not sound the same as the language mistress and her people usually spoke (although Fosen could barely tell the difference between the human’s sibilant hissing and clicking at the best of times), but the fall toad understood well enough. All human speech had been open to him since he had first touched the golden disk, before mistress had taken it away.
Perhaps another might have wondered why that was, but Fosen did not waste his time with idle thoughts. It let him understand mistress’s orders and intentions, and so long as he could keep it that way he would not question why.
The woman rose, and her curved blade flashed in the sun. It dangled loosely from her hand, but Fosen could not help but fixate on it. “Others hold the children’s tabula,” said the woman. “One boy we are holding now until he speaks, the other swears his owner is dead. The girl does not cooperate.”
“You have searched them?”
The woman scoffed. “Hollow-born foals are blind and weak, but even they know to stumble towards the sun. Of course I have searched them.”
Fosen saw the man’s feet shift in front of him, but the man did not rise from his position. He was still far too close for Fosen to make his escape without being caught. “I am meaning no offense, La Ah Abi. Many things are easily forgot when the blood runs battle-hot, no?”
The woman stomped over and Fosen quailed. She punched the man in the shoulder, although her face was too far up for Fosen to see her expression. “Even when your heart is cool as winter you are forgetful, Dal Ak Gan.”
“And yours runs as the summer always, blood-sister mine.”
The man rose to grip the woman’s wrist, and Fosen saw his opportunity. His squat legs could only take him so far with a single hop, but the fall toad summoned a small gust to propel him forward, out into the open. He just need to move fast, get around the leg and out of sight, before…
“Dal Ak Gan! See here!”
Another one? Fosen bunched into a ball and tumbled back into the safety of the shadows, throat dilating in frustration. He had barely made four bodylengths of progress before the second man hopped lightly off his steed, an eelhound that began to sniff at the ground the moment the man dismounted. Fosen curled even further into himself, holding the air tight and still around him to keep his scent from traveling too far into the air.
This second man was dressed in a prodigious number of furs and skins, and flybeasts buzzed around his face, which was shiny with perspiration. A necklace of bone charms hung around his neck, as did a number of braided strings around his wrists. Smudged face paint streaked his cheeks, although Fosen could not tell what color, and he had pale scars running up his bulky forearm.
A black bird with brilliant scarlet plumage around its eyes and a massive bill streaked with yellows and greens hopped and squawked on the man’s shoulder. The translation was less precise here, but Fosen could still tell the general feeling from the animal. Joy. Triumph. Celebration.
“Dep Sag Ko!” said Dal Ak Gan, embracing the man fully and giving him a hearty thump on the back. “Good hunting, friend?”
“As good as the Lady Summer’s,” said the man with the beasts, smiling and revealing chipped teeth.
“And does your quarry still breathe?”
Dep Sag Ko shrugged. “Most do. Lo Pak was hasty with one, though. We shall be eating mule meat tonight.” At the sudden slump in Dal Ak Gan’s shoulders, he quickly continued, “Worry not, Dal. The staghound will more than make up for what was lost in trade.”
Fosen had more pressing concerns than the cluster of humans, though. The eelhound’s sniffling and rooting was bringing it closer and closer to Fosen’s hiding spot, and unless he moved soon he would find himself inside the jaws of the lanky, serpentine beast.
Its slick, pointed head swung dangerously close to the fall toad’s location. Fosen held back a nervous croak. The eelhound’s skin had an odd sheen to it, like slime, and while Fosen was no stranger to warty, mucus-covered skin, the eelhound also had a coat of thin, greasy fur that made Fosen nervous somehow. It had a prominent underbite, filmy yellow eyes, and a saddle with a carved marble handhold on its back. Occasionally, gills on the side of the eelhound’s neck would flap uselessly when it drew breath.
The eelhound drew closer, a soft growl in the back of its throat. Try as Fosen might, he couldn’t keep all the air around him still forever. Some little scent had to leak out, and the eelhound was starting to catch it.
Fosen waited, as the searching snout drew closer and closer. He began to fill his lungs with air. A powerful enough gust would both blow him away and slow the eelhound down, if he aimed right. All he had to do was wait…
The bird on the man’s shoulder screeched loudly, and the searching snout, bare inches from Fosen’s face, pulled away. The eelhound barked and hissed at the bird, which had started to hop back and forth on Dep Sag Ko’s shoulder. Snarling, the eelhound padded away, sometimes leaping up to snap at the bird with its serrated teeth.
With a great sigh of relief, Fosen relaxed. He had forgotten, though, about the essence charged winds building in his lungs, and so when he breathed out he found himself propelled backwards immediately, tumbling over the leaves as he skidded to a stop in the jungle floor.
He rolled over slowly, each movement precise and deliberate. Had they seen him? Did they see him moving?
No one and nothing had noticed. He was safe.
As Fosen began to crawl away, he noticed the same little clusters all over the former camp: the new humans stood casually, talking, nursing their wounds, while the old humans were nowhere to be seen, and always the stench of the corpse-filled ditch followed him. Fosen wondered where mistress was. He hoped she was still alive.
Fosen paused, right at the border of the trees. Freedom was so close; he could escape into the jungle and never be afraid of these men or any men ever again. Food was plentiful, as where places to hide, for a fall toad. He could just leave.
But Fosen was fat, pampered, and thoroughly domesticated. He wouldn’t make it a day without mistress.
The fall toad crawled back into camp, his wide eyes constantly panning to see if he could find where all the old humans had gone. New tents were being erected already over the still burning embers of the old campfires; they could almost have been the same tents, except these were more patchwork, more dirt-smeared, more primal in a way. Like Dep Sag Ko’s necklace, bones hung over the entrances of the tents, except these were much larger. Femurs swayed like wind charms and skulls leered at Fosen as he made his way further into the camp.
Fosen had only just ventured into the interior of the camp when he heard the sound of a person being struck. His bulging eyes rolled as he searched for the source, and he saw motion next to the smoking remains of the old fire.
The legless man did not cry out or yell as he was struck across the face. He sat on the ground, his hands resting almost peacefully across his stubby legs, as the other man slapped him across the face.
“You are still insisting you are one of us?” snarled his assaulter, pacing in a circle around the man. “A cripple does not carry the name of the Hag Gar Gan. Never make the mistake of thinking you are still one of us. Now, what is your name?”
The legless man looked the slaver straight in the eye and said, evenly, “Rho Hat Pan.”
The slaver hit him so hard this time that the legless man keeled over, a line of blood oozing from the side of his mouth. Fosen could see him coughing and struggling to rise, but the slaver put a foot on the legless man’s back and forced him down. “Tell me your name again, cripple.”
As Fosen drew closer, he could see that the legless man looked barely conscious. Still, he managed to mumble, “Rho Hat Pan.”
He didn’t rise this time, knocked to the ground by the slaver’s blow. The legless man groaned and rolled over, but could not seem to get up, and the slaver, to his credit, scoffed and walked away. Fosen made his way onward.
There was already a collection of the captured around that smoking pit, and Fosen inspected each of them carefully. One had a missing arm; another seemed to have no tongue in her mouth. Many more had much more recent injuries, gashes in their sides that had been clumsily bandaged and bruises swelling around their faces. None of them, however, were his mistress.
Fosen heard footsteps behind him and dove into the midst of the gathered slaves. None of them seemed to notice the little toad in their midst, and so Fosen hid among them as the slaver returned, with company.
Dal Ak Gan, the man from before, was with him, looking authoritative. Fosen recognized an alpha when he saw one, even a human alpha. Dal Ak Gan was in charge here. It was good to remember that.
The blindfolded girl, that came trudging quietly along, Fosen remembered. She had been with mistress a scant few days ago, and had filled mistress with feelings of happiness and nostalgia. And there had been something about her essence, something that had Fosen paying attention. He wasn’t sure how to describe it. Her essence seemed strangely…
The blind girl knelt with the others, and Dal Ak Gan looked over them and crossed his arms. “These are the unfit?” he said, in the guttural other language, to the slaver. The slaver nodded. “You have searched them for tabula?”
The slaver rolled his eyes. “Who would trust a cripple with tabula, Dal Ak Gan? It is not worth my time.”
Dal Ak Gan looked as if he was about to say something sharp in response, but as his eyes flickered between the crowd of slaves and his subordinate, he seemed to decide against it. “And where is the one you say is causing trouble?”
Before the slaver could respond, the legless man croaked, “I am here.”
Dal Ak Gan’s eyebrows rose. It was a human response, Fosen knew, of surprise. “He speaks the imperial tongue. How has a son of the steppes become so lost, hmm?”
The slaver put a hand on Dal Ak Gan’s shoulder and whispered something in his ear. Dal Ak Gan nodded slowly.
“Not this one. I see.” Dal Ak Gan surveyed the crowd again. Then, he said, in a much more familiar language, “Give me the one who is called Janwye.”
While none of the slaves pointed fingers, there was a noticeable shift in their stances: the slight edging away, the subtle turning of their heads. Fosen shrunk back as Dal Ak Gan followed those signals, walking amongst the crowd without a care in the world, until he reached a woman bound with so much rope that she could scarce budge an inch.
“She knew,” said the slaver, in the coarse, other language. “She was having a summer elk with her, too. Almost burned us to death.”
Dal Ak Gan did not acknowledge him. He knelt in front of the woman Janwye and held up her chin. One side of her face was so heavily bruised it did not even seem human anymore.
Fosen knew Janwye. He knew she was one of mistress’s friends. He hoped nothing bad happened to her, but even as he watched he knew he could not do anything to prevent it.
“How is it that you are knowing we are coming?” asked Dal Ak Gan. “Were we clumsy? Or did one of my own alert you? This is a perplexing secret to me, fieldwoman.”
Janwye jutted her jaw out and did not say a word. She was silent and defiant.
Dal Ak Gan stroked the bruised side of her face, and Janwye flinched. “You are noble, fieldwoman, but the time for that is over. Go on. Tell me how you are knowing.”
Janwye turned her head to meet the other man’s eyes, and for just a moment held his gaze. She opened her mouth slowly…
And spat right in his face.
Dal Ak Gan rose, wiping his cheek with the back of his hand, and Fosen could not see his expression. The feelings radiating from him were that of anger, contempt, indignation.
“She probably just saw our tracks. Nothing to worry about. There is no traitor in our midst, Dal Ak Gan,” leered the slaver, staring at Janwye. “Why don’t we just kill her?”
“No!” shouted the legless man immediately. “Forgive her, rider-lord. She is- she is sick in the head.”
Dal Ak Gan looked from his slaver to his slave, his lips pursed in thought. Suddenly, Fosen wanted nothing more than to be away from this. He needed to know where mistress was.
The legless man struggled to sit upright, and then began to crawl forward to Dal Ak Gan. “I supplicate myself to you, rider-lord. Son of the goddesses, free-as-the-wind lord, true heir to the lost empire. She is not well in the head. I- I can speak with her. She knows things, I am sure. She will tell you what she knows.”
Fosen watched as Dal Ak Gan circled around behind Janwye. The legless man did his best to follow, as the other slaves cleared a wide space around him, but he could only crawl so fast. He was like Fosen in that way, the toad supposed.
“She will fetch a high price in the shadow markets!” shouted the legless man. He was almost crying now. “Let her face heal. You have not seen her at her best. She is beautiful! She is beautiful, rider-lord!”
A twinge in essence drew Fosen’s attention. It might have just been his imagination, but he thought he saw a sad smile flicker across Janwye’s face.
“Imagine what she will buy you! Gorgeous silks, or the best blades that Irontower can forge. Or- or you may keep her for yourself! But she must live for that, rider-lord. She must live.”
Dal Ak Gan nodded slowly, putting his hand on Janwye’s shoulder. “Speak with her then, brother lost. Tell her to comply.”
“Janwye,” said the legless man. “Janwye, you must-.”
And then Dal Ak Gan wrapped his arm around Janwye’s neck and squeezed, hard. The legless man roared and leaped forward, but the other slaver caught him and pressed him down.
Janwye convulsed and flailed, a strangled choke escaping from her throat as she fought against the ropes binding her. Fosen could tell that the air was no longer moving in her lungs, that her breath was slowly running out. He summoned his essence and pushed, trying to help her, blowing tiny gusts of air into her mouth. It was an exertion from such a distance, but it was all he could do.
It was not good enough. Janwye’s face reddened as Dal Ak Gan, his expression unmoving, continued to strangle her. Her twitching eventually subsided. Eventually, Dal Ak Gan let her go, and she fell to the ground, eyes glazed, staring at some fixed point ahead of her.
“Janwye…” the legless man sobbed, reaching out for her. Dal Ak Gan stepped on his hand and the legless man slumped, crying into the ground. “Janwye, Janwye…”
“This is what happens,” said Dal Ak Gan, in his thick accent, “When any of you think to cross us. Nothing and no one can save you.” He twisted his foot on the legless man’s hand, but the legless man did not even seem to care anymore.
The two slavers walked away, leaving the body among the crippled and the injured. Fosen crawled away. He needed to find mistress.
Although now, he did not see the point. If the humans could not save each other, how could he?
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.
The shouts to raise arms faded quickly. Jova tensed, an electric buzz in her arms. It wasn’t as if the conflict had been violent and brutal and ended quickly; the conflict hadn’t happened yet. An eerie silence hung over their corner of the jungle, and the thick foliage around them seemed to muffle the interference of the outside world.
Jova’s hands tightened around the wooden pole, and she edged towards the wagon entrance, keeping one hand to the floor to make sure she didn’t accidentally fall out.
“We are merely passing through!” shouted a voice from outside, one unfamiliar to Jova. His accent was neither that of a templeman nor of a fieldman; it could have been a mountainman’s, but Jova couldn’t be sure. “We mean no harm!”
“Prove it,” came Janwye’s angry growl.
“Janwye, you are being rash,” said Bechde’s voice, soft but close. “Lay down your arms.”
“Only if they lay down their weapons first.”
Quietly, Jova slipped out from the wagon tarp, turning back and putting her finger to her lips for just a second before sliding out. She hoped Alis understood. More than that, Jova hoped it was the right advice. The cautious plan was to stay still and quiet, but perhaps Alis was safer if she went to find help, or found something to defend herself with…
Jova shook her head. The girl was four years old. The idea that she would even stand a chance if things got violent was ludicrous. It was Jova’s responsibility to protect her, and Jova’s alone.
“You understand if we hesitate,” said the perhaps-mountainman. “We are weak from travel and you outnumber us five to one. We have cause to fear, not you.”
“Words from a snake,” hissed Janwye. Jova heard venom in her voice, thought, not in the stranger’s. What had these people done that had angered her so?
“Janwye!” shouted Bechde, aghast. “You forget yourself!”
“I am a free woman, now, Bechde,” said Janwye, and she sounded so angry that for a moment even Jova was afraid. “You cannot command me as you once did.”
Jova heard a sharp intake of breath, and then she heard Bechde’s deadly whisper, “Free you may be, Janwye, but this is still my caravan. My envoy. My people! You will lay down your weapon, or I will teach you the consequences of freedom.”
A pause, and then Jova heard the clatter of a lance thrown onto the ground. The girl relaxed, straightening, although she did not let go of her own weapon.
“Quele! Cropper!” Bechde shouted, raising her voice again. “Tell the men to put their weapons down, there is no cause for worry.” To the strangers, she said, “My apologies. I don’t know what caused my friend such a conniption, but please, let us amend ourselves to you. Something to eat? Drink perhaps?”
“No, Bechde!” shouted Janwye, angry again. “I draw the line here! Leave them alone, fine, but we shall not waste one second wining and dining them when we have places to be, friends to watch out for.”
“Your temper is still quick, Janwye,” said Bechde. “Has the Lady Summer touched your tabula? What could they have possibly done to offend you?”
“They lie,” was all Janwye said, and she stomped away, her boots thudding heavily on the jungle floor.
There followed a helpless silence, and then the man said, “We just told her that we were from the Seat. The draft’s come again, and Banden’s men have come kicking down doors and taking our tabula. We, all of us, traveled to get away from that. Nobody wants to fight a war in Alswell-.”
“War? In Alswell?” And suddenly Bechde’s voice was tense, too. “There is no war in Alswell.”
“There is now, friend,” said the refugee, hoarsely. “The plainsmen turned. A survivor from Shira Hay, he came back, he told us all—the duarchs slaughtered every fieldman in the city. Now they’ve marched on the fields, pillaging and burning and Ladies know what else. I didn’t think they had it in them.”
Bechde didn’t say anything for quite some time. Then, she said, very softly, “Find the woman alsknight named Quele. She’ll get food, water, anything you need. Thank you for the news.”
“You’re all from- oh, Ladies, I didn’t realize. I’m sorry! I’m sure everything…” The man trailed off into silence as Bechde walked away.
There was a little laughter left in the lady’s voice as she came back to the wagon. “Our little protector,” she said, patting Jova on the head. “Thank you for keeping us safe, Jova. We’ll get you a proper weapon soon. You’ll need- you’ll want it, I’m sure.” And she plucked the wooden staff from Jova’s hand.
“Proper weapon?” echoed Jova. “What was I holding?”
“In Alswell, we call these parasols. They’re for keeping the sun off your face, but I’m sure you could have skewered a bandit or two with it,” said Bechde. Jova recognized the exhaustion in her voice, the attempted mirth: it was the sound of someone who was doing her best to smile when inside she was breaking.
“Bechde,” said Jova, slowly. She rubbed her shoulder, trying to find the right words to say. “It’s OK to be sad.”
Bechde choked back a sob, and Jova heard her sit heavily on the edge of the wagon. Jova sat next to her, and put a hand on hers. She didn’t say anything. There was nothing for her to say.
There was movement from behind her, and Jova said, “It’s OK, Alis. You can come out now.”
And the three of them sat together, each nursing their own little wounds. Jova held each of their hands, and took a deep breath. What was there to say, that could heal the cuts and bruises that no hand could touch?
“Lady Fall bless us, we give you thanks,” said Jova, and she felt Bechde grip her hand just a bit tighter. “May we be wise, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
“Fortune be with you,” echoed Bechde.
Jova squeezed Alis’s hand. “Say it with us, Alis.”
“Fortune be with us,” said the little girl, carefully and slowly, and Jova smiled.
“Close enough,” she said, and she turned her head to listen to the camp. A buzz seemed to travel around the camp as the news of the refugees spread. Jova felt the same questions stir in her head that the people of the caravan were no doubt asking each other. Where did they go now? What came after this?
Bechde rose. “I’ll need to talk with my advisors. The other alsknights, the minor farmers. We have some…planning to do.” She took a step, before suddenly she turned around. She embraced Jova, a tender, motherly embrace.
Jova stiffened, more than a little surprised, but after the shock had passed she embraced Bechde back.
“You have been with us for but a few days, darling,” said Bechde. “And yet I feel as if I have known you all my life.” Bechde sniffed. “I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but you are very much like the daughter that was taken from me.”
“Thank you, Bechde,” said Jova. “You…you’ve made leaving my mother easier.”
Bechde cleared her throat, and she patted Jova’s head again. “I must be going now, before the rumors get too out of hand. I will find you later, once the talks are over!”
Jova nodded, and waved in Bechde’s direction. She stood, holding Alis’s hand—the little girl was too short to let her arm hang while she stood hand-in-hand with Jova and had to hold her arm higher to meet Jova’s—and clicked her tongue to get a better picture of the state of the camp. Her concentration was broken when she felt Alis flinch beside her and heard her whimper.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” said Jova, immediately. She had forgotten how scared it had made Alis the night before, and hurriedly bent to hold Alis’s hand between hers. She gave it a comforting squeeze, like Ma used to do. “Look, it’s just a noise. See?” And Jova clicked again, right in front of Alis’s face.
The girl said nothing. A pensive silence stretched between them, and Jova licked dry lips. How was she supposed to read the girl’s emotions if she wouldn’t say anything?
Just to drive her point home, Jova clicked one more time, exaggerating her expression on purpose. Her face drawn long, her lips pouting out in a ridiculous circle, she clicked a few times in Alis’s face, and to her delight the girl let out one small giggle. “See?” said Jova. “Nothing to be scared of! Are you scared, Alis?”
Alis didn’t say anything. Jova waited for a response, but none seemed to be coming.
“Did you just shake your head?”
Again, no response.
“Don’t just nod your head, say yes.”
“Yes,” said Alis, and it amazed Jova how the girl could say a one syllable word that slowly and carefully.
“Well, you have to say that out loud from now on, OK? Say yes or no, don’t just shake or nod your head, OK? Because I can’t…I can’t see all that well, so I need you to say these things out loud for me. Can you do that, Alis?”
There was a couple seconds’ silence, before Alis remembered herself and said, “Yes.”
Jova smiled. “Thanks.”
As Jova stood, Alis took her hand once more and asked, “What’s under that thing around your eyes?”
“Why, my eyes, Alis,” said Jova. A little white lie couldn’t hurt, could it?
“Can I see them?” asked the girl.
Jova paused. “I’m afraid you can’t.”
“Because my eyes hurt right now, Alis,” said Jova, in her best placating voice. “And I can’t take this blindfold off or else they’ll hurt even worse.”
“How’d your eyes get hurt?”
Jova, who had once wished that Alis would talk a little more, was now beginning to wish that the girl would stop. “In an accident, a long time ago.”
“What kind of accident?”
“I don’t really remember all the details,” said Jova, vaguely.
“Was it like the accident my friend had?”
“The friend I left behind!”
And the smile vanished from Jova’s face. She remembered a child’s corpse, face swollen, flesh distended, lying in that clearing while Alis cried over the body. It was hard to stay jovial after that. “I don’t know, Alis. I don’t know what kind of accident your friend had.” She paused. “Do you feel OK talking about this?”
“Yes,” said Alis, although she didn’t say any more after that.
Jova squeezed her hand. “Come on, Alis, let’s go talk to some of my friends.” As they walked away, Jova couldn’t help but wonder if ignoring the issue was the best way to deal with it. She was just a kid. She didn’t know how to talk about things like death and loss to another child. For the first time, the unfairness of the situation dawned on Jova. Any other child her age would have been teasing and taking advantage of this little girl, not caring for her. If Jova was like any other child her age, she would have done the same, but she had grown up in the company of adults that had always watched out for her.
Jova wondered what would have happened to little Alis if she hadn’t found her. Like Bechde had said, the wilds were a dangerous place for a child. What might slow, thoughtful Alis have become out in the jungles of Moscoleon? Who else would have found her? Hag Gar Gan slavers, that roamed the jungle borders?
She shuddered. Jova promised herself that she would never let the little girl live either of those lives, slave or wild. She had seen the effect it had on her parents, the phobias and fears that had rooted in them. Most people thought one was mandatory, but Jova knew that there was a better way to live. She had lived it herself. It was what made her take Alis under her wing, instead of leave the girl out in the wilds to die.
But to be honest, Jova wasn’t sure if this was a crusade she could accomplish.
“Who are your friends?” asked Alis, her questioning only dissuaded momentarily.
“We’re looking for Janwye now,” said Jova. “She-.”
“What does she look like?”
Jova sighed, long and deep. “I don’t know, Alis.”
“How can she be your friend if you don’t know what she looks like?” Despite the way she said it, Alis didn’t sound accusatory at all. She sounded genuinely curious. It was an innocent question.
“My eyes have trouble like that. I know what she sounds like, though. She talks very fast, and very loud, and asks all these questions, all the time- kind of like someone I know,” said Jova. She poked Alis in the side, and to her surprise the reserved girl shrieked and giggled. “She’s not all that ticklish, though,” said Jova, grinning, and she ducked under Alis’s defenses to prod her again.
Alis tumbled over, laughing, and Jova mock-wrestled with her in the leaves, glad that she at last knew for certain that Alis was happy.
They twisted and rolled on the jungle floor, until Jova bumped into something hard and sturdy. At first, Jova thought she had hit a tree, but that thought was quickly disproven when the “tree” yelped and shouted, “Ow!”
Jova rose to her feet immediately, brushing off her coza. “I’m very, very sorry,” she said, quickly, and beside her she heard Alis mumble something like an apology as well.
“Not to worry, not to worry,” the man said, gruffly, and Jova recognized his voice as the refugee who had talked to Bechde. “Children will be children.” He paused. “Children. I didn’t realize there were children here…”
You don’t realize a lot of things, it seems, Jova thought, but she didn’t say it out loud.
“There’re children here,” muttered the man, under his breath, at a volume Jova had learned people thought she couldn’t hear them at. “Ladies Four, if we didn’t lose them…”
“Is something wrong, sir?” Jova asked, hesitantly.
“No, nothing’s wrong,” said the man, far too quickly to be true. “I’ll be off. Erm. Mind your step in the future, child!” And he stomped away, hurriedly.
“Strange man, wasn’t he, Alis?” said Jova, and Alis, breathless, said something that sounded like a yes.
They kept walking, taking the time to recuperate. Jova walked in the direction she had heard Janwye go, keeping her ears pricked as she passed through the camp. Janwye could not have gone far. Jova wanted—needed—to see how she was taking the news. Knowing Janwye, the volatile fieldwoman might do something drastic.
As they walked through camp, Jova’s keen ears caught snippets of conversation. People were worried; people were afraid. Jova just hoped that worry and that fear wouldn’t touch Alis. It was strange, how having something to protect gave her such purpose.
Inevitably, Jova’s thoughts turned to her eyes, to the blindfold. What would happen when Alis found out? Jova knew she could not keep it a secret forever; she would be caught, while she was sleeping or washing the blindfold or simply didn’t have it on. Perhaps Alis would leave someway, somehow, before Jova ever had to tell her secret.
Jova realized with a shiver that this was how Roan must have thought when he first met her. She found herself holding Alis’s hand so tight it must have hurt, and shakily let go. She missed Roan: the old Roan, the guardian Roan, not the missing and aloof and absent Roan.
And just as she was thinking of him, she heard his voice.
“Janwye, I am trying to warn you! We must leave now! There is no further to go,” snapped Roan, angrily. “The journey was a noble effort, but it is over. What are these things to us and our order? They mean nothing now.”
“You don’t mean that, Roan, I know you don’t mean that!”
Jova did not dare approach them. She took Alis’s hand and skulked away, her back pressed against a nearby tree. She did not know if she was in sight or out, but she did not want to get any closer.
Roan took a while to answer. Stel reared underneath him, screaming and nickering. “Perhaps not. But even so, there is nothing left for you to do. How can you prevent something that has already happened?”
“If I cannot stop the war, then I can help win it!” shouted Janwye. “We won’t go to the Seat, anymore. We’ll go to…to Hak Mat Do! The pyramid lords will help us! If they won’t, then you can rally the clans again! You are one of the Hag Gar Gan, Roan!”
“You are speaking foolishness, Janwye,” said Roan. “Please, listen to me! We must go now!”
“Why, Roan? What are you so afraid of?”
“In your anger, you were blinded,” said Roan. “Did you really think that a man would not notice he was talking to a fieldwoman, when he was surrounded by alsknights, by slaves, by western wagons and the finery of Alswell, unless he had something else to worry about? His words, however true or false they may have been, were bait, to let himself in under your protection. He has more immediate concerns than Banden Ironhide and his conscriptions in the north.”
Janwye’s voice had lost its edge, to be replaced by confusion. “What are you talking about, Roan?”
“When I rode ahead—when I strayed off the path—I am seeing them with my own eyes. I know their strategies, their tactics. They have sent their bait out, and now they lie in ambush.” Roan began to talk very fast, as if he had planned this part out. “I will find Jova, the animals, whoever else can escape without notice, but you must leave now, alone. If the whole camp moves at once, they will be alerted, and strike, and we shall all be lost.”
“Who’s going to strike? What do you mean, Roan?”
“You do not need to find the Hag Gar Gan, Janwye,” said Roan. “Their slavers are already here.”
Jova did her best to wipe the girl’s face with the lace handkerchief, although the child squirmed and twitched as she sat, and Bechde kept fussing around over Jova’s shoulder. “Fallborn can be fickle,” the lady said, and Jova’s head spun as she tried to keep track of where Bechde was standing. “But they’re ever so quiet about it. It’s so hard to tell what a fallborn is thinking sometimes, isn’t it?”
However hard it may have been for Bechde to read the quiet girl’s emotions, it was nothing compared to how hard it was for Jova. She sighed, letting her arms fall as she let the girl go (and the girl was, contrary to Jova’s initial guess, a girl).
“What will you name her?” asked Bechde. “It’s very important, the name. She can’t run around with some Wilder name like Stick or Stone or River or Brook. It’s very lucky, really, that you found her. A nice civilized name, that’ll do it.”
“Anjan changed her name when she grew up,” said Jova. “I don’t remember what her name was first, but she changed it.”
Bechde sniffed, and patted Jova on the head. “Yes, well, it’s much easier if you start with a civil name, dear.”
“Do I have to name her?” asked Jova.
“She is yours, darling,” said Bechde, kindly. “I’ll help if you like. A good Alswell name, what say you?”
“I don’t want her to be mine, though,” said Jova, and she hung her head. “Bechde, why can’t you take her?”
“Where are you taking me?” said a soft voice, suddenly. Jova jumped. She had almost forgotten the girl was there. The girl spoke slowly and deliberately, and sounded almost too articulate for someone so young.
“Nowhere, dear,” said Bechde, quickly. The lady’s dress rustled as she moved past Jova, and the girl squeaked as Bechde picked her up. “Quele, come here! Get the child food and water, anything she wants.”
With nothing but the rustle of her chainmail and a curt “yes, m’lady,” the alsknight Quele picked up the girl and walked away.
“And now to talk in peace,” said Bechde, resuming her seat next to Jova. The lady had special travel cushions, just for sitting, and while it was still morning they could sit and talk by the fire, uninterrupted.
Jova could feel a light mist on her fingers and cheeks. The sun would burn it away soon, but the humid air still clung to her skin, and made her breathing short and shallow. She hadn’t slept much the last night, holding, for the first time in her life, a tabula in her hand.
“You can sell her in Hak Mat Do, if you like,” said Bechde, and even though Jova knew the lady was trying to be kind, she couldn’t help but shiver. “The markets beyond the Barren Sands thrive with the odd trade.”
Even under that pseudonym, Jova recognized what “the odd trade” was. Slavery had never agreed with her, even when it was such a natural facet of everyday life. It came from having a slave father, perhaps—a slave father who, unlike all other slave fathers, could tell his child stories of his servitude. All Jova said, though, was, “I don’t want to sell her.”
A comforting arm wrapped around her shoulder. “Then you’ll just have to keep her, dear girl. You’ve done so much good already! She could have died out here, or met Hag Gar Gan slavers next, or run in with a crowd of wild savages. You’ve given her a chance for a real childhood, Jova. That’s a very precious thing.”
What about the chance for freedom? Wasn’t that precious too? Jova didn’t say it out loud, though; it was too hard to articulate what she was feeling. She scratched her chest again, pensive.
“Just imagine if she had been found by the horse riders.” Bechde paused, and lowered her voice. “By Rho Hat Pan’s people. Imagine! The brutality of the Hag Gar Gan! Oh, I don’t dare to think it. No, it’s much better this way, honestly.”
“What do I do, though?”
“You clothe her, you feed her,” said Bechde. “She won’t be good for much work until she’s older, but I find that they are most excellent companions even in their younger years if you treat them well.” Bechde must have noticed Jova’s expression, because she said, after, “Oh, don’t look so unhappy, Jova. It will be a treat, honestly.”
“If she’s mine,” said Jova, hugging her knees, “Don’t I have the right to give her to you?”
“Then I have the right not to take her, dear. I’ll help, but Ladies know I’ve got too many of my own to look after.”
“But you will help me?”
“Yes, Jova, now stop worrying.” Jova felt a thumb press against her forehead, and move across it as if it was smoothing out the wrinkles in her skin. “Smile! There’s no need to have your face all scrunched up like that.”
Jova reached up to touch Bechde’s hand, not sure if she was going to hold it or push it away, but Bechde withdrew quickly.
“I’m so terribly sorry, Jova, that was far too forward of me,” said Bechde. “All this talk of children and mothers, I suppose it’s gotten to my head.”
This was the first time Jova had heard talk of mothers, but she didn’t inquire further. “It’s alright, Lady Bechde,” she said, smiling. “I don’t mind.”
Bechde sighed. “I hope you don’t mind my saying this, darling, but you are truly…open. It is something I have never seen before, and I think I am not alone in saying it is something I want to protect.”
Jova had to admit there was a pattern: Roan, then Janwye, and now Bechde. All the same, she could not help but feel that Bechde was not being entirely honest. It was her faults that marked her, not her strengths: it was pity she inspired, not care.
“For all your smiles and your laughter, you have known suffering,” said Bechde, her hand hovering just over Jova’s face, where her bandages were tied. “That takes real character, dear. Honestly.”
“Thank you, Lady Bechde,” said Jova, bobbing her head. Bechde sounded so sad, that Jova felt she had to say something else. She thought hard for a minute. “May I be forward too, Lady Bechde?”
“Why not,” said the Alswell lady, and Jova could tell she said it with a smile.
“Were you a mother once?”
Jova could almost hear the smile vanish. “I pray that I still am,” Bechde said, and her tone was resigned. “They are lost and gone now, Ladies take them wherever they may be. I haven’t had child in many years, though, old crone as I am.”
Jova scoffed. “You don’t sound very old, Lady Bechde.”
“Why, thank you, little darling, but I assure you I am.” She lowered her voice. “I am going on fifty summers, and there’s silver in my hair.”
“You’re young on the inside, though,” said Jova. “I think you might be younger inside than I am!”
Bechde laughed. “Oh, darling, you make me blush. I dare say you’ve got a little youth left in you yet, though.”
Jova was about to answer, when a horn sounded so suddenly and so loudly that she flinched. Bechde yawned.
“We really did spend the whole night talking, didn’t we?” Bechde’s dress rustled as she rose, and she patted down the cushion to wipe off the dirt. “Well, up we get, Jova, we’ve got a long way to go. You’ll ride with me today, how about that?”
Jova tensed. “What about Roan?”
“If the sandman wishes to be alone with his beasts then let him be,” said Bechde, dismissively. “If he needed you, he would have sought you out, but as it is you have no obligation to be with him.” Her voice softened slightly. “There’s plenty of room in the wagon, and the bumping’s not so bad. We could have pomegranates again! Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Jova nodded her consent, just once, all while wondering where on Albumere Roan could be and why he had suddenly become so distant.
“Oh, marvelous!” Bechde trilled, taking Jova’s hand. “There’s so much left to discuss. We simply must find a good name for the girl, Jova. I was thinking something with an ‘m’ sound, Methila or Makenna.”
“Bechde, can I ask you a question?” asked Jova. She was thinking back to the last night, of all the strange things that had happened then. There were things about that glade she wanted to forget, and at same time things that she wanted to know so much more about.
“As the Lady Fall listens, ask away,” said Bechde, unperturbed by Jova’s interruption.
Jova hugged her own cushion to her chest as they walked away, her ears pricked to the sound of the camp coming to life. Things were quieter on the Alswell side of things, the slaves breaking up camp almost mechanically, the other fieldmen’s morning exertions lazy and gentle. “Do you have many hollows in Alswell?”
“A fair number.” Bechde helped Jova up as they stepped into her personal wagon, nestled comfortably in shade on the jungle path. “Just as much or as little as any other nation, I would think.”
“And you keep them walled in, you said?”
“The great wells of Alswell, we call them, yes. Poets say we draw from them the sap of the world. Beautiful, don’t you think?” said Bechde. She made a sound as if she was going to say more, but then fell silent.
“And these hollows,” said Jova, feeling as if she would regret the words the moment she said them. “Do they…do they walk?”
“I would certainly hope not,” said Bechde, and her laughter made Jova’s face turn red. “The ones we’ve caught certainly don’t go anywhere, and if we lose them out there in the wild, well, there are quite a few trees in the woods, now, aren’t there?”
Jova nodded and did her best to laugh, all while wondering what the thing in the glade was last night if it wasn’t a hollow. She had already been wrong about the girl; if she could mess up something so simple, who was she to say that the thing she had heard was truly one of the walking trees? It was preposterous. There had to be another explanation.
Another question drifted across Jova’s mind unbidden, and before she could stop herself she asked, “Bechde, do the hollows have tabula? Tabula of their own, I mean?”
“What a clever little girl you are,” said Bechde, as the wagon rose and began to trundle away. The bumping was bad, even as they rolled over soft jungle mulch, and Jova could swear that her behind was beginning to bruise as they rumbled on. Bechde and her voluminous dress suddenly seemed rather practical now. “I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it before,” continued Bechde, unfazed by the wagon’s movement. “There must be some philosopher out there I’m sure who’s looked into this, but I’ve never seen a hollow with one. Perhaps it is buried somewhere under all those other tabula, dear, or perhaps one must simply be able to move to have a tabula.”
It was true, plants didn’t have tabula, but if moving was the only rule, then Jova was either an exception or the rule was wrong.
The tarp parted suddenly, and Quele said in her gravelly monotone, “She has been fed and watered, m’lady. I can’t carry her the whole way, though.”
“You’ve done excellently, Quele, thank you. You may leave.” The tarp closed, leaving the three of them in their comfortable little world. “Come here, little one. Did you eat well?”
“Yes,” she said, curtly. Again, there was an earnest dedication to the words that made it hard to imagine them coming from a mouth so young.
“We were just thinking of what your new name will be,” said Bechde, in a kind voice. “Jova, what do you think of Methila?”
Before Jova could respond, the girl said, “My name is Alis.” It wasn’t an argument or an assertion; it was just a practiced statement of fact. Her parents must have taught her that, Jova thought. They had taught her to protect the one thing she could bring with her, her name.
“Why don’t we let her keep her name?” suggested Jova.
“Oh, that’s not such a good idea,” said Bechde, quickly. “Best to start fresh, don’t you think? Whenever we take new ones in Alswell, we always give them new names.”
“I’m sorry, Bechde, but I think…” Jova reached out and took the little girl, Alis, by the hand. It was small and hot, and only squirmed slightly when Jova touched her. “I think we’re not in Alswell. I think she should keep her name.”
“Well…well, alright then,” said Bechde, and she sounded more disappointed than angry or upset. “Alis is a good name.”
“A holy name, too,” said Jova, patting Alis on the head. “Roan would approve.”
“What’s Roan?” asked Alis. She took a seat next to Jova and asked in her prim, directed voice. Who had this Alis been, before the Fallow took her away?
“Roan was the man on horseback, remember?” said Jova, holding Alis’s hand still. “You’ll talk with him more soon. He might seem harsh, but he’s really very nice.”
“What’s that on your face?” asked Alis, and Jova had to change tacts just as quickly to figure out what she was talking about.
“This?” Jova asked, indicated her blind fold.
There was an expectant pause, and Jova realized Ali must have nodded. “It’s called a blindfold,” she said, nodding back even though she wasn’t quite sure how far up or down Alis’s face was in the silence.
Alis continued with her interrogation. “Why do you have it?”
Jova’s breath caught in her throat. For a moment, she saw a glimpse of it what it felt liked to be unrestrained, unjudged, and realized how tempting it must have been for Roan. Jova hesitated, wondering what truth she had for little Alis, when at last all Jova chose to say was, “There’s something wrong with me.”
The little girl seemed to accept that, and asked no more questions.
The wagon jerked suddenly, and Jova nearly tumbled out of her seat. “What’s going on?” muttered Bechde, as she opened the tarp.
As Jova picked herself up, there was a fevered muttering between Bechde and one of her attendants, and as the attendant left Bechde whispered, “Three years and there are still refugees on the road from Ironhide’s revolution…”
There was a rustling of fabric as Bechde slid out of the wagon. “I’ll be back in a moment, Jova dear. We’ve met some people who want to talk to us. You two stay in here, and get to know each other!”
“Bye,” said Jova, meekly, as Bechde left. She was left alone with Alis in the wagon, wondering what to say. “Are you OK?” asked Jova, hesitantly. “After last night? Do you feel…better?”
Alis did not respond for quite some time. Then, she said, “Where are we going?”
“Very far away,” said Jova. “To Alswell, and to a place called the Seat of the King. You’ve probably already gone a far way, to here. This place is called Moscoleon.”
Jova felt the bench shift as Alis began to swing her legs. “When are we going home?” she asked.
It was like a hand had clenched around Jova’s chest. She felt sudden moisture around her eyes, and she shook her head to clear it. Her hand gripped Alis’s tighter. “I don’t know,” said Jova. “Not for a long time, I think.”
There was a sudden weight on Jova’s shoulder, and Alis mumbled, softly, “Will you be my sister?”
“OK,” Jova said, and she adjusted herself so that she could lower Alis’s head gently into her lap. “I’ll be your sister.”
She wasn’t sure what being a sister meant, but, as Alis’s little body leaned peacefully on her, Jova figured it couldn’t be so bad. Jova felt her own head begin to droop, as the warm air in the wagon and the trials of last night began to lull her into her slumber.
Jova did not know how long she had slept, or if she had even slept at all, when shouts from outside made her jerk upright.
“Lances up, tabula out!” shouted a voice from the outside, one that Jova recognized as Janwye’s. The shout echoed all the way down to the end of the procession. “Draw weapons! Lances up, tabula out!”
Jova tensed, and began to pat down the floor of the wagon, looking for something she could use as a spear or a stick. Alis stirred next to her, yawning and smacking her lips together. Her tabula felt heavy in Jova’s pocket.
Jova’s hand closed around something that would do, and she felt years of morning practice with Arim return to her. It was time to prove that she could make it in the real world, time to prove that she was no longer just a scared little blind girl.
It was time to protect the one that the Ladies had sent to her. It was time to find faith, once again.
Jova tensed, crouched in front of the tarp opening, and waited.
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 traced the shawl of the lady, so soft that it felt like her fingers were tracing air. She sat on a velvet cushion, her legs folded under her, and when Bechde touched her hand the lady’s touch was smooth as silk. “How charmed,” said Bechde, and the Alswell drawl made her voice simply drip with elegance. “Oh, Ladies, however did Janwye find a precious gem like you in that stew of a city? You’ve made the whole trek across the sands worth it, darling, honestly.”
It sounded like a lie to Jova’s ears, but she smiled anyway. It was a happy lie, and it did her no harm to believe it. “Thank you kindly, missus,” she said, bowing her head.
“Oh!” said Bechde (and the way she said it Jova thought the fieldwoman might swoon from sheer emotion). “How mannered! When this horrid affair is all done and over, you simply must stay with us at the manor in Alswell, Jova, I insist.”
Horrid affair. Bechde made it sound like it was something minor, like someone needed to clean the house instead of win a war before she could go home. Jova scratched her chest. Was the lady of Alswell simply that absent-minded?
“Would you like something to eat? Something to drink?” The wagon creaked as Bechde rose, and Jova could feel the humid jungle air flow in once Bechde opened the tarp. “Quele, would you be so kind as to fetch us a bite?”
The alsknight at attendance outside was a woman, but had a deep, rumbling voice. “We still have the pomegranates from Hak Mat Do, m’lady.”
“Oh, that’d be just lovely,” said Bechde, and Jova heard chainmail rustle as Quele walked away. Bechde sat down again opposite her in a rustle of cloth. “You’ll love them, Jova, they were grown directly in Do Yash. They’re a bit tart, but the juices are delicious, even if they are a bit messy.” Bechde laughed, high and airy, and Jova couldn’t help but laugh with her.
The girl smoothed out her coza and sat a little straighter, wondering how long it had been. Janwye had escorted her down the jungle path and left immediately to have her audience with the Holy Keep, while Roan had been falling in and out of consciousness for the rest of the night. Jova had been left in the care of Janwye’s liege, Bechde, and all her various attendants and slaves, left to sit and stew and wait for something to happen to her.
Jova’s fingers tapped on her knees. She needed to do something.
Something rustled beside her, and instinctively Jova clicked her tongue to get a better image. She didn’t get much; the canvas of the wagon didn’t make a very good surface for the sound to bounce off of, but she had the vague impression of something blocky being pushed through the entrance.
“Just the pomegranates, my dear,” said Bechde, kindly. “Thank you, Quele, you may go now.”
Bechde took Jova’s hand and put something round and firm in it gently. Jova turned the hard fruit over in her hands, but she couldn’t seem to peel it like she would a Jhidnu orange or bite into it like she would a Moscoleon tomato.
“I am so impressed by you, Jova, darling,” Bechde said, as she began to cut her own. “I mean, look at you! You’ve taken this disability of yours and made it something to be proud of. It’s like your own special little power, isn’t it?”
Jova’s grip tightened on the pomegranate until she thought it might burst. No, it isn’t, she wanted to scream. No, it’s not! It helps, but it can’t replace colors. It can’t bring back sunsets or art or human faces. It’s not a power, it’s a burden! If you’re so impressed, you can HAVE IT.
“Yes,” she said, out loud. “I suppose it is.” And she waited for Bechde to finish with the knife so she could use it to cut her own.
“Oh, no, no, I insist,” said Bechde, taking the fruit back from Jova’s hand. “What was I thinking, just handing it off to you? No, darling, it’s much better if I do it, honestly. Look, you can have mine, and I’ll eat this one.”
“You don’t have to-,” Jova began, but Bechde shushed her and cut her off.
“It’s really quite alright, darling. Here, have it! The seeds are to die for, honestly.”
Jova felt a metal disk being placed on her lap, and she felt the edges of the plate hesitantly. On it, she traced six slices of the fruit, and she let out a little gasp of surprise. “Is this all mine?”
“Why, yes, of course! Although, if you can’t finish it, please do tell me. I’ll give it to Quele, she does so hate to waste food.”
All hers. Jova picked out one of the seeds hesitantly and bit into it, and immediately her tongue vibrated with the sensation. Sweet and tart, just like Bechde had said, with a hint of a crunch as she chewed. Jova slowed to savor every bite, a great smile on her face. All hers. It would have taken Da days on end of extra work just to buy one for the whole family, and Ma would have had to trade in a whole day’s worth of kill for a chance at exotic fruit. Jova would have to ask Bechde if she could take some back to Ma and Da.
Jova caught herself, and bit her lip. She had to stop thinking that way, not if she wanted to make the journey any less painful. How long it would take, anyway? How long would Ma and Da be forced to worry? Jova knew that she could not stay at home, but if they were already waiting for Janwye to finish then why couldn’t Ma and Da just meet up with her before they went? It was Roan’s decision, and it didn’t make sense.
Speaking of Roan, Jova still had to talk to him. A shiver went down her spine involuntarily, and she shuddered as she remembered the emptiness where his legs should have been, the almost too-smooth stumps where they ended. What kind of accident must he have been in, to have lost both his legs?
An accident, Jova reasoned, much like the one that lost both her eyes. Something he blamed himself for, something he lived with day in and day out, something he wished simply never had the chance to happen.
If Roan was anything like her, his accident would have been like that.
“Jova, darling, were you listening?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Jova, distractedly. She shook her head, massaging her temple. “I was just thinking a bit too hard.”
“Oh! What about? Please do tell me.” Bechde leaned forward and whispered, “It can be our little secret.”
The grown-old sounded older than even Ma, and yet she had such child-like enthusiasm, such infectious affection, that Jova couldn’t just say no. “Life,” said Jova, vaguely. “My friends. My home.”
Bechde laid her hand over Jova’s. “I miss home, too,” she said. “But I think you’ll find that the parting just gives you more reason to finish the journey. Don’t be afraid, Jova. I was scared when I left Alswell, but if I hadn’t I would have never had the chance to meet you! Things will work out in the end.”
Jova smiled. Perhaps the lady of Alswell wasn’t so absent-minded after all. “What’s your home like, Bechde?” she asked. “I want to know!”
“All’s well in Alswell, darling,” said Bechde. “It’s so much more open than here! There is so much clutter in Moscoleon, but in Alswell we’ve got wide open fields, pretty little houses with the most charmed balls and parties, and a sky so blue it’d make you cry, darling—honestly, it is a picture.”
Jova ate delicately, keenly aware of the marbleman table manners Da had once taught her now that she was in Bechde’s company. “I remember blue skies in Jhidnu,” said Jova. “I- I don’t know so much about Moscoleon, but most mornings I can feel the fog here.”
“Jhidnu? Jhidnu-by-the-Sea? You’ve been there? Why, darling, I never knew!”
“Eigh- four years,” said Jova, catching herself. Her four years before the Fallow, just like everyone else’s, would just have to go unaccounted for. “We stayed in the city proper once, but Anjan and Ell didn’t like it. It was too busy for them, they said. We stayed to the back roads in the Jhidnu wilds mostly, staying at traveler’s inns, camping by the trail.”
“And for you to be so young.” Bechde sounded positively astounded, but Jova did not know why. It had been normal life for her—for many people, in fact, living outside of the merchant city. “Tell me, Jova, were you…were you savage?”
“Wild?” Jova paused. Was she? She was neither slave nor wild. She fell into the crack in-between. “…No,” she said, finally. It wasn’t a lie. “Anjan was, though. And we met quite a few on the road, although they left us alone for the most part.”
“What are they like?” asked Bechde, breathlessly. “Wild children, I mean. We don’t have them in Alswell, you see, and we met hardly any when we were crossing the Vigil Sands…”
That got Jova’s attention. “There are no wild children in Alswell?” she asked, sitting straight. “Does the Fallow not call to them?”
“Oh, no, no,” said Bechde, dismissively. “We find the hollows, you see. Guard them, even. The animals we let out, and the children we collect to civilize. It’s all very progressive; we have no truck with that superstitious nonsense the Wilder tree-worshippers believe.”
“Oh,” said Jova, and she couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Another answer had been waved in front of her face, and it had been snatched away just as quickly. She scratched her chest again. “Well, um…we didn’t see many wild children, either, honestly. They keep to themselves in Jhidnu. Some of them attacked us while we were traveling, most just ran away.”
Bechde was not to be dissuaded. “How do they learn to speak the king’s tongue? Do they wear clothes? Is it true that they have some kind of bond to the wild beasts?”
Jova pursed her lips. Honestly, she had never given those questions much thought before. “I suppose they must remember the language from before they were called,” said Jova. “And from each other, I suppose.” Her eyebrows furrowed. “I saw some wild children without clothes, some with. Those were stolen, probably. And their bond comes from the tabula that they take with them.”
“The children take tabula?”
Jova nodded. “Anjan did it, after her Fallow. She summoned Mo—a weaseldog, I mean—and kept his tabula ever since.”
“Before the Fallow?” said Bechde, aghast. “The children wouldn’t have the constitution for it! And the animals would be so young.”
“Well, it’s just like anywhere else,” said Jova, a little confused. “They take care of each other. Don’t you have early summoning in Alswell? Don’t any of your children disappear before the Fallow?”
She heard Bechde’s dress rustle as the woman shifted across from her. “Yes, I suppose I see your point,” said the lady, and her tone for once was subdued. “It’s just so very strange to think of it that way. So how do you get slaves in Jhidnu, then? Where do they come from?”
Jova thought back. “Adventurers and explorers,” she said. “I saw a few at market once, trying to sell them away. They find hollows in the wild and take just the one tabula. It’s bad luck to take more than one.”
“Amazing,” whispered Bechde. “Truly amazing, isn’t it? All the ways people on this world live!”
“I suppose it is,” said Jova, although she did not feel amazed. It felt like all the ways the people on Albumere survived, but she would hesitate to call what the emaciated, desperate children lurking in the bends of the forest paths did living.
“Ladies, you’d think I wouldn’t be so parched in a place so humid,” said Bechde, and she opened the tarp again. “Quele, would you be so kind and fetch me Fosen? Oh, and put some tea on the kettle!”
“Cropper’s making tea right now, m’lady. For himself. Says it helps his stomach aches.”
“Oh, well, leave the old fart to his griping and groaning then. Just water, for myself and the little one. And don’t forget Fosen, it’s absolutely boiling in here!”
The alsknight marched away to do her lady’s bidding.
“Do you keep tabula of your own, Jova?” asked Bechde, politely, as Jova finished off her pomegranate. She wondered who or what Fosen was as she ate.
“No, I don’t,” the girl said. “Once, I tried to keep one, but…well, no. No, I don’t.”
“Oh! A darling girl like you, without companion? A travesty. We will remedy that immediately!” Bechde said. “What about the charming old molebison you came riding in on? Is that one yours?”
“Roan’s. He owns all the animals.”
“Roan…? Oh, Rho Hat Pan! Yes, Janny did tell me about the name change. It’s remarkable, really, that the savage finally decided to call himself something the rest of us could pronounce.” Bechde said it so casually that Jova almost did not notice the veiled insult, but she couldn’t help but wonder if Bechde was actually being offensive or just absent-minded again. “Do you fancy the molebison?”
“Uten is nice,” said Jova, nodding. “I like her.”
“Then I shall purchase her for you from Rho Hat Pan at once!”
Jova choked. She bent over, hacking and coughing, and managed to stutter out, “Bechde, really, there is no need—I already work with her so much, you don’t have to-.”
“Oh, but I insist,” said Bechde, clapping her hands together. “There is nothing like holding the tabula yourself. As soon as the man wakes, I will ask him about it. Really, Jova, it’s no concern to me, and you are such a darling child, you deserve something nice.”
“Really, Bechde,” said Jova. “Thank you. But I don’t need charity.”
The lady fell silent. “Well, if you’re certain,” she said, and she sounded slightly disappointed. She recovered quickly. “Ah! Here’s water. Come, Jova, come. No leather skins for us; this is a porcelain cup all the way from Jhidnu, made special for drinking.”
Jova took the cup, cool and smooth in her hands. It felt like an awful lot of bother to go through just to have a sip of water, as someone (either Bechde or Quele) poured water into her cup.
“And here’s Fosen,” said Bechde, and Jova heard the click of some kind of clasp. Fosen was a box?
The hum of a tabula and the breeze that swirled around them inside the wagon said otherwise. Whatever Bechde had summoned croaked in the corner, and the lady cooed as she picked it up.
“Usually we just let the wild animals go, but Greeve let me keep this one,” said Bechde. “I’ve raised him ever since he was a little fall tadpole. Come on, Fosen, give us a little breeze.”
The toad croaked again, and Jova felt a gentle gust against her face. She had to admit, it felt nice, although how the animal was generating the wind she had no idea (and she had not the inclination to find out).
“You can hold him, go on,” said Bechde, and Jova hurried to find somewhere to put the plate of fruit and the porcelain cup and all of Bechde’s little trinkets and baubles before she picked up the fall toad. “He’s a sweetie, honestly.”
He felt slick and slimy, and so bulbous that Jova wasn’t entirely sure where his head was. The girl laughed nervously, cupping the toad in her hands as cool wind continued to play across her hands and face, until Bechde clicked her tongue and the toad hopped off and away.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to get you the molebison?” said Bechde. “They can be such wonderful companions.”
“I’m sure,” said Jova, nodding. “I-.”
And then she heard shouting from outside. She twitched, head snapping up as she tried to hear the sound through the canvas of the wagon.
“What is it, Jova?” asked Bechde, real concern in her voice. “Is something wrong?”
Jova took several seconds to answer, distracted by the faint shouting. “Do you hear that?”
“I…oh, my.” The toad croaked in protest as Bechde scooped him up and opened the wagon entrance. “Janny’s come back.”
Jova stood to her feet immediately and near fell out and onto the ground as she hurried to leave. She stumbled and turned her head, listening to the source of the shouting. It was Janwye’s voice, and just her voice: she was alone. The jungle absorbed some of the sound, but it grew louder and louder as she got closer.
“Janny?” shouted Jova, standing on tiptoe. “Janny, what are you doing?”
“We must go!” she was screaming. “Quele! Cropper! Get lady Bechde, tell her we must go now!”
“Janwye!” shouted Bechde, taking the steps off of the wagon lightly. “What’s going on? Did something go wrong? Will the Temple support us?”
Janwye was standing next to them now, in the little camp of fieldmen, alsknights and slaves alike. She breathed heavily, sucking in breath between words. “The Temple…the Temple…” she muttered, distractedly. “I…the Temple is fine. Bechde, look! Look at this.”
And Jova heard a hard clink, and a sharp gasp from Bechde.
“Whose was it?” breathed Bechde, and Jova realized with a start that the clink had come from the fragments of a tabula. It had broken; whoever or whatever was linked to it had died.
“This one was Bax’s. Not- not his, but we made a system- Bechde, I- he…” Janwye seemed too distraught to finish her sentences. “Something’s gone wrong in Shira Hay. We have to go help!”
“Janny, Shira Hay is weeks away,” said Bechde. “Do you even know what went wrong?”
“N-no, but Bechde- oh, Ladies, Bechde…”
“Breathe, Janny, go on. Have a seat, that’s it,” said Bechde, and her voice was soft and calm and motherly. “Now explain to me what happened. Fully, in all the details.”
“My friend in the Temple got me an audience,” said Janwye, and she spoke so rapidly that she tripped over her words. The friend, Jova assumed, was Zain. “Keep Tlai listened and I gave my address and I think it went well but I can’t entirely be sure because she wouldn’t give me a straight answer afterwards and I stayed in the house of the pontiff for the night and when I woke up the tabula had broken and I ran straight here and now we have to go, Bechde, please.”
“Patience, Janwye!” shouted Bechde. The sudden silence rang as Janwye stopped talking, and Jova felt unease creeping in her stomach. Janwye had told her about the system her friends had made: if one of those tabula had broken, that meant something had gone very wrong indeed…
“So we do not know the Keep’s answer?” asked Bechde, after Janwye had a moment to compose herself. “We do not know how or if they will help the cause?”
“Zain can figure out a way to tell me, but we have to move fast! If Bax is in trouble, then-.”
“Do we know, Janwye? Yes or no?”
“No,” said Janwye, after a pause. “No, we don’t.”
“Then we stay. We do what Greeve told us to do, alright?”
“Yes, Bechde. I will…I will return to the Temple now.”
“Oh, Janny,” whispered Bechde, and Jova heard the rustle of her voluminous dress. Jova clicked, and the blurred molded shape that bounced back could only mean that Janwye and Bechde were close together, embracing. “There is nothing we can do now but pray, and see how fortunate we are! We are in the most holy place in all of Albumere. Where better to entreat to the Ladies than here?”
“Yes, lady Bechde,” said Janwye, hoarsely. “Thank you, lady Bechde. I will go now.”
“Bring someone with you at least?” said Bechde, and her dress rustled as she moved away. “Quele, or Cropper. For protection. If something happened to Engers and his people…I don’t want a repeat out here.”
Jova heard the clip-clop of hooves before the voice spoke. “I will go with her,” said Roan, his voice so low it sounded as if he might fall off of Stel at any time. Had he only just recovered?
“No, you won’t,” snapped Janwye. “It’s too dangerous for you to go back into the city. You are going to stay here with Jova.”
Yes, Jova thought, and her fists tightened as she heard Roan get closer: Roan, who had lied to her, Roan, who had used her, Roan, who had abused her blindness. We are going to stay right here.
And you are going to tell me the truth.
The boy cried in the shadows of the hollow, his belly rumbling, his eyes red, his cheeks streaked and glistening. He held a disk in his hand, his back pressed against the sap-coated innards of the great tree. The clean clothes that mama had tearfully put on him were already soiled. He had fallen asleep at home, somewhere warm, somewhere safe, but had been jerked awake by the tugging, hurtling through darkness, the world expanding and contracting around him.
He was tired and lonely and scared when the voice shouted, “We got one today, Engers!”
A pair of hands reached inside and pulled the toddler out. The boy blinked his eyes, scrubbing his face in the dappled sunlight. At its high point in the sky, it shone directly down and peaked through the twisted branches of the tree above him, which was surrounded on all sides by high stone walls.
The woman holding him up pursed her lips and turned him from side to side. The boy felt tears emerge in his eyes again, and as he started to cry he felt a sudden harsh pain on the side of his face. He tasted blood in his mouth and began to bawl even louder, until the woman hit him even harder on the head.
The toddler hiccupped once, and fell silent, sniffling despite himself.
“Did you have to be so rough?” asked a teenager standing behind the woman, pulling at the shawl around his shoulders.
“Oh, it just takes a smidge of discipline, young lord,” said the woman. “See? He stopped crying already.”
“May I hold him?” asked the teenager, edging forward.
“Of course, Engers,” said the woman, handing the toddler off to the boy like he was a slab of meat. “How does it feel to hold your first slave?”
The teenager’s hands were clumsy and weak, and he nearly dropped the toddler as he held him under the shoulders. “He feels heavy,” said the teenager, laughing. He turned to the boy and set him down, tickling his nose. “Hey, there, little guy. What’s your name?”
“We don’t let them keep their names,” said the woman, quickly, before the boy could answer. “Even if they do remember them. Best to just start fresh, don’t you think?”
“Oh, alright, then,” said Engers, and he reached into his pocket. “I’ve got a list somewhere, wait a hollow’s hop…”
“I don’t like springborn at the best of times,” said the woman, as Engers examined the long sheet of paper. “But I guess this one will grow into it. He doesn’t look nearly strong enough for good fieldwork, but we’ll try him at it, anyway.”
“Ah! Here’s one I like,” said Engers. “Bax. How about that, little guy? Does Bax sound like a good name?”
The boy looked at the teenager’s honest face, to the woman looming over him, and he nodded his head mutely.
“Speaks as much as the Lady Spring, doesn’t he?” said Engers, grinning. “I’m sorry, Kerry, I was reading: what did you say?”
“Nothing you have to worry about,” said the woman. “One last thing…”
She put her hand on the boy’s back (he flinched) and bent down to pluck the disk out of his hands. The boy reached out, a protest forming on his lips, but at the tightening of the woman’s hand on his back he looked down and didn’t speak. “We’ll just hold onto that for you, Bax.”
“Come on, Bax, let’s go and play,” said Engers, taking Bax’s hand and leading him towards the door in the stone walls. “Shh, shh, it’s OK. Life is nice here in Alswell. Don’t be scared.”
He opened the door, and two giants of men nodded their heads to him as he passed.
“Young lord,” said one, shifting the lance to his other hand to give a little salute.
“M’lord,” said the other, his chainmail rustling as he too saluted.
“Cropper, Hardy,” said Engers, nodding to them as well.
“You should visit Langs,” said either Cropper or Hardy. “He’s had his for a fortnight, he says it’s been getting a bit temperamental.”
“How about that?” said Engers, ruffling Bax’s hair. “You want to go visit Langs?”
“OK,” said Bax, softly.
“He speaks!” said Engers, laughing and clapping, and Bax dared a little smile. “You have a sweet voice, Bax.”
“Thanks,” said Bax.
Bax started when the woman spoke. She was just behind them, but he had not noticed her. “Not ‘thanks’. Thank you, my lord,” she said.
“Thank you, m’lord,” Bax mumbled.
Engers led him on, through a dirt path winding through the field. Neatly cultivated rows of plants surrounded them on all sides, although if Bax stood on tiptoe he could see tiny cabins on the horizon.
He stepped on something thorny and yelped. The woman tittered while Engers examined Bax’s foot and swept the thing aside with a hand. “Nasty thing, the thorny flax,” said Engers, patting Bax’s shoulder. “You get them over the ground sometimes, hollows know why.”
They kept walking, and Bax eyed their boots enviously. He had no shoes, and kept tripping over his own feet as he looked down while he walked.
“These are the flax fields,” said Engers, brightly. “The people out east prefer cotton, but all’s well in Alswell, and all. A little further south we grow tea and sugarcane, and-.”
“He doesn’t need to know the business, young lord,” said the woman, sharply. “He just needs to be able to work it. Probably not a word you said got into his head, poor thing.”
Bax looked down. He didn’t say anything.
“Well, in that case we’ll just—Bechde! Well, I’ll be! We were just going to visit Langs!”
“Engers, this is a pleasant surprise,” said a lady in tight dress, seated on the back end of a wagon trundling around the bend. The waving stalks of flax were so high that Bax had not been able to see her, or her wagon. She waved a fan in front of her face daintily and smiled, showing pretty white teeth. “I was just escorting the workers back around to Greeve.” The lady blinked. “Oh, what’s this? What a darling young boy you’ve got there!”
Bax sniffed. For some reason, all of a sudden, among these bright and happy people, he felt like crying again.
He didn’t listen as Engers and Bechde began talking animatedly. He just stood there, waiting in the hot sun, wondering when he would be able to go home again.
He heard a soft psst and looked up. Poking out of behind the lady, peering through the covers, was a little girl with wide eyes. She waved at him, and made a face at the twitter and chatter of Engers and Bechde. Bax sniggered, and the girl vanished under the tarp again before the lady could see her.
And then Engers took him away, off wherever slaves went in Alswell.
“No more,” sang the field leader. Thunk, went the axe into the tree. “No more.” Thunk. “No more!” Thunk. “Farmer lord.” Thunk.
Bax wiped the sweat from his brow, squinting his eyes as wood chips flew from the tree. “We won’t take-.” Thunk. “No more.” Thunk. “Not ‘til we ask-.” Thunk. “The Ladies Four.”
The rest of the woodcutters hummed with him. They might not have known the words, but they sang with just as much feeling, just as much pain and fatigue in their voices.
“Ask ‘em why-.” Thunk. “My hands are bleeding.” Thunk. Bax tightened his grip on the axe. The blisters on his hands had healed at this point. They would not bleed for another day or two.
“Ask ‘em who-.” Thunk. “Took the hollow seed in.” Thunk. Bax looked up at the great oak hollow they were working around, with its twisting branches and flaking bark. The tabula in its hollow winked innocently, as if they did not hold the terrible power every slave in that clearing knew they did.
“Ask ‘em why-.” Thunk. “That man still breathing.” Thunk. Everyone thought of someone different when they said that. Some resented the farmer lords, and wished them dead with that line. Others prayed for mercy for their fellow slaves as age beat down on their backs as much as the whips of the taskmasters and the heat of the Alswell sun.
“Ask ‘em when-.” Thunk. “This life I’m leaving.” Thunk. With an ominous creak, the oak began to slowly tip over. “Timber!” shouted Bax, backing away as it collapsed in a great, shuddering heap. Loose leaves scattered all over the ground, and with one last gasp the oak came to a rest.
Bax backed away as the taskmaster lead more slaves to load up the tree onto the timber sled, sweat glistening on his chest, breathing heavily. The taskmaster looked up and snapped his whip in Bax’s direction, and the slave flinched. He looked away, as his grasp tightened on the axe.
That man still breathing…
Bax trudged away, to begin work on the next tree. The timber from the oaks was well and good, but it was the hollow at the center of the grove that the farmers really wanted. They would build great stone walls around this one, too, and Greeve would have a steady supply of slaves for as long as he had the clout to keep it from the other farmers.
“All’s well in Alswell, brother?” asked Fisk, leaning on his lance.
“All’s well in Alswell,” said Bax, nodding. He looked up at the trunk of the tree, figuring out where to cut so that it would fall away from hollow at the center. He didn’t want to damage the most precious part of today’s work.
“You go on and rest a little, Bax,” said the alsknight, as Bax began to chop once again. With the arrival of the taskmaster, the singing had stopped. “I can see you sweating enough for a dozen.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Bax, drawing out his words. He didn’t stop working. “Soon as the taskmaster gets done drawing fi’ty line on my back, I’m gon’ have to give that a little cogitating.”
“Heh, you a funny one, Bax,” said Fisk, patting the slave’s shoulder even as Bax drew the axe back for another swing. Bax had to pull back and let his arm fall to prevent himself from decapitating Fisk. “But go on and have a look-see over there. Pretty little filly, isn’t she?”
Bax followed Fisk’s finger and saw Janwye, also hard at work pulling timber onto the sled. Whatever Fisk was imagining, all Bax saw was the grinning little girl in the back of the wagon, making faces at a sad boy to cheer him up. He really did almost decapitate Fisk, then.
“Pretty little filly,” repeated Fisk, licking his lips. “And I’ve love to ride her, know what I mean?”
“She like family,” said Bax, and he swung his axe as hard as he could into the oak. It bit deep, and to his great satisfaction several woodchips went flying into the alsknight’s face. “So you best think real hard about what you say next.”
“Oh, how do you know what family is?” said Fisk, grinning, although anger was smoldering in his eyes. “You had Fallow in the same hollow or something?”
Bax was about to say something testy in reply when suddenly he felt a cold energy seize him. Like some invisible hand tugging at his spine, his body jerked upright and his arms began to swing of their own accord, swing harder and faster than was safe, so that his muscles screamed in protest and the blisters re-opened on his hands. He moved so fast as to be frenzied but so methodically as to be mechanical.
Beside him, the leering smirk had vanished from Fisk’s face; he was now upright and rigid, gripping his lance tightly. His eyes looked like, on the inside, he was screaming.
“No slacking,” growled the taskmaster, and then he moved on.
Fear kept Bax’s arms moving even as the taskmaster walked away. He supposed he should have been lucky, that he had only been commanded not punished, but the total lack of control, the cold realization that he was a prisoner in his own body—that was something Bax did not want to repeat.
Fisk didn’t talk to him anymore. Even if he was an alsknight, the farmers still owned him as much as they owned Bax. If they caught him lax on guard duty, it was back to the fields for him, and the Ladies knew Fisk couldn’t have many friends in the fields if he had become an alsknight.
“No more,” the field leader began again. “No more! No more, my lord…”
Bax laid on the straw and old rags, trying to ignore the smell and heat of the hut, poking his finger through the little hole in the wall. Sometimes winter rats crawled through, and Bax would let their cold breath play over fingers before they snuck away and disappeared. Bax closed his eyes. If only he was a winter rat, who could walk with a sheen of frost on his back to guard against the hot sun, who could squeeze through the tiny cracks and holes in the walls, who could grow fat on crumbs that the farmer lords threw away.
Someone kicked in their sleep next to him, and Bax tried to edge away. It was hard; floor space in the hut was limited, and a dozen people slept here every night. They also cooked here, ate here, and occasionally shat here if they felt like being rude, although none of the farmers actually cared if they did. It was their muck they had to live in, after all.
The taste of cornbread and grease still lingered in Bax’s mouth. He licked his lips. It was more than just hunger that gnawed at his insides. Anticipation crawled inside of him, and Bax could not dismiss it.
Trying to disturb as few people as possible, he rose, tiptoeing over the others towards the door of the hut. No one stirred; they were all sleeping deeply. They needed the rest for the long day they had tomorrow, like today, like the day before, like the day before that.
It was easy for Bax to leave the hut. The farmers posted no guards around the slave quarters; they didn’t need to. It was the tabula boxes and field lords that the alsknights guarded. No matter how far a slave ran in the night, they would always end up in the same place by morning, with whips and brands waiting for them.
No, all the farmers had to do was confiscate any weapons the slaves might have, keep the rope or rock out of reach. Suicide was bad for business.
And even if he found a way, Bax thought, Greeve had so many slaves that the loss of one made no difference. He padded across the dirt, the calluses on his heels scuffing against pebbles and gravel. He didn’t mind so much, anymore. When all was said and done, it was just part of living. Better to keep living, than to be petty.
The only tree in the compound was an old bent willow, its drooping branches waving in some wind only it could feel. Bax sat at its base, his legs straining as he slid down. It had been a harvest day, today. His back was sore and his fingers were covered in scratches and cuts from the flax bolls.
“Hey, Bax,” whispered a voice, and Janwye sat next to him. She yawned and put her head on his shoulder, and he straightened his back a little.
“Comfortable?” he asked, petting her hair. “Do I make a good headrest?”
“Better than the floor,” she said, batting his hand away. “Lady Summer, I’m tired.”
“Mm,” said Bax, softly. “Where’s Mealark?”
“Sleeping.” Janwye snuggled a little closer to Bax. “She had a rough day of it, today.”
Like today, like the day before, like the day before that. Bax’s gut twisted again, not just hunger, not just anticipation this time. “You ever get the sense that we could be doing something better, Janny? Something greater?”
“Every day,” said Janwye. “Actually, Bax, I…”
“Yes?” asked Bax, a little too quickly.
“Oh, Ladies, I’ve been putting this off for too long.” Janwye sat up, her legs folded under her. “Bax, I’ve been meaning to tell you, but I just- I couldn’t find the right way…”
“I’m leaving,” she said. She look on the verge of tears, but she didn’t cry. Janwye never cried.
Bax’s heart plummeted faster than he thought possible. Janwye? Leave? It was so strange as to be surreal. Janwye couldn’t leave. She couldn’t. She was family. “Where? Why?” Bax croaked, his mouth very dry, the pains in his gut forgotten.
“Bechde told me a week ago. An old marbleman, named Marion, he-.”
“She sold you?”
Janwye nodded, looking away. “An offer she couldn’t refuse, she said. She wouldn’t tell me how much I had sold for, but…Bax, I’m scared. I saw him. He dressed like one of their marble generals, and he’s balding and fat and wrinkled and what if he- what if…?”
Bax pulled her in, wrapping his arms around her in a great hug. He rocked her back and forth, whispering comforting nonsense into her ear.
“Anybody else know?” he asked, after a while.
Janwye shook her head. “Bechde said she was already breaking one of the terms by telling me. This man, he doesn’t want anyone to know. You’re the first person I’ve told, Bax.” She pushed her way out of his embrace. “You have to promise me—promise me—that you won’t tell anyone. I don’t want Bechde getting in trouble.”
“Even after she did this to you?” said Bax, incredulously. “Treat you like shit, sell you like a piece of meat?”
“OK, Janny,” he said, after a pause. “I promise.”
Janwye nodded. She turned around and sat against the tree again, sighing. “Oh, Ladies, I said it all wrong. Don’t be worried about me, Bax. I know you’re going to worry. But I’ll be fine. Wherever I’m going, I’ll be fine.”
Bax wasn’t so sure. He stared at his feet, not knowing what to say. “When are you leaving?”
“Can we not talk about it?” asked Janwye. Her voice was rising, and Bax had to put a finger to her lips as the sound began to carry through the night. “Please, Bax? Let’s just not talk about it. Let’s spend this night like we would have if I hadn’t gone and blabbed it all out.”
The way Janwye said it, it made it sound like this was their last night. Bax’s breath caught in his throat. He stared at Janwye for a long time, at the way her hair fell around her face, at the constant emotion and life she had, at the way she moved and talked and breathed. He tried to keep it all in his head and remember, just in case this really was last night they had.
Janwye might never cry, but Bax felt like he might.
He took a quiet breath to calm himself, and then cleared his throat. “But of course, m’lady,” he said, kissing Janwye’s hand like an alsknight would court a fine apprentice-daughter of a farmer lord. “Anything you desire.”
Janwye waved a hand in front of her face and made such high-pitched mock giggle that both of them collapsed in stifled laughter.
“You know, Bax,” said Janwye, as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “I’m a bit glad that Mealark is so tired today.” She groaned, putting her head in her palms. “Oh, shit, that came out wrong, I shouldn’t have said it like that. What I mean is I just-.”
“I know what you meant,” said Bax, and she didn’t need to say anymore after that.
They talked that night, talked about the field groups and Greeve’s court and the work they had to do, and even though Janwye had told Bax not to mention it eventually the conversation came around to what the Stronghold was like, and what they ate, and how they dressed.
“I hear they have gladiators there,” said Janwye. “You know, like pit fighters.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” asked Bax.
“I think…a good thing. At least they give the slaves a chance to fight back.”
“Fighting each other, though? Kicking and biting and scrabbling the dust while some fat general in the stands watches? While he eats grapes and strokes whores?”
“At least they’re fighting something,” said Janwye. “You can’t fight the sun, or the harvest, or the hollows. At least they get a chance to be actual people.”
“You thinking of becoming a gladiator, is that it, Janny?”
She pushed him up against the tree and bared her teeth at him. “You ain’t never seen how hard I fight, Bax boy.”
He laughed and, as Janwye leaned across him, stroked her hair again. She didn’t bat his hand away this time.
“I’ll miss you, Janny.”
She sighed. “I’ll miss you too.”
Kerry fussed around him, straightening his clothes, scrubbing his face judiciously. “Well, you did grow into it, didn’t you?” she said, an old woman now with a bent back and a wheeze in her voice. “Look at you. Nice set of clothes, combed hair, and your lovely springborn voice and no one will ever think you’re a slave unless they see the brand.” She slapped him on the back. “Best keep your shirt on, then, Bax, eh?” She said it like it was a joke, but Bax didn’t laugh.
He went over Engers’s instructions in his head. It was a simple courtship ritual, just the first step in the elaborate Alswell process. Bax would pass the message on to the lady, and give her reply back to Engers.
He adjusted the cravat around his neck and squirmed on the inside. He understood that he had to look the part, but nonetheless he felt puffy.
“Last touch, Bax,” said Kerry, waddling his way with a pair of soft leather boots. Bax stepped inside of them and let Kerry tie the straps. At last, the slave boy was finally good enough for shoes.
“Off you go now, go on,” said the old woman, shooing him away. “Bechde’s manor isn’t far, you know where it is. And don’t get too much dust on those clothes! You’ll have to clean it off yourself.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Bax, bowing his head and backing away. His boots slapped on the stones as he left the chilly castle corridors behind him, and stepped out into the bright Alswell sun. He was already beginning to sweat under his layers of stiff vests and cotton dress shirts.
Bax supposed it was better than fieldwork, but all the same he felt like he had somehow betrayed his brothers and sisters in the working groups as he walked along the fields and saw them, smudges on the horizon, bending and cutting, bending and cutting, bending and cutting.
Someone had to be the messenger for the farmer nobles and their lace-filled, shawl-wearing, puffy society. Better it be Bax, then, the slave reasoned, as he walked along the road. For once, he could stand with his back straight as he walked.
“Finest morning, Lady Bechde,” muttered Bax, under his breath, practicing. “Lord Engers sends his regards and seeks your company in the coming moons. Ahem, finest morning, Lady Bechde…”
The manor was just ahead. Each of the manors technically belonged to Farmer Greeve, but the lords and ladies that were his personal favorites essentially owned the various mansions that dotted the fields. Bax supposed that, at a certain point, they must have all been slaves too, but sometimes the farmers would choose some particularly lucky child to pamper and raise since Fallow. Lady Bechde seemed like one of those children; from what Bax had seen of the perfumed woman, it looked like she hadn’t done a day’s hard work in her life.
The elaborate front of the manor, with its high arches and true-glass windows, loomed before him as he approached. He straightened, preparing himself. If he did a good job at this, Engers might keep him on as a formal messenger, and then Bax would never have to work the fields again.
And then he saw her.
“Janny,” whispered Bax, as she rode out of the courtyard on the back of a beautiful summer elk, its fur russet brown, long and sleek and clean. But she was more beautiful still, her hair combed behind her ears, a plain white shawl around her shoulders. On the other ladies of the Alswell courts it made them look gaudy, but on her it was majestic.
And then he saw the man riding next to her.
He would have, in Bax’s opinion, been the picturesque dashing knight if he hadn’t been so obviously foreign. He rode his horse (and Bax couldn’t tell what kind of horse it was: honestly, it seemed rather dull) with natural skill and ease, but he wore pants of tanned leather and no shirt at all. A barbed whip hung from his side, and his hair, long and greasy, was in a braid that reached his waist. Bax had no small amount of muscle himself from those years in the fields, but this man had the stature and physique of a trained warrior, not a starved worker.
Bax’s mouth went dry. He did not seem like a marbleman, but Bax had not stepped foot outside Alswell since the Fallow. For all he knew, this man could be the epitome of the marble legions.
There was nothing for it. Bax ran, all pretense and manners forgotten as his boots slapped on the dirt path. “Janny!” he shouted. “Janny, hey!”
Janwye reared in the summer elk and looked around in confusion. When she saw Bax, her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Then, to Bax’s great relief, her mouth split in a wide smile.
“Bax!” she shouted, slipping off the elk and running forward. “What the hell happened to you?”
Bax looked down at his cravat and vest and gulped. “I got fancy,” he said, finally. “You- I mean you look…wow.”
The other man rode up behind them and dropped off his horse to the ground, lithe, like some predatory cat. He straightened and gave Bax an intense look-over. “Mosh sag bu,” he muttered, quietly. “Wey ab al, fot hak sen.”
Before Bax could say anything, Janwye looked over her shoulder and said, “Pu al ab! Sen hak Bax, al iro tu sat.”
“You speak foreign,” said Bax, before he could stop himself.
Janwye laughed. “You can thank him for that, he’s too lazy to learn the king’s tongue. That’s Rho Hat Pan.”
“He’s a friend. Just a friend,” said Janwye. She put her hands on her hips. “By all the Ladies, Bax, it’s been so long. I was going to visit, but these damn fields are so big, I had no idea where to start…”
“It’s OK.” Bax kept looking Janwye up and down. She had changed so much. “So, are you…?” Bax couldn’t seem to finish his questions.
“I’m back,” said Janwye, smiling. “For now, at least. As a free woman. I’d figure I’d see what Bechde needs doing, maybe come back around again. Do some favors for some friends, if I need to.” She reached for a pendant around her neck, and Bax noticed for the first time that she was wearing a little wooden disk with a crescent moon inscribed on it.
“Are you going anywhere?” asked Bax, looking at the horse and the elk.
Janwye bit her lip. “Yes, we have to…yes. Stick around though! We’ll be back!”
Bax nodded. “OK, then. I’ll be right here for you, waiting.”
And they hugged each other just once before going their separate ways.
Greeve looked tired. What little hair was left on his head had gone white with stress and age, and there were deep bags under his eyes.
“Banden Ironhide threatens war,” he said, eyes closed, as if just saying the name caused him pain. “The pup swears he will have our food and grain or else he will summon the might that destroyed the Seat of the King and take it by force.”
Bax looked to Engers and Bechde and Langs, all standing at attention before their surrogate father. He stood behind them, with Janwye and Mealark, at attendance and awaiting orders.
He exchanged a glance with Janwye. Even after all these years as a proven free woman, she still stood where the slaves stood: albeit, where the privileged slaves stood, but where the slaves stood nonetheless.
“I’ve sent letters to the Stronghold,” said Greeve, opening his eyes again. They were a clear blue, and still as sharp as ever despite the age that bent his back and wrinkled his brow. “To Jhidnu. To Kazakhal, even, although the Ladies know what good the frog-eaters will do. But for our close allies…it requires a more personal touch.”
As Greeve leaned on his cane and hobbled to his feet, Engers and Langs rushed to his side to help him stand. They helped him to the table at the center of his chambers, upon which the map of all of Albumere was splayed out.
Greeve coughed violently, his body seizing up as he leaned on the table. His three children-apprentices stood by his side, concerned but silent. The proud farmer would take none of their pity.
“Here,” said Greeve, after the fit had passed. “Beyond the mountains. Langs, you will take what supplies you need, what protection you require, to go to Mont Don. Speak to Prince Gaelen, beg him if you must.”
Langs cleared his throat. “Mont Don, my lord? They are…”
“They’re a joke in the Seat,” muttered Greeve. “And that’s exactly how Gaelen, the little guttersnipe, likes it. Don’t underestimate the mountainmen. Make your preparations now, go on. It’s cold up in the north.”
Langs nodded and walked away briskly. “Mealark, come,” he snapped.
“Bechde, you’re going to have to go far, and by foot,” said Greeve. “See Keep Tlai at Temple Moscoleon. They have always been our allies.”
Bechde pursed her lips and said nothing. For once, the lady seemed to be more than just frills and gossip.
“I’d say take a ship, but the saltmen have been getting cheeky. It’s too dangerous. I’d say go through the Seat of the King, but we all know why you can’t do that. The only way is through the deserts of Hak Mat Do.” Greeve sniffed. “Be ready for a long journey, sweet Bechde. Go on, get ready.”
Bechde left, and Janwye turned to follow behind her. Just before Janwye walked away, Bax grabbed her hand. They exchanged a look.
“We’ll talk later,” said Janwye, smiling, and then she left.
Before Greeve could speak again, Engers said, hesitantly, “My lord, if I may…why Bechde? You know she does not have the, erm, fortitude to endure such a long travel. Let me go in her stead.”
Greeve shook his head, and began to cough again. Engers patted him on the back and waited. “I want her as far away from here as possible when this all goes to shit,” said Greeve, shuddering. “And I need you for the hardest part.”
“The hardest part, my lord?”
The old farmer pointed on the map. Bax couldn’t see where, but Engers’s reaction made it clear enough.
“Shira Hay? They- they hate us, my lord.”
“And they’re the only damn ones close enough to help once Ironhide decides to make his move,” snarled Greeve, slamming his fist on the table. “I like it less than you do, Engers, but if we don’t have Shira Hay we won’t live to see any of our other allies arrive.”
“I understand,” said Engers, quietly.
“Go on,” said Greeve. “We’ll discuss the duarchs at length once we’ve gotten things moving around here.”
Engers walked away as Greeve stumbled back to his bed, and Bax fell in behind him.
As the duarch pulled the knife from his gut, Bax felt a sick, hot pain begin to throb throughout him. His fine emissary’s clothes had already soaked all the blood they could, and now he could feel it dripping onto his hands.
He stumbled backwards. Through the red fog that was beginning to envelop his mind, there was some primal instinct to run away, to get back, but the duarch had already grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him in.
Bax felt sudden weakness in his limbs as his pathetic attempts to pull free yielded no fruit. As the duarch put the knife against his throat, he scrabbled against his neck: not to stop the knife, but to grab the box hanging around his neck.
The beetle inside buzzed. This one was for Mealark.
Bax crushed it in his hand and hoped against hope that she would not worry too much about him. Mealark never had been able to calm her nerves.
And then the knife sliced across his throat and Bax could only think of how he was choking, how he couldn’t breathe, how the world was dissolving into red and black and white and nothing.
He stumbled to the edge of the bridge, teetering over the brink, gagging. With a single prod, the duarch pushed him over.
Then he fell towards the water and fell towards the sun, fell up and fell down. A thought drifted across his bleary mind that he should die with a happy memory. He focused. His last thought was of her, of the way her hair fell around her face, of the constant emotion and life she had, of the way she moved and talked and breathed.
With what strength he had left, he reached for the second beetle box around his neck and crushed it. I’m sorry I failed, Janny, he thought. Now stay away from here. Get as far away from this place as possible.
And half a world away, one of the tabula in Janwye’s pack shattered.
As she splashed water over her face and forearms, clarity rung in Jova’s head like a clarion bell. The cold shock brought sudden vitality back to her limbs, and she scrubbed her hands vigorously in the trough. She could hear pacing beside her, and the fevered muttering of the woman Janwye as she recited her address to the Holy Keep.
Jova hung her head, letting the water drip down her fingers and back into the trough. She pursed her lips, considering speaking up to ask Janwye if she had cleaned her hands thoroughly enough, but the thought of the woman’s reaction if she was interrupted made Jova hesitate. She wished Roan would return with the supplies soon. Waiting in the stables with the fieldwoman was doing nothing for her nerves, and even blind Jova could tell Janwye possessed a short temper.
Instead, Jova listened. It was hifalutin rhetoric, one that Ma would have scoffed at and Da would have pretended to understand, but Jova listened all the same. It was interesting.
“I beseech you, Holy Keep Tlai,” said Janwye. “When Kazakhal soldiers massacred towermen and sandmen on the Day of Burning Tower, Keep Izec sent his zealots into the dark marshes. When the Seat of Winter sheltered traitors in the War of Whispers, Keep Hron turned the tide in the siege when the zealots marched north. When the Wilder clans threatened joined the Restoration Rebellion, Keep Kago rallied the-.”
“Don’t mention Kago,” blurted Jova, and she bit her tongue.
There was a scoff, and Janwye said, “Why not?”
Jova searched for the words, but she felt ineloquent. Her hands still dripped into the trough, and she busied herself washing her arms again.
“You don’t have to wash anymore, the blood is gone. You’re clean,” said Janwye, and Jova had no real choice but to stop after that. “Do you bear me ill will, girl?” There was no pause between her sentences. She seemed to say the words as soon as they came to her, quite unlike thoughtful Roan.
“No, I don’t,” stuttered Jova, immediately. “I just…you shouldn’t mention Kago, is all.”
“He was one of the most successful Keeps in history,” said Janwye, and she sounded more confused than angry. “He might not have won against the Wilder during the War of Broken Chains, but it was a noble effort, no?”
“He’s controversial,” said Jova, quietly.
“What? You’re mumbling.”
“He’s controversial,” repeated Jova, clearing her throat. “He was a foreigner and didn’t seem to show any faith to the Ladies. He developed Moscoleon, but most of those developments were secular. It might be a bad idea to bring him up, is all.”
Janwye did not hesitate to ask, even if her tone was questioning. “What is Secular?”
Wiping her hands on her coza, Jova tried to remember how Roan had explained it to her. “The Moscoleon part of Temple Moscoleon,” she said. “Not the Temple part.”
“I do not understand,” said Janwye. “Are not the Temple and Moscoleon one and the same?”
“Well, the- the Keep has two responsibilities,” stuttered Jova, trying to explain herself around Janwye’s rapid questions. “One divine and one mortal. That’s what secular is. Everything to do with mortal men.”
“Ah. Like the Dream Walkers, then?”
Jova furrowed her eyebrows. “What?”
“Nothing,” said Janwye, too fast to not be a lie. “A slip of the tongue. So you think I should not mention Kago in my address at all?”
Jova shook her head. “Tlai and Hron are good, though.” She paused, and smiled. “They won, after all.”
“Thank you, child,” Janwye said, and Jova dared a wider smile. Janwye’s fieldwoman accent made Jova feel lofty and noble. “Roan versed his stable hand well. I would have thought he was training you to be one of us, but…alas. Lady Winter and Fall know what’s going on in that man’s head.”
“So I’m not the only one who can never tell what he wants, then?” asked Jova, smiling, not addressing Janwye’s one of us comment, although she kept it in the back of her head. Who exactly was “us”?
Janwye laughed, and it was light, melodic, kind. “Oh, Ladies, no. No one could crack Rho Hat Pan, not even our teacher. Tell him his spear form was superb and he’d do nothing but mope all day, but if the stew was just passable the night he cooked it he would never stop bragging about it.”
The fieldwoman’s laughter became a little rueful, a little sad. “Back when we all rode together, he’d talk from sunrise to sunset, on and on and on. He…he changed after his accident, though. Came back with Zain to this place, never left.”
Jova wanted to press Janwye to continue, but she had fallen silent and the girl did not know how to ask further.
Janwye cleared her throat. “I formally apologize, child. Earlier, I was abrasive and rude to you when you were hurt and struggling, and for that I ask your forgiveness. You…I see why Roan would care so much about you.”
“Oh—well, thank you—but there’s no need to apologize,” said Jova, quickly, but she felt a hand press against her palm and Janwye kiss her fingers lightly.
“As a lady of Alswell to a lady of Moscoleon,” said Janwye. “Things have improved. I see clearly now.” She let go of Jova’s hand and said, as she straightened, “I don’t think I ever actually introduced myself. Janwye, who speaks for Bechde, whose liege is the farmer Greeve.”
“I’m Jova. It’s nice to meet you, Janw…Janiweyay…”
“Just call me Janny,” said the fieldwoman, and she ruffled Jova’s hair.
Jova nodded. She twiddled her thumbs together, and then scratched her chest. “Er, Janny…”
“You’ll be staying in the city tonight to talk to the Keep, yes? Do you think I could…do you think I could stay with you for a bit? So I can say goodbye to my…to my friends?” At the thought of Ma and Da, Jova’s chest clenched. She hung her head, her fingers drumming against her sides. When would they come back?
“That’s not my decision to make,” said Janwye, rapidly. “Roan and Zain will have to decide whether it’s safe for you to stay the night.”
Jova must have looked very disappointed, because immediately Janwye said, “Don’t worry, Jova. It’s hard to leave your friends behind, I know, but you’ll see them again soon. This is just temporary. Zain will tell them where you’ve gone, and when you come back you’ll have all sorts of stories to tell them.”
Jova sat on the ground, nodding. It seemed Roan would not be coming back for some time yet. “You’re very nice, for a stranger, Janny.”
Janwye sat next to her, and chuckled. “I know quite a few people who’d have issue with that statement, clever little girl.” The fieldwoman groaned, suddenly, tapping her foot on the stable floor. “Where is he? I have to prepare for the address tonight…”
“I’m- I’m sorry if I interrupted you,” said Jova, quickly. “You can still-.”
The fieldwoman patted Jova’s shoulder dismissively. “I wouldn’t be able to concentrate anyways. I just wish Roan wouldn’t take so long doing everything. By the Ladies!” She began tapping her foot again, and barely three seconds had passed when she sat up straight and said, “Oh! Want to see something fun, Jova?”
“Well, I can’t actually s- I mean, I…alright.”
There was the sound of cloth shifting, Janwye rummaging, and then the fieldwoman was pressing something into Jova’s hand. “Hold it like that,” she said, wrapped Jova’s fingers around a little wooden box, made of something soft and bendy like balsa. “Not too tight, you don’t want to crush it. Feel the buzzing?”
Jova could feel more than that. There was the steady tap-tap-tap of something crawling inside, and as she turned it over in her hand she felt tiny holes in the side of the box.
“There’s a spring beetle in there,” said Janwye. “I have another one just like it. Feel the holes? Those are for breathing, and sometimes I slip seeds in for feeding. The box is very fragile, so if you hold it too tight it’ll crush the beetle inside.”
It seemed a nice pet to keep, Jova thought, if not an extraordinarily practical one. She supposed even people like Janwye needed their own hobbies.
Something else slipped in her hand, and to Jova’s immense surprise she realized it was a tiny tabula. “Is this for the beetle?” she asked, feeling the disk’s surface in-between her thumb and forefinger.
“It’s for a beetle,” said Janwye. “There are four more boxes just like this, two each for two more friends. If we ever get in trouble, we just crush the box and the tabula is going to shatter when the beetle dies. That way we can always tell whether we’re safe or not. Feel this one? It’s for my friend who rode to Mont Don. It’s whole, which means she’s fine. I have another tabula right here for my friend who’s talking in Shira Hay. So even if they’re whole continents away, I still know they’re safe.”
Jova nodded. Gently, she handed the tabula and the beetle back to Janwye. “Do you think Zain could give my friends one of those beetle boxes?”
“They’re not exactly easy to make,” said Janwye, laughing. “But who knows? Maybe the Ladies will send a ladybird to tell your friends how you’re doing instead.”
It was nice, sitting with Janwye, just talking. Jova could almost forget everything that was happening outside, all the danger that the city of Moscoleon now carried for her. Roan’s stables were nice and quiet, except for the comfortably familiar sounds of the three beasts who were, at this point, Jova’s old (and only other) friends.
Jova scraped her foot on the ground. There had, of course, been Arim, but he had left her. She had talked with Arim’s wild gang once or twice, but once she had learned that Roan’s old enemies had been part of that gang she quickly began to avoid them. She had kept a cordial distance ever since, from everyone, except the people who had already gained her trust…
“What are your friends like, Janny?” asked Jova.
Jova heard Janwye begin to talk, but she was cut off by rapid hoof beats approaching. “Here comes the cavalry,” she muttered, and she stood. Jova followed suit.
“Janwye! Jova! I have the supplies,” said Roan. “Prepare your mounts, we must be moving quickly. Zealots have already gathered around Copo’s house. They are…we must be moving quickly.” He paused. “What were you two doing on the floor?”
“Sitting, Rho Hat Pan,” said Janwye, as she walked away. “Can’t people sit in this place?”
“There are benches just a few paces away, within eyesight,” said Roan, reproachfully. “The floor is being dirty…”
“I sit where I please, tyrant!” shouted Janwye, as she left the stables to get her mount. Jova smiled. Now that her audience with the Keep had been secured, the fieldwoman seemed much more jovial.
Roan clicked his tongue as he drew near, and Jova found his hand after a moment of waving hers in the air. He pulled her up, and Jova found herself wheeling her arms, unbalanced without a walking stick to lean on.
“Are you needing help?” asked Roan, the concern evident in his voice.
“No, no, I’m fine,” said Jova, steadying herself.
“Find Uten, then. Yora has already been prepared, and Chek is carrying the supplies.” His tone was brisk and straightforward, all business again.
Jova nodded. She began to shuffle towards the stables, and then paused and bit her lip. “Is Ell back, Roan?”
“He…” Roan paused. “The truth is that he has returned, but you may not. It is too dangerous to waste time, especially around a known residence of yours. Zain would be under too much pressure. We cannot risk it.”
“Can Ell come with us, then?”
“That is up to Zain to decide,” said Roan, quietly. “Go and find Uten, Jova. We must be going soon.”
“Why are you so urgent?” asked Jova, and she stood her ground. “Roan, you can tell me. What did I do?” And she waited, trusting Roan to speak the truth.
He chose not to speak at all.
Jova drew herself up. “I’m not leaving then, Roan. I’m not going to walk away from everything I have until you tell me what’s going on!”
The autumn wind swirled around them, and Jova found herself shivering in the cold. She stood tall and straight, unmoving, nonetheless. “You have changed,” said Roan. His tone was even. Jova could not tell if he approved or disapproved. “You have grown defiant, Jova.”
“I would never have left the house of that pontiff if I hadn’t.”
Roan took a deep breath. “Jova, I formally apologize for-.”
“No! No, apologies this time, Roan!” shouted Jova, and she stamped her foot on the ground. The worry and doubt was beginning to morph into anger and frustration. “You keep apologizing and apologizing but you don’t do anything about it. You don’t let me do anything about it!”
There was no answer. Just like the Ladies, just like the whole world, Roan did not answer.
“My childhood was running,” said Jova. “Ever since I was a kid, I can’t remember anything but running. I finally made it to this city, I made a life here, I made friends, and now you’re telling me I have to leave that behind?”
Silence, nothing but silence.
Jova stumbled forward, stumbled into the dark, grasping for Roan. “I have a family here, Roan!” she screamed. “I deserve to at least say goodbye!”
“No one has a family on Albumere, Jova,” said Roan, quietly. “That is why you must run.”
The girl stopped, breathing heavily. She bit her tongue.
“It is not what you have done that is an issue, Jova,” said Roan. “It is the attention that it will bring. People will be looking much closer at you, and they will be finding many things worth questioning. Do you understand? You are unique and your loss cannot be afforded. If a second would risk you, then a second shall not be given.”
Roan put a hand on Jova’s shoulder, and steered her gently towards Uten’s stable. “What do you need me for?” asked the girl, standing firm, refusing to budge.
“Not just I. People like Zain and Janwye. People we are associated with.” Roan sighed. “This is what I wish to apologize for, Jova. For the unseen influence I have had in your life. For the pushing and pulling. For the path I set you on ever since you first came to Moscoleon. I am as culpable as you for what has happened, if not more.”
Roan clicked his tongue, and the scrape of paws on the ground indicated Uten shuffling forward. Jova put a hand on the molebison’s side, but did not mount her just yet.
“You say you want more than an apology, Jova? Then it shall be so.” Roan pressed something into Jova’s palm, a hard wooden object. Jova scraped her thumb over it; it fit between her fingers, like Janwye’s wooden box, but it was flat and circular. “An emblem of my brotherhood. It depicts a crescent moon.”
“What does it mean?” asked Jova, brow furrowed.
“We are the unseen influence. We are the push and the pull. You say you want the ability to do? To no longer run? Come with me. We will give you that power. I cannot promise you will return unchanged, but you will return.” Roan took the badge gently back from Jova’s palm. “It is time to go now, Jova. Let the dead rest.”
Jova nodded, sullenly, feeling a yawning pit opening in her chest. Despite everything Roan had said, all she heard was that she would not get to say goodbye.
“Repeat it, Jova. Say it with me. Let the dead rest.”
“Let the dead rest,” whispered Jova. She heard Roan grunt, felt his hands under her shoulders, and she was lifted bodily onto Uten’s back. She closed her eyes, and patted Uten’s back. Roan said she would return. Roan did not lie.
“Chek! Yora!” Roan snapped. “Ha a ei! Mat ye kan!” The fall mule’s snorts and the staghound’s panting were close behind them. “Janwye, the supplies are ready. We are leaving, now.”
A clip-clop of hooves accompanied them, as the procession made its way out of Roan’s stables. Jova tightened her grip on the saddle on Uten’s back, listening to the twitter of the ladybirds and the whistle of the wind fade away. It was as much of a goodbye as she had.
“We’re moving slow, Roan,” she said, quietly.
“So as not to draw attention. Once we leave the city limits, Janwye will lead the rest of the way.” Roan said nothing more after that.
Uten’s plodding lead Jova to trail behind Roan, walking through the empty streets of Moscoleon. She head the footsteps of the occasional passersby, but, imagining what they looked like, Jova realized how they could be mistaken as just traveling pilgrims, nothing more. It was so easy to uproot and move on.
Jova bit her lip, trying to keep her face still and impassive. A pilgrim would have no reason to look so sad.
She reached back and felt the braid of her hair, and a tingle rushed through her hands. She would have to ask Roan what it looked like. She had to remember how to do it again, for later.
Jova dabbed her blindfold. It had become dirty and stained in the last few days; she would need a fresh one soon. Da would not be there to get one for her. It was true that she had drifted away from her parents lately, but Jova couldn’t stop wanting to turn Uten around and go see them now, to apologize to Ma for everything, to pet Mo one more time…
It wasn’t for forever, Jova reminded herself. She would come back.
“Jova?” said a voice, and Jova jumped. It was just Janwye. “I heard you in the stables. Is it true that-?”
“Janwye,” said Roan, cutting in. “Inquire later.”
“Yes sir, great general and mighty lord, sir,” muttered Janwye, sullenly.
Jova shuddered. What had the old mantra been? Keep smiling. Pretend long enough and it might become real. She grinned as wide as she could and turned Janwye’s way. “What are you riding, Janny?” she asked, trying to change the subject.
“A summer elk,” said Janwye, and her tone had lightened. “His name is Cross. Do you want to pet him? I- oh, what now?”
Stamping feet cued Jova to action, and she stiffened. Someone was walking directly towards them, and fast.
“Roan!” screamed a voice, and it was anguished and pain-stricken. How was it familiar? Jova shook her head. The marbleman accent, the lofty tone…
Stel nickered as Roan reared the horse in. “Latius! What is the meaning of this?”
“I would ask you myself,” roared the banished prince, and he stopped somewhere in front of them. Jova held the saddle tight as Uten came to a halt. “Where are you running, Roan? Where are you taking your beasts?”
“Away,” said Roan. “For a friend. It is no concern of yours.”
“No? No?” hissed Latius. “What is my concern, then, is the filthy coonlizard creature the zealots found on Pontiff Copo’s corpse, you sandman bastard. Stripping the flesh from his face, Roan. He had no quarrel with anyone!” The prince’s voice broke.
Jova felt a cold creep over her. Copo was dead? She heard it, but did not believe it. If Copo was dead, that meant…
And suddenly, Jova felt that perhaps she had not washed all the blood off her hands.
“Put the hammer down, Latius,” said Roan. The animals were getting nervous. Jova could hear their stamping and grumbling.
“Was it the boy? The wild boy, that Copo rejected today. Where is he, Roan? Where may I find him?” Latius’s voice became guttural. “I will crush him. I will batter his skull in like he battered in Copo’s. Tell me, Roan!”
“Latius, have sense,” said Roan, although his voice too had gained a hard edge. “Be calm. The zealots will look for the killer and by the Ladies Four, if they do, their justice will be done.”
It was not a lie. Even in these circumstances, Roan would never lie. Jova looked down, hoping that Latius would not notice her.
“Why are you protecting him?” screamed Latius.
“I am not,” snarled Roan. “I did not know the boy, and neither did Copo.”
A muffled gasp came from the prince’s direction. “You lie,” he whispered. “You lie! The boy professed to being one of your clients, Roan, I heard him.”
“He looks half-crazed,” whispered Janwye. “Jova, behind me.”
“I have many clients, Latius, too many to keep track of,” snarled Roan. “The boy, whoever he may be, had nothing to do with Copo’s death. Now step aside, I have business to attend to and you are in my way.”
“How can you be so sure? Where are you in such a hurry to go? Answer me, Roan!” shouted Latius. Under Jova, Uten snorted and hissed, beginning to race forward, but she was too slow. There was a dull whoosh, a movement through the air, and then the crunch of a hammer on bone.
With a roar, Janwye and her mount charged forward. A column of flame scorched the side of Jova’s face as something ignited beside her, and she flinched back. Most people weren’t keen on summer animals at the best of times for fear of what might happen if they lost control, but Janwye was the one who was half-crazed if she chose to ride one.
Stel screamed. Jova half-expected Yora to leap into an attack frenzy, for Chek to break and run, but it was ponderous Uten who was the first to move. The molebison loped forward, and to Jova it felt like the earth was undulating underneath her.
Screaming with incoherent rage, Latius swung his hammer. Jova could feel the rush of air as it swung forward, the deep hum as it sailed through the air. Behind her, Janwye and her summer elk stopped, dancing out of range of the hammer, but to Jova’s horror Uten did not pause.
A follow-up swing hit the molebison squarely in the side. It missed Jova, but the blow was so great that the girl was nearly knocked off anyway. She clung on for dear life, her bones numb from the echoes of the impact.
Uten did not as much as flinch.
“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,” Roan had once said to her. “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.”
Jova tightened her grip on the molebison’s saddle. Was this the path the Ladies had always meant for her? A good rider. A strong tabula. And it wasn’t the pontiff that made the zealot. It was faith.
The girl clicked her tongue three times in rapid succession, and she made out Latius’s blurred form edging to her left. Heat billowed from her right, but Janwye did not move closer. It was good that she didn’t; on fire or no, the elk’s neck would break easily under that hammer.
With a sharp tug on Uten’s saddle, Jova pulled the molebison towards the left. Blind beast and blind rider crashed into the prince, and Jova could feel powerful muscles shift underneath her as Uten pressed Latius to the ground. Her claws clicked on the ground. Jova knew those claws from years of cleaning them: long, wide things shaped like shovels, and just as good at digging out flesh as digging out dirt.
“Hold, Uten,” said Jova, her voice low. “Janny! How’s Roan?”
The heat ceased suddenly, and Jova heard the patter of feet on the ground. “He’s out cold,” said Janwye, rapidly. “His chest is- there’s a healer back at camp, he can fix this. Stel, down! Down! Jova, Roan can’t ride and even if he could his horse is too spooked to carry anyone.”
Under Uten’s claws, Latius struggled and squirmed. Mouth dry, Jova rubbed her temples. “What do we do with him?” asked Jova, as Latius began to swear in the old marble tongue.
“Him?” There was a sound of hooves approaching, and then Jova jumped as a sharp crack rang through the air. It sounded like he had been struck. Latius fell silent.
“He’s not…you didn’t…”
“He got what he gave,” said Janwye, simply. “Come on, Jova, help me get Roan onto the staghound. We need to move fast.”
When Jova slipped off Uten, her legs buckled momentarily under her. She was breathing heavily.
She followed the sound of Roan’s shallow breathing. “Around, other side,” said Janwye, from Roan’s head. “Lift up his legs.”
Jova nodded, and measuring the distance in her head, she bent down to pick up Roan’s feet.
She found nothing.
Her hands grasped at thin air for a moment, patting the street. Jova began sweeping her hands in front of her, but still she found nothing. Had Roan fallen crooked? She edged forward, still grasping, until Janwye pulled her hands forward gently.
“Don’t worry, Jova, he won’t mind with the state he’s in,” said the fieldwoman.
Jova didn’t understand what she was holding at first. It was almost too smooth to be human, but she could feel the heat pulsing underneath, the tell-tale texture of skin. The girl felt a cold chill run down her spine.
“Janny, are these…Roan’s legs?” asked Jova.
“You didn’t know?” Janwye said, incredulously. “You didn’t…oh, Ladies, you didn’t know. He hid it from you.”
Jova let go, nostrils flaring. How long? Since the beginning? The only reason Roan had ever chosen to show her his kindness was because of her blindness. All a lie, a comfortable lie?
“Jova, I don’t know what Roan told you,” said Janwye, and her tone was low and hushed and quick. “But we can figure it out later. We have to move now. Help me put him up on Yora, and we’ll get out of here, and we’ll talk everything out once we’re safe.”
She sounded like Ma, and if Jova knew one thing it was that nowhere was ever safe. But she bent and hauled Roan’s oddly toddler-like form onto Yora’s back. They strapped him down with spare rope in one of Chek’s packs, and Janwye gently took the animals’ tabula from his limp hands.
Jova left Moscoleon with her head bowed and her lips sealed tight, wondering just how much of the city of miracles had been a lie.
The words seemed to echo in her head, unreal, distant. She had never anticipated this.
“Jova of the Temple,” he said. “Present your tabula.”
Jova wiped her sweating palms on her coza, holding her breath. What could she say? Was there to say?
She phrased her words carefully. “Why do you want it?”
There was a soft clank of metal on tile, and suddenly Copo’s voice grew closer. “Do you not trust me, zealot of the Temple? I have shown you what needs to be done.”
Jova suppressed a shudder. Even if she had a tabula, she wasn’t sure she could go through with that. She thought long and hard before speaking. It would not do to lie in the House of Spring. “I was told not to tell anyone where my tabula was,” said Jova, haltingly. “I was told that if I ever did, I would no longer be free.”
She felt cold, clammy hands on her bare shoulders. “And who told you that, sweet girl?” asked Copo.
“A- a friend.”
“A friend,” repeated Copo, and Jova could hear the disdain in his voice. “Do you trust the prattle of a wild child over the word of a trusted pontiff, Jova?” And his hand slid down her arm.
Jova tried to squirm out of the way, but Copo would not let her. “I’m sorry, pontiff sir, I just-.”
“It is true, you will no longer be free,” said Copo, and his grip tightened. Jova’s heart was beating in her throat now. “You will serve the Ladies, and all those who speak for the Ladies. Now, sweet girl, please, present your tabula.”
The incense made Jova’s head spin. “I don’t- I don’t have it.”
“You don’t have it?” repeated Copo, a hint of disbelief, of incredulity in his voice. “Did you lie, Jova? Are you truly the sandman’s slave? Or are you some common animal, who left its tabula behind in the hollow tree after the Fallow?”
“Pontiff sir, is there any other way?” asked Jova, breathlessly. “Anything else I can do to prove my devotion to-.”
“Answer my question, zealot,” barked Copo, and Jova flinched. “It would be easier for all of us if you would just tell me- where is your tabula?”
Jova twisted out of his grip, and fell onto the hard floor, falling on her hands and bruising her knees. She felt a hand grab her shoulder, and before she could stop herself she reacted. Her hand found her walking stick, and she twisted, hitting Copo hard. From the sound of the crack of wood, and the way Copo’s body moved, Jova could tell she had hit something boney. His face?
His voice, when he spoke again, was a nasal whine. “That was very bad of you to do, sweet girl. Very, very bad.”
“I- I’m so sorry,” gasped Jova, but her words were cut short as the pontiff grabbed her by the collar and dragged her away. She kicked and struggled, but Copo grabbed her with both hands and hauled her anyway, with prodigious strength for one who had seemed so soft and plump.
One of his palms was coated with something hot and sticky. Jova’s heart leaped to her throat. She had made a pontiff bleed in his own house. Even if she made it out of this alive, would she ever walk free in the streets of the Temple again? The pontiffs were a tightly knit, exclusive group. They would hear of this, they would all hear of this.
There was a clatter of tabula, and Copo finally let Jova go. She crumpled onto her knees, listening to Copo muttering under his breath, a low and constant stream of unintelligible words.
Her mind raced through the possibilities. What was Copo going to do? Would it be worse than what would happen if she ran? She had struck a pontiff in his own house; she did not know the ramifications because no one had ever had the gall to do it. Jova flinched as she heard Copo sweep aside what sounded like a whole hollow of tabula. Just how many slaves did the pontiff have?
Jova did her best to sit still as she heard the tabula hum. She did her best not to wretch out of fear and anticipation as she felt the heat from the summoning wash over her. She didn’t move as she heard claws clack on the tiles.
But the moment she heard the beast hiss, hiss like that monster from three years ago, Jova couldn’t take it. She spun, hitting anything within reach with her walking stick and bolted, tongue clicking rapidly as she sprinted to whatever exit she could find.
She could barely hear the sound over the pounding of her ears, and the echoes twisted and distorted as she ran.
She slammed into the frame of the door—was it even the door? Was it just the wall? A window in the pontiff’s high tower?—and she felt her away across the room, the snarl of the beast just behind her. She twitched; she spun.
Her walking stick cracked against the beast’s muzzle, and she could hear it stumbling back, whining. Jova’s grip tightened, and the space around her eyes throbbed. Not again. Never again.
Tense, she shifted her stance, listening intently. Back pressed against the wall, she didn’t dare speak lest she miss some vital movement, some unexpected attack.
But there was no pretense to Copo’s movements as he strode forward, his sandals slapping loudly on the floor. Jova clicked rapidly, trying to get an image of where the beast was in relation to him. It seemed to be pacing behind him, its movement erratic and irregular.
“Just tell me where your tabula is, sweet girl,” said Copo, his voice ragged and breathless. “I’m sorry that it has come to this, but I will use force if I must to prevent the intrusion of the Deep into a house of the Ladies- will you stop making that infernal sound!”
Copo grabbed her by the shoulder, and Jova shrieked. Her head was pounding, her heart was beating too fast to think properly.
The beast at Copo’s side snarled, and before Jova could stop to think she had batted aside Copo’s arm, spinning and cracking her cane once more over the beast’s head. She felt claws lunge for her thigh and stepped back reflexively, so that the beast caught instead only onto the loose petals of her coza. She lunged forward, and her stick caught in what must have been the beast’s mouth.
At the same time, the beast had charged. With a squelch, Jova’s walking stick sank into something firm but pliable. She heard the beast gag, felt it writhe and flop on the end of her cane. Its claws scrabbled on the base of her stick weakly as it struggled to back away. Jova felt a moment’s indecision.
Then she pulled her walking stick free and heard the low wheeze of the animal limping away. She was not a monster. She did not kill for no reason.
But Jova had barely had time to catch her breath when Copo’s arms closed around her neck. “Cease this immediately, girl!” he shouted. “Let go of your weapon!”
Jova could hear the low hum building up once more, and she knew she could not face a second beast, not if the first one had time enough to recover. Should she submit? But then what would she do? Copo would demand and demand her tabula and she would not be able to produce it.
She could not beat anything Copo summoned.
There was only one solution, then.
Jova twisted, trying to worm her way out of Copo’s grip. He tried to hold on, but Jova kept twisting and twisting until she broke free. The hum had stopped; Copo’s concentration had broken.
Not enough. Jova had to ensure her permanent safety. She brought her cane against the side of the pontiff’s face, and felt her hands shaking from more than just exhaustion.
The hum had started again, and Jova stabbed blindly down, trying to separate Copo’s tabula from his grip. “I’m sorry,” Jova shouted. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
Copo gasped pitifully as Jova’s blind attacks jabbed and struck his soft flesh. In the corner, the beast whined, but made no move to come closer.
Jova paused, head spinning, trying to think straight. “Oh, Ladies,” she whispered. “Oh, pontiff, I didn’t- I’m so- oh, Ladies, oh, Ladies…”
If she just took a moment to think, a moment to breathe. Damage had been done, yes, but she would find a way to fix it. She didn’t have to resort to violence. This was Moscoleon. It was a holy city. She didn’t-.
Copo grabbed her by the throat, and Jova screamed. She hadn’t even heard him get up over the buzzing in her ears, but now she could feel the man’s hand squeezing tighter and tighter around her neck.
She flailed. All those months of careful practice and technique with Arim left her just as much as Arim had. She hit every part of Copo’s body she could find, swinging so hard that she thought her walking stick might snap. She heard wood impact on Copo’s elbow several times before he finally let go, and when he did Jova did not stop. When she found his face, she did not stop.
When her walking stick finally snapped, Jova had gathered her senses enough to run.
Sound, touch, smell: all the senses Jova had come to rely on blurred as she stumbled out of the pontiff’s house. She felt so weak she would collapse down the long stairs, but somehow she made it down without falling. There was no miraculous strength this time, no one to take away the fatigue. It had seemed the Ladies had forsaken her.
The cold air outside of the den of still burning incense hit Jova hard, but it did not so much as brace her as shock her. She felt more disoriented now, not less. Where was there to go now? What was there to do?
She fell into a familiar rut; she staggered down the road to Roan’s stables, mouth dry, hands shaking, leaning on the splintered end of her walking stick as she limped down the street. It was good that it was a holy day. It was good that the streets were empty.
Jova hoped they stayed that way.
She couldn’t remember stumbling through the streets or falling through the backdoor of Roan’s stables. She didn’t know how she had managed to find her way back, disoriented as she was, but forces of habit came back easily in times of crisis. Jova lay on the straw and dirt, hugging her chest, unmoving, until Uten smelled her and began hissing and spitting. She shifted a little then, but only slightly.
Then she heard the pounding of Stel’s hooves, heard Roan shouting indistinctly. Roan gasped as he entered the stables—the strongest display of emotion Jova had heard from him in three years—and heard a thud like Roan had fallen from his horse.
There was an odd scraping, like something was sliding on the ground, and Jova finally sat up.
“You are not being alright,” said Roan, breathlessly, and it was a statement, not a question. Jova shook her head mutely. Something touched her shoulder, and she flinched, but it was just Roan’s calloused hand, rough and hesitant.
“What are you doing on the ground like that, Rho Hat Pan?” said an unfamiliar voice. “Do you need help? Here, I will-.”
“Silence,” spat Roan, and the venom in his voice made Jova flinch again. “Get your steed, Janwye. We will be discussing the Walkers at a later date. Right now, this girl is hurting and in need of assistance.”
“Roan…” Jova croaked, as the stranger’s footsteps pattered away. “Roan, he tried to…he asked for my…” She stammered into silence, unsure what was safe to tell him, what was safe to tell anyone.
“Take my hand, Jova,” said Roan, and he pressed Jova’s palm into his. He clicked his tongue and Jova heard Stel approach. With an audible grunt, Roan lifted himself up onto his steed. Jova didn’t know why, but it seemed to be costing him a great deal. Had he injured himself practicing earlier that day?
“Hold onto my hand,” said Roan. “We are returning to your Anjan and your Ell.”
Ma and Da. Jova choked back a sob, of relief, not grief. She was beginning to realize just what Arim had meant by having everything.
“You are taller,” said Roan, gently, as they walked out of the stables, Jova taking small, stuttering steps like she was newly blinded again. She couldn’t seem to hear her environment over the buzzing in her ears. “You have been growing since I first met you.” He spoke like he spoke to the animals, kindly and softly.
Despite herself, Jova felt her panic subsiding. She did not feel quite as shaken as they entered the familiar road back to the tenement.
“Jova,” said Roan, still gentle. “Please tell me what happened.”
Jova did not speak for some time, putting one stuttering foot in front of the other. “What happens if I hit a pontiff?” she asked, finally.
Roan’s silence was dark, and brooding. “How many times?” he responded.
Jova didn’t answer.
“Jova…is that your blood?”
Jova scratched her chest, shaking her head to clear the thump-thump-thump of her heart. “Some of it is,” she muttered.
“But not…all of it.” There was a pause, and then Roan tugged Jova’s hand. “Come. We must be walking a little faster.”
They were halfway down the street when Jova heard footsteps approaching rapidly, someone running. She tensed, but Roan tightened his hand and said, “Shhh. It is a friend with which I do business. She is being impatient.”
It was the woman, Janwye. “Roan, I do not appreciate this. I would expect more of a brother-.”
“Your initiative is admirable, Janwye, even if your discretion is lacking,” snapped Roan. “Be speaking of these things with Zain and I, no one else. We have polite company present.”
There was an annoyed scoff, followed by an almost sarcastic, “My apologies, milady. May I speak of more mundane politics with you, then, Roan?”
“That you should be saving for later too,” said Roan, and his tone was icy.
“For all I know, Alswell is burning as we speak. There is no later. I have heard nothing from the other envoys in Shira Hay and Mont Don! We have not rested since we left Alswell and it has still taken us weeks to reach Temple Moscoleon. We need the Holy Keep and we need you to-.”
“I said later,” repeated Roan, and the woman fell silent.
As Jova’s feet began to crunch on the gravel of the compound, she listened intently for her mother and father. Her nerves were tingling again; without Roan’s soothing voice, the full enormity of what she had done threatened to overwhelm her. She waited and waited in the empty square of the tenement, and she let go of Roan’s hand and sank to her knees when no one seemed to be coming.
“Zain!” snapped Roan, as Stel tossed her head and paced on the gravel. “Zain, come out!”
The resident pontiff’s feet crunched on the ground as he walked. Jova heard a small intake of breath from Zain, but before the pontiff could say anything Roan shouted, “Where is Anjan? Where is Ell?”
“The woman is, as I understand it, still out hunting,” said Zain, his voice soft and calm. “The man left for the market at least an hour ago. Something about enjoying his holy day. If I may ask…”
“No, you may not,” Roan said. Stel nickered, and Jova hugged her knees. She could still hear every impact of her walking stick on Copo’s face, still feel them shuddering through her bones.
Only the wind spoke for a few seconds, like the Lady Fall laughing. Jova’s brow furrowed. What part of the Ladies’ plan was this?
“The girl, through no small set of happy accidents,” said Pontiff Zain, and there was a hint of disapproval in his voice, “Was going to become a zealot. If she struck down someone inside a house of the Ladies…”
“I’m certain she did not,” said Roan, riding away from Jova to talk privately with the pontiff.
“You’re certain,” Zain repeated.
“She would not do such a thing,” said Roan. A temporary silence. “However, I have not asked fully.”
“Look at her,” hissed Roan, and although his voice was low Jova could still hear him. “What kind of trauma do you think she has just gone through?”
“What kind of trauma do you think she just inflicted?” the pontiff of winter hissed back. “The blood is on her hands, Roan! On her staff!”
“You think a blind little girl is capable of- of what, killing a grown man?”
“If she passed the first test of zealotry, I have no doubts as to what she is capable of and who she learned it from.”
“Not to interrupt your personal dramas, gentle sirs,” said a third voice, Janwye. “But I am running out of time. If I am to speak with the Keep before-.”
“Enough! ENOUGH!” shouted Roan, and Jova felt herself back away instinctively. “There is a girl who is injured and frightened and needs to be taken care of! She is more important to me than that fat slug of a pontiff, Zain! Yes, more important than all of Alswell, Janwye!”
Jova felt that she should have been flattered, but all she could feel was frightened. She thought she had heard Roan’s anger before, but never truly had she heard such rage and pain in the man’s voice.
“Listen to yourself, Roan,” said Zain, his voice doubly low. “You are losing control. There are other things at stake here.” Jova could not hear the rest of what he said.
She kept waiting, kept hoping that Ma or Da would return. She could feel the blood crusting on her fingers and forearms, now.
“Rotten to the core,” said Roan, suddenly, his voice much louder than the pontiff’s. “Not our concern.”
“If that is what you think,” said Zain, and his voice rose too, “Then leave this city.”
Stel’s hooves stamped on the ground, like frustrated hammers on a shattering anvil. “You would abandon me now, brother?”
“You are not being abandoned, Roan. Be calm and trust me.” A heavy sigh came from the cluster of grown-olds, presumably from Zain. “Janwye, where are the travelers you came with? The other fieldmen?”
“North and west, in a farming village on the jungle paths,” said Janwye. “But I don’t understand…”
Zain talked over her. “You will go there, Roan.”
“Where the zealots of the jungle will ambush and kill me?”
“Where the zealots of the jungle will join you. Janwye, you shall receive your audience as soon as is possible. Tonight, if I can. Make your best case, because once you step into the chamber of the Holy Keep I cannot help you. Roan, take your mounts, take as many supplies as you can. Leave quickly, before…before incriminating evidence is found. You are going west.”
Jova felt lost. She was eavesdropping on a conversation far beyond her magnitude, far beyond anything she had ever experienced.
“Why?” said Roan. “What do I tell the zealots that ask why I uprooted my entire business here?”
“You will tell them,” said Zain. “That you, and your little girl, are going to save Alswell.”