Zur Gozrimaw’s iron mask sat heavily on his face, but he did not bow his head. Instead, he held his chin high, his back straight, his gaze unwavering. If the other members of the Grey Table could see his expression, it honestly would not have been too great a difference from the mask: it was steely, calm, collected. There was a time for burning coal, and a time for cooling waters. Such was the word of the First Smith.
“We do not allow outsiders into the Irontower,” said Thun Doshrigaw, from the supplicant’s position at the center of the table. The other members of the smithsworn council ringed him, watching him, judging him, as the First Smith was judged by the marblemen. “Our law is clear.”
“Our law states that no man or woman born of Fallow tree beyond this valley may set eyes on the secrets of our tower,” said Arron Caoimgharaw, of Steel Wrought. He wore no mask: instead, he wore at least one ring on every finger, myriad things made of copper and bronze and iron and even gold. His bare chest shone with sweat, and he wore a steel choker around his neck: a reminder of the First Smith’s sacrifice. “Only those brought here by the hand of the Ladies may inherit their blessings.”
“A dull knife is useless, Arron, for it has no point,” growled Thun. Zur narrowed his eyes, although the rest of his body did not move. Thun had spent too much time outside the tower, fraternizing with the baymen, breathing their rusting sea air. That was no way to talk to a revered forgestoker.
“The girl is blind,” said Arron, a faint smugness to his voice. “She has no eyes with which to set.”
“Arron Caoimgharaw, what mockery do you make of the First Smith’s edicts?” shouted Thun, and even from behind his mask Zur could see the man’s livid expression. “Our law is iron. It does not bend.”
One of the sitting members of the Grey Table chuckled, shoulders shaking despite the constant impassivity of his mask. Jak Surramow: a good-humored man, well-liked among the apprentices, less so among his peers. “You have worked with brittle metal too long, then, Thun,” he said. “Steel folds.”
Thun bristled. “Are the teachings of the First Smith a joke to you, Jak?”
“Not as much as you,” said Jak Surramow, and the disdain was evident in his voice. “Listen to yourself, prattling on about a cripple girl like she were some marble warrior come to slay us all. You shame us, Thun Doshrigaw.”
“You are setting a dangerous precedent, Arron,” said Thun, ignoring Jak. “Allowing outsiders into the tower so freely.”
“You grasp for gold in an exhausted mine,” said Arron, heavily. “Precedent has already been set. Did not Nal Kershiwaw allow outsiders into the Irontower, when he invited the clansmen to plan his ascent to the throne?”
Zur smirked. Arron’s knowledge of the tower’s history was near encyclopedic; it was rumored that he never forgot a word of what he read, and would spend hours staring at the ceiling, flipping through the annals of the First Smith without ever so much as touching a page. Those rumors were true, of course, but for a different person.
A small blade cut as deep as a large one, so long as it was hidden. Such was the word of the First Smith.
Even if Arron didn’t have Zur’s prodigious memory, the forgestoker had a respectable one nonetheless. And if he ever needed help, Zur would provide it, although he did not like to speak at these council meetings. Better for the Grey Table to forget that he was even there.
Zur could actually see Thun changing tact, see the cogs in his brain working as he rounded on Surramow: an easy opponent, for an emotional argument. “She is not just some cripple girl. Do you think Han Luratah decided to make the First Smith’s sacrifice without warning? She even has the two older ones in her thrall. She has no tabula. She has no soul.”
Jak sat up, evidently about to protest, but Arron raised a hand. For good measure, Zur looked Jak’s way, and though neither could see the other’s face beneath their masks, Jak slumped visibly.
“You would do well to remember who you are supplicating to,” said Arron, dryly. “Han Luratah, may the Ladies Fall and Summer forge his soul, died in a battle among wild mercenaries and skilled Hag Gar Gan warriors. You would have us believe that, among all these great fighters, this twelve-summer girl killed Han? Furthermore, neither of the two adults have been ensorcelled by the girl; they have adopted her, to fill a void in their lives. We know of this happening, among the child havens beyond the valley. And if you had actually been convinced by the bayman plutocrat’s auctioneering prattle, then we may yet send you back to the apprentice’s quarters tonight, Thun Doshrigaw.”
Thun spluttered and gaped.
“For each radical piece of evidence you proffer before us, there is an alternative, reasonable explanation. Furthermore, your conduct has been shameful, and unworthy of one who walks the smith’s path. You have failed in the mission for which you left the Irontower, and you have spent too long among the baymen and their licentiousness.” Arron drew himself up, raising his voice. “For these reasons, I deny your plea, and confine you to the lower levels of the tower, until the Lady Winter departs and you have seen the error of your ways.”
“You did not see her!” shouted Thun, standing, spittle flying from his mouth. “You did not see the way she crushed him underfoot! You did not hear the way she screamed!”
Zur moved quickly. He pushed his seat out as he stood, heel twisting against the floor before he launched himself over the table and vaulted towards Thun. His arm wrapped around Thun’s neck, and he brought the man low, locking him in a chokehold as strong as steel.
“Take him away,” said Arron, dismissively.
“Enough!” Thun wrestled his way free out of Zur’s grip, and brushed his robes off. “I shall see myself out. I can retain that much dignity, at least.”
Thun stalked away, his footsteps echoing throughout the chamber as Zur quietly resumed his seat. The other members of the Grey Table rose and shuffled away, whispering amongst each other in low voices. Zur did not participate. Gossip was rust upon the honed speech of honorable men. Such was the word of the First Smith.
Arron beckoned him over as he rose. The two of them walked together, to the opposite side of the chamber. These stairs led up. The others led down.
Zur admired the staircase as he walked. It twisted clockwise as it went up, so that if any invader happened to come, they would find their right hands impaired, while defenders coming down from the top would have the longer swing. It was a small, clever thing. The Irontower was full of small, clever things.
They walked, Arron jingling with every step, Zur silent. He had yet to take off his iron mask. It was almost more comforting, to have his face obscured by the grim metal visage.
“Do you believe him?” asked Arron, as they climbed.
“Regarding the girl?” Zur pursed his lips, although Arron could see none of that while Zur still wore the mask. “I have seen wild children kill grown men. It is no great feat, even if it were true.”
“But a man in our armor? Wielding our sword? It does not reflect well on us.”
Zur shrugged. “Shall we send her into the Greenskull Caverns, then? The men of the valley grow more skittish every day. They would be grateful that the Ladies had sent a warrior to slay the evils within that cave.”
“Hmmph.” Arron did not look at Zur, and Zur did not look at him. There was nothing to see, either way. “And her tabula? She has yet to produce it, and yet her master has not called her back yet.”
“That speaks to nothing,” said Zur, curtly. “Tabula are best kept hidden. Even under the threat of death, I would not produce mine.”
Arron put a hand on Zur’s shoulder, and the towerman stiffened. “You are not ready to follow in the First Smith’s footsteps, yet,” said the forgestoker. To Zur, his tone sounded almost patronizing. “Martyrdom may be honorable, but too often it is also forgotten. We forget easily the names of the dead.”
Zur did not say anything. Lives were petty things, compared to the secrets of the tower. Such was the last word of the First Smith.
“There is the matter of the adults,” said Arron, slowly. “The…parents, as it were.”
“Where are they?” Zur’s hand drifted to his belt, where he kept his knives. It was always better, to know where one’s enemies were.
“I hear they are camping outside the Greenskull Caverns.” Arron chuckled. “An imprudent decision.”
“I concur,” said Zur, flatly.
“There is…” Arron paused. “There is some resemblance. The girl has the woman’s sharp features, the same lithe build. She has flaxen hair, like the man. And the tone of her skin is a mix between them.”
“We have seen this in the gardens,” said Zur. He didn’t mean gardens near the Irontower, no, not even gardens that still existed today. The books had taught him this, and he remembered. “Tall sprouts and short sprouts shall produce a middling offspring. The seed of flowers with red petals and white shall have pink petals, or white petals spotted red, or red and white petals alternating. The essence of the parents is inherited by the children.”
“Hmm,” said Arron.
“Hmm,” agreed Zur.
Arron’s step faltered. He stood before an open window, staring out the Irontower from their lefty perch, so high above the rest of the valley. Chill winter air blew here, so frigid that Zur felt his mask might freeze to his face. Impressive as the metal sheeting of the tower might have been, it didn’t help much with insulation.
“Do you think the doorkeeper was right, to allow the child entrance?” asked Arron, staring at the window, seemingly unfazed by the chill even though his chest was bare. They said that the fires of the furnaces burned forever in the hearts of forgestokers. They, of course, were the voices of the dead, still whispering to Zur through the annals of the past.
“He has cause undue trouble for us. Made us brittle, when we should be strong,” said Zur, standing by the window, gazing out at the valley as well. It was dry and barren, but it was theirs. Beyond the mountain pass, the rest of Albumere laid.
Zur’s hand tightened around the hilt of his knife. Soon, that would be theirs, too.
“The doorkeeper acted on his conscience,” said Arron. “Would you have left the girl in the cold?”
Though a towerman’s hands must be sheathed in steel, his heart must burn strong enough to melt it. Such was the word of the First Smith. “It is good that he took pity on the girl. Less so that he did not think it through. She was not alone. She had a good chance, to survive the wilds, even in the winter.”
“Strange, for her to seek refuge in the Irontower. Technically, we still own her.”
“You cannot own that which has no tabula. A man that has slain a marble soldier may take his hammer. A man that has slain a Hag Gar Gan rider may take his saddle. When the hammer and the saddle are broken, the man who holds them feels no pain, sees no glimpse of the next world. He cannot call them back when they are lost, and as such they are not truly his. These are things with no soul, which change hands by the will of the Ladies.”
Arron wrinkled his nose. “A Treatise on Slaves and the Holy Hollows, by Ik Yor Gat?”
“Yes,” said Zur.
“Hmm,” said Arron, nodding. He paused. “So you truly do think that the girl has no tabula?”
“I did not say that.”
“I did not ask you what you said.”
Zur did not reply.
Arron sighed, and turned away from the window. “In the grand scheme of things, she matters little. She will leave soon, I hope.”
“Was that a statement, or a request?” Zur did not leave the window. Through his mask, which was so cold it felt like it had melded to his face, so cold that the mask really was his face, he saw the rest of Albumere, beyond the tower.
He had memorized every book in the Irontower’s prodigious library. He had counted every stone in it, every step leading from the bottom to the top. He had embraced the teachings of the First Smith, then rejected them, then rediscovered them. The tower had been his whole life.
He wanted what laid beyond it, so badly.
Zur did not move from the window, bathed in harsh winter sunlight. Arron stood in the shadows above him, and though Zur wore the mask, it was the forgestoker’s face which could not be seen for the darkness.
“We have word from our friends in Jhidnu,” said Arron, at last. “Thun Doshrigaw did that much for us, at least.”
“Will the east stand with us?” asked Zur.
“The plutocrats still chafe at the loss of their trade routes, but they are an indolent people, prone to softness of will. They will not send soldiers.”
Zur sneered. He was not surprised, but he was still disappointed. “We did not ask for soldiers.”
“The Seat of Winter is prepared to back our claim. The Stronghold will no doubt oppose us, but they will be glad to see Ironhide dead.” Arron put a hand on Zur’s shoulder. “I must warn you, Zur, that once Albumere has one less a king, I can guarantee nothing. The citizens of the Seat may not even recognize a new claimant.”
“Good steel cuts once and cuts deep,” said Zur. “Such is the word of the First Smith.”
“They will not recognize the First Smith, either.”
“Then they will be untaught, and their ignorance shall make them weak.” Zur turned to face the revered forgestoker, and slowly, delicately, removed the mask. His voice sounded strange to him, when it was not muffled by a plate of steel. “I am prepared for what is to come. I will do what I must do.”
“Then here is where we part ways, Zur Gozrimaw,” said Arron, his hand resting lightly on Zur’s chin. Zur’s skin tingled at his touch. Was it the heat of the forgestoker’s hand, compared to the cold of the smithsworn’s face? Was it simply the fact that his face had not felt a human touch for a time longer than even Zur could remember? Something else entirely?
Zur looked up, eyes shining. It was finally happening. Everything he had dreamed of, come to fruition.
“Goodbye, and good luck, old friend,” said Arron. “May the Lady Summer guide your hand.”
“And may the Lady Fall watch your step,” said Zur, bowing. “Goodbye, Arron Caiomgharaw.”
They turned away at the same time, Arron higher into the tower, Zur deeper. It was a long way down from where he stood, but Zur moved quickly. His robes flapped around his feet as he strapped his mask back on. He would need more practical clothing, soon. Silent clothing.
He walked through the council chambers, now deserted. From there, he walked down the spiral staircase, past the masters’ forges, where he could hear the forever ring of hammer on anvil, see the forever glow of the red fires. He walked past the library levels, where all the stored knowledge of the Irontower was kept. This was not Shira Hay, where the nomads stored any semi-legible tripe they could find in a library open to all: not Shira Hay, where they wandered the world and let ignorance poison their minds. The towermen knew the power of secrets. Only the most dedicated among them were allowed access to the libraries.
Zur Gozrimaw walked on, deeper and deeper, closer and closer to the ground, his heart thudding in his chest. He passed the journeyman’s quarters, and the women’s chambers, and the cheap iron forges, and the place for apprentices, which had no name and deserved none. Zur reached the bottom, and straightened himself.
He entered the doorkeeper’s room.
The towermen were not allowed worldly possessions. Their work belonged to the Irontower, and for it, they were given food and clothing and shelter. The coin their metalcraft earned went to the good of all. Tools were given according to rank and seniority. Zur’s hand drifted to his knives. Those counted as tools.
The doorkeeper kept the supplies. Any man who wished to leave the Irontower had to go through him first.
Zur paused. “Where is the doorkeeper?” he asked, to the girl sitting on his bed. The Irontower had no guest chambers; he supposed this was where she stayed, while she stayed. Her legs swung restlessly from where she sat, although her hands were folded neatly on her lap. She scratched her chest, and cocked her head, not looking at Zur. There wouldn’t have been much of a point.
“The door opened, but it sounds like you’re still talking behind it,” said the girl. She clicked her tongue, and, despite himself, Zur flinched. “But you’re inside the room.”
Zur looked around, but he saw no sign of the doorkeeper within the room. Was someone else demanding entrance to the Irontower? How many more strangers sought to steal their secrets?
“You’re wearing a mask,” said the girl, suddenly. “U-ha did it once, I remember. For a ritual.”
“Where is the doorkeeper?” Zur asked, again.
“He said he’d be back soon.” The girl stood, and though the blindfold was wrapped tightly around her head, she walked with surprising confidence towards him. “Are you going somewhere? Outside?”
“Yes,” said Zur, curtly. He did not like talking to this girl. For some reason, it felt like his mask did not protect him here.
“If you go, could you…could you check on my friends, please?” The girl wrung her hands together. “The man and the woman who came with me. Could you see if they’re OK?”
“I could,” said Zur. He squinted. There was a resemblance. He had only caught a brief glimpse of the other two—the woman had been yelling as the girl walked into the tower, causing such a ruckus that all the apprentices had come swarming to see—but he could see it, nonetheless.
Was the girl really their natural-born daughter? There was no precedent for this, as far back as Zur could remember, in all the books that he had read.
There was a shuffling from behind him, and he turned to see the doorkeeper stride into the room. His features were…average. As much as Zur prided himself on stealth, he could never have matched the doorkeeper’s innate ability to appear completely, utterly forgettable. His hair was cut short in the style of the apprentices, his robes were clean and nondescript, and he had the air of someone who would keep on plodding on no matter what one said or did to him. Even as the doorkeeper turned away, Zur found himself forgetting what his face looked like.
“Going somewhere?” the doorkeeper asked, mildly.
Zur straightened. The doorkeeper and the girl were both inconsequential, compared to what was to come. He had no time to waste, puzzling over them. “Yes,” he said. “I need supplies, and new clothes.”
“Enough to reach the Seat of the King.”
The cut in Uten’s side had grown infected. The molebison’s flesh was hot to the touch, and Jova could hear the carrion flies buzzing around her. Da said the blood was black and lumpy.
“Come on, girl,” whispered Jova, trying to pull the molebison forward, but Uten would neither move nor answer. Fighting back tears, Jova slapped the molebison’s sensitive nose, a move that, on any other day, would have earned a panicked grunt or push. Uten just slumped further, breathing heavily.
Jova felt a hand on her back, and jumped. It would be a long time before she stopped doing that.
“It’d be a kindness to give the beast to the Lady Winter, Jova,” said Ma, softly. “It’s suffered enough.”
Hot tears began to spill across Jova’s cheeks, and she bit her lip in shame. She thought she’d done enough crying, lately. Jova tried to think of a reason to stop her, a way to save her last reminder of Roan, but in her heart she knew Ma was right.
“I’ll do it quickly. Painlessly. I promise, my little Lady.” Ma knelt down to hug Jova close, although Jova did not return it. She just nodded, and turned away, and tried not to listen as Ma let go and walked to Uten’s side.
The molebison shuddered once, and then her labored breathing stopped. The tabula in Jova’s hand split, and cracked, and Jova shuddered as she felt a great chill run through her body that had nothing to do with the cold.
It seized her, suddenly. Jova heard the wind howling around her ears, and clutched her chest as her heart began to burn with a searing pain. The ground shook beneath her, and a woman so tall she blocked out the sun stood above her. Where her face should have been, there was only a slab of marble, cold and impassive.
The vision passed. Uten was dead. Their link had been broken.
Jova bowed her head, giving a silent prayer to the Lady Winter that she would take care of Uten. The pontiffs didn’t have much to say about the souls of animals, but Jova had known enough of the beast to know she had one.
She rubbed the wooden badge in her hands as Ma walked her back to camp. Uten was not the last reminder Jova had of Roan.
“It still doesn’t make sense,” muttered Jova, as she sat on the coarse, short grass of the Hang Mountains. Irontower was not far: technically, they were already within the nation’s holdings, although Da had always described Irontower as more of a cult than a nation.
“What doesn’t make sense?” asked Ma, sitting beside her. “Just ask, Jova. We’ll tell you everything.”
Jova pulled her knees up to her chest. It was strange, how quickly she had become accustomed to traveling on the road again. Just the three of them, and Mo, sleeping on the worn bedrolls as they traveled along the side roads. The only difference was that they were going north, instead of south.
“Why weren’t you there?”
“We told you, Jova,” said Da, sitting on the other side of her. Their beaten, iron pot bubbled as dinner cooked. “We couldn’t be in the city. The plutocrats wouldn’t let us.”
That was what they had told her, yes. They had come looking for her when Pontiff Zain had told them that she had gone to Jhidnu; why he had lied, Jova didn’t know. Ma and Da had spent weeks searching for her, until the plutocrats had expelled Ma from the city—for what reason, they wouldn’t say, although Jova suspected it had something to do with her mother’s temper. And, in her experience, men with power on Albumere did not merely expel. From then on, they had stayed in the outskirts of the city, until…
“When did Roan find you?”
“Later. The same day that Mo found you,” said Da. “Your mother was going to storm the city, guards be damned, but then Roan came. Riding out past the walls on his horse, war paints on his face and chest like he really was one of them. And then…”
“He told us about his plan,” said Ma, picking up the story. “Said we’d wait until you were sold. Said he’d sneak you out on the road once you were past the walls. If only we’d known what they were doing to you.” There was a dark anger in Ma’s voice as she held Jova’s still healing hands, an anger that Jova now recognized. She truly was Anjan’s daughter.
She’d heard it all before. Roan had wanted Jova to have protection when she escaped. It was why he had been so angry when Bechde had left without her.
But Roan hadn’t been willing to be the protection Jova needed. And now, he never would be.
What was it Chetan had said? Everybody had a story. While Jova had been sneaking around, trying to accomplish something, plans had been in motion around her. People had been taking action. She might never fully understand what Roan had—or hadn’t—been doing to secure her freedom.
“We were waiting by the towermen camp,” said Da. “We’d follow you until night fell, then Roan would sneak you out. But when that killer woman took the sandman leader, he had to act fast before—well, before they took you.”
How long had Roan been working towards Jova’s freedom? The whole time? Since the desert? After Hak Mat Do? Why the ruse? He had always wanted to return to the Hag Gar Gan, but he must have been too kind a man to abandon Jova.
And that kindness had killed him.
“Are we still going to Irontower?” asked Jova.
Jova knew when Ma and Da were exchanging looks behind her back (not that they needed to). Eventually, Da said, “I think not, Jova. We have to stop in the valley for supplies, but then we’ll go to my home. The Stronghold. It’ll be safer there.”
There was a time when Jova would have just nodded and followed in her parents’ trail. But something now made her pause. “Will they let you back in? You were a slave when you escaped.”
“Oh, it’s been long enough. No one will remember a runaway from the black caste,” said Da. His tone betrayed his fear, though. He had to have at least killed his master unawares to take his tabula back. Jova could not imagine they would forget so easily.
Jova bit her lip. “Is it really going to be safe?”
“Of course it is,” said Da, wrapping his arm around Jova’s shoulders. “The Marble Stronghold is the safest place on all of Albumere.”
“What about when it’s at war?”
Silence. “The marble soldiers will protect us,” said Da. “Trust me.”
“OK,” said Jova. She laid on the ground, wincing as she stretched out her back. “I’m really tired now.”
“Of course, Jova,” said Ma, getting up, as Da rose with her. “Get some rest now. Supper will be ready soon.” Jova listened to her footsteps tread away, before they stopped. “Jova…I know Roan was very close to you. If you want to-.”
“I’m tired, Ma,” said Jova, and she rolled on her side, curling her body so that her back faced her parents.
Ma didn’t say anything else, and Jova felt a pit open in her gut. She shouldn’t have said that. The Ladies had given her a miracle! Her parents had come back for her! She was with her family again, free and safe and happy. Except, Jova was beginning to doubt that she was any of those three things.
They had been moving fast. Ma had done her best to cover their trail, but there was no way they could outrun a clan of Hag Gar Gan riders. If, as they hoped, they chose not to pursue, then all the better, but it never hurt to be cautious.
And then, of course, there was the matter of the towerman.
He was heading the same direction, no doubt. Perhaps he would stay in Jhidnu long enough to voice his complaints, perhaps he would simply head straight for Irontower. His smithsworn warrior was no longer with him—Jova had seen to that—but that didn’t mean Thun Doshrigaw was alone. The Hag Gar Gan could still be with him, and if they weren’t, there were always more mercenaries to be found in the city.
Thun Doshrigaw. It was too strange a name to forget. His name Jova remembered, but his voice she couldn’t. She had heard it too few times for it to stick.
As she laid there, Jova made up her mind. At Irontower, she would wait for Thun Doshrigaw.
She could imagine the conversation in her head. You’re not the first man whose skull I’ve crushed. Your man wasn’t either. Nothing pops, you know. The blood leaks out of your eyes first. Then the rest of the skull just cracks and crumbles, and whatever’s inside just dribbles away. Jova shuddered. The imagined dialogue both thrilled and horrified her, and she was horrified that she was thrilled.
She curled up tighter. The air grew colder the further north they went. It also grew colder the higher they walked, through the mountain pass that led to Irontower, and it also grew colder the more the winter dragged on. There’d be snows, soon: the first snows Jova had ever seen.
Odd, how it could snow so heavily in the Irontower when never a flake so much as touched its neighbor Jhidnu. Another one of the strange ways the Ladies had cobbled Albumere together, she supposed.
Can’t expect more from a half world, a voice seemed to whisper in her ear, and Jova twitched, although her limbs seemed suddenly heavy and her body weary. Her ears couldn’t hear anything; it was just her thoughts, echoing inside her own head. Can’t expect more from a place that’s at war with itself.
And then another voice spoke, in a breathless moan. You didn’t bury me. Was that Uten? Or was that Roan? Perhaps the ghosts of Ya Gol Gi and Copo had come to haunt her, too. You let my essence spill free. Now they’ve taken my life from me.
Jova almost opened her mouth to protest, but it felt like her teeth were glued shut. She could hear them, moving in dizzying circles around her, about her, inside her. They were not louder, for how could they be louder? They were as loud as silence. But they grew more angry and demanding.
Why didn’t you bury me? Ladies have wings, not roots. Can’t go under. You were there. Under the street. Deep, dark, dank places. Bad place for the living. Good place for the dead. Who cares about the seasons down there? Why didn’t you bury me? Jova, Jova, Jova. Why didn’t you bury me? JOVA. JOVA.
“Jova?” Ma shook her shoulder, and Jova sucked in a breath of bracing, cool air. “You dozed off. Supper’s ready.”
Jova sat up, massaging her temple, and clasped tight the wooden badge in her fingers. It was such a small thing, smooth but for the lines etched in its surface. She tried to make sense of the carving by touch alone, but it was too hard to tell.
She trudged the few steps she needed to sit by the fire, and squatted down as Da passed her a bowl. She took it, letting the steam waft into her face. It dampened her blindfold, but her blindfold had been plenty damp for quite some time.
There was a joy to it though, to hot food and Mo rubbing himself on her knees and Ma and Da sitting beside her. “Thanks,” she muttered, quietly, so quietly she wasn’t sure if her parents could hear her.
“There’s no need for that,” said Ma, kissing Jova on the forehead.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Da. “I’m the one who cooked it, and I rightly enjoy it when I get some appreciation.”
“We spent too long with those fieldmen refugees in the woods, their accent grew on you,” grumbled Ma, as she drank the soup. “And that’s not a good thing.”
Jova didn’t quite smile, but she drank. It was thin, the flavor weak, but it tasted better than anything Jova had eaten in days. Food in her gut, rather than shame and anger, was a nice change.
“What’s on this badge?” she asked, holding it out. Da’s calloused hand took it first.
“Well, where’d you find this, little Lady?” he asked, and Jova heard him tapping it with a fingernail. “There’s a crescent moon on it, and a cloud across it, all curves and spirals. Finely made little thing.”
He put it back in Jova’s palm, and she held it tightly. Had Roan mentioned the symbol before? She couldn’t remember. It had to do with the Dream Walkers, she was sure of it, although she imagined their insignia to be…different, somehow. Why a wooden badge? Of the Dream Walkers she knew, one had been a merchant, the other a pontiff, and the last an ambassador. She had somehow imagined them with golden chains on their neck, silver rings on their fingers, and ivory bands on their wrists. A wooden badge so small that it hid when she closed her fist seemed underwhelming.
She felt hands on the back of her head, but before she could act she realized it was just Da, braiding her hair. “You ate quickly,” she said, bowing her head as Da untangled her hair, which by now had grown long and wild.
“It was excellent cooking!” Da declared, and Jova heard Ma snort into her bowl beside her.
Jova drank slowly, enjoying the warmth as she felt it trickle down her throat, into her gut, through her body. The fire teased her with its heat, dancing closer, then farther, with the capricious wind. “The marble braid, Da?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said. “Marble soldiers are all warriors like you, my little Lady.”
For the first time in her life, when Da said that, it scared her. She didn’t want to be surrounded by warriors like her.
Ma must have noticed the expression on her face. Jova felt her embrace, and this time, she returned it. The scent of sweat and earth lingered around her, but to Jova, it was as sweet as any plutocrat’s perfume. “We’re so proud of you, Jova,” Ma said. “For being so…so strong and so brave while you were gone. And we’re so, so happy you’re back.”
“Me too,” said Jova. It was all she could think to say, but it was also everything she needed to say.
They spent the rest of the night there, huddled together, until Jova dozed off again. Ma must have carried her off to her bedroll, where Jova dreamed once again. This time it was of wooden clouds passing over the hooded eye of the Lady Fall, and a wooden man pointing at the orange glow of the sun on the horizon, although she could not tell if it was rising or setting.
Then she woke, and it was time to go.
Jova’s mind wandered as she walked; she didn’t have to pay too much attention to where she walked, with Ma holding her hand the entire way. At the Irontower, tell them: let the dead rest. Those were Roan’s instructions. Yet, how was she to let the dead rest, if they were the ones seeking her?
“This one here is Mount Mokesh,” said Da, with his running commentary as they walked. “Tallest of all the ones in the Hang, taller even than Mason’s Peak. The towermen believe the Lady Fall and the Lady Summer gave the First Smith the secret to steel-magic at the very summit of that mountain.”
Jova’s foot slipped on a loose rock, but Ma caught her before she fell. “Careful now,” said Ma. “Don’t pay too much attention to your da’s rambling if you can’t concentrate on where you step.”
“I’ll be fine, Ma,” said Jova, holding her arms out to keep her balance. They were walking uphill, toward a pass that lead to the Irontower valley, and the skeletons of shrubs clawed at her ankles and legs as she walked through them. The rocks wobbled when she stepped on them, but for the most part did not budge.
“On the other side is Fogenlaw,” said Da. His voice sounded distant, ahead of them, or perhaps that was just the wind. “They say it spit fire and molten rock before the Irontower was ever built, but it’s quiet now. Has been since before the time of kings.”
“I understand your knowing Moscoleon back to front, but how in the name of the summer-burnt wastes do you know so much about this place?” shouted Ma, as she led Jova around a square boulder, its edge keen and cold under the winter sun.
“The marblemen hated it!” Da sounded like he was running out of breath. “Partly because we used to own it, mostly because they’re better at doing what we did than we ever were. What would you rather have, a marble hammer or a steel sword?”
“I’d rather have the tabula of tigerbear, thank you,” said Ma, as they caught up with him. “Almost at the top of this hill, Jova. It’s down from there, into the valley, so don’t go too fast, OK?”
Da coughed. “Alright, then, let’s ask someone who’s not a savage wildling. What say you, Jova? A hammer or a sword?”
“The Lady Summer wields the Sunhammer,” said Jova. She felt a twist in her gut as she remembered the story she had told Chetan. It had been foolish to think of Roan as the champion from a story; even if they somehow came true in real life, Roan had never been a man to crush small things. Except, perhaps Jova. He had crushed her for nothing. “None of the Ladies have swords, though.”
“Oh, Anjan, we’ve ruined her! She’s a templechild, through and through.”
“Don’t listen to your father, dear, we need someone who can stay in the Ladies’ good graces. Careful, now, careful…”
“I’m fine, Ma,” she said, and stepped forward.
“There it is,” said Da. “The Irontower. It shines in the light, so, Jova. Come on, we’ll get so close you can touch it, my little Lady.”
They descended the slope, Mo scampering about their feet, Jova stepping slowly so as not to slip. Da kept talking, as they approached. “Not everyone can be a smith. This whole valley is full of farms, and there are miners up in the Greenskull Caverns. There’s some local tale about Greenskull, but I forget it…”
Deep, dark, dank places. Why didn’t you bury me? Jova flinched, thinking about caves. She had nothing to fear from them, she knew: after all, what did a blind girl care if a place had no light? But her hands still throbbed, and she could still feel the fire of the torch, so close to her skin it felt like she was burning.
There had been good caves, too, she reminded herself. Roan had trained her in the Teeth of the Abyss, those limestone tunnels near Temple Moscoleon. But Roan was gone now, and Moscoleon was barred from her. It was painful to think about it.
He was not all gone. He had one last instruction for her. At the Irontower, tell them: let the dead rest.
The ground evened out beneath them. Jova found herself walking a smooth, dirt path, which was a good deal easier on her bare feet than the pass from before. The valley around her felt oddly empty; Jova could hear the low moan of the wind, felt the dust around her ankles. She supposed the harvests had already been brought in for the winter.
“It’s creepy,” said Jova, and she gripped Ma’s hand a little tighter. “I don’t hear anyone.”
“They must all be inside,” said Anjan, squeezing Jova’s hand.
Irontower did not take kindly to strangers, Jova knew, but they had little other choice. It was either stop in the valley and trade for supplies, or let Jova walk through the Hang Mountains barefoot, in her ragged slave clothing, with nothing but a wood badge and a broken collar in her hands.
“Tell me what it looks like,” said Jova, as they drew closer. She could feel its shadow on her now. If she clicked her tongue, it was there: a solid mass, huge and imposing, in the center of an otherwise empty void.
“It’s tall, Jova,” said Ma, her voice filled with wonder. “Taller even than the Stone Ladies outside of Moscoleon. I don’t know how they could build it so tall without the wind knocking it over.”
“Is the whole city inside it?” asked Jova.
“As much as it can be called a city,” said Anjan, although she sounded hesitant. “Is that right, Ell?”
“The forgestokers never leave the tower, and all the forges are located inside,” said Ell. “But, to be honest, I don’t know. They need farms on the outside, and there are mining camps scattered throughout the mountains, but even the farmers and miners don’t really know what’s inside that tower.”
Jova clicked her tongue, and she heard it. The ring of the metal, soft and pure, responded to her. She walked forward, all the way forward, until she could put out her hand, and touch the Irontower. The metal sheeting on its side was frigid and cold.
“The merchant isn’t in the tower,” said Ma. “He’s on- Jova? Jova, where are you going? Jova!”
The girl felt the door handle, laid her palm flat against the entrance to the Irontower. She closed her hand into a fist.
Then she knocked. Four times.
Jova felt Ma’s hands around her waist, pulling her away, just as the door began to creak open. Before Ma could say anything, before even the towerman on the other side could speak, Jova raised the wooden badge.
“Let the dead rest,” she said.
There was silence. Ma had stopped moving, although she still held Jova tightly. Jova could hear the echoing inside the tower, the dim sounds of hammers on anvils and steel being drawn somewhere far above her. Then, the man who had opened the door said four simple words.
“Not here, Dream Walker.”
Jova had heard a peckerbeetle once in her life. It had bored into the side of the tree near her house in Moscoleon and had spent the rest of the day knocking its beak against the trunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. The incessant rhythm had been enough to drive a seeing man to madness, but to Jova it had been near torture.
Sovar-l’hana’s writing was worse. Scribble. Scribble. Scribble. Dip, tap-tap. Jova wasn’t sure if she had ever heard Sovar-l’hana without the constant scratch of his quill.
He wasn’t even writing contracts, for Jova’s sale or anyone else’s; from Darpah’s neurotic mutterings, Jova had learned that the slaves prepared those, and “the master” just signed off on them. By extension, Jova had learned that Darpah could read, write, and apparently understood Jhidnu trade law. It was odd, how a man like that could be so educated and yet so servile.
Jova shook her head. It wasn’t odd, with a tabula. She had never known the terror of having her soul held by another person. Who was she to judge?
She flexed her fingers. She was in some position to judge. Her palms were far from healed, but they no longer leaked blood, which Jova supposed was a good thing. Darpah had just changed the bandages a few hours ago, starting half-conversations with Jova while stopping and admonishing himself the whole time, but her hands were still grimy and slick.
The master tapped his knuckles on the desk, and the air rippled. So quick was the summoning that Jova barely heard the hum of the tabula.
A part of her wished she had met Sovar-l’hana under different circumstances. A man like him must have known everything there was to know tabula. Perhaps even something that would have helped Jova.
“It’s done,” said Sovar-l’hana, and Jova cocked her head. Which dog had he summoned this time? “Give him the girl, and this as well. If the seal breaks before it gets where it needs to go, both the intended recipient and I will be very displeased. And you know how I am when I’m displeased, ha!”
“Ay,” muttered the man. Too subdued to be Dandal. Too insolent to be Darpah.
“Good morning, Chetan,” Jova muttered, as the slave limped to her side.
“How is it good?” he growled back, and yanked on her chain. Jova stumbled after him, doing her best to follow without knowing where he was leading her. She resisted the urge to claw at the collar around her neck. As she had laid there in the slave pens last night, she had realized something: everyone wore the chains, but only she had to follow them. Like an animal that couldn’t be reasoned with, she had to be pulled and tugged where she needed to go.
Was this what Ma had meant, that bad people would hurt her if they knew her secret? That they would no longer treat her as a person?
Jova stumbled down the steps of Sovar-l’hana’s mansion, her head bowed. She had never been treated as a person. These men treated her like beasts, it was true, but Ma and Da, as loving as they had been, had handled her like a fragile object that could be broken at any time. Arim had used her as a path to a better life. The Hag Gar Gan had seen her as an amusing pet at best.
Rho Hat Pan had lived some kind of redemptive fantasy through her. She had been a convenience for him, nothing more.
It dawned on Jova that no one, in her entire life, had ever acted as if she was her own person, and she didn’t even have a tabula for them to hold. That was just how people were.
Chetan, as direct and business-like as he was, walked slowly. Sometimes, Jova would stop, and he would have to tug and pull on her chain to get her moving again. When he did, he would wince and stumble, and Jova took some small pleasure in that. It was her rebellion, as little as it was.
She stopped doing that, after nearly half an hour of walking, though. It must have been hard on him, with his limp, and it had quickly turned from rebellious to cruel. Was he really taking her all the way to the city limits?
It must have been so convenient, summoning and all the ways it could be exploited. One tap of the finger and Chetan had been whisked from Ladies knew where to do his master’s bidding. There were so many ways it could be used, if only people were a bit more trusting. If only, Jova thought, they could afford a bit more trust.
Jova scratched her chest. She never had the chance to try, but after everything that had happened, perhaps it was better that she hadn’t.
It was slow progress. A couple times, as she followed the sounds of his steps, Jova nearly passed Chetan. She settled for walking beside him, listening to his unsteady gait and the clink of her chains.
She didn’t know how much longer she had in Jhidnu. If they truly were leaving, then she had not long at all.
She wouldn’t miss the city much. She had been so young when she left, so afraid and so confused, that it hadn’t felt like home in the slightest. But Mo was here, and she had hoped to find her parents, to at least speak to them before she was taken away…
“I’m going to ask you a question,” said Jova, as they walked. “Is that all right?”
“Harder to break than you seem,” growled Chetan. “You’re bought and paid for. Ask your question if you want, but mind your tongue around master Doshrigaw.”
“Where did you get your limp?”
Chetan didn’t answer her. He just hobbled on, and Jova followed him. She didn’t mind the breaks in the conversation; she was used to them. Finally, as he pulled her down a street corner, he spoke. “There’s a story behind it.”
“Then tell me a story,” said Jova. She bit her lip. Was that too impudent?
“You’re surrounded by stories, girl,” said Chetan. “City’s full of them, and they’re all tragedies. Darpah’s got a story. Dandal, the arrogant sod, he’s got a story. Sovar has two stories, before and after he earned the name l’hana. Everyone you know has got a fucking story.”
“You’re the only one I know with a limp.”
“Really? You’re not the only blind girl I know, or the only zealot, or the only one who’s missing her tabula, even.” Chetan’s grip loosened on Jova’s chain. His tone grew wistful. “There’s no point in knowing my story, girl. What do the names Jetta and Krish and Kal Matushew mean to you? You’ll just forget. The only story that matters is your own.”
The city of light grew more subdued, quieter and less rank, as they walked further and further from its center. Jova could no longer hear the moans from beneath the streets. “Is that what you tell yourself, when you’re nailing our hands to the walls?” asked Jova.
“It’s the truth, little girl,” said Chetan, although it was without his customary growl. He sounded tired, not angry.
“The truth is that all people have stories. You tell yourself that they don’t matter.”
Chetan wheezed. It almost sounded like he was laughing. “Little girl, you are too wise to be a slave.”
“As are you,” said Jova. “I just wish you were kinder.”
“And I wish you were crueler. There’s all kinds of pain on Albumere. It makes people swell with all manner of sin, until there’s no room left for kindness.”
They lapsed into silence, as Jova wondered about the mystery of Chetan’s limp.
“Could I tell you a story, then?” she asked, as they walked.
“Speak, if you will. I shall not stop you.”
“It’s from the scripture of Moscoleon,” said Jova. She furrowed her brow; her memory was foggy, but she could remember it well enough. It had been one of her favorites, when she had sat at the feet of Pontiff Zain and listened to his booming voice. “It’s about the Lady Summer, and how she earned her wings.”
She didn’t miss Chetan’s derisive grunt. They did not hold the goddesses in particularly high esteem, in Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, but they held to them, nonetheless. What other gods were there to worship? The walking trees? The demons of the Deep?
“She, the youngest and least of the Ladies, called to them. ‘Come, sisters, I have a new game!’ she said. They flew down to meet her, and her heart grew sick with envy, for she could not yet fly. ‘See the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs? Whoever smites the most shall be the winner.’”
“‘What is the wager?’ said the Lady Fall, who cared not for the game but wished to know more of her sister’s heart.”
“‘I do not like this game,’ said the Lady Winter, who was gentle and loving. ‘What have the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs done to wrong us?’”
“Nothing, said the Lady Spring, for her sister was not yet worthy to speak to.”
“The Lady Summer had a plan, from the start. ‘If I win this game,’ she said, ‘then the loser shall give me their wings. Spring, you bear the wings of the lady bird. Winter, you bear the wings of the owl. Fall, you bear the wings of the bat. You have all had them for so long, while I have had none. It is only fitting that we share.’”
“The Lady Spring nodded, and her sisters agreed in turn. Though her sisters were swift in the air, the Lady Summer looked upon the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs, and burned them with her light. She crushed them with her hammer, and delighted in her slaughter, for though she could not fly, she felt no need to as a titan among lesser things. She won by a great score, and returned to her sister’s full of pride.”
“But the Lady Winter looked upon her with sadness, for she had not slain a single one of the antbeetles, or the flies, or the wandering bugs, but put them in a long sleep with her breath. And the Lady Fall looked upon her with knowing, for she had listened to the secrets of all those who had curled in the shadows to die before taking their small lives. And the Lady Spring looked upon her with no feeling on her face, and spoke thus: ‘You have won your game, and for this we shall not give you our wings, but make you new wings, wings of your own.’”
“The Lady Summer’s joy lasted for but a second, for then the Lady Spring turned her into a beetle, with wings dyed the color of the blood she had spilt, with dark spots like all the bodies she had crushed, and the sun no longer shone and the first night came. The Lady Summer fled into the world, and hid, for though she had wings, now she was a small thing. She saw the Lady Spring wander the world, and with Summer’s fire restore life to the flies she had crushed, and thus were born the summer flies, who still light the way by night, and the Lady Summer saw a great beauty in the things she had killed.”
“She saw their beauty, and yet did not dare to follow it, for in the dark of the night all manner of things that could kill a little beetle still lurked. For the first time, the Lady Summer felt pity.”
“The Lady Spring restored the Lady Summer on the first dawn of the first morning, but left her the wings: a lady bug’s wings, red, dotted with black. ‘Take you your hammer,’ said the Lady Spring. ‘And with it, lend strength to the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs, for you know both the minds of the hunter and the hunted.’”
“And the Lady Summer wept, for this was the first time she had seen her sister smile, and she joined her sisters in flight, for now she was worthy. Every night, when the suns dips below the horizon, the Lady Summer becomes a lady bug again, and is led by the summer flies, to remember what it is to be small.”
Jova stopped. The images—the light of the summer flies, the fluttering of the beetle wings, the Lady Summer’s great marble hammer—danced in her mind like a dream long forgotten.
“Well told. Perhaps in another life you could have been a pontiff,” said Chetan, his voice very hoarse. “But it is a story for children. I do not see what it proves.”
Jova reached out, feeling for Chetan’s hands, and he did not resist when she put her ruined palms over his. “Take you your hammer, and with it lend strength to us,” she said. “For you know both the minds of the slaver and the enslaved.”
Chetan’s wheezing grew harsher, until he was bent double with hacking coughs. “I am no champion,” he said, when he had gathered the strength to speak. “Kindness ill fits me still, little girl.”
Jova let his hands go, and bowed her head once more. She wasn’t sure why she had said that to him, this man who had driven nails into her hands. Perhaps it was because it pained her to know a good man did such terrible things. Perhaps it was because he was not a good man at all.
“Go. Take these letters, and deliver them to your new master. He is waiting,” said Chetan, giving her a push in the right direction. It was some kind of encampment, by the sounds of it, well beyond the limits of Jhidnu-by-the-Sea. “I will not see you again.”
“And I have never seen you,” said Jova, as she shuffled away. “But despite what you think, I will remember you, and the little part I played in your story.”
“Farewell, little girl,” said Chetan, firmly, and he turned and limped down the path, back to the city of light.
As Jova walked, clutching the two rolls of parchment in her hands, towards the sound of people packing and preparing for the trip to Irontower, she realized why she had told Chetan the story of the Lady Summer’s wings.
He had, in his own, twisted way, treated her like a person. No one tortured an animal. And he’d listened to her, even if he still disagreed. He’d said she had a story.
Odd, how the Ladies worked like that.
“Slothful Sovar-l’hana is too fat to come himself,” droned a voice, almost bored, in a nasal monotone. Jova had heard it before, but had trouble placing it. “I should have expected as much.” The voice drew closer to her, and she felt hands take the letters out of her grip.
“Letters for Thun Doshrigaw,” said Jova, keeping her head low. She didn’t know much about the towermen. No one did. Until then, she would expect the worst.
“Then he is ever so pleased to have received them,” said the man, and she heard the sound of the seal breaking. “You, there! Take her with the rest.”
“Yup,” said a female voice. Heavy. Low. This one Jova recognized.
“Dock?” she hissed, as someone else took her chain. It was disconcerting, being pushed and pulled by so many people at once.
Something was pushed into Jova’s hand, something wrapped in cloth with a handle and a hard surface beneath. “Don’t talk,” said Dock. “They ain’t seen me yet.”
“Don’t talk,” Dock repeated. Simple, blunt, matter-of-fact. “Only two towermen. Rest are Hag Gar Gan, contracted as guards and escorts. My job, or it should have been. And slaves. Remember our deal?”
Kill Dal Ak Gan. Earn your freedom. Jova nodded, keeping to Dock’s “don’t talk” rule.
“We walk past. You stab. He dies. I get you out,” said Dock. Jova could smell the manure of horses, the Do Yash spices that the sandmen liked so much. “Mounts can’t follow us into the city. You ready?”
Sweat began to break out on Jova’s brow. The knife, wrapped in cloth, felt like it would tumble out of her clumsy hands. A question came to mind, but she bit it back. She wasn’t to talk, or say Dock’s name. But, like the question of Chetan’s limp, she couldn’t help but wonder: why couldn’t Dock do this herself? Didn’t she own her own tabula?
Everybody had their own story. Jova had met so many people since she had left Moscoleon, and she had barely scratched the surface of what those stories were.
“On your left,” said Dock. “Get ready.”
Jova’s grip tightened. Why did Dock need her? Why did Dock want Dal Ak Gan dead so badly? Obviously the mercenary had been wronged, but Dock was in far more danger than a simple grudge demanded.
It didn’t matter. Jova would kill Dal Ak Gan, and she would earn her freedom. She could return to Jhidnu, and continue the search for her mother and father, and she would never again have to bow to the likes of Sovar-l’hana and his cabal of slavers.
Chetan was right. This was a cruel world that left no room for kindness.
But even as Jova wrapped her fingers around the handle of the dagger, she knew she didn’t believe that. Those other men she had killed had been out of fear, necessity, panic. And right now she knew that no matter what she chose to do, she would live either way. Dal Ak Gan would not. She didn’t need to do this.
“Do it now,” whispered Dock. “Do it.”
Where was Alis? What good were Dock’s promises to her?
Jova was just a knife to her. Not a person. What did it say about the world, that the only time Jova felt she had been treated as a person was when she was being dragged by a chain through the streets?
Dock’s probably going to kill me, Jova thought, almost as an afterthought, as she dropped the dagger. It rolled out of her hands, tumbling out of the cloth, and that was when the chaos started.
The mercenary did not scream out a protest or howl in frustration. She merely shoved Jova aside and reached for the ground. Jova heard it, detail by tiny detail. The crunch of dirt as Dock stepped forward and swept the dagger up, the rush of air as Dock flipped it a hair’s breadth from Jova’s face, the concentrated grunt as she plunged it into Dal Ak Gan’s back.
A horse screamed, and there was a crack like a bone snapping. Dock was knocked onto her back, skidding across the ground. The sandmen shouted, the hum of tabula beginning at once all around her. Was that La Ah Abi shouting? Was that Dep Sag Ko, mounting his eelhound? She heard barking, harsh and fierce.
Strong hands gripped Jova by the arm, and she was lifted bodily into a burly man’s arms. The rhythm of horse hooves was familiar to her.
“Anjan! Ell! Now is the time!” screamed a voice that Jova had never been so happy to hear in her entire life.
“Rho Hat Pan?” she whispered, as Stel reared and nickered. “…Roan?”
“Lies are not becoming me, Jova girl,” grunted Roan, and there was a crack of a whip as the shouting grew louder, angrier. “You see how all things are falling apart when the truth is not told? Why, in the name of the Ladies, were you part of that harebrained Dock’s schemes?”
Jova still did not understand. She clutched Roan’s chest, too shocked to make sense of the sounds around her, too confused to care. Before she knew what she was doing, Jova hit him in the chest. “You told me the truth was a shield!” she shouted, unable to hold back tears that were equal parts relief and anger. “You- you told me…”
“Zat, zat, Stel!” shouted Roan, and the horse galloped hard. The bouncing nearly jostled Jova from her seat, but she clung onto Roan even tighter. “Sometimes shields must be being lowered, Jova girl. And sometimes…I am making mistakes. Anjan! Ell!”
The barking grew louder. It was no eelhound that was making that noise.
“My little Lady,” sobbed Ma, and she clutched Jova close as Roan let her down from his horse. There was still shouting from behind them, and Roan quickly turned, shouting in the imperial tongue and snapping his whip.
“You came back to us,” said Da. He sounded sickly and hoarse, but happy.
Jova was speechless. Nothing made sense anymore. Minutes ago, she had been preaching to the man who tortured her, she had been about to become an assassin, and now people who betrayed her had always been loyal and people who loved her had never left. “I never got the chance to say goodbye,” said Jova, and she hugged her parents tightly.
“And you’ll never need it,” whispered Anjan, holding Jova close. “Never again.”
“Anjan! Ell! Remember yourselves!” shouted Roan. “Clear a path! Jova—upon Stel. There is little time for explaining. Take this.”
As Mo’s barks turned from happy to vicious, as she heard Da draw his knives and heard Ma’s vicious scream, Jova clambered behind Roan. It felt somehow right to be there, again.
Roan pressed something into her hand, as he kicked Stel into a full gallop. Jova felt it, struggling to maintain a hold as Stel bounced beneath her. It was two things, actually: a tabula, still warm from Roan’s touch, and what felt like a wooden disk, about the same size but with a rougher surface pockmarked with cuts.
Jova heard the men and women in front of them scatter as Roan snapped his whip. For a moment, it sounded less like a whip and more like the marble hammer, and the pack on his back felt like the shell of a lady bug’s wings. He remembered what it was to be small. Perhaps he had always remembered.
“Roan,” Jova said. This time, she knew the question to ask. She opened her mouth to speak…
And someone else cut her off. “Stop and return to your people,” said the man she knew as Thun Doshrigaw. “Now.”
They did not slow at all. “He is unarmed and unarmored,” muttered Roan. “We will ride past him.”
Jova began to speak, but something held her tongue. A feeling, in the pit of her stomach.
Then something slammed into Stel so hard that it sent both of the horse’s riders tumbling into the grass. Dimly, Jova heard the humming of a tabula, and the presence of another man, where previously there had been none. Jova heard a clank of metal, and a chill ran down her spine. Her stomach dropped as she realized what had happened. All the ways summoning could be exploited…
A man in full armor would never have been able to catch a man on horseback. But a man in full armor could very easily stand in his way.
She scrambled to her feet, still clutching the tabula and the disk in her hands. “Roan! Roan!” she cried, clicking her tongue. He was a distance ahead of her, lying on the ground, struggling to sit upright.
“At the Irontower, show them the badge. Be telling them: let the dead rest.”
And if Jova had been afraid before, she was terrified now. “Roan, what do you mean? Am I still going to Irontower? Why do I-?”
Stel screamed for one soul-wrenching, blood-curdling moment before something cut her screams short. A sound, like meat being sliced.
The ground beside her exploded in a shower of dirt, and Jova realized with a start that the tabula in her hands was humming. The energy of her fear and shock must have translated into it, and now Uten stood, huffing in distress, beside her.
“Come on, Roan, let’s go!” Jova shouted, pulling on Roan’s arm, but she had not the strength to pull him up. When she tried to adjust her grip, she cried out in pain as her palms opened up again, and blood began to trickle down her fingers. And the rattle of armor grew closer, slowly, steadily, inexorably.
“Let the dead rest, Jova girl. Do not mourn me,” said Roan. He pushed Jova away, his stumps of legs unmoving. “I will tell Janwye you still think of her.”
Jova moved automatically, clambering on top of Uten, gripping the molebison’s fur and trying to point her towards the smithsworn warrior. She would fight him off, she would…
And then she heard the thud of the broadsword. Like meat being sliced.
Her whole body tensed. Jova screamed, and whatever rational, human part of her remained shrank back into the dark corners of her mind. The tabula hummed until it felt like the whole world was shaking with her, and a different blindness settled on her. Black became red, and all was forfeit to her rage.
The smithsworn raised his sword to prepare a defense, cutting Uten along the side, but that was all he managed to do. Uten slammed into him with a blow that would have flattened a lesser man, Jova still screaming on her back. The molebison slammed her paws on the man’s helmet, again and again, and Jova felt each blow viscerally through the animal. It wasn’t just the shudders of the impact, it was as if she was the animal itself.
She felt everything. Felt the man’s skull shatter inside his metal helmet. Felt his blood oozing out through the cracks. Felt a sorrow that threatened to overwhelm her as she realized that no matter how much of this man’s life she took away, she would never get Roan’s back.
The thing that bothered Jova the most was the damp. She hadn’t felt properly dry in ages, her clothes constantly stained and dirty with rainwater, seawater, and other more foul things that dripped down from the grate above her.
But the cruelest thing about Jhidnu’s penance cells, Jova realized, was the sound. The music, the festivities, and the merriment aboveground was just loud enough to carry down below, and Jova could but sit and wait and listen to the echoes. Since Dock and Darpah had come, no one had bothered to visit her. Except…
One night, while Jova slept, she awoke to the feeling of hot breath on her face. She held very still as she flexed her stiff fingers, listening to the panting right above her. “Mo?” she whispered, and the weaseldog barked, the sound echoing all throughout the cells.
She sat up, and scratched the back of his head behind his ears, although the chains were stretched taut for her to do so. “How the heck did you get down here?” Jova whispered, to Mo’s happy whines. The cells maintained no real guards—after all, who would pay for them?—but she still didn’t want to risk Mo being found and caught.
The weaseldog just panted, his warm body curled at Jova’s feet.
“Is this where you’ve been hiding?” asked Jova. “How’d you end up in a dump like this, huh, Mo? Why don’t you go home? Why don’t you go back to Ma and Da?”
As always, Mo didn’t answer. Jova didn’t expect him to. She leaned back, stroking his fur as she waited for more time to pass, and after an hour he slipped out from her grasp and trotted away. Then Jova was alone again, listening to the sounds of freedom beyond the bars of her cell.
Jova had strange dreams in that dank darkness. She felt a presence reach out to her, beating at her, beating like waves against the shore at the high cliffs of her very consciousness. She dreamed of the cursed pyramid and the man made of wood and a voice older than the u-ha’s that rasped in a tongue Jova had never heard before.
She lost track of time, in the cells. The sun only barely shone through into her cell, and sometimes at night it got far hotter when someone dropped a torch over her grate or a summer animal stood above her and she had to roll aside to avoid the drifting cinders.
Then, one night, she woke to the sound of the leather boots stepping on the floor and labored breathing. She felt heat on her face, much closer than if an errant torch had been dropped above her, and held up a hand to shield her face from the heat.
“Slave is awake?”
Jova rattled her collar chain as she sat up. “Is it time to go?” she asked.
“Slave is alert.”
She felt rough hands haul her up, and Jova gagged as the collar strained on her neck. “Who are you?” she rasped, struggling to speak around the ring pressing against her throat.
More leather manacles were wrapped around her wrists and ankles, so that Jova was held taut between chains on all sides. She couldn’t move at all. Whoever had spoken to her was working away studiously, from the sounds of it. His breath whistled as if from a tube. It sounded painful.
When he spoke again, his voice was nasally and ragged. “Do you know of Banden Ironhide?”
Jova wasn’t sure what to say. It was as if she had been asked if she knew who the Ladies Four were. “Of course I do,” she said, and with her throat pressed tight against her collar her voice sounded just as raspy. “Everyone does.”
“Hrm. Have you heard of his hounds?”
At this, Jova shook her head. The rusted iron links rattled.
“They say he has three. Candidos, the winter hound, whose bite will kill a man slow.” The man tightened the chains holding Jova’s arms, and she winced as they stretched painfully above her head. “Viridos, the fall hound, whose ears hear the tread of all spies that sneak around our new king.” Suddenly, a leather glove gripped Jova’s chin, and sweat began to break out on Jova’s brow as she felt breath against her cheek. “Aurudos, the summer hound, whose coat burns with his passion.” The fire of his torch came close to Jova’s face, and she could not turn away as her skin tingled, then stung, then burned.
The man pulled the torch away, and Jova gasped with relief. The cool damp of the cells felt suddenly good. “Who are you?” Jova asked again, as her head hung and dirty, unkempt hair fell around her face.
“Banden Ironhide, the king who is not a king, keeps three hounds,” said the man. “Sovar-l’hana does the same.”
Jova shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“Darpah, the simpering pup, helps the master with his business. Dandal, that vicious mutt, he helps the master with his business.” Jova heard a scraping, like something being drawn from a sheath. The sound was too short for it to be a full length sword, more like one of Da’s knives…
Then something was driven into her palm, and Jova screamed. Every chain holding her down rattled as her body jerked and twisted, but Jova was fully immobile. She heard the man’s wheezing breath terribly, terribly close to her ear.
“I, too, help the master with his business.”
Jova felt blood run down her palm, and cried out as the blade or the spike or whatever it had been was removed. She tried to move her fingers, but the pain was so blindingly sharp that she could not even tell if her hand was responding. Jova wouldn’t be able to hold a staff for weeks.
She heard footsteps, as the man moved from one side of her to the other. “No,” she whispered, shaking her head, trying to move away, but she couldn’t. “No, no, please, no…”
“The journey was a long one, I hear,” said Sovar-l’hana’s third dog. “Across the Barren Sands twice, from Moscoleon to Hak Mat Do, from Hak Mat Do to here. You suffered some losses, no doubt. People died. And you, well, you have gone through some suffering yourself, haven’t you?”
The tip of a nail traced lightly across Jova’s sensitive face, and she cringed. The nail painted across her face a line of blood—her blood—that stuck to her skin, and she could not rub it away.
“You think you know pain? The world is still full of horrible things yet, little girl. You don’t know the half of it.”
Jova howled as her other palm was impaled. Her whole forehead was covered in sweat, the pain bouncing like echoes through her body, or maybe that was her screaming, echoing through the underground cells.
“I learned- I’m sorry- I’ll be a good…a good slave…” gasped Jova, sucking in breath even as she held back her screams.
“You’re impudent. Demanding. Righteous. You’re not a slave. Not yet.”
Jova’s whole body tensed as the man, Sovar-l’hana’s nameless hound, held the torch up to her once again. This time, he held it up to one of Jova’s bleeding hands, so close that she could feel her flesh melting, feel it roasting.
The man coughed, hacking phlegm out as he tried to speak. “Where is your tabula?”
“I don’t- I don’t know,” gasped Jova, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Please, if you just stop, I’ll-.”
The burning end of the torch pressed hard against her palm, and Jova didn’t know what she was feeling anymore. A hard hand slapped her cheek as her head rolled, and her ears rang as the man said, “Do you think you are in any position to offer me anything? I stop when I choose to stop. Where is your tabula?”
“It’s- it’s…” Jova gulped, her limbs trembling. “It’s in Moscoleon. I’m a zealot, it’s in a House of Spring, with the pontiff C-Copo.”
The heat left Jova’s one hand for one throbbing second before the other was set ablaze as well. “Where is your tabula?”
“I told you! D-didn’t I tell you?” Jova screamed, her voice high and plaintive. She wasn’t the blind zealot of Moscoleon anymore, she wasn’t any mercenary’s assassin, she wasn’t a devil with no soul. She was just an eleven year-old girl, and she was burning.
“Where is your tabula?”
“In, in, in the jungle, the Moscoleon jungle,” she stuttered, her mind racing. “I l-lost it, when the tribe attacked. I lost it in the fighting, I swear I did, I lost it!”
The torch fell aside, and Jova tensed, waiting. Where would he burn her next? What would Albumere take from her this time?
“I will return in the morning,” said the man, and Jova heard his limping footsteps padding away. He did not untie Jova’s new chains. He did not say anything else as he was leaving. The wounds on Jova’s hands had been burned closed, cauterized by the torch, but that was hardly a comfort to her.
Before he left, though, he did say one other thing.
“I am Chetan,” he said. “Since you asked.”
Jova did not reply. She slumped, her tears drying on her cheeks. That night, she dreamed of nothing but iron spikes and fire.
A bucket of water dumped over her head woke her in the morning, and she felt her stiff limbs fold under her as the chains were unlocked and she fell to the floor. Shivering violently, she curled up for warmth, but someone grabbed her under her armpit and hauled her to her feet. Jova gasped as her dress was wrenched off of her, but her limbs, thin from days of disuse, were too weak to fight back.
She wrapped her arms over her chest and bowed her head, preparing herself for the worst, but rough hands grabbed her forearms and made her hold her palms out. Jova turned away.
Cloth wrapped around her hand, and Jova dared to relax her arm. “The other one,” rasped Chetan, and Jova held out her other hand, while still trying to hide her nakedness as best she could.
She drew breath. “You’re not going to…to…”
“Torture you?” wheezed Chetan. “No, little girl. I just wanted to ask you a question.” Jova felt something wrap around her eyes as another dress was pressed into her hands. She slipped it on once her new blindfold had been tied, though her skin was still wet and cold.
Chetan gripped her very suddenly by the collar. “Inconvenient, though. No tabula. Rush job. This is not the cleanest way to do things, but…” Chetan pulled her in closer. “If you shame Sovar-l’hana with your new master, then, well, back here you come. It will last longer than one night.”
Jova nodded. Her hands throbbed, and she didn’t dare try to push Chetan away. She did, however, summon the courage to ask one question. “New master?”
“You’re being sold,” said Chetan. He coughed, and it seemed to shake his entire body. “Rented, I should say, really. Whoever buys you only has the four years. Look pretty, make it worth it.”
He led her away by her collar, and Jova stumbled behind him. Blind, hands crippled, barely able to walk. Her stomach rumbled. Sitting there in that cell, it had been easy to forget how few the meals were, but now that she was up and walking again the hunger pangs hurt more than even her hands.
She shrunk back from the heat of the sun as they began to walk up the hewn stone stairs leading back aboveground, but Chetan pulled on her collar and she followed after him.
The auction house was not far. Jova could feel its marble steps under her feet, could hear the soft mutter of attendants and the quiet murmur of the buyers within. She had seen them before, years ago: not gaudy like the Jhidnu show houses, but with a subtler sophistication. These were places of business. She hadn’t been allowed in, of course, but the great auction houses of the bay were hard to miss, even from the street. Jova had pretended they were palaces, when she was little.
Chetan took her around the back of the palace. Jova expected it to be rotten and filthy, like the cells beneath the city, but it…well, it wasn’t. It was barren, yes, but clean. Professional. The sliding wood panel in the back slid open almost soundlessly, and inside Jova heard no voices speak, only the shuffling of feet and the scrape of chains. Beyond some curtain or panel, Jova heard Sovar-l’hana’s bark of a laugh.
“Wait,” said Chetan. “You’ll be called.” And he limped away, past the curtain that separated Jova and the livestock from the actual people.
Jova flexed her fingers. The motion made her hands scream out in protest, but she needed to do something besides stand here, mill around, and wait to be handed off to someone who was in the right place at the right time when a richer man died.
Something touched her arm, and Jova flinched. The touch was light, though, gentle, and furtive. “Jova?”
“Alis!” Jova said, and she turned quickly, hiding her hands behind her back. She didn’t want the girl to see her as more of a cripple than she already was.
When Alis spoke again, she sounded hurt. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No, Alis, no, I just…” Jova reached out, putting her hand as lightly as possible on Alis’s shoulder. “You see the bandages on my hands?”
Jova felt Alis’s shoulders move as she nodded. “They’re red.”
Jova withdrew her hand, after that. “They’re…well, they’re like my eyes. They’re hurt and I have to cover them up.”
“Forever?” asked Alis.
“No, not forever,” said Jova, and she smiled for the little girl. “I hope,” she added, as an afterthought.
Jova felt a soft hand grip her wrist, carefully placed just above the wrap on her palm, and for a moment the seething anger inside her left. “Where were you?” Alis asked, and Jova wrapped her arm around the little girl’s head and held her close.
“In a cave for demons,” she said. “Sneaking around, right under your feet.”
“Dandal said you were in the sewers,” said Alis, plaintively.
Jova smirked. “Oh, he was down there, too. He lives there. That’s why he’s so stinky all the time, didn’t you know?”
Alis giggled. “What about-?”
And then she froze. Her hand fell from Jova’s wrist; she didn’t even push Jova’s hand aside as she turned around and began to walk away. Outside, Jova heard the hammer of a gavel as the last slave was sold and the hum of a tabula as the next was brought out.
“Alis!” she hissed, as the little girl stumbled away. “Don’t be afraid.”
The girl did not respond. She just kept marching away, outside, to be sold, and this time Jova could not save her. She couldn’t even save herself.
She turned her head to listen as Sovar-l’hana began the sale of Jova’s last companion. Everyone else had gone. Alis was the only one that Jova had left, and from the sounds of it, she was going to be sold off for a bag of Da’atoa salt.
An anger, white hot inside her, burned from a place in Jova that she did not know existed. Her lip curled in a snarl. Any person on Albumere was worth more than a bag of salt, and here the plutocrats were, trading them around like livestock. It wasn’t right.
But what could she do about it? She had no eyes and, right now, no hands. There was no fighting back.
So when Chetan came to retrieve her, she bowed her head and followed and said not a word. There was murmuring outside, blocked out by the curtain separating the slaves from the buyers. Chetan stood by, waiting and wheezing, coughing as Jova listened.
“A rare and exotic treat from the far south,” said Sovar-l’hana, not quite shouting but not quite quiet either. “I give you the blind zealot of Moscoleon!” Jova stumbled out, Chetan dragged her chain, to utter silence. It wasn’t unexpected. She wasn’t sure how much fanfare she really deserved to receive anyhow.
“She’s a little girl,” said a male voice, disdainful and exasperated.
“Well, if I were trying to get you interested, Ashak-g’hopti, I would have brought a little boy. Ha!” said Sovar-l’hana, and that earned a few chuckles.
“You brought her out on a leash,” said the plutocrat named Ashak-g’hopti, as Chetan let the collar dangle behind her back and limped away. “A leash! Is this some scam?” Jova stood, listening to the sounds echo. It was a big room, with many people in it. Most of them were silent. She and Sovar-l’hana stood on a stage above the rest of them, and if Jova strained her ears she could hear the bought slaves filed in a line in the back.
“I bring it out on a chain because it is not a girl, or a boy, at all. It is something unnatural, something you will only ever have the chance to see but once in your whole lifetime.”
“You lost the cripple’s tabula and you’re trying to push her onto us,” snorted Ashak-g’hopti. “Enough tricks, Sovar-l’hana, show us the real merchandise.”
Sovar-l’hana cleared his throat. “Jova, walk to me.”
For one frozen moment, Jova considered disobeying, but then she heard the sliding sound of a nail being drawn from a leather pouch, and her heart stopped. Was it real? Was it a memory? It didn’t matter, so long as she didn’t face that again. She wouldn’t lose her hands, too.
She clicked her tongue, getting a better feel for the room, before stepping forward towards the plutocrat. She had to avoid the pots and pans laid out on the stage, as well as the foodstuffs in the burlap bags (she smelled peaches from the north) and the sacks of tin coins strewn on the ground. As she walked, she heard a murmur from the crowd, and paused.
“Keep going,” said Sovar-l’hana, and she took a few last steps until she was standing right next to him. Her heart was in her throat. She couldn’t fight him in her condition, but if she unwrapped any of her bandages and choked him, this smug man, this slaver…
“Not a step out of place!” Sovar-l’hana said, as Jova bowed her head and waited. “An exquisite piece! A rare opportunity! And she has been broken, too. Jova, do you recognize your master’s voice?”
“I’ll always remember your voice,” said Jova. She meant it.
“And you will obey any order that voice gives? Ha!”
“Just give me an order.” And see what I do with it.
Ashak-g’hopti spoke. “A carpet from Maaza Parsi, in Shira Hay. You see the weave? A western style, near the Cove. Exquisite.”
“Fish,” said a foreign voice that boomed like thunder. “The biggest spring tuna we have caught in months.”
“A broadsword from Irontower,” said a third voice. “Master’s work, not an apprentice’s.”
“I’m a merchant, not a warrior,” said Sovar-l’hana, chuckling. “Ha! What would I need with a sword, Thun Doshrigaw?”
“Plate armor, then,” said the man from Irontower. “It will be made to fit and sent to you at once.”
A carpet, a fish, a sword. That was what these men thought Jova was worth. Her eyebrows furrowed. Theirs was an evil trade. Only Dal Ak Gan’s life might buy her freedom, but they all deserved to die.
“Armor. Ha! Everyone needs armor,” said Sovar-l’hana. “To Thun, then, unless anyone has anything better.”
There was no answer.
“Mahashma, Thun Doshrigaw. Off you go then, girl,” said Sovar-l’hana, as he scribbled away on his parchment. Someone tugged on her collar chain, although she did not know who. “You’re going to Irontower.”
The night passed, and Jova waited. When the morning came at last, Jova had to remove the blindfold from Mo (she couldn’t just leave it on the weaseldog), and sneak back into the compound. “Why don’t you go home, Mo?” she whispered, as she rubbed the sides of his head and readied herself to go. The animal just panted and whined. “Why don’t you go home?”
The day passed, and Jova obeyed. Rho Hat Pan brought a box of tabula already marked to Sovar-l’hana at his request, and when the slaves were lined up for inspection she did exactly as she was told exactly when she was told to do it. She ate thin gruel with the other slaves, washed Sovar-l’hana’s fine clothes in a wooden tub, and advertised her own auction in the streets.
The night passed. Jova slept through a Jhidnu street fair as she waited, the sizzling of kebabs and Mo’s hungry whines still in her ears the next morning. Tensions had been growing between the Waves, the common folk, and the Winds, the plutocrats, as Banden Ironhide’s war escalated, but that night at least they reveled together as one people. The only ones who seemed concerned about the movements in the west were the Foam, those philosophers and middle-class thinkers, and no one ever listened to the Foam.
The day passed. Sovar-l’hana took to calling Jova “the zealot with no eyes,” and got a hearty chortle or two watching her stumble her way around his quarters before she was dismissed. She found Alis later that day and held her hand as she told the girl about her memories of the colorful fish that swam in the Bay of Jhid, about the saltwater hollows that roamed the sea bed and about the great barges that sailed above them. Jova did not know any baychild games, so they played Summer-Sign-Knock after until the slaves were called back into their quarters. Jova sneaked away just a few minutes later, but she did not find Mo that night.
The night passed. The day passed. Sometimes Mo appeared and sometimes he didn’t, and the time turned to liquid and dribbled past Jova’s hands as she waited and waited for her parents to find her. Had something happened to them? Had Mo somehow been separated from them? Fourteen days and nights passed as Jova waited.
On the fifteenth morning, Jova stirred and stretched. She had spent the night curled in a huddled ball, and she woke with her nose running and a winter chill in her bones. Her limbs ached as she stretched them, and she had to lean on the alley wall as she stood.
Mo hadn’t shown up last night, but Jova had tried to stay awake waiting for him. Judging by the dew now on her arms and face, she had failed.
The city did not rest, even in the dim hours of the morning, but there was a certain drowsiness to it. Jova limped forward, flexing her stiff limbs as she felt her way back. It was not far to the master’s—to Sovar-l’hana’s—compound. She caught herself as she thought it. Sovar-l’hana was not her master. Jova was and would be free.
She paused, as the blood began to flow through her again. She had just woken. Back in Moscoleon, she would have been on her knees, praying to the Ladies, giving thanks for…whatever it was she was to be thankful for.
Jova kept walking. This was not Moscoleon. This was Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, which held but one lady, and her name was Fortune.
As she stepped onto the steps of the compound, her fingers tracing up the chilly marble railing, she heard footsteps approaching. She tensed. Did she have time to hide? The footsteps were coming directly toward her; there was nothing to hide behind. She bowed her head instead, the collar heavy around her neck, hoping against hope that no one would notice a slave on the steps of the compound.
Except this wasn’t no one. Jova could hear his panting from halfway down the passage, and her fingers tightened. She mentally prepared herself for another encounter with Dandal the dog, even as she heard his wheezing breath come closer.
It had taken Jova several days to realize just how plump Dandal was. He was strong to be sure, but there was a fat to him that weeks of hard travel had stripped from Jova and the others. He did a servant’s work, not a soldier’s.
He did this often, Jova had also come to learn. He seemed to enjoy bullying the other slaves. His privileged position as—well, not exactly Sovar-l’hana’s favorite, but close to it—gave him small power and made him feel like a big man. For the most part, Jova let him at it. Bruises healed easily. Grudges did not.
Except the moment Dandal grabbed her, Jova knew this time was different. He kept her at arm’s length and said not a word, keeping all his usual insults and jibes to himself.
“Dandal?” asked Jova, trying not to let her fear betray as she stumbled after him. “Dandal, sir?”
No reply. Jova heard a slave housemaid put a hand on Dandal’s shoulder and stop him in his tracks. “Dandal-jan,” she said, in rustic wave-speak, the strange accent thick on her voice. They said those baymen who spent too long at sea started to talk strangely, the words getting mixed up as the salt got to their heads. “Worried you look. She does do wrong?”
“She’s not a girl at all,” snarled Dandal. “The slaves all knew it, she’s a devil. Get back, Abhay.”
Devil? Jova couldn’t believe such a quick change of heart. The slaves had been at the compound for a fortnight now, with Hag Gar Gan tribesmen eating and drinking in Sovar-l’hana’s guest halls. Surely they had heard the whispers before. What had changed?
She could feel the blood pounding in her fingers as Dandal dragged her along, to the horrified intake of breath from the slave woman. Jova let herself be carried along, and conserved her strength. It was no use to struggle here.
He took her past the gardens, where Jova heard the clip-clip of slaves pruning the hedges, and past Sovar-l’hana’s office, the open aired chamber where he had met Dal Ak Gan and Dock (a meeting whose resolution Jova had not dared to ask for). Dandal dragged Jova past the slave quarters, where she and Alis slept, past the guest quarters, where the tribesmen had spent an uneasy two weeks, and finally up to the master’s own private quarters.
The door opened and Dandal threw her inside, standing in the doorway as she struggled to her feet.
It was colder than she had expected in Sovar-l’hana’s bedroom. Jova heard the rustle of a very thick piece of cloth to her side, the same place where a wall should have been. A curtain of some kind, pulled to the side?
Shivering, still sore from her sleep, she listened closely. Sovar-l’hana must have been up and awake; she could hear the telltale scratch of his quill and parchment in the corner of the room. A low breeze snaked into the room through the open wall, and carried with it sounds of the city stirring.
Jova waited, her mouth dry, as Sovar-l’hana wrote.
Finally, with the soft crinkle of paper, Sovar-l’hana finished. “Fetch, dog!” said Sovar-l’hana, barking a laugh as Dandal walked around Jova to pick up the piece of paper. Her muscles tensed. Was it time to run? No, not yet. “Have Gorram ride it up north, before the snows set in.”
“Snows have already set in, master,” said Dandal, taking the paper.
“Ha! Then before they get worse, you hear? Get going, shoo! This letter’s more important than your head.”
Dandal hesitated. “Should I leave you with…this?”
“Your loyalty is truly touching, Dandal, but when I give you an order you obey it,” said Sovar-l’hana, and the jovial undertone to his voice had been replaced by something altogether darker.
The dog left without another word.
“Oh, get up off the floor, girl,” snapped Sovar-l’hana, once Dandal had left. Like a cloud on a sunny day, his bad mood had passed quickly and without comment. “You’re not old enough to be on your knees in a master’s bedchambers, ha!”
Jova stood, brushing off her cotton slave dress, keenly aware of the weight of the leather collar on her neck. The chain dangled off to nowhere, but she could feel its pull either way.
“Pour us some tea, then, blind little zealot,” said Sovar-l’hana, sitting heavily back at his desk as he rolled another sheet of parchment out from under his paperweight. “Go on, with your fancy seeing eye trick. Pour some tea.”
Even as Jova set to work, her mind was buzzing. The plutocrat had not dragged her here just for the pouring of tea. He had enough personal assistants, for that. And what was that, Dandal had said? She was a devil. He was scared to leave her alone with his master. What had they learned?
Jova sniffed, as her feeling hands found the teapot. There was an odd smell coming from somewhere, outside the open wall. Probably just another street cook.
“How obedient. How utterly obedient,” said Sovar-l’hana, as Jova brought a trembling cup to his side. Both the cup and the plate were smooth porcelain, and Jova could not imagine how fantastically expensive they must have been. “You know, I never liked routines. Schedules. Hrm. Give a man wood and nails and he’ll box himself in, ha!”
The girl waited patiently, standing at attendance.
“I’ve got some rituals, though.” The chair creaked as Sovar-l’hana leaned into it. “I told the masons, when they made this place for me, I told them I don’t want walls. Let me see the sea in the morning. Let me see the sea when I work. Let me see it.”
“A noble request, master,” said Jova, quietly.
“Ha! Noble! If I wanted a balcony so I could piss into the street you’d call it noble,” said Sovar-l’hana, rising. “But I do see this city, its high tides and low tides, its ebb and flow. I keep my finger on its pulse, and sure enough it tells me: war or peace? A buyer’s market or a seller’s? Who’s the talk of the town tonight?”
Jova stood still as Sovar-l’hana paced.
“And this morning, I see…you.”
The pacing stopped, just as Jova began to shift her stance. If she had to make a run for it, she would. Sovar-l’hana was no fighter.
“Imagine my surprise when I see my little blind zealot sleeping in the street like a common beggar!” He clapped Jova on the back, and Jova could not help but flinch. “I think, why is she doing this? Just because she can’t see her collar doesn’t mean they can’t, ha! This puzzles me for a long time, girl. I don’t know what to think. I decide to bring you here, and ask you for myself.”
The plutocrat gave Jova a push, and she stumbled onto the balcony, where the odd smell was getting stronger. Jova heard the buzzing of flies.
“That you, girl?” said the master, his tone harsh. “With the funny old snout and the big teeth?”
Jova’s stomach roiled as she reached out and felt the limp snout under her hands, as the pigwolf lay rotting in the sun. She felt the blood still hot from the hole in his gut, and could not help but remember Izca choking as an arrow pierced his heart, begging for his mama. “Oh, Fang…” she whispered, her fingers and hands shaking.
“Fang, is it? Not Jova?” Something tugged at Jova’s dress, and suddenly lights flashed in her head as she was pressed, hard, against the balcony railing. She squirmed her way out of Sovar-l’hana’s grip, gasping, but she had nowhere left to run. “I was so angry, you see, girl. I thought I had been cheated. Dal Ak Gan was a good friend, my trusted friend, and he gives me a box of pig and sheep and calls them man. What does he plan to do, steal them all back after the sale? Ridiculous, ridiculous, just ridiculous.”
Sovar-l’hana took a step forward, and Jova took a step back.
“But, of course, the other tabula work. They work just fine. And I remember what they say about you, about the girl with no eyes and no soul,” he said. “I remember how obedient you are. How utterly obedient. Too obedient. Never fought back at all.”
Jova felt the stone rails against her back, and knew there was nowhere left to go. She was cornered and unarmed. She couldn’t think her way out of this one.
“You’re my property,” said Sovar-l’hana. “I don’t kill my property, I sell it. Tell me, girl. Be obedient one more time. Where is it? Where do you hide it?”
Jova said not a word. Sovar-l’hana was wrong. There was fight left in her yet.
The master straightened. Jova could feel his shadow growing over her. “If you’re going to be difficult, then you should know, devil, that there are more ways to break a slave than one. The Hag Gar Gan gave you too much freedom. I will not make that same mistake.”
If there was a time to run, now was it. Jova launched herself forward, tackling the now upright Sovar-l’hana, hitting him in the knees. He crumpled as she slammed her full body weight at him, and she had to struggle over his flailing arms to get away and start running. Click, click, click. The door was to her left, and down the hall freedom waited.
“Chetan! Krish!” shouted the plutocrat, and Jova heard the hum of tabula-work. She had barely a second to react before, out of nowhere, something hissed and wrapped rustling scales around Jova’s neck. Feathery feelers swept across her face as sharp fangs bit into her shoulder.
Immediately, Jova felt her body go numb. The next step she took she collapsed, as whatever was around her neck flapped away. Jova jerked violently, her body refusing to obey her brain. A little foam rose in her mouth as she struggled to breathe, but she was choking on nothing, on the poison, on the emptiness inside her. She couldn’t feel her right arm or her right leg or her right side anymore, and the numbness was spreading. Soon all of her would dissolve away and join her eyes in whatever box the Ladies kept the pieces of her body, and Jova would truly be nothing.
She felt rough hands drag her away before she slipped into unconsciousness.
Jova dreamed of the sea. It rose up to meet her, its face blocky and somber, water streaming out of hewn jade grates where its mouth should have been. It cradled her, holding her close, and her heart beat fast as it moaned with a kind of hungry desperation. It held her so tightly that she thought it might smother her whole, and she felt her throat seizing, choking.
She woke up gasping, clawing at the collar around her neck. She tried to stand, and the collar caught. With a rattle of chains, Jova fell back down, groggily trying to get her bearings.
“Oh! Oh, Ladies, she’s awake,” muttered a familiar voice. A good few feet away, Darpah scuffed his shoes on the stone—it sounded like stone, at least—floor. “You’re awake.”
Jova lay on her back, breathing slowly, listening to what was around her. Wherever she was, the sounds echoed, bouncing down a long hallway into what sounded like a hundred different rooms. Water dripped from the ceiling into little puddles on the floor, which explained why Jova felt so damp and filthy. Above her, she heard…wagon wheels rattling and street vendors shouting, the sounds of Jhidnu awoken.
“I’m underground?” asked Jova, and her voice was raspy and dry.
“Er, yes,” said Darpah. “Yes, you are.”
Jova tugged on the chain at the end of her slave collar. No longer was it just for show; now it was fixed to some point on the wall, and it was a short chain indeed. Jova put her hands on her stomach and laid down in the damp and the muck. Her blindfold was gone, and she flinched whenever a drop hit her face. “Am I going to die?” she asked, finally.
Darpah spluttered and stammered and couldn’t seem to get a word out in-between. Jova waited. It wasn’t as if she had anywhere to go.
“You’re- well, you- master still intends to sell you,” Darpah said, at last. The rest of the dungeons or the cells or wherever Jova was were silent but for Darpah’s coughing. “You’ve been bad. Oh, Jova, you’ve been bad.”
Jova did her best to smile, although she heard Darpah flinch when she raised her head, her eyes unhidden. “Sorry if I caused you any trouble.”
“You’ve been bad, you’ve done wrong, I shouldn’t be talking to you…”
“What is this place?” asked Jova, talking over Darpah’s mumbling.
“The penance cells, under the streets. It’s to- well, what it’s supposed to do is- when everyone is walking above you, it reminds you how…low you are. All the plutocrats use them. The master uses them quite a lot.” Darpah fell silent. Jova did not press further, but he kept talking after a pause anyway. “It’s where slaves go if they’ve done wrong. Where bad slaves go. I’m not a bad slave, I shouldn’t be here…”
“Did Sovar-l’hana send you here?”
“Oh, no! No, no, no. Ladies, no. He doesn’t- he’s not aware.” Darpah shook his head, biting his lip. “It’s public, you see. The idea is that you don’t- that, well, your privacy- sometimes the wild children come down to mock you. But they won’t harm you! They’re not allowed to touch you! But sometimes they do throw, well, things…”
Jova let him ramble on, until finally Darpah said, “It’s just, well, they wanted to see. And I couldn’t say no, but I had to check that you wouldn’t shout or scream or anything, and I must make sure they don’t do anything to master’s property, so, erm…”
Jova sat as straight as she could. “Who wanted to see?”
“You can come in now, madam, just- just, oh, be careful, please…”
“Not a madam,” said the woman, as she approached. She wasn’t alone. Her footsteps were powerful and strong, and her voice was low and husky. Jova shook her head to clear her still ringing ears. She felt like her whole body was humming with anticipation.
“Ma?” she asked.
“Never married neither,” said the woman, and Jova’s heart sank as she recognized the voice. Her days of waiting, it seemed, still were not over. Perhaps Ma would never come.
Dock the mercenary squatted on the ground, and didn’t say anything for a long time. Jova got the sense that she was being looked over. “Blind Jova. The girl with no tabula.”
“You know?” said Jova, before she could stop herself.
“Everybody this side of the bay knows,” snorted Dock. “That’s his angle. You’re a freak show, ain’t you? It got the circus masters listening. Got the plutocrats listening. Got the other freaks listening.”
“What do you want?” asked Jova. She couldn’t keep the suspicion out of her voice.
Dock didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, she said, “You. Slave man. Leave.”
Jova almost laughed at the courage Darpah managed to summon in his reedy little voice. “I can’t leave you with the master’s slave. I don’t know what you’re going to do to her and I can’t risk-.”
“Fine. Shut up,” said Dock. “Hey, Smarty. Memorize his face.”
By way of answer, the man named Smarty grunted.
“If he says anything, kill him. If I die, kill him.”
Smarty grunted, and Darpah whimpered.
Dock adjusted herself, and drew a little closer to Jova. “Answer me true. You the one that killed that sandman bitch in the desert?”
It was Jova’s turn to keep silent. The water dripped down the sides of the grating above as Dock waited. Jova considered lying, but what did she have to gain from the silence? Her most grievous crime, the one she had escaped persecution for all her life, was already well known. Jova gave an almost imperceptible nod.
“Good. You ready to kill another one?”
Jova nodded again. There was less of a pause, this time.
“Way I see it, girl, I put a knife in your hand, nobody’s gon’ grab your tabula and make you put it down. You got the opportunity. You got the in.”
“They’re never going to take these chains off me, now,” said Jova, her voice hoarse.
“Did I say it’d be easy?” snapped Dock. “I’d do it myself, but he’s turned that fucking mansion into his own summer-burnt fortress. You do this, you never worry about chains again. You hear what I’m saying? Give me Dal Ak Gan’s life, and I give you your freedom.”
There was a faint voice of protest in the back of Jova’s head. This is wrong, it said. This is evil. But it had been a long time since Jova had listened to that voice. This was an evil place, with evil people. She could not sit and wait for her parents to rescue her any longer, wherever they were, for whatever reason they had abandoned her.
But there was one thing she would not give up.
“Another slave. A girl named Alis. She goes free, too.”
“That’ll be harder,” said Dock. She didn’t go into details as to why. She didn’t need to.
“She goes,” Jova repeated. She turned her face directly towards Dock, her expression set, and although her ruined eyes saw nothing she heard Dock draw back.
“The girl goes,” repeated Dock, and Jova let her shoulders slump. The mercenary stood up. “Talk details later. Can’t spend too long here.”
“Wait,” said Jova, and she raised her hand. It was not chained, but Jova couldn’t stand all the way without pulling her collar taut. “Mahashma?”
Jova heard Dock smirk. Her hand, rough and calloused, pockmarked with scars, closed around Jova’s. “Mahashma.”
And then Dock left, taking Darpah and the rest of her mercenaries with her. The rest of her mercenaries, that was, but for one. Jova slumped against the wall, listening to the dripping of the cells and the footsteps overhead, wondering how many men she would have to kill before she could be free.
A sudden sharp force yanked at Jova’s ear, and Mo began to bark and snap. Jova slid on the marble steps, clutching her ear and the meaty hand that held it in pain. “You got a lick of sense, child?” growled a voice. “No begging here.”
“Stop, please, stop!” shouted Jova, as she tried to twist her way out of the man’s grip. “Sir, I’m with the- the traders, I was told to wait out-.”
“Back, you mutt,” snarled the man, and Mo began to bark even more violently. “I said get back!” The man threw Jova down onto Mo, and the girl could feel the beast squirm his way free out from under her with a kind of violent fervor. “Get out of here, the both of you!”
“I don’t know the way,” babbled Jova, quickly, keeping her arms around Mo to hold the weaseldog back. “I was told to wait out here.”
“Tell that to someone else. We’ve got important business here today.”
“Yes,” said Jova, her frustration mounting. “I’m part of that.”
“We’ll see about that,” the voice growled, and Jova felt a hand around her collar. She did her best not to resist, even as Mo’s barking turned into a sudden, very low, very dangerous growl.
“No, Mo, stay back! Stay back, it’s OK!” said Jova. “Just stay here! Wait for me!”
The weaseldog whined, and Jova heard his claws clicking on the street as he backed away. “Yeah, beat it,” said the man, and he yanked on Jova’s collar. “You’re with them, you say? Well, let’s go and ask them, shall we?”
He stormed off, Jova following at a somewhat bemused if wary pace. He seemed to be taking a vindictive pleasure in dragging Jova to her supposed doom.
“They’re foreign, but I bet you knew all that already, since you’re so intimately familiar with them all,” sneered the man, as Jova was led through the open air corridor that Darpah had lead her halfway through. “Hak Mat Do warriors, they are. They’ll skin you and eat you for wasting their time, I bet they will.”
Jova said nothing. She didn’t think that continued contradictions would get her anywhere.
Their footsteps began to echo louder, longer; although the open wind still blew unobstructed to her side, they must have entered some kind of high vaulted room or chamber.
Something clicked sharply on the ground. “Dandal!” snapped a voice. Male, with a rhythmic cadence. “Didn’t I say that I was meeting?”
“Apologies, master, sir, but I found this ragamuffin begging on your steps,” said Dandal, lifting Jova higher. Jova did her best to smile and wave. “Said she was one of the sandfolk you was talking with, didn’t she?”
“She is,” said Dal Ak Gan, dryly. “Why did you feel the need to tell me?”
Jova could almost hear the man, Dandal, deflating. He let go of her shirt, which was now wrinkled at the collar, and her heels touched on the ground once more.
“Just thought…that…” muttered Dandal. He didn’t finish.
The unfamiliar voice snorted from somewhere ahead of Jova. “You are like a cathound bringing me dead sparrowmice. Go, off with you, go and hunt somewhere else.”
Dandal put a hand on Jova’s shoulder, and Jova was about to turn back and walk away herself when the plutocrat said, “Leave her. We have seen the best of your wares, Dal Ak Gan, now let us see the worst of them.”
The man scoffed, but didn’t say anything back. Instead, he bent down, close to Jova’s ear. “You make any noise,” he whispered. “Any fuss. And I’m throwing you back out on the street quick as thinking, and not a one’s going to notice.” Jova swallowed and nodded, and Dandal shoved her aside and walked away, grumbling all the while.
She turned back around and clicked. The sounds echoed off of the high ceiling, and it took her a moment to gauge her surroundings. She found her way up to what seemed like a carved, stone desk, and bowed her head in respect as the plutocrat took her hand with a firm, almost callous grip.
“You blinded this one?” said the plutocrat.
“Already blind,” said Dal Ak Gan. Jova cocked her head. From the echoes and the shapes of the sound, there was someone else standing next to him, of similar height and build. Who was it?
The plutocrat guffawed. “How generous of you! And does she have any skills?”
“Stablehand,” grunted a voice from by Dal Ak Gan. Jova turned her head immediately. Dock the mercenary was evidently part of the negotiations as well.
“And she is seeing with her tongue,” said Dal Ak Gan. “You heard her. Click, click, and she walks as well as any man. A circus master would be paying good money for a spectacle like her, no?”
The plutocrat patted the back of Jova’s hand, his palms hot and dry. Jova took it as her cue to leave, and backed away, standing by Dal Ak Gan’s side. She needed to stay right where she was needed. What if she was gone and they tried to recall her with her tabula? She couldn’t risk it. She stood there, waiting, the perfect and obedient attendant.
A quill scratched at parchment with a constant, raspy whisper. Every ten seconds there was a glass clink, as the quill tapped on the side of the ink pot. Jova waited and listened, her heart beating fast.
Dal Ak Gan patted her on the shoulder, an awkward, fumbling kind of contact. “Worry not,” he said, and it seemed more to himself than to her. “Sovar-l’hana is a fair trader. He will care for you up to auction.”
It was not Sovar-l’hana, or whatever his convoluted plutocratic name was, that Jova was worried about. Ma and Da were out there somewhere. They had to be. Jova had only spent a second with Mo when that man, Dandal, had dragged her away, but she would have recognized the weaseldog anywhere.
The scribbling continued. A brisk wind blew through the patio that made Jova’s sweating cheeks tingle. It never snowed in Jhidnu—it was too warm even in the winter—but the wind from the sea still made Jova shiver.
“The staghound will sell for much,” said Sovar-l’hana, his melodic accent thick in his brazen voice. “I already have a buyer, although we shall see how much he is willing to pay when auction-time comes. Silly of me to take a fat Wind’s word before I see his money, eh?” He guffawed, like he had something extraordinarily funny. No one else laughed.
Dip. Tap, tap. Scribble, scribble, scribble.
“We have quite an international audience for this one. An envoy from Irontower has come, and raiders from Da’atoa shall be in attendance as well. Some of them will be needing safe escort home.” Sovar-l’hana put his quill down with a definitive click. “I believe in convenience, friend. You will receive your cut of the profit, of course, but if you would be to pick up an extra job for you and your tribe once the sale is done…”
“Sale first,” growled Dock. “We’ll see about other jobs once we see the money.”
Jova bit her lip. Dal Ak Gan’s silence made her uneasy. Even easygoing Dep Sag Ko had been complaining about the mercenaries for days. What was Dal Ak Gan, whose own authority was being subverted, thinking?
“Mm,” said Sovar-l’hana, and even he sounded a little annoyed. “Very well. This has been a scheduled auction for some time. The usual plutocrats will be in attendance, looking to buy for personal use, resale, and so on. A smithsworn towerman will be there as well, looking for laborers to man the valleys, as well as a crew of saltmen looking to return to the islands by spring. You are not my only supplier, but you are one of the biggest.”
Restless, Jova turned her head to the side. When would she be able to leave?
“The starting prices will be high. Everyone this side of Lowsea knows me, and my reputation. You won’t even need a tabula to command my slaves. Look, look, see here. Dandal! Darpah!”
Jova had only just met the both of them, but she recognized their footsteps immediately. Dandal’s were loud, crashing, almost petulant, while Darpah, the skittish little servant from before, scuttled forward like a beetlemouse.
“My two dogs,” said Sovar-l’hana, jovially. “Darpah, if I told you to jump into the bay and drown, would you do it?”
“Yes, master,” said Darpah, quickly.
“And Dandal—if I told you to bend Darpah over and fuck him in the ass, would you do it?”
Jova didn’t miss Darpah’s terrified whimper as Dandal sneered, without hesitation, “Yes, master.”
Sovar-l’hana actually slapped his knee, then, giggling like a loon. Once he had recovered, he snapped his fingers for the two to leave, and leave they did. “So you see, everybody wants one of Sovar-l’hana’s slaves. We split what we get, half and half. First pick is yours. Mahashma, no?”
Jova heard Dal Ak Gan begin to speak when Dock growled, “No tin chips. Food, clothes, weapons.”
Sovar-l’hana’s wicker chair creaked as he leaned back in it. “That’s why you get first pick. Although, mind, this is a civilized event. If you wish to be in attendance, I expect you to clean up and behave yourselves.”
“That can be arranged,” said Dal Ak Gan, finally squeezing his say in.
“So long as we get what we came for,” growled Dock.
“Mahashma,” said the plutocrat, and Jova heard the sound of their hands clapping together. “Now, about this escort…”
“Who? How far?” said Dock.
“-That, I think, is for me to ask.” Dal Ak Gan shifted, and Jova heard the almost imperceptible creak of leather and fiber as he gripped the handle of his whip. “Once you are paid, our contract is over. We are being separated, no?”
Dock took a step forward just as Jova took a step back. They weren’t going to fight, were they? Not here. They might have made their livings off of violence and brutality, but they were practical as well.
“Still our job to take,” the woman mercenary said.
“Still ours to keep,” replied Dal Ak Gan.
Jova heard the scrape of a chair against the floor as Sovar-l’hana stood. “Keep your barbarisms to yourselves! This is my home and you will follow my rules. Work out your differences like civilized people, or I’ll see to it that the both of you are on the summer-burnt auction block with the rest of my slaves when the time comes!”
“We should go now,” whispered a voice, and Jova jumped. Darpah moved so quietly and so stealthily that even she had not heard him approach. “Come, girl, I’ll show you where the slaves sleep.”
Darpah took her hand and lead her away, and Jova did not resist.
“Oh, oh, I do get so worried when the master is angry,” muttered Darpah, distractedly, as he led Jova down a maze of corridors that too late did she realize she would be utterly and hopelessly lost in without his help. Sometimes she could feel the open air to her side and sometimes she couldn’t; sometimes she felt the heat of torches and sometimes she didn’t. It was a confusing mix of directions and sensations that she could not keep head nor tail of.
She pulled back, and Darpah paused, his sleeves scraping together as he wringed his hands. “I don’t know if this is the way I should go,” she said. “Maybe I should get back to…back to my masters.”
“Oh, no, no,” said Darpah, and he put a gentle hand on Jova’s. “Sovar-l’hana is your master now. They shook on it, didn’t they? They signed the contract. Mahashma. You’ll stay with us until auction. It’s only lucky that you were already here, I expect master to summon the rest soon…”
Only lucky indeed. Fortune be with her, sometimes Jova felt she was too lucky for her own good. The Ladies gave, and mortal men paid; in Jhidnu of all places, she had to be aware of that.
“The master does so hate it when things don’t go exactly the way he wants them to,” muttered Darpah. “He likes everything to be perfect. Exactly perfect. Watch your step.”
Jova edged forward slowly, and a wave of muggy air hit her. It was humid and hot inside; the air was stale and still.
“It’s not the, erm, cleanest,” said Darpah. Jova stepped forward, her feet brushing against the frames of bunks and cots. She treaded lightly, trying not to step on anyone’s belongings, before she realized how foolish that was.
This was a room for slaves. They had no belongings.
“We have plenty of room though! Since the, er, the last group just moved out.” Darpah sat at the foot of one of the musty cots, and Jova turned around to face him. She found that people were more comfortable when she looked at them, even when she couldn’t actually look back. “The beds are nice. There are hardly any ratworms at all at night, and they don’t carry any sickness.”
There was such plaintive, earnest gratitude in his voice that Jova felt sorry for him. Did he really think this was the best his life could get? A pest-infested bed and constant servility to a man who thought him less than human?
“Oh, oh, but let’s not take a hammer before nails,” said Darpah. “Back or the front. It, erm, it depends on your preference. Whether you want to do deal with other slaves or masters.”
“Slaves or masters?” echoed Jova.
“Stay in the back, the masters will punish you for lagging behind. Sleep in the front, and the, erm, the others will always be walking past you. Pushing, shoving, fighting.” Darpah coughed. “I…prefer the back.”
“So this is it?” said Jova. She spun around, feeling the grimy floor under her bare feet. It was beginning to dawn on her that this was not just another stop on the road. This…this was where the Hag Gar Gan left her. Where Rho Hat Pan left her.
Darpah didn’t say anything. His collar rattled, and Jova assumed he had nodded.
Jova sighed. “Darpah…if I speak honestly with you, you will keep my confidence. Mahashma?”
“Mahashma,” said Darpah, quickly. Too quickly. Did he intend to betray her that fast, run tattling off to his loved master? Or was he simply that starved for human interaction?
It didn’t matter much either way. Jova didn’t intend on staying here long.
“Why do you do it?” asked Jova. “Act like this is all good for you?”
“Oh, but it is,” said Darpah, eagerly. “It is, it is. I’ve served as the master’s assistant since Fallow. I’ve never gone hungry and I’ve never had to fight anyone. I learned manners. I was –educated! I know how to be useful. This is good. It is a good life.”
“But what about freedom? Haven’t you ever wanted to be free? To belong to yourself?”
Darpah lapsed into stuttering silence.
“He said it himself: he treats you like a dog.”
When he spoke next, his voice was soft and timid. “What’s wrong with that? I’m not a bad dog. I don’t live in the streets like a…like a cur. I get fed. And I’m- I’m wanted. I’m needed. I’m loved. In a fashion.”
“In a fashion,” repeated Jova. She didn’t know what else to say to him. She didn’t know if there was anything left to say.
Darpah’s slippers squeaked on the floor as he hurried away. “I must be off. He’ll be summoning the others soon. He’s a powerful man, the master.” He paused at the door. “Stay. Here. Um.” And he ran away, muttering under his breath.
Jova waited all of a minute before she ducked out of the slave dormitory and started to feel her way down the walls. She didn’t know the way out. But she knew how to get there.
“Dandal!” she shouted. “Dandaaaal!”
Her voice echoed around the labyrinthine confines of Sovar-l’hana’s manor. It didn’t take long for the dog to snap at the bait; Jova heard thunderous footsteps approaching her, and she stopped, waiting for him to approach.
“Didn’t I say?” said the man, furious. He gripped Jova’s collar and tugged harshly, and Jova stumbled as he began to drag her away. “Didn’t I say that if I heard one peep, I was throwing you out?”
Jova didn’t say a word. She relaxed as much as possible, letting Dandal drag her to the outside.
“Let’s see how you like a night of real begging.” Dandal spat. “One night on the streets, that’ll break you. Roll call isn’t until morning. No one’s going to miss you all day, will they? And we’ll see, we’ll see, the state you’re in once the sun comes…”
It was better than Jova had hoped for. She had hoped only to escape notice by merit of all the other slaves arriving at the same time. If she had all night, so much the better.
“Not a sound,” hissed Dandal, clapping a hand over Jova’s mouth, as they entered some kind of enclosed space. “Negotiations are ongoing.”
Jova’s heart quickened at the thought of Dal Ak Gan and Dock negotiating. She didn’t see how it could end well for either of them.
And suddenly she was in Jhidnu again. The smells and sounds hit her first, and then the street quickly followed. She groaned, wiping her bleeding lip, as Dandal shouted, “And get off the fucking steps, will you?”
It wasn’t the cleanest exit, but it got her out. Jova stood shakily, and began to hobble down the side of the street, back bent and head bowed. She was a beggar, nobody, no one worth noticing.
“Mo,” she whispered. “Mo!” she shouted. Where was he? Had he left? Maybe Ma had summoned him already.
Jova felt panic rising in her chest. She needed Mo, and her parents. One way or another, this was her last chance to be free.
The girl stood alone in the bustling streets, breathing heavily. She could barely think, her head was spinning in so many different directions. She would have to find Ma and Da, first. She would have to make sure Alis came with them. She would have to do so many things, prepare so many new plans…
And if a single part of it failed, then Jova would have lost her chance.
Her thoughts were quelled by a warm presence under her hand. “Hey, Mo,” she said, smiling. She scratched the back of his head and his belly, her fear evaporating at the weaseldog’s presence. Mo was family. He had always been family.
“You stay right here with me,” said Jova, hugging his neck. She knelt, and began to untie her blindfold. The weaseldog whined as she wrapped it around his head, but he did not resist. Then she sat, getting ready for the long wait.
If Ma looked through the tabula, there was no way she could see Mo and not see Jova. If Ma summoned the weaseldog, then the blindfold would have to be enough of a clue for them to know. Jova had never learned her letters, even before she was blind. It was the only hint she had to give. She had all night to wait.
“You stay right here,” said Jova, stroking Mo’s fur. “You stay right here until they find us.”
The air smelled like oranges. It smelled like stale beer and perfumes, and eastern spices, and offal. Music filled the air, the soft lilt of lyres and harps, even as more indelicate tunes sang out, plucking the heartstrings of the lonely.
It had been a long time since Jova had been in Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, but it was just as she remembered it.
She stood by Dep Sag Ko and his animals, the image of obedience. She would only get so many second chances. There was a kind of tranquility to it, a peace that kept Jova calm even as she stood on the roaring streets of the city of light.
The Hag Gar Gan slavers were less tranquil. Dep Sag Ko kept flinching whenever a bayman, bold as they were, walked up to him, and his fear made the animals skittish. This was not their place, among the clustered buildings and streets, facing the sea with the thick jungles to their backs. This place was a long, long way from home, for them.
“Eat,” muttered Dep Sag Ko, sliding his skewer off the fire. Jova held the thigh of chickenfrog gingerly, her fingertips dancing on its burning surface as grease dripped down its side. Her eyebrows furrowed. A whole length of freshly cooked meat, just for a slave like her?
The strangeness of it was not enough to stop Jova from eating hungrily, panting as the hot food scalded the inside of her mouth.
“The animals are needing cleaning,” said Dep Sag Ko, his fingers drumming on his leg. “Gen, Jova? Looking very nice. Presentable.”
Jova nodded. Dep Sag Ko really must have been worried, if he had forgotten that Jova was the last person he could ask to make anything look nice.
She didn’t question him, though. She walked away, hands by her sides, the cotton slave dress heavy on her shoulders. Other members of the tribe could handle their own mounts; Dep Sag Ko wanted Jova to prepare only those that were for sale.
Uten and Yora, then, as well as the few other animals that the slavers had caught on the way. Not Lo Pak the eelhound. Not Stel. Not, as Jova remembered with a lump in her throat, Cross. The elk was gone, and so was Janwye. All Jova had left now was memories.
Jova felt oddly hollow, thinking about doing all the old, familiar routines, but with these new and unfamiliar animals. She missed Chek, and his mulishness. The new animals were still afraid of her, still flinched at her touch and shied away at her presence.
She felt her way around the edge of the stables, hands feeling the bamboo walls as she edged her way around. Already her feet were sticky with dirt and loose straw; Dep Sag Ko didn’t like eating by the inn, and Jova had been unable to voice any objections. He seemed to prefer it out here by their temporary stables, amid the earthy smells and sounds.
To her surprise, the stable gate was already open. Jova felt a small surge of indignation. The animals could have wandered free at any time, and no one would have been wiser. That kind of carelessness was what had made the journey across the spice road from Hak Mat Do so arduous and dangerous…
But the gate had been left open because there were people still inside. Jova shrank back immediately, her ears pricked. That was unmistakably Dal Ak Gan’s voice, speaking in the imperial tongue.
“I do not trust them, and I do not like this,” he said, in a low whisper that Jova could just hear over the ambient noise of the city. Her skill with the language was getting better. Weeks of practice, listening to them speak, had helped. “Since Ya Gol Gi disappeared, I have had forebodings, blood-sister.”
La Ah Abi answered. “We needed them. Their swords and the arms that are holding them. It is too late to go back now.”
“Yes,” said Dal Ak Gan, and he sounded bitter. “But you remember, La Ah Abi. The slaves knew we were coming.” There was silence from both of them, for a long stretch. Jova quivered, not sure if she should walk in and interrupt their conversation. If she was caught, it would be the end of her.
“Soon they shall be paid, and then they will be on their way. You need not worry about them.”
“They knew, blood-sister. These fieldmen knew we were coming.” Dal Ak Gan stamped his foot, and for a moment Jova remembered who this man really was: not her leader, not her benefactor, but the man who had wrapped his arms around Janwye’s neck and held them there until she choked to death. “That woman, that who Rho Hat Pan loved so, she knew we were coming. How? Ya Gol Gi was so quick to kill her, and now he is gone. The fieldwoman noble was her master, and now she is gone…”
“You see candle-flames on the water and think them stars,” said La Ah Abi, her voice soothing and calm. “Today, your blood runs hotter than mine. Your mind is fevered. Your eyes are clouded.”
Dal Ak Gan said nothing. Jova waited, steeling herself to walk in like she had not heard a thing.
And then she heard the telltale clip-clop of hooves behind her, and she nearly ran in through the stable gates.
Both Dal Ak Gan and La Ah Abi shifted the moment she walked through, their feet scraping on the dirt of the stable. “Ya, girl,” barked La Ah Abi. “Dep Sag Ko is sending you?”
Jova bobbed her head, trying to keep her voice steady as her heart thumped in her chest. “Cleaning the animals, ma’am,” she said, arms crossed respectfully behind her back even as she tried to swallow her fear. Had Rho Hat Pan seen her? Would he give her away?
“Mm,” said La Ah Abi, shortly. “Be doing it then.” Then she strode away, curtly and briskly.
Dal Ak Gan was not so quick. The hairs on the back of Jova’s neck tingled, as though she could feel his eyes on her. When he spoke, it was slow and thoughtful, like he was considering the words himself. “You are knowing these animals so well,” he said, as if he had suddenly realized something. “Rho Hat Pan’s animals.”
It wasn’t a question. It was a statement, one that Jova did not dare deny.
“Are you knowing Rh-?”
“Dal Ak Gan!” shouted the man himself, as he rode in behind Jova. Stel snorted as she came to a halt just behind the girl, and then they all stood there, in silence. Was Jova just imagining the tension? Was her fear getting the better of her?
Somewhere in the streets, a performer had begun to sing. It was a bayfolk song, all thumping beats and undulating vocals. It seemed oddly jarring, with the quiet that continued to dominate the little stable.
“Clean the animals,” said Dal Ak Gan, finally. “The Waves are coming.”
He strode briskly away, and though Jova’s hearing was keen she did not hear him say a word to Rho Hat Pan as he walked away.
It was just the two of them, then. Jova clenched and unclenched her fingers, not knowing what to say. The last time they had spoken, Rho Hat Pan’s voice had been accompanied by the roaring fires. He had thrown her into the river, to drown, to die. Except…
She was not dead. She had set three slaves free and nearly escaped herself, and still the tribe did not suspect a thing. Not even the Ladies could give someone such fortune.
“You are being born in this city,” observed Rho Hat Pan, finally. Jova turned around, surprised. It was the first time he had talked to her like an equal in a very long time.
Rho Hat Pan exhaled, a long heavy sigh. “Are you knowing it well?”
“No,” said Jova. “I was very young.” What was he trying to do? Rho Hat Pan—or, at least, the Roan Jova had once known—never just made small talk.
Beside her, Jova heard Uten plodding in her direction. She put a steadying hand on the molebison’s snout, running her fingers through her fur idly while Rho Hat Pan sat there in silence. Neither of them talked. Down the street, there were a few cheers and the clink of those odd Jhidnu coins as the song concluded.
As always, Jova had questions for him, too many questions for her to properly sort out. There was only one she could ask, in the end.
“I have found my people,” said Rho Hat Pan, hoarsely. “I have been lost for a long time. I am coming home.”
“And the Dream Walkers?” Jova wanted to spit and point at him, accuse him of betraying his order, of betraying her, but she did not even know what the Dream Walkers wanted to do, what goal he could have possibly betrayed. As far as she knew, this was part of their clandestine plan, whatever it was.
He never was good at filling in the silence. Once or twice, Jova heard him begin to speak, before he stopped and cut himself off. At last, he said, “You will learn soon enough that we work in many places, in many ways.”
That was hardly the answer Jova wanted. It was hardly an answer at all. She drew herself up, and though she could only face his general direction, she hoped he could see her face twisted in anger. “Did you forget that they killed Janwye?”
She waited for him to answer. She almost wanted him to say something trite, something cold. Let the dead rest. If he said let the dead rest, then that would solidify his betrayal and Jova would kill him next. By all the Ladies Four, she would kill him next if he-.
“I will never forget.”
All Jova’s rage twisted and writhed. All of a sudden, it had nowhere to go.
“Clean the animals, devil girl,” said Rho Hat Pan, darkly. He began to ride away, whatever business he had in these stables evidently abandoned. “Do it quickly.”
And he left Jova again, with just as many questions as before.
She trudged away, sweeping the area for a clean brush. She doubted the innkeepers would have one lying out in the open for her to use, but she had forgotten to get one from Dep Sag Ko and she didn’t want to turn back now.
“I guess you’ll show up as you are,” said Jova, leaning against Uten and stretching her aching back. The molebison supported her placidly, snuffling in the dirt. Jova scuffed her feet on the stable earth too, hands on her hips. “Can’t expect a blind girl to do a good job, can they?”
Jova made a mental note to check on Alis. The girl had just been able to walk again without splints, to Jova’s delight. Alis told her that the burns were healing well, although Jova didn’t know how much she trusted Alis’s quiet, understated word. When there was a chance, she would check on her again.
Jova’s thoughts wandered. She had to admit, she liked being back in a city again—any city. She had never really entered Hak Mat Do proper, and being back among so many people for the first time since she had left home was oddly cathartic. This city especially was so full of life, so full of little stories, so full of hope that Jova couldn’t help but smile. She breathed it all in, the scent of cumin and cinnamon and peppercorn. For now, at least, Rho Hat Pan and his mysteries would not bother her.
From the gate, there was a polite cough, and Jova shook her head. She turned her head to the side, to better hear whoever was there. No one she knew coughed politely.
“You are with the tribe Ak Gan?” said the voice. Clipped, soft, male, and ostensibly well-mannered.
Jova cocked her head. The tribe had no name for itself; to the Hag Gar Gan, there was no need. But she supposed, if it made this polite little man happy, she would humor him. She nodded yes, and wondered how he knew the tribe’s name when they didn’t even know it existed.
“Ah.” Jova could almost hear the man’s furtive glance in the way he said it. “May I speak with your master?”
Jova pursed her lips, wondering if it was wise to bring a stranger to Dep Sag Ko. What did he want, anyhow?
“Oh, I’m sorry,” muttered the man. “Erm. Kaga iro pak gha zea wa tu?”
Jova moved from Uten’s back and stood straight. “I speak the king’s tongue,” she said, and the man made a surprised little squeak. “Do you need anything?”
There was a simpering desperation in the man’s voice. “If I may just speak with-.”
“If you need the animals, I can bring them.”
The man spluttered. “Well, I suppose- I just think it’d be wise to ask- are you sure?”
“The Hag Gar Gan are in the business of selling slaves, not commanding them,” said Jova. She meant it to be reassuring, but it came out as bitter.
“Oh, well, alright,” said the man, and his fingers drummed on the bamboo walls of the stable. “Just the one, if you please, though. Ladies know we don’t want to…to herd this crowd down the streets.”
One was fine with Jova. If it was for a good impression, Jova knew who to bring. “Enjoy yourself here, Uten,” said Jova, patting the molebison on the side. “I’ll be back later. Come on, Yora!”
The staghound padded forward, and Jova knew his stride would be long and graceful, his stature poised and respectable.
“Do you like animals?” Jova asked, politely, as she led Yora out of the stable.
The man’s terrified shudder as the staghound sniffed his face was all the answer that Jova needed.
“What’s your name?” she asked, instead. She closed the gate behind her, and held out a hand. “I’m Jova.”
There was a dumbfounded silence, and then the man said, his voice a little lower and a little less formal, “Darpah. I- I’m sorry, it’s just been such a long time since anyone asked…” He shook Jova’s hand, and his touch was light and timid, as if at any moment Jova might try to tear his hand off.
“It’s nice to meet you, Darpah,” said Jova, smiling. It was hard to tell his age from his voice. He was a grown man to be sure, but he could have been anywhere from twenty to forty summers old.
“Yes. Erm. Likewise,” said Darpah, and he let go like he was releasing a vicious animal from his hands. “Um. I shall show you the way, and you shall…not cause any fuss. Mahashma?”
It had been such a long time since Jova had heard the phrase, yet she still remembered it to this day. How could she forget? It was the catchphrase of every plutocrat on Albumere. “Mahashma,” she said. Good deal.
As they walked, Darpah kept making little mumbling noises. “I. Erm. Do you need help? I could, um, hold your hand if you…”
Jova clicked her tongue by way of response, and Darpah mumbled himself into submission.
With Yora following close behind her, they walked through the street. There were no pious philanthropists in Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, no, not at all. The pedestrians pushed and shoved past Jova, and twice she nearly fell flat onto her back as baymen and woman rushing about their business barreled past her. She learned to sidestep them quickly enough. It was just a matter of getting to know the city, and its people.
“It’s not such a distance,” said Darpah. “Oh, I do hope we don’t keep them waiting…”
“It might be faster if we ride,” suggested Jova, as the claws on Yora’s paws clicked gracefully on the cobblestone road behind her. Her pace was languid and serene, compared to how Jova had to dodge past the baymen on her path.
“Oh, no, no, I don’t- that’s not- I don’t ride,” said Darpah, and Jova heard a soft clink coming from near his head as he shook it. Earrings, jewelry? He didn’t seem the type. What else could it be?
A collar. Bayman slaves wore collars made of leather, with iron chains that trailed down their backs.
Darpah’s behavior made a little more sense, now.
“Watch your step,” said Darpah, kindly, and Jova edged carefully onto the stone steps leading to the patio of…something. The hand that wasn’t guiding Yora along felt the long stone columns and balconies as they walked. They must have been very close to the bay.
“I’ll, er…I’ll show the beast in.” Darpah tapped Jova lightly on the shoulder. “Perhaps you could…wait outside? Master doesn’t like to see slaves around the patio. Oh, but it just wouldn’t be right to…to leave a girl like you out in the street…” The slave sounded so miserable that Jova was tempted to hug him and tell him it would be OK.
“Behave, Yora,” she said, and she handed the reins off to Darpah. “I’ll be just outside.”
“If you’re sure…” Darpah muttered, taking the rein like it was a live pillsnake and treading lightly away. Jova took a moment to enjoy the sea breeze, before continuing on her way. She traced her steps back to the stone stairs that led into the rest of the compound, and wondered what exactly this ornate patio led into. What if there was an entire palace above her head, and she didn’t even know it? She sat on the steps, imagining.
The streets were full of sounds as well as smells. The slap of leather boots on the stone was the most frequent, but Jova heard hoof beats and drumbeats, and the constant, lively chatter of the baypeople.
She thought back to her conversation with Rho Hat Pan. She may not have known the city well, but if she managed to get Alis and escape into the city of light, she felt like she could make it. Just the two of them, alone. It would be hard, but it wouldn’t be impossible.
There was the padding of paws on the street, and it was getting closer. At first, Jova thought it was Yora, but it was the wrong direction for that, and Yora’s walk was always more stately. Perhaps it was a stray. Perhaps…
“Fang?” Jova asked, holding out a hand. She had done her best to keep track of the pigwolf, but she had even less of an idea of its whereabouts ever since the fire on the river.
The animal was extraordinarily comfortable with her, and Jova marveled at her fortune to find a beast so friendly on a chance foray into the city. It had thick, matted fur, and a long, sinuous body, and a face with stiff welts on the side, and a happy growl that seemed all too familiar…
Jova’s heart dropped, then it leaped into her throat. Her cheeks flushed. Her breath caught.
The weaseldog panted happily, and Jova realized that she and Alis might not be so alone after all.
He was a young man again, his skin smooth and unwrinkled, his back straight and unbent. Tay Yi Ah stood in the void, wearing his Fallow-given name like a length of fine cloth, the burden of being the tribe’s shaman temporarily forgotten.
The darkness shuddered. Tay Yi Ah looked up. This was the first among visions, which all the shamans saw when they were first initiated. To see it again was a sign of great portent.
Although he knew what was coming, it did not fail to take Tay Yi Ah’s dream-breath away. Stars filled the void around him; there was no ground beneath his feet, so like a crucible the shifting points of light surrounded him.
He floated, suspended in nothing, and watched as three stars fell from the sky and came hurtling towards him. One burned green, like jade. Another shone white, the gleam of marble. The last was gold, with a pulsing amber glow.
“Raj Mal Azu,” whispered the young man. “A god, one.”
He took a step forward, and suddenly Albumere was beneath his feet. The earth felt cool between his toes, and he stood there, naked, as the stars landed. The twisted tree spiraled out of the earth, so tall that it touched the sky itself, so that the stars rippled at its touch. Its branches were made of human hands and feet, and at the very top they melded together into a face with translucent golden skin and pupil-less eyes.
“Lives in worlds two,” recited Tay Yi Ah. “Has faces three.”
It turned towards Tay Yi Ah. The outline of a wooden skull could be seen behind filmy skin, and its eyes stared unblinkingly at Tay Yi Ah. A pulse like a heartbeat ran through the whole length of the tree, spiraling into its roots and deep into the ground.
“And holds a court of ladies four and lords five.”
The green and white stars burned. Shadows seemed to stand behind them that Tay Yi Ah could not make out, as tall and great as the twisted tree. Around the white star they stood. The first to emerge had high cheekbones and an angular face. She had ladybird wings humming on her back, and was unashamed of her bare skin. Glowing runes traced themselves along the small of her back, geometric lines with hard corners and an unrecognizable pattern.
The second had softer features and curled hair that framed her gentle face. Owl wings curled around her as she stood, hiding her body from view, but Tay Yi Ah could still see the lines carving themselves into the base of her throat.
The next Tay Yi Ah almost did not notice. She stood in the shadows, bat wings stretching on her back. She had a small nose and mouth, and her eyes were cunning and swift. It might have been Tay Yi Ah’s imagination, but the glowing lines seemed to form a third eye upon her forehead.
The last flexed her stocky arms as she emerged, runes forming on her shoulders. Ladybug wings buzzed on her back, as she rolled her neck and stretched her arms. Her hair was cut short like a boy’s, and her features were square and hard. She alone looked at Tay Yi Ah, a direct challenge at the mortal who dared look upon her.
His essence trembled at her gaze. Tay Yi Ah turned away, and stared instead at the figures surrounding the green star. They were not nearly as human, hulking beasts and monsters made out of rock and wood and water. He saw only four, and some did not even look human. They were too distant to make out, too alien to recognize.
A long, somber creak made Tay Yi Ah turn once again to the twisted tree. Its mouth was opening slowly, ever so slowly, and its branches were held out in such a way that it looked to be pointing towards Tay Yi Ah. The stars began to shake violently overhead, as the earth beneath Tay Yi Ah began to hum.
“You do not understand.”
The u-ha blinked, and he felt such a fatigue in his bones that he considered turning over and dying right then and there. Pale rainbows danced over his face as the crystal shards in the net overhead shook with the swaying of the tent.
“You do not understand,” repeated Dal Ak Gan, standing with his feet planted and his arms crossed. “Kharr Ta would never do business with us after that. We had to leave. There was no other choice.”
“Then when,” growled Dock the mercenary. “Are we getting paid?”
The u-ha stared up, not listening. He was looking at the Lady Winter, and he was telling her no.
Blood sloshed through the old man as he found the strength within himself to sit upright. He knew he was dying. Not of any affliction or disease: no, he was dying of old age. Even the youngest u-ha could tell that, if the tribe had one.
The u-ha smacked toothless gums together. He had forgotten a long time ago what it was like to be hungry. He couldn’t chew meat, fruit didn’t agree with his stomach, and his bowels protested just about everything else. He supposed, though, that he could use some morning stew.
His shaking hand clasped the handle of his cane. Eyes that could barely make out his fingers an inch from his face scanned the room, and with some reluctance the u-ha stood from his sleeping furs.
He walked between Dal Ak Gan and Dock, both of whom had fallen silent once they had seen the u-ha rise.
He walked towards his pots and pans, and set about making stew. It took him a couple minutes to get the fire started, and while he fumbled with the match and wood both the others watched in silence.
Finally, Dock cleared her throat. “Want to ask him where to go?” she said, in the king’s tongue, and the contempt was evident in her voice. “Ask.”
The u-ha snorted. In his day, a foreigner would have treated a son of the emperors with a little more respect. If anything, she deserved their contempt. She was an impudent, hot-blooded, money-grubbing scoundrel who had lost (and, indeed, never had) the blessing of the old way.
All this, the u-ha muttered under his breath as he scraped oats into the bubbling pan of milk. Of course no one heard him. No one ever listened, these days, except for Dep Sag Ko, and he was an oaf.
“U-ha,” said Dal Ak Gan, his tone reverential. At least that man knew respect. That was why he was still chieftain. He knew who deserved his respect and who didn’t. “We have lost the way. We have many slaves but none shall buy them. We are not welcome in the city of our forefathers.”
Hak Mat Do was not the city of their forefathers. It belonged to the pyramid lords. What did the free-riding people of the steppes know of those dusty necropolises? Only the young of Albumere assumed that Hak Mat Do and Hag Gar Gan were one and the same.
All this, the u-ha said. Dal Ak Gan did not have a response. He just waited.
With glacial slowness, the u-ha watched his porridge simmer. Outside, he could hear a continuous buzzing, all the insects of Albumere swarming in the afternoon heat. Winter was near upon them. This would be one of the last times he would hear such a thing again. It might be the last time.
Impatience radiated from Dock, but even she knew not to interrupt the venerated u-ha. She had sense enough for that, at least.
He scooped the porridge out with a wooden spoon. He put the porridge in his mouth. He ate the porridge. Dock and Dal Ak Gan waited. The air buzzed outside.
The u-ha’s hand dug around his chest of medicines and supplies, and he drew out a little glass jar. It was full of worms and beetlebeasts, their tiny tabula dumped inside of a small wooden box next to the jar. Broken amber fragments littered the bottom of the box, but quite a few lived yet.
The old man shook a few out into his porridge, and watched them squirm inside the gruel for several seconds before capping the jar again. He put the jar gently back in the chest; glass was expensive, as were the services of a bug catcher.
He began to eat again, slowly. A stagbeetle twitched, half-drowned amid the oats, but the u-ha had no teeth to chew it with. He swallowed the thing whole, even as worms and grubs slithered into his gut. He put the bowl aside, and waited with Dock and Dal Ak Gan for the creatures to die.
Open disgust was evident on Dock’s face, while Dal Ak Gan was expressionless. The u-ha tapped his net of crystals, and watched the lights shimmer.
The stagbeetle died.
He emerged from the seas at the end of the world, his blocky head made of hewn jade, water spilling up out of the grate where his mouth should have been. A titanic hand reached out to smother the tiny fishing skiff, except his intent was not to smother at all. He cupped the boat in his palm and held it up to his face, watching it, observing it.
Terrified sailors tossed their cargo overboard into the sea creature’s hand: Jhidnu spices, lengths of fine silk, golden and silver peaches from the bay. But what did a god care for the trinkets of men?
His fingers closed slowly. Now was the time for smothering.
Spices and silk and golden peaches. The spirits pointed to Jhidnu. Jhidnu would take their slaves. The closest and most amicable market in the east, they could take the spice road through Hak Ger and be at the boy within a month. The winter would make the journey harsh, but the plutocrats would never turn them away like the pyramid lords had.
All this, the u-ha said.
“To Jhidnu,” said Dal Ak Gan, in the king’s tongue. “There are so many plutocrats that at least one of the Wind will buy from us there. It will be easy for you and your men to find new work, too, in the city.”
“You finished talking with your spirit man?” said Dock, crossing her arms.
Dal Ak Gan’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, I am.”
“Then let’s take this outside.”
They locked eyes. The air buzzed. Then, Dal Ak Gan said, stiffly, in the imperial tongue, “Excuse us, u-ha.”
They stepped outside, and the u-ha returned to his porridge.
He stared at it, his face wrinkled in disgust. The bugs and worms were fine—he had eaten many of those in his long service as the tribe’s u-ha—but the thin gruel was already making his intestines squirm. He was an old man. His hands shook and his shit leaked.
The u-ha looked at the Lady Winter, and told her no. Not today.
Inside his gut, the worms shriveled and died.
Her image graced the pyramids. On every slab of marble and limestone, they carved her and her great stone mask. She could only barely be called human: abnormally tall and slender, with arms like lengths of wire and wings made of glass. They prayed before her and she answered.
She had won the war against the world for them. She had forged a place for man in the unforgiving wilds. She had raised monuments of stone in the name of the greatest empire Albumere had ever seen.
The wild savages had become unruly again? The Ladies would descend upon them, their retribution swift and terrible. New colonies to the north and west needed building? Stone would raise itself from the ground, fully formed settlements ready to be lived in. She had given them greater steel magic than Irontower, better boats than Jhidnu, more knowledge than the Twin Libraries of Shira Hay had held in four ages of kings combined.
Then she had abandoned them, and the prayers of Hak Mat Do fell on deaf ears.
It had taken years of training to become the tribe’s wise man. Eating bugs was the easiest part. Learning the medicines, reciting the histories, understanding the essence of the world: that had been what becoming u-ha entailed. Even now, the old man did not fully understand the portents of his dreams and visions.
He blinked rheumy eyes. When he was young, before his hair had turned silver and his teeth had rotted out, he had thought his mentor was unstoppable, indomitable, and privy to all the secrets of Albumere. Now he realized the previous u-ha knew less than he did. Did they truly understand the dreams?
Coughing, the u-ha picked up his porridge again. Food first, then philosophy, even if it seemed to bring more going out than going in. He wouldn’t let something like an upset stomach kill him, not when he had survived so much more.
He ate slowly, mechanically, eyes wandering. The burned slaves had been treated as best they could; they were with the others now, away from the u-ha’s tent and tabula. They had left the river, and Hak Mat Do, and Kharr Ta, behind them. It was time to go a new way. They would make it. They were Hag Gar Gan; they always made it.
The u-ha stared up at the net of crystals. It inspired the same awe in him as it had in the days of his youth. If he had done his duty right, then there should have been another young u-ha with him to marvel at their beauty.
Except, there wasn’t. The u-ha was alone in his wise man’s tent, and he knew that for this tribe at least there would never be another. There simply wasn’t the time.
All the little deaths in his stomach brought him back, to when there was all the time in the world.
There shall be four, and a fifth to come.
A single cloud drifted across the full moon as it stared down upon Albumere, a pale white eye in the night.
He hung upside down, water streaming down his face, his hands and feet bound to the underside of the world itself.
Lightning sundered the tree, murdering one god’s people for the sake of another’s.
There was only one god.
The part that loved her and the part she gave him spiraled through the past, locked in such a tender embrace that Tay Yi Ah cried in remembrance.
“U-ha!” shouted a voice, interrupting the old man’s reminiscence. He opened his eyes, his cheeks wet and his hands shaking. “Dal Ak Gan says you are awake!”
Dep Sag Ko walked inside, his burly frame blocking out most of the ambient sunlight.
“And up you are, old man,” he said, clapping his hands together. He slid the plate of porridge aside. “Come on, let’s get you some sunlight. La Ah Abi has some leftover rhubarb, for your stomach.”
The u-ha sighed inside. The oaf meant well for sure, but sometimes he was simply tiresome.
“Can you walk? Do you need me to carry you?”
The old man brushed his hand away, standing slowly as he planted his cane in the ground. He was in no rush. He hobbled forward, as Dep Sag Ko stood like some overeager sparrowdog beside him. His infernal bird squawked from his shoulder, preening its feathers.
“Dal Ak Gan says we are going to Jhidnu,” said Dep Sag Ko. “Lo Pak will like it there. And you! The sea salt will do you good, I think.”
What did Dep Sag Ko know of sea salt? He had never known the spray of the ocean waves on his face. He had never seen the titans rise from the mist, the stoic guardians at the edge of the world. He had never known the sea.
All this, the u-ha said. Dep Sag Ko just laughed.
“Then I’ll get my chance soon, won’t I? You sure I don’t need to carry you? It would be no trouble.”
The old man grimaced at the idea and kept edging forward. Snakes bit their own tails, but horses rode straight. Slowly and steadily, he made progress. Always progress.
The u-ha stepped out into the sunlight, and squinted down at the camp. His people huddled around little fires, cooked in broken pots, and squatted in hide tents. His face turned up in a sneer. They were the first people of this world, and he could barely distinguish them from their slaves. They deserved better than this.
He looked upon the slaves, and the one he was searching for looked straight back at him, even though she didn’t have eyes.
“Dream Walker,” the u-ha whispered.
She knew. Rho Hat Pan knew. They knew. The knowledge of the u-ha were the echoes of a dying order, but the Walkers knew. They had to know.
“Tired, u-ha? Need help?”
The u-ha waved him away, as he walked among the remnants of the Hag Gar Gan. Tired? Of course he was tired. He had clung to life for eighty summers and he was dying.
But if the Ladies wanted his life, they would have to come to take it personally. Then, he would find out why they had abandoned his people. Then, he would find out how to bring them back.
He hobbled forward slowly. He was in no rush.
She emerged from the waters like a devil from the deep, and Alis could not help but scream. The monster climbed aboard the boat with her long hair dripping, her limbs tensed and bent like a spider’s, her scarred eyes pointed straight towards Alis. Click, click, click, she went, like a bell with no tone, announcing the coming embrace of the wide-eyed owl. The Lady Winter herself had sent one of her reapers to collect Alis’s soul.
Not as if they would find it on her. Not as if Alis would ever hold it again.
With every click, the monster twitched like a bird, her movements jerky, erratic, and irregular. She advanced through the flames, and Alis whimpered as she struggled to pull free of the fallen beam. It lay flat across her legs, wooden debris all around her waist, and Alis had long ago stopped feeling the burning.
The injustice of it all made Alis’s eyes sting. She pulled and twisted, but could not struggle free. Of course she had been the last one to get out. Of course the fire had reached the cabin only as she was leaving.
“I’m coming for you, Alis!” shouted the monster. “Tell me where you are! You have to tell me where you are!”
Alis’s eyes widened. She recognized that voice.
“Jova?” she called out, her voice hoarse and weak.
“Keep talking to me!” Something splashed overboard near the side of the ship, and the shouts and screams of others trying to put the fires out echoed in the night. “Alis, I need you to keep talking to me!”
Alis didn’t know what to say. Perhaps it had been the flickering shadows cast by the firelight, or the fear roiling in her gut, or the spinning stars above her, but Alis had not recognized Jova. She had been scared of her.
She is here to help.
Jova stopped, her whole body tensed. “Alis?” she called out again, even as the slaver’s cabin crumbled even further. “Where are you?”
Was Jova scared? Alis didn’t want her to be scared. “Don’t be scared!” she shouted.
And then Jova was beside her, her hands under the wooden plank, her face twisted in a grimace of concentration. She pulled, hard, but Alis felt the debris over her body budge only a little.
The fires burned hot around them. “Can you get me out?” asked Alis, every word carefully articulated despite their dire straits. Alis wasn’t very good at talking. She needed time to think about the words, time to lay them out piece by piece and present them.
“Only if you help,” grunted Jova, gasping and tugging. She backed away, and Alis could see the sheen of perspiration on her forehead. It wasn’t just the effort of pulling the planks away. The fires were getting closer.
Alis clawed at the ground again, trying to worm her way free, but as ever she could not. Where had the other kids gone? The grown-olds who had been taking care of her? Why was Jova the only person who had come to help her?
She is special.
“Together, Alis!” shouted Jova, over the crackling flames. “You push, I pull! Ready?”
“You have to tell me when you’re ready, Alis!”
The little girl planted her hands on the floor. The fire danced in a circle around them, like spectators at a gruesome sport. It was a game to them, as they cackled and watched. If Alis lost…
She set her brow, shaking her head to clear the hair from her eyes. She hated losing. Not games, not people, not anything.
“I’m ready, Jova,” she said, and braced herself. She would not end up like her friend in the jungle. He had lost the game, and now he laid asleep, cold and prone and alone. There was too much for Alis to do for her to fall into that kind of endless dream.
“Then when I say go, push,” said Jova. “Get ready, Alis! Make it count!”
“I’m ready, Jova,” repeated Alis, and she was.
Alis shoved as hard as she could, her high voice crying out as she began to push against the ground. She saw the planks crack and split where Jova dug herself in, and inch by inch the great beam lifted off of her.
Even as she pushed for space, Alis began to crawl forward. Her cotton pants ripped as she moved, threads of fabric tangling in the splinters, but that was the least of Alis’s concerns. The flames danced higher, a perfect circle around their little arena, and blinking tears from her eyes, Alis struggled her way free.
And as the pressure was relieved, the pain hit her.
It was as if every sensation from when her crushed legs had become numb under there had come rushing back. Her very pulse, pounding in her calves and thighs, made Alis’s whole body twitch and tense. She could barely breathe or hear or move.
“Keep going, Alis!” shouted Jova. The wooden beam slipped from her hands, and she sunk to her knees to catch it. “You have to keep going!”
Alis couldn’t. It was too much. Perhaps her friend in the jungle had it right all along.
This is shock. This is fear and pain. Will you lose to fear and pain?
No. Alis hated losing.
Fear is fire, said a voice like echoing memories, although Alis did not know what she was remembering. It laid down the words for her, piece by piece, slowly and carefully so that she could understand. Unchecked, it will burn away everything you are.
Stiffly, Alis’s arm reached out. She pulled herself forward, and that little movement caused Alis to convulse in shock.
Fire is hunger. It will never be sated, no matter how much you feed it.
Alis’s eyes fixed on the sky, on a single bright point overhead. The flames had obscured every other star in the sky, but this single bright point shone for Alis. It drifted lazily down to the horizon, and Alis reached out for it. Reach out, pull. Reach out, pull.
Do not submit to fear.
By fractions, Alis pulled free.
Jova collapsed next to her, and Alis saw dimly that her fingers were littered with splinters and scrapes. The water from the river had nearly evaporated completely in the heat, and thin lines cut across both of Jova’s forearms.
Live. She will not unless you do, whispered the voice. Alis felt the pain in her limbs growing even as her consciousness receded. She looked up, and saw movement past the flames. A person?
I will visit again when the summer comes, fallborn. It is my sister’s turn now, although she hates fire so.
And suddenly the flames leaped higher, the perfect circle around Alis and Jova broken as the fires ate hungrily at the ship.
Alis’s vision flickered as she saw the person burst through the flames. He was a legless man, who sat astride a horse whose eyes were bulging and rolling in their sockets but whose body was perfectly calm and controlled.
Jova stood immediately, her whole body tense. She did not say a word.
The man on the horse took one look at the both of them, and Alis saw him grimace.
“She needs help,” said Jova, and she put her arms under Alis’s shoulders and knees. Alis shut her eyes tight and froze as Jova lifted her, the movement sending spasms through her body.
Rough hands grabbed her and slung her over the back of the man’s horse. Alis felt detached, a ghost tied by some invisible string to a doll that others could toss around at their mercy. She laid across the horse’s back, too weak to even cry anymore.
Nobody moved. Even as the fires grew so hot that it seemed as if the walls of the cabin were dripping away, nobody moved.
“Why are you here?” said the man, finally.
“Roan,” said Jova. “Rho Hat Pan. Sir. This isn’t the place-.”
“I am seeing you with u-ha. I am knowing what you spoke of with him.”
“-or the time to talk about this. Look at her! She needs help!”
The horse stamped a hoof so hard that the plank beneath her cracked. Alis jolted on top of the animal’s back, and she clung on, gasping for breath. As Jova and the man began to shout over each other, she raised her head and peered over at her legs. Almost immediately, she turned away. She didn’t know which was worse, the blood or the burns. She didn’t have the words to describe it.
“Where is Bechde?” shouted Rho Hat Pan.
“Gone,” snarled Jova.
“She is not with you. You…” And suddenly Alis jerked forward as the horse galloped towards Jova. The man’s arm bulged as he gripped Jova by the collar and lifted her entire body upwards, and then he directed all three of them straight toward the fires.
Alis did not know how they survived it. All she could remember was orange and red light, and the heat, a flaring heat so great that it was almost cold again.
“You are wanting to go? Let us be going,” snapped Rho Hat Pan, and from what Alis could see of his twisted face, he was livid. Bags under his eyes and unkempt stubble did nothing to alleviate the sheer malice Alis felt radiating from this man.
They stood at the edge of the burning boat, as the stars sunk from the sky and the river sloshed beneath them. “Let us see how well you swim,” Rho Hat Pan said. He held Jova out over the railing, firelight illuminating her face while it darkened his. “If you are so eager to leave, then leave. You are frustrating, devil girl.”
“She needs help,” Jova repeated. She turned to face him, her expression unyielding, her ruined eyes somehow daring the man to make good on his threat. “If you tire of one cripple, take on another.”
Alis saw the man tense, even as her eyelids began to flutter. It was getting harder and harder to stay alert. It would have been so much easier to just sleep…
The last thing she saw was the man letting Jova go, before she fell into unconsciousness.
Alis had no dreams that night. She felt nothing, saw nothing, heard nothing. There were no mysterious voices, no mystic figures, no shadowed silhouettes. There was nothing she didn’t understand, nothing to confuse her or lead her astray. In a way, she was grateful. She wanted sleep, and only sleep.
When she woke, it was to shouting. Alis kept her eyes closed. She wanted to cover her ears and roll away. She had had enough of shouting.
She remembered the voices, but the names eluded her. There were so many of them, in so many different dialects and languages, that it was hard to keep track of them. The first man was the slaver, the one who owned the boat. The second was the new leader of the group, the one who—Alis realized this with some resentment—was supposed to be watching out for her.
“What was your plan, Dal Ak Gan? Hmm? What did you intend to accomplish via…via arson and sabotage!?”
“I had no plan, Kharr Ta. We didn’t know-.”
“Oh, well, that was obvious.”
“We didn’t know what was happening, either.”
It sounded like business as usual. Alis didn’t know how grown-olds usually talked about trading things, but she assumed it had to sound something like that since they did it so much. She opened her eyes, and immediately closed them again. Harsh light shone directly down on her face, although it did not feel like she was lying in the sun.
She moved her arms, and felt straw padding under her. It was, if not comfortable, at least amenable. Her friend in the jungle was not given a straw bed to lie on. The bodies that had been piled up after the raid were not given straw beds to lie on. Straw bed was a good sign.
She tried to move her legs, and failed.
Alis opened her eyes again and raised her head, squinting through light. Long splints ran down both her legs, locking them firmly in place. The girl tried to move, but she could barely even raise herself up to a sitting position.
Shielding her eyes, she looked up. The light was coming from a crystalline bauble, dangling from the tent’s ceiling. It was one of many, all hung from a net that stretched across the entire tent, catching the light and shooting it all over the tarp and the ground and the skins spread on the dirt. Whenever someone touched the tent, the whole thing wobbled, and colors flew everywhere.
A soft, wheezing sound came from the opposite side of the tent, and Alis looked to see an old man giving her a toothless grin. Alis smiled. She liked this tent.
“I like this tent,” she said, and the old man nodded sagely, like he already knew.
He was sitting next to a bubbling pot, and Alis eyed the fire underneath it uneasily. Her fixed legs had quite a bit to say, on the dangers of fire.
Outside, the men were still shouting. Their voices grew a bit louder as the tent flap opened, and then a bit softer as they were muffled again. Another one of those hide-wearing, charm-yielding men walked in. He wore a necklace of bones and strings around his wrist. There was a bird on his shoulder, who gave Alis a critical once-over before hopping onto the man’s other side.
He held a boy in his arms, and barely even looked at Alis before saying…well, Alis really had no idea what he was saying. The words were so fast and so sharp that Alis couldn’t even tell the individual sounds. Everybody in the group talked like that, and Alis tried so hard to keep up that her head hurt.
The old man responded, and the man with the bird laid down the boy.
“Biggest trader in all of Shira Hay throws a tantrum when one of his boats catches just a wee bit on fire,” said the man with the bird, putting his hands on his hips. He rolled his eyes. “Not like they’re setting things on fire down there,” he muttered, and he ducked under the flap and walked away.
Alis looked at the boy. He had welts and burns all along the side of his body; half the hair on his head was gone, his face looked like the blackened side of burnt meat, and the rest of his body was wrapped tightly in old cloth. As she watched, the old man came hobbling over. He had a ladle in his hand full of whatever was in the cauldron, and he dripped large dollops of steaming green paste onto the boy’s side.
“What,” said Alis, carefully. “Are you doing?”
The old man muttered for quite some time under his breath as he administered to the boy, until, finally looking up at Alis and seeing her blank expression, he said, “I…save.”
As the old man continued, she said, slowly, “Do you know Jova?”
“Where is she?”
The old man smacked his lips together. His ladle now empty, he walked slowly back to the pot. Alis watched him as he went, watched his wrinkled brow furrow deeper still, watched his rheumy eyes glaze over as he thought.
“Devil girl,” he began, just as slowly as Alis. “Comes from Kaza. Dripping allwhere. Had three tabula, but poof! Gone. I say to Dep Sag Ko this, but Rho Hat Pan say no. Is to do with Walkers.”
With his cane, the old man tapped the net above and the baubles and light-catchers danced once again. Alis laughed in delight.
“Talk to spirits. Guide me. They say, trust Rho Hat Pan. Keep devil Jova alive. I say no thing to Dal Ak Gan.” He pointed a cane at Alis. “You say no thing to Dal Ak Gan. No thing to no one.”
Alis shook her head, her silence promised.
“Ota wa, gul hay ak ar. Sleep, go,” said the old man. He trudged out of the tent, even as the shouting went on, and on, and on.
Alis couldn’t sleep, though. Her aching legs wouldn’t let her. Instead, she stared, transfixed, at the dangling ornaments. They were like the stars in their constant movement and their bright lights. Stars during the day. They really were beautiful.
Beside her, the boy stirred. He stared groggily upward, his face slack and drooping like he was only half conscious.
“I’m alive,” he said, finally.
It was all thanks to the old man. The old had saved him. “The old man saved you,” said Alis.
He turned to Alis, and the little girl had to turn away from the horrific burns on the side of his face. “Who saved you?” he croaked, a thin line of drool dripping out of his mouth.
Alis paused. What was she supposed to say? Just another slave, someone on the boat? Jova, or the blind girl, or the devil? Should she say anything at all?
Finally, Alis found the right words. She said them carefully, piece by piece, just to make sure she meant it.
No one minded her as she walked through the camp. Jova could even hear quick steps moving away from her as she led Dep Sag Ko’s eelhound along the banks of the river. It made Jova think they knew what she had done, but of course that was ridiculous. It was just her appearance: the devil girl with no eyes scared even the most rational of the Hag Gar Gan.
The eelhound thrashed its head and pulled back as Jova walked it along. She struggled to hold it down, but it refused, snapping its teeth and growling in a low, vicious rumble. “Lo Pak, down! Down!” hissed Jova, digging her feet into the sand, struggling to control the animal. Even it did not seem to want anything to do with her.
Finally, grudgingly, the eelhound began to follow her again. Jova kept her distance from the animal’s head, walking by its side instead. It was beginning to dawn on her that Lo Pak was perhaps the only witness to her crime; of all the people who were scared of her, only its fears were justified. “Good thing you can’t talk, then,” muttered Jova, as she guided it further down the river.
She could hear the waves lapping against the hull of Kharr Ta’s barge, hear the rhythmic wooden thunk of the boat on the shore. Jova cocked her head, but no one appeared to be nearby.
“Stay, Lo Pak,” she said, clicking her tongue. The eelhound seemed to understand the command well enough, although it was in the king’s tongue, and sat on its hind legs with a crunch of sand and gravel.
Jova dipped her bare foot into the water. “All rivers flow to the sea,” she muttered. She felt like she had heard it before, although she could not remember where. “All rivers flow…free.” Jova turned her face to the sky. What would she give to just disappear now, to just dive into the water without fear of the consequences?
But she needed a plan. It would be a folly for a girl who could barely swim to escape into the river without solid contingencies for everything that could go wrong. Jova had been thinking, though. She had a plan.
It was doing it that would be the hard part.
“I will be free,” said Jova, feeling the fading light of the sun on her face. “I have always been free.”
She turned back to the shore before anyone could see her, keeping her head low, leading Lo Pak down to where the animals drank. The sandmen put high priority on their mounts, and Jova had to hold her breath as a whole host of eclectic smells assaulted her. There were crickets for Uten, oh, yes—and a bucket of dead rodents for Yora, and a bale of hay for Stel (although the horse was not there) and half-rotten fruits and roasted birds and even a pail of nothing but pebbles. Lo Pak dug its snout into a trough of slimy fish with a happy snort, and Jova let the beast be.
Jova clicked her tongue as she moved through the throng. It was lucky for her that the animals all had such distinctive shapes and sounds, or else she never would have found who she was looking for.
“Budge up, Uten,” Jova said, patting the molebison on the side. “I miss you too. I’ll come for you later, OK? Right now, I need…”
She clicked her tongue, and a complex jumble of echoes bounced back. The summer elk’s antlers were bowed before her, and the animal was breathing heavily as she approached.
“Hey, Cross,” said Jova, reaching a hand out gingerly. Cross’s fur was unnaturally hot; Jova did not know how Janwye had managed to ride him all that time. “I’m a friend, OK? I’m friendly.”
Janwye’s old animal snorted and stamped its hoof. It was jittery, and with good reason. Jova could hear the limp in its step as Jova pulled it away from the rest of the group. She wished she had something to pacify him with—lumps of brown sugar or a slice of fresh fruit—but those were luxuries a slave would never have. Her own voice would have to do for now.
Again, the desire struck Jova to simply run away. It would have been easy to ride Cross off into the wilds, safety be damned.
Except it wouldn’t. Dep Sag Ko still held the summer elk’s tabula, so she could lose the animal at any moment. Cross would leave tracks that could easily be followed, and Jova could not risk the chance of getting lost without the guiding presence of the river. She did not have the skills or the ability to survive in the wilderness on her own. No, it was better for Jova to escape to the trappings of civilization. Better for her to be among people, and be unafraid.
“This way, Cross,” she said, leading him along. She had no reins or tabula to command him, so she had to place a guiding hand on his muzzle instead. “Let’s go this way, come on.”
Her heart beat very fast as she began to walk back into camp with the elk in tow. This wasn’t what Dep Sag Ko had sent her to do. If anyone stopped her, or asked her why, her justification was flimsy. It was dangerous, this way.
Still less dangerous than escaping without a plan.
Cross fought harder than Lo Pak, dancing away from Jova at every turn. Jova had only ever felt that level of resistance from unfamiliar steeds she had worked with, in Rho Hat Pan’s stables, which the clients had brought in themselves. Those steeds had been scared,
What was Cross scared of?
“I miss Janny, too,” said Jova, as they walked. “But we’re going to be OK. We’re going to keep living anyway.”
The summer elk didn’t respond, but he wasn’t fighting back anymore either. That was victory enough for Jova.
The u-ha had a private tent. Jova stopped Cross before it, putting a firm hand against the elk’s snout. Jova swept her feet around and reached blindly to find some post that she could tie him to, but she could not find anything. “Stay. Here,” she said, finally, holding her hands in front of Cross. “If anyone asks, Dep Sag Ko sent me.”
Cross just tossed his head, and Jova decided to get the job done before the elk got too restless. She slipped in u-ha’s tent, doing her best not to look nervous.
The tent smelled of wood smoke and old spices and faintly of manure. It was hot and oddly muggy inside, and Jova could not help but feel light-headed. It reminded her of the pontiff’s chambers in a way, but more primal, closer to the earth. If this was what spiritual enlightenment smelled like, then Jova was content to live a secular life.
“Ya tei, u-ha,” she said, respectfully. Good fortune, shaman.
There was a clattering as the old man rose. Dep Sag Ko did not appear to be with him; for once, he was alone. Except…
“Kha gar pu a devil,” said a familiar voice. Rho Hat Pan shifted, and there was a rustle of cloth. “Excuse me, u-ha. Your medicines have been most helpful.”
Jova’s fists tightened.
The u-ha breathed very heavily as he hobbled forward. He mumbled something under his breath as he approached, but although Jova’s hearing was keen enough to catch the words, she could not decipher the slurred imperial tongue the u-ha spoke.
Rho Hat Pan began to talk in a very low, quick whisper to the u-ha; Jova could catch only snippets of their conversation. “…waste of time…” Rho Hat Pan said. “Intrusive…presumptuous, I shall lead her…not bother you…”
Jova only knew this words because Dep Sag Ko had said the same thing about Ya Gol Gi, loudly and often. Jova turned her head, and tried not to listen. It was not a good sign, comparing herself to the man she had killed.
When the old man spoke, it was as unintelligible as ever. A breathless rasp came from his lips and through toothless gums.
Drumming her fingers on her hip, Jova waited. This was the part of her plan that she knew was extraneous, the part that she knew would be the most dangerous, the part that she knew she didn’t need to do. It was also the part that she was going to do, no matter what.
“…and, u-ha…my tabula?” said Rho Hat Pan. There was a pause. “I understand…medicines use it, of course…I am free…hold the tabula of the crippled.”
And that was it. The crux of the matter. The u-ha held the tabula of the crippled and the dead. Ya Gol Gi’s slaves belonged to this old man now, and so it was this old man that Jova would have to confront.
She heard Stel move suddenly, heard her toss her head and stamp her hooves. It was restless behavior, the kind that meant she had been held very still for a very long time. Jova waited patiently as Rho Hat Pan hauled himself onto the back of his mount, keeping her expression neutral, disinterested, almost bored, even as her insides churned.
Stel brought her head close to Jova as the horse passed, her mane brushing against the girl’s cheek, but the horse jerked away suddenly and Jova was left standing alone, her face cold and the warmth leaving her.
Rho Hat Pan did not say a word to her as he passed. He did not so much as acknowledge her.
Jova didn’t acknowledge him, either. It was not Rho Hat Pan she needed.
“U-ha,” she said, trying not let her voice falter. “Dep Sag Ko ak eri al iro.” Dep Sag Ko sent me to you.
In the back of her head, a little voice whispered, “Lie.” She could only hope the u-ha was not thinking the same.
The u-ha mumbled something under his breath, and Jova took a step forward. She had to know what the old man was saying: not so that she could answer him, but so she could know the right way to respond.
“Iro ta su har,” said Jova. I apologize. “Eri ba va gat ha gha?” Can you say again what you have said?
Jova could only catch some words: why was among them, as was listen. Frustrated by the blind girl who seemed to be deaf now, too? Jova could only hope so.
He was just an old, senile man, Jova reminded herself. He was just an old, senile man who wanted Jova out of his hair as quickly as possible so he could return to his old, senile life. “Dep Sag Ko ak eri al iro,” she repeated.
The u-ha stamped something that sounded like a cane on the ground, and Jova flinched. She couldn’t push him too far. What if he grabbed “her” tabula and commanded Jova to get out? That would not end well for either of them.
“Kokro fi al gana Kharr Ta.” Kharr Ta wants to see the adults.
The old man made a disgusted sound. Jova heard has them already and belong to me.
Jova licked dry lips. “Dep Sag Ko ba va kokro mun fi al gana Kharr Ta.” He says Kharr Ta wants to see all of them. She coughed, clearing her throat. “Al ahab mun.” All of them.
A wooden cane tapped on her cheek, and the u-ha made an angry, low mumble. Those tabula did belong to him, after all. The thought of even offering to trade what belonged to their venerated u-ha must have been antithetical to the whole philosophy of the Hag Gar Gan.
“Dep Sag Ko su ghal,” said Jova. “Pu zota iro Dock ji yesh.” He can’t come. He needed me to get past Dock.
And the old man fell silent.
The enemy is in your camp, Jova thought. The enemy sits and eats with you. You’re going to have to swallow your pride, old man. You’re going to have to give up your prize, because unless you get what you came here for you’re going to have a big problem indeed.
She could feel his breath on his face. It felt oddly cold, like wind whistling through a hollow shell. When he spoke, every word was so simple and so close that Jova could understand him perfectly.
“Is that what he said?”
Jova didn’t nod, or say yes, or respond. She stood, there, terrified, a slave girl who had been sent to do an errand and whose only priority was getting the job done right.
The old man walked away, grumbling to himself.
Jova did not let herself relax yet. She would not relax until Bechde’s tabula was in her hand.
Jova knew how much risk this move was taking on. Bechde would sell for infinitely more than her, if Kharr Ta was willing to take her. The Hag Gar Gan would be that much more incensed to find them, rather than if it had just been one crippled girl disappearing down the river.
There were justifications as well, to be sure. Bechde had connections, a home to go back to, people that cared for her. She could see when Jova couldn’t, and she could navigate the city much more easily.
But if Jova was being honest with herself, that wasn’t it.
Albumere could take away her eyes, her innocence, and her clean conscience—but it could never take away who she was. Her hands might have shed blood, but her heart was in the right place. It had to be.
More mumbled words. Jova stood, dumbly, as if she didn’t understand, and the u-ha pressed three cold amber disks into her hand. Three would have to be enough. She was about to take them, but the old man did not let go.
He mumbled in Jova’s ear, an almost painful tension in his fragile body. “You are going,” he said, in his thick accent. “Straight to Dep Sag Ko?”
“Yes,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Yes, u-ha.”
“Zat,” he said. Go. And Jova went.
“Cross!” she shouted, the moment she got out of the tent. The sun had fully set now, and Jova could hear the crackle of fires as the Hag Gar Gan settled down for supper, then sleep. “Cross, where are you?”
She heard the heavy breathing of the summer elk behind her, to the side, and she edged forward to find the elk on the ground, sweating profusely. “I know it’s hot,” Jova said, putting her hands under the elk’s belly and trying to prompt him to rise. “I know this isn’t where you’re supposed to be. It’s not where I’m supposed to be, either.”
Cross planted his hooves laboriously onto the dirt and stood. Jova took him by the antlers and tugged. She didn’t have time for gentleness or subtlety.
As she heard the river get closer, Jova pulled out the first of the tabula. She cocked her head. Was anyone looking? Listening? Not that she could hear. She hid behind Cross’s girth and concentrated. It wouldn’t matter in a few minutes, anyway.
The tabula began to hum. Jova held her breath. She had never done a summoning before.
No, that wasn’t true. She had done one other summoning. Just one, a long time ago.
Jova thought of the river lapping at her feet, thought of the shifting sand between her toes and the night wind on her face, and as she thought all of it seemed to shrink down into one single point, surrounded by darkness. Fear was in the dark. Uncertainty. Not knowing whether things were going to go according to plan.
She heard a crunch on the sand in front of her.
Before the person had a chance to say a word, Jova thrust the tabula in front of him or her. “Do you want to be free?” she asked, quickly. “If you do, take this and run.”
“How did you…” said the voice, in the fieldman’s drawl, but Jova cut him off.
“Go, now!” she said, pressing the tabula into the man’s chest. He took it.
“They’ll kill me,” he hissed.
“Not if everything goes according to plan,” Jova said, and she began to concentrate on the second tabula. There was no time for this.
As she heard the man run quickly away along the shore, a treacherous thought floated across her mind that broke her concentration.
That was a lie.
The humming built in intensity as Jova poured all of her focus into the second tabula, and the blackness was now colored with frustration, guilt, and anger. She had given him a chance for freedom. It wasn’t a certainty that he would be caught. And his chance for freedom bought a guarantee for Jova’s.
The second person was summoned, and Jova said the same thing. “Take this and go,” she said, thrusting the tabula out.
“Jova?” said a stunned, female voice. Not Bechde’s. One of her alsknights.
“Please just take it and go, you won’t get another chance.”
The alsknight took the tabula briskly without further question. She ran, in the opposite direction of the first man, her feet padding heavily on the shore.
Two baits. Two distractions. Jova had hoped for more.
The girl walked very quickly towards the boat, the rhythmic knocking of the boat calling to her, the point fixed in her mind so that her feet walked toward it like a Jhidnu sailor’s compass pointed to the center of Albumere.
She stood just before the gangplank, her heart pounding. She hoped no one could see her.
“Cross, I need you to do something for me. I know you can do it. I know you can,” said Jova. She put a hand on Cross’s flank, and took a deep breath. He was the last reminder of Janwye the girl had left, and Jova wasn’t sure if she was ready to part with him. Jova’s grip on the elk’s fur tightened.
“Ignite, Cross,” she whispered. “Now is the time for summer. Now is the time for light. Now is the time for fire.”
The summer elk tossed his head, but did not respond.
“Fire,” Jova whispered, and though the night was cold, she was sweating. “Fire will free us, Cross.”
It was no use. Cross would not do it, and Jova did not remember Janwye’s command word. She would have to spook him.
With a rough shove, Jova pushed the elk onto the gangplank, and the elk moved more out of confusion than submission. She could hear voices now, confused and quizzical tones. They didn’t matter.
Jova reached for her blindfold and tore it off. Pits where her eyes should have been gazed upon the animal, and she shouted, in her deepest voice, “Cross! Fire.”
The elk reared and screamed, and Jova heard the whoosh of his antlers igniting. Jova took a step forward, and the terrified animal had nowhere to run. Either side would mean jumping into the river, where his flames would be extinguished. Forward would be towards the terrifying creature of the deep that now stood before him. That only left…
Backwards. Onto the ship.
“Fire!” screamed voices, as Cross galloped forward. Jova could already hear the flames crackling at the edges of the gangplank from the summer elk’s hooves, and she stumbled forward quickly before the whole thing collapsed.
Heavy footfalls rang on the planks as Kharr Ta’s crew ran after the summer elk. Jova stood in their way.
It’s all an act, Jova reminded herself. It’s all a game.
“Help!” she screamed, her voice high-pitched and desperate. She hugged her sides, fake sobs shaking her whole body. “Help, please, somebody help!”
“Out of the way, girl,” said a disgruntled voice. A calloused hand shoved her aside. “I said out of the way!”
They ran past her, and the moment Jova was sure they were gone she stood straight again. The crackle of flames and the dense smoke stung her face, and she walked forward slowly, calmly, tying the blindfold back on with deliberate care.
The shore was right next to them. No one was in a hurry to get off the ship. All of them were in a hurry to save it.
The raft was just where it had been. With a grunt, she hauled the raft over the side, and it landed with a splash in the water. She tossed the oar over next, and then Jova grunted and hauled herself over, landing in the water. It was shallow here, only waist height, and Jova clambered atop the raft that was now floating downriver, oar in hand. It rocked in the waters, but the slow Kaza stabilized it quickly.
Jova held the last tabula in her hands as she sat on that cramped little raft. There was only room enough for one.
Who said she had to summon Bechde now, though? That could wait until Jova was in the city.
The raft floated out past the prow of the ship, and Jova kept her head low. She doubted anyone would notice her—not with two runaway slaves sprinting down opposite ends of the camp and a slaver’s boat on fire. She was safe. The plan would work.
“Ma, Da,” she whispered, more to herself than to them. “I’m coming back.”
She moved at a glacial pace. Jova was beginning to understand now what Dal Ak Gan had meant when he said a child could navigate the Kaza with his eyes closed. It was slow and languid, and despite the chaos Jova left behind her she felt almost calm.
And then Jova heard a high-pitched scream.
At first, Jova would have just ignored it and moved on. She knew this was going to happen. But she recognized that voice. She was good with voices.
“I can’t move!” screamed Alis, among the pleading voices of all the other children on that ship that were about to be sold to Kharr Ta. “Please! Please!”
Jova tensed. Someone would help her, right?
Except that sailor had shoved Jova aside so callously that Jova had no doubt in her mind that if they wouldn’t help a little girl with no eyes, then they wouldn’t help anyone at all.
Alis was going to die on that ship, and no one was going to do anything about it.
Jova gripped Bechde’s tabula in her hands. She didn’t give herself time to regret her decision.
The girl summoned her. It made her spin and her hands weak, but she recovered easily enough, and when she did, she saw Bechde kicking and spluttering in the water before her, utterly bewildered.
“Onto the raft,” said Jova, slipping off. “Come on, Bechde. You’re getting out of here.”
“Darling,” gasped Bechde, clambering aboard even as Jova dropped into the water. Despite its languid pace, the waters of the Kaza were shockingly cold, although perhaps Jova had simply spent too long under the Hak Mat Do sun. “How?”
“Take it, Bechde,” said Jova. She handed the tabula off to Bechde, holding onto the raft to conserve her strength as the waters grew deeper. She hoped there was nothing lurking below her, no crocodilebeasts waiting to snap her up.
Bechde seemed too shocked to do anything but obey.
“The river leads,” gasped Jova. “Into the city. You can find your way, can’t you? You can get out, back to Alswell?”
“Yes,” said Bechde, slowly. “Jova…do you have your tabula, too? Are you coming with me?”
Jova looked back to the ship. She would have to let go soon, if she wanted to swim back in time.
She turned back to Bechde, and shook her head. “You have your own people to save, Bechde,” she said. “I have mine.”
There was silence. “I’m sorry, Jova. I’ll…I’ll…”
Jova paused. Albumere could take away her eyes, her innocence, and her clean conscience—but it could never take away who she was. It would not take away the part of her that was willing to guide three strangers through a lonely forest, that was willing to help train a ragged wild child to realize his impossible dream, that was willing to right now give up the guarantee of her freedom for the chance to save a girl she had met just days ago.
“Go ahead,” said Jova, smiling. “I’ll be just fine.”