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 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.
Jova sat, and listened. She held her chin in her hands, snippets of conversation in both the king’s and imperial tongue floating past her.
“He didn’t die of his wounds,” said the woman named La Ah Abi, in the imperial tongue. Jova was learning the language quickly, although it helped that many of the Hag Gar Gan riders spoke bluntly and simply. “He couldn’t have. He was riding fine just hours before he disappeared.”
Mumbling came from the other corner of the tent. “U-ha says his face was drawn and grey when he last saw him. He says Ya Gol Gi could have easily been hiding it.”
“Then why didn’t he try to find help?” snapped La Ah Abi. “He had time.”
“Snakes are chasing their own tails,” sighed Dal Ak Gan. “I am having two stories to listen to. One would have me believe that Ya Gol Gi was a rat of a man who went to curl up and die alone, for the vulturewasps to pick at his bones—which, to be honest, I have no trouble believing.”
The u-ha spat angrily. “U-ha shames you, and warns you not to speak ill of the dead,” said Dep Sag Ko. “U-ha says Ya Gol Gi’s essence will bring bad fortune on our tribe in his next life if he is not honored.”
Dal Ak Gan coughed. “That same story would also have me believe that Ya Gol Gi was stoic and stalwart enough to not burden us with his impending death—which, to be honest, I do not believe at all. And yet the other story is saying that something other than his wounds killed him. If so, what?” And Dal Ak Gan waited, as the silence went on.
“Girl, the wine,” said Dep Sag Ko, snapping his fingers. “Za, za, I need a drink.”
Jova had already poured the cup much earlier; Dep Sag Ko was a thirsty man, and she found it easier to pour the wine beforehand at her own pace, rather than fumble with the stopper and cup whenever he called. She held it out, with a deferential bow of her head.
“Lo Pak came back, when Ya Gol Gi didn’t. The beast didn’t seem spooked at all.” Dep Sag Ko sighed. “Perhaps a wild animal got him,” he said, vaguely. “Perhaps the storm was too much.”
“The man lived through the No-Hand War,” scoffed La Ah Abi. “He scurried out of Do Yash while holding his guts inside him with his bare hands. No storm killed him.”
“Then what? Then who?” After a pregnant pause, Dal Ak Gan finally said it. “Rho Hat Pan?”
Jova retreated back into her little alcove, where no one would bother her or even notice her. They did not know. They did not even suspect. Jova flexed tingling fingers. She was going to get away with it.
“That is what even the slaves say. Didn’t Ya Gol Gi beat the man? Didn’t they hate each other? The slaves have known him for longer than any of us, and they say this Rho Hat Pan is meticulous and cruel. They say he leaves no job unfinished.”
“They say, they say,” Dep Sag Ko snorted, and he began to speak in the imperial tongue. It was getting harder and harder for Jova to follow their conversation. “But I see, I see! Rho Hat Pan is not leaving my sight until after Lo Pak comes back. He cannot have done it.”
Dal Ak Gan slammed his fist into his palm, and Jova flinched. All three of them began to shout over each other, and she shrunk even further back into her corner. She jumped as she touched someone leaning on the other side of the tent tarp, and slid away.
Jova knew who was waiting outside. Dock and the mercenaries wanted to know why their liaison was missing, and when they were getting paid. The caravan was mere hours away from the city of Hak Mat Do, and now that they had braved the desert they could focus their attention on each other.
Jova’s heart fluttered at the thought of the markets that thrived in the shadow of the pyramids, not just at the horror of it but the uncertainty. How much longer could she maintain her ruse? Who would she belong to when she arrived?
No one. Jova gripped her hands into fists. She belonged to herself.
Suddenly, Jova felt a hand on her shoulder. She touched it gingerly: it was cold, and clammy, and wrinkled. The shaman u-ha breathed heavily as he hobbled forward, and leaned in close to Jova’s ear. “The dead rest,” he said, in his heavy accent.
The incomplete phrase made Jova feel uncomfortable, on-guard. This man was not one of them, whoever they were, although to be fair Jova did not think she was either. She did not draw away from the u-ha, but she did not answer him either. He was just an old man, chasing an idle dream that he scarcely knew the full significance of.
The u-ha’s hand traced down Jova’s arm, until he came upon the cuts and scratches around her hands and wrists. He pulled and prodded at Jova’s skin unashamedly, and Jova winced at the pain. “Raj Mal Azu…” muttered the old man. “Gup ak siz an ima? An ima gar ga?”
Jova shook her head. “I’m sorry…” she muttered. “I don’t understand.”
“The…first,” rasped the u-ha. “You are meeting…gup ak siz, gup ak siz, first among lords…”
“What are you doing, old man? Leave Jova alone, you have pestered her enough already.” Dep Sag Ko’s voice approached, and promptly dragged the u-ha’s hand away. “What is he asking you now?” asked Dep Sag Ko, at Jova. “Teeth grinders? Loud snorers?”
Jova gave him an obligatory laugh, and in a way she felt grateful. Even if Dep Sag Ko’s jokes weren’t funny, at least he was trying to make her happy. The same couldn’t be said for many others in the group.
As Dep Sag Ko walked away to resume the conversation, Jova held her forearms, tracing the scratches and cuts. She had assumed that they had come from her fight with Ya Gol Gi, from his barbed whip or his sharp nails, but she was just now beginning to realize that Ya Gol Gi had never hit her arms.
The storm? The sand? They couldn’t have made such clean cuts. The only other thing that had happened in the desert was her collapse in Ral Zu.
Jova hugged her arms to her sides, and wondered what the ball of green fire in her gut had been—and what it had done to her.
She was distracted by the rustle of the tent flap opening. “The trader’s coming up the river,” said Dock, her voice a deep rumble. “The foreign one.”
“They are all being foreign,” said Dal Ak Gan, and Jova could hear the exhaustion in his voice. This was not a man whose patience Jova wanted to stretch.
“The western one.” Jova heard Dock plant her feet in front of the entrance, and the mercenary growled, “You gonna trade up?”
“Certainly going to try,” said Dal Ak Gan. His voice was hard, his tone brooking no argument.
“We gonna get our cut?”
“We’ll see,” said Dal Ak Gan, and Jova heard Dock stumble as she was shoved out of the way.
“Ya Gol Gi was easier to work with,” said Dock, to his retreating back. “Knew what we wanted. No nonsense in getting it.”
“If you are so unsatisfied, I am making this deal with you,” shouted Dal Ak Gan’s fading voice. “If we find Ya Gol Gi’s killer, he’s all yours.” Dal Ak Gan stepped outside, leaving Dock in the tent with his two Hag Gar Gan lieutenants.
Jova turned away, and hoped Dock wouldn’t notice her. She didn’t think the mercenary’s punishment would be particularly imaginative, but it would be…direct. And effective. How could Jova outwit someone who thought so simply? How could she talk her way past someone who spoke so little?
If she got turned over to Dock, it was over.
“La Ah Abi,” said Dep Sag Ko, his voice dripping with false grace. “The honor of negotiating with harr Dock is being yours. U-ha and I must go and speak with this trader. Jova, come! And bring the wineskin.”
Dutifully, Jova collected the wood goblet (the wine pre-poured), and the skin, and ducked out the tent, clicking her tongue to find the square of open air that led outside. She heard just the slightest of movements beside her as she did so, as Dock drew away from her. Perhaps she had just been getting out of the way of the blind girl, but perhaps…
Ya Gol Gi had always meant “devil girl” maliciously. Dep Sag Ko sometimes said it as a joke. Who among the tribe actually believed it?
It had been hot inside the tent, but outside it was even hotter. Jova did not envy the line of slaves sitting, baking under the sun, and counted her blessings that Dep Sag Ko and the u-ha had taken an interest in her, and taken her as an assistant.
At least they had the river, though. Jova had heard the sluggish trickle of the wide River Kaza long before they had arrived at its shore, but it wasn’t until she stood before it that she realized its magnitude. Standing on the edge of the Kaza and listening to the waves had been like standing on the high cliffs of the Moscon Peninsula and listening to the ocean.
Jova remembered the ocean, from when she had lived in Jhidnu. A softly undulating landscape of its own, the warm waters of Lowsea had always been host to a trading barge or two. In her years in Moscoleon, though, she had forgotten its majesty; there was something about the ocean that the sinkholes of the peninsula would never be able to match, a kind of primal awe that soothed the itch in Jova’s chest just a little.
“Follow me, Jova!” said Dep Sag Ko, and Jova shook her head and brought her thoughts back to the present. “Up on the boat. Can your secret devil eyes see it, or shall I be carrying you?”
“I’ll be fine,” said Jova. “Although it would be easier if I had a walking stick,” she added, somewhat hopefully.
Dep Sag Ko laughed, like Jova had said the funniest thing he had ever heard. “And let you beat my face in like you are beating that fat templeman pontiff?”
Jova froze. Her fists tightened. How did he know?
“Rho Hat Pan is telling me all sorts of stories,” said the sandman beastmaster. “Our sweet little devil girl is not so sweet after all, eh? I am not knowing who is more interesting, him or you.”
Her footsteps fell hollowly on the wooden boat as she boarded. Jova kept her head low, trying to mask her expression. What other stories had Rho Hat Pan been telling? What other stories would he tell? By Dep Sag Ko’s demeanor, he had not betrayed Jova’s secret yet, but it was only a matter of time.
As Dep Sag Ko put a hand on Jova’s shoulder, indicating for her to stop, Jova wondered where Rho Hat Pan was. There were at least ten or twelve other tribe members for him to meet; he was, as always, too busy for Jova.
Anger bubbled in Jova’s gut at the thought of Rho Hat Pan getting chummy with his new tribe. Perhaps it was for the better that Dep Sag Ko didn’t give her a walking stick, after all.
A harsh squawk interrupted Jova’s thoughts. Like a crowbeast’s but higher pitched, it came from the cabin of the ship. The aracari bird on Dep Sag Ko’s shoulder screeched in response, only to elicit an even louder answer from the bird in the cabin. The two birds began to flap their wings and screech at each other, until Jova’s head spun with the noise and chaos.
“Dep Sag Ko!” barked Dal Ak Gan, from inside the cabin. “Eri fha pa zu ara cari!”
“May I remind you,” said a voice, in an even, clipped tone, also from inside the cabin, “What we agreed on about using a language we can all understand?” Jova drew back instinctively. The voice reminded her of Copo.
“My apologies, Kharr Ta,” said Dal Ak Gan, gruffly. “I was just telling Dep Sag Ko to shut his bird up. So we may conduct business in peace.”
“Nevertheless, your incivility is insulting,” said Kharr Ta. Jova assumed he was the slave trader. He spoke like a plainsman, quickly, with an almost rhythmic cadence. “I leave the city at great personal energy and expense-.”
“You had to take an hour’s ride upriver,” snapped Dal Ak Gan. “A child could navigate the Kaza with his eyes closed, and you know the situation with the pyramid lords. They will not let any of us into the city.”
“And so you make me come to you.” Though not a word more was said, Jova could hear hostility in the silence.
“The wine,” muttered Dep Sag Ko. As Jova prepared to pour, he hissed, “Not me. Him.”
Jova edged forward cautiously, her feet treading lightly on the thick Shira Hay carpet, careful not to bump into anything. Incense wafted around Jova as she made her way around polished oak tables and low western-style couches.
A cold hand, with long, slender fingers, took the wineskin from Jova’s hand. Kharr Ta sniffed. “Cheap Hag Gar Gan swill,” he said, but he took it anyway.
“So,” said Dal Ak Gan, and the tribe leader grunted as he took a seat opposite Kharr Ta. “To business.”
“To business,” said Kharr Ta, and Jova heard him take a deep drink. “As I understand it, you are a direct people, so I too will be direct. You have with you a strong, useful, good stock. Templeman zealots, alsknights, even a smattering of children to be trained and sold later. They will make you rich, if you can sell them.” Kharr Ta paused. “And you will not be able to sell them.”
Neither Dal Ak Gan nor Dep Sag Ko said a word. Jova stepped back, waiting to be called again, even as she listened intently.
“Do you know who you caught? Do you know exactly who these people are?”
“Alswell nobles. A zealot patrol getting them to the Seat of the King. Merchants and pilgrims,” said Dal Ak Gan. “The fieldmen of all people should understand that this is just business. They are too far away for any kind of retribution.”
“The Rape of Alswell continues,” said Kharr Ta. “I left a lucrative business behind in Shira Hay because war fever has gripped the region. Refugees flee east and west, north and south, to escape the fighting, and the nobles you caught—the ones you are so confident you can sell without consequence—were the ones who were going to stop it. The farmers will not overlook this.” Kharr Ta raised his voice. “Do you understand? The slaver who buys from you will never trade with Alswell again. That is assuming he survives the wrath of Greeve or any of his lesser farmers.”
“You said you would be direct,” said Dal Ak Gan, and his tone was like ice. “Be direct.”
“You have no product. No product, no sale. No sale, and you are wasting my time.”
Jova thought of the mercenaries waiting outside, and the slaves lined up on the shore. She stood and waited, as flygnats and fall mosquitoes buzzed around her. The boat swayed with the sluggish flow of the Kaza. Finally, Dal Ak Gan spoke.
“You said it yourself. You are spending energy and expense to be here. It was not just to tell us that we had nothing to sell.”
“For you, I am willing to take the risk,” said Kharr Ta, and Jova could almost hear the oily smile in his voice. “But you must understand that I am your only potential buyer. Ordinary prices will not be sufficient here.”
“The bastard’s a plainsman,” growled Dep Sag Ko, in a low voice. He must have been talking to the u-ha. “What fucking risk is he taking that he doesn’t already have? Alswell’s never gonna trade with the prick anyway.”
“You shall see them first,” said Dal Ak Gan. Jova had been listening to the emotion in people’s voices for years, but she could not glean anything from Dal Ak Gan’s tone.
“The children first. The plutocrats of Jhidnu know I sell well-trained children.”
Dal Ak Gan snapped his finger, and Dep Sag Ko left the cabin. Jova was about to leave, but Dal Ak Gan said, “You, girl! Stay.”
Jova edged forward, hands clasped in front of her. She stood and waited, as Kharr Ta began to pace around her and inspect her. “How old are you?” he asked Jova, directly.
“Eleven summers, sir,” said Jova, respectfully. She listened carefully as the man walked around her, as attentive as possible. It was obvious that his ship was luxuriantly furnished, yet that spoke only of his wealth, not his business policies. If she was sold to this man—this Kharr Ta—was escape possible? He did not seem as lenient or as trusting as the Hag Gar Gan tribe.
“Too old for those who want trained slaves. Too young for those who want workers. This is your first offering?” asked Kharr Ta, his voice full of disgust. “Is she actually…disabled?”
“Yes, but no less functional. She-.”
“Enough, Dal Ak Gan. I will not be insulted like this.” Kharr Ta stopped pacing and turned to the tribe leader. “By all the Ladies Four, what did you think I would pay for an eleven-year old blind girl? Did you even think before you offered her to me?”
“If you don’t like her,” said Dal Ak Gan, his tone even. “Then we can move on. Girl, tell Dep Sag Ko to bring the next one in.”
Jova curtsied, backing away. She clicked to find the door, but when she did the bird in the cabin screeched again, and she scurried away, trying not to agitate anyone further. “Dep Sag Ko!” shouted Jova, walking up to the railing of the boat. “He wants the next one!”
“Da, Jova,” said Dep Sag Ko, from the shore. “U-ha, let that girl go, she needs to go in. Come on, little one.”
“OK,” said a soft voice. Jova turned immediately. She recognized it.
“Alis!” she whispered, as the girl passed.
“Jova.” Alis held Jova’s hand for just a second, but that was all they had. She walked away, and Jova was left alone once again, her gut twisted with worry. She had not seen Alis for some time, but Alis was still her friend. Alis was someone she needed to protect.
Jova turned her head, wondering where she was to go next. She was about to take a step off the boat, when she paused.
She was not a slave. She belonged to herself. She would find a way to be free. Jova walked along the railing, putting one hand in front of the other, until her palm brushed against something flat and wooden. It did not seem to be useful to her, and she was about to walk away, when she held the thing in her hands.
Plank by plank she felt it. It was concave, with sides as long as she was tall, and a bottom that dipped out. One plank lay across it, although for what Jova could not tell. Jova kept her ears pricked, hoping no one would come and stop her, but there seemed to be no one on this side of the boat. Kharr Ta’s crew seemed to be elsewhere, and the Hag Gar Gan tribe was otherwise preoccupied.
She bent down, and her hand closed around a wooden shaft. She had half a mind to take it as a walking stick, when she realized what it was.
An oar. That meant the thing next to it was a raft, perhaps, or a boat: a small one, no doubt, one that could only fit one person.
Space for one person, though, was all she needed.
Jova licked dry lips, trying to find out exactly the size of the craft. What had Dal Ak Gan said? A child could navigate the Kaza with his eyes closed. From here, downriver, it went into the city of Hak Mat Do, where Jova could find supplies enough, if not for the journey home, then at least to survive. She would leave no tracks in the river, and could disappear into the city once she arrived. The Hag Gar Gan did not have boats themselves, and Kharr Ta did not care enough for her to follow.
She would have to do it later, of course, at night when they all slept or when they were preoccupied. But she would do it.
Jova straightened. Kharr Ta could not leave just yet.
He didn’t know it, but he had just brought Jova the means of her escape.
Blood was in the air. He could feel it and taste it; it was in his lungs and on his skin. An iron, metal taste, one that made his heart quicken and his nerves tingle.
The fall toad crawled out of his hiding space, puffs of air swirling around him as he cleared the air of the foul stench. The sac on Fosen’s throat dilated quickly, although not too much for fear of making too loud a sound.
A transparent membrane slid over Fosen’s eyes, as he crawled out from beneath the decomposing log. It had been moist and dark and safe under it, but Fosen couldn’t stay in there forever. All the movement had stopped and the danger seemed to have passed, but Fosen still moved with extreme caution. His steps were light and gentle; the leaves barely bent as he walked across the mulch on the forest floor.
Movement! Fosen froze and twitched, as a mass of humans marched past to his side. He dove into the matted vegetation, eyes unblinking as they came past. They were the new humans, the ones that made Fosen nervous; he did not know what to keep track of, with all their clothing that jangled and rattled and shook as they moved. Perhaps it was not so safe to move.
Fosen continued to crawl, always on wary of something that could hurt him, harm him, kill him. Everything else—food, rest, shelter—was a tertiary concern. Secrecy was paramount now, secrecy and security, and in secrecy he would find security.
A nervous croak escaped Fosen’s throat as he moved through the mulch. He stuck to the shadows, beneath the bushes and verdant ferns, but here the litter had decayed to the point that Fosen had to wade more than walk.
Another wave of humans marched past, and Fosen sunk into the underbrush to watch and wait. They carried with them a limp body, an arm dangling over the makeshift stretcher: a thin line of red traced delicately down the arm, around its hand, and off its finger. Fosen’s heart quickened. Blood was never a good sign.
As Fosen watched, the body was dumped unceremoniously into a nearby ditch. He could taste the foul stench even from here, and though rot was often perfect bait for food, now was not the time.
It was not as if he could have caught prey if he even had the opportunity. Being fed slugworms and winter crickets all his life had not exactly honed his skills as a hunter, and Fosen knew it. The fall toad was fat, pampered, and thoroughly domesticated.
But even he knew what fear felt like, and right now he was afraid.
He crawled on, little puffs of air clearing a path for him as he walked. It drained his essence, but the speed was worth it. He had to get away from this place. Distance was key. Distance and secrecy, then security.
More movement! No matter which way the fall toad seemed to turn, there seemed to be more of the rattling men around him, dragging bodies both dead and alive around the jungle, snapping the long leather tongues they held in their hands. Fosen retreated once more underneath a decomposing log, the bark flaking away as he pushed himself into the small crack between wood and ground, and held his breath as the men passed.
To his horror, the man sat down. He was joined by two others, all sitting in a circle, and Fosen had no way of getting out without falling in their line of sight. He kicked his back legs in vain, hoping against hope that he could somehow dig his way out the other side, but there was no such luck.
“Dal Ak Gan,” said a voice opposite him. The pitch was high, a tone that Fosen recognized as a human female, like mistress. Mistress was good to him, but somehow Fosen did not think this human would be as charitable. “What are we doing with the young ones?”
“How many are we having?”
“Two boys, migrants and vagabonds. And a girl, barely past Fallow. There are others, older, ten years or so, but we have dealt with them.”
“Chain them and sell them. The pyramid lords will be buying children for a high price.”
It did not sound the same as the language mistress and her people usually spoke (although Fosen could barely tell the difference between the human’s sibilant hissing and clicking at the best of times), but the fall toad understood well enough. All human speech had been open to him since he had first touched the golden disk, before mistress had taken it away.
Perhaps another might have wondered why that was, but Fosen did not waste his time with idle thoughts. It let him understand mistress’s orders and intentions, and so long as he could keep it that way he would not question why.
The woman rose, and her curved blade flashed in the sun. It dangled loosely from her hand, but Fosen could not help but fixate on it. “Others hold the children’s tabula,” said the woman. “One boy we are holding now until he speaks, the other swears his owner is dead. The girl does not cooperate.”
“You have searched them?”
The woman scoffed. “Hollow-born foals are blind and weak, but even they know to stumble towards the sun. Of course I have searched them.”
Fosen saw the man’s feet shift in front of him, but the man did not rise from his position. He was still far too close for Fosen to make his escape without being caught. “I am meaning no offense, La Ah Abi. Many things are easily forgot when the blood runs battle-hot, no?”
The woman stomped over and Fosen quailed. She punched the man in the shoulder, although her face was too far up for Fosen to see her expression. “Even when your heart is cool as winter you are forgetful, Dal Ak Gan.”
“And yours runs as the summer always, blood-sister mine.”
The man rose to grip the woman’s wrist, and Fosen saw his opportunity. His squat legs could only take him so far with a single hop, but the fall toad summoned a small gust to propel him forward, out into the open. He just need to move fast, get around the leg and out of sight, before…
“Dal Ak Gan! See here!”
Another one? Fosen bunched into a ball and tumbled back into the safety of the shadows, throat dilating in frustration. He had barely made four bodylengths of progress before the second man hopped lightly off his steed, an eelhound that began to sniff at the ground the moment the man dismounted. Fosen curled even further into himself, holding the air tight and still around him to keep his scent from traveling too far into the air.
This second man was dressed in a prodigious number of furs and skins, and flybeasts buzzed around his face, which was shiny with perspiration. A necklace of bone charms hung around his neck, as did a number of braided strings around his wrists. Smudged face paint streaked his cheeks, although Fosen could not tell what color, and he had pale scars running up his bulky forearm.
A black bird with brilliant scarlet plumage around its eyes and a massive bill streaked with yellows and greens hopped and squawked on the man’s shoulder. The translation was less precise here, but Fosen could still tell the general feeling from the animal. Joy. Triumph. Celebration.
“Dep Sag Ko!” said Dal Ak Gan, embracing the man fully and giving him a hearty thump on the back. “Good hunting, friend?”
“As good as the Lady Summer’s,” said the man with the beasts, smiling and revealing chipped teeth.
“And does your quarry still breathe?”
Dep Sag Ko shrugged. “Most do. Lo Pak was hasty with one, though. We shall be eating mule meat tonight.” At the sudden slump in Dal Ak Gan’s shoulders, he quickly continued, “Worry not, Dal. The staghound will more than make up for what was lost in trade.”
Fosen had more pressing concerns than the cluster of humans, though. The eelhound’s sniffling and rooting was bringing it closer and closer to Fosen’s hiding spot, and unless he moved soon he would find himself inside the jaws of the lanky, serpentine beast.
Its slick, pointed head swung dangerously close to the fall toad’s location. Fosen held back a nervous croak. The eelhound’s skin had an odd sheen to it, like slime, and while Fosen was no stranger to warty, mucus-covered skin, the eelhound also had a coat of thin, greasy fur that made Fosen nervous somehow. It had a prominent underbite, filmy yellow eyes, and a saddle with a carved marble handhold on its back. Occasionally, gills on the side of the eelhound’s neck would flap uselessly when it drew breath.
The eelhound drew closer, a soft growl in the back of its throat. Try as Fosen might, he couldn’t keep all the air around him still forever. Some little scent had to leak out, and the eelhound was starting to catch it.
Fosen waited, as the searching snout drew closer and closer. He began to fill his lungs with air. A powerful enough gust would both blow him away and slow the eelhound down, if he aimed right. All he had to do was wait…
The bird on the man’s shoulder screeched loudly, and the searching snout, bare inches from Fosen’s face, pulled away. The eelhound barked and hissed at the bird, which had started to hop back and forth on Dep Sag Ko’s shoulder. Snarling, the eelhound padded away, sometimes leaping up to snap at the bird with its serrated teeth.
With a great sigh of relief, Fosen relaxed. He had forgotten, though, about the essence charged winds building in his lungs, and so when he breathed out he found himself propelled backwards immediately, tumbling over the leaves as he skidded to a stop in the jungle floor.
He rolled over slowly, each movement precise and deliberate. Had they seen him? Did they see him moving?
No one and nothing had noticed. He was safe.
As Fosen began to crawl away, he noticed the same little clusters all over the former camp: the new humans stood casually, talking, nursing their wounds, while the old humans were nowhere to be seen, and always the stench of the corpse-filled ditch followed him. Fosen wondered where mistress was. He hoped she was still alive.
Fosen paused, right at the border of the trees. Freedom was so close; he could escape into the jungle and never be afraid of these men or any men ever again. Food was plentiful, as where places to hide, for a fall toad. He could just leave.
But Fosen was fat, pampered, and thoroughly domesticated. He wouldn’t make it a day without mistress.
The fall toad crawled back into camp, his wide eyes constantly panning to see if he could find where all the old humans had gone. New tents were being erected already over the still burning embers of the old campfires; they could almost have been the same tents, except these were more patchwork, more dirt-smeared, more primal in a way. Like Dep Sag Ko’s necklace, bones hung over the entrances of the tents, except these were much larger. Femurs swayed like wind charms and skulls leered at Fosen as he made his way further into the camp.
Fosen had only just ventured into the interior of the camp when he heard the sound of a person being struck. His bulging eyes rolled as he searched for the source, and he saw motion next to the smoking remains of the old fire.
The legless man did not cry out or yell as he was struck across the face. He sat on the ground, his hands resting almost peacefully across his stubby legs, as the other man slapped him across the face.
“You are still insisting you are one of us?” snarled his assaulter, pacing in a circle around the man. “A cripple does not carry the name of the Hag Gar Gan. Never make the mistake of thinking you are still one of us. Now, what is your name?”
The legless man looked the slaver straight in the eye and said, evenly, “Rho Hat Pan.”
The slaver hit him so hard this time that the legless man keeled over, a line of blood oozing from the side of his mouth. Fosen could see him coughing and struggling to rise, but the slaver put a foot on the legless man’s back and forced him down. “Tell me your name again, cripple.”
As Fosen drew closer, he could see that the legless man looked barely conscious. Still, he managed to mumble, “Rho Hat Pan.”
He didn’t rise this time, knocked to the ground by the slaver’s blow. The legless man groaned and rolled over, but could not seem to get up, and the slaver, to his credit, scoffed and walked away. Fosen made his way onward.
There was already a collection of the captured around that smoking pit, and Fosen inspected each of them carefully. One had a missing arm; another seemed to have no tongue in her mouth. Many more had much more recent injuries, gashes in their sides that had been clumsily bandaged and bruises swelling around their faces. None of them, however, were his mistress.
Fosen heard footsteps behind him and dove into the midst of the gathered slaves. None of them seemed to notice the little toad in their midst, and so Fosen hid among them as the slaver returned, with company.
Dal Ak Gan, the man from before, was with him, looking authoritative. Fosen recognized an alpha when he saw one, even a human alpha. Dal Ak Gan was in charge here. It was good to remember that.
The blindfolded girl, that came trudging quietly along, Fosen remembered. She had been with mistress a scant few days ago, and had filled mistress with feelings of happiness and nostalgia. And there had been something about her essence, something that had Fosen paying attention. He wasn’t sure how to describe it. Her essence seemed strangely…
The blind girl knelt with the others, and Dal Ak Gan looked over them and crossed his arms. “These are the unfit?” he said, in the guttural other language, to the slaver. The slaver nodded. “You have searched them for tabula?”
The slaver rolled his eyes. “Who would trust a cripple with tabula, Dal Ak Gan? It is not worth my time.”
Dal Ak Gan looked as if he was about to say something sharp in response, but as his eyes flickered between the crowd of slaves and his subordinate, he seemed to decide against it. “And where is the one you say is causing trouble?”
Before the slaver could respond, the legless man croaked, “I am here.”
Dal Ak Gan’s eyebrows rose. It was a human response, Fosen knew, of surprise. “He speaks the imperial tongue. How has a son of the steppes become so lost, hmm?”
The slaver put a hand on Dal Ak Gan’s shoulder and whispered something in his ear. Dal Ak Gan nodded slowly.
“Not this one. I see.” Dal Ak Gan surveyed the crowd again. Then, he said, in a much more familiar language, “Give me the one who is called Janwye.”
While none of the slaves pointed fingers, there was a noticeable shift in their stances: the slight edging away, the subtle turning of their heads. Fosen shrunk back as Dal Ak Gan followed those signals, walking amongst the crowd without a care in the world, until he reached a woman bound with so much rope that she could scarce budge an inch.
“She knew,” said the slaver, in the coarse, other language. “She was having a summer elk with her, too. Almost burned us to death.”
Dal Ak Gan did not acknowledge him. He knelt in front of the woman Janwye and held up her chin. One side of her face was so heavily bruised it did not even seem human anymore.
Fosen knew Janwye. He knew she was one of mistress’s friends. He hoped nothing bad happened to her, but even as he watched he knew he could not do anything to prevent it.
“How is it that you are knowing we are coming?” asked Dal Ak Gan. “Were we clumsy? Or did one of my own alert you? This is a perplexing secret to me, fieldwoman.”
Janwye jutted her jaw out and did not say a word. She was silent and defiant.
Dal Ak Gan stroked the bruised side of her face, and Janwye flinched. “You are noble, fieldwoman, but the time for that is over. Go on. Tell me how you are knowing.”
Janwye turned her head to meet the other man’s eyes, and for just a moment held his gaze. She opened her mouth slowly…
And spat right in his face.
Dal Ak Gan rose, wiping his cheek with the back of his hand, and Fosen could not see his expression. The feelings radiating from him were that of anger, contempt, indignation.
“She probably just saw our tracks. Nothing to worry about. There is no traitor in our midst, Dal Ak Gan,” leered the slaver, staring at Janwye. “Why don’t we just kill her?”
“No!” shouted the legless man immediately. “Forgive her, rider-lord. She is- she is sick in the head.”
Dal Ak Gan looked from his slaver to his slave, his lips pursed in thought. Suddenly, Fosen wanted nothing more than to be away from this. He needed to know where mistress was.
The legless man struggled to sit upright, and then began to crawl forward to Dal Ak Gan. “I supplicate myself to you, rider-lord. Son of the goddesses, free-as-the-wind lord, true heir to the lost empire. She is not well in the head. I- I can speak with her. She knows things, I am sure. She will tell you what she knows.”
Fosen watched as Dal Ak Gan circled around behind Janwye. The legless man did his best to follow, as the other slaves cleared a wide space around him, but he could only crawl so fast. He was like Fosen in that way, the toad supposed.
“She will fetch a high price in the shadow markets!” shouted the legless man. He was almost crying now. “Let her face heal. You have not seen her at her best. She is beautiful! She is beautiful, rider-lord!”
A twinge in essence drew Fosen’s attention. It might have just been his imagination, but he thought he saw a sad smile flicker across Janwye’s face.
“Imagine what she will buy you! Gorgeous silks, or the best blades that Irontower can forge. Or- or you may keep her for yourself! But she must live for that, rider-lord. She must live.”
Dal Ak Gan nodded slowly, putting his hand on Janwye’s shoulder. “Speak with her then, brother lost. Tell her to comply.”
“Janwye,” said the legless man. “Janwye, you must-.”
And then Dal Ak Gan wrapped his arm around Janwye’s neck and squeezed, hard. The legless man roared and leaped forward, but the other slaver caught him and pressed him down.
Janwye convulsed and flailed, a strangled choke escaping from her throat as she fought against the ropes binding her. Fosen could tell that the air was no longer moving in her lungs, that her breath was slowly running out. He summoned his essence and pushed, trying to help her, blowing tiny gusts of air into her mouth. It was an exertion from such a distance, but it was all he could do.
It was not good enough. Janwye’s face reddened as Dal Ak Gan, his expression unmoving, continued to strangle her. Her twitching eventually subsided. Eventually, Dal Ak Gan let her go, and she fell to the ground, eyes glazed, staring at some fixed point ahead of her.
“Janwye…” the legless man sobbed, reaching out for her. Dal Ak Gan stepped on his hand and the legless man slumped, crying into the ground. “Janwye, Janwye…”
“This is what happens,” said Dal Ak Gan, in his thick accent, “When any of you think to cross us. Nothing and no one can save you.” He twisted his foot on the legless man’s hand, but the legless man did not even seem to care anymore.
The two slavers walked away, leaving the body among the crippled and the injured. Fosen crawled away. He needed to find mistress.
Although now, he did not see the point. If the humans could not save each other, how could he?