Chaff bounced in his seat as the prayer song droned on, craning his head to get a better look at the frozen pool of water at the altar. It was abnormally cold in the House of Winter, compared to the rest of Moscoleon, and Chaff shivered as the gathered sang.
“The winter has come and the snows have now fallen; we’ve locked all our doors and now we are walled in,” they sang. “So be ready to gather, to pray, and to bless; for now we are more even though we are less.”
At the head of the congregation a man in another one of those funny hats lead the singing, standing precariously close to the frozen surface of the altar. He hadn’t let Chaff bring the big guy in, which disappointed the boy to no end. This was the one building he had ever been in that could fit the big guy.
“Be gentle, show mercy in these troubled times; for a cruel world is the one world where one can be kind. Glory in her, and her shining face! Pray for a quick end in the owl’s embrace.”
Chaff looked down quickly as the pontiff passed, and it was just his luck since everyone else bowed their heads then too. They did that often, at these congresses of the faith, although why escaped the boy.
He sneaked a look at the Lady Winter, made of marble, standing at her frozen altar. Maybe she was supposed to do something while everyone was looking away, but she stood still and motionless, little beads of condensation dripping down her wings. Chaff turned instead to the bowed heads around him.
He didn’t see the girl.
It had been like this all day. Chaff had gone to every House of the Ladies he could find, and not one had her in attendance. He had gone to sunrise prayer, morning prayer, and now high noon prayer, but no matter how hard he had searched he had not found her. Perhaps this time he would actually pray, just to see if it worked.
The pontiff passed again, and Chaff ducked his head.
The singing at last ended. From the corner of his eye, Chaff saw the pontiff throw his head up, saw the stark lines etched on the base of his neck. He wondered how they had gotten there. Once, when he was young, he had carved a picture of him and the big guy into the side of a thorn tree. Perhaps pontiffs were the same. Perhaps someone made those marks when the pontiffs were made of wood, before they had become men.
His speech was concluding. “…and in this game of worlds, may fortune be with you.”
“May fortune be with you,” the congregation echoed.
“Fortune,” said Chaff. A greater power than kings or gods.
He walked against the flow when the others began to trickle out, towards the Lady Winter instead of away. She stood before him, wings outstretched, her face kind but her features skeletal.
The Lady of death waited as Chaff approached her.
A pair of sandals stood by the altar, the leather faded from the hundreds of feet that had worn them. Chaff slipped them on and stepped gingerly across the glassy surface of the ice. His thin pants were scant protection from the cold as he knelt before the statue.
“Tell me where she is,” said Chaff, holding up the girl’s tabula. He traced its single crack, waiting. Was this how prayer worked? “Do you know where she is?”
The Lady Winter had no answer for him, just as all the other Lady Winters in the city had no answer for him. Chaff ground his teeth. Where would the goddesses talk to him, if not the holiest place in Albumere?
“Jova,” said Chaff, staring at the Lady Winter’s face. There was no one left in the House now, except a child servant taking a broom to the floor behind him. “Her name is Jova.”
His gaze drifted down from the statue to the altar, to the ribbon of red laid across the pedestal. He wondered who had left it there.
The House was mostly silent now, but for the scrape of the broom’s hairs and the ambient whispers still echoing across the House’s high dome. Was that Chaff’s own voice bouncing above his head? Or were those the voices of prayers past, still asking the Ladies for answers?
Chaff clasped his hands together. He cleared his throat. “What about Sri?” He put the tabula back in his belt. “I never meant to…I just wanted to say goodbye, yeah? Where is she? Is she OK?”
The Lady Winter just smiled. A sad, resigned smile.
“Hadiss?” asked Chaff.
“Veer, and the rest of them?”
Chaff stared at the ground for a long while. He couldn’t bring himself to say it, but if he wouldn’t say it here, in the holiest place in Albumere, where would he say it? Chaff blinked rapidly, and looked up at the statue of the Lady Winter. Arms outstretched, like Duarch Fra Henn, in the plaza that Chaff had thought, however briefly, was his home.
“What about Loom?” he asked. “Is she…are she and Vhajja…are they with you?”
Just a smile.
The boy bowed his head. He wished the big guy could come in here with him. He felt awfully lonely. “Could you tell what she’s like, at least? Jova?” said Chaff. “If you don’t know where she is?”
“She laughed a lot,” said a voice behind him, and Chaff nearly smashed his face into the ice as he turned to look. The cleaning boy stood, leaning on his broom, watching Chaff with a half-wary, half-bemused expression. “She never spoke ill of anyone. She could tell a dull rock from a shiny rock just from the sounds they made.” The boy looked down to hide his smile. “She’d get up every morning before work to help me train with the zealot’s spear and she’d kick my ass every time.”
Chaff slid forward from the altar, until he was walking on solid stone again. He took off the slippers without looking down, transfixed on the boy. “Tell me more,” he said, clutching the altar wall as he stepped down the stairs. “Tell me more about her.”
A pendant around the boy’s neck bounced as he looked up. His eyes were watering. “She’s dead,” he said.
The next thing Chaff knew, he was kneeling over the boy and his fist had drawn back for another swing. “You’re a liar!” he shouted, and his voice echoed through the House. “Liar! Liar! Liar!” screamed the echoes.
The broom in spun in the boy’s hands and Chaff felt a sharp pain in his chest as the boy jabbed him with the handle. Chaff fell back, but before he could find his feet the boy had put the handle of the broom on Chaff’s neck, right under his chin. “It’s true,” said the boy, breathing heavily. “A patrol of zealots found the bodies on the road. Hag Gar Gan horde riders ambushed them.”
Chaff gripped the tabula in his belt. Cracked, but not broken. “That’s not true,” he snarled, from his position on the floor. “Not true.”
The boy’s eyes followed Chaff’s face to his hand, and the broom handle pushed a little harder against Chaff’s throat. “Who are you?”
What could Chaff say? A boy from the grasslands? A traitor to his friends?
“A martyr,” said Chaff, and he batted the broom aside. He gripped the cleaning boy’s collar as he rose. “Now, where is Jova?”
Chaff felt a sharp pain in his wrist as the boy slammed the wooden handle on his hand. “She’s dead,” said the boy, his wooden pendant dangling from his neck. “Let the dead rest.”
“Where is she?” Chaff grabbed the boy’s collar again, but was rebuked just as quickly.
“You’re going to hurt her,” said the boy. “If she’s still alive. If you find her. I don’t know who you are and I don’t know what you want, but I know you’re going to hurt her.”
“You know where she is, yeah?” said Chaff. “You gonna tell me where she is.”
With a hollow crack, the broom hit Chaff over the head. Chaff had no defense against the assault; this boy’s skill as a fighter far surpassed Chaff’s in every aspect. Years of pretending to be Kennya Noni started to come back to him. He needed to be fast, on his feet, get away…
Don’t run. Not this time. Don’t run.
Here, now, he was going to stand and fight. No more running away. Chaff struggled to his feet, even as the staff hit him squarely on the back. No one was here to help him. No one was here to save him now.
“You’re not welcome here anymore,” said the boy, grabbing Chaff by the arm, but Chaff fought and struggled and kicked, and if he couldn’t win at least he could stand his ground. “Leave!”
“She’s going to hurt you too. If you find her dead or alive, it doesn’t matter. You’re going to hurt and she’s going to hurt you back four and four times over.” The boy hit Chaff in the jaw, and Chaff tasted blood in his mouth. He wasn’t trying to beat Chaff away anymore, he was just trying to beat him, but Chaff would not stand down. “You call yourself a martyr? Fine! You’re going to die for her and she’s going to watch.”
The broom broke over Chaff’s head. His ears were ringing and his forearms were already turning black from his bruises. Blinking stars from his eyes, Chaff struggled to stand. One foot before the other, that was all he had to do. Put your feet beneath you. Stand.
“Now,” he said, wiping the blood from his chin with the back of his hand. “You gonna tell me where she is?”
The boy bent down and picked up his broken broom, the jagged wooden splinters stark in the chill light. He tensed, like he was going to stab. Chaff closed his fists and waited, ready.
“Arim!” shouted a voice from above. The man in the funny hat opened the door to a spiraling stairway, his robes askew. He held his hands up in a placating gesture. “What are you doing? You were to clean the floor, not beat this boy half to death.”
“He was asking about Jova,” said Arim. “Wants to find her.” He glared at Chaff, but lowered his weapon.
The pontiff raised his head and turned to Chaff. “The girl named Jova is dead.”
Chaff said nothing. “Liar, liar, liar,” the ceiling still echoed. He glared at the both of them.
Arim and the pontiff exchanged a glance. What were they thinking? Was it finally time for the truth? “Jova,” said the pontiff, very slowly. “Was last seen going to Jhid-.”
The double doors slammed open. When Chaff saw who it was, he couldn’t help but smirk. Lookout loved her dramatic entrances.
“You look like crap,” was the first thing she said. “You really couldn’t go one day without getting the shit beaten out of you? I get the feeling this happens every time.”
“I think we meet up later, yeah? How’d you find me?”
“Who else is dumb enough to bring a fucking camelopard to every House in the city? You’re easy to track.” Lookout grabbed Chaff’s wrist. “We found someone who knew her. Come on, let’s go.”
Lookout’s owlcrow squawked as Chaff drew back. The boy looked pointedly at the pontiff and his servant boy.
“She leave a mark here, too?” asked Lookout, glancing at the two.
The pontiff cleared his throat. “She was last seen going to Jhidnu.”
Lookout stared at him for quite some time. Chaff watched her eyebrows furrowed, watched as her head cocked slightly to the side just as the owlcrow’s turned, heard the hum of a tabula just barely audible even while he stood so close to her.
“Excuse my language, pontiff, sir,” said Lookout, finally. “But you’re a fucking liar. Have some decency. You’re in a holy House.”
And she took Chaff by the hand and led him away. The pontiff folded his arms across his chest, his sleeves embroidered with crescent moons glittering in the narrowing line of light as the boy, Arim, closed the doors behind them.
“Big guy!” shouted Chaff, as the camelopard cantered up to greet him. The camelopard had been eating if not healthier, then more than he had on that ship. He seemed happy, about that.
“Tired of liars,” said Lookout, as she climbed on the camelopard’s back, behind Chaff. “We’re surrounded by them, Chaff. In front of our faces, behind our backs, even inside us. They’re everywhere, and don’t you forget it.”
Chaff just nodded, adjusting in his seat. The big guy still had no saddle, despite Wozek pointing out a few nice and allegedly religious ones as Chaff had roamed the markets. The camelopard would never take one, and Chaff would never impose such a thing on his friend. “Where?”
“Forward, now,” said Lookout, gripping Chaff’s shoulders. Sinndi took to the air with a raucous screech. “Turn when I tell you to turn.”
The boy watched the streets as they rode. He didn’t talk much. His wounds drew a few questioning stares, but there really wasn’t much to it after Chaff had wiped away the last of the blood from the corner of his mouth. It wasn’t much. He had been through worse, and he felt that the people of Moscoleon had seen worse, too.
Lookout was directing him toward the center of the city. He got the impression that he was going up the closer and closer he was to the great temple for which the city was named, and when he turned to look, the poorer slums of Moscoleon did, in fact, slump beneath him.
“Keep going, Chaff,” said Lookout, tapping his shoulder. “He’s neighbors with the Keep, this one.”
Chaff made a face, and stared at the glossy streets ahead of him. “How do you find him?” he asked. He couldn’t imagine wandering into such an upper-class neighborhood without knowing exactly who he was looking for.
“I didn’t,” said Lookout, darkly. “But Wozek’s just popular with everyone, isn’t he?”
The boy didn’t like Lookout’s tone. Wozek had brought them this far, hadn’t he? And now Chaff was so close to finding her. It was thanks to him. Could it have just been his imagination that Lookout bore such animosity towards him?
“I don’t trust him, Chaff.”
Nope. Definitely not his imagination.
“And you shouldn’t either,” said Lookout. She kept looking around her, as if she was convinced Wozek—or one of his people—was watching. “I’m serious. Powerful men don’t get to be powerful by giving away more than they get. He wants something from you.”
Immediately, Chaff’s hand rested on his belt. All three tabula were there, safe and sound. They would stay that way.
“Not that,” said Lookout, rolling her eyes. “Chaff, if I’m going to be honest with you, no one wants that girl but you. Understand?”
That gave Chaff pause. He felt halfway between offended and relieved.
“He wants you. He wants to know what you are, and truth be told, I do to. You and your little friend.” Lookout pointed towards one of the more ostentatious Houses of the Ladies. It had black and white banners flapping from the sides, and lines inscribed in the shape of an eye over a doorway so tall that even the big guy could fit. “Look at that. This city is the most educated, most holy place in the world. Someone has to know.”
“I thought Shira Hay was the most educated place in the world,” said Chaff, as they passed.
Lookout flicked him on the head, and Chaff squirmed. “You’re missing the point, patriot,” said Lookout. “This is an opportunity for answers. Let’s get them.”
“Is the girl here?” asked Chaff.
“Well…no. Word says she isn’t. And, Chaff, that’s another thing. There’s something about her you have to know. She’s-.”
“Not here,” finished Chaff. “Let’s find her, yeah? Find her first. Then you do what you do, and I follow. But first we find her.”
The humming from Lookout’s pocket stopped, and the owlcrow flapped down from the skies. It turned its squashed face toward Chaff, and gave him an almost pitying look. “We’ll talk more later,” said Lookout. “With less ears listening. We’re here.”
The walls of the estate rose high around them; a stark contrast from the red brick of most of Moscoleon, these were the polished white of marble. Formed from hundreds of porcelain shards inlayed in the stone were the marble legions of the Stronghold, hammers ready while the sun shone above them. Their enemy was less recognizable. Chaff hopped off the big guy and knelt, tracing the carving.
“This one looks like the poltergeist!” said Chaff, pointing and grinning. “From the marsh!”
Lookout turned away. “I don’t need reminding,” she said. “They’re the demons of the deep. They represent sin or some shit.”
Some shit was extravagant. Chaff followed the carvings, and the epic battle that they told until he reached the black-iron gate of the compound, and peered through to the gardens. Slaves clipped the hedges while a dirt walkway led to a somewhat less grand house within. It was still one of the richest houses Chaff had ever seen, with grace and aplomb and all the trappings he associated with richness, but all the same he felt somewhat disappointed. A pompous exterior for a measly interior.
“The home of Latius,” said Lookout, folding her arms. “Excuse me, Prince Latius of the Stronghold, proud servant of King Cecis the Third.”
“But he’s dead,” said Chaff, flatly. “Banden killed him.”
“Don’t tell him that, I don’t think he’s realized yet,” said Lookout, with a smirk. “Go on, Chaff, Wozek and that brusher, Prav, are inside.”
“You don’t come with me?”
“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll man the walls with the big guy,” said Lookout. Her fingers drummed on the mosaic. “You go. You’re the runaway guy, after all.”
Chaff nodded, and pushed the gate. It opened without resistance. “Watch out for her,” Chaff mouthed, once he was behind the walls, although he had a feeling Lookout had seen him anyway. She saw everything.
The slaves didn’t make eye contact. They backed away as he approached. Apparently, the wild child in the elector’s scarf had been expected. He followed the murmur of voices, until he stepped around the side of the house to see Wozek and an unfamiliar man drinking mulled wine by a wicker table. Prav the brusher, standing at attendance behind Wozek, gave Chaff a stony nod when the boy approached.
“There he is,” said Wozek, smiling. “The boy with the quest.”
The man Lookout called Latius watched, and Chaff watched back. His hair was fair, his build muscular. His features might have once been handsome, but his nose was crooked like it had been broken a long time ago, and when he opened his mouth to speak Chaff saw that some of the teeth on the left side of his mouth were wooden.
“Your Jova,” he said, his hands folded around his goblet of wine. “Has gone to the Seat of the King.”
Chaff waited. For what, he wasn’t sure. A caveat. A condition. A fight, even. But Latius met his eyes, and there was no lie in them. Even Chaff could tell that much.
“She went with the fieldmen emissaries who came here some months ago,” he said. His gaze never left Chaff; his eyes were blue and cold. “Off to beg the false king for peace. They never made it, I hear, but the patrol counted only a quarter of their number among the bodies. I am not so fortunate that she should be among the dead. The sinful live on, while the righteous suffer for them.” Latius took a long drink. “It’s a pity Alswell didn’t put up more of a fight, though.”
“Their friends were scattered then,” said Wozek. “But we have come together, one by one.” He raised his cup in a toast.
As both drank deeply, Chaff scratched his head. Things had flipped. “Wozek, I thought you liked Banden-.”
“You look terrible,” said Wozek, loudly, cutting him off. Latius was still drinking. “What happened?”
“Got into a fight.”
Wozek mussed Chaff’s hair. “Your plainsman running tricks didn’t help then, I take it? I’ll teach you how a kazakhani fights on the road to the Seat.”
“I’m finding her first, Wozek,” said Chaff, shaking his head, remembering Lookout’s advice. “I’m not going with-.”
“Oh, but you are. We’re sharing the same road. You’re going to the Seat of the King to find this girl. I’m going to the Seat of the King for my people. And Prince Latius here, well, we’ve been talking and he’s thinking of going to the Seat of the King too.” Wozek turned to Latius, and his gaze never wavered. “The last of the marbleman princes, coming out of hiding to stir up the loyalists waiting in the capital.”
Latius leaned back in his seat, and nodded. Chaff didn’t know what was safe for him to say. If he hadn’t known better, he never would have guessed that Wozek was lying, but Chaff was Chaff and not a prince whose job it was to tell when people were lying.
“He wants to put a hammer in Banden’s head,” said Wozek. “And we…well, we’ll bring goodman Latius straight to him, won’t we?”
Latius raised his cup once more. “To better times.”
“To better times,” echoed Wozek.
Chaff began to walk away, to tell Lookout of the news, but Prav stood abruptly in his path. “This Jova,” said Latius, as he put his cup down. “Is not to be trusted. I hope you understand that, boy. She’s as clever as she is evil. She killed one pontiff and turned another. And once you’ve finished with her…”
Latius reached down. Chaff heard the stone scrape as the marbleman lifted his hammer from the ground beside him, and hefted it in his lap.
“I’ll put a hammer in her head, too.”
The boy gripped his hands into fists. His first thought was that he wouldn’t run anymore. He would fight for her.
His second thought was that he couldn’t beat a cleaning boy with a broom. How was he to triumph against a prince, trained in war?
“We’re all in agreement, then,” said Wozek, clapping his hands together. “We all want what’s best for each other.”
Chaff stared at Wozek, and decided right then that when Wozek had run with his bayman circus, he must have been the knife juggler. Only that kind of man would dare something like this.
How many knives, Chaff wondered, did Wozek have in the air? How many knives did Chaff have yet to see?
How many knives were falling towards him?
As she splashed water over her face and forearms, clarity rung in Jova’s head like a clarion bell. The cold shock brought sudden vitality back to her limbs, and she scrubbed her hands vigorously in the trough. She could hear pacing beside her, and the fevered muttering of the woman Janwye as she recited her address to the Holy Keep.
Jova hung her head, letting the water drip down her fingers and back into the trough. She pursed her lips, considering speaking up to ask Janwye if she had cleaned her hands thoroughly enough, but the thought of the woman’s reaction if she was interrupted made Jova hesitate. She wished Roan would return with the supplies soon. Waiting in the stables with the fieldwoman was doing nothing for her nerves, and even blind Jova could tell Janwye possessed a short temper.
Instead, Jova listened. It was hifalutin rhetoric, one that Ma would have scoffed at and Da would have pretended to understand, but Jova listened all the same. It was interesting.
“I beseech you, Holy Keep Tlai,” said Janwye. “When Kazakhal soldiers massacred towermen and sandmen on the Day of Burning Tower, Keep Izec sent his zealots into the dark marshes. When the Seat of Winter sheltered traitors in the War of Whispers, Keep Hron turned the tide in the siege when the zealots marched north. When the Wilder clans threatened joined the Restoration Rebellion, Keep Kago rallied the-.”
“Don’t mention Kago,” blurted Jova, and she bit her tongue.
There was a scoff, and Janwye said, “Why not?”
Jova searched for the words, but she felt ineloquent. Her hands still dripped into the trough, and she busied herself washing her arms again.
“You don’t have to wash anymore, the blood is gone. You’re clean,” said Janwye, and Jova had no real choice but to stop after that. “Do you bear me ill will, girl?” There was no pause between her sentences. She seemed to say the words as soon as they came to her, quite unlike thoughtful Roan.
“No, I don’t,” stuttered Jova, immediately. “I just…you shouldn’t mention Kago, is all.”
“He was one of the most successful Keeps in history,” said Janwye, and she sounded more confused than angry. “He might not have won against the Wilder during the War of Broken Chains, but it was a noble effort, no?”
“He’s controversial,” said Jova, quietly.
“What? You’re mumbling.”
“He’s controversial,” repeated Jova, clearing her throat. “He was a foreigner and didn’t seem to show any faith to the Ladies. He developed Moscoleon, but most of those developments were secular. It might be a bad idea to bring him up, is all.”
Janwye did not hesitate to ask, even if her tone was questioning. “What is Secular?”
Wiping her hands on her coza, Jova tried to remember how Roan had explained it to her. “The Moscoleon part of Temple Moscoleon,” she said. “Not the Temple part.”
“I do not understand,” said Janwye. “Are not the Temple and Moscoleon one and the same?”
“Well, the- the Keep has two responsibilities,” stuttered Jova, trying to explain herself around Janwye’s rapid questions. “One divine and one mortal. That’s what secular is. Everything to do with mortal men.”
“Ah. Like the Dream Walkers, then?”
Jova furrowed her eyebrows. “What?”
“Nothing,” said Janwye, too fast to not be a lie. “A slip of the tongue. So you think I should not mention Kago in my address at all?”
Jova shook her head. “Tlai and Hron are good, though.” She paused, and smiled. “They won, after all.”
“Thank you, child,” Janwye said, and Jova dared a wider smile. Janwye’s fieldwoman accent made Jova feel lofty and noble. “Roan versed his stable hand well. I would have thought he was training you to be one of us, but…alas. Lady Winter and Fall know what’s going on in that man’s head.”
“So I’m not the only one who can never tell what he wants, then?” asked Jova, smiling, not addressing Janwye’s one of us comment, although she kept it in the back of her head. Who exactly was “us”?
Janwye laughed, and it was light, melodic, kind. “Oh, Ladies, no. No one could crack Rho Hat Pan, not even our teacher. Tell him his spear form was superb and he’d do nothing but mope all day, but if the stew was just passable the night he cooked it he would never stop bragging about it.”
The fieldwoman’s laughter became a little rueful, a little sad. “Back when we all rode together, he’d talk from sunrise to sunset, on and on and on. He…he changed after his accident, though. Came back with Zain to this place, never left.”
Jova wanted to press Janwye to continue, but she had fallen silent and the girl did not know how to ask further.
Janwye cleared her throat. “I formally apologize, child. Earlier, I was abrasive and rude to you when you were hurt and struggling, and for that I ask your forgiveness. You…I see why Roan would care so much about you.”
“Oh—well, thank you—but there’s no need to apologize,” said Jova, quickly, but she felt a hand press against her palm and Janwye kiss her fingers lightly.
“As a lady of Alswell to a lady of Moscoleon,” said Janwye. “Things have improved. I see clearly now.” She let go of Jova’s hand and said, as she straightened, “I don’t think I ever actually introduced myself. Janwye, who speaks for Bechde, whose liege is the farmer Greeve.”
“I’m Jova. It’s nice to meet you, Janw…Janiweyay…”
“Just call me Janny,” said the fieldwoman, and she ruffled Jova’s hair.
Jova nodded. She twiddled her thumbs together, and then scratched her chest. “Er, Janny…”
“You’ll be staying in the city tonight to talk to the Keep, yes? Do you think I could…do you think I could stay with you for a bit? So I can say goodbye to my…to my friends?” At the thought of Ma and Da, Jova’s chest clenched. She hung her head, her fingers drumming against her sides. When would they come back?
“That’s not my decision to make,” said Janwye, rapidly. “Roan and Zain will have to decide whether it’s safe for you to stay the night.”
Jova must have looked very disappointed, because immediately Janwye said, “Don’t worry, Jova. It’s hard to leave your friends behind, I know, but you’ll see them again soon. This is just temporary. Zain will tell them where you’ve gone, and when you come back you’ll have all sorts of stories to tell them.”
Jova sat on the ground, nodding. It seemed Roan would not be coming back for some time yet. “You’re very nice, for a stranger, Janny.”
Janwye sat next to her, and chuckled. “I know quite a few people who’d have issue with that statement, clever little girl.” The fieldwoman groaned, suddenly, tapping her foot on the stable floor. “Where is he? I have to prepare for the address tonight…”
“I’m- I’m sorry if I interrupted you,” said Jova, quickly. “You can still-.”
The fieldwoman patted Jova’s shoulder dismissively. “I wouldn’t be able to concentrate anyways. I just wish Roan wouldn’t take so long doing everything. By the Ladies!” She began tapping her foot again, and barely three seconds had passed when she sat up straight and said, “Oh! Want to see something fun, Jova?”
“Well, I can’t actually s- I mean, I…alright.”
There was the sound of cloth shifting, Janwye rummaging, and then the fieldwoman was pressing something into Jova’s hand. “Hold it like that,” she said, wrapped Jova’s fingers around a little wooden box, made of something soft and bendy like balsa. “Not too tight, you don’t want to crush it. Feel the buzzing?”
Jova could feel more than that. There was the steady tap-tap-tap of something crawling inside, and as she turned it over in her hand she felt tiny holes in the side of the box.
“There’s a spring beetle in there,” said Janwye. “I have another one just like it. Feel the holes? Those are for breathing, and sometimes I slip seeds in for feeding. The box is very fragile, so if you hold it too tight it’ll crush the beetle inside.”
It seemed a nice pet to keep, Jova thought, if not an extraordinarily practical one. She supposed even people like Janwye needed their own hobbies.
Something else slipped in her hand, and to Jova’s immense surprise she realized it was a tiny tabula. “Is this for the beetle?” she asked, feeling the disk’s surface in-between her thumb and forefinger.
“It’s for a beetle,” said Janwye. “There are four more boxes just like this, two each for two more friends. If we ever get in trouble, we just crush the box and the tabula is going to shatter when the beetle dies. That way we can always tell whether we’re safe or not. Feel this one? It’s for my friend who rode to Mont Don. It’s whole, which means she’s fine. I have another tabula right here for my friend who’s talking in Shira Hay. So even if they’re whole continents away, I still know they’re safe.”
Jova nodded. Gently, she handed the tabula and the beetle back to Janwye. “Do you think Zain could give my friends one of those beetle boxes?”
“They’re not exactly easy to make,” said Janwye, laughing. “But who knows? Maybe the Ladies will send a ladybird to tell your friends how you’re doing instead.”
It was nice, sitting with Janwye, just talking. Jova could almost forget everything that was happening outside, all the danger that the city of Moscoleon now carried for her. Roan’s stables were nice and quiet, except for the comfortably familiar sounds of the three beasts who were, at this point, Jova’s old (and only other) friends.
Jova scraped her foot on the ground. There had, of course, been Arim, but he had left her. She had talked with Arim’s wild gang once or twice, but once she had learned that Roan’s old enemies had been part of that gang she quickly began to avoid them. She had kept a cordial distance ever since, from everyone, except the people who had already gained her trust…
“What are your friends like, Janny?” asked Jova.
Jova heard Janwye begin to talk, but she was cut off by rapid hoof beats approaching. “Here comes the cavalry,” she muttered, and she stood. Jova followed suit.
“Janwye! Jova! I have the supplies,” said Roan. “Prepare your mounts, we must be moving quickly. Zealots have already gathered around Copo’s house. They are…we must be moving quickly.” He paused. “What were you two doing on the floor?”
“Sitting, Rho Hat Pan,” said Janwye, as she walked away. “Can’t people sit in this place?”
“There are benches just a few paces away, within eyesight,” said Roan, reproachfully. “The floor is being dirty…”
“I sit where I please, tyrant!” shouted Janwye, as she left the stables to get her mount. Jova smiled. Now that her audience with the Keep had been secured, the fieldwoman seemed much more jovial.
Roan clicked his tongue as he drew near, and Jova found his hand after a moment of waving hers in the air. He pulled her up, and Jova found herself wheeling her arms, unbalanced without a walking stick to lean on.
“Are you needing help?” asked Roan, the concern evident in his voice.
“No, no, I’m fine,” said Jova, steadying herself.
“Find Uten, then. Yora has already been prepared, and Chek is carrying the supplies.” His tone was brisk and straightforward, all business again.
Jova nodded. She began to shuffle towards the stables, and then paused and bit her lip. “Is Ell back, Roan?”
“He…” Roan paused. “The truth is that he has returned, but you may not. It is too dangerous to waste time, especially around a known residence of yours. Zain would be under too much pressure. We cannot risk it.”
“Can Ell come with us, then?”
“That is up to Zain to decide,” said Roan, quietly. “Go and find Uten, Jova. We must be going soon.”
“Why are you so urgent?” asked Jova, and she stood her ground. “Roan, you can tell me. What did I do?” And she waited, trusting Roan to speak the truth.
He chose not to speak at all.
Jova drew herself up. “I’m not leaving then, Roan. I’m not going to walk away from everything I have until you tell me what’s going on!”
The autumn wind swirled around them, and Jova found herself shivering in the cold. She stood tall and straight, unmoving, nonetheless. “You have changed,” said Roan. His tone was even. Jova could not tell if he approved or disapproved. “You have grown defiant, Jova.”
“I would never have left the house of that pontiff if I hadn’t.”
Roan took a deep breath. “Jova, I formally apologize for-.”
“No! No, apologies this time, Roan!” shouted Jova, and she stamped her foot on the ground. The worry and doubt was beginning to morph into anger and frustration. “You keep apologizing and apologizing but you don’t do anything about it. You don’t let me do anything about it!”
There was no answer. Just like the Ladies, just like the whole world, Roan did not answer.
“My childhood was running,” said Jova. “Ever since I was a kid, I can’t remember anything but running. I finally made it to this city, I made a life here, I made friends, and now you’re telling me I have to leave that behind?”
Silence, nothing but silence.
Jova stumbled forward, stumbled into the dark, grasping for Roan. “I have a family here, Roan!” she screamed. “I deserve to at least say goodbye!”
“No one has a family on Albumere, Jova,” said Roan, quietly. “That is why you must run.”
The girl stopped, breathing heavily. She bit her tongue.
“It is not what you have done that is an issue, Jova,” said Roan. “It is the attention that it will bring. People will be looking much closer at you, and they will be finding many things worth questioning. Do you understand? You are unique and your loss cannot be afforded. If a second would risk you, then a second shall not be given.”
Roan put a hand on Jova’s shoulder, and steered her gently towards Uten’s stable. “What do you need me for?” asked the girl, standing firm, refusing to budge.
“Not just I. People like Zain and Janwye. People we are associated with.” Roan sighed. “This is what I wish to apologize for, Jova. For the unseen influence I have had in your life. For the pushing and pulling. For the path I set you on ever since you first came to Moscoleon. I am as culpable as you for what has happened, if not more.”
Roan clicked his tongue, and the scrape of paws on the ground indicated Uten shuffling forward. Jova put a hand on the molebison’s side, but did not mount her just yet.
“You say you want more than an apology, Jova? Then it shall be so.” Roan pressed something into Jova’s palm, a hard wooden object. Jova scraped her thumb over it; it fit between her fingers, like Janwye’s wooden box, but it was flat and circular. “An emblem of my brotherhood. It depicts a crescent moon.”
“What does it mean?” asked Jova, brow furrowed.
“We are the unseen influence. We are the push and the pull. You say you want the ability to do? To no longer run? Come with me. We will give you that power. I cannot promise you will return unchanged, but you will return.” Roan took the badge gently back from Jova’s palm. “It is time to go now, Jova. Let the dead rest.”
Jova nodded, sullenly, feeling a yawning pit opening in her chest. Despite everything Roan had said, all she heard was that she would not get to say goodbye.
“Repeat it, Jova. Say it with me. Let the dead rest.”
“Let the dead rest,” whispered Jova. She heard Roan grunt, felt his hands under her shoulders, and she was lifted bodily onto Uten’s back. She closed her eyes, and patted Uten’s back. Roan said she would return. Roan did not lie.
“Chek! Yora!” Roan snapped. “Ha a ei! Mat ye kan!” The fall mule’s snorts and the staghound’s panting were close behind them. “Janwye, the supplies are ready. We are leaving, now.”
A clip-clop of hooves accompanied them, as the procession made its way out of Roan’s stables. Jova tightened her grip on the saddle on Uten’s back, listening to the twitter of the ladybirds and the whistle of the wind fade away. It was as much of a goodbye as she had.
“We’re moving slow, Roan,” she said, quietly.
“So as not to draw attention. Once we leave the city limits, Janwye will lead the rest of the way.” Roan said nothing more after that.
Uten’s plodding lead Jova to trail behind Roan, walking through the empty streets of Moscoleon. She head the footsteps of the occasional passersby, but, imagining what they looked like, Jova realized how they could be mistaken as just traveling pilgrims, nothing more. It was so easy to uproot and move on.
Jova bit her lip, trying to keep her face still and impassive. A pilgrim would have no reason to look so sad.
She reached back and felt the braid of her hair, and a tingle rushed through her hands. She would have to ask Roan what it looked like. She had to remember how to do it again, for later.
Jova dabbed her blindfold. It had become dirty and stained in the last few days; she would need a fresh one soon. Da would not be there to get one for her. It was true that she had drifted away from her parents lately, but Jova couldn’t stop wanting to turn Uten around and go see them now, to apologize to Ma for everything, to pet Mo one more time…
It wasn’t for forever, Jova reminded herself. She would come back.
“Jova?” said a voice, and Jova jumped. It was just Janwye. “I heard you in the stables. Is it true that-?”
“Janwye,” said Roan, cutting in. “Inquire later.”
“Yes sir, great general and mighty lord, sir,” muttered Janwye, sullenly.
Jova shuddered. What had the old mantra been? Keep smiling. Pretend long enough and it might become real. She grinned as wide as she could and turned Janwye’s way. “What are you riding, Janny?” she asked, trying to change the subject.
“A summer elk,” said Janwye, and her tone had lightened. “His name is Cross. Do you want to pet him? I- oh, what now?”
Stamping feet cued Jova to action, and she stiffened. Someone was walking directly towards them, and fast.
“Roan!” screamed a voice, and it was anguished and pain-stricken. How was it familiar? Jova shook her head. The marbleman accent, the lofty tone…
Stel nickered as Roan reared the horse in. “Latius! What is the meaning of this?”
“I would ask you myself,” roared the banished prince, and he stopped somewhere in front of them. Jova held the saddle tight as Uten came to a halt. “Where are you running, Roan? Where are you taking your beasts?”
“Away,” said Roan. “For a friend. It is no concern of yours.”
“No? No?” hissed Latius. “What is my concern, then, is the filthy coonlizard creature the zealots found on Pontiff Copo’s corpse, you sandman bastard. Stripping the flesh from his face, Roan. He had no quarrel with anyone!” The prince’s voice broke.
Jova felt a cold creep over her. Copo was dead? She heard it, but did not believe it. If Copo was dead, that meant…
And suddenly, Jova felt that perhaps she had not washed all the blood off her hands.
“Put the hammer down, Latius,” said Roan. The animals were getting nervous. Jova could hear their stamping and grumbling.
“Was it the boy? The wild boy, that Copo rejected today. Where is he, Roan? Where may I find him?” Latius’s voice became guttural. “I will crush him. I will batter his skull in like he battered in Copo’s. Tell me, Roan!”
“Latius, have sense,” said Roan, although his voice too had gained a hard edge. “Be calm. The zealots will look for the killer and by the Ladies Four, if they do, their justice will be done.”
It was not a lie. Even in these circumstances, Roan would never lie. Jova looked down, hoping that Latius would not notice her.
“Why are you protecting him?” screamed Latius.
“I am not,” snarled Roan. “I did not know the boy, and neither did Copo.”
A muffled gasp came from the prince’s direction. “You lie,” he whispered. “You lie! The boy professed to being one of your clients, Roan, I heard him.”
“He looks half-crazed,” whispered Janwye. “Jova, behind me.”
“I have many clients, Latius, too many to keep track of,” snarled Roan. “The boy, whoever he may be, had nothing to do with Copo’s death. Now step aside, I have business to attend to and you are in my way.”
“How can you be so sure? Where are you in such a hurry to go? Answer me, Roan!” shouted Latius. Under Jova, Uten snorted and hissed, beginning to race forward, but she was too slow. There was a dull whoosh, a movement through the air, and then the crunch of a hammer on bone.
With a roar, Janwye and her mount charged forward. A column of flame scorched the side of Jova’s face as something ignited beside her, and she flinched back. Most people weren’t keen on summer animals at the best of times for fear of what might happen if they lost control, but Janwye was the one who was half-crazed if she chose to ride one.
Stel screamed. Jova half-expected Yora to leap into an attack frenzy, for Chek to break and run, but it was ponderous Uten who was the first to move. The molebison loped forward, and to Jova it felt like the earth was undulating underneath her.
Screaming with incoherent rage, Latius swung his hammer. Jova could feel the rush of air as it swung forward, the deep hum as it sailed through the air. Behind her, Janwye and her summer elk stopped, dancing out of range of the hammer, but to Jova’s horror Uten did not pause.
A follow-up swing hit the molebison squarely in the side. It missed Jova, but the blow was so great that the girl was nearly knocked off anyway. She clung on for dear life, her bones numb from the echoes of the impact.
Uten did not as much as flinch.
“Uten is powerful and strong, and is much sought after by the zealots who wish new ways to spread the word of the Ladies Four,” Roan had once said to her. “She is blind, but blindness is no issue with a good rider and a strong tabula, and she can endure blows that would fell lesser beasts.”
Jova tightened her grip on the molebison’s saddle. Was this the path the Ladies had always meant for her? A good rider. A strong tabula. And it wasn’t the pontiff that made the zealot. It was faith.
The girl clicked her tongue three times in rapid succession, and she made out Latius’s blurred form edging to her left. Heat billowed from her right, but Janwye did not move closer. It was good that she didn’t; on fire or no, the elk’s neck would break easily under that hammer.
With a sharp tug on Uten’s saddle, Jova pulled the molebison towards the left. Blind beast and blind rider crashed into the prince, and Jova could feel powerful muscles shift underneath her as Uten pressed Latius to the ground. Her claws clicked on the ground. Jova knew those claws from years of cleaning them: long, wide things shaped like shovels, and just as good at digging out flesh as digging out dirt.
“Hold, Uten,” said Jova, her voice low. “Janny! How’s Roan?”
The heat ceased suddenly, and Jova heard the patter of feet on the ground. “He’s out cold,” said Janwye, rapidly. “His chest is- there’s a healer back at camp, he can fix this. Stel, down! Down! Jova, Roan can’t ride and even if he could his horse is too spooked to carry anyone.”
Under Uten’s claws, Latius struggled and squirmed. Mouth dry, Jova rubbed her temples. “What do we do with him?” asked Jova, as Latius began to swear in the old marble tongue.
“Him?” There was a sound of hooves approaching, and then Jova jumped as a sharp crack rang through the air. It sounded like he had been struck. Latius fell silent.
“He’s not…you didn’t…”
“He got what he gave,” said Janwye, simply. “Come on, Jova, help me get Roan onto the staghound. We need to move fast.”
When Jova slipped off Uten, her legs buckled momentarily under her. She was breathing heavily.
She followed the sound of Roan’s shallow breathing. “Around, other side,” said Janwye, from Roan’s head. “Lift up his legs.”
Jova nodded, and measuring the distance in her head, she bent down to pick up Roan’s feet.
She found nothing.
Her hands grasped at thin air for a moment, patting the street. Jova began sweeping her hands in front of her, but still she found nothing. Had Roan fallen crooked? She edged forward, still grasping, until Janwye pulled her hands forward gently.
“Don’t worry, Jova, he won’t mind with the state he’s in,” said the fieldwoman.
Jova didn’t understand what she was holding at first. It was almost too smooth to be human, but she could feel the heat pulsing underneath, the tell-tale texture of skin. The girl felt a cold chill run down her spine.
“Janny, are these…Roan’s legs?” asked Jova.
“You didn’t know?” Janwye said, incredulously. “You didn’t…oh, Ladies, you didn’t know. He hid it from you.”
Jova let go, nostrils flaring. How long? Since the beginning? The only reason Roan had ever chosen to show her his kindness was because of her blindness. All a lie, a comfortable lie?
“Jova, I don’t know what Roan told you,” said Janwye, and her tone was low and hushed and quick. “But we can figure it out later. We have to move now. Help me put him up on Yora, and we’ll get out of here, and we’ll talk everything out once we’re safe.”
She sounded like Ma, and if Jova knew one thing it was that nowhere was ever safe. But she bent and hauled Roan’s oddly toddler-like form onto Yora’s back. They strapped him down with spare rope in one of Chek’s packs, and Janwye gently took the animals’ tabula from his limp hands.
Jova left Moscoleon with her head bowed and her lips sealed tight, wondering just how much of the city of miracles had been a lie.
Jova tapped her walking stick on the ground and walls of the stable as she made her way out. She didn’t really need the stick anymore in Roan’s stables, but it gave her sweating hands something to do.
“You see, Copo? This is no place for business. Beggars infest it like roachrats in a marshman barge.”
“How interesting…” said a familiar voice. Jova cocked her head. Could it be? “This is no beggar, Latius, or else if she is she is a very selective one.”
“Pontiff, sir,” said Jova, curtsying. She heard footsteps approaching and then felt a clammy hand stroke the top of her head. She flinched, involuntarily, although the pontiff’s voice was warm and sweet.
“This is where you attend to your work, girl?” he asked.
“They say the man who lives here was once a mighty sandman warlord, and yet he has taken you under his wing. How very interesting,” said Pontiff Copo. “I suppose, though, people like you would be attracted to each other.” There was mirth in his voice, although Jova couldn’t tell what was so funny.
“Don’t taunt her, Copo, you’re making a mockery of me. I formally apologize for my companion’s misconduct, girl.”
Despite herself, Jova was surprised. She should have known from his name that Latius was a marbleman, albeit one of the generals and not a freed slave like Da.
“Who are you, anyway? This Roan’s apprentice-daughter?”
Jova opened her mouth to speak, but before she could she heard hoofs behind her. “Just an assistant,” said Roan. “And I was under the impression that you were being men of business.”
“Meaning you would approach me before my assistants,” he said.
“Proceed, then,” said Latius, icily. “Let us conduct business.”
Jova shrunk back. Both their voices were like Irontower steel, and they clashed like swords as well. She made to excuse herself, but Pontiff Copo put a firm hand on her shoulder.
“Oh, let’s leave them to their business,” said the pontiff. “Us assistants shall have our own private meeting, won’t we?”
Jova hesitated, but Roan and Latius were already leaving. She sighed, and turned to Copo, smiling. It was always good to smile to a pontiff. Perhaps she could learn more about this odd duo, and perhaps…
Jova made the sign of fall on her forehead, tracing a circle on her temple. Perhaps this really was a sign.
“There are seats over there,” said Copo, pressing on Jova’s shoulder. “Come, I will-.”
“I know where they are,” said Jova, doing her best to worm out of the pontiff’s grip. Her smile was beginning to hurt her lips. “I can find my way on my own, thank you.”
“Oh, but I insist,” said Copo, and led her to Roan’s waiting benches anyway. “What a strong young girl you are,” he said, and he stroked the back of Jova’s head again.
Jova did her best to move her head out of the way. “Which house are you of, pontiff sir?” she asked, politely.
“The House of Spring,” Copo said, and Jova heard him thump his chest. “The tattoos are on the small of my back. We keep our chests bare, for are we not proud of that which the Ladies have given us? Would you like to feel it?”
“Erm, no, thank you…”
But Copo had already grabbed her hand, and Jova felt as gingerly as possible the sweaty skin with the tips of her fingers. She supposed the markings must have been exquisite, but even she could not tell what they looked like just from touch.
“They’re very…nice,” said Jova, falteringly.
“Aren’t they? What a sweet girl you are, dear. Remind me what your name was again?”
“Jova, pontiff sir.”
“Ah, Jova. A sweet name.”
Jova nodded thanks, unsure what to say. “You’re Copo, right?” she asked, just to make sure. It was the only thing she could think of, anyway.
“How attentive! Yes, Jova, my name is Copo.”
Jova coughed, and slipped off the bench. “It’s been very nice talking to you. If you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
Copo grabbed her hand with both his, and though he did not pull her back his grip was firm. “Do you like working here, Jova?”
“Well, yes,” she stammered. “It’s very- very rewarding. The animals have good hearts.”
“And what of the man who rides them? Does he have a good heart?”
“Roan?” Jova paused. She had to think about this, although she felt the need to say something quickly because she could feel Copo’s sweat on her hand. “Yes, yes he does. He is very forward but very honest, and has always treated me and my- my friends kindly.”
“You may speak ill against your master, if you wish. You can trust me.”
“My master? No, no,” said Jova quickly. “I am free. I work for wage.”
“You are not a slave? How…interesting.” And again, the pointed pause. “And so you truly do enjoy your work here?”
“Yes, pontiff sir. Very much so, pontiff sir.”
Copo gave a long sigh, and let go. “Ah, more’s the pity. I suppose I will just to have learn to ride then, to see more of you. Would you help me ride, sweet girl?”
“Of course. Just talk with Roan,” said Jova. “Thank you for your business. I must be going now.”
With that, Jova made a hasty retreat back inside the stables. She had never gotten around to cleaning Uten or in fact finishing her breakfast, but her food could wait. She had a feeling that Latius the prince would not be fond of riding dirty molebisons.
“Hey, girl,” she said, rubbing down Uten’s back as she began looking for the comb. Out of all the animals, she had to profess she liked Uten the most. Roan made Jova ride her the most often when they went down to visit the Teeth or else run errands through the city, and Jova couldn’t help but notice the obvious kinship between them.
Uten rubbed her nose in Jova’s side and sniffed, her voice as breathless and wheezy as always. Jova began to comb Uten’s fur with as much care as possible- Uten was the most sensitive among the animals- and the molebison exhaled long and slow, her way of saying that she was content.
Her mind wandered back to Pontiff Copo, and his strange line of inquiry. For some reason, just thinking of the man made Jova’s skin crawl. What had he really been trying to ask her?
Was he trying to somehow besmirch Roan’s name somehow? Get Jova to confess something to start something against the foreign man? But, no, Copo hadn’t even been sure if this was the right place to find him. Jova found it difficult that sweaty, sickly sweet Copo would both take such an immediate dislike to the man and come up with such a convoluted plan to discredit him.
Perhaps Copo had just wanted to know a little bit more about the man his friend was doing business with. Except, he had barely asked about Roan, now that Jova thought about it. It had all been directed at her…
Was it a job? It seemed obvious in hindsight, although Jova felt doubts the moment she thought it. What kind of job would a pontiff have for her? They certainly needed no beggars, and there were so many of the faith lined up to join their ranks they hardly had to go recruiting for them.
Jova thought of the way Copo kept stroking her hair, and shook her head, grimacing. She would need a comb-down herself, later.
She patted down Uten’s left side and squeezed her way around the molebison’s bulk to get to work on the right. No sooner had she done so did she hear a sharp hiss from her side. Her hand tightened on her walking stick.
Not Roan, not Copo, not Latius. Jova furrowed her eyebrows. “Arim?”
“Yeah, it’s me,” said Arim, in a low whisper. “Jova, come on, I need your help.”
Jova smacked a palm against her forehead. “For once, today, could I work in peace? Can’t you see I’m busy right now, Arim? Go away, before he catches you!”
“No, no, no, Jova, you don’t understand, this is important,” said Arim, and the tone of his voice made Jova pause. “Really, really important.”
“What is it, Arim? Is someone in trouble? Did somebody get hurt?” Jova’s grip tightened on her walking stick.
“No, no, nothing like that, but…” Arim lowered his voice even further, so that Jova had to bend down to hear. “You see that pontiff over there? The sort of gangly, shirt-less one?”
“Oh, right, right, sorry. Well, you talked to him, didn’t you? You know who he is?”
“His name is Copo. From the House of Spring, he’s just been tailing that man from the Seat of the King. I don’t get it, Arim, what’s he have to do with you?”
“He’s not just here for his friend,” Arim hissed. “I heard him as I was walking down the street. He’s here for a zealot test.”
Jova sucked in a sharp breath. Was that what he had meant by other business? It had seemed odd for the pontiff to have just wandered in to accompany the banished prince…
“This is it, Jova! This is my one chance! And I’m not-.” Arim paused, and Jova tensed, wondering if he had been caught. There was a pause, and Arim whispered in a lower voice, “And I’m not ready.”
“Arim, don’t say that, we’ve been practicing for months!”
“I’m serious. By all the Ladies Four, I’m serious. I can’t do it, Jova. He’s not going to take me! What do I do? I need you to help me!”
Jova bit her lip. Was this what the Lady Fall had meant, by sending the prince and the pontiff when she did? Was it Jova’s goddess-given responsibility to help Arim join the ranks of the Ladies’ soldiers?
Divine or not, it was certainly part of her responsibility as a friend.
“OK,” she said, nodding. “OK. So what do you want me to do?”
She felt Arim squeeze into the stables with her, and heard his heavy breathing. He really was panicking. “I don’t know!” he hissed. “You’re the smart one.”
“The first thing you have to do is calm down,” said Jova, evenly.
“No, I will not calm down!”
“Shh, shh,” said Jova, waving her hand in the air until she found Arim’s shoulder. She gave him a few pats. “Everything’s going to turn out alright.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I have faith,” said Jova. She smiled. “That’s something you’ll need to have too if you really want to prove yourself.”
“OK. OK, sure. I got faith. I’m all faithed up. Now what? What if he asks me to fight? Jova, I can’t even beat you. What if he asks me to fight a- a slave, or a criminal, or a demon? What do I do? What if he asks me to fight his marbleman friend? Jova, I can’t fight a marbleman.”
“This is not calming down,” hissed Jova, doing her best to keep her voice low too. Arim’s anxiety was infectious. “I’ll think of something, just give me a moment.”
Her fingers drummed on the side of the stables, and she heard Uten shift to scoot away from the bodies cramped inside the small stall. “Arim, what exactly is the procedure for the test? Does he know who you are? Your name or your face?”
“He’s gotten a tip that there’s a zealot-hopeful in his district,” said Arim, stammering. “I don’t know who from, but I can think of who else I’ve told. It must have been Bash, or Izca, or one of them…I swear, I’m going to find them and…”
Jova’s hand waved until she found Arim’s face, then she grabbed his chin and turned it. “Arim, look at me. Focus.”
“But you can’t-.”
She clicked her tongue. “Focus.”
“He- he has a tip,” said Arim, slowly, in-between breaths. “He probably has had a lot of time to prepare, but I’ve never seen him before. Nock told me that the pontiffs only get second-hand descriptions. He’s probably looking for a young wild child who hangs out a lot on this street, but that’s it.”
“And the test? How is he going to test you?”
“It’s different for all of them. I’ve never seen this one before, I didn’t even know he lived in this district!”
“And you’re sure he’s going after you?”
“Positive,” said Arim, and Jova felt his chin shake as he nodded. “I heard him!”
Jova’s lips were dry. It certainly wasn’t a lot to go off of. “But the tests for zealotry, it’s always about fighting, right? You’ve got to prove you’re strong enough.”
“Summer and Spring, yes. And I’m not-!”
“Shh,” said Jova, and she twisted her hand to put a finger on Arim’s lips. She felt a sharp intake of breath from the boy, and he became almost eerily silent very quickly. “And he just needs to see that you’re a good fighter?”
A single nod from Arim.
Jova sighed. She didn’t know if the plan was going to work, but either way Roan would be furious by the time it was done. All the same…
Jova traced a circle on her forehead and thanked the Lady Fall. She would not be on the receiving end of help this time. “You got your spear, Arim?”
“Yes,” said Arim, taken aback. He paused. “Jova? What’s the plan?”
“He wants to see you get into a fight? We’re going to get into a fight.”
Walking stick in hand, Jova strode out of the stables, tugging Arim behind her. “But Jova,” the boy protested, trying to tug back. “I haven’t beaten you for months! You’ll completely ruin me!”
“Not today,” said Jova, firmly, and she threw Arim out into the open. She heard him scramble to his feet, heard the low scrape of the spear as he dragged it up, heard the pontiff sit up and gasp at the sight.
“You attack first,” said Jova, in as low of a whisper as possible. “Go on, Arim, it’ll be OK.”
She couldn’t hear Arim’s response, but moments later she heard quick footsteps approaching and she spun her walking stick to parry the straightforward lunge.
“I thought you said I would win this time?” hissed Arim, in passing as they spun around each other.
“You will,” Jova grunted, through gritted teeth. “Just do your best and I’ll take care of it. No more talking now, not while he’s watching.”
Jova circled Arim slowly, getting ready to go on a counteroffensive should Arim take too long. They had to move quickly, before anyone tried to break up the fight. The key was to make Arim appear impressive, and that meant the fight couldn’t be too one-sided. Jova could only hope that they looked like two experienced fighters sparring more than two children squabbling in the dirt.
Arim did not make a move. Jova braced herself and made the move herself, swinging her walking stick wide. Arim blocked it just in time, and Jova grunted her approval. She spun, aiming lower at Arim’s body, and the parry came quicker. Faster, faster, it had to be faster to make the fight look real.
A flurry of blows followed from Jova until she sensed Arim buckle under the assault. She paused, holding her arms wide to give Arim an opening to counter.
He did so, with gusto. Jova smiled. Arim had the passion of a zealot in battle; it was with training that he would gain the necessary skills. He would be fine.
“Jova! You will be stopping, now!”
Or perhaps they wouldn’t be fine. Jova’s heartbeat matched the rhythm of hoof beats, and she tensed, forcing the fight to move faster. “Come on, Arim, come on,” she muttered, as she swept her walking stick at his legs.
With a roar, Arim jumped and slammed downward, cracking his stick on Jova’s shoulder. He seemed to be taking her “no more talking” rule rather seriously.
“Jova, I command you stop now!” Roan shouted. “Leave the urchin boy alone, you can still walk away! If you do not, I will be-.”
“No,” said Copo, and his voice was suddenly serious. “No, let it finish.”
Jova’s heart leaped. They had done it. She whipped her walking stick around, exchanging another series of showy but slow blows with Arim, before she sensed a particularly well-placed swing coming from him and let it hit. She crumpled to the ground, head ringing but satisfied.
“Jova!” Stel cantered around her in agitation, although Roan made no move to help her up. “You, boy! Leave now, or I will run you down!”
Jova sensed Arim edge up against her, frightened, and she rose quickly. “I’m fine, Roan! Fine!”
“You pick these fights you are not ready for,” hissed Roan. “You push yourself too far! When will you learn that you as you are will never be able to hold your own when fighting the likes of others? And, you boy, step aside! I am telling you to leave, now!”
Jova opened her mouth, but she wasn’t sure what to say. Would saying Arim was a friend make their deception more obvious?
“Master Roan, I apologize! I got a little heated, was all!” said Arim. “You remember me? I rode your staghound a few months back.”
From Roan’s side came the harsh laugh of the marble prince. “Threatening your own clients? Is this how you do business, sandman?”
Roan snorted, but said nothing more. Instead, he rode quickly to Jova’s side and pulled her away. “If our affairs are being concluded,” he said, and his voice was ice, “Then I would like to be resolving my private matters in private.”
“No,” said Copo, speaking up. Jova’s head spun from the number of voices coming from all directions, although thankfully she had been holding back in her fight against Arim. She still had the energy to pull away from Roan and listen. “Of course, why did I not see it before? A blind girl with such a gift must have been chosen by the goddesses themselves. Free and yet so humble and mannered, it cannot have been a coincidence.”
Jova’s racing heart almost stopped. She tried to find Arim, tried to point him out, but she could already feel Copo’s shadow over her.
“I’m not- I haven’t-.” she stuttered.
And then she felt a clammy hand pull away her blindfold, and shrank. The flesh around her eyes still throbbed when touched, and the unusually cold air around eye sockets made her gasp involuntarily. She pulled the blindfold back down immediately, and felt Copo’s hand shaking as she gently pushed it away.
“And so you truly are blind,” said the pontiff. “Yet you fight as one who may see. How interesting.” There was a scrape of gravel, and Copo’s voice was suddenly much closer to Jova’s head. Jova felt a hand on her forehead, and shuddered. “Zealot of the Temple,” said Copo, formally. “I have found you.”
Jova couldn’t say anything. And though she couldn’t see anything, either, she could still feel Arim, hating her.
“Dull rocks,” said Jova. She cocked her head, listening to the clack of pebbles on pebbles. “Shiny rocks. Shiny rocks again. Oh, now you’re just cheating, that was a dull rock and a shiny rock. Dull one’s in your left hand.”
“By the Lady Fall, that’s creepy,” said Arim, although he sounded more amazed than scared. “How the hell do you do it?”
Jova shrugged, trying to hide her embarrassed smile. “They’re very distinctive sounds.”
Arim yawned. “OK, enough fucking around, let’s get this done before you have to go work for the horse freak again.”
Jova bristled. “Don’t call him that.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s just that he-.” There was a distinctive pause. “Forget about it, OK?”
“Forget about what?” asked Jova, standing up. She used her walking stick to steady herself as she found her feet. “You always say that.”
“You can’t make me talk about it,” said Arim, sounding exasperated. “I made a promise to the horse fr- to Roan. You pay attention when you make a promise to a guy like that.” He paused. “How long you known him?”
Jova sniffed. “Three years, about.”
“Three fucking years,” said Arim, under his breath. “And it’s worked? I can’t believe it. By the Lady Fall, he’s lucky.”
“What’s worked? Why’s he lucky?”
“Nothing! Roan’s a scary guy, is all I’m saying.” Jova heard the wooden clunk as Arim picked up his spear. “Scarier than you, even.”
“Is that true?” asked Jova, bemused, twirling her walking stick as she shifted her stance.
“Sure,” said Arim. “Except when you start doing that thing with your tongue. Gives me the shivers, every time.”
Jova smirked and clicked. From what she could hear, Arim was standing to her left, his stance casual, although he tensed the moment he heard her.
“Every time, Jova!”
She hit him on the shoulder with her walking stick. “Are we doing this? Or did you make me wake up early and sneak out of the house just to chat me like a toucanrat?”
“You’re like a slave girl.” Pebbles shifted as Arim stood. “Leave the grown olds, stay with us! No one telling you what to do or when to do it. You don’t know freedom until you’ve got a gang behind your back, Jova.”
“Tell you what,” said Jova. “You beat me and I consider it.”
At the whoosh of air beside her head, Jova raised her walking stick to block. She parried Arim’s swing and shifted to hit back, focusing on the sound of his heavy breathing. The wooden stick connected with his jaw with a loud crack.
Arim lunged, and Jova twirled her stick to bat it aside. She couldn’t tell where Arim was targeting or where the lunge came from, but her spinning stick had a radius wide enough to catch the edge of the spear and force it aside. With a grunt, Jova pushed Arim’s spear down and kicked out where his hand should be.
She missed, her foot instead planting on the wood of the spear. She pushed, using her own walking stick as leverage, and the spear clattered to the ground as it was forced from Arim’s hand.
Immediately, Jova swept her stick low, hoping to catch Arim as he bent to get his weapon back, but no such luck. She waved her walking stick, but it found only empty air.
Three sharp clicks to her left, right, and center found Arim backing away, edging around Jova’s right. She shifted her stance, turning her head to face away from Arim. It let her hear him better with her right ear, and more than that it always threw him off when she hit him without facing him.
She rolled the spear under her foot, moving it just a little closer to her. She waited…
And the moment she felt Arim tug to get his weapon back, she stepped down, hard, using her momentum to throw herself forward. A crunch as something hit the gravel indicated Arim had fallen. She gave him a few thwacks on the side just to drive the point home.
“Ow, I yield, I yield!”
Jova smiled and held out her stick. She felt the force on the other end, and pulled Arim up. The boy’s hands made patting sounds on his clothes as he brushed himself off.
“I hate how you can tell I’m there without even looking at me,” complained Arim. “It’s unfair.”
Jova crossed her arms. “Say that again, to my blindfolded face.”
Arim just laughed. “You don’t get that excuse anymore, Jova. Maybe in the beginning, but by now I’m convinced you’re not actually human.”
“Then what am I?”
“Oh, something mysterious,” said Arim, and the direction of his voice shifted as he circled Jova. “A dark demon from the Teeth, maybe, with unholy powers taken from the depths of the earth and a tabula made of pitch.”
Jova clicked twice, and grinned. She hoped Arim flinched.
She raised her head. The air was getting hot. “Is it sun-up yet?”
“Might be,” said Arim, noncommittally. “Come on, let’s go again.”
“Arim, I don’t want to be late. Roan likes me to be punctual.”
“Oh, come on, you’ve got time. The last fight didn’t count, it went too quick!” Arim put a hand on Jova’s shoulder as she walked away. “How am I supposed to become a zealot if I can’t even beat a girl like you?”
“I’m not sure if I should be offended by ‘girl’ or ‘like you.’ I think I’ll go with both,” said Jova.
“Yeah, so fight me!”
“No, Arim. Go grapple with your boy gang,” said Jova, pushing him off.
She heard him sigh. “At least let me walk you there?”
Jova flung out her walking stick, and it prodded Arim right in the chest. “I can get there on my own, thank you.”
“Not for you, for me,” said Arim, and Jova felt a gentle hand push her walking stick down. “I want to learn all your little tricks. The test can happen any day now! I have to be ready!”
Jova shook her head. “A toucanrat, I swear. Well, come on then, don’t slow me down.”
She heard the patter of Arim’s eager feet as he raced up to walk beside her. “Maybe the pontiffs will be doubly impressed if I make my way through the entrance exams blind-folded.”
“It’s supposed to be a test of faith, not talent,” said Jova, exasperatedly. “Arim, you’ll never make it if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.”
Arim scoffed. “I know fours on four people who got their feathers for the wrong reasons. Bash, Izca, Nock…the way I see it, I’m rounding it out so it’s nice and holy.”
Sometimes, Jova couldn’t believe the wild child’s gall. It was good that it was so early in the morning, or else a pontiff might have been about and overheard. Jova clicked and listened, just in case, but there was no one else on the street.
It was an odd combination of coincidences that had led Jova to these daily sparring practices with Arim. First, Roan had given her the hardened walking stick; then, he had assigned her to groom one of his client’s steeds. It was just Jova’s luck, she supposed, that said client’s assistant aspired to be a zealot and needed someone to practice against.
“I thought you said you didn’t want me slowing you down,” said Arim, smugly.
Jova concentrated on the present. “Shush, you,” she said, striding forward. “I was thinking. You should try it sometime, it’s useful.”
“I’ll think about it,” said Arim. “Wait…no, I won’t.”
“Oh, haha,” said Jova, dryly, knocking Arim out of the way with her walking stick. “You’re very funny. Now, scoot, you really are slowing me down.”
“I’m going, I’m going!” Arim clapped Jova on the shoulder. “It’s right up ahead, so if you just keep walking-.”
“I got this, Arim,” said Jova, shoving her stick into his gut. “Go away. Shoo.”
“Alright, well, I’ll see you around, right?”
It wasn’t until she heard footsteps crunching away that Jova was sure Arim had gone. She sighed, and smiled. She appreciated all that the boy had done for her, but sometimes talking with him was exhausting.
Jova’s walking stick tapped on the ground. Ma had appreciated him, she mused. She had been wary at first, of course, and had no idea what Jova was up to in the mornings, but she seemed to like Arim. Da had taken a more resolute stance, although Jova had no idea why.
She had hardly walked ten paces when someone tapped her on the shoulder. She felt cool shells pressed into her palm, and heard a soft, male voice whisper, “A gift, child.”
Jova rolled the shells in her hand even as she traced the man’s palm. Soft and supple, a palm used to long days indoors and hot baths, no doubt. The sensible thing to do would have been to take the man’s money and leave.
She pushed the man’s hand back, shaking her head. “Thank you, sir, but save your charity for someone who needs it.”
The hand of shells withdrew, although the hand on her shoulder did not. “How…interesting. There is no shame in accepting assistance, child.”
Only a pontiff would preach like that. “I need no assistance, thank you,” said Jova, firmly. “I have my work to attend to.”
“As do I,” said the pontiff. His hand left her shoulder. “Fortune be with you, child.”
“Be it with you too,” said Jova, nodding her hand, waiting until she heard the pontiff’s footsteps walk off behind her, in the same direction Arim had gone, before moving onwards.
Jova was used to being treated like a cripple beggar by now; with her blindfold and her clothes smelling of manure, she could hardly blame them. They were pontiffs of the House of Winter, usually, but sometimes laymen who were feeling holy.
It was odd that men so willing to give their own away were so taken aback when told they could keep it.
She heard the clop of hooves and stopped respectfully, waiting for Roan to speak. After quite some time, he said, “You have been awake for some time.”
How could he tell? Jova brushed down hair, straightening herself. “Morning errands, that’s all.”
A long pause, and then, “The merchant-prince will be here sometime this afternoon. Prepare Yora, then Uten. I am feeling he shall be wanting to try both.”
Jova nodded, and started to walk towards stables. Roan rode at a steady pace beside her.
“Is he the one from the Seat?” asked Jova.
“Of the King, yes,” said Roan. “After all these years, I think he still entertains ideas of riding in and taking back Ironhide’s crown. The revolution had not been kind on him.”
It had not been kind to anyone, Jova noted. The Holy Keep had chosen to seal the Temple from the war, and rumor had it she had burned all the letters from both the old and new king’s envoys. No matter how much Keep Tlai hid, though, Banden Ironhide’s armies needed to get their food from somewhere, and the treacherous roads had made food scarce.
Roan coughed. “Your breakfast is as it is, on the bench. You may eat when you are finished.” And he rode away, without another word.
Jova could smell it as she approached, although only under the various earthy smells of the rest of the stables. For such a graceful creature, Yora sure did poop a lot.
She made soft, reassuring noises as she entered, clicking with her tongue and whispering nonsense under her breath. The staghound was prone to skittishness in the mornings, and Jova did not want to startle him.
She started with the hooves first, brushing her hand gently over them to pick out rocks and wipe away dirt, carefully avoiding the sensitive part of the heel. Roan had once had a hoof pick, but that had been traded away for food nearly a year ago, and Jova supposed Roan had never found the time to replace it. It was valuable, too, forged in the Irontower with their steel magic.
Yora tossed his head, and Jova clicked her tongue for him to hold still. She was determined to do a good job. In these troubled times, Roan had still provided for her, and her family, and if she would not accept the charity of strangers then Jova certainly wouldn’t accept the charity of a friend. These merchant-princes and arena champions, displaced by the revolution, paid generously as well. If Jova did well, they might come back as repeat customers.
Jova’s hand drifted until she found the bristled comb, and with it scraped mud and dirt out of Yora’s long fur.
It took nearly half an hour for Jova to finish, as she had to use her hands and not her eyes to make sure Yora looked presentable. He didn’t seem to mind; the staghound’s tail thumped on the ground happily as Jova rubbed his underbelly and behind his ears. He was like Mo, in that regard.
“Alright, you’re clean,” said Jova. “Don’t go rolling around in the dirt until after the prince is done, got it?” She patted Yora on the back and walked out of her stall.
Uten was next, but as Jova picked up her walking stick and found her way out she smelled the food and her belly rumbled. Roan had said to wait until after she was done, but the food was probably getting cold and the merchant-prince would likely not arrive until late in the afternoon.
Jova bit her lip, and knocked her stick on the door of Uten’s stable, listening. There was no sound in reply.
Well, Jova reasoned, she could let Uten sleep while she had breakfast. It wouldn’t hurt.
She smelled bean stew as she approached. Smoothing out her coza, she sat on the bench and cupped the bowl in her hands, taking a moment to enjoy the warmth on the chill autumn morning. It smelled more robust than usual, although it had gotten a bit cold.
Jova cleared her throat and said, softly, “The Lady Fall bless me, I give you thanks. May I be wise, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
She picked up her spoon, but for some reason her stomach had clenched. She sat, letting her head hang.
“It’s, uh…it’s been a while,” Jova continued. “In case you’re listening, I just wanted to say I’m grateful for what I have. Truly, I am.”
Jova scratched her chest.
“I just…I wanted to ask…” Jova tapped her thumbs on the side of the bowl. “I’ve worked hard. Ma and Da have worked hard, harder than anyone. And people here are always talking about miracles and your presence and I know I don’t always say my prayers or respect the holy days but if there’s anything you want me to do I’ll do it.”
In the stables, Chek snorted. A flygnat buzzed past Jova’s ear.
“I want answers,” said Jova. “That’s what you do, right? Lady Fall? You give answers? Ma and Da have spent the last three years looking, looking for someone like me. You’d approve. They were subtle about it, quiet. But they haven’t found anyone, anyone at all. I don’t have a tabula and I’m starting to get worried because I still don’t know why.”
Jova waited, hoping, listening. Was that the crack of dry leaves? Was the Lady Fall answering?
“I don’t know if you’re punishing me or guiding me or what,” said Jova. “But I want to know why. Please. I promise, I can be worthy. Just- just point me in the right direction.”
Like every other morning prayer before it, there was no answer. Jova slumped, and ate quietly, listening in vain for the answer of the silent goddess. Who else was there to ask besides the Ladies Four?
And then, at that moment, the banished lord arrived.