No one minded her as she walked through the camp. Jova could even hear quick steps moving away from her as she led Dep Sag Ko’s eelhound along the banks of the river. It made Jova think they knew what she had done, but of course that was ridiculous. It was just her appearance: the devil girl with no eyes scared even the most rational of the Hag Gar Gan.
The eelhound thrashed its head and pulled back as Jova walked it along. She struggled to hold it down, but it refused, snapping its teeth and growling in a low, vicious rumble. “Lo Pak, down! Down!” hissed Jova, digging her feet into the sand, struggling to control the animal. Even it did not seem to want anything to do with her.
Finally, grudgingly, the eelhound began to follow her again. Jova kept her distance from the animal’s head, walking by its side instead. It was beginning to dawn on her that Lo Pak was perhaps the only witness to her crime; of all the people who were scared of her, only its fears were justified. “Good thing you can’t talk, then,” muttered Jova, as she guided it further down the river.
She could hear the waves lapping against the hull of Kharr Ta’s barge, hear the rhythmic wooden thunk of the boat on the shore. Jova cocked her head, but no one appeared to be nearby.
“Stay, Lo Pak,” she said, clicking her tongue. The eelhound seemed to understand the command well enough, although it was in the king’s tongue, and sat on its hind legs with a crunch of sand and gravel.
Jova dipped her bare foot into the water. “All rivers flow to the sea,” she muttered. She felt like she had heard it before, although she could not remember where. “All rivers flow…free.” Jova turned her face to the sky. What would she give to just disappear now, to just dive into the water without fear of the consequences?
But she needed a plan. It would be a folly for a girl who could barely swim to escape into the river without solid contingencies for everything that could go wrong. Jova had been thinking, though. She had a plan.
It was doing it that would be the hard part.
“I will be free,” said Jova, feeling the fading light of the sun on her face. “I have always been free.”
She turned back to the shore before anyone could see her, keeping her head low, leading Lo Pak down to where the animals drank. The sandmen put high priority on their mounts, and Jova had to hold her breath as a whole host of eclectic smells assaulted her. There were crickets for Uten, oh, yes—and a bucket of dead rodents for Yora, and a bale of hay for Stel (although the horse was not there) and half-rotten fruits and roasted birds and even a pail of nothing but pebbles. Lo Pak dug its snout into a trough of slimy fish with a happy snort, and Jova let the beast be.
Jova clicked her tongue as she moved through the throng. It was lucky for her that the animals all had such distinctive shapes and sounds, or else she never would have found who she was looking for.
“Budge up, Uten,” Jova said, patting the molebison on the side. “I miss you too. I’ll come for you later, OK? Right now, I need…”
She clicked her tongue, and a complex jumble of echoes bounced back. The summer elk’s antlers were bowed before her, and the animal was breathing heavily as she approached.
“Hey, Cross,” said Jova, reaching a hand out gingerly. Cross’s fur was unnaturally hot; Jova did not know how Janwye had managed to ride him all that time. “I’m a friend, OK? I’m friendly.”
Janwye’s old animal snorted and stamped its hoof. It was jittery, and with good reason. Jova could hear the limp in its step as Jova pulled it away from the rest of the group. She wished she had something to pacify him with—lumps of brown sugar or a slice of fresh fruit—but those were luxuries a slave would never have. Her own voice would have to do for now.
Again, the desire struck Jova to simply run away. It would have been easy to ride Cross off into the wilds, safety be damned.
Except it wouldn’t. Dep Sag Ko still held the summer elk’s tabula, so she could lose the animal at any moment. Cross would leave tracks that could easily be followed, and Jova could not risk the chance of getting lost without the guiding presence of the river. She did not have the skills or the ability to survive in the wilderness on her own. No, it was better for Jova to escape to the trappings of civilization. Better for her to be among people, and be unafraid.
“This way, Cross,” she said, leading him along. She had no reins or tabula to command him, so she had to place a guiding hand on his muzzle instead. “Let’s go this way, come on.”
Her heart beat very fast as she began to walk back into camp with the elk in tow. This wasn’t what Dep Sag Ko had sent her to do. If anyone stopped her, or asked her why, her justification was flimsy. It was dangerous, this way.
Still less dangerous than escaping without a plan.
Cross fought harder than Lo Pak, dancing away from Jova at every turn. Jova had only ever felt that level of resistance from unfamiliar steeds she had worked with, in Rho Hat Pan’s stables, which the clients had brought in themselves. Those steeds had been scared,
What was Cross scared of?
“I miss Janny, too,” said Jova, as they walked. “But we’re going to be OK. We’re going to keep living anyway.”
The summer elk didn’t respond, but he wasn’t fighting back anymore either. That was victory enough for Jova.
The u-ha had a private tent. Jova stopped Cross before it, putting a firm hand against the elk’s snout. Jova swept her feet around and reached blindly to find some post that she could tie him to, but she could not find anything. “Stay. Here,” she said, finally, holding her hands in front of Cross. “If anyone asks, Dep Sag Ko sent me.”
Cross just tossed his head, and Jova decided to get the job done before the elk got too restless. She slipped in u-ha’s tent, doing her best not to look nervous.
The tent smelled of wood smoke and old spices and faintly of manure. It was hot and oddly muggy inside, and Jova could not help but feel light-headed. It reminded her of the pontiff’s chambers in a way, but more primal, closer to the earth. If this was what spiritual enlightenment smelled like, then Jova was content to live a secular life.
“Ya tei, u-ha,” she said, respectfully. Good fortune, shaman.
There was a clattering as the old man rose. Dep Sag Ko did not appear to be with him; for once, he was alone. Except…
“Kha gar pu a devil,” said a familiar voice. Rho Hat Pan shifted, and there was a rustle of cloth. “Excuse me, u-ha. Your medicines have been most helpful.”
Jova’s fists tightened.
The u-ha breathed very heavily as he hobbled forward. He mumbled something under his breath as he approached, but although Jova’s hearing was keen enough to catch the words, she could not decipher the slurred imperial tongue the u-ha spoke.
Rho Hat Pan began to talk in a very low, quick whisper to the u-ha; Jova could catch only snippets of their conversation. “…waste of time…” Rho Hat Pan said. “Intrusive…presumptuous, I shall lead her…not bother you…”
Jova only knew this words because Dep Sag Ko had said the same thing about Ya Gol Gi, loudly and often. Jova turned her head, and tried not to listen. It was not a good sign, comparing herself to the man she had killed.
When the old man spoke, it was as unintelligible as ever. A breathless rasp came from his lips and through toothless gums.
Drumming her fingers on her hip, Jova waited. This was the part of her plan that she knew was extraneous, the part that she knew would be the most dangerous, the part that she knew she didn’t need to do. It was also the part that she was going to do, no matter what.
“…and, u-ha…my tabula?” said Rho Hat Pan. There was a pause. “I understand…medicines use it, of course…I am free…hold the tabula of the crippled.”
And that was it. The crux of the matter. The u-ha held the tabula of the crippled and the dead. Ya Gol Gi’s slaves belonged to this old man now, and so it was this old man that Jova would have to confront.
She heard Stel move suddenly, heard her toss her head and stamp her hooves. It was restless behavior, the kind that meant she had been held very still for a very long time. Jova waited patiently as Rho Hat Pan hauled himself onto the back of his mount, keeping her expression neutral, disinterested, almost bored, even as her insides churned.
Stel brought her head close to Jova as the horse passed, her mane brushing against the girl’s cheek, but the horse jerked away suddenly and Jova was left standing alone, her face cold and the warmth leaving her.
Rho Hat Pan did not say a word to her as he passed. He did not so much as acknowledge her.
Jova didn’t acknowledge him, either. It was not Rho Hat Pan she needed.
“U-ha,” she said, trying not let her voice falter. “Dep Sag Ko ak eri al iro.” Dep Sag Ko sent me to you.
In the back of her head, a little voice whispered, “Lie.” She could only hope the u-ha was not thinking the same.
The u-ha mumbled something under his breath, and Jova took a step forward. She had to know what the old man was saying: not so that she could answer him, but so she could know the right way to respond.
“Iro ta su har,” said Jova. I apologize. “Eri ba va gat ha gha?” Can you say again what you have said?
Jova could only catch some words: why was among them, as was listen. Frustrated by the blind girl who seemed to be deaf now, too? Jova could only hope so.
He was just an old, senile man, Jova reminded herself. He was just an old, senile man who wanted Jova out of his hair as quickly as possible so he could return to his old, senile life. “Dep Sag Ko ak eri al iro,” she repeated.
The u-ha stamped something that sounded like a cane on the ground, and Jova flinched. She couldn’t push him too far. What if he grabbed “her” tabula and commanded Jova to get out? That would not end well for either of them.
“Kokro fi al gana Kharr Ta.” Kharr Ta wants to see the adults.
The old man made a disgusted sound. Jova heard has them already and belong to me.
Jova licked dry lips. “Dep Sag Ko ba va kokro mun fi al gana Kharr Ta.” He says Kharr Ta wants to see all of them. She coughed, clearing her throat. “Al ahab mun.” All of them.
A wooden cane tapped on her cheek, and the u-ha made an angry, low mumble. Those tabula did belong to him, after all. The thought of even offering to trade what belonged to their venerated u-ha must have been antithetical to the whole philosophy of the Hag Gar Gan.
“Dep Sag Ko su ghal,” said Jova. “Pu zota iro Dock ji yesh.” He can’t come. He needed me to get past Dock.
And the old man fell silent.
The enemy is in your camp, Jova thought. The enemy sits and eats with you. You’re going to have to swallow your pride, old man. You’re going to have to give up your prize, because unless you get what you came here for you’re going to have a big problem indeed.
She could feel his breath on his face. It felt oddly cold, like wind whistling through a hollow shell. When he spoke, every word was so simple and so close that Jova could understand him perfectly.
“Is that what he said?”
Jova didn’t nod, or say yes, or respond. She stood, there, terrified, a slave girl who had been sent to do an errand and whose only priority was getting the job done right.
The old man walked away, grumbling to himself.
Jova did not let herself relax yet. She would not relax until Bechde’s tabula was in her hand.
Jova knew how much risk this move was taking on. Bechde would sell for infinitely more than her, if Kharr Ta was willing to take her. The Hag Gar Gan would be that much more incensed to find them, rather than if it had just been one crippled girl disappearing down the river.
There were justifications as well, to be sure. Bechde had connections, a home to go back to, people that cared for her. She could see when Jova couldn’t, and she could navigate the city much more easily.
But if Jova was being honest with herself, that wasn’t it.
Albumere could take away her eyes, her innocence, and her clean conscience—but it could never take away who she was. Her hands might have shed blood, but her heart was in the right place. It had to be.
More mumbled words. Jova stood, dumbly, as if she didn’t understand, and the u-ha pressed three cold amber disks into her hand. Three would have to be enough. She was about to take them, but the old man did not let go.
He mumbled in Jova’s ear, an almost painful tension in his fragile body. “You are going,” he said, in his thick accent. “Straight to Dep Sag Ko?”
“Yes,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Yes, u-ha.”
“Zat,” he said. Go. And Jova went.
“Cross!” she shouted, the moment she got out of the tent. The sun had fully set now, and Jova could hear the crackle of fires as the Hag Gar Gan settled down for supper, then sleep. “Cross, where are you?”
She heard the heavy breathing of the summer elk behind her, to the side, and she edged forward to find the elk on the ground, sweating profusely. “I know it’s hot,” Jova said, putting her hands under the elk’s belly and trying to prompt him to rise. “I know this isn’t where you’re supposed to be. It’s not where I’m supposed to be, either.”
Cross planted his hooves laboriously onto the dirt and stood. Jova took him by the antlers and tugged. She didn’t have time for gentleness or subtlety.
As she heard the river get closer, Jova pulled out the first of the tabula. She cocked her head. Was anyone looking? Listening? Not that she could hear. She hid behind Cross’s girth and concentrated. It wouldn’t matter in a few minutes, anyway.
The tabula began to hum. Jova held her breath. She had never done a summoning before.
No, that wasn’t true. She had done one other summoning. Just one, a long time ago.
Jova thought of the river lapping at her feet, thought of the shifting sand between her toes and the night wind on her face, and as she thought all of it seemed to shrink down into one single point, surrounded by darkness. Fear was in the dark. Uncertainty. Not knowing whether things were going to go according to plan.
She heard a crunch on the sand in front of her.
Before the person had a chance to say a word, Jova thrust the tabula in front of him or her. “Do you want to be free?” she asked, quickly. “If you do, take this and run.”
“How did you…” said the voice, in the fieldman’s drawl, but Jova cut him off.
“Go, now!” she said, pressing the tabula into the man’s chest. He took it.
“They’ll kill me,” he hissed.
“Not if everything goes according to plan,” Jova said, and she began to concentrate on the second tabula. There was no time for this.
As she heard the man run quickly away along the shore, a treacherous thought floated across her mind that broke her concentration.
That was a lie.
The humming built in intensity as Jova poured all of her focus into the second tabula, and the blackness was now colored with frustration, guilt, and anger. She had given him a chance for freedom. It wasn’t a certainty that he would be caught. And his chance for freedom bought a guarantee for Jova’s.
The second person was summoned, and Jova said the same thing. “Take this and go,” she said, thrusting the tabula out.
“Jova?” said a stunned, female voice. Not Bechde’s. One of her alsknights.
“Please just take it and go, you won’t get another chance.”
The alsknight took the tabula briskly without further question. She ran, in the opposite direction of the first man, her feet padding heavily on the shore.
Two baits. Two distractions. Jova had hoped for more.
The girl walked very quickly towards the boat, the rhythmic knocking of the boat calling to her, the point fixed in her mind so that her feet walked toward it like a Jhidnu sailor’s compass pointed to the center of Albumere.
She stood just before the gangplank, her heart pounding. She hoped no one could see her.
“Cross, I need you to do something for me. I know you can do it. I know you can,” said Jova. She put a hand on Cross’s flank, and took a deep breath. He was the last reminder of Janwye the girl had left, and Jova wasn’t sure if she was ready to part with him. Jova’s grip on the elk’s fur tightened.
“Ignite, Cross,” she whispered. “Now is the time for summer. Now is the time for light. Now is the time for fire.”
The summer elk tossed his head, but did not respond.
“Fire,” Jova whispered, and though the night was cold, she was sweating. “Fire will free us, Cross.”
It was no use. Cross would not do it, and Jova did not remember Janwye’s command word. She would have to spook him.
With a rough shove, Jova pushed the elk onto the gangplank, and the elk moved more out of confusion than submission. She could hear voices now, confused and quizzical tones. They didn’t matter.
Jova reached for her blindfold and tore it off. Pits where her eyes should have been gazed upon the animal, and she shouted, in her deepest voice, “Cross! Fire.”
The elk reared and screamed, and Jova heard the whoosh of his antlers igniting. Jova took a step forward, and the terrified animal had nowhere to run. Either side would mean jumping into the river, where his flames would be extinguished. Forward would be towards the terrifying creature of the deep that now stood before him. That only left…
Backwards. Onto the ship.
“Fire!” screamed voices, as Cross galloped forward. Jova could already hear the flames crackling at the edges of the gangplank from the summer elk’s hooves, and she stumbled forward quickly before the whole thing collapsed.
Heavy footfalls rang on the planks as Kharr Ta’s crew ran after the summer elk. Jova stood in their way.
It’s all an act, Jova reminded herself. It’s all a game.
“Help!” she screamed, her voice high-pitched and desperate. She hugged her sides, fake sobs shaking her whole body. “Help, please, somebody help!”
“Out of the way, girl,” said a disgruntled voice. A calloused hand shoved her aside. “I said out of the way!”
They ran past her, and the moment Jova was sure they were gone she stood straight again. The crackle of flames and the dense smoke stung her face, and she walked forward slowly, calmly, tying the blindfold back on with deliberate care.
The shore was right next to them. No one was in a hurry to get off the ship. All of them were in a hurry to save it.
The raft was just where it had been. With a grunt, she hauled the raft over the side, and it landed with a splash in the water. She tossed the oar over next, and then Jova grunted and hauled herself over, landing in the water. It was shallow here, only waist height, and Jova clambered atop the raft that was now floating downriver, oar in hand. It rocked in the waters, but the slow Kaza stabilized it quickly.
Jova held the last tabula in her hands as she sat on that cramped little raft. There was only room enough for one.
Who said she had to summon Bechde now, though? That could wait until Jova was in the city.
The raft floated out past the prow of the ship, and Jova kept her head low. She doubted anyone would notice her—not with two runaway slaves sprinting down opposite ends of the camp and a slaver’s boat on fire. She was safe. The plan would work.
“Ma, Da,” she whispered, more to herself than to them. “I’m coming back.”
She moved at a glacial pace. Jova was beginning to understand now what Dal Ak Gan had meant when he said a child could navigate the Kaza with his eyes closed. It was slow and languid, and despite the chaos Jova left behind her she felt almost calm.
And then Jova heard a high-pitched scream.
At first, Jova would have just ignored it and moved on. She knew this was going to happen. But she recognized that voice. She was good with voices.
“I can’t move!” screamed Alis, among the pleading voices of all the other children on that ship that were about to be sold to Kharr Ta. “Please! Please!”
Jova tensed. Someone would help her, right?
Except that sailor had shoved Jova aside so callously that Jova had no doubt in her mind that if they wouldn’t help a little girl with no eyes, then they wouldn’t help anyone at all.
Alis was going to die on that ship, and no one was going to do anything about it.
Jova gripped Bechde’s tabula in her hands. She didn’t give herself time to regret her decision.
The girl summoned her. It made her spin and her hands weak, but she recovered easily enough, and when she did, she saw Bechde kicking and spluttering in the water before her, utterly bewildered.
“Onto the raft,” said Jova, slipping off. “Come on, Bechde. You’re getting out of here.”
“Darling,” gasped Bechde, clambering aboard even as Jova dropped into the water. Despite its languid pace, the waters of the Kaza were shockingly cold, although perhaps Jova had simply spent too long under the Hak Mat Do sun. “How?”
“Take it, Bechde,” said Jova. She handed the tabula off to Bechde, holding onto the raft to conserve her strength as the waters grew deeper. She hoped there was nothing lurking below her, no crocodilebeasts waiting to snap her up.
Bechde seemed too shocked to do anything but obey.
“The river leads,” gasped Jova. “Into the city. You can find your way, can’t you? You can get out, back to Alswell?”
“Yes,” said Bechde, slowly. “Jova…do you have your tabula, too? Are you coming with me?”
Jova looked back to the ship. She would have to let go soon, if she wanted to swim back in time.
She turned back to Bechde, and shook her head. “You have your own people to save, Bechde,” she said. “I have mine.”
There was silence. “I’m sorry, Jova. I’ll…I’ll…”
Jova paused. Albumere could take away her eyes, her innocence, and her clean conscience—but it could never take away who she was. It would not take away the part of her that was willing to guide three strangers through a lonely forest, that was willing to help train a ragged wild child to realize his impossible dream, that was willing to right now give up the guarantee of her freedom for the chance to save a girl she had met just days ago.
“Go ahead,” said Jova, smiling. “I’ll be just fine.”
The limestone walls had been ground to near perfect smoothness by the sand and the wind. Even now, a turbulent sandstorm beat on the outer walls, and Jova could hear the pitter patter of sand grains against the crumbling entrance of the pyramid, like hard rain.
She huddled in her corner, waiting for the storm to subside. She knew just how precarious her situation was. She had no food, no water, and no plan. She was trapped in a desert that seemed intent on swallowing her whole, and her only shelter was a pyramid shunned for centuries for being cursed and haunted.
Despite all that, Jova wasn’t scared. She was beyond scared.
In these dusty, crumbling walls, Jova couldn’t find it in herself to be afraid. She had been afraid for too long. She clasped her hands together and huddled in further into the wall. “Ladies Four, I thank you,” she whispered. “I thank you for…”
She paused. She didn’t know what to say. She had run and run since her escape from the slavers, until she had stumbled into the shadow of the fifth pyramid, and what had the Ladies Four sent her? A kindly merchant, to guide her on her way? An oasis, for her to rest and recuperate?
No. They had sent her a sandstorm.
“I thank you for nothing,” said Jova. “I thank you for nothing.” She put a hand over her mouth, shocked at what she had just said. Jova sat and waited for punishment, but it did not come. Her heart skipped a beat.
“I have had a bad life,” said Jova, to the spirits of Ral Zu and any other gods or goddesses that cared enough to listen. “I have had a…a…a shitty life.” No one said anything to her. No one told her stop, no one threatened her, no one was there to listen and be disappointed.
“I’ve had a shitty life,” she repeated, in a hushed whisper. She stood up and held her arms out, screaming over the sound of the howling storm. “I’ve had a shitty life!”
Her voice echoed in the long halls of Ral Zu as she took a step forward. “My life is terrible!” she shouted, down the hall. She did not care that the pyramid was haunted or cursed or falling apart. She stormed as far into the catacombs as she dared, her angry screams bouncing around her. “Do you hear me, dead emperor? Do you hear me, Ladies Four? I’d like to see you live like I have! I’d like to see you live after your eyes have been gouged out!”
Jova stood, breathing heavily, waiting for a response. Her legs were sore from the constant running, and her head pounded from exhaustion and dehydration. She didn’t care.
“You made me think it was my fault,” she whispered, fists clenched. The storm outside seemed to be growing louder. “I told myself that it was always my fault! That if only I fixed myself, then things would get better! Did they, Ladies Four? Did they get better?”
Jova slammed her fist into the stone wall, and did not care how much it hurt. “How is it my fault that I had to spend eight years without a home? How is it my fault that I was a better fighter than Arim? How is it my fault that I had to leave Moscoleon without getting to say goodbye?”
Her hair, dirty and unwashed and uncut, had fallen around her face. Da’s warrior braid had long ago been undone by the elements.
“It’s not my fault.” Jova felt a pounding in her chest, a heat, a writhing. She tightened her fists. “It was never my fault.” She twisted around and screamed into the endless dark. “It was your fault! Damn you! Damn you, and your games! Damn you, and Copo, and Zain, and Ya Gol Gi, and Roan!”
Jova stood, breathing heavily, red in the face. She felt something else entirely different stir in her heart.
It was peace.
Jova took a step into the darkness. The storm still raged outside, in tune to Jova’s tingling nerves. Even though the air was cool and still inside the pyramid, Jova’s skin burned. She kept walking into the stone tomb.
She had something to prove.
Her steps continued to echo as she walked further into the pyramid, and now that Jova had stopped speaking, and the sound of the storm was growing more and more distant, she began to realize just how quiet the pyramid was. She did not know how far it went; she had only found her way in after crawling through a crumbling hole in the walls, and had no idea the scale or scope of Ral Zu.
Jova kept her hand on the walls as she walked, counting the steps under her breath so she wouldn’t get lost. The passageway was linear as far as Jova could tell, but she felt uneasy anyway. Even if she had been able to see, she wasn’t sure if she would be able to navigate Ral Zu with getting lost.
As Jova walked, she felt her heart slow. The anger and frustration were fading, but they did not disappear entirely. It had forged something inside her, like heat and pressure smelted an Irontower sword.
Her foot bumped against something hard, and Jova tensed. She poked her toe against it, fearing the worst, but it was just a stone outcrop. She clicked her tongue, and to her surprise a steep set of what sounded like stairs stretched on before her. Jova walked slowly, lifting her feet high as she moved from step to step.
It had to go up, she imagined, up to the very point of the pyramid. Although, hadn’t Roan said the pyramid was unfinished? Jova wondered if she was walking right back up into the storm, but she felt no wind, no prickle from the biting sand.
Her hands traced something like a doorway. Jova stepped hesitantly off the stairs: the acoustics were already somewhat strange in here. She clicked her tongue once.
She stopped dead.
This new chamber was cavernous. The echo stretched on for longer than it ever had, in the Teeth of the Abyss or in Moscoleon’s grand houses of the pontiffs, longer than anywhere Jova had been. On either side of her, more stairs descended down, and the floor of the chamber was littered with smaller objects, although Jova was too far away to tell their size and shape.
That wasn’t what worried her, though. What worried her was the thing in the center of the chamber. She did not know what it was, but its size could not be denied. It was not moving. Jova could only hope it did not decide to.
She walked down the stairs slowly, keeping her back flat against the wall. It was a long drop, if she slipped over the edge.
Her footsteps echoed as she walked. Jova swore she could still hear her first click echoing, but that was probably just her imagination. Nothing else made a sound, and no sound entered this solemn chamber. The storm outside could have stopped altogether and she would not have realized it.
On floor level, Jova clicked again. Hundreds of refracted sounds bounced back to her; Jova reached out a hand to touch the object closest to her, and realized she must have been standing in a gallery of these stone and clay statues. Her questing hands continued to explore as she walked forward, and Jova found that there weren’t just statues down here: tables and bookcases, metal jugs and urns, even what felt suspiciously like a coffin. Propelled onward by curiosity and just a little fear, Jova kept walking towards the center. If these small offerings were all man-made, what could the thing at the center possibly be?
Despite herself, Jova found herself smiling. Her hand wrapped around a tattered silk ribbon, and stroked the head of a porcelain horsehare. These were but trinkets, and not even frightening ones at that. They seemed to imply a gentler and kinder life.
Jova reached out, but found only empty space. She clicked. She was right next to the thing at center of the chamber, which had a wide berth of space around it. The sudden emptiness made Jova’s heart quicken, but she swallowed her fear. She was afraid of no dead emperor. She was afraid of no curses, or forgotten magic, or empty superstitions.
She approached, and reached out.
Her fingers touched gnarled wood, thick and twisted like a great root. Jova walked further hesitantly, until she touched at last the base of the mighty tree. “A hollow?” whispered Jova. That was the secret of Ral Zu? It had been so easy to find, so easy to access. What did they mean, this pyramid was cursed?
And then Jova bent double.
Her skin burned like it had been set alight. She gagged and coughed, collapsing over the root of the tree, sucking in breath through lungs that had suddenly closed. Jova held her throat, writhing, and hacked out a single breath as she spat blood over the ground. She felt like her brain was boiling inside her own head, and she could not tell up from down. Was it air she needed, or water?
Jova’s vision—Jova’s vision—flashed before her. She gasped in breath at the sheer shock of it. It was more than a memory, more than some dusty recollection, but it wasn’t quite as real as it should have been. It seemed hazy, incomplete, the details blurred or unfinished.
All around her was stark, pure white. Jova looked down, and saw in her stomach, as if she could see through her, something glowing, twisting, thrashing. It burned with an odd green hue, and though Jova saw her insides bleed where it cut her, she felt a strangely calm unconcern.
She looked up, and shrank back. A silhouette of a man stood before her, but it was not a man at all. It was made entirely from bark and wood, like some ramshackle doll pasted together from the nearest pieces some forest-dwelling entity could find. It stood, back straight, arms to its sides, featureless face turned to Jova. Two slits that glowed amber gold stared at Jova with the same apathy that she felt weighing on her.
The eyes slid down to Jova’s gut, where the thing still thrashed, and Jova saw its expression, or what there was of it, change immediately. She shuddered. The bark-made man had a look of pure hatred on its face.
Then the vision was gone, and Jova was left gasping and shuddering on the floor of Ral Zu. She was surrounded by darkness again, a darkness that would never again leave her.
The heat disappeared, as quickly as it had come. Jova could breathe again, and she did so gratefully, her hands shaking as she tried to get up.
She couldn’t, though, because the ground had begun to shake.
“What is wrong with this place?” snarled Jova, as she stumbled to her feet. A deep, bass hum reverberated throughout the massive chamber, with the shuddering and shaking of every pot, table, and statue joining in as accompaniment. It might have been Jova’s imagination, but the tree itself seemed to be moving.
She ran. Crashing through the decorations or offering or whatever they were, Jova ran through the gallery, back to the flight of stairs, back out into the passageway and back into the room where she had first entered, where the ground was not shaking and the wind had stopped howling. She clutched her knees, gasping for breath, without the faintest clue as to what had just happened.
Jova tried to put the facts together in her head. She had touched the great tree—perhaps it was a hollow, perhaps it was not, although what normal tree would grow to such titanic size?—and then she had felt the sudden sickness in her chest. It had stopped after the humming and shaking began, but not after the vision of the man made of wood.
There was nothing for it. All Jova could conclude was that the curse of Ral Zu was a strange one indeed. As she slowly made her way back to the crumbling hole in the wall, and began to haul herself over it, Jova chuckled. A fearsome curse it may have been, but she had survived it. That counted for something.
She stood in the sand, in the shadow of the pyramid, wondering where to go next. Her mouth was parched, and she had somehow cut her lip during her little adventure. Now, more than ever, Jova felt a need to rest. Perhaps, if she just slept in the very outer rooms of the pyramid, it would be safe to spend the night there…
Jova heard footsteps in the sand, and heard a low, sibilant hiss. She began to run before she even processed the sound. A wild predator? Or something altogether more dangerous?
“Only one place for a devil to run in this desert!” shouted a voice that made Jova’s heart sink. “What demons of the deep did you consort with in that tomb, little girl?”
Ya Gol Gi approached fast, far too fast for Jova to outrace him. She made for the pyramid. She was smaller and more agile, and would have the advantage inside the cramped passageways and rooms.
Something cracked over Jova’s back, and she fell to the ground, screaming. The scabs that had only just begun to heal opened again, as the barbed whip ripped into Jova’s back.
“Zat, Lo Pak!” shouted Ya Gol Gi, and Jova felt something as large as Stel or Uten stand over her. Hot breath steamed in Jova’s face even as clammy, slimy paws rolled her over. “I should kill you on the spot for your little trick,” snarled Ya Gol Gi. “But I am thinking instead I will bring you back to camp and make an example of you before anyone else with similar ideas.”
Jova didn’t fight back as Ya Gol Gi slung her over the beast’s back and began to ride away. Now was not the time, not with her still out of breath and the creature so close and ready to kill.
Only, if now was not the time, then when would it be?
“Zat zat, Lo Pak!” snapped Ya Gol Gi, egging the creature on. “Mosh sag aga kuar han, yag gar.”
Jova furrowed her eyebrows. “Zat zat” meant “go faster,” and “yag gar” meant “dirty animal.” Ya Gol Gi seemed awfully anxious for a man who had already captured his escaped slave.
The girl tightened her fists, and readied herself. She would not rely on the fortune of the Ladies any longer. She would make her own luck.
“Do not think to try anything more, devil girl,” said Ya Gol Gi. “Since the storm, we have not moved. The camp is in sight. If-.”
It was too late. Jova grabbed Ya Gol Gi around the waist and spun off the animal’s back. With a strangled yelp, Ya Gol Gi fell off his mount, and landed with Jova into the sand. They rolled down the dune, Jova thrashing and kicking even as Ya Gol Gi struggled to push her off him. His hand pushed against Jova’s face, his whole meaty palm wrapping around Jova’s mouth, and she struggled to breathe even as she punched indiscriminately at Ya Gol Gi’s face and chest.
Jova’s hand hit Ya Gol Gi’s ribcage, and suddenly he let go, crying out in pain.
Of course! Jova flexed her fingers. He had been hit just a few hours previously, square in the chest, by Stel’s hooves. That wouldn’t heal anytime soon. Jova began to strike at his ribs and chest repeatedly, her knuckles already sore and raw from hitting him so hard, and Ya Gol Gi’s screams turned to silent gasps at Jova’s unrelenting assault.
With a pained roar, he grabbed Jova by the shoulders and flipped her over, pinning her to the ground. Jova scrabbled desperately against Ya Gol Gi’s waist and side, as he pushed her face into the sand. Her hand closed around something hard, and round, and small.
Before she even ripped it out of his belt, Jova concentrated hard on the tabula.
Ya Gol Gi’s hand loosened at the same time the humming began. The tabula was vibrating hard in Jova’s hands, and though it took all her concentration to do it, it was working. Jova gasped, and Ya Gol Gi twitched, but just a second later he was under control again. The girl extracted herself from under the slaver, even as he knelt frozen in the sand.
“Who else knows?” asked Jova, the words coming painfully as she tried not to break her focus. “Who else knows?”
Slowly, Ya Gol Gi shook his head, and Jova knew it had to be truth.
“You didn’t tell,” Jova breathed. She had to speak aloud, it was too hard to think otherwise. “You didn’t tell anyone. Because…you would have been shamed even more. Tricked by a blind girl into thinking a mutt’s tabula was hers, after you had already been beaten by a crippled slave. Is that right?”
A slow nod. It was the oddest sensation, knowing that Ya Gol Gi had nodded without actually seeing it. Jova felt a phantom pressure on her neck, like she herself had lowered her head.
A voice shouted out from atop the dune, and Jova almost lost control right then and there. “Hide,” she spat, to Ya Gol Gi, as she pressed her back into the sand. It was paltry cover, but all the cover she had. Don’t look down, Jova thought. Don’t look down, don’t look down.
“There you are, Lo Pak,” said Dep Sag Ko, and the eelhound bayed and hissed. “Where is Ya Gol Gi? What did he need you for?” Dep Sag Ko took a step out, and despite Jova’s previous resolutions she closed her eyes and prayed. “Ya Gol Gi! Where are you?”
Jova twitched, as the tabula began to shake even more in her hands. She turned to her head to the side and saw—no, felt—that Ya Gol Gi’s eyes were bugging out, his mouth opening by fractions. “Silence,” whispered Jova, and though the humming grew louder, Ya Gol Gi did not speak.
“First the assistant girl, now him. Nobody wants to talk to old Dep Sag Ko now that u-ha has taken a liking to the new beastmaster,” grumbled Dep Sag Ko, as he walked away. “Lo Pak, gha de sal.”
Both Dep Sag Ko and the eelhound left, their feet crunching on the sand. Jova relaxed, and turned to face the man staring blankly into the distance next to her. The tabula had not stopped humming, and her head was starting to pound.
She needed to stay with this group, Jova realized, at least until they were closer to civilization. There was nowhere for her to go in this desert. And she could do it. There was only one thing that had to be done.
“Tell me again,” said Jova, standing, brushing sand off her coza. “You have told no one else?”
“Where is the tabula you thought was mine? Did you summon the pigwolf? What happened to it?”
“With…u-ha,” grunted Ya Gol Gi, through gritted teeth. “Yes…did it…when no one was looking. Locked it…up. Planned on killing it…after I killed you.”
Jova nodded. That was all she needed to hear. Fang she could free and keep alive, and there was already a rumor stirring in Jova’s brain she could spread, one about a newly freed slave who always made sure to finish the fight and bury his enemies. There was only one order left to give. Jova tightened her grip, and took a deep breath.
“Collapse, and stop breathing,” said Jova. She heard Ya Gol Gi fall to the ground, gagging and convulsing. “Collapse, and die.”
The tabula hummed until it began to crack and shatter in her hand. “Damn you,” Jova whispered, as she listened to the man choke to death on her order. “Damn you and everyone like you.” She felt no pity, no regret, and no remorse.
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?