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?
They rose above the sea like great sentinels, each of their faces turned to the waters of Oldsea Strait. There stood the Lady Summer, her ladybug wings extended behind her, hammer gripped tightly in her hand. There stood the Lady Winter, cradling a babe swathed in stone cloth in her arms, her face turned with wistful longing to the sea.
Chaff huddled behind the railing, remembering Duarch Fra Henn’s statue in the plaza outside Loom’s home, his awe and surprise at someone so perfectly captured in the stone all those years ago.
Compared to the Ladies standing before him now, that statue was a pebble to four mountains.
“Close your mouth, chil’, you’ll let the flygnats in,” said Drael. Chaff shut his mouth quickly, although he glared at Drael as he did it. The fieldman sailor, on his part, did not look perturbed. “No sight quite like it, is there?” he said, leaning on the edge of his perch in the crow’s nest. “Makes you wonder if us men in all our years really could make something like that, don’t it?”
“The boy’s got the scarf, let him be the philosophical one,” snapped the captain, and Drael ducked his head. “Just keep your eye on the coast and make sure we don’t sink this bucket before we make it ashore.”
Chaff turned back to face the coast, smiling. Shore. He would miss the sea once they landed at the Temple Moscoleon, but the shore meant they had come at last to the world where she lived, that colorful place inside the tabula that Chaff had only dreamed of since he had seen four summers.
Behind him, Wozek squeezed his shoulder. “Truth be told, Chaff, I’ll be happy once we get off this boat.”
Chaff looked up at him, eyebrow raised. Lookout had made it very clear as to why she wanted to get off the ship as soon as possible, but Wozek had seemed at ease during the entire journey. “Why that?”
He leaned in beside Chaff conspiratorially, leaning on the railing. “I can’t look at your friend without getting nervous. Him standing there, I feel the Ladies may strike us with lightning any minute now.”
“Big guy ain’t causing no trouble, yeah?” said Chaff, bristling.
Wozek ruffled his hair. “Of course not. Now, do me a favor and get everybody above decks, I want to talk to them before we land.”
Chaff was already halfway across the ship before he realized that Wozek had technically given him an order. The boy furrowed his eyebrows and scratched his head. It felt like Wozek had played a trick on him, although how the boy did not know.
“Look at all them trees, big guy,” said Chaff, smiling, giving the camelopard, who was sitting down with his knees curled beneath him, a reassuring pat as he passed. A little clump of hair came loose as Chaff petted him, and Chaff did his best to swallow the lump in his throat. The big guy hadn’t been eating nearly as much as he should have, and over the last fortnight Chaff had watched the skin sag on the camelopard’s bones as his muscle melted away. Chaff hugged the big guy, who smelled of salt and rainwater from the impromptu baths he had been given, and said, “Just a little longer. Don’t get hit by lightning while we wait, yeah?”
The camelopard rumbled weakly, nudging Chaff in the chest with his head.
The boy skipped lightly down the stairs, down into the dimness below the ship. Sunlight peeked through the planks as Chaff went down, accompanied by the glow of Armand’s summerflies, buzzing in their glass jars.
They responded quickly enough when Chaff knocked, and asked no questions when he told them who had sent him. Chaff was beginning to like Wozek’s people. They were always friendly to him, always willing to offer help or teach him new things. Bori even ruffled Chaff’s hair as he passed, like an older brother would, and Chaff smiled.
When he came to Lookout’s room, though, his smile faded. He could hear her through the door, gasping and sobbing.
“Lookout?” he asked, timidly, tapping his knuckles on her door.
Inside, the owlcrow squawked, and Lookout said something incomprehensible. Chaff opened the door slowly. Wozek had been to see her quite a lot during their voyage. Was she scared? Had she been hurt? It didn’t sound like she was in pain so much as…
“By the Ladies,” whispered Lookout, the biggest smile Chaff had ever seen on her face. Her eyes were red and there was a little snot under her nose, but she didn’t seem to care. The open porthole was turned toward the approaching coast. “We found land.”
Chaff peered through the porthole. “Yeah,” he said, bemused. “That’s land.”
She hugged him then, picking him up and spinning him around with giddy laughter. “Do you know what this means, Chaff?” she said, cackling as she set the boy down. Chaff stumbled, his head spinning more than it ever had in any storm on the barge. “I can sleep at night without my bed rolling under me! I can walk more than ten feet without falling into the ocean! No more hardtack. No more maggotweevils in the cheese. No more fish. Chaff, I have to tell you something.”
“What?” asked Chaff, and he couldn’t help but giggle at Lookout’s frenzied expression.
“I fucking hate fish.”
Chaff laughed. “Big guy don’t like fish so much either, yeah?” Land, land, land. It made everybody happy, didn’t it? “Come on, Lookout. Let’s go up, Wozek wanna say something afore we land.”
They ran up together, and they couldn’t stop laughing. Everybody always called Chaff a kid, but this was the first time in a long time that he had felt like one.
Wozek was already speaking, his people arrayed around him in a semi-circle. He did not stand higher than them, but they all kept a respectful distance. When he saw Chaff and Lookout approach, he nodded, smiling, a twinkle in his eye. He didn’t seem angry, although Chaff saw how his eyes darted from Lookout to him, and then back to Lookout.
“Get supplies, make peace with the Ladies if you feel the need,” continued Wozek, addressing his people, hands folded behind his back. “They take shell here, but there’s a barter’s market or two if you’re willing to look for them. Don’t quarrel with the pontiffs. Bori, Sevra, if you think it would be wise, there are places for the child…”
Sevra, the woman who had nursed a crying babe the entire trip, held her child closer to her. They had told Chaff, all the way in Kazakhal that they were waiting for the Fallow, that for that reason the child had not yet even been given a name. Chaff frowned. Bori and Sevra had only just grown old from the looks of it. They couldn’t have been more than ten years older than him.
“It is not the way of kazakhani, but…”
“This is not Kazakhal,” said Sevra. “Don’t worry, Wozek. We’ll take care of it.”
“Take all the time you need,” said Wozek, and he gripped the woman’s shoulder. The rest of his people hung their heads in a solemn moment of solidarity. “The rest of you,” he said, stepping back again, “Do what needs to be done. We spend two days in the Temple, and then we’ll head north, by the spice road. Go on, pack your things, we’ll be landing soon.”
The crowd dispersed. Chaff was about to walk away, when he noticed Lookout staring. He followed her gaze to Wozek, raising a hand and waving the captain over, as the city loomed closer and closer on the horizon. “You’ll be sailing back to Kazakhal, I take it?” he said, in not quite a hushed voice.
“Might tour Lowsea for a spell,” said the captain, back straight and tone formal. “Waters are warm there. Might find work there.”
“Honest, I take it?”
The captain shrugged. “No promises, Wozek. I take the jobs I can find.”
“Well, if you find yourself in the Maw, tell the brushers how I’m doing,” he said. “Tell them to watch the Seat. Things are changing for us, captain, I can feel it. The kazakhani will have a place in the new world.”
The woman nodded, her pockmarked face unable to hide her doubt. “To be honest, Wozek, I can’t ask for much better than my place in the old one.”
Wozek chuckled. “You and the big lug both, eh? No worries, captain, you can keep it. The sea’s not going anywhere.” He clapped her on the back, as he walked away. “We’ll talk more ashore, keep this kapaz afloat until we get there.”
Too late, Chaff realized he was staring. He turned away quickly, but Wozek had already noticed.
“No need to hide, goodman Chaff, there’s no need to be afraid,” said Wozek, and Chaff looked up meekly. Beside him, Lookout had not moved. She stood coolly by while Sinndi, her wide eyes unblinking, followed Wozek with her stare.
“What did you mean, about-?” Chaff began, but Wozek put an arm around his shoulder and walked him away before Chaff could finish.
“So you’re here,” said Wozek. He looked out to the steadily approaching shore, his expression almost wistful. Chaff really wasn’t paying him much attention, though—he was trying to turn back to Lookout, although every time he did Wozek would squeeze his shoulder harder and Chaff would have to turn back around. “I heard something about finding a girl?”
Chaff flinched. Immediately, his hand went to his belt, but all his tabula were still there.
“Your altercation with Gopal and Sri was hard to miss,” said Wozek. “I won’t pry if you don’t want me to. I only wonder where you plan on going next. We are here, after all. Have you given any thought to my suggestion?”
“Dunno,” was all Chaff managed to mutter. “You don’t leave for a while, yeah?”
“Two days,” said Wozek, again. His eyes never left Chaff’s face.
“Then I tell you in two days,” said Chaff. He ducked under Wozek’s arm and walked away, and didn’t look back. He huddled by the big guy’s side, scratching the camelopard’s neck while he turned his thoughts away from whatever Wozek wanted from him and instead to Moscoleon. How big was it? Surely it couldn’t be bigger than Shira Hay. Chaff had heard it said many times that Shira Hay was the largest of the nations of Albumere (although it was also the emptiest), but from what he could see the city of Moscoleon dwarfed the city of Shira Hay. For one terrifying moment, the thought crossed Chaff’s mind that, like the great statues, the templemen were a hundred times greater than him.
The step pyramid at the center of the city gleamed as they approached. Chaff squinted, trying to get a better look at the shining point at its peak. Lookout had told him they killed people up there, although Chaff still didn’t understand why. Apparently the Ladies asked them to.
Chaff kept his eyes fixed on that golden point until at last they arrived.
A man with blue lines etched into the skin on his forehead, bare-chested with a length of wool around his waist, waved them over from the dock. The captain waved back, and as the ship came into port, the man raised his floor-length skirt and prepared to board. Chaff watched with interest, eyes fixed on the hat on the man’s head. It was shaped like a bowl, open towards the sky like it would collect water when it rained.
“See that, big guy?” he said, and the camelopard raised his head slowly to stare at the man’s strange hat. In Chaff’s experience, people with funny headwear were often the ones in charge.
“Pontiff, sir,” said Wozek, as the captain stepped aside. The pontiff’s eyes went from the captain to Wozek, but he made no comment. “Is there a problem?”
“Routine inspection,” said the pontiff, with a pleasant smile. Behind him, four more people were coming up onto the boat. They too were bare-chested, with feathered arm bands and long spears in hand.
“Last time I was here, the gates of Moscoleon were open to all,” said Wozek, his smile just as pleasant. “By land and by sea.”
“No doubt they were,” said the pontiff, nodding, as half his entourage went below decks while the other two split up and began looking around above. “But the last time you were here, there was no war in Albumere. The Holy Keep wishes the Temple to remain pure in these troubled times.”
On the other side of the ship, one of the pontiff’s spearmen yelped. Wozek’s spiderwhale emerged from the waters, warbling a deep bass rumble. Wozek himself just bowed, holding out his arm to show the pontiff the way.
Chaff had had enough of waiting. The city was right there, and yet all these people were just milling around, waiting for the man with the funny hat to have his fill of the sights. “Up, up, big guy,” said Chaff, patting the camelopard’s side. “Time to get some food in you, yeah?”
“Don’t let the beast off,” said the pontiff, as he saw the big guy rise. “Not until the inspection of the ship is completed.”
Chaff hauled himself onto the big guy’s back. “Not my ship, yeah? I got somewhere to go.”
“Boy’s got a powerful urge to make his peace wit’ the Ladies,” snickered Drael, as he climbed down from the mast. “Can’t hold his piety in no longer, can he?”
The pontiff ground his teeth. “Not until we’ve looked at the ship.”
“That what the Lady Fall tell you to do?” continued Drael, laughing. “Holy pontiff, got the tattoos and all, fo’ced to wait on the docks and look at some dirty migrant cargo hold. You doing the Ladies’ work, you are.”
The big guy strolled by Lookout, as Chaff sat astride him. The boy’s gut hummed with anticipation as he waited for the zealots to drag the captain’s crates of textiles and Kazakhal woodcarvings up from the hold, and for Wozek’s people to lay out their meager belongings on the deck.
Chaff glared at the woman with the spear as she made him hold out his scarf and book. He snatched them back when she tried to touch them, though, and she snarled, muttering something about wild children as she walked away.
“You’ve some extra tabula among you,” said the pontiff. “People?”
“Livestock, mostly,” said Wozek. “A companion or two among them. We take what we get, in the marsh.”
The pontiff nodded, and Chaff watched the shadows fall across his face as his hat dipped and rose. “Summon them now. One at a time.”
It was a slow and meticulous process. Chaff met Lookout’s gaze and rolled his eyes, and she looked longingly at the dock just feet away and sighed dramatically. Moscoleon’s harbor was nowhere near as busy as Kazakhal’s, and Chaff could only see a small contingent of fishing boats and a single lonely Jhidnu skiff floating in the water. There wasn’t another living soul there.
The kapaz barge rocked slowly as more animals—flapping, hissing and screeching—emerged from the most unlikely shadows and nooks. “Thank you, that’s enough,” said the pontiff. He nodded to his zealots, who stomped away soundlessly. “The Temple is open, friends and pilgrims. May fortune be with you.”
“Fortune be with you,” echoed Wozek, and he whistled for his people to follow as they finally set foot on the soil of Moscoleon.
Chaff hopped off of the big guy once they had cleared the dock. He couldn’t help it. He dug his toes into the dirt and laughed out loud, and danced and spun as he ran off into Moscoleon, the big guy close behind him.
“Chaff?” shouted Lookout. She pointed to the wall, and creaking wooden gates that were being pulled back for Wozek’s people to pass. “The city’s that way.”
The boy wasn’t listening. He waded (actually waded) through foliage so dense it went up to his waist, putting his hands on the peeling bark of the trees, through the leafy fronds of the ferns, over the perfumed petals of the flowers. He didn’t realize that a place could be filled with so much life. In Shira Hay, grass had been as ubiquitous as dirt. In Kazakhal, the grass had been replaced by mud. Here, they had both been usurped by color.
“You do realize that half that shit is poisonous, right, Chaff?” shouted Lookout. “Chaff?”
Whatever Lookout had said, it couldn’t have been that important. “Eat up, big guy!” giggled Chaff, slinging himself on the camelopard’s back as the big guy browsed hungrily.
Lookout jogged up to him, panting. “Well, OK, I guess the upper half isn’t poisonous. Chaff, listen to me. Chaff! Don’t eat anything.”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, distractedly. He wanted to stand on the big guy’s back to get a better look, but the camelopard was too weak for that. The boy craned his head instead to take it all in. There was a winter quiet to the jungle, even if not a flake of snow seemed to have ever touched the ground here, but Chaff could still see movement, hear the sounds. Overhead, a macawsnake slithered through the air, while froghoppers chirped in the well-filled basins of flowers shaped like bells.
This was what the amber shadows of her tabula had been hiding for so long. Chaff felt his gut churn at the thought of having this paradise so close to him for so long without being able to see it.
“OK, Chaff, it’s plenty pretty,” said Lookout. “Let’s get back now.”
“Why you in such a rush?” Chaff giggled as the big guy snapped and pulled at a branch and leaves showered down around him. “You’re looking forward to this, yeah?”
Lookout tapped her fingers on her thigh, looking over her shoulder. Tap. Tap. Tap. “I just got a feeling. You can frolic in the flowers after, let’s go find somewhere to sleep. And something to eat. By the Ladies, I’m starving. And no fish.”
Chaff pursed his lips. “Take care of yourself, big guy,” he said, slipping off of the camelopard’s back. The big guy snorted, too busy eating for a proper response. “You get yourself in trouble, I’m watching, yeah?” said Chaff, patting his tabula.
The boy followed Lookout, wrapping his scarf tighter around his neck and mouth as they approached the gate. Prav the brusher was waiting for them, standing rather stiffly in-between two more of the feather-armed spearmen as the children approached.
“Follow quick now, goodman Chaff, goodwoman Lookout,” said Prav. “Wozek’s gone ahead to look for lodgings. There’s tenements for pilgrims all throughout the city, he says, permanent and temporary alike. Pontiffs will take their tax, of course, but that’s to be expected.”
Chaff was having trouble concentrating on Prav’s words. There were too many things to take in, even inside the walls of the city. Colorful quilt clothes lay across stands where woodcuts and holy icons were hocked like bush meat on a stick. All the buildings were made of a reddish clay, and up above the altar at the top of the great pyramid glittered.
“It’s a big city,” said Lookout, shouldering her pack of things. Sinndi squawked on her shoulder. “You got two days.”
“I got you, too,” said Chaff, and he grinned at her.
Lookout punched Chaff in the shoulder. “Sure you do.”
Chaff breathed deep, and fell in behind Prav, smiling wide. This would work. He was sure it would.
“I never notice before,” breathed Chaff, staring. “Can I touch it?”
“No, you cannot.”
“But look at it! It’s so big, yeah? How you keep that in your pants?”
Chaff reached for the spiderwhale’s tabula again, but Wozek slapped his hand away. “I just wanna see!” Chaff whined, looking hurt.
Wozek rolled his eyes. “I let you hold it once, wasn’t that enough?”
“That was just for a little bit, yeah? I wasn’t even paying attention, then.” Chaff steered the big guy a little closer to the spiderwhale, craning his neck to get a better look. “How come it’s so much bigger than yours? Mine’s as big as the big guy’s, yeah?”
“Really, now? I would like to see that, goodman Chaff.”
Chaff reached for his belt before he froze and paused. He narrowed his eyes and glared at the marshman.
“Exactly,” snapped Wozek, once he saw Chaff’s expression. “That’s what it feels like to have people pry at your tabula, boy. Not good, right? Intrusive. Invasive.”
“I just wanted to see…” grumbled the boy, but not loud enough for Wozek to hear. Before he could say anything further, Wozek held up his hand, and the spiderwhale came to an abrupt halt.
“Wozek!” shouted Prav the brusher from the top of the hill up ahead. “You’ll want to see this!”
“Budge aside, you old lug,” said Wozek, swinging over the spiderwhale’s side. He didn’t say a word to Chaff as he left to join the brusher to scout ahead, up over a hill framed by the tilted pines.
Chaff watched him go, and sighed forlornly. “He important, yeah?” said Chaff, reining in the big guy. “Ain’t got no time for us at all.”
The camelopard flicked an ear, as if he didn’t mind at all that Wozek had no time for them.
Chaff looked back. He had ridden ahead to talk to Wozek, but now that the marshman no longer had the patience to host him, Chaff was left with no one to talk to. “No point in going back,” said Chaff, adjusting himself. He laid on the big guy’s back, staring at the sky. “Just like the old days, yeah?”
A cold but bright winter sun shone overhead. It didn’t snow this far south, but Chaff’s toes still throbbed from when he had crossed the frost-crusted wet lands further north barefoot. He lay in the warmth, pretending he was in the plains again, surrounded by the softly waving grass.
It would take more than that, though, to bring the boy back to the old days. The grass had changed, and so had the chaff.
Chaff furrowed his eyebrows. Everything he had done to get here…had it been for the better? And if it was, why did he feel so guilty about it?
He craned his head up, but the long muddy road was empty as far as he could see. Wozek and Prav had gone quite far ways ahead of the rest of the group, although Chaff supposed that was what leaders and brushers did.
He wasn’t sure where he fit in there, for he wasn’t a leader or a brusher, but here he was.
Chaff reached for his belt, and held her tabula up in front of him. It had been a long time since he had looked into it. It had been a long time since it had answered.
The tabula formed a single circle of shadow over Chaff’s face as the sun shone overhead. The birds were silent, and the bugbeasts had all burrowed inside their dens to sleep the winter away long ago. He was alone.
It buzzed at his lightest touch, as if eager for him to use it. And yet…
He slipped the disk away in his belt. It didn’t feel right, not when he felt so twisted up inside. Chaff had seen what happened to the big guy when he was distressed and he used the camelopard’s tabula; he didn’t want to load all his bad feelings on her.
“What you think, big guy?” he asked, staring at the sky. “What you think it’s like when we meet her?”
The big guy didn’t answer.
“Jova,” said Chaff, eyes glazing over. “Jova.” He wondered what it meant.
The camelopard moved. He walked away to go browse on the pine needles, and Chaff had to hold tight onto the big guy’s back to balance himself. Chaff sat up as the big guy ate. “You sure you eat that?” he asked. “What if it make you sick?”
The big guy snorted and glared at Chaff.
“Yeah, OK,” said the boy. “Not a lot to eat lately. I gets it.”
He paused, watching the big guy chew placidly.
“Hey, big guy, lemme try some,” he said, standing up and tearing off a handful of rubbery green shoots. The last time he had tried camelopard food, he remembered it had not gone well, but…well, this was different camelopard food.
He bit and chewed and gagged all in one fluid motion, and rolled over to spit it out and clawed at his tongue to get the taste out.
The supplies from Wozek’s village had lasted long enough to get them here, although they had not stayed there long. There had barely been twenty people among them, but Chaff still had difficulty remembering all their names and faces.
He sighed. He had been traveling with them for weeks now and he could only really tell apart a quarter of them. There was mudmaker Armand, who didn’t talk much and wore face paint like he had stitched his mouth shut. Then there was the couple, Bori and Sevra, and their unnamed child, who still had a Fallow coming for him. The rest…well, the rest were a complete blur.
What Chaff had found most interesting about all the marshmen, though, was how they listened to Wozek. One stern talk from him about the dangers of the Quiet Marsh and the coming winter, and they had unanimously decided to leave. It wasn’t much they were leaving behind—a few ramshackle huts with roofs made of woven reeds and soggy fireplaces—but leave it behind they did, without question.
“He doesn’t even need tabula,” said Chaff, as he waited. “Just words, yeah?”
Chaff wondered what it would be like, to speak words with such power. Vhajja had been able to do it, and he was an old man, weak and frail. Hurricane had done it, and he had never needed to use those big muscles in their place.
A dark blot flapped across the sky, and instinctively Chaff flinched. Sinndi he had grown used to, but up there wasn’t Sinndi. The owlcrow had been recuperating and hadn’t flown for some time. Lookout wouldn’t let Chaff try to fix her; she said it would draw attention. Wozek hadn’t said anything either to his people, and Chaff supposed that if two smart people thought he should keep it a secret, then he would keep it a secret.
It was frustrating, not being able to do anything.
A sudden screech cut across the sky. Chaff flinched again, nearly falling off of the camelopard as Jiralla dived, snatching the dark blot out of the air like it was a piece of low hanging fruit. The bathawk wheeled with a limp form in its claws, feathers shedding from the corpse and fluttering back down to the earth.
Chaff looked around. The rest of them must have been close.
Lookout was, of course, the first to see him. “Chaff! There you are,” she shouted, jogging up the road to him.
“You surprised?” asked Chaff, grinning.
“Pssh, no,” said Lookout. “I knew where you were. I could see the big guy from half a mile away.”
The camelopard held his head up high, as if he was proud of that.
The rest of the group was not far behind, talking and laughing and living. Chaff waved to Sri, who clung to Gopal’s side as they approached, and gave her an encouraging smile.
“Wozek’s up ahead?” said Lookout, hands on her hips. It was more of a statement than a question.
“Yeah, him and the scout-man brusher.”
“Then what are you doing waiting here, you dummy?” Lookout clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s get going.”
“Hup, big guy,” said Chaff, squeezing the big guy’s sides. “Lookout says go, we go.”
The camelopard’s hooves sunk into the soft dirt as they climbed. “What do you see?” asked Chaff, craning his neck. He stood on the camelopard’s back, swaying precariously as he clung by one hand to the big guy’s neck.
“Careful, Chaff, you’re going to fall,” said Lookout.
“I just pick myself up then,” said Chaff. “I can-.” And then the big guy crested the hill, and whatever the boy was going to say faded on his tongue immediately.
It was the second city Chaff had ever seen in his life. On top of that little hill, he saw it all: Kazakhal, spread across the bay. The houses stood on rickety wooden stilts, just feet above the water, while its citizens drifted past on rafts and canoes. It was like an antmole-hill that Chaff had once seen, a complex network of channels and waterways that wove around each other in one huge organic sprawl. Despite the winter chill, marshmen sat shirtless on their porches, feet dangling in the still waters while out further into the bay fishing skiffs and great aquatic beasts prowled.
The whole place smelled like fish and smoke, which set Chaff’s belly rumbling. He jumped off the big guy’s back and dashed down the hill, trying to get closer to the city, but Lookout held out a hand.
“Easy there. Look,” she said. She pointed down the hill, to where Wozek and Prav were talking at the wooden pier that led like a road into the rest of the city. A mudmaker with hoop earrings as large as Chaff’s hands stood before them, arms crossed, leaning on a staff with his leg in a splint. While he talked he kept looking straight at Chaff and Lookout.
“Goodman Wozek,” he said, in a loud voice, meeting Chaff’s eyes. “You and your people are of course welcome to the Maw. But you know our laws. Those two are not kazakhani. They are not allowed here.”
Wozek looked behind him, and beckoned for Chaff to come over. “No need to hide and skulk, boy, just face him.”
Chaff met Lookout’s eyes, and together they edged forward.
“I was wary at first, too, Vizdak, but this boy has proven himself a true friend of Kazakhal,” said Wozek, putting a hand around Chaff’s shoulder. It was oddly tight, and the runner in Chaff wanted to squirm free. He held himself back, meeting the mudmaker’s painted face warily. “The girl, too, I can vouch for.”
“Vouching or no vouching,” said Vizdak, shrugging his bare shoulders. Black and white spirals had been painted along his shoulders, and they flowed into shapes like tongues of flame on his arms and the backs of his hands. “It’s not a matter of what they’ll do, but what we’ll do. You know how it is with foreigners.”
“They’re children,” said Wozek, and Chaff had a moment of déjà vu as he remembered Gopal using the same argument not too long ago. “What harm can they cause?”
“Ask the gargani wild child who broke my leg and sent me moaning off to guard duty.” Vizdak tapped his cane on the dock. “I always say, if they’re old enough to live on their own, they’re old enough to kill on their own.”
“Alright, alright,” said Wozek. “But they’ll be under my watch and my people’s the whole time. Prav here has the sharpest eyes of any man or woman in Kazakhal, don’t you, Prav?”
The brusher didn’t say anything, although his smirk was answer enough. Beside him, Chaff saw Lookout make a face. “You’ll get that title back once I leave Kazakhal, Prav,” she muttered, darkly, under her breath, and Chaff couldn’t help but giggle.
“He’ll catch them before they even have the chance to stir something up. We’re here two days at most. We’re finding a boat, and then we’re leaving, all the way to Oldsea Strait. No fuss, no trouble.”
Vizdak adjusted his stance. He pursed his lips, and looked from Chaff to Lookout to the big guy and Sinndi. “One day,” he said. “And the beasts stay out here, where I can see them, until you leave.”
“Perfectly reasonable,” said Wozek, giving the mudmaker a firm handshake, careful not to smudge his paints. He turned to his brusher. “Prav, go and tell the others. The animals stay here.”
Prav nodded and went jogging back, just like that. “Doesn’t even need a tabula,” muttered Chaff, as Vizdak hobbled aside and let them past.
“You stay, big guy! Relax a little!” Chaff shouted, and the camelopard dipped his head as if nodding, although that might have just been him trying to get Sinndi off of his head. Chaff turned to Wozek as they, with Lookout, walked down the dock. “Why don’t we just shove him away and run by?” he asked, once he was sure the mudmaker guard was out of earshot. “He can’t fight back at all, with that leg, yeah?”
“Only use force when you absolutely have to. Most of the time people just need a little talking to before they see sense,” said Wozek, shaking his head. “Besides, he was a mudmaker. He’d poison you dead before you even thought of running past him.”
Chaff hopped as he walked, listening to the hollow thunk of the wooden boards beneath his feet. “Yeah, OK,” he said. “Why he trying to stop us then? What’s that all about?”
Behind them, Wozek’s people were filing onto the dock, clutching their belongings to their sides and staring around the city with nervous, apprehensive looks. Wozek looked back on them, his eyes scanning over them, before he turned back to Chaff. “You are not one of us. Not kazakhani.”
“What are we then?” asked Chaff.
“Shiralhane. The lonely people.” Wozek pointed towards Gopal and Sri. “Them? They are jhidnai. You are both just…different kinds of people. Kazakhani don’t like different.”
Wozek fell silent, then, and Chaff did too. He stopped hopping on the planks, and the awe he had first felt when he had first seen Kazakhal was being subdued by a growing sense of fear.
The people here had pouting, swollen faces, and stomachs distended by hunger. Their clothes were grimy and tattered. There was no sense of grandeur here, nothing like Shira Hay with its libraries and its fountains and its statues. As Chaff fell behind Wozek and Lookout so that they could all fit on the narrow walkway, he stepped lightly and carefully: he felt like the whole thing might collapse at any moment, as the hut beside him sagged on its stilts. As he passed the open window, a pair of hooded eyes watched him go from deep within the shadows.
This city was barely surviving.
Something cracked underneath him, and Chaff yelped. Before he could fall into the muddy waters, though, Lookout caught his arm.
“I knew you were going to fall,” she said, pulling him up. “Just a matter of when.”
“I get up, don’t I?” said Chaff, brazenly, although his hands were shaking.
“Shouldn’t have been jumping around so much,” said Lookout.
“I wasn’t jumping. Not that time at least.” Chaff walked on, staring at his feet. “Why do they all live here, Lookout?” he asked, finally. “There’s dry land, just over there. It’s better living there, yeah?”
“It’s home,” said Wozek, before Lookout could answer. “It wasn’t always like this. See that, out there?” He pointed to the waters where the fishing boats sailed and the turtlesharks swam. “We call it the Maw of the Deep, and every year it gets a little bigger and a little hungrier. People just…got used to it. Inertia keeps them here. They don’t know what’s good for them.”
“In-er-sha,” repeated Chaff, slowly. “That some kind of monster?”
“Close enough,” said Wozek, and he stopped. “Here, we are.”
This hut was larger than the others. It smelled of cooking fires and alcohol, and next to the entrance of the doors (which, unlike many others Chaff had seen, looked functional), something was scrawled in large, ugly letters.
“What’s that say, Lookout?” he asked.
Lookout squinted. “F…” she began. “Fuck King Ironhide.” She coughed, and looked away.
Wozek crossed his arms. “Like I said,” he growled, darkly. “People don’t know what’s good for them.” He opened the door for Chaff and Lookout. “Sit in the back, please, we don’t want to cause any trouble.”
It was dark and smoky inside. The low buzz of chatter didn’t change as Chaff and Lookout walked in, but they drew glares and odd looks from the tables they passed. “I didn’t realize the philosophers let them in so young,” said a balding, yellow-toothed man. He batted at Chaff’s scarf as he passed, and he shied away. “Plainslords think little kids are smarter than us, eh?”
“Don’t have to be smart,” muttered his drinking partner, eying his mug morosely. “Just got to be willing to stick a knife in an alsval back.”
“Oaf,” snarled Lookout, and she pulled Chaff away.
Chaff felt more on edge than usual. Being among this many people felt like being tossed into a pit full of hungry piranhawolves. “Let’s sit by the window, Lookout,” said Chaff, trying to avoid eye contact with the other patrons.
“Sure, this place is stuffy enough as it is.”
Chaff eyed the rippling waters as he sat on the bench, wet with damp, and twiddled his thumbs. He wasn’t sure what else he was supposed to do in this place, besides wait. “Can you swim, Lookout?”
“It’s not going to come to that,” said Lookout, peering out the little square of light and air. “We’re not going to have to jump into the bay to get away from these people.”
“Yeah, but can you swim?”
“Sure I can,” said Lookout, although her fingers had begun drumming on the table. She looked at Chaff and raised an eyebrow. “You can swim?”
“I don’t remember,” Chaff admitted.
“You don’t remember how to swim?”
“I don’t remember if I can or not.”
Lookout stared at him for a full ten seconds. “That’s comforting,” she said, finally, and slumped with her chin in her palms and her elbows on the table, watching the door. Wozek’s other people were trickling in—sitting, Chaff couldn’t help but notice, on the other end of the room.
“What’s he doing?” Lookout muttered, as Wozek finally came in. The marshman began talking with a man in clothes stained with grease, who seemed to own this little shack. As he did so, people Chaff had never seen before kept shaking Wozek’s hand, giving him little two-fingered salutes, or calling at him from across the room.
“He that important?” whispered Chaff.
Lookout didn’t respond. She was staring intently at him, a rigid expression on her face. “Remember when he was talking to that guy with the earrings?” she said. “How did he put it? We’re finding a boat. We’re leaving in two days.”
“Maybe he wants to come with us,” said Chaff. He smiled at the thought. He rather enjoyed Wozek’s company, even if Wozek didn’t very much seem to like his. The man always had interesting things to say. “Maybe he can help us find her.”
“Maybe,” said Lookout, distractedly. “But…why? He took us this far already. He got his people where they needed to go, and they seem happy enough. What’s his game?”
Chaff didn’t say anything. He didn’t know. Also, he was hungry, and he was wondering if he might be able to steal a bite of salted fish while the man sitting next to them wasn’t looking.
At last, someone acknowledged them, sitting in their corner. It wasn’t Wozek, though.
Gopal sat heavily on the bench on Lookout’s side, while Sri sat next to Chaff. She kept looking over her shoulder, as if she was scared someone might attack them from behind.
“All the foreign folk, shoved into a corner, eh?” said Gopal. Sri gave him a pity laugh, while Chaff stared blankly at him. It took him a few seconds for him to realize Gopal was trying to be funny.
“Well,” said Gopal, clearing his throat. “I guess this is it. Here we part ways. You’ll be off to Moscoleon before the day is out, and we…won’t.”
“You’re staying here?” said Chaff, surprised. He hadn’t expected the two other foreigners in Wozek’s group to spend a second longer than they had to in this crumbling city.
“We’ve spent our fair share of winters here. We’ll be fine.”
Chaff stared at his thumbs for a while, as the talk and chatter continued around him. His belly rumbled. “Meet up one more time before we go?” he said, to Sri. “I gotta say goodbye the proper way.”
Sri ducked her head, and the hair fell around her face. “Okay. We’re not saying goodbye yet. Let’s…let’s share a meal first. The Shira Hay way.”
Chaff nodded, and smiled.
“I’ll go check with Wozek to see if he can get us some food,” Lookout said, rising. She walked away quickly, brushing past Gopal in her haste.
They sat there for a little while, not saying anything, just watching the light play on the water outside. Finally, Sri spoke.
“There’s something I don’t get about you,” said Sri, as they sat there, together. “All this time, we’ve been traveling together…I’ve never once seen you pray. Never once seen you use the Ladies’ names. Never once seen you acknowledge them at all. Why are you going to Moscoleon, if not to find the gods?”
“I’m not going to find the gods,” said Chaff, shrugging. He had thought that was obvious. “What’s gods and kings to me? I’m going to find her.”
“The Jova girl.”
And though the buzz of talk did not stop, there was suddenly a deathly silence.