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.
On the first day Chaff learned that he loved the ocean. He loved the feeling of the planks rolling underneath him, he loved the smell of sea salt in the air, and he loved the gentle caress of the waves against the hull of the Kazakhal kapaz barge as it plowed around Oldsea towards the Moscon Peninsula. He was going a world away, and the ghosts of the past could no longer haunt him.
Every day thereafter, Chaff learned something new. Prav taught him how he charted his way across the sea, and how, when the treacherous stars shone overhead, he used arithmetic like the electors to find his way. Armand showed him fat mackerelcod and searobins that he fished straight out of the ocean, although the silent mudmaker would not tell Chaff how it was done or even what the fish were called. Wozek had even let him ride on the spiderwhale’s back as it swam beside the boat, and Chaff had clung onto its slippery skin in a half-terrified, half-exhilarated joy.
Today, he learned how much Lookout hated the sea.
“You want something else to eat?” asked Chaff, watching Lookout’s breakfast drift away on the waves.
“No, Chaff, the last thing I want to do is eat…” grumbled Lookout. She was breathing heavily, and her face was pale and sickly. Surreptitiously, Chaff checked her leg, but it seemed whole and healthy enough. Whatever Lookout’s sudden bout of sickness was, it had nothing to do with her old injury.
“It’s just that you spit it all out,” said Chaff. Shadows under the water nibbled away at the food falling from the sky as he stared. “You gotta be hungry again, yeah?”
“If you try to feed me anything, I will puke on you,” said Lookout. She hobbled away, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “I’m going to go lie down.”
Chaff watched Lookout go, his back on the railing. He looked toward the big guy, who was standing by the mast and glaring unceasingly at the crow’s nest. “How you doing, big guy?” he asked.
The camelopard did not look at Chaff, but one of his nostrils flared. Chaff didn’t know if the big guy was trying to stave off Lookout’s sickness or if he really was just that mad about a place for humans to go that was taller than him.
“Why she sick?” asked Chaff. He dug one of his fingers into his mouth and ran his nail along his teeth. “Something she eats? Am I going to be sick too?”
The big guy had no answer for him. Chaff couldn’t even remember what he had for breakfast; fish were involved, he was sure, although he couldn’t remember what kind. A lot of things were getting harder to remember.
“It ain’t what she et,” said one of the crew, poking his head out of the crow’s nest. The moment the sailor revealed himself, the big guy lowered his head and began waving it side to side, and Chaff got up immediately. It turned out he was mad about someone being above him.
“Easy there, big guy,” said Chaff, putting a comforting hand on the big guy’s side. “Don’t want you knocking down the sails now.” He squinted at the sailor in the crow’s nest. Stubble had grown all around the man’s chin. His skin was brown, his hair was unkempt, and his clothes were both. He wore a single brass stud in his left ear, and looked at Chaff with eyes that seemed much too sharp for a man so filthy. “Who you? What you say?”
“It ain’t what she et,” repeated the man up above. He leaned on the railing of his little platform, grinning at the big guy. “Sea sickness, it be called. The moving and the rocking and the rolling gets to some people. Not you, though, eh? Took to it right away, you did.”
“She gets sick from moving?” asked Chaff, face wrinkled in confusion. “But she moves all the time, yeah? How come now?”
“You ever feel the earth quaking ‘neath your feet, chil’? The shaking and shuddering and heaving is enough to make anyone lose their stomach,” said the man, perched comfortably on his nest so high. Overhead, a few winter gulls circled, and Chaff eyed them nervously. They were perhaps the only part of the sea that he did not like.
He did remember earthquakes. Why, the earth itself had rolled beneath his feet in the Quiet Marsh not so long ago. That had made him sick with fear. Perhaps Lookout was just afraid.
“Storm’s coming, too,” continued the man. “The winds of the Lady Fall tell us, if you speak her tongue. Waves are getting worse. You can taste it in the air.”
“Storms is good, yeah?” said Chaff, staring where the man stared. The sky was so blue it hurt, but if the man said a storm was coming then a storm must have been coming. “Lots of water. Drinking water, not the salty yuck.”
The man laughed. “You don’t know seasick until you’ve been in a proper Oldsea storm, chil’.”
Chaff glared at him. He wasn’t sure what the man was laughing at, but he was fairly certain that he was the butt of the joke.
Leaning back over the railing, the man raised an eyebrow. “Does Wozek’s pup have teeth? You have something to say to me?”
The boy looked down, his cheeks red. He didn’t mean to get caught. He was about to take the camelopard and walk away, when a little voice whispered in his head.
How do you ever expect to get closer to where you want to go, if you’re always running away?
You’re always running away.
Chaff turned around and stood as straight as he could, his chest puffed out. “Don’t laugh at me!” he shouted, up to the man in the crow’s nest. Up at the head of the barge, he could see out of the corner of his eye Wozek and some of the men he was talking to look up.
“So he can bark,” said the man, smiling. There was a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Can he bite?”
“Don’t talk to me like that,” said Chaff. “Or I’ll set the big guy on you.”
The man’s grin grew wider. “He can climb, can he?”
Chaff put a hand on the big guy’s tabula. “I can make him.”
He clapped his hands together and hooted. Chaff stared at him, nonplussed. “Word to the wise, chil’, but tabula can’t make anyone do anything they just can’t do. You can’t make that beast climb no more’n I can make a fish fly.” He grinned. “Or turn a yellow-bellied kid like you into whatever it is you want to-.”
“Will you stop antagonizing him, Drael, you fieldman bastard?” said Wozek, intervening. Part of Chaff felt indignant, that he couldn’t finish the fight alone. The other part felt relieved, that he wouldn’t have to.
“No offense meant, goodman Wozek,” said Drael, dipping his head. “Just teaching this here chil’ the way of the world. You’d think he’s just had his Fallow, the way he prattles on.”
“I can say that about you too,” said Wozek, and he put an arm around Chaff’s shoulder. Chaff squirmed. It didn’t feel like Wozek being so much protective as possessive. “And what’s that I hear about a storm?”
Drael grinned. “It’s coming.”
“Yes, well, tell the captain next time before us,” snarled Wozek, and he spun around, taking Chaff with him. The big guy was about to follow, but Wozek put a hand up. “Chaff, keep the beast here. The boat’s shaky enough as it is, we don’t want to go tipping it over.”
“You stay back, big guy,” said Chaff, doing his best to turn around with Wozek’s firm hand still on his shoulder. “And eat his stinky hair next time he come out, yeah?”
The big guy, who had looked annoyed at being told to stay, flicked his ears and straightened, mollified by the prospect of revenge.
“Of all the things you just had to bring along, it was him,” sighed Wozek, as he led Chaff away. “All the other animals we left in the city to summon on the other side, but the one thing you couldn’t go without…” He looked down at Chaff and ruffled his hair, like a man petting a houndbeast. “Ah, well. So long as it’s just this one time and I don’t have to drag him back to Kazakhal.”
Back to Kazakhal? Chaff wondered Wozek meant by that. Of course, he and the big guy were sticking together. Perhaps Wozek meant that Chaff wasn’t coming back either. He didn’t know where he was going after he found Jova—Jova, Jova, that was her name, Jova—but he was sure it wouldn’t be Kazakhal. Perhaps she would know.
“Pay no mind to Drael,” Wozek continued. “He’s an alsval idiot who runs his mouth, but he means well.”
“He sounds different from the fieldmen I knew,” said Chaff. Drael’s accent was somehow sharper and faster than the Alswell drawl Chaff had grown used to listening to.
Wozek nodded. “Got ears like the Lady Fall, don’t you? You’re right, he’s not your typical fieldman.” Wozek looked over his shoulder at the mast. “A farmer picked him up right after Fallow and brought him to the Seat of the King. He’s only been free for about three years.”
That made Chaff look up. “That was when the revolution started!”
Wozek smirked and ruffled his hair. “Can’t get anything past you, can I? He was one of Banden’s men, that’s right. Only good thing about him, in my opinion.”
“Why-?” Chaff began, but he was cut off.
“Captain!” shouted Wozek, waving towards a woman at the steering wheel. “Drael has something to tell you.”
The woman looked up, nodded, and moved past them without another word. The captain didn’t talk to Chaff much, except when the big guy needed feeding: as far as he could tell, she was capable, intelligent, and diligent in her work. But even if she was the captain, always, always, Wozek was in charge.
“You wanted to say something to me, Chaff?” asked Wozek, after the captain had gone.
“I’s just wondering why you coming with us.” Chaff looked at his feet (clean of mud and dirt for perhaps the first time in his life), and twiddled his thumbs. “It’s weird, yeah? Coming all this way just for me. Bringing everybody with you.”
Wozek smiled. “Chaff, I mean nothing by this, but it’s not all about you. Everybody here wants to go.”
Chaff looked around. Wozek’s people turned their heads away when he stared at them; was it just his imagination, or were they avoiding his gaze?
“We go to Moscoleon first. You’ll finish your business there, and we’ll prepare for our journey further north to the Seat of the King,” said Wozek. He knelt down to so that he could look Chaff in the eye. “We want to join Banden. We want to be part of his revolution. And I hope you’ll join us.”
The boy stared at Wozek, unsure what he was asking. He had never been part of a revolution before. He didn’t know what that entailed.
Wozek put a gentle hand on Chaff’s shoulder, not pushy, just present. His smile was still friendly, his eyes still reasonable. “Your talent would be…appreciated.”
That made Chaff take a step back. Lookout had warned him about this.
Immediately, Wozek let Chaff go. He seemed to have known that he had crossed a line. How did he know? How could he read people’s faces so easily? “It’s OK if you don’t want to,” he said. “I won’t push you. But I strongly encourage you to consider it.”
“Why are you doing it? Do you know the king?” Chaff asked, before he could stop himself. He bit his tongue. He hadn’t meant to sound so impudent.
“I wish I did,” said Wozek, wistfully. “I saw him once, giving one of his speeches. It was like…like having the Lady Summer’s fire poured into my ears. His words made light, his voice burned away lies until all I saw was truth. The Fifth Age of man has come, Chaff, and the time for kings is no more. I want to be part of that. We all do.”
It sounded like a load of nonsense to Chaff, but he had the sense at least to not say that out loud. There was something that irked him, though. “I thought Banden was a king, though?” he asked. Had he remembered it wrong?
“No,” snapped Wozek, quickly. “No. His opponents and enemies are the only ones that call him a king, even as they also name him traitor and usurper. He knows he is just a man. He knows he has killed the last king of Albumere.”
Chaff looked back down. How could just one man cause this much…pain? Banden’s war had pushed Loom to her betrayal. His war had sent the fieldmen into Shira Hay, and his war had sent the nomads out. And what was he even fighting for? Chaff could understand killing someone for food, for clothes, for a bed to sleep in and for the safety of the things that were precious to him. But freedom? Freedom was nebulous. Freedom had never fed Chaff or kept him warm at night.
Wozek squeezed Chaff’s shoulder. “I’ll let you think about it.”
He walked away, and he left Chaff alone, among the bustling crew. The sailors’ face were drawn with worry: not despair or fear, just a tense, tight anxiety. Chaff looked ahead and saw an advancing line of bruised clouds on the horizon. The waves were getting choppier and more violent, and the wind was picking up strength. Perhaps Drael wasn’t such an idiot after all.
Chaff backed out of the way as the crew set to rigging the sails, to turning the wheels, to greasing the hinges or whatever it was they did to steer the barge. By the mast, the big guy was starting to stamp his hooves, his eyes rolling as people ran around and under him.
“Hey, hey, big guy,” said Chaff, ducking around the sailors to make his way to his friend. “It’s OK. Shh. Got nothing to worry ‘bout. Just a little rain, yeah? Maybe there’s lightning. We hold some bark up, get hit, and you eat the burned bit. You like the burned bits, yeah? Course you do. Course you do, big guy.”
Despite the crescendo of activity around him, Chaff felt no fear. How could he? He was by the sea, and he liked the sea. It made him feel safe, even as the clouds advanced and the winds grew stronger.
“I’m not running away this time,” said Chaff, out loud. He held the big guy close, and the camelopard towered above him, warm and close. Together, they were indomitable. “No running away no more, that’s right.”
“Chaff!” shouted Wozek, as he started to head below decks. “It’s going to get miserable up here. Get down, where it’ll be dry.”
Chaff looked up at the camelopard. “Nah. If the big guy stays, I stay. I don’t like leaving my friends behind.”
Wozek’s face changed slowly. First he looked concerned, then a slow smile spread across his face, and then he hid it. “I see,” he said. And then he walked away, down, where Chaff’s other friend was sleeping.