Jova had heard a peckerbeetle once in her life. It had bored into the side of the tree near her house in Moscoleon and had spent the rest of the day knocking its beak against the trunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. The incessant rhythm had been enough to drive a seeing man to madness, but to Jova it had been near torture.
Sovar-l’hana’s writing was worse. Scribble. Scribble. Scribble. Dip, tap-tap. Jova wasn’t sure if she had ever heard Sovar-l’hana without the constant scratch of his quill.
He wasn’t even writing contracts, for Jova’s sale or anyone else’s; from Darpah’s neurotic mutterings, Jova had learned that the slaves prepared those, and “the master” just signed off on them. By extension, Jova had learned that Darpah could read, write, and apparently understood Jhidnu trade law. It was odd, how a man like that could be so educated and yet so servile.
Jova shook her head. It wasn’t odd, with a tabula. She had never known the terror of having her soul held by another person. Who was she to judge?
She flexed her fingers. She was in some position to judge. Her palms were far from healed, but they no longer leaked blood, which Jova supposed was a good thing. Darpah had just changed the bandages a few hours ago, starting half-conversations with Jova while stopping and admonishing himself the whole time, but her hands were still grimy and slick.
The master tapped his knuckles on the desk, and the air rippled. So quick was the summoning that Jova barely heard the hum of the tabula.
A part of her wished she had met Sovar-l’hana under different circumstances. A man like him must have known everything there was to know tabula. Perhaps even something that would have helped Jova.
“It’s done,” said Sovar-l’hana, and Jova cocked her head. Which dog had he summoned this time? “Give him the girl, and this as well. If the seal breaks before it gets where it needs to go, both the intended recipient and I will be very displeased. And you know how I am when I’m displeased, ha!”
“Ay,” muttered the man. Too subdued to be Dandal. Too insolent to be Darpah.
“Good morning, Chetan,” Jova muttered, as the slave limped to her side.
“How is it good?” he growled back, and yanked on her chain. Jova stumbled after him, doing her best to follow without knowing where he was leading her. She resisted the urge to claw at the collar around her neck. As she had laid there in the slave pens last night, she had realized something: everyone wore the chains, but only she had to follow them. Like an animal that couldn’t be reasoned with, she had to be pulled and tugged where she needed to go.
Was this what Ma had meant, that bad people would hurt her if they knew her secret? That they would no longer treat her as a person?
Jova stumbled down the steps of Sovar-l’hana’s mansion, her head bowed. She had never been treated as a person. These men treated her like beasts, it was true, but Ma and Da, as loving as they had been, had handled her like a fragile object that could be broken at any time. Arim had used her as a path to a better life. The Hag Gar Gan had seen her as an amusing pet at best.
Rho Hat Pan had lived some kind of redemptive fantasy through her. She had been a convenience for him, nothing more.
It dawned on Jova that no one, in her entire life, had ever acted as if she was her own person, and she didn’t even have a tabula for them to hold. That was just how people were.
Chetan, as direct and business-like as he was, walked slowly. Sometimes, Jova would stop, and he would have to tug and pull on her chain to get her moving again. When he did, he would wince and stumble, and Jova took some small pleasure in that. It was her rebellion, as little as it was.
She stopped doing that, after nearly half an hour of walking, though. It must have been hard on him, with his limp, and it had quickly turned from rebellious to cruel. Was he really taking her all the way to the city limits?
It must have been so convenient, summoning and all the ways it could be exploited. One tap of the finger and Chetan had been whisked from Ladies knew where to do his master’s bidding. There were so many ways it could be used, if only people were a bit more trusting. If only, Jova thought, they could afford a bit more trust.
Jova scratched her chest. She never had the chance to try, but after everything that had happened, perhaps it was better that she hadn’t.
It was slow progress. A couple times, as she followed the sounds of his steps, Jova nearly passed Chetan. She settled for walking beside him, listening to his unsteady gait and the clink of her chains.
She didn’t know how much longer she had in Jhidnu. If they truly were leaving, then she had not long at all.
She wouldn’t miss the city much. She had been so young when she left, so afraid and so confused, that it hadn’t felt like home in the slightest. But Mo was here, and she had hoped to find her parents, to at least speak to them before she was taken away…
“I’m going to ask you a question,” said Jova, as they walked. “Is that all right?”
“Harder to break than you seem,” growled Chetan. “You’re bought and paid for. Ask your question if you want, but mind your tongue around master Doshrigaw.”
“Where did you get your limp?”
Chetan didn’t answer her. He just hobbled on, and Jova followed him. She didn’t mind the breaks in the conversation; she was used to them. Finally, as he pulled her down a street corner, he spoke. “There’s a story behind it.”
“Then tell me a story,” said Jova. She bit her lip. Was that too impudent?
“You’re surrounded by stories, girl,” said Chetan. “City’s full of them, and they’re all tragedies. Darpah’s got a story. Dandal, the arrogant sod, he’s got a story. Sovar has two stories, before and after he earned the name l’hana. Everyone you know has got a fucking story.”
“You’re the only one I know with a limp.”
“Really? You’re not the only blind girl I know, or the only zealot, or the only one who’s missing her tabula, even.” Chetan’s grip loosened on Jova’s chain. His tone grew wistful. “There’s no point in knowing my story, girl. What do the names Jetta and Krish and Kal Matushew mean to you? You’ll just forget. The only story that matters is your own.”
The city of light grew more subdued, quieter and less rank, as they walked further and further from its center. Jova could no longer hear the moans from beneath the streets. “Is that what you tell yourself, when you’re nailing our hands to the walls?” asked Jova.
“It’s the truth, little girl,” said Chetan, although it was without his customary growl. He sounded tired, not angry.
“The truth is that all people have stories. You tell yourself that they don’t matter.”
Chetan wheezed. It almost sounded like he was laughing. “Little girl, you are too wise to be a slave.”
“As are you,” said Jova. “I just wish you were kinder.”
“And I wish you were crueler. There’s all kinds of pain on Albumere. It makes people swell with all manner of sin, until there’s no room left for kindness.”
They lapsed into silence, as Jova wondered about the mystery of Chetan’s limp.
“Could I tell you a story, then?” she asked, as they walked.
“Speak, if you will. I shall not stop you.”
“It’s from the scripture of Moscoleon,” said Jova. She furrowed her brow; her memory was foggy, but she could remember it well enough. It had been one of her favorites, when she had sat at the feet of Pontiff Zain and listened to his booming voice. “It’s about the Lady Summer, and how she earned her wings.”
She didn’t miss Chetan’s derisive grunt. They did not hold the goddesses in particularly high esteem, in Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, but they held to them, nonetheless. What other gods were there to worship? The walking trees? The demons of the Deep?
“She, the youngest and least of the Ladies, called to them. ‘Come, sisters, I have a new game!’ she said. They flew down to meet her, and her heart grew sick with envy, for she could not yet fly. ‘See the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs? Whoever smites the most shall be the winner.’”
“‘What is the wager?’ said the Lady Fall, who cared not for the game but wished to know more of her sister’s heart.”
“‘I do not like this game,’ said the Lady Winter, who was gentle and loving. ‘What have the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs done to wrong us?’”
“Nothing, said the Lady Spring, for her sister was not yet worthy to speak to.”
“The Lady Summer had a plan, from the start. ‘If I win this game,’ she said, ‘then the loser shall give me their wings. Spring, you bear the wings of the lady bird. Winter, you bear the wings of the owl. Fall, you bear the wings of the bat. You have all had them for so long, while I have had none. It is only fitting that we share.’”
“The Lady Spring nodded, and her sisters agreed in turn. Though her sisters were swift in the air, the Lady Summer looked upon the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs, and burned them with her light. She crushed them with her hammer, and delighted in her slaughter, for though she could not fly, she felt no need to as a titan among lesser things. She won by a great score, and returned to her sister’s full of pride.”
“But the Lady Winter looked upon her with sadness, for she had not slain a single one of the antbeetles, or the flies, or the wandering bugs, but put them in a long sleep with her breath. And the Lady Fall looked upon her with knowing, for she had listened to the secrets of all those who had curled in the shadows to die before taking their small lives. And the Lady Spring looked upon her with no feeling on her face, and spoke thus: ‘You have won your game, and for this we shall not give you our wings, but make you new wings, wings of your own.’”
“The Lady Summer’s joy lasted for but a second, for then the Lady Spring turned her into a beetle, with wings dyed the color of the blood she had spilt, with dark spots like all the bodies she had crushed, and the sun no longer shone and the first night came. The Lady Summer fled into the world, and hid, for though she had wings, now she was a small thing. She saw the Lady Spring wander the world, and with Summer’s fire restore life to the flies she had crushed, and thus were born the summer flies, who still light the way by night, and the Lady Summer saw a great beauty in the things she had killed.”
“She saw their beauty, and yet did not dare to follow it, for in the dark of the night all manner of things that could kill a little beetle still lurked. For the first time, the Lady Summer felt pity.”
“The Lady Spring restored the Lady Summer on the first dawn of the first morning, but left her the wings: a lady bug’s wings, red, dotted with black. ‘Take you your hammer,’ said the Lady Spring. ‘And with it, lend strength to the antbeetles, and the flies, and the wandering bugs, for you know both the minds of the hunter and the hunted.’”
“And the Lady Summer wept, for this was the first time she had seen her sister smile, and she joined her sisters in flight, for now she was worthy. Every night, when the suns dips below the horizon, the Lady Summer becomes a lady bug again, and is led by the summer flies, to remember what it is to be small.”
Jova stopped. The images—the light of the summer flies, the fluttering of the beetle wings, the Lady Summer’s great marble hammer—danced in her mind like a dream long forgotten.
“Well told. Perhaps in another life you could have been a pontiff,” said Chetan, his voice very hoarse. “But it is a story for children. I do not see what it proves.”
Jova reached out, feeling for Chetan’s hands, and he did not resist when she put her ruined palms over his. “Take you your hammer, and with it lend strength to us,” she said. “For you know both the minds of the slaver and the enslaved.”
Chetan’s wheezing grew harsher, until he was bent double with hacking coughs. “I am no champion,” he said, when he had gathered the strength to speak. “Kindness ill fits me still, little girl.”
Jova let his hands go, and bowed her head once more. She wasn’t sure why she had said that to him, this man who had driven nails into her hands. Perhaps it was because it pained her to know a good man did such terrible things. Perhaps it was because he was not a good man at all.
“Go. Take these letters, and deliver them to your new master. He is waiting,” said Chetan, giving her a push in the right direction. It was some kind of encampment, by the sounds of it, well beyond the limits of Jhidnu-by-the-Sea. “I will not see you again.”
“And I have never seen you,” said Jova, as she shuffled away. “But despite what you think, I will remember you, and the little part I played in your story.”
“Farewell, little girl,” said Chetan, firmly, and he turned and limped down the path, back to the city of light.
As Jova walked, clutching the two rolls of parchment in her hands, towards the sound of people packing and preparing for the trip to Irontower, she realized why she had told Chetan the story of the Lady Summer’s wings.
He had, in his own, twisted way, treated her like a person. No one tortured an animal. And he’d listened to her, even if he still disagreed. He’d said she had a story.
Odd, how the Ladies worked like that.
“Slothful Sovar-l’hana is too fat to come himself,” droned a voice, almost bored, in a nasal monotone. Jova had heard it before, but had trouble placing it. “I should have expected as much.” The voice drew closer to her, and she felt hands take the letters out of her grip.
“Letters for Thun Doshrigaw,” said Jova, keeping her head low. She didn’t know much about the towermen. No one did. Until then, she would expect the worst.
“Then he is ever so pleased to have received them,” said the man, and she heard the sound of the seal breaking. “You, there! Take her with the rest.”
“Yup,” said a female voice. Heavy. Low. This one Jova recognized.
“Dock?” she hissed, as someone else took her chain. It was disconcerting, being pushed and pulled by so many people at once.
Something was pushed into Jova’s hand, something wrapped in cloth with a handle and a hard surface beneath. “Don’t talk,” said Dock. “They ain’t seen me yet.”
“Don’t talk,” Dock repeated. Simple, blunt, matter-of-fact. “Only two towermen. Rest are Hag Gar Gan, contracted as guards and escorts. My job, or it should have been. And slaves. Remember our deal?”
Kill Dal Ak Gan. Earn your freedom. Jova nodded, keeping to Dock’s “don’t talk” rule.
“We walk past. You stab. He dies. I get you out,” said Dock. Jova could smell the manure of horses, the Do Yash spices that the sandmen liked so much. “Mounts can’t follow us into the city. You ready?”
Sweat began to break out on Jova’s brow. The knife, wrapped in cloth, felt like it would tumble out of her clumsy hands. A question came to mind, but she bit it back. She wasn’t to talk, or say Dock’s name. But, like the question of Chetan’s limp, she couldn’t help but wonder: why couldn’t Dock do this herself? Didn’t she own her own tabula?
Everybody had their own story. Jova had met so many people since she had left Moscoleon, and she had barely scratched the surface of what those stories were.
“On your left,” said Dock. “Get ready.”
Jova’s grip tightened. Why did Dock need her? Why did Dock want Dal Ak Gan dead so badly? Obviously the mercenary had been wronged, but Dock was in far more danger than a simple grudge demanded.
It didn’t matter. Jova would kill Dal Ak Gan, and she would earn her freedom. She could return to Jhidnu, and continue the search for her mother and father, and she would never again have to bow to the likes of Sovar-l’hana and his cabal of slavers.
Chetan was right. This was a cruel world that left no room for kindness.
But even as Jova wrapped her fingers around the handle of the dagger, she knew she didn’t believe that. Those other men she had killed had been out of fear, necessity, panic. And right now she knew that no matter what she chose to do, she would live either way. Dal Ak Gan would not. She didn’t need to do this.
“Do it now,” whispered Dock. “Do it.”
Where was Alis? What good were Dock’s promises to her?
Jova was just a knife to her. Not a person. What did it say about the world, that the only time Jova felt she had been treated as a person was when she was being dragged by a chain through the streets?
Dock’s probably going to kill me, Jova thought, almost as an afterthought, as she dropped the dagger. It rolled out of her hands, tumbling out of the cloth, and that was when the chaos started.
The mercenary did not scream out a protest or howl in frustration. She merely shoved Jova aside and reached for the ground. Jova heard it, detail by tiny detail. The crunch of dirt as Dock stepped forward and swept the dagger up, the rush of air as Dock flipped it a hair’s breadth from Jova’s face, the concentrated grunt as she plunged it into Dal Ak Gan’s back.
A horse screamed, and there was a crack like a bone snapping. Dock was knocked onto her back, skidding across the ground. The sandmen shouted, the hum of tabula beginning at once all around her. Was that La Ah Abi shouting? Was that Dep Sag Ko, mounting his eelhound? She heard barking, harsh and fierce.
Strong hands gripped Jova by the arm, and she was lifted bodily into a burly man’s arms. The rhythm of horse hooves was familiar to her.
“Anjan! Ell! Now is the time!” screamed a voice that Jova had never been so happy to hear in her entire life.
“Rho Hat Pan?” she whispered, as Stel reared and nickered. “…Roan?”
“Lies are not becoming me, Jova girl,” grunted Roan, and there was a crack of a whip as the shouting grew louder, angrier. “You see how all things are falling apart when the truth is not told? Why, in the name of the Ladies, were you part of that harebrained Dock’s schemes?”
Jova still did not understand. She clutched Roan’s chest, too shocked to make sense of the sounds around her, too confused to care. Before she knew what she was doing, Jova hit him in the chest. “You told me the truth was a shield!” she shouted, unable to hold back tears that were equal parts relief and anger. “You- you told me…”
“Zat, zat, Stel!” shouted Roan, and the horse galloped hard. The bouncing nearly jostled Jova from her seat, but she clung onto Roan even tighter. “Sometimes shields must be being lowered, Jova girl. And sometimes…I am making mistakes. Anjan! Ell!”
The barking grew louder. It was no eelhound that was making that noise.
“My little Lady,” sobbed Ma, and she clutched Jova close as Roan let her down from his horse. There was still shouting from behind them, and Roan quickly turned, shouting in the imperial tongue and snapping his whip.
“You came back to us,” said Da. He sounded sickly and hoarse, but happy.
Jova was speechless. Nothing made sense anymore. Minutes ago, she had been preaching to the man who tortured her, she had been about to become an assassin, and now people who betrayed her had always been loyal and people who loved her had never left. “I never got the chance to say goodbye,” said Jova, and she hugged her parents tightly.
“And you’ll never need it,” whispered Anjan, holding Jova close. “Never again.”
“Anjan! Ell! Remember yourselves!” shouted Roan. “Clear a path! Jova—upon Stel. There is little time for explaining. Take this.”
As Mo’s barks turned from happy to vicious, as she heard Da draw his knives and heard Ma’s vicious scream, Jova clambered behind Roan. It felt somehow right to be there, again.
Roan pressed something into her hand, as he kicked Stel into a full gallop. Jova felt it, struggling to maintain a hold as Stel bounced beneath her. It was two things, actually: a tabula, still warm from Roan’s touch, and what felt like a wooden disk, about the same size but with a rougher surface pockmarked with cuts.
Jova heard the men and women in front of them scatter as Roan snapped his whip. For a moment, it sounded less like a whip and more like the marble hammer, and the pack on his back felt like the shell of a lady bug’s wings. He remembered what it was to be small. Perhaps he had always remembered.
“Roan,” Jova said. This time, she knew the question to ask. She opened her mouth to speak…
And someone else cut her off. “Stop and return to your people,” said the man she knew as Thun Doshrigaw. “Now.”
They did not slow at all. “He is unarmed and unarmored,” muttered Roan. “We will ride past him.”
Jova began to speak, but something held her tongue. A feeling, in the pit of her stomach.
Then something slammed into Stel so hard that it sent both of the horse’s riders tumbling into the grass. Dimly, Jova heard the humming of a tabula, and the presence of another man, where previously there had been none. Jova heard a clank of metal, and a chill ran down her spine. Her stomach dropped as she realized what had happened. All the ways summoning could be exploited…
A man in full armor would never have been able to catch a man on horseback. But a man in full armor could very easily stand in his way.
She scrambled to her feet, still clutching the tabula and the disk in her hands. “Roan! Roan!” she cried, clicking her tongue. He was a distance ahead of her, lying on the ground, struggling to sit upright.
“At the Irontower, show them the badge. Be telling them: let the dead rest.”
And if Jova had been afraid before, she was terrified now. “Roan, what do you mean? Am I still going to Irontower? Why do I-?”
Stel screamed for one soul-wrenching, blood-curdling moment before something cut her screams short. A sound, like meat being sliced.
The ground beside her exploded in a shower of dirt, and Jova realized with a start that the tabula in her hands was humming. The energy of her fear and shock must have translated into it, and now Uten stood, huffing in distress, beside her.
“Come on, Roan, let’s go!” Jova shouted, pulling on Roan’s arm, but she had not the strength to pull him up. When she tried to adjust her grip, she cried out in pain as her palms opened up again, and blood began to trickle down her fingers. And the rattle of armor grew closer, slowly, steadily, inexorably.
“Let the dead rest, Jova girl. Do not mourn me,” said Roan. He pushed Jova away, his stumps of legs unmoving. “I will tell Janwye you still think of her.”
Jova moved automatically, clambering on top of Uten, gripping the molebison’s fur and trying to point her towards the smithsworn warrior. She would fight him off, she would…
And then she heard the thud of the broadsword. Like meat being sliced.
Her whole body tensed. Jova screamed, and whatever rational, human part of her remained shrank back into the dark corners of her mind. The tabula hummed until it felt like the whole world was shaking with her, and a different blindness settled on her. Black became red, and all was forfeit to her rage.
The smithsworn raised his sword to prepare a defense, cutting Uten along the side, but that was all he managed to do. Uten slammed into him with a blow that would have flattened a lesser man, Jova still screaming on her back. The molebison slammed her paws on the man’s helmet, again and again, and Jova felt each blow viscerally through the animal. It wasn’t just the shudders of the impact, it was as if she was the animal itself.
She felt everything. Felt the man’s skull shatter inside his metal helmet. Felt his blood oozing out through the cracks. Felt a sorrow that threatened to overwhelm her as she realized that no matter how much of this man’s life she took away, she would never get Roan’s back.
The air smelled like oranges. It smelled like stale beer and perfumes, and eastern spices, and offal. Music filled the air, the soft lilt of lyres and harps, even as more indelicate tunes sang out, plucking the heartstrings of the lonely.
It had been a long time since Jova had been in Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, but it was just as she remembered it.
She stood by Dep Sag Ko and his animals, the image of obedience. She would only get so many second chances. There was a kind of tranquility to it, a peace that kept Jova calm even as she stood on the roaring streets of the city of light.
The Hag Gar Gan slavers were less tranquil. Dep Sag Ko kept flinching whenever a bayman, bold as they were, walked up to him, and his fear made the animals skittish. This was not their place, among the clustered buildings and streets, facing the sea with the thick jungles to their backs. This place was a long, long way from home, for them.
“Eat,” muttered Dep Sag Ko, sliding his skewer off the fire. Jova held the thigh of chickenfrog gingerly, her fingertips dancing on its burning surface as grease dripped down its side. Her eyebrows furrowed. A whole length of freshly cooked meat, just for a slave like her?
The strangeness of it was not enough to stop Jova from eating hungrily, panting as the hot food scalded the inside of her mouth.
“The animals are needing cleaning,” said Dep Sag Ko, his fingers drumming on his leg. “Gen, Jova? Looking very nice. Presentable.”
Jova nodded. Dep Sag Ko really must have been worried, if he had forgotten that Jova was the last person he could ask to make anything look nice.
She didn’t question him, though. She walked away, hands by her sides, the cotton slave dress heavy on her shoulders. Other members of the tribe could handle their own mounts; Dep Sag Ko wanted Jova to prepare only those that were for sale.
Uten and Yora, then, as well as the few other animals that the slavers had caught on the way. Not Lo Pak the eelhound. Not Stel. Not, as Jova remembered with a lump in her throat, Cross. The elk was gone, and so was Janwye. All Jova had left now was memories.
Jova felt oddly hollow, thinking about doing all the old, familiar routines, but with these new and unfamiliar animals. She missed Chek, and his mulishness. The new animals were still afraid of her, still flinched at her touch and shied away at her presence.
She felt her way around the edge of the stables, hands feeling the bamboo walls as she edged her way around. Already her feet were sticky with dirt and loose straw; Dep Sag Ko didn’t like eating by the inn, and Jova had been unable to voice any objections. He seemed to prefer it out here by their temporary stables, amid the earthy smells and sounds.
To her surprise, the stable gate was already open. Jova felt a small surge of indignation. The animals could have wandered free at any time, and no one would have been wiser. That kind of carelessness was what had made the journey across the spice road from Hak Mat Do so arduous and dangerous…
But the gate had been left open because there were people still inside. Jova shrank back immediately, her ears pricked. That was unmistakably Dal Ak Gan’s voice, speaking in the imperial tongue.
“I do not trust them, and I do not like this,” he said, in a low whisper that Jova could just hear over the ambient noise of the city. Her skill with the language was getting better. Weeks of practice, listening to them speak, had helped. “Since Ya Gol Gi disappeared, I have had forebodings, blood-sister.”
La Ah Abi answered. “We needed them. Their swords and the arms that are holding them. It is too late to go back now.”
“Yes,” said Dal Ak Gan, and he sounded bitter. “But you remember, La Ah Abi. The slaves knew we were coming.” There was silence from both of them, for a long stretch. Jova quivered, not sure if she should walk in and interrupt their conversation. If she was caught, it would be the end of her.
“Soon they shall be paid, and then they will be on their way. You need not worry about them.”
“They knew, blood-sister. These fieldmen knew we were coming.” Dal Ak Gan stamped his foot, and for a moment Jova remembered who this man really was: not her leader, not her benefactor, but the man who had wrapped his arms around Janwye’s neck and held them there until she choked to death. “That woman, that who Rho Hat Pan loved so, she knew we were coming. How? Ya Gol Gi was so quick to kill her, and now he is gone. The fieldwoman noble was her master, and now she is gone…”
“You see candle-flames on the water and think them stars,” said La Ah Abi, her voice soothing and calm. “Today, your blood runs hotter than mine. Your mind is fevered. Your eyes are clouded.”
Dal Ak Gan said nothing. Jova waited, steeling herself to walk in like she had not heard a thing.
And then she heard the telltale clip-clop of hooves behind her, and she nearly ran in through the stable gates.
Both Dal Ak Gan and La Ah Abi shifted the moment she walked through, their feet scraping on the dirt of the stable. “Ya, girl,” barked La Ah Abi. “Dep Sag Ko is sending you?”
Jova bobbed her head, trying to keep her voice steady as her heart thumped in her chest. “Cleaning the animals, ma’am,” she said, arms crossed respectfully behind her back even as she tried to swallow her fear. Had Rho Hat Pan seen her? Would he give her away?
“Mm,” said La Ah Abi, shortly. “Be doing it then.” Then she strode away, curtly and briskly.
Dal Ak Gan was not so quick. The hairs on the back of Jova’s neck tingled, as though she could feel his eyes on her. When he spoke, it was slow and thoughtful, like he was considering the words himself. “You are knowing these animals so well,” he said, as if he had suddenly realized something. “Rho Hat Pan’s animals.”
It wasn’t a question. It was a statement, one that Jova did not dare deny.
“Are you knowing Rh-?”
“Dal Ak Gan!” shouted the man himself, as he rode in behind Jova. Stel snorted as she came to a halt just behind the girl, and then they all stood there, in silence. Was Jova just imagining the tension? Was her fear getting the better of her?
Somewhere in the streets, a performer had begun to sing. It was a bayfolk song, all thumping beats and undulating vocals. It seemed oddly jarring, with the quiet that continued to dominate the little stable.
“Clean the animals,” said Dal Ak Gan, finally. “The Waves are coming.”
He strode briskly away, and though Jova’s hearing was keen she did not hear him say a word to Rho Hat Pan as he walked away.
It was just the two of them, then. Jova clenched and unclenched her fingers, not knowing what to say. The last time they had spoken, Rho Hat Pan’s voice had been accompanied by the roaring fires. He had thrown her into the river, to drown, to die. Except…
She was not dead. She had set three slaves free and nearly escaped herself, and still the tribe did not suspect a thing. Not even the Ladies could give someone such fortune.
“You are being born in this city,” observed Rho Hat Pan, finally. Jova turned around, surprised. It was the first time he had talked to her like an equal in a very long time.
Rho Hat Pan exhaled, a long heavy sigh. “Are you knowing it well?”
“No,” said Jova. “I was very young.” What was he trying to do? Rho Hat Pan—or, at least, the Roan Jova had once known—never just made small talk.
Beside her, Jova heard Uten plodding in her direction. She put a steadying hand on the molebison’s snout, running her fingers through her fur idly while Rho Hat Pan sat there in silence. Neither of them talked. Down the street, there were a few cheers and the clink of those odd Jhidnu coins as the song concluded.
As always, Jova had questions for him, too many questions for her to properly sort out. There was only one she could ask, in the end.
“I have found my people,” said Rho Hat Pan, hoarsely. “I have been lost for a long time. I am coming home.”
“And the Dream Walkers?” Jova wanted to spit and point at him, accuse him of betraying his order, of betraying her, but she did not even know what the Dream Walkers wanted to do, what goal he could have possibly betrayed. As far as she knew, this was part of their clandestine plan, whatever it was.
He never was good at filling in the silence. Once or twice, Jova heard him begin to speak, before he stopped and cut himself off. At last, he said, “You will learn soon enough that we work in many places, in many ways.”
That was hardly the answer Jova wanted. It was hardly an answer at all. She drew herself up, and though she could only face his general direction, she hoped he could see her face twisted in anger. “Did you forget that they killed Janwye?”
She waited for him to answer. She almost wanted him to say something trite, something cold. Let the dead rest. If he said let the dead rest, then that would solidify his betrayal and Jova would kill him next. By all the Ladies Four, she would kill him next if he-.
“I will never forget.”
All Jova’s rage twisted and writhed. All of a sudden, it had nowhere to go.
“Clean the animals, devil girl,” said Rho Hat Pan, darkly. He began to ride away, whatever business he had in these stables evidently abandoned. “Do it quickly.”
And he left Jova again, with just as many questions as before.
She trudged away, sweeping the area for a clean brush. She doubted the innkeepers would have one lying out in the open for her to use, but she had forgotten to get one from Dep Sag Ko and she didn’t want to turn back now.
“I guess you’ll show up as you are,” said Jova, leaning against Uten and stretching her aching back. The molebison supported her placidly, snuffling in the dirt. Jova scuffed her feet on the stable earth too, hands on her hips. “Can’t expect a blind girl to do a good job, can they?”
Jova made a mental note to check on Alis. The girl had just been able to walk again without splints, to Jova’s delight. Alis told her that the burns were healing well, although Jova didn’t know how much she trusted Alis’s quiet, understated word. When there was a chance, she would check on her again.
Jova’s thoughts wandered. She had to admit, she liked being back in a city again—any city. She had never really entered Hak Mat Do proper, and being back among so many people for the first time since she had left home was oddly cathartic. This city especially was so full of life, so full of little stories, so full of hope that Jova couldn’t help but smile. She breathed it all in, the scent of cumin and cinnamon and peppercorn. For now, at least, Rho Hat Pan and his mysteries would not bother her.
From the gate, there was a polite cough, and Jova shook her head. She turned her head to the side, to better hear whoever was there. No one she knew coughed politely.
“You are with the tribe Ak Gan?” said the voice. Clipped, soft, male, and ostensibly well-mannered.
Jova cocked her head. The tribe had no name for itself; to the Hag Gar Gan, there was no need. But she supposed, if it made this polite little man happy, she would humor him. She nodded yes, and wondered how he knew the tribe’s name when they didn’t even know it existed.
“Ah.” Jova could almost hear the man’s furtive glance in the way he said it. “May I speak with your master?”
Jova pursed her lips, wondering if it was wise to bring a stranger to Dep Sag Ko. What did he want, anyhow?
“Oh, I’m sorry,” muttered the man. “Erm. Kaga iro pak gha zea wa tu?”
Jova moved from Uten’s back and stood straight. “I speak the king’s tongue,” she said, and the man made a surprised little squeak. “Do you need anything?”
There was a simpering desperation in the man’s voice. “If I may just speak with-.”
“If you need the animals, I can bring them.”
The man spluttered. “Well, I suppose- I just think it’d be wise to ask- are you sure?”
“The Hag Gar Gan are in the business of selling slaves, not commanding them,” said Jova. She meant it to be reassuring, but it came out as bitter.
“Oh, well, alright,” said the man, and his fingers drummed on the bamboo walls of the stable. “Just the one, if you please, though. Ladies know we don’t want to…to herd this crowd down the streets.”
One was fine with Jova. If it was for a good impression, Jova knew who to bring. “Enjoy yourself here, Uten,” said Jova, patting the molebison on the side. “I’ll be back later. Come on, Yora!”
The staghound padded forward, and Jova knew his stride would be long and graceful, his stature poised and respectable.
“Do you like animals?” Jova asked, politely, as she led Yora out of the stable.
The man’s terrified shudder as the staghound sniffed his face was all the answer that Jova needed.
“What’s your name?” she asked, instead. She closed the gate behind her, and held out a hand. “I’m Jova.”
There was a dumbfounded silence, and then the man said, his voice a little lower and a little less formal, “Darpah. I- I’m sorry, it’s just been such a long time since anyone asked…” He shook Jova’s hand, and his touch was light and timid, as if at any moment Jova might try to tear his hand off.
“It’s nice to meet you, Darpah,” said Jova, smiling. It was hard to tell his age from his voice. He was a grown man to be sure, but he could have been anywhere from twenty to forty summers old.
“Yes. Erm. Likewise,” said Darpah, and he let go like he was releasing a vicious animal from his hands. “Um. I shall show you the way, and you shall…not cause any fuss. Mahashma?”
It had been such a long time since Jova had heard the phrase, yet she still remembered it to this day. How could she forget? It was the catchphrase of every plutocrat on Albumere. “Mahashma,” she said. Good deal.
As they walked, Darpah kept making little mumbling noises. “I. Erm. Do you need help? I could, um, hold your hand if you…”
Jova clicked her tongue by way of response, and Darpah mumbled himself into submission.
With Yora following close behind her, they walked through the street. There were no pious philanthropists in Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, no, not at all. The pedestrians pushed and shoved past Jova, and twice she nearly fell flat onto her back as baymen and woman rushing about their business barreled past her. She learned to sidestep them quickly enough. It was just a matter of getting to know the city, and its people.
“It’s not such a distance,” said Darpah. “Oh, I do hope we don’t keep them waiting…”
“It might be faster if we ride,” suggested Jova, as the claws on Yora’s paws clicked gracefully on the cobblestone road behind her. Her pace was languid and serene, compared to how Jova had to dodge past the baymen on her path.
“Oh, no, no, I don’t- that’s not- I don’t ride,” said Darpah, and Jova heard a soft clink coming from near his head as he shook it. Earrings, jewelry? He didn’t seem the type. What else could it be?
A collar. Bayman slaves wore collars made of leather, with iron chains that trailed down their backs.
Darpah’s behavior made a little more sense, now.
“Watch your step,” said Darpah, kindly, and Jova edged carefully onto the stone steps leading to the patio of…something. The hand that wasn’t guiding Yora along felt the long stone columns and balconies as they walked. They must have been very close to the bay.
“I’ll, er…I’ll show the beast in.” Darpah tapped Jova lightly on the shoulder. “Perhaps you could…wait outside? Master doesn’t like to see slaves around the patio. Oh, but it just wouldn’t be right to…to leave a girl like you out in the street…” The slave sounded so miserable that Jova was tempted to hug him and tell him it would be OK.
“Behave, Yora,” she said, and she handed the reins off to Darpah. “I’ll be just outside.”
“If you’re sure…” Darpah muttered, taking the rein like it was a live pillsnake and treading lightly away. Jova took a moment to enjoy the sea breeze, before continuing on her way. She traced her steps back to the stone stairs that led into the rest of the compound, and wondered what exactly this ornate patio led into. What if there was an entire palace above her head, and she didn’t even know it? She sat on the steps, imagining.
The streets were full of sounds as well as smells. The slap of leather boots on the stone was the most frequent, but Jova heard hoof beats and drumbeats, and the constant, lively chatter of the baypeople.
She thought back to her conversation with Rho Hat Pan. She may not have known the city well, but if she managed to get Alis and escape into the city of light, she felt like she could make it. Just the two of them, alone. It would be hard, but it wouldn’t be impossible.
There was the padding of paws on the street, and it was getting closer. At first, Jova thought it was Yora, but it was the wrong direction for that, and Yora’s walk was always more stately. Perhaps it was a stray. Perhaps…
“Fang?” Jova asked, holding out a hand. She had done her best to keep track of the pigwolf, but she had even less of an idea of its whereabouts ever since the fire on the river.
The animal was extraordinarily comfortable with her, and Jova marveled at her fortune to find a beast so friendly on a chance foray into the city. It had thick, matted fur, and a long, sinuous body, and a face with stiff welts on the side, and a happy growl that seemed all too familiar…
Jova’s heart dropped, then it leaped into her throat. Her cheeks flushed. Her breath caught.
The weaseldog panted happily, and Jova realized that she and Alis might not be so alone after all.
She emerged from the waters like a devil from the deep, and Alis could not help but scream. The monster climbed aboard the boat with her long hair dripping, her limbs tensed and bent like a spider’s, her scarred eyes pointed straight towards Alis. Click, click, click, she went, like a bell with no tone, announcing the coming embrace of the wide-eyed owl. The Lady Winter herself had sent one of her reapers to collect Alis’s soul.
Not as if they would find it on her. Not as if Alis would ever hold it again.
With every click, the monster twitched like a bird, her movements jerky, erratic, and irregular. She advanced through the flames, and Alis whimpered as she struggled to pull free of the fallen beam. It lay flat across her legs, wooden debris all around her waist, and Alis had long ago stopped feeling the burning.
The injustice of it all made Alis’s eyes sting. She pulled and twisted, but could not struggle free. Of course she had been the last one to get out. Of course the fire had reached the cabin only as she was leaving.
“I’m coming for you, Alis!” shouted the monster. “Tell me where you are! You have to tell me where you are!”
Alis’s eyes widened. She recognized that voice.
“Jova?” she called out, her voice hoarse and weak.
“Keep talking to me!” Something splashed overboard near the side of the ship, and the shouts and screams of others trying to put the fires out echoed in the night. “Alis, I need you to keep talking to me!”
Alis didn’t know what to say. Perhaps it had been the flickering shadows cast by the firelight, or the fear roiling in her gut, or the spinning stars above her, but Alis had not recognized Jova. She had been scared of her.
She is here to help.
Jova stopped, her whole body tensed. “Alis?” she called out again, even as the slaver’s cabin crumbled even further. “Where are you?”
Was Jova scared? Alis didn’t want her to be scared. “Don’t be scared!” she shouted.
And then Jova was beside her, her hands under the wooden plank, her face twisted in a grimace of concentration. She pulled, hard, but Alis felt the debris over her body budge only a little.
The fires burned hot around them. “Can you get me out?” asked Alis, every word carefully articulated despite their dire straits. Alis wasn’t very good at talking. She needed time to think about the words, time to lay them out piece by piece and present them.
“Only if you help,” grunted Jova, gasping and tugging. She backed away, and Alis could see the sheen of perspiration on her forehead. It wasn’t just the effort of pulling the planks away. The fires were getting closer.
Alis clawed at the ground again, trying to worm her way free, but as ever she could not. Where had the other kids gone? The grown-olds who had been taking care of her? Why was Jova the only person who had come to help her?
She is special.
“Together, Alis!” shouted Jova, over the crackling flames. “You push, I pull! Ready?”
“You have to tell me when you’re ready, Alis!”
The little girl planted her hands on the floor. The fire danced in a circle around them, like spectators at a gruesome sport. It was a game to them, as they cackled and watched. If Alis lost…
She set her brow, shaking her head to clear the hair from her eyes. She hated losing. Not games, not people, not anything.
“I’m ready, Jova,” she said, and braced herself. She would not end up like her friend in the jungle. He had lost the game, and now he laid asleep, cold and prone and alone. There was too much for Alis to do for her to fall into that kind of endless dream.
“Then when I say go, push,” said Jova. “Get ready, Alis! Make it count!”
“I’m ready, Jova,” repeated Alis, and she was.
Alis shoved as hard as she could, her high voice crying out as she began to push against the ground. She saw the planks crack and split where Jova dug herself in, and inch by inch the great beam lifted off of her.
Even as she pushed for space, Alis began to crawl forward. Her cotton pants ripped as she moved, threads of fabric tangling in the splinters, but that was the least of Alis’s concerns. The flames danced higher, a perfect circle around their little arena, and blinking tears from her eyes, Alis struggled her way free.
And as the pressure was relieved, the pain hit her.
It was as if every sensation from when her crushed legs had become numb under there had come rushing back. Her very pulse, pounding in her calves and thighs, made Alis’s whole body twitch and tense. She could barely breathe or hear or move.
“Keep going, Alis!” shouted Jova. The wooden beam slipped from her hands, and she sunk to her knees to catch it. “You have to keep going!”
Alis couldn’t. It was too much. Perhaps her friend in the jungle had it right all along.
This is shock. This is fear and pain. Will you lose to fear and pain?
No. Alis hated losing.
Fear is fire, said a voice like echoing memories, although Alis did not know what she was remembering. It laid down the words for her, piece by piece, slowly and carefully so that she could understand. Unchecked, it will burn away everything you are.
Stiffly, Alis’s arm reached out. She pulled herself forward, and that little movement caused Alis to convulse in shock.
Fire is hunger. It will never be sated, no matter how much you feed it.
Alis’s eyes fixed on the sky, on a single bright point overhead. The flames had obscured every other star in the sky, but this single bright point shone for Alis. It drifted lazily down to the horizon, and Alis reached out for it. Reach out, pull. Reach out, pull.
Do not submit to fear.
By fractions, Alis pulled free.
Jova collapsed next to her, and Alis saw dimly that her fingers were littered with splinters and scrapes. The water from the river had nearly evaporated completely in the heat, and thin lines cut across both of Jova’s forearms.
Live. She will not unless you do, whispered the voice. Alis felt the pain in her limbs growing even as her consciousness receded. She looked up, and saw movement past the flames. A person?
I will visit again when the summer comes, fallborn. It is my sister’s turn now, although she hates fire so.
And suddenly the flames leaped higher, the perfect circle around Alis and Jova broken as the fires ate hungrily at the ship.
Alis’s vision flickered as she saw the person burst through the flames. He was a legless man, who sat astride a horse whose eyes were bulging and rolling in their sockets but whose body was perfectly calm and controlled.
Jova stood immediately, her whole body tense. She did not say a word.
The man on the horse took one look at the both of them, and Alis saw him grimace.
“She needs help,” said Jova, and she put her arms under Alis’s shoulders and knees. Alis shut her eyes tight and froze as Jova lifted her, the movement sending spasms through her body.
Rough hands grabbed her and slung her over the back of the man’s horse. Alis felt detached, a ghost tied by some invisible string to a doll that others could toss around at their mercy. She laid across the horse’s back, too weak to even cry anymore.
Nobody moved. Even as the fires grew so hot that it seemed as if the walls of the cabin were dripping away, nobody moved.
“Why are you here?” said the man, finally.
“Roan,” said Jova. “Rho Hat Pan. Sir. This isn’t the place-.”
“I am seeing you with u-ha. I am knowing what you spoke of with him.”
“-or the time to talk about this. Look at her! She needs help!”
The horse stamped a hoof so hard that the plank beneath her cracked. Alis jolted on top of the animal’s back, and she clung on, gasping for breath. As Jova and the man began to shout over each other, she raised her head and peered over at her legs. Almost immediately, she turned away. She didn’t know which was worse, the blood or the burns. She didn’t have the words to describe it.
“Where is Bechde?” shouted Rho Hat Pan.
“Gone,” snarled Jova.
“She is not with you. You…” And suddenly Alis jerked forward as the horse galloped towards Jova. The man’s arm bulged as he gripped Jova by the collar and lifted her entire body upwards, and then he directed all three of them straight toward the fires.
Alis did not know how they survived it. All she could remember was orange and red light, and the heat, a flaring heat so great that it was almost cold again.
“You are wanting to go? Let us be going,” snapped Rho Hat Pan, and from what Alis could see of his twisted face, he was livid. Bags under his eyes and unkempt stubble did nothing to alleviate the sheer malice Alis felt radiating from this man.
They stood at the edge of the burning boat, as the stars sunk from the sky and the river sloshed beneath them. “Let us see how well you swim,” Rho Hat Pan said. He held Jova out over the railing, firelight illuminating her face while it darkened his. “If you are so eager to leave, then leave. You are frustrating, devil girl.”
“She needs help,” Jova repeated. She turned to face him, her expression unyielding, her ruined eyes somehow daring the man to make good on his threat. “If you tire of one cripple, take on another.”
Alis saw the man tense, even as her eyelids began to flutter. It was getting harder and harder to stay alert. It would have been so much easier to just sleep…
The last thing she saw was the man letting Jova go, before she fell into unconsciousness.
Alis had no dreams that night. She felt nothing, saw nothing, heard nothing. There were no mysterious voices, no mystic figures, no shadowed silhouettes. There was nothing she didn’t understand, nothing to confuse her or lead her astray. In a way, she was grateful. She wanted sleep, and only sleep.
When she woke, it was to shouting. Alis kept her eyes closed. She wanted to cover her ears and roll away. She had had enough of shouting.
She remembered the voices, but the names eluded her. There were so many of them, in so many different dialects and languages, that it was hard to keep track of them. The first man was the slaver, the one who owned the boat. The second was the new leader of the group, the one who—Alis realized this with some resentment—was supposed to be watching out for her.
“What was your plan, Dal Ak Gan? Hmm? What did you intend to accomplish via…via arson and sabotage!?”
“I had no plan, Kharr Ta. We didn’t know-.”
“Oh, well, that was obvious.”
“We didn’t know what was happening, either.”
It sounded like business as usual. Alis didn’t know how grown-olds usually talked about trading things, but she assumed it had to sound something like that since they did it so much. She opened her eyes, and immediately closed them again. Harsh light shone directly down on her face, although it did not feel like she was lying in the sun.
She moved her arms, and felt straw padding under her. It was, if not comfortable, at least amenable. Her friend in the jungle was not given a straw bed to lie on. The bodies that had been piled up after the raid were not given straw beds to lie on. Straw bed was a good sign.
She tried to move her legs, and failed.
Alis opened her eyes again and raised her head, squinting through light. Long splints ran down both her legs, locking them firmly in place. The girl tried to move, but she could barely even raise herself up to a sitting position.
Shielding her eyes, she looked up. The light was coming from a crystalline bauble, dangling from the tent’s ceiling. It was one of many, all hung from a net that stretched across the entire tent, catching the light and shooting it all over the tarp and the ground and the skins spread on the dirt. Whenever someone touched the tent, the whole thing wobbled, and colors flew everywhere.
A soft, wheezing sound came from the opposite side of the tent, and Alis looked to see an old man giving her a toothless grin. Alis smiled. She liked this tent.
“I like this tent,” she said, and the old man nodded sagely, like he already knew.
He was sitting next to a bubbling pot, and Alis eyed the fire underneath it uneasily. Her fixed legs had quite a bit to say, on the dangers of fire.
Outside, the men were still shouting. Their voices grew a bit louder as the tent flap opened, and then a bit softer as they were muffled again. Another one of those hide-wearing, charm-yielding men walked in. He wore a necklace of bones and strings around his wrist. There was a bird on his shoulder, who gave Alis a critical once-over before hopping onto the man’s other side.
He held a boy in his arms, and barely even looked at Alis before saying…well, Alis really had no idea what he was saying. The words were so fast and so sharp that Alis couldn’t even tell the individual sounds. Everybody in the group talked like that, and Alis tried so hard to keep up that her head hurt.
The old man responded, and the man with the bird laid down the boy.
“Biggest trader in all of Shira Hay throws a tantrum when one of his boats catches just a wee bit on fire,” said the man with the bird, putting his hands on his hips. He rolled his eyes. “Not like they’re setting things on fire down there,” he muttered, and he ducked under the flap and walked away.
Alis looked at the boy. He had welts and burns all along the side of his body; half the hair on his head was gone, his face looked like the blackened side of burnt meat, and the rest of his body was wrapped tightly in old cloth. As she watched, the old man came hobbling over. He had a ladle in his hand full of whatever was in the cauldron, and he dripped large dollops of steaming green paste onto the boy’s side.
“What,” said Alis, carefully. “Are you doing?”
The old man muttered for quite some time under his breath as he administered to the boy, until, finally looking up at Alis and seeing her blank expression, he said, “I…save.”
As the old man continued, she said, slowly, “Do you know Jova?”
“Where is she?”
The old man smacked his lips together. His ladle now empty, he walked slowly back to the pot. Alis watched him as he went, watched his wrinkled brow furrow deeper still, watched his rheumy eyes glaze over as he thought.
“Devil girl,” he began, just as slowly as Alis. “Comes from Kaza. Dripping allwhere. Had three tabula, but poof! Gone. I say to Dep Sag Ko this, but Rho Hat Pan say no. Is to do with Walkers.”
With his cane, the old man tapped the net above and the baubles and light-catchers danced once again. Alis laughed in delight.
“Talk to spirits. Guide me. They say, trust Rho Hat Pan. Keep devil Jova alive. I say no thing to Dal Ak Gan.” He pointed a cane at Alis. “You say no thing to Dal Ak Gan. No thing to no one.”
Alis shook her head, her silence promised.
“Ota wa, gul hay ak ar. Sleep, go,” said the old man. He trudged out of the tent, even as the shouting went on, and on, and on.
Alis couldn’t sleep, though. Her aching legs wouldn’t let her. Instead, she stared, transfixed, at the dangling ornaments. They were like the stars in their constant movement and their bright lights. Stars during the day. They really were beautiful.
Beside her, the boy stirred. He stared groggily upward, his face slack and drooping like he was only half conscious.
“I’m alive,” he said, finally.
It was all thanks to the old man. The old had saved him. “The old man saved you,” said Alis.
He turned to Alis, and the little girl had to turn away from the horrific burns on the side of his face. “Who saved you?” he croaked, a thin line of drool dripping out of his mouth.
Alis paused. What was she supposed to say? Just another slave, someone on the boat? Jova, or the blind girl, or the devil? Should she say anything at all?
Finally, Alis found the right words. She said them carefully, piece by piece, just to make sure she meant it.
Jova coughed. There was a certain guttural quality to the imperial tongue that she just couldn’t get right, and her throat was dry and hoarse from trying. “Sal iro Jova,” she said. I am Jova. “Hal de gha Hak Mat Do.” I am going to Hak Mat Do.
“Better,” said Dep Sag Ko. “But you still are sounding like a templegirl.” He thumped his chest. “Gha. Back, from your throat.”
Jova opened her mouth to speak again, but she choked on her own saliva and bent over in a fit of coughing. While Dep Sag Ko waited for her, Jova rushed to catch up, still wheezing as she ran. She couldn’t risk lagging too far behind.
“No rush, no rush,” said Dep Sag Ko, as Jova’s feet crunched over the loose sand. It felt warm, so grainy that it was almost fluid under her bare feet. “Eri zat, Jova. Eri zat.”
Jova nodded. Her vocabulary was fragmented, incomplete, and coming together piecemeal, but nonetheless she was beginning to learn the imperial tongue. It made her feel a little less foreign, a little less out of place, here under the burning desert sun, among the dunes of the Barren Sands. Dep Sag Ko called them Hak Ger. Three deserts—the Vigil Sands, the Dream Sands, and the Barren Sands—surrounded the sandmen homelands, and according to Dep Sag Ko the Barren Sands were the most dangerous of them all.
“Pass me my water, my tongue is dry,” said Dep Sag Ko. “You may drink some—only some—for yourself.”
“Yes,” said Jova, reaching for the leather skin on Uten’s saddle. The molebison walked beside her, and had no mount, but it seemed to be an unspoken rule that slaves did not ride. It made sense, even if it was not the most practical for the slow pace the slavers made. “Here you are, Roan.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” said Jova, biting her tongue. She had said it without thinking, and regretted it immediately. Thinking about Roan reminded Jova how absent he was. What excuse could he have to neglect Jova for so long?
She passed a water skin to one of those excuses, and Dep Sag Ko made loud, gulping sounds as he drank deeply. Jova supposed it was unreasonable to think Roan would have the freedom of movement to find her, but all the same, she missed her friend. She wished she had him back.
“Ya ota, u-ha?” asked Dep Sag Ko, loudly, and the old man muttered what sounded like a negative. “He doesn’t want any.”
Dep Sag Ko passed the water skin back to Jova, and she clicked her tongue to find Uten again. It took quite a bit of coordination, to hook the skin back in place as she walked up the dune, all while she tried to keep pace with Dep Sag Ko.
“Be careful with that,” said Dep Sag Ko, worry creeping into his voice. “It is a marbleman saddle. Very special. Very important.”
“Is this what you buy with your slaves?” asked Jova.
“No buying.” Dep Sag Ko seemed proud. “I take it. My blood-brothers and blood-sisters in this tribe see that I have taken a marble soldier’s saddle right out from under his marble ass, and are saying to themselves, ‘Dep Sag Ko is a mighty warrior! He is strong! And bold! And handsome!’” The aracari bird on Dep Sag Ko’s shoulder squawked, as if in agreement.
Jova couldn’t help but smile. Dep Sag Ko was awfully silly sometimes.
“Keh, u-ha?” said Dep Sag Ko, as the shaman began to grumble again. “Aya, zea ba va ota al pu. He wants his water now.” Dep Sag Ko sighed as Jova passed the water skin back to him. “Confused old man is not as young as he used to be.”
As they crested the dune, Jova felt the sand slip out from under her. She began the slow walk down, as she listened to the sound of the long line of travelers ahead and behind her. It was supposed to be a short journey, but the minutes stretched into hours stretched into days.
“He has more energy since you spoke to him,” said Dep Sag Ko, as he passed the now nearly empty water skin back. “I have not seen him this way for quite some time.”
“I didn’t have much to say,” said Jova, sheepishly. Truthfully, all she had said was that there was a better man to ask in this very group.
“To the Lady Summer, the sun’s fire seems small. Even if you do not think it is much, you are giving him much more than he had before.” Dep Sag Ko sighed. “All morning and all night, he is asking me, ‘Where is Rho Hat Pan? May I speak with Rho Hat Pan? Tell me more about Rho Hat Pan!’”
“What does he know about the Dream Walkers? Why is he so interested?”
“Not my place to say,” said Dep Sag Ko. “Not my place to ask.”
Jova fell silent. She didn’t want to ask too many questions if they were starting to annoy her master. She trudged through the sand, her head hanging. Uten snuffled and snorted beside her, sweltering under her thick coat of fur. When Jova moved to stroke her back, she felt that she might burn her hand; hopefully, there would be shade for the big creature soon.
“When will the winter come? This is the longest autumn I have ever lived through, and it may as well be summer,” muttered Dep Sag Ko. “I forgot how fucking dry it was out here. And boring. Nothing but sand, sand, sand. Wa ro Raj Mal Azu!”
Jova furrowed her eyebrows. “Who is Raj Mal Azu?” she asked, after a pause.
“Raj Mal Azu,” said Jova. “It sounds like a name. I know there’s Dal Ak Gan, the leader of the tribe. There’s La Ah Abi, his second in command. And Ya Gol Gi, the one that talks to the mercenaries. But everyone keeps bringing up Raj Mal Azu and I don’t know who he is.”
When Dep Sag Ko laughed, it was loud and genuine. “Raj Mal Azu is the most important person of us all. She is the Ladies Four.”
Jova cocked her head. “One name for all four of the goddesses?”
It sounded like Dep Sag Ko wanted to say something when the u-ha cut him off. He spoke the king’s tongue with a heavy, almost unintelligible accent, and his voice quivered as he rasped, “Not goddesses. God. A god one, who lives in worlds two, has faces three, holds a court of ladies four and lords five.”
Before Jova could respond, Dep Sag Ko snapped, “Enough nonsense! The heat is getting to you, u-ha.”
The old man lapsed back into the imperial tongue, and as he and Dep Sag Ko argued, Jova bowed her head and clasped her hands together, thinking. What kind of warped religion did they have in Hak Mat Do, where there were more gods than four? No matter how much the pontiffs of Moscoleon had argued, they had always agreed on one thing: there were only Ladies Four.
The thought of more was at the same time revelatory and terrifying. Jova had never considered that there might be others.
“Ladies Four, if there are powers even higher than you, powers opposed against you,” Jova muttered. “…Tell me.”
Although Jova heard no answer, she had to have faith that she would.
A familiar voice, speaking in the imperial tongue, made Jova jump. Ya Gol Gi approached her from behind, and Jova ducked her head. He talked with Dep Sag Ko in friendly, jovial tones, although Jova was too busy trying to escape his attention to attempt to translate what he was saying.
“Hello, darling,” said another voice, and this time Jova raised her head.
“Bechde,” she whispered.
“He really is intolerable, isn’t he?” Bechde put a light hand on Jova’s left shoulder: nothing overt, just a little touch to let Jova know she was there. “Although I suppose I can expect nothing more from a sandman brute.” Bechde sighed. “It is good to see that you are still…well.”
Jova knew what Bechde had wanted to say instead. She supposed that she should count herself fortunate, that she was still alive. “And you, Bechde? Are you well?” she asked, quietly.
“Well enough,” said Bechde.
“Have they…mistreated you?”
Bechde did not answer for a long time. “What they do is not important. Lady Spring give me pride, I do not bow. I do not submit to savages.”
Jova was taken aback. “Don’t let them hear you say that,” she hissed. “It’s not safe, Bechde.”
“I am the heir-daughter to the most powerful Farmer of Alswell. These are petty men who peck like ratcrows at the scraps their betters feed them. I do not fear them. They shall not touch me.”
Bechde’s audacity made Jova’s gut squirm with fear, but at the same time she had to admit that there was something comforting about her confidence.
“Look you now,” said Bechde. “The great pyramids of Hak Mat Do.” She sniffed. “It is smaller than I imagined it.” Bechde tugged on her hand as they slowed to a halt. “That’s odd. We’re stopping here, so far from it.”
As Bechde talked, Jova heard a different conversation. “Why ain’t we going towards it?” said Dock, some distance away. A desert wind carried her voice along with stinging grains of sand Jova’s way. “There’s shade.”
“It is Ral Zu,” said Ya Gol Gi. “The cursed pyramid. It carries old magic, from the days of the lost empire. Best not to disturb it.”
Dock snorted, not convinced, even as Jova turned away and thought hard. Ral Zu. She had heard that name before, she knew it.
Beside her, Uten fell with a heavy thump on the sand. She was breathing heavily, and reeked of animal sweat. Similar sounds of people stopping and resting echoed along the line, and the sandman leader’s loud voice shouted, “Fha bu yuri des! One hour rest!” Jova sat down beside Uten, even as she dug in her head for a long gone memory.
“They even have night and day backwards,” grumbled Bechde, as she sat beside Jova.
As Jova sat there, letting her tired legs rest, it came to her. She was surprised she still remembered, she had heard the name so long ago. The unfinished pyramid is deep in one of the most inhospitable parts of the desert, Roan had once told her. Foolhardy grave robbers go there, perhaps, but they do not return. It was the fifth pyramid, made by the emperor with four sons, the one that had whispered in his dying moments, “There shall be four, and a fifth to come.”
Jova hugged her knees and wondered what Roan had meant. It was one thing among many that Roan had refused to extrapolate on. And speaking of Roan…
“See where he comes, in his little throne!” shouted Ya Gol Gi, loud enough that even Jova, sitting so far from him, could hear. He enunciated the words of the king’s tongue oddly; at a stretch, Jova could imagine it as Roan’s deliberate, pause-filled speech. “Why does the cripple get carried when we must sweat and hike through Hak Ger?”
Roan did not answer. Jova hid a smile. The slavers would learn soon enough that they would have to wait a while for Roan’s responses.
“Is he too proud to even speak to me now?” said Ya Gol Gi, mirth in his voice. Jova heard footsteps on the sand as he drew nearer. “Speak, crippled one. Open your mouth. Or does your tongue end in a little stub now too?”
Nothing. Roan did not say a word.
“I grow tired of walking. Were you tired of walking? Is this why you are cutting your legs off, so you may be carried around like a babe before Fallow? Come, crippled one. Come here and show me that old pride, that which makes you say you are one of us.”
Roan spat his response. Jova couldn’t make out the words, but a whisper spread throughout all of the sandmen in attendance.
“You are joking!” Ya Gol Gi laughed. “Only a free man can challenge for a place in the tribe. It is a custom reserved for heroes and chieftains, and you are hero to no one and chieftain to crippled men. I should strike you now for your impertinence.”
Jova turned her head away. She didn’t want to listen to another beating, but before she heard Ya Gol Gi so much as touch Roan a wheezing voice muttered a single word, and Ya Gol Gi fell silent. All the sandmen nearby stopped talking as well, and both the mercenaries and slaves quickly followed suit.
Total silence had fallen on their section of the camp before the u-ha spoke again. His spokesperson Dep Sag Ko translated in a voice loud and clear. “U-ha wishes to know if you are the one called Rho Hat Pan.”
“Sal iro,” said Roan. I am.
“U-ha wishes to see the badge.”
There was no sound except the desert winds. “Eri,” said Roan. “I am sorry, u-ha. I cannot.”
Jova listened closely. Was that anger in Roan’s voice? Confusion? What did he think, now that this shaman knew his secret? Did he wonder who had told him?
The old man began to speak again only after a deliberate pause. “U-ha would like to remind you that he holds the tabula of all the crippled,” said Dep Sag Ko. “He-.”
Roan cleared his throat. “Sok chu tali mog sash han. Na baten da chok ro Ya Gol Gi?”
The shaman coughed once. Then he coughed again, and again, and he began to wheeze so hard it sounded like someone had poked a hole in his wrinkled lungs. It took Jova a while to realize he was laughing. He muttered in-between breaths, too soft for Jova to hear.
“U-ha says…” Dep Sag Ko paused. “Let him give the challenge.”
Ya Gol Gi made an indignant noise, halfway between a yelp and a gasp. “U-ha,” he said. “I insist, you cannot-.”
“U-ha says this slave templeman speaks the old tongue better than you,” said Dep Sag Ko, talking over him. “U-ha has seen nothing but sand all day. He is bored.” When Ya Gol Gi began to speak again, Dep Sag Ko added, “U-ha would like to remind you that you can still decline his challenge. Publicly. Before the tribe. In front of everyone.” Jova swore she could hear a smile in Dep Sag Ko’s voice.
Swearing under his breath, Ya Gol Gi snapped to Dep Sag Ko. “Give me his mount! The staghound!” Jova heard Yora whine as Ya Gol Gi mounted him. She clenched her fists. Bechde was right, this Ya Gol Gi was intolerable. “My whip!” he shouted. “And you, crippled one? What is your weapon? Can you even ride?”
“The horse,” said Roan, simply. “Come here, Stel. If you have her saddle, I would appreciate it. If you do not…I do not need it.”
Ya Gol Gi’s voice was impatient. “And your weapon?”
“I do not need that either.” Jova heard Stel nickering, and it was amazing how that dull old horse made Roan sound so much more like himself as, with a grunt, Roan lifted himself onto her back.
The slaver snorted. “Oh, this shall be entertainment indeed.”
Jova heard hooves crunching through the sand as the two men, now both mounted, began to circle each other. The people watching—both the slavers and the slaves—backed away, giving them a wide berth. Jova shifted as far back as she could, although tired Uten blocked her way and refused to stir.
“Zazo, Ya Gol Gi?” asked Roan.
“Zazo, crippled one,” sneered Ya Gol Gi. “I am ready. Go ahead and-.”
It happened so fast that Jova wasn’t sure if she could follow even if she could see them. Roan roared, Stel whinnied, and then there was a flat snap like ribs cracking. Something landed heavily in the sand, and Ya Gol Gi groaned from his place on the ground.
U-ha began to cough and wheeze again. Jova held her breath. She didn’t know what she was waiting for—applause, perhaps, or a cheer—but there was only Ya Gol Gi’s groans and his faltering steps as someone dragged him up.
“U-ha says he has lived eighty summers and he has never seen a rider’s challenge happen so fast,” said Dep Sag Ko, and he sounded slightly stunned. “He says you hold up the reputation of your order and more.”
“I would have challenged Dal Ak Gan,” said Roan, and he seemed to say this in the king’s tongue very deliberately. “But it is rude to take a stranger’s tribe from him.”
“U-ha cannot give you back your tabula until he speaks with Dal Ak Gan, but…” Dep Sag Ko’s voice lifted. “U-ha likes you.”
Jova stood. She didn’t care that there were sullen whispers all around her, that Ya Gol Gi was seething, or that Roan’s meteoric rise had to have consequences. Roan was free, and she would be too.
“I will take my animals back,” said Roan. A statement, not a question.
“Da, blood-brother. Who am I to keep a beastmaster from his companions?”
Jova beamed as she heard Stel’s familiar, stately gait approaching her and Uten. “Roan,” she began. “I-.”
A hoof as hard as stone hit her in the chest, and she fell backwards, her head swimming. “Move aside, devil girl. I have no time for you,” he said, and his voice was low and dangerous. There was no hint of mirth or mercy in his voice. He clicked his tongue. “Come, Uten.”
The molebison shifted heavily, stepping over Jova as the girl tried to clear her head. Even as he walked away, Jova could not process what had happened. What ruse was Roan maintaining? Why had he done that? I have no time for you. What did that mean?
But even as Jova tried to understand him, one cardinal truth surfaced in her mind: Roan did not lie. He told only the truth.
“I always knew he never stopped being one of them,” muttered Bechde, darkly, as Rho Hat Pan left them behind, and Jova couldn’t find it in herself to disagree. He had been growing more and more distant, more and more cold, and now that Jova knew his secret she simply wasn’t useful to him anymore. She could not gratify his fantasy of being whole again, but this Hag Gar Gan tribe could.
Jova’s mouth became very dry, as she realized the full import of that fact. She knew his secret.
And he knew hers.
The other slavers had drawn away, clustering around the newest member of their tribe or else going to spread the news down the line. The other slaves, curious to see what would happen to one who had just so recently been one of them, trickled away slowly. Even Bechde stood to see where Roan was going.
There was no one to watch over her. No one to stop her. Jova tightened her fists. She knew what she had to do.
She turned and slid down the sand dune, breaking into a sprint as fast as she could. A fortuitous wind blew behind her back; she could only hope it was strong enough to cover her tracks. Jova ran as quietly as possible, breathing through her nose, stepping lightly even as she sprinted for all she was worth away from the camp. Lady Summer give me strength, she prayed. Lady Spring give me fortune.
This was her only chance. Roan knew her secret. That was why she ran, Jova told herself, even though she knew it wasn’t true. She ran because she was hurt. She ran because she was lonely. She ran because she wanted to be anywhere else but here, where the last remnant of home had betrayed her.
Janwye began to shout out, but Roan covered her mouth quickly, muffling the sound. Jova tensed, and her hand gripped Alis’s so tight she worried she might hurt the girl, but she did not dare emerge from her hiding place and speak out.
A low whispering came from where Janwye and Roan were speaking, so soft that not even Jova could hear.
Her knuckles loosened slowly, and Jova just realized that she had been breathing heavily. Her brow furrowed. What had happened between her and Roan? Before, Roan had been like another parent to her, someone she could always rely on to protect and guide her. Now…now she was scared of him.
The pit in Jova’s chest seemed to open a little wider. How had things gone so wrong?
“What are you doing?” hissed Janwye. She was trying to keep her voice down, Jova could tell, but her temper was flaring, too. “If the Hag Gar Gan are coming, I have to go back and warn lady Bechde! The rest of the group! We must arm ourselves!”
“Remember yourself, Janwye,” said Roan. “Remember why we are here.”
“I am here to save my people! I am here to prevent the deaths of those I care for!” shouted Janwye. “You are here because you could not control your apprentice and let the girl kill a man when you pushed her too far!”
A cold rush ran over Jova’s skin, and a sick wave of nausea began to build in her stomach.
“Let the dead rest,” said Roan, and he sounded more tired than offended. “Janwye, please. Let the dead rest.”
“Only after they have died, Roan,” snarled Janwye. “And my people are not dead yet.” There was silence. The jungle air pressed in around them, hot and humid and stifling. “I’m going, Roan,” said Janwye. “Just try and stop me.”
Jova heard Stel take a single step, and Roan beginning to speak, when there was a sudden, heavy impact. Janwye let out a choked yell—a frustrated, angry sound—and then Jova heard her storm off, her boots thudding heavily on the ground.
Stel was padding around the jungle floor, her hooves kicking up leaf litter, as Jova heard something scrape across the undergrowth.
“He’s on the ground,” said Alis. “How’s he going to get back up?”
Jova raised her head. She heard Roan’s soft grunt, another impact on the ground, his tired sigh. “Come on, Alis,” she said, tugging on the little girl’s hand. “He’s one of my friends. Let’s go talk to him.”
Jova could feel the mid-morning sun starting to creep through the canopy as she trudged hesitantly across the path to Roan’s side. Alis followed close behind her, although her steps too were hesitant and uncertain.
“Do you need help, Roan?” asked Jova, after his customary silence.
“I am not thinking so,” said Roan, as he grunted again. Stel snorted and Jova heard her hooves trot, and then Roan fell back onto the ground again. It sounded like he was trying to lift himself up.
“You’re on the ground,” said Jova, pointedly.
Roan sniffed. “The truth, I admit. Another truth, then, I must be saying, is that a blind girl cannot be helping me now. It is very hard, what must be done.”
Jova was not about to contradict him, and so stood waiting with Alis, as Roan grunted and sweated and heaved himself up onto Stel’s back. It took him several minutes, long minutes of silence and waiting that only served to make Jova’s pounding heart beat faster, but when he was done he seemed to be in full control of Stel again.
“You should let her take a break,” said Jova, reproachfully. “You ride her too hard. All the time, every day. Let her rest for once.”
“I am lending her my strength, and she is lending me hers. She will be fine. She has been fine.”
“Even when she has to run? To escape?”
She waited for Roan to finish thinking, for all the pieces to fall into place in his head. “How much did you hear, Jova?” he asked.
Jova did not give a real answer. “When were you going to tell me?” she retorted.
“Sooner than you are thinking,” said Roan. There was a weariness to his voice, a resigned sadness and fatigue. “You should be going too, Jova. Find the animals, and hide somewhere far from here, before it begins.”
He did not sound nearly as urgent as he had when he was talking to Janwye. Jova scratched her chest. “Where do I hide?” she asked.
Roan didn’t say anything. He wasn’t moving, either.
“Where do I hide, Roan?” Jova repeated. “I left Jhidnu to hide in Temple Moscoleon. I left Temple Moscoleon to hide among the fieldmen of Alswell. Now I am leaving the fieldmen of Alswell to hide somewhere else. Where do I hide, Roan?”
“Ladies guide you, you will find a place.” Stel stamped her hooves on the ground, as Roan began to move away. “I must be finding Janwye, now. Be safe, Jova.”
“Roan, you promised-.” Jova began, but he was already gone. She stood, alone, holding a lost girl’s hand and listening to the murmur of the jungle.
It was now of all times that she wondered where Ma and Da were. How had Zain explained it to them? Were they worrying for her, even now? Wouldn’t it have just been better for them to come with her? Now more than ever, she felt angry at Roan for tearing her away from her family so suddenly.
She wasn’t angry that Roan had never told her all the secrets he had promised to tell, that he had never let her into whatever clandestine society he served. She was just angry that he had left her. He had promised to care for her, to protect her, to watch out for her, and even if he was doing that, it didn’t feel like it. It felt like Jova had been left to fend for herself.
For the first time in what must have been her whole life, Jova had no one to care for her.
She felt the grip on her hand tighten. Jova braced herself. She had someone to care for herself, now. People to watch out for. Responsibilities to shoulder. She did not have the leisure to sit by herself and mope.
Jova raised her head and listened. She needed to find the animals, but she had no idea if Roan had brought them with him or if they had been left back in the camp.
“Lady Fall give me clarity,” she muttered, spinning around, as if that would help. She could feel Alis stumbling beside her. “Where, oh where, does Roan want me to go?”
The pressing sense of urgency had left with Janwye; now Jova felt only an oppressive unease and foreboding, a tingling in her gut she could not shake. Her stomach clenched even tighter when she heard a strangled sob beside her.
“Alis?” she asked, and she felt the little girl’s shoulders shake. “Alis, please don’t cry.”
“I want to go,” said Alis, quietly, in-between sobs. “I want to go, I want to go, I want to go.”
“Come on, then,” said Jova, pulling the girl along as gently as she could. “We’ll go, see? We’re going. We’re going.”
Jova walked into the undergrowth, going as she promised she would, but not knowing where. She held Alis’s shoulders and smiled as wide as she could. “Smile with me, Alis,” Jova said. “Go on, it’ll make you feel better.”
Alis did not reply.
“Are you smiling, Alis? I can’t tell if you are, but you must,” said Jova. Keep smiling. Pretend long enough and it might become real.
“Mm-hmm,” Alis said, although it sounded like she was lying.
Jova wasn’t sure what else to say. She wished Ma or Da was there, or even Mo. They always knew how to cheer her up. Jova gave Alis a quick hug, feeling the warmth of the little girl’s body against her, and patted her on the shoulder.
As they walked, Jova clicked her tongue. She didn’t want to walk headlong into a tree or something silly like that, and besides that she needed some way of finding Roan’s animals. Uten wasn’t exactly the most vocal of companions.
When the sound bounced back, Jova froze. It was like there was a line of rocks in the foliage, but as Jova clicked her tongue again, she realized with a shudder down her spine that rocks didn’t move.
If she concentrated hard, she could pick out the sound of whispering from the undergrowth.
“Alis,” she said, very slowly and very softly. “Turn around. Don’t say anything. And don’t…don’t look scared, OK?”
Alis didn’t say anything. Jova did not know what Alis looked like, though.
As she listened closer, Jova began to make out the whispers, although it did her little good. They spoke in Roan’s foreign tongue—the imperial tongue, the language of Hak Mat Do—and Jova could not understand a word. Once or twice she heard snippets that she could understand, in voices very different from the guttural growls of the sandmen, but she was so nervous she could not process what they were saying.
Jova clicked her tongue one more time. If the slavers were lying in ambush, she did not want to alert them as to her knowledge of their presence; if she was fast, she could get away in time. But she had to know where the enemies were, and what they were doing.
The Hag Gar Gan sandmen had not moved. They were still and silent now, so still that Jova might have once again mistaken them for stones or logs if she did not know better.
“Walk faster,” she muttered to Alis, and they sped up their pace. If they could make it back to the camp in time, amid the safety of grown-olds and alsknights and zealots, then there was a chance…
Something snapped behind her. A dry leaf, an old twig, it did not matter. Before Jova could help herself, she turned her head to listen.
“Ilo ya gek! Zat! Zat! Zat! She is knowing!” The underbrush around Jova exploded with activity, and Jova stumbled over her feet as she fell into a sprint.
“Run, Alis, run!” Jova shouted, but she could barely keep pace herself with the little girl without fear of tripping and sprawling over a root or a bush. She stumbled her way through the foliage blindly, hands groping at the air as she tried to get away.
The voices were still shouting. “Dep Sag Ko, La Ah Abi! Rally the mercenaries, the attack is starting!” More voices carried from further down in the jungle. “One of them knew! That fieldwoman knew! Attack now!”
Alis began to wail, her little legs incapable of keeping up the headlong sprint, and Jova collapsed, chest heaving from the zigzagging path she had taken through the jungle. She crawled forward, struggling weakly to get back up on her feet.
And then a whip snapped above her head.
Alis screamed, but before Jova could rise to help her, a searing line of pain blazed across her back. Jova gasped, her body tensing, as the barbs on the whip ripped out of her skin, and she felt hot blood oozing down her back.
She heard the crack of the whip snapping over her head and rolled to get out of the way, leaf litter and mulch clinging to her wounds as she tumbled over the forest floor.
Jova felt panic rising within her, the same panic that she had felt in the house of Copo, the same panic that had caused her to beat into the man’s face over and over and over, and Jova felt so wretched that she thought she might be sick if she wasn’t already scared witless.
And then the Hag Gar Gan man above her choked and gurgled, and something fell heavily to the ground. “By the light of the Lady Summer!” shouted a familiar voice. “You! Will! DIE!”
The horror of what had just happened was only matched by an overwhelming sense of relief. That man is dead, Jova thought, breathing heavily. Dead. I shouldn’t feel happy. But it was either him or me. Him or me.
“Fang! Hold the others back!” shouted the zealot, and Jova heard the pigwolf pawing at the ground, snorting and snarling.
Gentle hands turned her over, and Jova cried out as the zealot tried to wipe the dirt from the wounds on her back.
“It hurts, Izca,” Jova muttered, doing her best to sit upright, but every time her back moved it flared with pain. “Where’s Alis? Is she alright?”
“She’s fine,” said Izca. “You, on the other hand…”
Jova cried out as something was wrapped tight around her back and chest.
“I’m sorry, I’m being rough,” said Izca, hurriedly. “But I have to get you patched up quickly so we can get out of here soon.”
“What’s- what are- augh!” Jova grit her teeth as Izca continued to bind her wounds.
“These are the bandages of the zealots,” said Izca, misinterpreting her question. “We all wear them, as a symbol of- well, there’s a long story behind them, but we really don’t have time for that now.”
Jova’s head spun as she rose, but Izca’s steadying arm held her up. “Come on, up we get, that’s it. You, too, little one. I’ll get you out of here.”
The sounds of fighting were breaking out all around them. Shouts and screams rang through the forest, and Jova shuddered at the sounds of nets and whips and cages. She shut it out and kept walking. Them or me, Jova thought. This is the real world. It’s either them or me.
But am I worth it?
“There’s a barricade back at the camp,” said Izca, leading them along. “Don’t worry. I know you’re tired, but we just need to get a little further. Keep up, Fang! We’ve got to watch out for our little ladies.”
Jova would have laughed if she had the strength for it. Even when she wasn’t trying to think about it, the past found ways to keep up with her.
“Izca, where’s Janwye? Where’s Roan?” Jova asked. The pain was receding to a dull throb in the back of her head now. If she concentrated on something else, it wasn’t so bad.
Izca drew breath to speak, but no speech came out. His breath was cut short so abruptly and so suddenly that Jova did not realize what had happened until Izca tumbled to the ground.
The second and third arrows zipped through the air and from the sound of the impact hit Izca squarely in the back.
“Izca!” shouted Jova, trying to turn the man over, get his face out of the ground. The shafts of the arrows in his back snapped as Jova began to turn him, and Jova paused, her heart beating in her throat. What if she forced the arrows deeper into his body when she turned him over? What if she needed to keep the wound facing up to keep the blood from flowing out? She couldn’t just leave him with his face in the dirt, though! She had to move him.
She dragged Izca on his side, but the man was too heavy for Jova to move more than a few inches. He began to shudder and shake, and when he tried to speak a sick gargling noise came out.
“It’s going to be OK, Izca,” Jova said, reaching for the bandages around her own chest, which were already slick and stained with blood. She winced as she began to peel them away. They had never been hers in the first place.
Izca made no move to stop her, but he made no move to do anything else, either. “Ladies…” he muttered, his voice oddly infantile. He could barely speak, his whole body shuddering as Jova tried to put pressure on his wounds. “Ladies, no…please…mama, mama…”
What mama? Jova thought, bitterly. To her knowledge, she was the only one who had ever had a mama in all of Albumere.
Fang whined as the bond between animal and owner was severed, although Jova heard no tabula crack. It must be in some pontiff’s house somewhere, with the little hole drilled through it to mark his service to the Ladies Four. Where were those Ladies now? She let her hands fall to her sides, slick and hot with blood, and bowed her head.
Izca died without last words. Jova did not know how to save him.
“Alis, get away,” she said, rising unsteadily to her feet. Izca’s spear, the one he had used to kill Jova’s attacker, had fallen out of his hands. Jova picked it up and braced herself. There was no running anymore. She could only hope that whoever had fired those arrows didn’t have any left.
She turned her back, keeping her ears pricked. Even with the screams and shouts, Jova could hear the footsteps coming up behind her, trying to sneak up on her. Every step was like a drum beat to Jova, impossibly loud, and every beat of her own heart likewise. She was aware of every part of her body except the parts that hurt the most.
Perhaps that was the point.
Jova shed no tears as she stepped over Izca’s corpse, her heart hard and numb. She had barely known him. He was not important to her.
Her fingers tightened on his spear, even as the little voice in the back of her head whispered, “Lie.”
“Alis,” she said, to the little girl, as she heard the man get closer. “I said, get away!”
At that moment, Jova twisted and lunged, catching the slaver just as he was about to toss his net over the two of them. Soft footsteps Jova could only hope were Alis’s faded away, and Jova turned towards the man. There was something cathartic about putting all of her focus into one thing.
The man snarled, swearing in that savage tongue as Jova stepped on the net that had fallen out of his hands and swept it away. Jova heard acutely the sharp metal scrape of a weapon being drawn, and readied herself.
At the sound of the first step, Jova twisted, cutting a shallow wound in the man’s side but failing to pierce flesh. His weapon’s reach was short: it was a dagger or knife of some sort, and he seemed intent on closing the distance between them. Jova couldn’t let that happen.
She stabbed forward, trying to push the man back, but he was nimble and sidestepped her easily. Her spear became an impromptu staff as she beat at his shoulders and arms, just barely staying out of reach of the blade slicing through the air.
It was too little. She was not strong enough to keep a fully grown man at bay. Jova found her arms growing weaker and weaker as the pain on her back grew and grew. One blind swing later, and the man had grabbed her spear and tossed it contemptuously aside.
Jova breathed deeply, hoping only that Alis had gotten away, that Ma and Da would not grieve her long.
And then Fang, Izca’s pet, Izca’s cowardly, bumbling pet, slammed into the man’s side and began to show just how much of a wolf he was. The murderer’s screams were drowned out by Fang’s baying and howling, and Jova heard approaching shouts and yells as other people were drawn by the sound.
Jova crawled forward, and after patting down Izca’s body she found Fang’s tabula. She slipped it in her pocket, right next to Alis’s. Jova was about to crawl away, when she stopped. Before she left him, Jova held Izca’s hand tightly. “Lady Winter come quickly,” she muttered, her voice breaking. “He served you as faithfully as any.”
Jova made no move to pick up Izca’s spear again. Arms shaking, legs weak, she sat and waited for whoever was coming to come, not knowing whose side they were on or what they were going to do to her.
She was alive, but she was tired. And she could fight back no longer.
The shouts to raise arms faded quickly. Jova tensed, an electric buzz in her arms. It wasn’t as if the conflict had been violent and brutal and ended quickly; the conflict hadn’t happened yet. An eerie silence hung over their corner of the jungle, and the thick foliage around them seemed to muffle the interference of the outside world.
Jova’s hands tightened around the wooden pole, and she edged towards the wagon entrance, keeping one hand to the floor to make sure she didn’t accidentally fall out.
“We are merely passing through!” shouted a voice from outside, one unfamiliar to Jova. His accent was neither that of a templeman nor of a fieldman; it could have been a mountainman’s, but Jova couldn’t be sure. “We mean no harm!”
“Prove it,” came Janwye’s angry growl.
“Janwye, you are being rash,” said Bechde’s voice, soft but close. “Lay down your arms.”
“Only if they lay down their weapons first.”
Quietly, Jova slipped out from the wagon tarp, turning back and putting her finger to her lips for just a second before sliding out. She hoped Alis understood. More than that, Jova hoped it was the right advice. The cautious plan was to stay still and quiet, but perhaps Alis was safer if she went to find help, or found something to defend herself with…
Jova shook her head. The girl was four years old. The idea that she would even stand a chance if things got violent was ludicrous. It was Jova’s responsibility to protect her, and Jova’s alone.
“You understand if we hesitate,” said the perhaps-mountainman. “We are weak from travel and you outnumber us five to one. We have cause to fear, not you.”
“Words from a snake,” hissed Janwye. Jova heard venom in her voice, thought, not in the stranger’s. What had these people done that had angered her so?
“Janwye!” shouted Bechde, aghast. “You forget yourself!”
“I am a free woman, now, Bechde,” said Janwye, and she sounded so angry that for a moment even Jova was afraid. “You cannot command me as you once did.”
Jova heard a sharp intake of breath, and then she heard Bechde’s deadly whisper, “Free you may be, Janwye, but this is still my caravan. My envoy. My people! You will lay down your weapon, or I will teach you the consequences of freedom.”
A pause, and then Jova heard the clatter of a lance thrown onto the ground. The girl relaxed, straightening, although she did not let go of her own weapon.
“Quele! Cropper!” Bechde shouted, raising her voice again. “Tell the men to put their weapons down, there is no cause for worry.” To the strangers, she said, “My apologies. I don’t know what caused my friend such a conniption, but please, let us amend ourselves to you. Something to eat? Drink perhaps?”
“No, Bechde!” shouted Janwye, angry again. “I draw the line here! Leave them alone, fine, but we shall not waste one second wining and dining them when we have places to be, friends to watch out for.”
“Your temper is still quick, Janwye,” said Bechde. “Has the Lady Summer touched your tabula? What could they have possibly done to offend you?”
“They lie,” was all Janwye said, and she stomped away, her boots thudding heavily on the jungle floor.
There followed a helpless silence, and then the man said, “We just told her that we were from the Seat. The draft’s come again, and Banden’s men have come kicking down doors and taking our tabula. We, all of us, traveled to get away from that. Nobody wants to fight a war in Alswell-.”
“War? In Alswell?” And suddenly Bechde’s voice was tense, too. “There is no war in Alswell.”
“There is now, friend,” said the refugee, hoarsely. “The plainsmen turned. A survivor from Shira Hay, he came back, he told us all—the duarchs slaughtered every fieldman in the city. Now they’ve marched on the fields, pillaging and burning and Ladies know what else. I didn’t think they had it in them.”
Bechde didn’t say anything for quite some time. Then, she said, very softly, “Find the woman alsknight named Quele. She’ll get food, water, anything you need. Thank you for the news.”
“You’re all from- oh, Ladies, I didn’t realize. I’m sorry! I’m sure everything…” The man trailed off into silence as Bechde walked away.
There was a little laughter left in the lady’s voice as she came back to the wagon. “Our little protector,” she said, patting Jova on the head. “Thank you for keeping us safe, Jova. We’ll get you a proper weapon soon. You’ll need- you’ll want it, I’m sure.” And she plucked the wooden staff from Jova’s hand.
“Proper weapon?” echoed Jova. “What was I holding?”
“In Alswell, we call these parasols. They’re for keeping the sun off your face, but I’m sure you could have skewered a bandit or two with it,” said Bechde. Jova recognized the exhaustion in her voice, the attempted mirth: it was the sound of someone who was doing her best to smile when inside she was breaking.
“Bechde,” said Jova, slowly. She rubbed her shoulder, trying to find the right words to say. “It’s OK to be sad.”
Bechde choked back a sob, and Jova heard her sit heavily on the edge of the wagon. Jova sat next to her, and put a hand on hers. She didn’t say anything. There was nothing for her to say.
There was movement from behind her, and Jova said, “It’s OK, Alis. You can come out now.”
And the three of them sat together, each nursing their own little wounds. Jova held each of their hands, and took a deep breath. What was there to say, that could heal the cuts and bruises that no hand could touch?
“Lady Fall bless us, we give you thanks,” said Jova, and she felt Bechde grip her hand just a bit tighter. “May we be wise, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
“Fortune be with you,” echoed Bechde.
Jova squeezed Alis’s hand. “Say it with us, Alis.”
“Fortune be with us,” said the little girl, carefully and slowly, and Jova smiled.
“Close enough,” she said, and she turned her head to listen to the camp. A buzz seemed to travel around the camp as the news of the refugees spread. Jova felt the same questions stir in her head that the people of the caravan were no doubt asking each other. Where did they go now? What came after this?
Bechde rose. “I’ll need to talk with my advisors. The other alsknights, the minor farmers. We have some…planning to do.” She took a step, before suddenly she turned around. She embraced Jova, a tender, motherly embrace.
Jova stiffened, more than a little surprised, but after the shock had passed she embraced Bechde back.
“You have been with us for but a few days, darling,” said Bechde. “And yet I feel as if I have known you all my life.” Bechde sniffed. “I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but you are very much like the daughter that was taken from me.”
“Thank you, Bechde,” said Jova. “You…you’ve made leaving my mother easier.”
Bechde cleared her throat, and she patted Jova’s head again. “I must be going now, before the rumors get too out of hand. I will find you later, once the talks are over!”
Jova nodded, and waved in Bechde’s direction. She stood, holding Alis’s hand—the little girl was too short to let her arm hang while she stood hand-in-hand with Jova and had to hold her arm higher to meet Jova’s—and clicked her tongue to get a better picture of the state of the camp. Her concentration was broken when she felt Alis flinch beside her and heard her whimper.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” said Jova, immediately. She had forgotten how scared it had made Alis the night before, and hurriedly bent to hold Alis’s hand between hers. She gave it a comforting squeeze, like Ma used to do. “Look, it’s just a noise. See?” And Jova clicked again, right in front of Alis’s face.
The girl said nothing. A pensive silence stretched between them, and Jova licked dry lips. How was she supposed to read the girl’s emotions if she wouldn’t say anything?
Just to drive her point home, Jova clicked one more time, exaggerating her expression on purpose. Her face drawn long, her lips pouting out in a ridiculous circle, she clicked a few times in Alis’s face, and to her delight the girl let out one small giggle. “See?” said Jova. “Nothing to be scared of! Are you scared, Alis?”
Alis didn’t say anything. Jova waited for a response, but none seemed to be coming.
“Did you just shake your head?”
Again, no response.
“Don’t just nod your head, say yes.”
“Yes,” said Alis, and it amazed Jova how the girl could say a one syllable word that slowly and carefully.
“Well, you have to say that out loud from now on, OK? Say yes or no, don’t just shake or nod your head, OK? Because I can’t…I can’t see all that well, so I need you to say these things out loud for me. Can you do that, Alis?”
There was a couple seconds’ silence, before Alis remembered herself and said, “Yes.”
Jova smiled. “Thanks.”
As Jova stood, Alis took her hand once more and asked, “What’s under that thing around your eyes?”
“Why, my eyes, Alis,” said Jova. A little white lie couldn’t hurt, could it?
“Can I see them?” asked the girl.
Jova paused. “I’m afraid you can’t.”
“Because my eyes hurt right now, Alis,” said Jova, in her best placating voice. “And I can’t take this blindfold off or else they’ll hurt even worse.”
“How’d your eyes get hurt?”
Jova, who had once wished that Alis would talk a little more, was now beginning to wish that the girl would stop. “In an accident, a long time ago.”
“What kind of accident?”
“I don’t really remember all the details,” said Jova, vaguely.
“Was it like the accident my friend had?”
“The friend I left behind!”
And the smile vanished from Jova’s face. She remembered a child’s corpse, face swollen, flesh distended, lying in that clearing while Alis cried over the body. It was hard to stay jovial after that. “I don’t know, Alis. I don’t know what kind of accident your friend had.” She paused. “Do you feel OK talking about this?”
“Yes,” said Alis, although she didn’t say any more after that.
Jova squeezed her hand. “Come on, Alis, let’s go talk to some of my friends.” As they walked away, Jova couldn’t help but wonder if ignoring the issue was the best way to deal with it. She was just a kid. She didn’t know how to talk about things like death and loss to another child. For the first time, the unfairness of the situation dawned on Jova. Any other child her age would have been teasing and taking advantage of this little girl, not caring for her. If Jova was like any other child her age, she would have done the same, but she had grown up in the company of adults that had always watched out for her.
Jova wondered what would have happened to little Alis if she hadn’t found her. Like Bechde had said, the wilds were a dangerous place for a child. What might slow, thoughtful Alis have become out in the jungles of Moscoleon? Who else would have found her? Hag Gar Gan slavers, that roamed the jungle borders?
She shuddered. Jova promised herself that she would never let the little girl live either of those lives, slave or wild. She had seen the effect it had on her parents, the phobias and fears that had rooted in them. Most people thought one was mandatory, but Jova knew that there was a better way to live. She had lived it herself. It was what made her take Alis under her wing, instead of leave the girl out in the wilds to die.
But to be honest, Jova wasn’t sure if this was a crusade she could accomplish.
“Who are your friends?” asked Alis, her questioning only dissuaded momentarily.
“We’re looking for Janwye now,” said Jova. “She-.”
“What does she look like?”
Jova sighed, long and deep. “I don’t know, Alis.”
“How can she be your friend if you don’t know what she looks like?” Despite the way she said it, Alis didn’t sound accusatory at all. She sounded genuinely curious. It was an innocent question.
“My eyes have trouble like that. I know what she sounds like, though. She talks very fast, and very loud, and asks all these questions, all the time- kind of like someone I know,” said Jova. She poked Alis in the side, and to her surprise the reserved girl shrieked and giggled. “She’s not all that ticklish, though,” said Jova, grinning, and she ducked under Alis’s defenses to prod her again.
Alis tumbled over, laughing, and Jova mock-wrestled with her in the leaves, glad that she at last knew for certain that Alis was happy.
They twisted and rolled on the jungle floor, until Jova bumped into something hard and sturdy. At first, Jova thought she had hit a tree, but that thought was quickly disproven when the “tree” yelped and shouted, “Ow!”
Jova rose to her feet immediately, brushing off her coza. “I’m very, very sorry,” she said, quickly, and beside her she heard Alis mumble something like an apology as well.
“Not to worry, not to worry,” the man said, gruffly, and Jova recognized his voice as the refugee who had talked to Bechde. “Children will be children.” He paused. “Children. I didn’t realize there were children here…”
You don’t realize a lot of things, it seems, Jova thought, but she didn’t say it out loud.
“There’re children here,” muttered the man, under his breath, at a volume Jova had learned people thought she couldn’t hear them at. “Ladies Four, if we didn’t lose them…”
“Is something wrong, sir?” Jova asked, hesitantly.
“No, nothing’s wrong,” said the man, far too quickly to be true. “I’ll be off. Erm. Mind your step in the future, child!” And he stomped away, hurriedly.
“Strange man, wasn’t he, Alis?” said Jova, and Alis, breathless, said something that sounded like a yes.
They kept walking, taking the time to recuperate. Jova walked in the direction she had heard Janwye go, keeping her ears pricked as she passed through the camp. Janwye could not have gone far. Jova wanted—needed—to see how she was taking the news. Knowing Janwye, the volatile fieldwoman might do something drastic.
As they walked through camp, Jova’s keen ears caught snippets of conversation. People were worried; people were afraid. Jova just hoped that worry and that fear wouldn’t touch Alis. It was strange, how having something to protect gave her such purpose.
Inevitably, Jova’s thoughts turned to her eyes, to the blindfold. What would happen when Alis found out? Jova knew she could not keep it a secret forever; she would be caught, while she was sleeping or washing the blindfold or simply didn’t have it on. Perhaps Alis would leave someway, somehow, before Jova ever had to tell her secret.
Jova realized with a shiver that this was how Roan must have thought when he first met her. She found herself holding Alis’s hand so tight it must have hurt, and shakily let go. She missed Roan: the old Roan, the guardian Roan, not the missing and aloof and absent Roan.
And just as she was thinking of him, she heard his voice.
“Janwye, I am trying to warn you! We must leave now! There is no further to go,” snapped Roan, angrily. “The journey was a noble effort, but it is over. What are these things to us and our order? They mean nothing now.”
“You don’t mean that, Roan, I know you don’t mean that!”
Jova did not dare approach them. She took Alis’s hand and skulked away, her back pressed against a nearby tree. She did not know if she was in sight or out, but she did not want to get any closer.
Roan took a while to answer. Stel reared underneath him, screaming and nickering. “Perhaps not. But even so, there is nothing left for you to do. How can you prevent something that has already happened?”
“If I cannot stop the war, then I can help win it!” shouted Janwye. “We won’t go to the Seat, anymore. We’ll go to…to Hak Mat Do! The pyramid lords will help us! If they won’t, then you can rally the clans again! You are one of the Hag Gar Gan, Roan!”
“You are speaking foolishness, Janwye,” said Roan. “Please, listen to me! We must go now!”
“Why, Roan? What are you so afraid of?”
“In your anger, you were blinded,” said Roan. “Did you really think that a man would not notice he was talking to a fieldwoman, when he was surrounded by alsknights, by slaves, by western wagons and the finery of Alswell, unless he had something else to worry about? His words, however true or false they may have been, were bait, to let himself in under your protection. He has more immediate concerns than Banden Ironhide and his conscriptions in the north.”
Janwye’s voice had lost its edge, to be replaced by confusion. “What are you talking about, Roan?”
“When I rode ahead—when I strayed off the path—I am seeing them with my own eyes. I know their strategies, their tactics. They have sent their bait out, and now they lie in ambush.” Roan began to talk very fast, as if he had planned this part out. “I will find Jova, the animals, whoever else can escape without notice, but you must leave now, alone. If the whole camp moves at once, they will be alerted, and strike, and we shall all be lost.”
“Who’s going to strike? What do you mean, Roan?”
“You do not need to find the Hag Gar Gan, Janwye,” said Roan. “Their slavers are already here.”
Izca was so helpful sometimes that it irked Jova. The zealot apologized profusely even when he hadn’t done anything wrong, and hardly seemed to be the staunch warrior Jova imagined one who had earned his feathers to be.
His help wasn’t even the standard charity of a templeman, who was bound by the Lady Winter to be generous and giving. Jova knew the people that gave that kind of charity: they were more concerned about themselves than her. It was a generalized, almost self-righteous kind of charity, as if they still expected something in return. But Izca seemed like he was actively seeking Jova’s forgiveness for something, like he wanted to make amends for something he had done, although what it was Jova could not tell and he would not say.
Jova held Uten’s reins a little tighter, her ears pricked as she kept track of where Izca was, his footsteps mingling in with the march of the Alswell caravan, and where Roan rode, Stel’s hooves ahead a ways in front of her.
It had taken some explaining on their part to justify their presence. Roan, evidently, did not have the same flair for the dramatic Zain had: the way he had explained it, they were not saviors. They were simply friends of the fields, bringing mounts and supplies and support in the difficult journey ahead. With Janwye to vouch for them, Bechde had allowed them to travel with the group. (“And I would be fool to let such a delightful young girl slip away from me so easily,” she had said, patting Jova on the head.)
Jova still had difficulty framing it in her head. The way she understood it, the caravan was split into two groups: the fieldmen who had come originally from Alswell, and now the small contingent of zealots that were escorting them back through the jungles.
Roan and Jova (and a few merchant hopefuls, Jova had not failed to notice) seemed to fall outside those categories. Some pilgrims had emerged from the city to travel with the caravan for the safety of numbers, and the alsknights agreed to protect the civilians in return for much needed supplies. With them, the caravan numbered perhaps four or five score in total.
They were headed for the Seat of the King, where the simple travelers would split off and go their own separate ways while the official retinue would try to negotiate a peace with the new king, Banden Ironhide, before war began in earnest. It seemed simple enough, in theory.
And, yet, the politics of the process continued to evade her. No one knew whether war had yet even begun, with Moscoleon so cut off from the rest of the world and Alswell so far away: Janwye was convinced that disaster had happened in Shira Hay, and dark mutterings circled through the travel-weary and homesick fieldmen. The number of zealots Keep Tlai had sent was nowhere near a real fighting force; they were symbolic, an indication of the Keep’s support, but if so then they symbolized only a tentative alliance. “Not enough,” Jova kept hearing, as the alsknights managed their slaves, as Janwye talked with Bechde. “Not enough.”
Jova flinched as long jungle fronds reached out at her, and ducked down so that she was a little closer to Uten’s bulk. Only a few had brought riding animals; the winding jungle paths were no place for majestic riders on galloping steeds, and more than once Uten had stumbled or tripped through the thick creepers and foliage.
The caravan, for the most part, was silent as it walked. A few pilgrims had tried to start a traveling song, but the thick jungle air had quickly taken away their breath and the natural chorus of the peninsula drowned them out easily.
Jova remembered her first journey through the Moscoleon paths as an almost surreal dream, the unnatural strength that had graced her in the days following her accident giving her the ability to forge through what would have otherwise been an impossible route.
It was only later, on her more frequent trips between the city and the Teeth, the caves where she had trained, that Jova had realized how taxing the thick air, the hot sun, the heady perfumed flowers could be.
“We’ll want to stop soon,” said Izca, walking beside Jova. Jova sighed internally. It sounded almost like he was trying to force a conversation. “It’s getting dark. Find a sinkhole, get some rest, light some fires. Not enough light gets through the trees during the day as it is. Once it’s nightfall we won’t be able to see a damn thing.”
“No, we won’t,” said Jova, scratching an itch under her blindfold. She decided not to comment.
“Big beasties start waking up at dusk,” the zealot continued, and Jova could hear the clack of Izca’s spear as he used it to sweep something aside from the path. “Pantherapes, spring tigers, that kind of thing. Definitely don’t want to mess around with those when it’s pitch black out.”
“Mm,” Jova grunted. She really didn’t have much to add to what Izca was saying.
Izca cleared his throat. “Funny, how this whole system works, isn’t it? We call him the king, but really what does he rule except a league of nations that hates him? I mean, I- uh, sorry, I was just- I was thinking about it, since we’re going to the Seat of the King and all that…”
Why was Izca trying so hard to talk to her? Jova could understand if the zealot was just a naturally friendly person, but from his tone of voice and his constant stuttering it seemed a great effort for him to just come up with small talk. Jova shifted on Uten’s back, pulling on her reins as she heard the caravan diverge to the right.
“I mean, he doesn’t have much authority, does he?” Izca babbled on. “We watch out for ourselves. I don’t think we even really need a king. He doesn’t do us much good, does he? And this one- well, we didn’t even choose this one, did we? Assassination and revolution, it’s really all just out of control…”
“Izca,” said Jova, and she tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t offend him. “You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to. I’m fine on my own.”
Izca fell silent for a moment. His feet made little stomping sounds as he trudged through foliage, clumsy and loud. “The Lady Summer demands that we are brave. The Lady Winter asks us to embrace that which we fear the most, and the Lady Fall wishes that we look to our past, so we may perfect our future. I must do what the Ladies ask of me,” he said, and his voice had a kind of quiet fervor that took Jova by surprise. That’s what it means to be a zealot, thought Jova. Not a fluke like me, not looking for opportunity like Arim. You have to actually believe.
She wasn’t sure if she was ready to believe, again. Not after what Roan had done, not after the fate that the Ladies had strung her along. What did they mean, to dangle so many opportunities and answers and hopes in front of her, only to snatch them away? How was she supposed to worship goddesses that were so cruel?
“I’m sorry,” said Izca, suddenly. “If you want me to leave you alone, I’ll leave you alone.”
Jova raised her head, letting the sounds of the world wash over her. Perhaps her prayer had not yet been fully answered. Perhaps she still had a path to walk. One asks for a reward for her faith, said a distant voice, in a sunlit grove from what seemed like a lifetime ago. The other has faith to sustain her, and understands that it is its own reward.
“One of my friends—his name is Ell—once told me that the zealot tests can happen at any time because they symbolize that we’re always being tested,” said Jova, before Izca could leave. “That it’s not just one hour of one day that we have to prove ourselves, but every hour of every day.” She turned to Izca’s direction, and gave him her best friendly smile. If the zealot thought it his religious duty to befriend a blind girl, then who was she to say otherwise? “I like it when you talk about the Ladies.”
“They saved me,” said Izca, and the stuttering had faded from his voice. “The drink promised it could, my wild brothers promised they could, hatred and fear and anger promised they could, but it was the Ladies that saved me. I’m not proud of who I was. Of the people I hurt, loved ones and strangers alike.”
There was a long pause after that, as Uten stepped over some obstruction in the path and the caravan continued its lonely march through the jungles. Jova wondered who Izca was thinking about, in the silence.
“This is my way of making amends. Of recovering. And if you don’t remember me, then…then that’s good. I don’t want to remember that person, either. But all the same, I have to ask for forgiveness. I’m sorry, Jova. For what I was. What I did.”
Jova took a deep breath. It still ate at her, tantalizingly close to the light of recollection, but the mystery of Izca and Fang, she decided, was one that she would leave alone. She didn’t have to remember.
It took her a moment to find Izca’s shoulder, but when she did she patted it gently. “I forgive you,” she said. Jova did not move her hand. She felt as if there was something more she had to say, but she didn’t know what. “Everyone deserves a second chance,” she said, finally, and she pulled away.
Izca sniffed. It was a prolonged sniff, as emotional as sniffs could be, and Jova couldn’t help but smile a little as Izca said, gruffly, “Thanks.”
They didn’t say any more as they continued walking, but this time the silence did not feel quite so uncomfortable.
Uten rumbled underneath her, shifting the furry hump that Jova sat on. The molebison walked close to the ground, and Jova could almost feel each step as Uten’s paws dragged along the ground. Jova tightened her grip. She had never ridden this long and her legs were sore and chafed. She doubted Uten had ever walked this long either, and she rubbed the back of Uten’s head, gently so as not to disturb her sensitive skin. “There now,” she whispered. “We’ll rest soon.”
“You control her so well,” said Izca, appraisingly. “She’s not yours, is she?”
“No, she’s Roan’s,” said Jova, wondering how Izca had known. Had he been an old client of Roan’s, somewhere in those three odd years? Jova shook her head. She had promised herself not to pry.
“Hmm,” said Izca. Jova sensed an air of disapproval from the man, but he said no more on the subject. There was a snuffling to the side as the pigwolf, Fang, returned to him, and Jova brushed down Uten’s fur and whispered comforting gibberish into her ear as the molebison smelled danger.
For a long time, Jova just rode. The temperature dropped rapidly with the sun: although the air was still thick and humid, moisture still beading on her cheeks and forehead, a coolness tinged it now that made it easier to breathe. The night reminded her of the walks she used to take in the Jhidnu wilds, peaceful and unbroken, listening to the chorus of the Lady Spring. The twitter of the birds, the background hum of the Moscoleon insects, the waking cries of the animals of the dusk: the jungle pulsated around her.
Uten came to a sudden halt, and Jova gripped the molebison’s back tightly. “They’re signaling to make camp,” said Izca, putting a reassuring hand on Jova’s arm. “We’re stopping for the night.”
Jova grinned. She was glad of it; she did not know how Roan managed riding for so long, when her legs were raw and aching from only a couple hours on Uten’s pondering back. She swung herself over the side and slipped off easily, using Uten as an anchor as she felt her way forward. She clicked, but there was so much background noise in the jungle it was difficult to concentrate on the echoes.
She did hear Fang whimpering again, though, and Izca said, his voice betraying his nervousness, “It sounds like some kind of batbeast, doesn’t it? I’ve got to admit, it’s a bit frightening.”
Jova scuffed her foot on the ground. “Sorry about that,” she muttered, biting her tongue. She forgot how much the clicking unnerved people sometimes.
“No, don’t be! Fang’s a coward, that’s all,” said Izca, quickly. He cleared his throat. “Well, it was nice- it was nice talking with you, Jova. And walking with you. I’ve got to go with the other zealots now, but, erm…”
“We’ll see each other tomorrow,” said Jova, nodding in Izca’s direction. “Bye now! It was nice meeting you.”
Izca coughed and mumbled some kind of reply, but even Jova could not make out what he had said before the zealot stumbled off to some other group in the caravan.
Jova stood next to Uten, listening to the relieved chatter of the travelers as they made camp, to the dull whoosh and crackle of fires being lint by flint and summer animals. The molebison beside her grunted, and Jova wasn’t sure how to comfort her. Who would she break bread with? Whose fire would she sit beside? Izca’s company had alleviated it, but Jova was just beginning to realize that Roan had not approached her once on the march through the jungle.
Was she no longer useful to him now that she knew? Jova felt a cold tingling in her gut. Roan had always been distant and reserved, but there had been a protectiveness to him that made Jova feel safe. Had she fled her home with a man who simply no longer cared for her?
“Roan?” Jova said, hesitantly, to the darkness, but no one answered. She trudged forward, trying her best not to run into people as she navigated the camp. “Roan, where are you?”
Beside her, Uten snorted and snuffled. Roan still had her tabula. Perhaps she would know the way.
“Come on, girl,” said Jova, rubbing her side. “Let’s go and find him.”
Uten did not move. She swung her snout Jova’s way and gnawed a little at Jova’s hand; she was hungry. “Sorry, Uten,” whispered Jova. “Roan’s got all the feed. That’s why we have to find him.” She tugged at the molebison’s reins and reluctantly the creature began to walk.
She kept her ears pricked for Roan’s voice, but the sandman rarely raised his voice when he spoke at all and she had little hope on that front. After she was sure she had walked the length of the camp and back searching for him, Jova gave up.
“Change of plans,” she said, to a disgruntled Uten. “We’ll find Janny, and eat with her tonight.” Even as she began to walk where she knew the Alswell emissaries were set up, worry crawled in her gut. She was sure she made an obvious sight, a blindfolded girl tugging around a clumsy, blind brute of an animal back and forth through the camp. Where had Roan gone? Why hadn’t he tried to find her?
Jova missed Ma and Da.
As she was walking towards the head of the camp, where she had heard the fieldman slaves making their cooking fires and the alsknights laying down their lances, she heard something in the underbrush. Not some chirp, or twitter, or snarl. It was high-pitched, single cry.
It was human.
Jova froze. What was she to do? Her first thought was to find Roan, but, well, she had tried that already and to no luck. Janwye or Bechde, then? Maybe even Izca? But the crying grew louder and more fervent and Jova knew that if she ran away now she might never come back.
With Uten as a pillar of stability and safety beside her, she walked away from the warm fires into the chittering, seething undergrowth of the jungle. Dark possibilities danced in her head. What if it was not a human, but some animal skilled at mimicry, luring her away to be eaten whole? What if it was a demon of the deep, taking the form of a child and even now was planning to steal away Jova’s face and set her blood boiling?
But as drew closer to the source of the crying, and as the crying grew closer to her, it sounded so plaintive and pathetic that Jova had difficulty imagining it as anything dark or scary or dangerous.
“Hello?” she said, tentatively, to the muffled darkness. “Is anyone out there?”
And she heard footsteps on the mulch, right in front of her. Jova bent low and clicked, trying to place the person.
Immediately, the crying became screaming. Jova clapped her hands over her mouth, and cursed herself. The toddler, for it evidently was some kind of toddler, had a high-pitched, grating scream, and Uten stamped her feet and moaned at the ear-splitting sound.
Jova cursed herself as she reached out blindly to find the child. What must it have looked like to the child, to see the great lumbering hulk of Uten accompanied by the clicking, blind-folded form of Jova? They must have seemed like demons of the deep themselves.
“Shh, it’s alright, I’m not going to hurt you,” said Jova, holding her hands up to show that she meant no harm, having no idea how old the child was or if it even understood a word Jova was saying. She did her best to smile, but that only seemed to make the crying and screaming louder.
And now the demon is reaching out to grab the kid and is showing all its teeth to eat it. Great job, Jova, whispered a voice in her head, and Jova put down her hands quickly and sealed her lips. She had no idea what to do, until she felt Uten move suddenly beside her.
“Uten, wait!” she shouted, fearing the worst when she heard something hit the ground, hard. The decaying jungle mulch deadened the sound of the impact, but it was still loud enough that Jova feared someone had been hurt.
The crying stopped. For a moment, Jova feared the worst.
Then the child hiccupped and sniffed, and Jova’s palpitating heart slowed. She gripped her hair. Things were going too fast, she needed a moment to process what was happening.
Who was this child? Where had he or she even come from? By all the Ladies Four, was it a boy or a girl? Jova staggered over to Uten’s side, and then shuffled her way forward until she came into contact with the child.
He (Jova was guessing) had been pinned down by Uten’s large paw, and he whimpered slightly whenever the molebison moved. Jova put what she hoped was a comforting hand on the boy’s arm. “We’re not going to hurt you,” said Jova, gently. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
She felt, suddenly, a swelling in her chest, one she could not quite place. It was parts surprise, parts fear, parts anger, and she gripped the boy’s hand tightly. “I’m Jova,” she said. “Jova.”
From his voice, he sounded young, far too young to be out in the wilds alone. Jova’s mind shuffled through all the possibilities. Farmers lived out in the jungles, she knew, but never in areas so dense and thick with foliage. Some of the wild zealots lived out here as well, but how could a wild zealot be so young unless-.
And then it came to Jova.
“You came from the Fallow,” she whispered, and the child whimpered as Uten shifted her weight. Jova traced her hand down the child’s arm, until she found, grasped in his tiny little hand, a disk-shaped object. He let go of it quickly, and Jova cupped it in her own palms, not knowing what to do with the tabula.
“Get off, Uten,” she said, softly. “He’s no harm to anyone.”
The molebison snorted and backed away, and Jova heard the leaves crunch as the child stood shakily. He seemed too terrified for words, and stumbled away almost immediately once he was free.
“Wait!” Jova shouted, rising from her crouching position. She held out the child’s tabula. “This is yours!”
The child had not gone far. Restraining herself from clicking, Jova edged forward until she found the kid, sitting on the ground, sniffling to himself. It sounded like he was crying again, although not as loudly.
“Here you are,” said Jova, trying to push the tabula back onto the child, but he wouldn’t take it. Jova knelt, ready to shove the tabula into the child’s lap and be done with it, when her knee bumped against something on the ground. Curiously, she felt it. Clammy, and pliable, but with a hard surface underneath…
Jova felt hair and realized she was holding the head of a corpse.
She felt as if she was going to puke. She reeled away, gagging, her lungs seizing up. The corpse’s skull had been small and round, barely large enough to be more than a toddler, and the skin had felt oddly swollen and distended. There had been no smell, although the body was cold, and for the first time in her life Jova realized what it meant to be wild.
Jova traced the sign of winter over the base of her throat, and prayed to the Lady that this child’s death had been merciful and kind. She had no idea what to make of the living one, left to cry over the corpse. Did he even fully understand what had happened?
“Let’s get away from here,” said Jova, pulling on the child’s hand. “Come on, let’s go.”
The child would not stand, no matter how hard Jova pulled. She could not just leave him here. Whatever might have killed the first child might come back. It might, to Jova’s horror, still be here. They had to go.
And as she tried to coax him to leave, the second shocking thing happened that night.
She heard a great thump, and every tree overhead rustled: a wooden creak, like the bending of falling timber, except this creak went on and on and on and never seemed to stop. The child’s crying went completely silent, Uten bellowed and backed away, and Jova heard the rhythmic impacts slowly getting closer, like footfalls.
The walking tree passed, and though Jova could not see an inch of it, she could feel its power reverberating through the ground, feel its sheer weight and age with every step. She stood, frozen, as the hollow marched away, having deposited its young burden, the branches rusting and whispering in some ancient tongue that Jova could not hope to begin to understand.
It seemed to last both an age and no time at all. The hollow’s passing somehow demanded respect, a quiet, a reverential pause, like standing when a pontiff entered the room. Jova stood in that clearing for quite some time after it had passed, and wondered how many people in Albumere could truthfully say they had witnessed something so arcane and so eternal.
Then she heard the galloping of hooves, and knew that Roan had, at last, found her.
“Jova!” he shouted, rearing Stel in as the horse whinnied, and it was as if the spell of the hollow’s passing had been broken. The boy began to cry again, even louder than before, and the normally quiet Uten snorted and bellowed. “What are you doing, so far from camp?”
“Did you see it, Roan?” said Jova, unable to keep the amazement from her voice. “Did you hear it?”
“Was I seeing what?” asked Roan. His voice straddled the edge between concerned and suspicious.
Jova shook her head, not knowing how to say it. It must have made footprints, it must have made echoes, it must have made some kind of after effect. “A hollow, Roan,” whispered Jova. “I heard it! It was right in front of me! One of the hollows, and it was walking!”
“Many things can be mistaken for another in the dark,” said Roan, flatly. “We must not be letting our imaginations get ahead of our realities.”
“No, Roan, I swear I heard it!” said Jova, but even as she said it she felt a twinge of doubt. What had truly made those shuddering footsteps? No one had ever seen the hollows move before. Who was she to be the first?
Roan hissed suddenly, and Jova realized what she had been standing next to. “The dead child, Jova. Is this your doing?”
Jova shook her head mutely.
For at least a minute, Roan did not speak. Stel paced around Jova as he assessed the situation, and finally he said, “Come, Jova. We must be returning, now.”
As Uten began to shuffle away, the boy began to whimper again. “What about him?” asked Jova.
“We shall leave him be,” said Roan. “Such is the way of wild things.”
Jova felt a pit in the bottom of her stomach, and remember the cold clammy face she had just touched. “He’ll die out here,” said Jova, holding the child’s hand tightly.
“He may yet survive.” Roan said it with the weariness of one who had resigned himself to the way of the world long ago. “He has been claimed by the Ladies. It is his fate to be wild.”
“I’m not going to leave him to be killed out here, with no one to care for him,” said Jova, staunchly, and she knew in her heart that she meant it. No one deserved the fate of the corpse on the ground.
Roan did not speak for some moments. When he did, his voice was cold, and harsh. “You hold his tabula, then, Jova,” he said. “You now own your first slave.”
The humidity of the jungle pressed in on all sides. Even if they had wanted to strike a fire in the growing midday swelter, Jova wasn’t sure if they could, so instead the fire pit at the center of the camp remained cold and barren.
She could hear Stel’s labored breathing and the swish of her tail, could almost envision Roan, a proud lord with a face she had never seen, sitting astride her. Except…
Except she had to cut the image off halfway, because Roan had no legs.
Jova felt like she had been taken advantage of. She felt stupid and indignant and angry and more than a little hurt. How had she gone all those years without noticing? How had three years passed without anyone telling her, anyone letting her know?
Roan’s a scary guy, Arim had once told her. By the Lady Fall, he’s lucky.
The girl’s hand balled into fists. Roan had always been meticulous about his business, keeping careful record of all his clients, of the appointments and times and transactions and loans. No doubt he had been just as meticulous with his secret.
There was nothing else for it. Jova would have to confront him.
She took a deep breath and walked out from behind the cover of the wagon, clicking her tongue to get a better picture of where Roan was. She walked straight towards him, back straight, chest out, head held high.
Roan said not a word.
Jova stood with her hands by her side, waiting for Roan to at least honor her by speaking. He didn’t. He was as impassive and silent as ever.
“I know,” Jova said, quietly. She felt that she didn’t have to elaborate. They both knew what she meant.
“I was thinking I was lucky,” said Roan. His voice was hoarse and raspy. It sounded as if he had not yet fully recovered from the blow Latius had dealt him. “At first, at least. But then, after such a long time, I am thinking that perhaps it is the Ladies’s will that you never know. That I am being given a second chance.”
Jova bristled. “A second chance for what? What exactly did you need a second chance for, Roan?”
Roan didn’t speak for several seconds. Jova did not move. The quiet murmur of the rest of the camp, waiting in quiet anticipation of Janwye’s return, hummed around them.
“When I am first meeting you,” said Roan, and his tone was contemplative. “I did warn you.”
The girl’s brow furrowed. She thought back to that day, so many years ago: desolate from her recent accident, she had been sitting quite alone in the door of the hut, waiting out the sun, when Roan had approached her with almost no provocation. She remembered no warning.
“When I asked you for your secret, as to why Anjan and Ell would watch over you, you would not tell me.” The direction of Roan’s voice changed as Stel began to pace around the little clearing in the campsite. The horse was evidently growing restless. “Then, when you are asking me what miracle I came to Moscoleon for, I am telling you that shall be my secret.”
It had been so long ago. Had Roan really told her that?
“And I did tell you of the miracles in Moscoleon, blind Jova,” said Roan. “I am telling you of the man with no tongue who may sing again, of the man with no legs who can run again, and of the girl with no eyes who may see again.”
“Is there a man with no tongue I just haven’t noticed?” asked Jova, testily. “Has he been walking aside you all this time and I just haven’t seen him?”
“You are bitter,” said Roan, a statement so blunt and obvious that Jova felt her temper rising. “Come. Have we not both felt the miracle of the Ladies? You have been given sight with your tongue, and Stel…Stel is as loyal a steed as I could wish for, as steadfast and as constant. I can ride faster than any man could run with her. Are we not both blessed?”
Jova felt suddenly that the blindfold was uncomfortably hot around her head. She stamped her foot. “That’s not the point, Roan.”
“Then what is, as you say, the point, blind Jova? Have I offended you in some way? Have I hurt you or harmed you?”
“You used me, Roan. I don’t know why you did it, but you used me. You took advantage of the fact that I was blind to…to hide the truth.” Jova stumbled forward, reaching out for Roan, not knowing if she wanted to hold him or strike him. “You were scared of the truth. You feared it. And you told me—you taught me—that the truth was something I wasn’t supposed to be afraid of.”
Jova found Roan’s hand, and gripped it tightly. “How am I supposed to believe that now?” she asked.
Roan did not say anything. His pause stretched on long, and Jova waited and waited, her grip tightening, her heart quickening, almost begging for an answer.
Jova let go of Roan’s hand and reached for Stel, for the place where Roan’s legs should have been. She felt only the horse’s well-cleaned hair: the hair, she reminded herself, that Roan had never let her clean, because Roan used Stel as his replacement legs. “How did you hide it for so long?” she asked, finally.
“When I first saw you, when Anjan and Ell and you came to the tenement to ask for residence, I asked Zain not to mention my…disability. Later, I approached your friends—your parents—and asked the same. You remember? When I first spoke to you, I left you to ask Anjan and Ell these questions. They complied if only because I gave sustenance and pay.” Roan sniffed. “Your Anjan and Ell love you, Jova, but they are also very practical. Is it not strange that you, of all of them, brought in the most for your family?”
Jova let her hand fall and massaged the bridge of her nose. The fact that the tendrils of Roan’s plans crept so far into her life was not comforting.
“Many people you and I would be speaking with I would rely on not to mention my being…my being…” For once, Roan struggled for the words.
“Your being crippled,” said Jova, her voice harsher than she thought it would be. She spoke before she had a moment to catch herself. “You’re crippled, Roan. That’s the truth. Admit it.”
Another lengthy pause followed. Silence, silence, filled by the twitter and croak of the jungle animals hiding in the underbrush. “My being crippled,” Roan said, finally. “They would not say it out loud out of courtesy. Such is the way of the templemen. My clients I would warn specifically, the others I would simply…trust not to say.”
And that was it. Roan said no more. That was his master plan, how he had hidden the secret from Jova all this time. She couldn’t believe it. It couldn’t have been that simple to hide it from her.
Yes, it could have, whispered an insidious voice inside of her. To hide it from a blind girl as stupid and ignorant as you.
Jova’s fists clenched a little tighter.
“I thought it was providence,” said Roan. “I thought perhaps the Ladies had looked kindly on me and given me this one gift. And yet…now I am thinking they heard our contract.”
Despite her anger, Jova found her curiosity piqued. “What contract?”
“Did I not say that I would not ask for your secret, if you did not ask for mine? And when you revealed that secret, when you told me that Anjan and Ell were your mother and father, the Ladies saw fit to reveal mine. It was only proper.”
“So you’re saying all this was planned?”
“As is everything, blind Jova.”
Jova straightened. “If that is what you believe, crippled Roan.”
Roan laughed, a short, sharp bark. “We do not see the teeth of pups until they bite,” he said. “You have grown much. You are much more than the sad girl who did not smile that I saw lurking in the shadows.”
Was she? Jova did not feel it. Every second she spent outside of Moscoleon’s walls made her feel like those years in the Great Temple had been sheltered, an illusion, fake. She had no friends left to say goodbye to, no future in the city beyond execution, and now no family to rely on. Was that all growing up?
“Can I ask again, Roan?” Jova said. “Why? Why me?”
“The answer is still the same,” said Roan. “I have told no other lies, Jova. The truth is still being the truth.”
As much as Jova wanted to believe him, she wasn’t sure if she could.
“And what of you, Jova?” asked Roan, and Stel paced a little closer to Jova. “What secrets have you kept from me?”
“That’s different. I-,” said Jova, immediately, but Roan cut her off.
“You are not telling me that you are strange, Jova. That you are not like others of this world. And though I am suspecting, I am not knowing. I am not saying. I am not telling. Accusations demand accusations, answers demand answers. What have you not told me, Jova?”
“What is there to say?” asked Jova, crossing her arms. Her coza swished around her legs as she turned to face Roan, but Stel was beginning to circle around her to the point that Jova could not tell where Roan was standing. “I told you what I needed to tell you. My family is Anjan and Ell. I didn’t leave them when the Fallow came. It’s something I’ve lived with since I was born. I never thought it was strange. Answers demand answers, Roan. When did you lose your legs? Why didn’t you tell me?”
The pacing stopped. Stel’s hoof beats ceased. “I didn’t tell you, Jova,” said Roan, slowly. “Because I could not bear to see you look at me the same way so many others look at you. I did not tell you, Jova, for the same reason you refuse charity.”
Silence followed. Roan stopped moving. He stopped talking. He let the words hang in the air, and for a while Jova did not speak either.
“I was born in a child’s haven in the wilds of Jhidnu,” said Jova. She could give Roan that, at least. “They don’t have those in Moscoleon, I think.”
“Nor in Hak Mat Do,” said Roan. “Please explain, Jova.”
“I don’t remember much of it. I guess you would call it a place for truce. No one fights, no one steals. Everyone watches out for each other, but only as long as they have the baby. It’s bad luck to stay once the baby is gone. They say it weakens the magic of the Ladies.”
Stel nickered at that, and Roan sounded curious. “The magic?”
“Just superstition,” said Jova, quickly. “Protective magic, blessings, that kind of thing. The power that keeps the wild animals from attacking the haven. I don’t know how much of it is true.”
Roan did not speak. Jova knew that this was one of those pauses where Roan thought very hard about what had just been said, carefully categorizing it into the shelves in his brain where this information was stored. “And what if the child is grown?” he asked.
“They stop believing you, I suppose. My parents stayed the four years, and then…and then they stayed a little while after. The Fallow came and it went. My tabula never called to me. I was never summoned. The people got angry at them, so they ran.”
“I see,” said Roan. He made no other comment.
“We didn’t stop moving for years after that. We tried to stay in Jhidnu once, but it was hard to find work under the plutocrats, and once, when they asked for us to show tabula…things got ugly.” Jova sat down, next to the blackened pit where the fieldmen had last lit their fire. She scratched her chest, remembering.
She shook her head. Roan would get no more from her, at least not today. She had come to confront him, not give him more of what he wanted.
“I took Stel in only after my accident,” said Roan, after he waited to make sure Jova’s story was over. “My mentor, Marion, offered her to me. She is not strong, I am saying. She is not fast! She is not hardy! She has no power! What a strange creature, I am telling Marion. Aga kuar han: to ride it would be shame.”
Roan paused. “Do you never think it strange that the wild beasts of Albumere are made of the pieces of each other? That the only ones who seem whole are those touched with the might of the Ladies? Does it not seem strange to you that we remember what those pieces are, but not why they have been melded together?”
Her thoughts turned to Mo, the weaseldog. It had never been brought to her attention before. Jova assumed it was the natural order of things. A plain, normal horse like Stel defied that order. Just like…
Just like Jova.
A chill ran down Jova’s spine. It was like she had just touched the corner of the temple at the center of Moscoleon; a piece of the whole revealed to her, suggestive of the whole’s complexity, its grandeur, its might, but not enough to see the whole itself.
“Stel is important to me for many of the same reasons you are important to me. She reminds me of a world that could have been, a world before, a world that once was.” One of Roan’s pauses followed, and he sighed heavily. “At times, she reminds me of a world where I was called Rho Hat Pan, where I was foolish young man who did not bear quite so heavy a burden on my shoulders.”
It seemed like Roan would speak again when sudden shouting roused the Alswell camp to life. Jova jumped to her feet, ears pricked, while Stel nickered and stamped her hooves on the ground. Roan said, sharply, “Janwye has returned.”
Jova bowed her head. Their talk was over. But, just as Roan was about to leave, he bent down and whispered into her ear, “See, Jova? A secret for a secret, a truth for a truth. All of life is giving and taking. Something must be sacrificed before something can be earned.”
The way Roan said it made Jova’s skin crawl. She stood by the fireless pit as Roan rode away, hugging her chest. She wasn’t sure what she had gone into the conversation hoping for, but despite that still she felt she had not gotten what she expected.
“Ready the caravan!” shouted Bechde’s voice, loud and forceful. “Make haste! We will spare not a second while our brothers and sisters at home suffer!”
Jova’s mouth was dry. How had the negotiations gone? What verdict had Keep Tlai passed? Had Janwye made it out unscathed?
No one was there to answer her. Jova gripped her shoulders tight. She had work to do. She would finish that first.
Clicking her way to Roan’s corner of the encampment, it did not take her long to find the warmth radiating from three equine bodies, all tethered to a single wooden stake hastily drive into the ground.
“Let’s get that off you,” muttered Jova, pulling the stake out, and a chorus of bleats and snorts and bellows answered her in thanks over the growing din of the fieldmen breaking camp. Jova rubbed Chek’s side, holding his reins in one hand while making sure all the packs were still on his back. They had not even had time to unpack; under her negligence the fall mule had born the burdens all night.
“Sorry, buddy,” Jova muttered, rubbing the mule under the chin. He snorted, and a blast of cold air hit Jova square in the face. It was a welcome respite from the heat. “You’re going to need to carry these just a bit longer.”
She moved on to Yora, brushing him down, making sure he was fit too travel too. Her mind wandered as her hands did the familiar routes. A staghound: was this really so strange? What else would he be? A stag and a hound? Jova tried to compute the logistics in her head. Would Yora have two tabula? Would his separate halves be somehow linked? It didn’t make sense.
Uten, she saved for last. The sheer bulk and stoicism of the molebison was always comforting. Jova let her hand rest on Uten’s side for a second longer after she had finished her inspection.
If something happened to Roan, if she was somehow separated from this motley herd…
It would be nice to have at least one of them by her side. Bechde had seemed so willing to pay and to please, it would have been a shame to turn down such an opportunity.
Jova’s grasp tightened, and Uten hissed at the sudden yanking on her fur. “Sorry, girl,” said Jova, giving her as gentle a pat as possible on the back of her head, where she liked it. “Sorry about that.”
Jova wrapped the reins of the three mounts in her hand and shook her head. She had to focus. If she was distracted she would start to hurt the people closest to her.
Someone passed her. Roan?
“Do you need help with any- oh, Ladies.” It was not Roan. Someone young, although still much older than Jova, male. He sounded as if he had seen a ghost.
Jova moved the reins from one hand to another, furrowing her eyebrows. Did she know this man? He had a Moscoleon accent, not an Alswell one. “Thank you,” said Jova, slowly. “But I don’t need any.”
The man still stood there. He did not move. Jova felt uncomfortable trying to walk around him, but, not knowing what else to say, asked as politely as she could, “I’m sorry, but who are you?”
“You don’t remember? I’m-.” The man coughed and cleared his throat. “I’m, er, I’m just a zealot of the Temple, sent by Keep Tlai to assist you. Well, erm, not you, that is, but the city of Alswell. Well, not the city, per say, but- oh, shit, this is all so wrong…”
There was something familiar in the man’s voice, but Jova could not place it.
“Are all these yours?” asked the zealot, after a pause. “They’re a handsome lot of animals.”
“They belong to my master, Roan,” said Jova, slowly. “Will you be coming with us? Is the Temple going to help Alswell?”
“So that was the horse freak,” hissed the zealot, under his breath. It was only Jova’s keen hearing that caught it; she wasn’t sure if anyone else would have heard it, so soft was the zealot’s voice. “I, erm, yes,” he said, louder. “We will escort you as far as the Seat of the King, and we will give you our support in negotiating a peace.”
The Seat of the King? It was still far, far away, but it was not Alswell, not the battlefield itself that Bechde had told her the war would be fought on. “You’re not…fighting?”
“We will not be hasty, like Keeps and crusades past,” said the zealot. “We will try and stop the bloodshed before it starts.”
Jova’s heart leaped. Perhaps she would be returning home sooner than she thought. “How many zealots are coming?” she asked, rapidly. “How long do you think the journey will last?”
“I’m sorry, girl, I’ve just got my second feather,” said the zealot, and there was a bit of apprehension in his voice. “I honestly have no idea how long the journey will take. It, erm, it looks like we’re going to get moving soon. Are you sure you don’t want any help?”
Jova tugged on the reins and walked away with Chek, Yora, and Uten in tow. “I can manage,” she said. “I’m Jova, by the way. What’s your name?”
“You don’t- well, I suppose…” The zealot took a deep breath. “I’m Izca. I, erm…it’s nice to meet you, Jova.”
Izca. Again, the name rang a familiar bell, but one Jova did not recognize. Had Arim mentioned an Izca as one of his friends?
A sudden snarling made Jova snap to attention, but the zealot’s gentle laughter and a happy growling made her relax. “This is Fang,” said Izca. “Dirty little pigwolf. He looks nasty but don’t worry, he’s a big old coward and a real softie.”
Izca and Fang. Jova scratched her chest. She had heard these names before, she knew she had, she just couldn’t remember where…
“It looks like everyone’s just about packed up,” said Izca. “And the Alswell lady is calling everyone together over yonder.”
Izca must have pointed towards Bechde, because Jova had no idea which direction he was indicating. Listening to the general mass of people moving towards the end of the camp deeper in the jungle, she clicked her tongue just once to get a better idea of where they were going.
Immediately, the pigwolf, Fang, recoiled and whimpered, a high-pitched mewling sound not unlike the one Mo made whenever he was afraid. Jova held a hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry, I- I didn’t mean to…”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Izca, talking over her. “Let’s just go and see where we’re all going, OK?”
“OK,” said Jova, following the zealot’s footsteps as he walked away. Izca and Fang. Where had she heard that before?
And Jova walked down the jungle road, away from the city, trying to dredge up memories of the past.
Jova traced the shawl of the lady, so soft that it felt like her fingers were tracing air. She sat on a velvet cushion, her legs folded under her, and when Bechde touched her hand the lady’s touch was smooth as silk. “How charmed,” said Bechde, and the Alswell drawl made her voice simply drip with elegance. “Oh, Ladies, however did Janwye find a precious gem like you in that stew of a city? You’ve made the whole trek across the sands worth it, darling, honestly.”
It sounded like a lie to Jova’s ears, but she smiled anyway. It was a happy lie, and it did her no harm to believe it. “Thank you kindly, missus,” she said, bowing her head.
“Oh!” said Bechde (and the way she said it Jova thought the fieldwoman might swoon from sheer emotion). “How mannered! When this horrid affair is all done and over, you simply must stay with us at the manor in Alswell, Jova, I insist.”
Horrid affair. Bechde made it sound like it was something minor, like someone needed to clean the house instead of win a war before she could go home. Jova scratched her chest. Was the lady of Alswell simply that absent-minded?
“Would you like something to eat? Something to drink?” The wagon creaked as Bechde rose, and Jova could feel the humid jungle air flow in once Bechde opened the tarp. “Quele, would you be so kind as to fetch us a bite?”
The alsknight at attendance outside was a woman, but had a deep, rumbling voice. “We still have the pomegranates from Hak Mat Do, m’lady.”
“Oh, that’d be just lovely,” said Bechde, and Jova heard chainmail rustle as Quele walked away. Bechde sat down again opposite her in a rustle of cloth. “You’ll love them, Jova, they were grown directly in Do Yash. They’re a bit tart, but the juices are delicious, even if they are a bit messy.” Bechde laughed, high and airy, and Jova couldn’t help but laugh with her.
The girl smoothed out her coza and sat a little straighter, wondering how long it had been. Janwye had escorted her down the jungle path and left immediately to have her audience with the Holy Keep, while Roan had been falling in and out of consciousness for the rest of the night. Jova had been left in the care of Janwye’s liege, Bechde, and all her various attendants and slaves, left to sit and stew and wait for something to happen to her.
Jova’s fingers tapped on her knees. She needed to do something.
Something rustled beside her, and instinctively Jova clicked her tongue to get a better image. She didn’t get much; the canvas of the wagon didn’t make a very good surface for the sound to bounce off of, but she had the vague impression of something blocky being pushed through the entrance.
“Just the pomegranates, my dear,” said Bechde, kindly. “Thank you, Quele, you may go now.”
Bechde took Jova’s hand and put something round and firm in it gently. Jova turned the hard fruit over in her hands, but she couldn’t seem to peel it like she would a Jhidnu orange or bite into it like she would a Moscoleon tomato.
“I am so impressed by you, Jova, darling,” Bechde said, as she began to cut her own. “I mean, look at you! You’ve taken this disability of yours and made it something to be proud of. It’s like your own special little power, isn’t it?”
Jova’s grip tightened on the pomegranate until she thought it might burst. No, it isn’t, she wanted to scream. No, it’s not! It helps, but it can’t replace colors. It can’t bring back sunsets or art or human faces. It’s not a power, it’s a burden! If you’re so impressed, you can HAVE IT.
“Yes,” she said, out loud. “I suppose it is.” And she waited for Bechde to finish with the knife so she could use it to cut her own.
“Oh, no, no, I insist,” said Bechde, taking the fruit back from Jova’s hand. “What was I thinking, just handing it off to you? No, darling, it’s much better if I do it, honestly. Look, you can have mine, and I’ll eat this one.”
“You don’t have to-,” Jova began, but Bechde shushed her and cut her off.
“It’s really quite alright, darling. Here, have it! The seeds are to die for, honestly.”
Jova felt a metal disk being placed on her lap, and she felt the edges of the plate hesitantly. On it, she traced six slices of the fruit, and she let out a little gasp of surprise. “Is this all mine?”
“Why, yes, of course! Although, if you can’t finish it, please do tell me. I’ll give it to Quele, she does so hate to waste food.”
All hers. Jova picked out one of the seeds hesitantly and bit into it, and immediately her tongue vibrated with the sensation. Sweet and tart, just like Bechde had said, with a hint of a crunch as she chewed. Jova slowed to savor every bite, a great smile on her face. All hers. It would have taken Da days on end of extra work just to buy one for the whole family, and Ma would have had to trade in a whole day’s worth of kill for a chance at exotic fruit. Jova would have to ask Bechde if she could take some back to Ma and Da.
Jova caught herself, and bit her lip. She had to stop thinking that way, not if she wanted to make the journey any less painful. How long it would take, anyway? How long would Ma and Da be forced to worry? Jova knew that she could not stay at home, but if they were already waiting for Janwye to finish then why couldn’t Ma and Da just meet up with her before they went? It was Roan’s decision, and it didn’t make sense.
Speaking of Roan, Jova still had to talk to him. A shiver went down her spine involuntarily, and she shuddered as she remembered the emptiness where his legs should have been, the almost too-smooth stumps where they ended. What kind of accident must he have been in, to have lost both his legs?
An accident, Jova reasoned, much like the one that lost both her eyes. Something he blamed himself for, something he lived with day in and day out, something he wished simply never had the chance to happen.
If Roan was anything like her, his accident would have been like that.
“Jova, darling, were you listening?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Jova, distractedly. She shook her head, massaging her temple. “I was just thinking a bit too hard.”
“Oh! What about? Please do tell me.” Bechde leaned forward and whispered, “It can be our little secret.”
The grown-old sounded older than even Ma, and yet she had such child-like enthusiasm, such infectious affection, that Jova couldn’t just say no. “Life,” said Jova, vaguely. “My friends. My home.”
Bechde laid her hand over Jova’s. “I miss home, too,” she said. “But I think you’ll find that the parting just gives you more reason to finish the journey. Don’t be afraid, Jova. I was scared when I left Alswell, but if I hadn’t I would have never had the chance to meet you! Things will work out in the end.”
Jova smiled. Perhaps the lady of Alswell wasn’t so absent-minded after all. “What’s your home like, Bechde?” she asked. “I want to know!”
“All’s well in Alswell, darling,” said Bechde. “It’s so much more open than here! There is so much clutter in Moscoleon, but in Alswell we’ve got wide open fields, pretty little houses with the most charmed balls and parties, and a sky so blue it’d make you cry, darling—honestly, it is a picture.”
Jova ate delicately, keenly aware of the marbleman table manners Da had once taught her now that she was in Bechde’s company. “I remember blue skies in Jhidnu,” said Jova. “I- I don’t know so much about Moscoleon, but most mornings I can feel the fog here.”
“Jhidnu? Jhidnu-by-the-Sea? You’ve been there? Why, darling, I never knew!”
“Eigh- four years,” said Jova, catching herself. Her four years before the Fallow, just like everyone else’s, would just have to go unaccounted for. “We stayed in the city proper once, but Anjan and Ell didn’t like it. It was too busy for them, they said. We stayed to the back roads in the Jhidnu wilds mostly, staying at traveler’s inns, camping by the trail.”
“And for you to be so young.” Bechde sounded positively astounded, but Jova did not know why. It had been normal life for her—for many people, in fact, living outside of the merchant city. “Tell me, Jova, were you…were you savage?”
“Wild?” Jova paused. Was she? She was neither slave nor wild. She fell into the crack in-between. “…No,” she said, finally. It wasn’t a lie. “Anjan was, though. And we met quite a few on the road, although they left us alone for the most part.”
“What are they like?” asked Bechde, breathlessly. “Wild children, I mean. We don’t have them in Alswell, you see, and we met hardly any when we were crossing the Vigil Sands…”
That got Jova’s attention. “There are no wild children in Alswell?” she asked, sitting straight. “Does the Fallow not call to them?”
“Oh, no, no,” said Bechde, dismissively. “We find the hollows, you see. Guard them, even. The animals we let out, and the children we collect to civilize. It’s all very progressive; we have no truck with that superstitious nonsense the Wilder tree-worshippers believe.”
“Oh,” said Jova, and she couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Another answer had been waved in front of her face, and it had been snatched away just as quickly. She scratched her chest again. “Well, um…we didn’t see many wild children, either, honestly. They keep to themselves in Jhidnu. Some of them attacked us while we were traveling, most just ran away.”
Bechde was not to be dissuaded. “How do they learn to speak the king’s tongue? Do they wear clothes? Is it true that they have some kind of bond to the wild beasts?”
Jova pursed her lips. Honestly, she had never given those questions much thought before. “I suppose they must remember the language from before they were called,” said Jova. “And from each other, I suppose.” Her eyebrows furrowed. “I saw some wild children without clothes, some with. Those were stolen, probably. And their bond comes from the tabula that they take with them.”
“The children take tabula?”
Jova nodded. “Anjan did it, after her Fallow. She summoned Mo—a weaseldog, I mean—and kept his tabula ever since.”
“Before the Fallow?” said Bechde, aghast. “The children wouldn’t have the constitution for it! And the animals would be so young.”
“Well, it’s just like anywhere else,” said Jova, a little confused. “They take care of each other. Don’t you have early summoning in Alswell? Don’t any of your children disappear before the Fallow?”
She heard Bechde’s dress rustle as the woman shifted across from her. “Yes, I suppose I see your point,” said the lady, and her tone for once was subdued. “It’s just so very strange to think of it that way. So how do you get slaves in Jhidnu, then? Where do they come from?”
Jova thought back. “Adventurers and explorers,” she said. “I saw a few at market once, trying to sell them away. They find hollows in the wild and take just the one tabula. It’s bad luck to take more than one.”
“Amazing,” whispered Bechde. “Truly amazing, isn’t it? All the ways people on this world live!”
“I suppose it is,” said Jova, although she did not feel amazed. It felt like all the ways the people on Albumere survived, but she would hesitate to call what the emaciated, desperate children lurking in the bends of the forest paths did living.
“Ladies, you’d think I wouldn’t be so parched in a place so humid,” said Bechde, and she opened the tarp again. “Quele, would you be so kind and fetch me Fosen? Oh, and put some tea on the kettle!”
“Cropper’s making tea right now, m’lady. For himself. Says it helps his stomach aches.”
“Oh, well, leave the old fart to his griping and groaning then. Just water, for myself and the little one. And don’t forget Fosen, it’s absolutely boiling in here!”
The alsknight marched away to do her lady’s bidding.
“Do you keep tabula of your own, Jova?” asked Bechde, politely, as Jova finished off her pomegranate. She wondered who or what Fosen was as she ate.
“No, I don’t,” the girl said. “Once, I tried to keep one, but…well, no. No, I don’t.”
“Oh! A darling girl like you, without companion? A travesty. We will remedy that immediately!” Bechde said. “What about the charming old molebison you came riding in on? Is that one yours?”
“Roan’s. He owns all the animals.”
“Roan…? Oh, Rho Hat Pan! Yes, Janny did tell me about the name change. It’s remarkable, really, that the savage finally decided to call himself something the rest of us could pronounce.” Bechde said it so casually that Jova almost did not notice the veiled insult, but she couldn’t help but wonder if Bechde was actually being offensive or just absent-minded again. “Do you fancy the molebison?”
“Uten is nice,” said Jova, nodding. “I like her.”
“Then I shall purchase her for you from Rho Hat Pan at once!”
Jova choked. She bent over, hacking and coughing, and managed to stutter out, “Bechde, really, there is no need—I already work with her so much, you don’t have to-.”
“Oh, but I insist,” said Bechde, clapping her hands together. “There is nothing like holding the tabula yourself. As soon as the man wakes, I will ask him about it. Really, Jova, it’s no concern to me, and you are such a darling child, you deserve something nice.”
“Really, Bechde,” said Jova. “Thank you. But I don’t need charity.”
The lady fell silent. “Well, if you’re certain,” she said, and she sounded slightly disappointed. She recovered quickly. “Ah! Here’s water. Come, Jova, come. No leather skins for us; this is a porcelain cup all the way from Jhidnu, made special for drinking.”
Jova took the cup, cool and smooth in her hands. It felt like an awful lot of bother to go through just to have a sip of water, as someone (either Bechde or Quele) poured water into her cup.
“And here’s Fosen,” said Bechde, and Jova heard the click of some kind of clasp. Fosen was a box?
The hum of a tabula and the breeze that swirled around them inside the wagon said otherwise. Whatever Bechde had summoned croaked in the corner, and the lady cooed as she picked it up.
“Usually we just let the wild animals go, but Greeve let me keep this one,” said Bechde. “I’ve raised him ever since he was a little fall tadpole. Come on, Fosen, give us a little breeze.”
The toad croaked again, and Jova felt a gentle gust against her face. She had to admit, it felt nice, although how the animal was generating the wind she had no idea (and she had not the inclination to find out).
“You can hold him, go on,” said Bechde, and Jova hurried to find somewhere to put the plate of fruit and the porcelain cup and all of Bechde’s little trinkets and baubles before she picked up the fall toad. “He’s a sweetie, honestly.”
He felt slick and slimy, and so bulbous that Jova wasn’t entirely sure where his head was. The girl laughed nervously, cupping the toad in her hands as cool wind continued to play across her hands and face, until Bechde clicked her tongue and the toad hopped off and away.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to get you the molebison?” said Bechde. “They can be such wonderful companions.”
“I’m sure,” said Jova, nodding. “I-.”
And then she heard shouting from outside. She twitched, head snapping up as she tried to hear the sound through the canvas of the wagon.
“What is it, Jova?” asked Bechde, real concern in her voice. “Is something wrong?”
Jova took several seconds to answer, distracted by the faint shouting. “Do you hear that?”
“I…oh, my.” The toad croaked in protest as Bechde scooped him up and opened the wagon entrance. “Janny’s come back.”
Jova stood to her feet immediately and near fell out and onto the ground as she hurried to leave. She stumbled and turned her head, listening to the source of the shouting. It was Janwye’s voice, and just her voice: she was alone. The jungle absorbed some of the sound, but it grew louder and louder as she got closer.
“Janny?” shouted Jova, standing on tiptoe. “Janny, what are you doing?”
“We must go!” she was screaming. “Quele! Cropper! Get lady Bechde, tell her we must go now!”
“Janwye!” shouted Bechde, taking the steps off of the wagon lightly. “What’s going on? Did something go wrong? Will the Temple support us?”
Janwye was standing next to them now, in the little camp of fieldmen, alsknights and slaves alike. She breathed heavily, sucking in breath between words. “The Temple…the Temple…” she muttered, distractedly. “I…the Temple is fine. Bechde, look! Look at this.”
And Jova heard a hard clink, and a sharp gasp from Bechde.
“Whose was it?” breathed Bechde, and Jova realized with a start that the clink had come from the fragments of a tabula. It had broken; whoever or whatever was linked to it had died.
“This one was Bax’s. Not- not his, but we made a system- Bechde, I- he…” Janwye seemed too distraught to finish her sentences. “Something’s gone wrong in Shira Hay. We have to go help!”
“Janny, Shira Hay is weeks away,” said Bechde. “Do you even know what went wrong?”
“N-no, but Bechde- oh, Ladies, Bechde…”
“Breathe, Janny, go on. Have a seat, that’s it,” said Bechde, and her voice was soft and calm and motherly. “Now explain to me what happened. Fully, in all the details.”
“My friend in the Temple got me an audience,” said Janwye, and she spoke so rapidly that she tripped over her words. The friend, Jova assumed, was Zain. “Keep Tlai listened and I gave my address and I think it went well but I can’t entirely be sure because she wouldn’t give me a straight answer afterwards and I stayed in the house of the pontiff for the night and when I woke up the tabula had broken and I ran straight here and now we have to go, Bechde, please.”
“Patience, Janwye!” shouted Bechde. The sudden silence rang as Janwye stopped talking, and Jova felt unease creeping in her stomach. Janwye had told her about the system her friends had made: if one of those tabula had broken, that meant something had gone very wrong indeed…
“So we do not know the Keep’s answer?” asked Bechde, after Janwye had a moment to compose herself. “We do not know how or if they will help the cause?”
“Zain can figure out a way to tell me, but we have to move fast! If Bax is in trouble, then-.”
“Do we know, Janwye? Yes or no?”
“No,” said Janwye, after a pause. “No, we don’t.”
“Then we stay. We do what Greeve told us to do, alright?”
“Yes, Bechde. I will…I will return to the Temple now.”
“Oh, Janny,” whispered Bechde, and Jova heard the rustle of her voluminous dress. Jova clicked, and the blurred molded shape that bounced back could only mean that Janwye and Bechde were close together, embracing. “There is nothing we can do now but pray, and see how fortunate we are! We are in the most holy place in all of Albumere. Where better to entreat to the Ladies than here?”
“Yes, lady Bechde,” said Janwye, hoarsely. “Thank you, lady Bechde. I will go now.”
“Bring someone with you at least?” said Bechde, and her dress rustled as she moved away. “Quele, or Cropper. For protection. If something happened to Engers and his people…I don’t want a repeat out here.”
Jova heard the clip-clop of hooves before the voice spoke. “I will go with her,” said Roan, his voice so low it sounded as if he might fall off of Stel at any time. Had he only just recovered?
“No, you won’t,” snapped Janwye. “It’s too dangerous for you to go back into the city. You are going to stay here with Jova.”
Yes, Jova thought, and her fists tightened as she heard Roan get closer: Roan, who had lied to her, Roan, who had used her, Roan, who had abused her blindness. We are going to stay right here.
And you are going to tell me the truth.
The boy cried in the shadows of the hollow, his belly rumbling, his eyes red, his cheeks streaked and glistening. He held a disk in his hand, his back pressed against the sap-coated innards of the great tree. The clean clothes that mama had tearfully put on him were already soiled. He had fallen asleep at home, somewhere warm, somewhere safe, but had been jerked awake by the tugging, hurtling through darkness, the world expanding and contracting around him.
He was tired and lonely and scared when the voice shouted, “We got one today, Engers!”
A pair of hands reached inside and pulled the toddler out. The boy blinked his eyes, scrubbing his face in the dappled sunlight. At its high point in the sky, it shone directly down and peaked through the twisted branches of the tree above him, which was surrounded on all sides by high stone walls.
The woman holding him up pursed her lips and turned him from side to side. The boy felt tears emerge in his eyes again, and as he started to cry he felt a sudden harsh pain on the side of his face. He tasted blood in his mouth and began to bawl even louder, until the woman hit him even harder on the head.
The toddler hiccupped once, and fell silent, sniffling despite himself.
“Did you have to be so rough?” asked a teenager standing behind the woman, pulling at the shawl around his shoulders.
“Oh, it just takes a smidge of discipline, young lord,” said the woman. “See? He stopped crying already.”
“May I hold him?” asked the teenager, edging forward.
“Of course, Engers,” said the woman, handing the toddler off to the boy like he was a slab of meat. “How does it feel to hold your first slave?”
The teenager’s hands were clumsy and weak, and he nearly dropped the toddler as he held him under the shoulders. “He feels heavy,” said the teenager, laughing. He turned to the boy and set him down, tickling his nose. “Hey, there, little guy. What’s your name?”
“We don’t let them keep their names,” said the woman, quickly, before the boy could answer. “Even if they do remember them. Best to just start fresh, don’t you think?”
“Oh, alright, then,” said Engers, and he reached into his pocket. “I’ve got a list somewhere, wait a hollow’s hop…”
“I don’t like springborn at the best of times,” said the woman, as Engers examined the long sheet of paper. “But I guess this one will grow into it. He doesn’t look nearly strong enough for good fieldwork, but we’ll try him at it, anyway.”
“Ah! Here’s one I like,” said Engers. “Bax. How about that, little guy? Does Bax sound like a good name?”
The boy looked at the teenager’s honest face, to the woman looming over him, and he nodded his head mutely.
“Speaks as much as the Lady Spring, doesn’t he?” said Engers, grinning. “I’m sorry, Kerry, I was reading: what did you say?”
“Nothing you have to worry about,” said the woman. “One last thing…”
She put her hand on the boy’s back (he flinched) and bent down to pluck the disk out of his hands. The boy reached out, a protest forming on his lips, but at the tightening of the woman’s hand on his back he looked down and didn’t speak. “We’ll just hold onto that for you, Bax.”
“Come on, Bax, let’s go and play,” said Engers, taking Bax’s hand and leading him towards the door in the stone walls. “Shh, shh, it’s OK. Life is nice here in Alswell. Don’t be scared.”
He opened the door, and two giants of men nodded their heads to him as he passed.
“Young lord,” said one, shifting the lance to his other hand to give a little salute.
“M’lord,” said the other, his chainmail rustling as he too saluted.
“Cropper, Hardy,” said Engers, nodding to them as well.
“You should visit Langs,” said either Cropper or Hardy. “He’s had his for a fortnight, he says it’s been getting a bit temperamental.”
“How about that?” said Engers, ruffling Bax’s hair. “You want to go visit Langs?”
“OK,” said Bax, softly.
“He speaks!” said Engers, laughing and clapping, and Bax dared a little smile. “You have a sweet voice, Bax.”
“Thanks,” said Bax.
Bax started when the woman spoke. She was just behind them, but he had not noticed her. “Not ‘thanks’. Thank you, my lord,” she said.
“Thank you, m’lord,” Bax mumbled.
Engers led him on, through a dirt path winding through the field. Neatly cultivated rows of plants surrounded them on all sides, although if Bax stood on tiptoe he could see tiny cabins on the horizon.
He stepped on something thorny and yelped. The woman tittered while Engers examined Bax’s foot and swept the thing aside with a hand. “Nasty thing, the thorny flax,” said Engers, patting Bax’s shoulder. “You get them over the ground sometimes, hollows know why.”
They kept walking, and Bax eyed their boots enviously. He had no shoes, and kept tripping over his own feet as he looked down while he walked.
“These are the flax fields,” said Engers, brightly. “The people out east prefer cotton, but all’s well in Alswell, and all. A little further south we grow tea and sugarcane, and-.”
“He doesn’t need to know the business, young lord,” said the woman, sharply. “He just needs to be able to work it. Probably not a word you said got into his head, poor thing.”
Bax looked down. He didn’t say anything.
“Well, in that case we’ll just—Bechde! Well, I’ll be! We were just going to visit Langs!”
“Engers, this is a pleasant surprise,” said a lady in tight dress, seated on the back end of a wagon trundling around the bend. The waving stalks of flax were so high that Bax had not been able to see her, or her wagon. She waved a fan in front of her face daintily and smiled, showing pretty white teeth. “I was just escorting the workers back around to Greeve.” The lady blinked. “Oh, what’s this? What a darling young boy you’ve got there!”
Bax sniffed. For some reason, all of a sudden, among these bright and happy people, he felt like crying again.
He didn’t listen as Engers and Bechde began talking animatedly. He just stood there, waiting in the hot sun, wondering when he would be able to go home again.
He heard a soft psst and looked up. Poking out of behind the lady, peering through the covers, was a little girl with wide eyes. She waved at him, and made a face at the twitter and chatter of Engers and Bechde. Bax sniggered, and the girl vanished under the tarp again before the lady could see her.
And then Engers took him away, off wherever slaves went in Alswell.
“No more,” sang the field leader. Thunk, went the axe into the tree. “No more.” Thunk. “No more!” Thunk. “Farmer lord.” Thunk.
Bax wiped the sweat from his brow, squinting his eyes as wood chips flew from the tree. “We won’t take-.” Thunk. “No more.” Thunk. “Not ‘til we ask-.” Thunk. “The Ladies Four.”
The rest of the woodcutters hummed with him. They might not have known the words, but they sang with just as much feeling, just as much pain and fatigue in their voices.
“Ask ‘em why-.” Thunk. “My hands are bleeding.” Thunk. Bax tightened his grip on the axe. The blisters on his hands had healed at this point. They would not bleed for another day or two.
“Ask ‘em who-.” Thunk. “Took the hollow seed in.” Thunk. Bax looked up at the great oak hollow they were working around, with its twisting branches and flaking bark. The tabula in its hollow winked innocently, as if they did not hold the terrible power every slave in that clearing knew they did.
“Ask ‘em why-.” Thunk. “That man still breathing.” Thunk. Everyone thought of someone different when they said that. Some resented the farmer lords, and wished them dead with that line. Others prayed for mercy for their fellow slaves as age beat down on their backs as much as the whips of the taskmasters and the heat of the Alswell sun.
“Ask ‘em when-.” Thunk. “This life I’m leaving.” Thunk. With an ominous creak, the oak began to slowly tip over. “Timber!” shouted Bax, backing away as it collapsed in a great, shuddering heap. Loose leaves scattered all over the ground, and with one last gasp the oak came to a rest.
Bax backed away as the taskmaster lead more slaves to load up the tree onto the timber sled, sweat glistening on his chest, breathing heavily. The taskmaster looked up and snapped his whip in Bax’s direction, and the slave flinched. He looked away, as his grasp tightened on the axe.
That man still breathing…
Bax trudged away, to begin work on the next tree. The timber from the oaks was well and good, but it was the hollow at the center of the grove that the farmers really wanted. They would build great stone walls around this one, too, and Greeve would have a steady supply of slaves for as long as he had the clout to keep it from the other farmers.
“All’s well in Alswell, brother?” asked Fisk, leaning on his lance.
“All’s well in Alswell,” said Bax, nodding. He looked up at the trunk of the tree, figuring out where to cut so that it would fall away from hollow at the center. He didn’t want to damage the most precious part of today’s work.
“You go on and rest a little, Bax,” said the alsknight, as Bax began to chop once again. With the arrival of the taskmaster, the singing had stopped. “I can see you sweating enough for a dozen.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Bax, drawing out his words. He didn’t stop working. “Soon as the taskmaster gets done drawing fi’ty line on my back, I’m gon’ have to give that a little cogitating.”
“Heh, you a funny one, Bax,” said Fisk, patting the slave’s shoulder even as Bax drew the axe back for another swing. Bax had to pull back and let his arm fall to prevent himself from decapitating Fisk. “But go on and have a look-see over there. Pretty little filly, isn’t she?”
Bax followed Fisk’s finger and saw Janwye, also hard at work pulling timber onto the sled. Whatever Fisk was imagining, all Bax saw was the grinning little girl in the back of the wagon, making faces at a sad boy to cheer him up. He really did almost decapitate Fisk, then.
“Pretty little filly,” repeated Fisk, licking his lips. “And I’ve love to ride her, know what I mean?”
“She like family,” said Bax, and he swung his axe as hard as he could into the oak. It bit deep, and to his great satisfaction several woodchips went flying into the alsknight’s face. “So you best think real hard about what you say next.”
“Oh, how do you know what family is?” said Fisk, grinning, although anger was smoldering in his eyes. “You had Fallow in the same hollow or something?”
Bax was about to say something testy in reply when suddenly he felt a cold energy seize him. Like some invisible hand tugging at his spine, his body jerked upright and his arms began to swing of their own accord, swing harder and faster than was safe, so that his muscles screamed in protest and the blisters re-opened on his hands. He moved so fast as to be frenzied but so methodically as to be mechanical.
Beside him, the leering smirk had vanished from Fisk’s face; he was now upright and rigid, gripping his lance tightly. His eyes looked like, on the inside, he was screaming.
“No slacking,” growled the taskmaster, and then he moved on.
Fear kept Bax’s arms moving even as the taskmaster walked away. He supposed he should have been lucky, that he had only been commanded not punished, but the total lack of control, the cold realization that he was a prisoner in his own body—that was something Bax did not want to repeat.
Fisk didn’t talk to him anymore. Even if he was an alsknight, the farmers still owned him as much as they owned Bax. If they caught him lax on guard duty, it was back to the fields for him, and the Ladies knew Fisk couldn’t have many friends in the fields if he had become an alsknight.
“No more,” the field leader began again. “No more! No more, my lord…”
Bax laid on the straw and old rags, trying to ignore the smell and heat of the hut, poking his finger through the little hole in the wall. Sometimes winter rats crawled through, and Bax would let their cold breath play over fingers before they snuck away and disappeared. Bax closed his eyes. If only he was a winter rat, who could walk with a sheen of frost on his back to guard against the hot sun, who could squeeze through the tiny cracks and holes in the walls, who could grow fat on crumbs that the farmer lords threw away.
Someone kicked in their sleep next to him, and Bax tried to edge away. It was hard; floor space in the hut was limited, and a dozen people slept here every night. They also cooked here, ate here, and occasionally shat here if they felt like being rude, although none of the farmers actually cared if they did. It was their muck they had to live in, after all.
The taste of cornbread and grease still lingered in Bax’s mouth. He licked his lips. It was more than just hunger that gnawed at his insides. Anticipation crawled inside of him, and Bax could not dismiss it.
Trying to disturb as few people as possible, he rose, tiptoeing over the others towards the door of the hut. No one stirred; they were all sleeping deeply. They needed the rest for the long day they had tomorrow, like today, like the day before, like the day before that.
It was easy for Bax to leave the hut. The farmers posted no guards around the slave quarters; they didn’t need to. It was the tabula boxes and field lords that the alsknights guarded. No matter how far a slave ran in the night, they would always end up in the same place by morning, with whips and brands waiting for them.
No, all the farmers had to do was confiscate any weapons the slaves might have, keep the rope or rock out of reach. Suicide was bad for business.
And even if he found a way, Bax thought, Greeve had so many slaves that the loss of one made no difference. He padded across the dirt, the calluses on his heels scuffing against pebbles and gravel. He didn’t mind so much, anymore. When all was said and done, it was just part of living. Better to keep living, than to be petty.
The only tree in the compound was an old bent willow, its drooping branches waving in some wind only it could feel. Bax sat at its base, his legs straining as he slid down. It had been a harvest day, today. His back was sore and his fingers were covered in scratches and cuts from the flax bolls.
“Hey, Bax,” whispered a voice, and Janwye sat next to him. She yawned and put her head on his shoulder, and he straightened his back a little.
“Comfortable?” he asked, petting her hair. “Do I make a good headrest?”
“Better than the floor,” she said, batting his hand away. “Lady Summer, I’m tired.”
“Mm,” said Bax, softly. “Where’s Mealark?”
“Sleeping.” Janwye snuggled a little closer to Bax. “She had a rough day of it, today.”
Like today, like the day before, like the day before that. Bax’s gut twisted again, not just hunger, not just anticipation this time. “You ever get the sense that we could be doing something better, Janny? Something greater?”
“Every day,” said Janwye. “Actually, Bax, I…”
“Yes?” asked Bax, a little too quickly.
“Oh, Ladies, I’ve been putting this off for too long.” Janwye sat up, her legs folded under her. “Bax, I’ve been meaning to tell you, but I just- I couldn’t find the right way…”
“I’m leaving,” she said. She look on the verge of tears, but she didn’t cry. Janwye never cried.
Bax’s heart plummeted faster than he thought possible. Janwye? Leave? It was so strange as to be surreal. Janwye couldn’t leave. She couldn’t. She was family. “Where? Why?” Bax croaked, his mouth very dry, the pains in his gut forgotten.
“Bechde told me a week ago. An old marbleman, named Marion, he-.”
“She sold you?”
Janwye nodded, looking away. “An offer she couldn’t refuse, she said. She wouldn’t tell me how much I had sold for, but…Bax, I’m scared. I saw him. He dressed like one of their marble generals, and he’s balding and fat and wrinkled and what if he- what if…?”
Bax pulled her in, wrapping his arms around her in a great hug. He rocked her back and forth, whispering comforting nonsense into her ear.
“Anybody else know?” he asked, after a while.
Janwye shook her head. “Bechde said she was already breaking one of the terms by telling me. This man, he doesn’t want anyone to know. You’re the first person I’ve told, Bax.” She pushed her way out of his embrace. “You have to promise me—promise me—that you won’t tell anyone. I don’t want Bechde getting in trouble.”
“Even after she did this to you?” said Bax, incredulously. “Treat you like shit, sell you like a piece of meat?”
“OK, Janny,” he said, after a pause. “I promise.”
Janwye nodded. She turned around and sat against the tree again, sighing. “Oh, Ladies, I said it all wrong. Don’t be worried about me, Bax. I know you’re going to worry. But I’ll be fine. Wherever I’m going, I’ll be fine.”
Bax wasn’t so sure. He stared at his feet, not knowing what to say. “When are you leaving?”
“Can we not talk about it?” asked Janwye. Her voice was rising, and Bax had to put a finger to her lips as the sound began to carry through the night. “Please, Bax? Let’s just not talk about it. Let’s spend this night like we would have if I hadn’t gone and blabbed it all out.”
The way Janwye said it, it made it sound like this was their last night. Bax’s breath caught in his throat. He stared at Janwye for a long time, at the way her hair fell around her face, at the constant emotion and life she had, at the way she moved and talked and breathed. He tried to keep it all in his head and remember, just in case this really was last night they had.
Janwye might never cry, but Bax felt like he might.
He took a quiet breath to calm himself, and then cleared his throat. “But of course, m’lady,” he said, kissing Janwye’s hand like an alsknight would court a fine apprentice-daughter of a farmer lord. “Anything you desire.”
Janwye waved a hand in front of her face and made such high-pitched mock giggle that both of them collapsed in stifled laughter.
“You know, Bax,” said Janwye, as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “I’m a bit glad that Mealark is so tired today.” She groaned, putting her head in her palms. “Oh, shit, that came out wrong, I shouldn’t have said it like that. What I mean is I just-.”
“I know what you meant,” said Bax, and she didn’t need to say anymore after that.
They talked that night, talked about the field groups and Greeve’s court and the work they had to do, and even though Janwye had told Bax not to mention it eventually the conversation came around to what the Stronghold was like, and what they ate, and how they dressed.
“I hear they have gladiators there,” said Janwye. “You know, like pit fighters.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” asked Bax.
“I think…a good thing. At least they give the slaves a chance to fight back.”
“Fighting each other, though? Kicking and biting and scrabbling the dust while some fat general in the stands watches? While he eats grapes and strokes whores?”
“At least they’re fighting something,” said Janwye. “You can’t fight the sun, or the harvest, or the hollows. At least they get a chance to be actual people.”
“You thinking of becoming a gladiator, is that it, Janny?”
She pushed him up against the tree and bared her teeth at him. “You ain’t never seen how hard I fight, Bax boy.”
He laughed and, as Janwye leaned across him, stroked her hair again. She didn’t bat his hand away this time.
“I’ll miss you, Janny.”
She sighed. “I’ll miss you too.”
Kerry fussed around him, straightening his clothes, scrubbing his face judiciously. “Well, you did grow into it, didn’t you?” she said, an old woman now with a bent back and a wheeze in her voice. “Look at you. Nice set of clothes, combed hair, and your lovely springborn voice and no one will ever think you’re a slave unless they see the brand.” She slapped him on the back. “Best keep your shirt on, then, Bax, eh?” She said it like it was a joke, but Bax didn’t laugh.
He went over Engers’s instructions in his head. It was a simple courtship ritual, just the first step in the elaborate Alswell process. Bax would pass the message on to the lady, and give her reply back to Engers.
He adjusted the cravat around his neck and squirmed on the inside. He understood that he had to look the part, but nonetheless he felt puffy.
“Last touch, Bax,” said Kerry, waddling his way with a pair of soft leather boots. Bax stepped inside of them and let Kerry tie the straps. At last, the slave boy was finally good enough for shoes.
“Off you go now, go on,” said the old woman, shooing him away. “Bechde’s manor isn’t far, you know where it is. And don’t get too much dust on those clothes! You’ll have to clean it off yourself.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Bax, bowing his head and backing away. His boots slapped on the stones as he left the chilly castle corridors behind him, and stepped out into the bright Alswell sun. He was already beginning to sweat under his layers of stiff vests and cotton dress shirts.
Bax supposed it was better than fieldwork, but all the same he felt like he had somehow betrayed his brothers and sisters in the working groups as he walked along the fields and saw them, smudges on the horizon, bending and cutting, bending and cutting, bending and cutting.
Someone had to be the messenger for the farmer nobles and their lace-filled, shawl-wearing, puffy society. Better it be Bax, then, the slave reasoned, as he walked along the road. For once, he could stand with his back straight as he walked.
“Finest morning, Lady Bechde,” muttered Bax, under his breath, practicing. “Lord Engers sends his regards and seeks your company in the coming moons. Ahem, finest morning, Lady Bechde…”
The manor was just ahead. Each of the manors technically belonged to Farmer Greeve, but the lords and ladies that were his personal favorites essentially owned the various mansions that dotted the fields. Bax supposed that, at a certain point, they must have all been slaves too, but sometimes the farmers would choose some particularly lucky child to pamper and raise since Fallow. Lady Bechde seemed like one of those children; from what Bax had seen of the perfumed woman, it looked like she hadn’t done a day’s hard work in her life.
The elaborate front of the manor, with its high arches and true-glass windows, loomed before him as he approached. He straightened, preparing himself. If he did a good job at this, Engers might keep him on as a formal messenger, and then Bax would never have to work the fields again.
And then he saw her.
“Janny,” whispered Bax, as she rode out of the courtyard on the back of a beautiful summer elk, its fur russet brown, long and sleek and clean. But she was more beautiful still, her hair combed behind her ears, a plain white shawl around her shoulders. On the other ladies of the Alswell courts it made them look gaudy, but on her it was majestic.
And then he saw the man riding next to her.
He would have, in Bax’s opinion, been the picturesque dashing knight if he hadn’t been so obviously foreign. He rode his horse (and Bax couldn’t tell what kind of horse it was: honestly, it seemed rather dull) with natural skill and ease, but he wore pants of tanned leather and no shirt at all. A barbed whip hung from his side, and his hair, long and greasy, was in a braid that reached his waist. Bax had no small amount of muscle himself from those years in the fields, but this man had the stature and physique of a trained warrior, not a starved worker.
Bax’s mouth went dry. He did not seem like a marbleman, but Bax had not stepped foot outside Alswell since the Fallow. For all he knew, this man could be the epitome of the marble legions.
There was nothing for it. Bax ran, all pretense and manners forgotten as his boots slapped on the dirt path. “Janny!” he shouted. “Janny, hey!”
Janwye reared in the summer elk and looked around in confusion. When she saw Bax, her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. Then, to Bax’s great relief, her mouth split in a wide smile.
“Bax!” she shouted, slipping off the elk and running forward. “What the hell happened to you?”
Bax looked down at his cravat and vest and gulped. “I got fancy,” he said, finally. “You- I mean you look…wow.”
The other man rode up behind them and dropped off his horse to the ground, lithe, like some predatory cat. He straightened and gave Bax an intense look-over. “Mosh sag bu,” he muttered, quietly. “Wey ab al, fot hak sen.”
Before Bax could say anything, Janwye looked over her shoulder and said, “Pu al ab! Sen hak Bax, al iro tu sat.”
“You speak foreign,” said Bax, before he could stop himself.
Janwye laughed. “You can thank him for that, he’s too lazy to learn the king’s tongue. That’s Rho Hat Pan.”
“He’s a friend. Just a friend,” said Janwye. She put her hands on her hips. “By all the Ladies, Bax, it’s been so long. I was going to visit, but these damn fields are so big, I had no idea where to start…”
“It’s OK.” Bax kept looking Janwye up and down. She had changed so much. “So, are you…?” Bax couldn’t seem to finish his questions.
“I’m back,” said Janwye, smiling. “For now, at least. As a free woman. I’d figure I’d see what Bechde needs doing, maybe come back around again. Do some favors for some friends, if I need to.” She reached for a pendant around her neck, and Bax noticed for the first time that she was wearing a little wooden disk with a crescent moon inscribed on it.
“Are you going anywhere?” asked Bax, looking at the horse and the elk.
Janwye bit her lip. “Yes, we have to…yes. Stick around though! We’ll be back!”
Bax nodded. “OK, then. I’ll be right here for you, waiting.”
And they hugged each other just once before going their separate ways.
Greeve looked tired. What little hair was left on his head had gone white with stress and age, and there were deep bags under his eyes.
“Banden Ironhide threatens war,” he said, eyes closed, as if just saying the name caused him pain. “The pup swears he will have our food and grain or else he will summon the might that destroyed the Seat of the King and take it by force.”
Bax looked to Engers and Bechde and Langs, all standing at attention before their surrogate father. He stood behind them, with Janwye and Mealark, at attendance and awaiting orders.
He exchanged a glance with Janwye. Even after all these years as a proven free woman, she still stood where the slaves stood: albeit, where the privileged slaves stood, but where the slaves stood nonetheless.
“I’ve sent letters to the Stronghold,” said Greeve, opening his eyes again. They were a clear blue, and still as sharp as ever despite the age that bent his back and wrinkled his brow. “To Jhidnu. To Kazakhal, even, although the Ladies know what good the frog-eaters will do. But for our close allies…it requires a more personal touch.”
As Greeve leaned on his cane and hobbled to his feet, Engers and Langs rushed to his side to help him stand. They helped him to the table at the center of his chambers, upon which the map of all of Albumere was splayed out.
Greeve coughed violently, his body seizing up as he leaned on the table. His three children-apprentices stood by his side, concerned but silent. The proud farmer would take none of their pity.
“Here,” said Greeve, after the fit had passed. “Beyond the mountains. Langs, you will take what supplies you need, what protection you require, to go to Mont Don. Speak to Prince Gaelen, beg him if you must.”
Langs cleared his throat. “Mont Don, my lord? They are…”
“They’re a joke in the Seat,” muttered Greeve. “And that’s exactly how Gaelen, the little guttersnipe, likes it. Don’t underestimate the mountainmen. Make your preparations now, go on. It’s cold up in the north.”
Langs nodded and walked away briskly. “Mealark, come,” he snapped.
“Bechde, you’re going to have to go far, and by foot,” said Greeve. “See Keep Tlai at Temple Moscoleon. They have always been our allies.”
Bechde pursed her lips and said nothing. For once, the lady seemed to be more than just frills and gossip.
“I’d say take a ship, but the saltmen have been getting cheeky. It’s too dangerous. I’d say go through the Seat of the King, but we all know why you can’t do that. The only way is through the deserts of Hak Mat Do.” Greeve sniffed. “Be ready for a long journey, sweet Bechde. Go on, get ready.”
Bechde left, and Janwye turned to follow behind her. Just before Janwye walked away, Bax grabbed her hand. They exchanged a look.
“We’ll talk later,” said Janwye, smiling, and then she left.
Before Greeve could speak again, Engers said, hesitantly, “My lord, if I may…why Bechde? You know she does not have the, erm, fortitude to endure such a long travel. Let me go in her stead.”
Greeve shook his head, and began to cough again. Engers patted him on the back and waited. “I want her as far away from here as possible when this all goes to shit,” said Greeve, shuddering. “And I need you for the hardest part.”
“The hardest part, my lord?”
The old farmer pointed on the map. Bax couldn’t see where, but Engers’s reaction made it clear enough.
“Shira Hay? They- they hate us, my lord.”
“And they’re the only damn ones close enough to help once Ironhide decides to make his move,” snarled Greeve, slamming his fist on the table. “I like it less than you do, Engers, but if we don’t have Shira Hay we won’t live to see any of our other allies arrive.”
“I understand,” said Engers, quietly.
“Go on,” said Greeve. “We’ll discuss the duarchs at length once we’ve gotten things moving around here.”
Engers walked away as Greeve stumbled back to his bed, and Bax fell in behind him.
As the duarch pulled the knife from his gut, Bax felt a sick, hot pain begin to throb throughout him. His fine emissary’s clothes had already soaked all the blood they could, and now he could feel it dripping onto his hands.
He stumbled backwards. Through the red fog that was beginning to envelop his mind, there was some primal instinct to run away, to get back, but the duarch had already grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him in.
Bax felt sudden weakness in his limbs as his pathetic attempts to pull free yielded no fruit. As the duarch put the knife against his throat, he scrabbled against his neck: not to stop the knife, but to grab the box hanging around his neck.
The beetle inside buzzed. This one was for Mealark.
Bax crushed it in his hand and hoped against hope that she would not worry too much about him. Mealark never had been able to calm her nerves.
And then the knife sliced across his throat and Bax could only think of how he was choking, how he couldn’t breathe, how the world was dissolving into red and black and white and nothing.
He stumbled to the edge of the bridge, teetering over the brink, gagging. With a single prod, the duarch pushed him over.
Then he fell towards the water and fell towards the sun, fell up and fell down. A thought drifted across his bleary mind that he should die with a happy memory. He focused. His last thought was of her, of the way her hair fell around her face, of the constant emotion and life she had, of the way she moved and talked and breathed.
With what strength he had left, he reached for the second beetle box around his neck and crushed it. I’m sorry I failed, Janny, he thought. Now stay away from here. Get as far away from this place as possible.
And half a world away, one of the tabula in Janwye’s pack shattered.