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The Necessary Evil

Zur Gozrimaw’s iron mask sat heavily on his face, but he did not bow his head. Instead, he held his chin high, his back straight, his gaze unwavering. If the other members of the Grey Table could see his expression, it honestly would not have been too great a difference from the mask: it was steely, calm, collected. There was a time for burning coal, and a time for cooling waters. Such was the word of the First Smith.

“We do not allow outsiders into the Irontower,” said Thun Doshrigaw, from the supplicant’s position at the center of the table. The other members of the smithsworn council ringed him, watching him, judging him, as the First Smith was judged by the marblemen. “Our law is clear.”

“Our law states that no man or woman born of Fallow tree beyond this valley may set eyes on the secrets of our tower,” said Arron Caoimgharaw, of Steel Wrought. He wore no mask: instead, he wore at least one ring on every finger, myriad things made of copper and bronze and iron and even gold. His bare chest shone with sweat, and he wore a steel choker around his neck: a reminder of the First Smith’s sacrifice. “Only those brought here by the hand of the Ladies may inherit their blessings.”

“A dull knife is useless, Arron, for it has no point,” growled Thun. Zur narrowed his eyes, although the rest of his body did not move. Thun had spent too much time outside the tower, fraternizing with the baymen, breathing their rusting sea air. That was no way to talk to a revered forgestoker.

“The girl is blind,” said Arron, a faint smugness to his voice. “She has no eyes with which to set.”

“Arron Caoimgharaw, what mockery do you make of the First Smith’s edicts?” shouted Thun, and even from behind his mask Zur could see the man’s livid expression. “Our law is iron. It does not bend.”

One of the sitting members of the Grey Table chuckled, shoulders shaking despite the constant impassivity of his mask. Jak Surramow: a good-humored man, well-liked among the apprentices, less so among his peers. “You have worked with brittle metal too long, then, Thun,” he said. “Steel folds.”

Thun bristled. “Are the teachings of the First Smith a joke to you, Jak?”

“Not as much as you,” said Jak Surramow, and the disdain was evident in his voice. “Listen to yourself, prattling on about a cripple girl like she were some marble warrior come to slay us all. You shame us, Thun Doshrigaw.”

“You are setting a dangerous precedent, Arron,” said Thun, ignoring Jak. “Allowing outsiders into the tower so freely.”

“You grasp for gold in an exhausted mine,” said Arron, heavily. “Precedent has already been set. Did not Nal Kershiwaw allow outsiders into the Irontower, when he invited the clansmen to plan his ascent to the throne?”

Zur smirked. Arron’s knowledge of the tower’s history was near encyclopedic; it was rumored that he never forgot a word of what he read, and would spend hours staring at the ceiling, flipping through the annals of the First Smith without ever so much as touching a page. Those rumors were true, of course, but for a different person.

A small blade cut as deep as a large one, so long as it was hidden. Such was the word of the First Smith.

Even if Arron didn’t have Zur’s prodigious memory, the forgestoker had a respectable one nonetheless. And if he ever needed help, Zur would provide it, although he did not like to speak at these council meetings. Better for the Grey Table to forget that he was even there.

Zur could actually see Thun changing tact, see the cogs in his brain working as he rounded on Surramow: an easy opponent, for an emotional argument. “She is not just some cripple girl. Do you think Han Luratah decided to make the First Smith’s sacrifice without warning? She even has the two older ones in her thrall. She has no tabula. She has no soul.

Jak sat up, evidently about to protest, but Arron raised a hand. For good measure, Zur looked Jak’s way, and though neither could see the other’s face beneath their masks, Jak slumped visibly.

“You would do well to remember who you are supplicating to,” said Arron, dryly. “Han Luratah, may the Ladies Fall and Summer forge his soul, died in a battle among wild mercenaries and skilled Hag Gar Gan warriors. You would have us believe that, among all these great fighters, this twelve-summer girl killed Han? Furthermore, neither of the two adults have been ensorcelled by the girl; they have adopted her, to fill a void in their lives. We know of this happening, among the child havens beyond the valley. And if you had actually been convinced by the bayman plutocrat’s auctioneering prattle, then we may yet send you back to the apprentice’s quarters tonight, Thun Doshrigaw.”

Thun spluttered and gaped.

“For each radical piece of evidence you proffer before us, there is an alternative, reasonable explanation. Furthermore, your conduct has been shameful, and unworthy of one who walks the smith’s path. You have failed in the mission for which you left the Irontower, and you have spent too long among the baymen and their licentiousness.” Arron drew himself up, raising his voice. “For these reasons, I deny your plea, and confine you to the lower levels of the tower, until the Lady Winter departs and you have seen the error of your ways.”

You did not see her!” shouted Thun, standing, spittle flying from his mouth. “You did not see the way she crushed him underfoot! You did not hear the way she screamed!

Zur moved quickly. He pushed his seat out as he stood, heel twisting against the floor before he launched himself over the table and vaulted towards Thun. His arm wrapped around Thun’s neck, and he brought the man low, locking him in a chokehold as strong as steel.

“Take him away,” said Arron, dismissively.

“Enough!” Thun wrestled his way free out of Zur’s grip, and brushed his robes off. “I shall see myself out. I can retain that much dignity, at least.”

Thun stalked away, his footsteps echoing throughout the chamber as Zur quietly resumed his seat. The other members of the Grey Table rose and shuffled away, whispering amongst each other in low voices. Zur did not participate. Gossip was rust upon the honed speech of honorable men. Such was the word of the First Smith.

Arron beckoned him over as he rose. The two of them walked together, to the opposite side of the chamber. These stairs led up. The others led down.

Zur admired the staircase as he walked. It twisted clockwise as it went up, so that if any invader happened to come, they would find their right hands impaired, while defenders coming down from the top would have the longer swing. It was a small, clever thing. The Irontower was full of small, clever things.

They walked, Arron jingling with every step, Zur silent. He had yet to take off his iron mask. It was almost more comforting, to have his face obscured by the grim metal visage.

“Do you believe him?” asked Arron, as they climbed.

“Regarding the girl?” Zur pursed his lips, although Arron could see none of that while Zur still wore the mask. “I have seen wild children kill grown men. It is no great feat, even if it were true.”

“But a man in our armor? Wielding our sword? It does not reflect well on us.”

Zur shrugged. “Shall we send her into the Greenskull Caverns, then? The men of the valley grow more skittish every day. They would be grateful that the Ladies had sent a warrior to slay the evils within that cave.”

“Hmmph.” Arron did not look at Zur, and Zur did not look at him. There was nothing to see, either way. “And her tabula? She has yet to produce it, and yet her master has not called her back yet.”

“That speaks to nothing,” said Zur, curtly. “Tabula are best kept hidden. Even under the threat of death, I would not produce mine.”

Arron put a hand on Zur’s shoulder, and the towerman stiffened. “You are not ready to follow in the First Smith’s footsteps, yet,” said the forgestoker. To Zur, his tone sounded almost patronizing. “Martyrdom may be honorable, but too often it is also forgotten. We forget easily the names of the dead.”

Zur did not say anything. Lives were petty things, compared to the secrets of the tower. Such was the last word of the First Smith.

“There is the matter of the adults,” said Arron, slowly. “The…parents, as it were.”

“Where are they?” Zur’s hand drifted to his belt, where he kept his knives. It was always better, to know where one’s enemies were.

“I hear they are camping outside the Greenskull Caverns.” Arron chuckled. “An imprudent decision.”

“I concur,” said Zur, flatly.

“There is…” Arron paused. “There is some resemblance. The girl has the woman’s sharp features, the same lithe build. She has flaxen hair, like the man. And the tone of her skin is a mix between them.”

“We have seen this in the gardens,” said Zur. He didn’t mean gardens near the Irontower, no, not even gardens that still existed today. The books had taught him this, and he remembered. “Tall sprouts and short sprouts shall produce a middling offspring. The seed of flowers with red petals and white shall have pink petals, or white petals spotted red, or red and white petals alternating. The essence of the parents is inherited by the children.”

“Hmm,” said Arron.

“Hmm,” agreed Zur.

Arron’s step faltered. He stood before an open window, staring out the Irontower from their lefty perch, so high above the rest of the valley. Chill winter air blew here, so frigid that Zur felt his mask might freeze to his face. Impressive as the metal sheeting of the tower might have been, it didn’t help much with insulation.

“Do you think the doorkeeper was right, to allow the child entrance?” asked Arron, staring at the window, seemingly unfazed by the chill even though his chest was bare. They said that the fires of the furnaces burned forever in the hearts of forgestokers. They, of course, were the voices of the dead, still whispering to Zur through the annals of the past.

“He has cause undue trouble for us. Made us brittle, when we should be strong,” said Zur, standing by the window, gazing out at the valley as well. It was dry and barren, but it was theirs. Beyond the mountain pass, the rest of Albumere laid.

Zur’s hand tightened around the hilt of his knife. Soon, that would be theirs, too.

“The doorkeeper acted on his conscience,” said Arron. “Would you have left the girl in the cold?”

Though a towerman’s hands must be sheathed in steel, his heart must burn strong enough to melt it. Such was the word of the First Smith. “It is good that he took pity on the girl. Less so that he did not think it through. She was not alone. She had a good chance, to survive the wilds, even in the winter.”

“Strange, for her to seek refuge in the Irontower. Technically, we still own her.”

“You cannot own that which has no tabula. A man that has slain a marble soldier may take his hammer. A man that has slain a Hag Gar Gan rider may take his saddle. When the hammer and the saddle are broken, the man who holds them feels no pain, sees no glimpse of the next world. He cannot call them back when they are lost, and as such they are not truly his. These are things with no soul, which change hands by the will of the Ladies.”

Arron wrinkled his nose. “A Treatise on Slaves and the Holy Hollows, by Ik Yor Gat?”

“Yes,” said Zur.

“Hmm,” said Arron, nodding. He paused. “So you truly do think that the girl has no tabula?”

“I did not say that.”

“I did not ask you what you said.”

Zur did not reply.

Arron sighed, and turned away from the window. “In the grand scheme of things, she matters little. She will leave soon, I hope.”

“Was that a statement, or a request?” Zur did not leave the window. Through his mask, which was so cold it felt like it had melded to his face, so cold that the mask really was his face, he saw the rest of Albumere, beyond the tower.

He had memorized every book in the Irontower’s prodigious library. He had counted every stone in it, every step leading from the bottom to the top. He had embraced the teachings of the First Smith, then rejected them, then rediscovered them. The tower had been his whole life.

He wanted what laid beyond it, so badly.

Zur did not move from the window, bathed in harsh winter sunlight. Arron stood in the shadows above him, and though Zur wore the mask, it was the forgestoker’s face which could not be seen for the darkness.

“We have word from our friends in Jhidnu,” said Arron, at last. “Thun Doshrigaw did that much for us, at least.”

“Will the east stand with us?” asked Zur.

“The plutocrats still chafe at the loss of their trade routes, but they are an indolent people, prone to softness of will. They will not send soldiers.”

Zur sneered. He was not surprised, but he was still disappointed. “We did not ask for soldiers.”

“The Seat of Winter is prepared to back our claim. The Stronghold will no doubt oppose us, but they will be glad to see Ironhide dead.” Arron put a hand on Zur’s shoulder. “I must warn you, Zur, that once Albumere has one less a king, I can guarantee nothing. The citizens of the Seat may not even recognize a new claimant.”

“Good steel cuts once and cuts deep,” said Zur. “Such is the word of the First Smith.”

“They will not recognize the First Smith, either.”

“Then they will be untaught, and their ignorance shall make them weak.” Zur turned to face the revered forgestoker, and slowly, delicately, removed the mask. His voice sounded strange to him, when it was not muffled by a plate of steel. “I am prepared for what is to come. I will do what I must do.”

“Then here is where we part ways, Zur Gozrimaw,” said Arron, his hand resting lightly on Zur’s chin. Zur’s skin tingled at his touch. Was it the heat of the forgestoker’s hand, compared to the cold of the smithsworn’s face? Was it simply the fact that his face had not felt a human touch for a time longer than even Zur could remember? Something else entirely?

Zur looked up, eyes shining. It was finally happening. Everything he had dreamed of, come to fruition.

“Goodbye, and good luck, old friend,” said Arron. “May the Lady Summer guide your hand.”

“And may the Lady Fall watch your step,” said Zur, bowing. “Goodbye, Arron Caiomgharaw.”

They turned away at the same time, Arron higher into the tower, Zur deeper. It was a long way down from where he stood, but Zur moved quickly. His robes flapped around his feet as he strapped his mask back on. He would need more practical clothing, soon. Silent clothing.

He walked through the council chambers, now deserted. From there, he walked down the spiral staircase, past the masters’ forges, where he could hear the forever ring of hammer on anvil, see the forever glow of the red fires. He walked past the library levels, where all the stored knowledge of the Irontower was kept. This was not Shira Hay, where the nomads stored any semi-legible tripe they could find in a library open to all: not Shira Hay, where they wandered the world and let ignorance poison their minds. The towermen knew the power of secrets. Only the most dedicated among them were allowed access to the libraries.

Zur Gozrimaw walked on, deeper and deeper, closer and closer to the ground, his heart thudding in his chest. He passed the journeyman’s quarters, and the women’s chambers, and the cheap iron forges, and the place for apprentices, which had no name and deserved none. Zur reached the bottom, and straightened himself.

He entered the doorkeeper’s room.

The towermen were not allowed worldly possessions. Their work belonged to the Irontower, and for it, they were given food and clothing and shelter. The coin their metalcraft earned went to the good of all. Tools were given according to rank and seniority. Zur’s hand drifted to his knives. Those counted as tools.

The doorkeeper kept the supplies. Any man who wished to leave the Irontower had to go through him first.

Zur paused. “Where is the doorkeeper?” he asked, to the girl sitting on his bed. The Irontower had no guest chambers; he supposed this was where she stayed, while she stayed. Her legs swung restlessly from where she sat, although her hands were folded neatly on her lap. She scratched her chest, and cocked her head, not looking at Zur. There wouldn’t have been much of a point.

“The door opened, but it sounds like you’re still talking behind it,” said the girl. She clicked her tongue, and, despite himself, Zur flinched. “But you’re inside the room.”

Zur looked around, but he saw no sign of the doorkeeper within the room. Was someone else demanding entrance to the Irontower? How many more strangers sought to steal their secrets?

“You’re wearing a mask,” said the girl, suddenly. “U-ha did it once, I remember. For a ritual.”

“Where is the doorkeeper?” Zur asked, again.

“He said he’d be back soon.” The girl stood, and though the blindfold was wrapped tightly around her head, she walked with surprising confidence towards him. “Are you going somewhere? Outside?”

“Yes,” said Zur, curtly. He did not like talking to this girl. For some reason, it felt like his mask did not protect him here.

“If you go, could you…could you check on my friends, please?” The girl wrung her hands together. “The man and the woman who came with me. Could you see if they’re OK?”

“I could,” said Zur. He squinted. There was a resemblance. He had only caught a brief glimpse of the other two—the woman had been yelling as the girl walked into the tower, causing such a ruckus that all the apprentices had come swarming to see—but he could see it, nonetheless.

Was the girl really their ­natural-born daughter? There was no precedent for this, as far back as Zur could remember, in all the books that he had read.

There was a shuffling from behind him, and he turned to see the doorkeeper stride into the room. His features were…average. As much as Zur prided himself on stealth, he could never have matched the doorkeeper’s innate ability to appear completely, utterly forgettable. His hair was cut short in the style of the apprentices, his robes were clean and nondescript, and he had the air of someone who would keep on plodding on no matter what one said or did to him. Even as the doorkeeper turned away, Zur found himself forgetting what his face looked like.

“Going somewhere?” the doorkeeper asked, mildly.

Zur straightened. The doorkeeper and the girl were both inconsequential, compared to what was to come. He had no time to waste, puzzling over them. “Yes,” he said. “I need supplies, and new clothes.”

“How much?”

“Enough to reach the Seat of the King.”

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Flow (Chapter 6 Part 10)

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.

And Roan…

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.”

“Who’s th-?”

“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.

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Flow (Chapter 6 Part 8)

The thing that bothered Jova the most was the damp. She hadn’t felt properly dry in ages, her clothes constantly stained and dirty with rainwater, seawater, and other more foul things that dripped down from the grate above her.

But the cruelest thing about Jhidnu’s penance cells, Jova realized, was the sound. The music, the festivities, and the merriment aboveground was just loud enough to carry down below, and Jova could but sit and wait and listen to the echoes. Since Dock and Darpah had come, no one had bothered to visit her. Except…

One night, while Jova slept, she awoke to the feeling of hot breath on her face. She held very still as she flexed her stiff fingers, listening to the panting right above her. “Mo?” she whispered, and the weaseldog barked, the sound echoing all throughout the cells.

She sat up, and scratched the back of his head behind his ears, although the chains were stretched taut for her to do so. “How the heck did you get down here?” Jova whispered, to Mo’s happy whines. The cells maintained no real guards—after all, who would pay for them?—but she still didn’t want to risk Mo being found and caught.

The weaseldog just panted, his warm body curled at Jova’s feet.

“Is this where you’ve been hiding?” asked Jova. “How’d you end up in a dump like this, huh, Mo? Why don’t you go home? Why don’t you go back to Ma and Da?”

As always, Mo didn’t answer. Jova didn’t expect him to. She leaned back, stroking his fur as she waited for more time to pass, and after an hour he slipped out from her grasp and trotted away. Then Jova was alone again, listening to the sounds of freedom beyond the bars of her cell.

Jova had strange dreams in that dank darkness. She felt a presence reach out to her, beating at her, beating like waves against the shore at the high cliffs of her very consciousness. She dreamed of the cursed pyramid and the man made of wood and a voice older than the u-ha’s that rasped in a tongue Jova had never heard before.

She lost track of time, in the cells. The sun only barely shone through into her cell, and sometimes at night it got far hotter when someone dropped a torch over her grate or a summer animal stood above her and she had to roll aside to avoid the drifting cinders.

Then, one night, she woke to the sound of the leather boots stepping on the floor and labored breathing. She felt heat on her face, much closer than if an errant torch had been dropped above her, and held up a hand to shield her face from the heat.

“Slave is awake?”

Jova rattled her collar chain as she sat up. “Is it time to go?” she asked.

“Slave is alert.”

She felt rough hands haul her up, and Jova gagged as the collar strained on her neck. “Who are you?” she rasped, struggling to speak around the ring pressing against her throat.

More leather manacles were wrapped around her wrists and ankles, so that Jova was held taut between chains on all sides. She couldn’t move at all. Whoever had spoken to her was working away studiously, from the sounds of it. His breath whistled as if from a tube. It sounded painful.

When he spoke again, his voice was nasally and ragged. “Do you know of Banden Ironhide?”

Jova wasn’t sure what to say. It was as if she had been asked if she knew who the Ladies Four were. “Of course I do,” she said, and with her throat pressed tight against her collar her voice sounded just as raspy. “Everyone does.”

“Hrm. Have you heard of his hounds?”

At this, Jova shook her head. The rusted iron links rattled.

“They say he has three. Candidos, the winter hound, whose bite will kill a man slow.” The man tightened the chains holding Jova’s arms, and she winced as they stretched painfully above her head. “Viridos, the fall hound, whose ears hear the tread of all spies that sneak around our new king.” Suddenly, a leather glove gripped Jova’s chin, and sweat began to break out on Jova’s brow as she felt breath against her cheek. “Aurudos, the summer hound, whose coat burns with his passion.” The fire of his torch came close to Jova’s face, and she could not turn away as her skin tingled, then stung, then burned.

The man pulled the torch away, and Jova gasped with relief. The cool damp of the cells felt suddenly good. “Who are you?” Jova asked again, as her head hung and dirty, unkempt hair fell around her face.

“Banden Ironhide, the king who is not a king, keeps three hounds,” said the man. “Sovar-l’hana does the same.”

Jova shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“Darpah, the simpering pup, helps the master with his business. Dandal, that vicious mutt, he helps the master with his business.” Jova heard a scraping, like something being drawn from a sheath. The sound was too short for it to be a full length sword, more like one of Da’s knives…

Then something was driven into her palm, and Jova screamed. Every chain holding her down rattled as her body jerked and twisted, but Jova was fully immobile. She heard the man’s wheezing breath terribly, terribly close to her ear.

“I, too, help the master with his business.”

Jova felt blood run down her palm, and cried out as the blade or the spike or whatever it had been was removed. She tried to move her fingers, but the pain was so blindingly sharp that she could not even tell if her hand was responding. Jova wouldn’t be able to hold a staff for weeks.

She heard footsteps, as the man moved from one side of her to the other. “No,” she whispered, shaking her head, trying to move away, but she couldn’t. “No, no, please, no…”

“The journey was a long one, I hear,” said Sovar-l’hana’s third dog. “Across the Barren Sands twice, from Moscoleon to Hak Mat Do, from Hak Mat Do to here. You suffered some losses, no doubt. People died. And you, well, you have gone through some suffering yourself, haven’t you?”

The tip of a nail traced lightly across Jova’s sensitive face, and she cringed. The nail painted across her face a line of blood—her blood—that stuck to her skin, and she could not rub it away.

“You think you know pain? The world is still full of horrible things yet, little girl. You don’t know the half of it.”

Jova howled as her other palm was impaled. Her whole forehead was covered in sweat, the pain bouncing like echoes through her body, or maybe that was her screaming, echoing through the underground cells.

“I learned- I’m sorry- I’ll be a good…a good slave…” gasped Jova, sucking in breath even as she held back her screams.

“You’re impudent. Demanding. Righteous. You’re not a slave. Not yet.”

Jova’s whole body tensed as the man, Sovar-l’hana’s nameless hound, held the torch up to her once again. This time, he held it up to one of Jova’s bleeding hands, so close that she could feel her flesh melting, feel it roasting.

The man coughed, hacking phlegm out as he tried to speak. “Where is your tabula?”

“I don’t- I don’t know,” gasped Jova, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Please, if you just stop, I’ll-.”

The burning end of the torch pressed hard against her palm, and Jova didn’t know what she was feeling anymore. A hard hand slapped her cheek as her head rolled, and her ears rang as the man said, “Do you think you are in any position to offer me anything? I stop when I choose to stop. Where is your tabula?”

“It’s- it’s…” Jova gulped, her limbs trembling. “It’s in Moscoleon. I’m a zealot, it’s in a House of Spring, with the pontiff C-Copo.”

The heat left Jova’s one hand for one throbbing second before the other was set ablaze as well. “Where is your tabula?”

I told you! D-didn’t I tell you?” Jova screamed, her voice high and plaintive. She wasn’t the blind zealot of Moscoleon anymore, she wasn’t any mercenary’s assassin, she wasn’t a devil with no soul. She was just an eleven year-old girl, and she was burning.

“Where is your tabula?”

“In, in, in the jungle, the Moscoleon jungle,” she stuttered, her mind racing. “I l-lost it, when the tribe attacked. I lost it in the fighting, I swear I did, I lost it!”

The torch fell aside, and Jova tensed, waiting. Where would he burn her next? What would Albumere take from her this time?

“I will return in the morning,” said the man, and Jova heard his limping footsteps padding away. He did not untie Jova’s new chains. He did not say anything else as he was leaving. The wounds on Jova’s hands had been burned closed, cauterized by the torch, but that was hardly a comfort to her.

Before he left, though, he did say one other thing.

“I am Chetan,” he said. “Since you asked.”

Jova did not reply. She slumped, her tears drying on her cheeks. That night, she dreamed of nothing but iron spikes and fire.

A bucket of water dumped over her head woke her in the morning, and she felt her stiff limbs fold under her as the chains were unlocked and she fell to the floor. Shivering violently, she curled up for warmth, but someone grabbed her under her armpit and hauled her to her feet. Jova gasped as her dress was wrenched off of her, but her limbs, thin from days of disuse, were too weak to fight back.

She wrapped her arms over her chest and bowed her head, preparing herself for the worst, but rough hands grabbed her forearms and made her hold her palms out. Jova turned away.

Cloth wrapped around her hand, and Jova dared to relax her arm. “The other one,” rasped Chetan, and Jova held out her other hand, while still trying to hide her nakedness as best she could.

She drew breath. “You’re not going to…to…”

“Torture you?” wheezed Chetan. “No, little girl. I just wanted to ask you a question.” Jova felt something wrap around her eyes as another dress was pressed into her hands. She slipped it on once her new blindfold had been tied, though her skin was still wet and cold.

Chetan gripped her very suddenly by the collar. “Inconvenient, though. No tabula. Rush job. This is not the cleanest way to do things, but…” Chetan pulled her in closer. “If you shame Sovar-l’hana with your new master, then, well, back here you come. It will last longer than one night.”

Jova nodded. Her hands throbbed, and she didn’t dare try to push Chetan away. She did, however, summon the courage to ask one question. “New master?”

“You’re being sold,” said Chetan. He coughed, and it seemed to shake his entire body. “Rented, I should say, really. Whoever buys you only has the four years. Look pretty, make it worth it.”

He led her away by her collar, and Jova stumbled behind him. Blind, hands crippled, barely able to walk. Her stomach rumbled. Sitting there in that cell, it had been easy to forget how few the meals were, but now that she was up and walking again the hunger pangs hurt more than even her hands.

She shrunk back from the heat of the sun as they began to walk up the hewn stone stairs leading back aboveground, but Chetan pulled on her collar and she followed after him.

The auction house was not far. Jova could feel its marble steps under her feet, could hear the soft mutter of attendants and the quiet murmur of the buyers within. She had seen them before, years ago: not gaudy like the Jhidnu show houses, but with a subtler sophistication. These were places of business. She hadn’t been allowed in, of course, but the great auction houses of the bay were hard to miss, even from the street. Jova had pretended they were palaces, when she was little.

Chetan took her around the back of the palace. Jova expected it to be rotten and filthy, like the cells beneath the city, but it…well, it wasn’t. It was barren, yes, but clean. Professional. The sliding wood panel in the back slid open almost soundlessly, and inside Jova heard no voices speak, only the shuffling of feet and the scrape of chains. Beyond some curtain or panel, Jova heard Sovar-l’hana’s bark of a laugh.

“Wait,” said Chetan. “You’ll be called.” And he limped away, past the curtain that separated Jova and the livestock from the actual people.

Jova flexed her fingers. The motion made her hands scream out in protest, but she needed to do something besides stand here, mill around, and wait to be handed off to someone who was in the right place at the right time when a richer man died.

Something touched her arm, and Jova flinched. The touch was light, though, gentle, and furtive. “Jova?”

“Alis!” Jova said, and she turned quickly, hiding her hands behind her back. She didn’t want the girl to see her as more of a cripple than she already was.

When Alis spoke again, she sounded hurt. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No, Alis, no, I just…” Jova reached out, putting her hand as lightly as possible on Alis’s shoulder. “You see the bandages on my hands?”

Jova felt Alis’s shoulders move as she nodded. “They’re red.”

Jova withdrew her hand, after that. “They’re…well, they’re like my eyes. They’re hurt and I have to cover them up.”

“Forever?” asked Alis.

“No, not forever,” said Jova, and she smiled for the little girl. “I hope,” she added, as an afterthought.

Jova felt a soft hand grip her wrist, carefully placed just above the wrap on her palm, and for a moment the seething anger inside her left. “Where were you?” Alis asked, and Jova wrapped her arm around the little girl’s head and held her close.

“In a cave for demons,” she said. “Sneaking around, right under your feet.”

“Dandal said you were in the sewers,” said Alis, plaintively.

Jova smirked. “Oh, he was down there, too. He lives there. That’s why he’s so stinky all the time, didn’t you know?”

Alis giggled. “What about-?”

And then she froze. Her hand fell from Jova’s wrist; she didn’t even push Jova’s hand aside as she turned around and began to walk away. Outside, Jova heard the hammer of a gavel as the last slave was sold and the hum of a tabula as the next was brought out.

“Alis!” she hissed, as the little girl stumbled away. “Don’t be afraid.”

The girl did not respond. She just kept marching away, outside, to be sold, and this time Jova could not save her. She couldn’t even save herself.

She turned her head to listen as Sovar-l’hana began the sale of Jova’s last companion. Everyone else had gone. Alis was the only one that Jova had left, and from the sounds of it, she was going to be sold off for a bag of Da’atoa salt.

An anger, white hot inside her, burned from a place in Jova that she did not know existed. Her lip curled in a snarl. Any person on Albumere was worth more than a bag of salt, and here the plutocrats were, trading them around like livestock. It wasn’t right.

But what could she do about it? She had no eyes and, right now, no hands. There was no fighting back.

So when Chetan came to retrieve her, she bowed her head and followed and said not a word. There was murmuring outside, blocked out by the curtain separating the slaves from the buyers. Chetan stood by, waiting and wheezing, coughing as Jova listened.

“A rare and exotic treat from the far south,” said Sovar-l’hana, not quite shouting but not quite quiet either. “I give you the blind zealot of Moscoleon!” Jova stumbled out, Chetan dragged her chain, to utter silence. It wasn’t unexpected. She wasn’t sure how much fanfare she really deserved to receive anyhow.

“She’s a little girl,” said a male voice, disdainful and exasperated.

“Well, if I were trying to get you interested, Ashak-g’hopti, I would have brought a little boy. Ha!” said Sovar-l’hana, and that earned a few chuckles.

“You brought her out on a leash,” said the plutocrat named Ashak-g’hopti, as Chetan let the collar dangle behind her back and limped away. “A leash! Is this some scam?” Jova stood, listening to the sounds echo. It was a big room, with many people in it. Most of them were silent. She and Sovar-l’hana stood on a stage above the rest of them, and if Jova strained her ears she could hear the bought slaves filed in a line in the back.

“I bring it out on a chain because it is not a girl, or a boy, at all. It is something unnatural, something you will only ever have the chance to see but once in your whole lifetime.”

“You lost the cripple’s tabula and you’re trying to push her onto us,” snorted Ashak-g’hopti. “Enough tricks, Sovar-l’hana, show us the real merchandise.”

Sovar-l’hana cleared his throat. “Jova, walk to me.”

For one frozen moment, Jova considered disobeying, but then she heard the sliding sound of a nail being drawn from a leather pouch, and her heart stopped. Was it real? Was it a memory? It didn’t matter, so long as she didn’t face that again. She wouldn’t lose her hands, too.

She clicked her tongue, getting a better feel for the room, before stepping forward towards the plutocrat. She had to avoid the pots and pans laid out on the stage, as well as the foodstuffs in the burlap bags (she smelled peaches from the north) and the sacks of tin coins strewn on the ground. As she walked, she heard a murmur from the crowd, and paused.

“Keep going,” said Sovar-l’hana, and she took a few last steps until she was standing right next to him. Her heart was in her throat. She couldn’t fight him in her condition, but if she unwrapped any of her bandages and choked him, this smug man, this slaver…

“Not a step out of place!” Sovar-l’hana said, as Jova bowed her head and waited. “An exquisite piece! A rare opportunity! And she has been broken, too. Jova, do you recognize your master’s voice?”

“I’ll always remember your voice,” said Jova. She meant it.

“And you will obey any order that voice gives? Ha!”

“Just give me an order.” And see what I do with it.

Ashak-g’hopti spoke. “A carpet from Maaza Parsi, in Shira Hay. You see the weave? A western style, near the Cove. Exquisite.”

“Fish,” said a foreign voice that boomed like thunder. “The biggest spring tuna we have caught in months.”

“A broadsword from Irontower,” said a third voice. “Master’s work, not an apprentice’s.”

“I’m a merchant, not a warrior,” said Sovar-l’hana, chuckling. “Ha! What would I need with a sword, Thun Doshrigaw?”

“Plate armor, then,” said the man from Irontower. “It will be made to fit and sent to you at once.”

A carpet, a fish, a sword. That was what these men thought Jova was worth. Her eyebrows furrowed. Theirs was an evil trade. Only Dal Ak Gan’s life might buy her freedom, but they all deserved to die.

“Armor. Ha! Everyone needs armor,” said Sovar-l’hana. “To Thun, then, unless anyone has anything better.”

There was no answer.

Mahashma, Thun Doshrigaw. Off you go then, girl,” said Sovar-l’hana, as he scribbled away on his parchment. Someone tugged on her collar chain, although she did not know who. “You’re going to Irontower.”

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