The cut in Uten’s side had grown infected. The molebison’s flesh was hot to the touch, and Jova could hear the carrion flies buzzing around her. Da said the blood was black and lumpy.
“Come on, girl,” whispered Jova, trying to pull the molebison forward, but Uten would neither move nor answer. Fighting back tears, Jova slapped the molebison’s sensitive nose, a move that, on any other day, would have earned a panicked grunt or push. Uten just slumped further, breathing heavily.
Jova felt a hand on her back, and jumped. It would be a long time before she stopped doing that.
“It’d be a kindness to give the beast to the Lady Winter, Jova,” said Ma, softly. “It’s suffered enough.”
Hot tears began to spill across Jova’s cheeks, and she bit her lip in shame. She thought she’d done enough crying, lately. Jova tried to think of a reason to stop her, a way to save her last reminder of Roan, but in her heart she knew Ma was right.
“I’ll do it quickly. Painlessly. I promise, my little Lady.” Ma knelt down to hug Jova close, although Jova did not return it. She just nodded, and turned away, and tried not to listen as Ma let go and walked to Uten’s side.
The molebison shuddered once, and then her labored breathing stopped. The tabula in Jova’s hand split, and cracked, and Jova shuddered as she felt a great chill run through her body that had nothing to do with the cold.
It seized her, suddenly. Jova heard the wind howling around her ears, and clutched her chest as her heart began to burn with a searing pain. The ground shook beneath her, and a woman so tall she blocked out the sun stood above her. Where her face should have been, there was only a slab of marble, cold and impassive.
The vision passed. Uten was dead. Their link had been broken.
Jova bowed her head, giving a silent prayer to the Lady Winter that she would take care of Uten. The pontiffs didn’t have much to say about the souls of animals, but Jova had known enough of the beast to know she had one.
She rubbed the wooden badge in her hands as Ma walked her back to camp. Uten was not the last reminder Jova had of Roan.
“It still doesn’t make sense,” muttered Jova, as she sat on the coarse, short grass of the Hang Mountains. Irontower was not far: technically, they were already within the nation’s holdings, although Da had always described Irontower as more of a cult than a nation.
“What doesn’t make sense?” asked Ma, sitting beside her. “Just ask, Jova. We’ll tell you everything.”
Jova pulled her knees up to her chest. It was strange, how quickly she had become accustomed to traveling on the road again. Just the three of them, and Mo, sleeping on the worn bedrolls as they traveled along the side roads. The only difference was that they were going north, instead of south.
“Why weren’t you there?”
“We told you, Jova,” said Da, sitting on the other side of her. Their beaten, iron pot bubbled as dinner cooked. “We couldn’t be in the city. The plutocrats wouldn’t let us.”
That was what they had told her, yes. They had come looking for her when Pontiff Zain had told them that she had gone to Jhidnu; why he had lied, Jova didn’t know. Ma and Da had spent weeks searching for her, until the plutocrats had expelled Ma from the city—for what reason, they wouldn’t say, although Jova suspected it had something to do with her mother’s temper. And, in her experience, men with power on Albumere did not merely expel. From then on, they had stayed in the outskirts of the city, until…
“When did Roan find you?”
“Later. The same day that Mo found you,” said Da. “Your mother was going to storm the city, guards be damned, but then Roan came. Riding out past the walls on his horse, war paints on his face and chest like he really was one of them. And then…”
“He told us about his plan,” said Ma, picking up the story. “Said we’d wait until you were sold. Said he’d sneak you out on the road once you were past the walls. If only we’d known what they were doing to you.” There was a dark anger in Ma’s voice as she held Jova’s still healing hands, an anger that Jova now recognized. She truly was Anjan’s daughter.
She’d heard it all before. Roan had wanted Jova to have protection when she escaped. It was why he had been so angry when Bechde had left without her.
But Roan hadn’t been willing to be the protection Jova needed. And now, he never would be.
What was it Chetan had said? Everybody had a story. While Jova had been sneaking around, trying to accomplish something, plans had been in motion around her. People had been taking action. She might never fully understand what Roan had—or hadn’t—been doing to secure her freedom.
“We were waiting by the towermen camp,” said Da. “We’d follow you until night fell, then Roan would sneak you out. But when that killer woman took the sandman leader, he had to act fast before—well, before they took you.”
How long had Roan been working towards Jova’s freedom? The whole time? Since the desert? After Hak Mat Do? Why the ruse? He had always wanted to return to the Hag Gar Gan, but he must have been too kind a man to abandon Jova.
And that kindness had killed him.
“Are we still going to Irontower?” asked Jova.
Jova knew when Ma and Da were exchanging looks behind her back (not that they needed to). Eventually, Da said, “I think not, Jova. We have to stop in the valley for supplies, but then we’ll go to my home. The Stronghold. It’ll be safer there.”
There was a time when Jova would have just nodded and followed in her parents’ trail. But something now made her pause. “Will they let you back in? You were a slave when you escaped.”
“Oh, it’s been long enough. No one will remember a runaway from the black caste,” said Da. His tone betrayed his fear, though. He had to have at least killed his master unawares to take his tabula back. Jova could not imagine they would forget so easily.
Jova bit her lip. “Is it really going to be safe?”
“Of course it is,” said Da, wrapping his arm around Jova’s shoulders. “The Marble Stronghold is the safest place on all of Albumere.”
“What about when it’s at war?”
Silence. “The marble soldiers will protect us,” said Da. “Trust me.”
“OK,” said Jova. She laid on the ground, wincing as she stretched out her back. “I’m really tired now.”
“Of course, Jova,” said Ma, getting up, as Da rose with her. “Get some rest now. Supper will be ready soon.” Jova listened to her footsteps tread away, before they stopped. “Jova…I know Roan was very close to you. If you want to-.”
“I’m tired, Ma,” said Jova, and she rolled on her side, curling her body so that her back faced her parents.
Ma didn’t say anything else, and Jova felt a pit open in her gut. She shouldn’t have said that. The Ladies had given her a miracle! Her parents had come back for her! She was with her family again, free and safe and happy. Except, Jova was beginning to doubt that she was any of those three things.
They had been moving fast. Ma had done her best to cover their trail, but there was no way they could outrun a clan of Hag Gar Gan riders. If, as they hoped, they chose not to pursue, then all the better, but it never hurt to be cautious.
And then, of course, there was the matter of the towerman.
He was heading the same direction, no doubt. Perhaps he would stay in Jhidnu long enough to voice his complaints, perhaps he would simply head straight for Irontower. His smithsworn warrior was no longer with him—Jova had seen to that—but that didn’t mean Thun Doshrigaw was alone. The Hag Gar Gan could still be with him, and if they weren’t, there were always more mercenaries to be found in the city.
Thun Doshrigaw. It was too strange a name to forget. His name Jova remembered, but his voice she couldn’t. She had heard it too few times for it to stick.
As she laid there, Jova made up her mind. At Irontower, she would wait for Thun Doshrigaw.
She could imagine the conversation in her head. You’re not the first man whose skull I’ve crushed. Your man wasn’t either. Nothing pops, you know. The blood leaks out of your eyes first. Then the rest of the skull just cracks and crumbles, and whatever’s inside just dribbles away. Jova shuddered. The imagined dialogue both thrilled and horrified her, and she was horrified that she was thrilled.
She curled up tighter. The air grew colder the further north they went. It also grew colder the higher they walked, through the mountain pass that led to Irontower, and it also grew colder the more the winter dragged on. There’d be snows, soon: the first snows Jova had ever seen.
Odd, how it could snow so heavily in the Irontower when never a flake so much as touched its neighbor Jhidnu. Another one of the strange ways the Ladies had cobbled Albumere together, she supposed.
Can’t expect more from a half world, a voice seemed to whisper in her ear, and Jova twitched, although her limbs seemed suddenly heavy and her body weary. Her ears couldn’t hear anything; it was just her thoughts, echoing inside her own head. Can’t expect more from a place that’s at war with itself.
And then another voice spoke, in a breathless moan. You didn’t bury me. Was that Uten? Or was that Roan? Perhaps the ghosts of Ya Gol Gi and Copo had come to haunt her, too. You let my essence spill free. Now they’ve taken my life from me.
Jova almost opened her mouth to protest, but it felt like her teeth were glued shut. She could hear them, moving in dizzying circles around her, about her, inside her. They were not louder, for how could they be louder? They were as loud as silence. But they grew more angry and demanding.
Why didn’t you bury me? Ladies have wings, not roots. Can’t go under. You were there. Under the street. Deep, dark, dank places. Bad place for the living. Good place for the dead. Who cares about the seasons down there? Why didn’t you bury me? Jova, Jova, Jova. Why didn’t you bury me? JOVA. JOVA.
“Jova?” Ma shook her shoulder, and Jova sucked in a breath of bracing, cool air. “You dozed off. Supper’s ready.”
Jova sat up, massaging her temple, and clasped tight the wooden badge in her fingers. It was such a small thing, smooth but for the lines etched in its surface. She tried to make sense of the carving by touch alone, but it was too hard to tell.
She trudged the few steps she needed to sit by the fire, and squatted down as Da passed her a bowl. She took it, letting the steam waft into her face. It dampened her blindfold, but her blindfold had been plenty damp for quite some time.
There was a joy to it though, to hot food and Mo rubbing himself on her knees and Ma and Da sitting beside her. “Thanks,” she muttered, quietly, so quietly she wasn’t sure if her parents could hear her.
“There’s no need for that,” said Ma, kissing Jova on the forehead.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Da. “I’m the one who cooked it, and I rightly enjoy it when I get some appreciation.”
“We spent too long with those fieldmen refugees in the woods, their accent grew on you,” grumbled Ma, as she drank the soup. “And that’s not a good thing.”
Jova didn’t quite smile, but she drank. It was thin, the flavor weak, but it tasted better than anything Jova had eaten in days. Food in her gut, rather than shame and anger, was a nice change.
“What’s on this badge?” she asked, holding it out. Da’s calloused hand took it first.
“Well, where’d you find this, little Lady?” he asked, and Jova heard him tapping it with a fingernail. “There’s a crescent moon on it, and a cloud across it, all curves and spirals. Finely made little thing.”
He put it back in Jova’s palm, and she held it tightly. Had Roan mentioned the symbol before? She couldn’t remember. It had to do with the Dream Walkers, she was sure of it, although she imagined their insignia to be…different, somehow. Why a wooden badge? Of the Dream Walkers she knew, one had been a merchant, the other a pontiff, and the last an ambassador. She had somehow imagined them with golden chains on their neck, silver rings on their fingers, and ivory bands on their wrists. A wooden badge so small that it hid when she closed her fist seemed underwhelming.
She felt hands on the back of her head, but before she could act she realized it was just Da, braiding her hair. “You ate quickly,” she said, bowing her head as Da untangled her hair, which by now had grown long and wild.
“It was excellent cooking!” Da declared, and Jova heard Ma snort into her bowl beside her.
Jova drank slowly, enjoying the warmth as she felt it trickle down her throat, into her gut, through her body. The fire teased her with its heat, dancing closer, then farther, with the capricious wind. “The marble braid, Da?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said. “Marble soldiers are all warriors like you, my little Lady.”
For the first time in her life, when Da said that, it scared her. She didn’t want to be surrounded by warriors like her.
Ma must have noticed the expression on her face. Jova felt her embrace, and this time, she returned it. The scent of sweat and earth lingered around her, but to Jova, it was as sweet as any plutocrat’s perfume. “We’re so proud of you, Jova,” Ma said. “For being so…so strong and so brave while you were gone. And we’re so, so happy you’re back.”
“Me too,” said Jova. It was all she could think to say, but it was also everything she needed to say.
They spent the rest of the night there, huddled together, until Jova dozed off again. Ma must have carried her off to her bedroll, where Jova dreamed once again. This time it was of wooden clouds passing over the hooded eye of the Lady Fall, and a wooden man pointing at the orange glow of the sun on the horizon, although she could not tell if it was rising or setting.
Then she woke, and it was time to go.
Jova’s mind wandered as she walked; she didn’t have to pay too much attention to where she walked, with Ma holding her hand the entire way. At the Irontower, tell them: let the dead rest. Those were Roan’s instructions. Yet, how was she to let the dead rest, if they were the ones seeking her?
“This one here is Mount Mokesh,” said Da, with his running commentary as they walked. “Tallest of all the ones in the Hang, taller even than Mason’s Peak. The towermen believe the Lady Fall and the Lady Summer gave the First Smith the secret to steel-magic at the very summit of that mountain.”
Jova’s foot slipped on a loose rock, but Ma caught her before she fell. “Careful now,” said Ma. “Don’t pay too much attention to your da’s rambling if you can’t concentrate on where you step.”
“I’ll be fine, Ma,” said Jova, holding her arms out to keep her balance. They were walking uphill, toward a pass that lead to the Irontower valley, and the skeletons of shrubs clawed at her ankles and legs as she walked through them. The rocks wobbled when she stepped on them, but for the most part did not budge.
“On the other side is Fogenlaw,” said Da. His voice sounded distant, ahead of them, or perhaps that was just the wind. “They say it spit fire and molten rock before the Irontower was ever built, but it’s quiet now. Has been since before the time of kings.”
“I understand your knowing Moscoleon back to front, but how in the name of the summer-burnt wastes do you know so much about this place?” shouted Ma, as she led Jova around a square boulder, its edge keen and cold under the winter sun.
“The marblemen hated it!” Da sounded like he was running out of breath. “Partly because we used to own it, mostly because they’re better at doing what we did than we ever were. What would you rather have, a marble hammer or a steel sword?”
“I’d rather have the tabula of tigerbear, thank you,” said Ma, as they caught up with him. “Almost at the top of this hill, Jova. It’s down from there, into the valley, so don’t go too fast, OK?”
Da coughed. “Alright, then, let’s ask someone who’s not a savage wildling. What say you, Jova? A hammer or a sword?”
“The Lady Summer wields the Sunhammer,” said Jova. She felt a twist in her gut as she remembered the story she had told Chetan. It had been foolish to think of Roan as the champion from a story; even if they somehow came true in real life, Roan had never been a man to crush small things. Except, perhaps Jova. He had crushed her for nothing. “None of the Ladies have swords, though.”
“Oh, Anjan, we’ve ruined her! She’s a templechild, through and through.”
“Don’t listen to your father, dear, we need someone who can stay in the Ladies’ good graces. Careful, now, careful…”
“I’m fine, Ma,” she said, and stepped forward.
“There it is,” said Da. “The Irontower. It shines in the light, so, Jova. Come on, we’ll get so close you can touch it, my little Lady.”
They descended the slope, Mo scampering about their feet, Jova stepping slowly so as not to slip. Da kept talking, as they approached. “Not everyone can be a smith. This whole valley is full of farms, and there are miners up in the Greenskull Caverns. There’s some local tale about Greenskull, but I forget it…”
Deep, dark, dank places. Why didn’t you bury me? Jova flinched, thinking about caves. She had nothing to fear from them, she knew: after all, what did a blind girl care if a place had no light? But her hands still throbbed, and she could still feel the fire of the torch, so close to her skin it felt like she was burning.
There had been good caves, too, she reminded herself. Roan had trained her in the Teeth of the Abyss, those limestone tunnels near Temple Moscoleon. But Roan was gone now, and Moscoleon was barred from her. It was painful to think about it.
He was not all gone. He had one last instruction for her. At the Irontower, tell them: let the dead rest.
The ground evened out beneath them. Jova found herself walking a smooth, dirt path, which was a good deal easier on her bare feet than the pass from before. The valley around her felt oddly empty; Jova could hear the low moan of the wind, felt the dust around her ankles. She supposed the harvests had already been brought in for the winter.
“It’s creepy,” said Jova, and she gripped Ma’s hand a little tighter. “I don’t hear anyone.”
“They must all be inside,” said Anjan, squeezing Jova’s hand.
Irontower did not take kindly to strangers, Jova knew, but they had little other choice. It was either stop in the valley and trade for supplies, or let Jova walk through the Hang Mountains barefoot, in her ragged slave clothing, with nothing but a wood badge and a broken collar in her hands.
“Tell me what it looks like,” said Jova, as they drew closer. She could feel its shadow on her now. If she clicked her tongue, it was there: a solid mass, huge and imposing, in the center of an otherwise empty void.
“It’s tall, Jova,” said Ma, her voice filled with wonder. “Taller even than the Stone Ladies outside of Moscoleon. I don’t know how they could build it so tall without the wind knocking it over.”
“Is the whole city inside it?” asked Jova.
“As much as it can be called a city,” said Anjan, although she sounded hesitant. “Is that right, Ell?”
“The forgestokers never leave the tower, and all the forges are located inside,” said Ell. “But, to be honest, I don’t know. They need farms on the outside, and there are mining camps scattered throughout the mountains, but even the farmers and miners don’t really know what’s inside that tower.”
Jova clicked her tongue, and she heard it. The ring of the metal, soft and pure, responded to her. She walked forward, all the way forward, until she could put out her hand, and touch the Irontower. The metal sheeting on its side was frigid and cold.
“The merchant isn’t in the tower,” said Ma. “He’s on- Jova? Jova, where are you going? Jova!”
The girl felt the door handle, laid her palm flat against the entrance to the Irontower. She closed her hand into a fist.
Then she knocked. Four times.
Jova felt Ma’s hands around her waist, pulling her away, just as the door began to creak open. Before Ma could say anything, before even the towerman on the other side could speak, Jova raised the wooden badge.
“Let the dead rest,” she said.
There was silence. Ma had stopped moving, although she still held Jova tightly. Jova could hear the echoing inside the tower, the dim sounds of hammers on anvils and steel being drawn somewhere far above her. Then, the man who had opened the door said four simple words.
“Not here, Dream Walker.”
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.
No one minded her as she walked through the camp. Jova could even hear quick steps moving away from her as she led Dep Sag Ko’s eelhound along the banks of the river. It made Jova think they knew what she had done, but of course that was ridiculous. It was just her appearance: the devil girl with no eyes scared even the most rational of the Hag Gar Gan.
The eelhound thrashed its head and pulled back as Jova walked it along. She struggled to hold it down, but it refused, snapping its teeth and growling in a low, vicious rumble. “Lo Pak, down! Down!” hissed Jova, digging her feet into the sand, struggling to control the animal. Even it did not seem to want anything to do with her.
Finally, grudgingly, the eelhound began to follow her again. Jova kept her distance from the animal’s head, walking by its side instead. It was beginning to dawn on her that Lo Pak was perhaps the only witness to her crime; of all the people who were scared of her, only its fears were justified. “Good thing you can’t talk, then,” muttered Jova, as she guided it further down the river.
She could hear the waves lapping against the hull of Kharr Ta’s barge, hear the rhythmic wooden thunk of the boat on the shore. Jova cocked her head, but no one appeared to be nearby.
“Stay, Lo Pak,” she said, clicking her tongue. The eelhound seemed to understand the command well enough, although it was in the king’s tongue, and sat on its hind legs with a crunch of sand and gravel.
Jova dipped her bare foot into the water. “All rivers flow to the sea,” she muttered. She felt like she had heard it before, although she could not remember where. “All rivers flow…free.” Jova turned her face to the sky. What would she give to just disappear now, to just dive into the water without fear of the consequences?
But she needed a plan. It would be a folly for a girl who could barely swim to escape into the river without solid contingencies for everything that could go wrong. Jova had been thinking, though. She had a plan.
It was doing it that would be the hard part.
“I will be free,” said Jova, feeling the fading light of the sun on her face. “I have always been free.”
She turned back to the shore before anyone could see her, keeping her head low, leading Lo Pak down to where the animals drank. The sandmen put high priority on their mounts, and Jova had to hold her breath as a whole host of eclectic smells assaulted her. There were crickets for Uten, oh, yes—and a bucket of dead rodents for Yora, and a bale of hay for Stel (although the horse was not there) and half-rotten fruits and roasted birds and even a pail of nothing but pebbles. Lo Pak dug its snout into a trough of slimy fish with a happy snort, and Jova let the beast be.
Jova clicked her tongue as she moved through the throng. It was lucky for her that the animals all had such distinctive shapes and sounds, or else she never would have found who she was looking for.
“Budge up, Uten,” Jova said, patting the molebison on the side. “I miss you too. I’ll come for you later, OK? Right now, I need…”
She clicked her tongue, and a complex jumble of echoes bounced back. The summer elk’s antlers were bowed before her, and the animal was breathing heavily as she approached.
“Hey, Cross,” said Jova, reaching a hand out gingerly. Cross’s fur was unnaturally hot; Jova did not know how Janwye had managed to ride him all that time. “I’m a friend, OK? I’m friendly.”
Janwye’s old animal snorted and stamped its hoof. It was jittery, and with good reason. Jova could hear the limp in its step as Jova pulled it away from the rest of the group. She wished she had something to pacify him with—lumps of brown sugar or a slice of fresh fruit—but those were luxuries a slave would never have. Her own voice would have to do for now.
Again, the desire struck Jova to simply run away. It would have been easy to ride Cross off into the wilds, safety be damned.
Except it wouldn’t. Dep Sag Ko still held the summer elk’s tabula, so she could lose the animal at any moment. Cross would leave tracks that could easily be followed, and Jova could not risk the chance of getting lost without the guiding presence of the river. She did not have the skills or the ability to survive in the wilderness on her own. No, it was better for Jova to escape to the trappings of civilization. Better for her to be among people, and be unafraid.
“This way, Cross,” she said, leading him along. She had no reins or tabula to command him, so she had to place a guiding hand on his muzzle instead. “Let’s go this way, come on.”
Her heart beat very fast as she began to walk back into camp with the elk in tow. This wasn’t what Dep Sag Ko had sent her to do. If anyone stopped her, or asked her why, her justification was flimsy. It was dangerous, this way.
Still less dangerous than escaping without a plan.
Cross fought harder than Lo Pak, dancing away from Jova at every turn. Jova had only ever felt that level of resistance from unfamiliar steeds she had worked with, in Rho Hat Pan’s stables, which the clients had brought in themselves. Those steeds had been scared,
What was Cross scared of?
“I miss Janny, too,” said Jova, as they walked. “But we’re going to be OK. We’re going to keep living anyway.”
The summer elk didn’t respond, but he wasn’t fighting back anymore either. That was victory enough for Jova.
The u-ha had a private tent. Jova stopped Cross before it, putting a firm hand against the elk’s snout. Jova swept her feet around and reached blindly to find some post that she could tie him to, but she could not find anything. “Stay. Here,” she said, finally, holding her hands in front of Cross. “If anyone asks, Dep Sag Ko sent me.”
Cross just tossed his head, and Jova decided to get the job done before the elk got too restless. She slipped in u-ha’s tent, doing her best not to look nervous.
The tent smelled of wood smoke and old spices and faintly of manure. It was hot and oddly muggy inside, and Jova could not help but feel light-headed. It reminded her of the pontiff’s chambers in a way, but more primal, closer to the earth. If this was what spiritual enlightenment smelled like, then Jova was content to live a secular life.
“Ya tei, u-ha,” she said, respectfully. Good fortune, shaman.
There was a clattering as the old man rose. Dep Sag Ko did not appear to be with him; for once, he was alone. Except…
“Kha gar pu a devil,” said a familiar voice. Rho Hat Pan shifted, and there was a rustle of cloth. “Excuse me, u-ha. Your medicines have been most helpful.”
Jova’s fists tightened.
The u-ha breathed very heavily as he hobbled forward. He mumbled something under his breath as he approached, but although Jova’s hearing was keen enough to catch the words, she could not decipher the slurred imperial tongue the u-ha spoke.
Rho Hat Pan began to talk in a very low, quick whisper to the u-ha; Jova could catch only snippets of their conversation. “…waste of time…” Rho Hat Pan said. “Intrusive…presumptuous, I shall lead her…not bother you…”
Jova only knew this words because Dep Sag Ko had said the same thing about Ya Gol Gi, loudly and often. Jova turned her head, and tried not to listen. It was not a good sign, comparing herself to the man she had killed.
When the old man spoke, it was as unintelligible as ever. A breathless rasp came from his lips and through toothless gums.
Drumming her fingers on her hip, Jova waited. This was the part of her plan that she knew was extraneous, the part that she knew would be the most dangerous, the part that she knew she didn’t need to do. It was also the part that she was going to do, no matter what.
“…and, u-ha…my tabula?” said Rho Hat Pan. There was a pause. “I understand…medicines use it, of course…I am free…hold the tabula of the crippled.”
And that was it. The crux of the matter. The u-ha held the tabula of the crippled and the dead. Ya Gol Gi’s slaves belonged to this old man now, and so it was this old man that Jova would have to confront.
She heard Stel move suddenly, heard her toss her head and stamp her hooves. It was restless behavior, the kind that meant she had been held very still for a very long time. Jova waited patiently as Rho Hat Pan hauled himself onto the back of his mount, keeping her expression neutral, disinterested, almost bored, even as her insides churned.
Stel brought her head close to Jova as the horse passed, her mane brushing against the girl’s cheek, but the horse jerked away suddenly and Jova was left standing alone, her face cold and the warmth leaving her.
Rho Hat Pan did not say a word to her as he passed. He did not so much as acknowledge her.
Jova didn’t acknowledge him, either. It was not Rho Hat Pan she needed.
“U-ha,” she said, trying not let her voice falter. “Dep Sag Ko ak eri al iro.” Dep Sag Ko sent me to you.
In the back of her head, a little voice whispered, “Lie.” She could only hope the u-ha was not thinking the same.
The u-ha mumbled something under his breath, and Jova took a step forward. She had to know what the old man was saying: not so that she could answer him, but so she could know the right way to respond.
“Iro ta su har,” said Jova. I apologize. “Eri ba va gat ha gha?” Can you say again what you have said?
Jova could only catch some words: why was among them, as was listen. Frustrated by the blind girl who seemed to be deaf now, too? Jova could only hope so.
He was just an old, senile man, Jova reminded herself. He was just an old, senile man who wanted Jova out of his hair as quickly as possible so he could return to his old, senile life. “Dep Sag Ko ak eri al iro,” she repeated.
The u-ha stamped something that sounded like a cane on the ground, and Jova flinched. She couldn’t push him too far. What if he grabbed “her” tabula and commanded Jova to get out? That would not end well for either of them.
“Kokro fi al gana Kharr Ta.” Kharr Ta wants to see the adults.
The old man made a disgusted sound. Jova heard has them already and belong to me.
Jova licked dry lips. “Dep Sag Ko ba va kokro mun fi al gana Kharr Ta.” He says Kharr Ta wants to see all of them. She coughed, clearing her throat. “Al ahab mun.” All of them.
A wooden cane tapped on her cheek, and the u-ha made an angry, low mumble. Those tabula did belong to him, after all. The thought of even offering to trade what belonged to their venerated u-ha must have been antithetical to the whole philosophy of the Hag Gar Gan.
“Dep Sag Ko su ghal,” said Jova. “Pu zota iro Dock ji yesh.” He can’t come. He needed me to get past Dock.
And the old man fell silent.
The enemy is in your camp, Jova thought. The enemy sits and eats with you. You’re going to have to swallow your pride, old man. You’re going to have to give up your prize, because unless you get what you came here for you’re going to have a big problem indeed.
She could feel his breath on his face. It felt oddly cold, like wind whistling through a hollow shell. When he spoke, every word was so simple and so close that Jova could understand him perfectly.
“Is that what he said?”
Jova didn’t nod, or say yes, or respond. She stood, there, terrified, a slave girl who had been sent to do an errand and whose only priority was getting the job done right.
The old man walked away, grumbling to himself.
Jova did not let herself relax yet. She would not relax until Bechde’s tabula was in her hand.
Jova knew how much risk this move was taking on. Bechde would sell for infinitely more than her, if Kharr Ta was willing to take her. The Hag Gar Gan would be that much more incensed to find them, rather than if it had just been one crippled girl disappearing down the river.
There were justifications as well, to be sure. Bechde had connections, a home to go back to, people that cared for her. She could see when Jova couldn’t, and she could navigate the city much more easily.
But if Jova was being honest with herself, that wasn’t it.
Albumere could take away her eyes, her innocence, and her clean conscience—but it could never take away who she was. Her hands might have shed blood, but her heart was in the right place. It had to be.
More mumbled words. Jova stood, dumbly, as if she didn’t understand, and the u-ha pressed three cold amber disks into her hand. Three would have to be enough. She was about to take them, but the old man did not let go.
He mumbled in Jova’s ear, an almost painful tension in his fragile body. “You are going,” he said, in his thick accent. “Straight to Dep Sag Ko?”
“Yes,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Yes, u-ha.”
“Zat,” he said. Go. And Jova went.
“Cross!” she shouted, the moment she got out of the tent. The sun had fully set now, and Jova could hear the crackle of fires as the Hag Gar Gan settled down for supper, then sleep. “Cross, where are you?”
She heard the heavy breathing of the summer elk behind her, to the side, and she edged forward to find the elk on the ground, sweating profusely. “I know it’s hot,” Jova said, putting her hands under the elk’s belly and trying to prompt him to rise. “I know this isn’t where you’re supposed to be. It’s not where I’m supposed to be, either.”
Cross planted his hooves laboriously onto the dirt and stood. Jova took him by the antlers and tugged. She didn’t have time for gentleness or subtlety.
As she heard the river get closer, Jova pulled out the first of the tabula. She cocked her head. Was anyone looking? Listening? Not that she could hear. She hid behind Cross’s girth and concentrated. It wouldn’t matter in a few minutes, anyway.
The tabula began to hum. Jova held her breath. She had never done a summoning before.
No, that wasn’t true. She had done one other summoning. Just one, a long time ago.
Jova thought of the river lapping at her feet, thought of the shifting sand between her toes and the night wind on her face, and as she thought all of it seemed to shrink down into one single point, surrounded by darkness. Fear was in the dark. Uncertainty. Not knowing whether things were going to go according to plan.
She heard a crunch on the sand in front of her.
Before the person had a chance to say a word, Jova thrust the tabula in front of him or her. “Do you want to be free?” she asked, quickly. “If you do, take this and run.”
“How did you…” said the voice, in the fieldman’s drawl, but Jova cut him off.
“Go, now!” she said, pressing the tabula into the man’s chest. He took it.
“They’ll kill me,” he hissed.
“Not if everything goes according to plan,” Jova said, and she began to concentrate on the second tabula. There was no time for this.
As she heard the man run quickly away along the shore, a treacherous thought floated across her mind that broke her concentration.
That was a lie.
The humming built in intensity as Jova poured all of her focus into the second tabula, and the blackness was now colored with frustration, guilt, and anger. She had given him a chance for freedom. It wasn’t a certainty that he would be caught. And his chance for freedom bought a guarantee for Jova’s.
The second person was summoned, and Jova said the same thing. “Take this and go,” she said, thrusting the tabula out.
“Jova?” said a stunned, female voice. Not Bechde’s. One of her alsknights.
“Please just take it and go, you won’t get another chance.”
The alsknight took the tabula briskly without further question. She ran, in the opposite direction of the first man, her feet padding heavily on the shore.
Two baits. Two distractions. Jova had hoped for more.
The girl walked very quickly towards the boat, the rhythmic knocking of the boat calling to her, the point fixed in her mind so that her feet walked toward it like a Jhidnu sailor’s compass pointed to the center of Albumere.
She stood just before the gangplank, her heart pounding. She hoped no one could see her.
“Cross, I need you to do something for me. I know you can do it. I know you can,” said Jova. She put a hand on Cross’s flank, and took a deep breath. He was the last reminder of Janwye the girl had left, and Jova wasn’t sure if she was ready to part with him. Jova’s grip on the elk’s fur tightened.
“Ignite, Cross,” she whispered. “Now is the time for summer. Now is the time for light. Now is the time for fire.”
The summer elk tossed his head, but did not respond.
“Fire,” Jova whispered, and though the night was cold, she was sweating. “Fire will free us, Cross.”
It was no use. Cross would not do it, and Jova did not remember Janwye’s command word. She would have to spook him.
With a rough shove, Jova pushed the elk onto the gangplank, and the elk moved more out of confusion than submission. She could hear voices now, confused and quizzical tones. They didn’t matter.
Jova reached for her blindfold and tore it off. Pits where her eyes should have been gazed upon the animal, and she shouted, in her deepest voice, “Cross! Fire.”
The elk reared and screamed, and Jova heard the whoosh of his antlers igniting. Jova took a step forward, and the terrified animal had nowhere to run. Either side would mean jumping into the river, where his flames would be extinguished. Forward would be towards the terrifying creature of the deep that now stood before him. That only left…
Backwards. Onto the ship.
“Fire!” screamed voices, as Cross galloped forward. Jova could already hear the flames crackling at the edges of the gangplank from the summer elk’s hooves, and she stumbled forward quickly before the whole thing collapsed.
Heavy footfalls rang on the planks as Kharr Ta’s crew ran after the summer elk. Jova stood in their way.
It’s all an act, Jova reminded herself. It’s all a game.
“Help!” she screamed, her voice high-pitched and desperate. She hugged her sides, fake sobs shaking her whole body. “Help, please, somebody help!”
“Out of the way, girl,” said a disgruntled voice. A calloused hand shoved her aside. “I said out of the way!”
They ran past her, and the moment Jova was sure they were gone she stood straight again. The crackle of flames and the dense smoke stung her face, and she walked forward slowly, calmly, tying the blindfold back on with deliberate care.
The shore was right next to them. No one was in a hurry to get off the ship. All of them were in a hurry to save it.
The raft was just where it had been. With a grunt, she hauled the raft over the side, and it landed with a splash in the water. She tossed the oar over next, and then Jova grunted and hauled herself over, landing in the water. It was shallow here, only waist height, and Jova clambered atop the raft that was now floating downriver, oar in hand. It rocked in the waters, but the slow Kaza stabilized it quickly.
Jova held the last tabula in her hands as she sat on that cramped little raft. There was only room enough for one.
Who said she had to summon Bechde now, though? That could wait until Jova was in the city.
The raft floated out past the prow of the ship, and Jova kept her head low. She doubted anyone would notice her—not with two runaway slaves sprinting down opposite ends of the camp and a slaver’s boat on fire. She was safe. The plan would work.
“Ma, Da,” she whispered, more to herself than to them. “I’m coming back.”
She moved at a glacial pace. Jova was beginning to understand now what Dal Ak Gan had meant when he said a child could navigate the Kaza with his eyes closed. It was slow and languid, and despite the chaos Jova left behind her she felt almost calm.
And then Jova heard a high-pitched scream.
At first, Jova would have just ignored it and moved on. She knew this was going to happen. But she recognized that voice. She was good with voices.
“I can’t move!” screamed Alis, among the pleading voices of all the other children on that ship that were about to be sold to Kharr Ta. “Please! Please!”
Jova tensed. Someone would help her, right?
Except that sailor had shoved Jova aside so callously that Jova had no doubt in her mind that if they wouldn’t help a little girl with no eyes, then they wouldn’t help anyone at all.
Alis was going to die on that ship, and no one was going to do anything about it.
Jova gripped Bechde’s tabula in her hands. She didn’t give herself time to regret her decision.
The girl summoned her. It made her spin and her hands weak, but she recovered easily enough, and when she did, she saw Bechde kicking and spluttering in the water before her, utterly bewildered.
“Onto the raft,” said Jova, slipping off. “Come on, Bechde. You’re getting out of here.”
“Darling,” gasped Bechde, clambering aboard even as Jova dropped into the water. Despite its languid pace, the waters of the Kaza were shockingly cold, although perhaps Jova had simply spent too long under the Hak Mat Do sun. “How?”
“Take it, Bechde,” said Jova. She handed the tabula off to Bechde, holding onto the raft to conserve her strength as the waters grew deeper. She hoped there was nothing lurking below her, no crocodilebeasts waiting to snap her up.
Bechde seemed too shocked to do anything but obey.
“The river leads,” gasped Jova. “Into the city. You can find your way, can’t you? You can get out, back to Alswell?”
“Yes,” said Bechde, slowly. “Jova…do you have your tabula, too? Are you coming with me?”
Jova looked back to the ship. She would have to let go soon, if she wanted to swim back in time.
She turned back to Bechde, and shook her head. “You have your own people to save, Bechde,” she said. “I have mine.”
There was silence. “I’m sorry, Jova. I’ll…I’ll…”
Jova paused. Albumere could take away her eyes, her innocence, and her clean conscience—but it could never take away who she was. It would not take away the part of her that was willing to guide three strangers through a lonely forest, that was willing to help train a ragged wild child to realize his impossible dream, that was willing to right now give up the guarantee of her freedom for the chance to save a girl she had met just days ago.
“Go ahead,” said Jova, smiling. “I’ll be just fine.”
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.
The itch in Jova’s chest had grown to be blazing, but Jova could not raise her hand to scratch it. Her hands were bound and numb from lack of blood flow, and her feet were starting to lose feeling too as she sat on her legs. Her blindfold was dirty and wet, but Jova did not hold out hope that any of the slavers would come to change it.
“It’s just some bug’s tabula,” snorted the sandman tasked to watch over them. Jova wasn’t sure what his name was; all of the words in the imperial tongue sounded the same to her. He was only speaking the king’s tongue because the foreign mercenaries were with them. “Who’d bother with a beast like that?”
“Sentimental,” grunted the mercenary: she had some wild name, Dock or Dent or something like that. “Reckon she was sentimental.”
Jova felt sick when she realized they were talking about Janwye. She shifted, biting her lip. At least one of Janwye’s friends was still…
It hurt to think about. Jova shifted, waiting for someone to come and unbind her. She knew that Roan was nearby, among the other crippled and disk-less, but she did not dare call out for him lest she draw attention to herself.
She had heard one of the mercenaries calling them “disk-less.” She knew she did not have her tabula, but she had no idea so many didn’t either. Had she really been hiding among this many like her all this time?
No, that couldn’t be it. There were a hundred other more mundane reasons here. Their master could have died, it could have been lost in the fighting, or they could be hiding it. Jova felt odd sitting among all these people who allegedly no longer had tabula. It was as if the thing that made her special had been somehow invalidated, like she was just another slave.
It should have made her feel safe. She had excuses for her secret, her dangerous secret. It shouldn’t have made her sad.
Jova wondered how the others must feel. To have no tabula, to not know where something so integral to one’s self was: they were all cripples here.
“Ya Gol Gi!” shouted a deeper voice. Something squawked from the voice’s direction: that would be the bird of the beastmaster, then. He was the one who had taken Uten, Stel, and Yora. Jova had heard of no sign of Chek in the last four days they had been traveling. “Iro tu seti-seti? Yash pey na ha, po rut. Zat!”
“Dep Sag Ko tells us that Dal Ak Gan is wanting us to get on with checking the disk-less,” said the sandman, who Jova was fairly certain was called Ya Gol Gi, although all these sandman names were starting to blur in her head.
“Dull work,” grumbled the mercenary.
“You want to keep feeding and cleaning them?”
“Got a headache,” she growled. “Been using tabula too much. I don’t need this bullshit.”
There was no reply.
Jova felt her heart speed up. It had been a simple matter of surviving the last few days: walk when she was told to walk, stop when she was told to stop, eat what food she had and sleep with what time there was left. She had been alone; neither Bechde nor Roan nor Alis had been with her, and so she had retreated within herself, protecting her sense of who she was. She was Jova. She was free.
But what were they doing, now that they had stopped?
“At least we left that blasted jungle behind,” said the woman mercenary. “I don’t want any beast sniffing out the blood.”
“Su tay, su tay. No worries. Only coyotesnakes and little fall lions out here.”
“Hrmph,” said the mercenary, not sounding convinced. Jova was less concerned with that, and what the sandman slaver had said.
Whose blood? What were they going to do that was going to draw blood?
Scabs had grown on Jova’s back where the barbed whip had torn at her flesh. She flexed her shoulders as best she could, and waited with bated breath.
Jova heard footsteps as Ya Gol Gi hoisted one of the crippled slaves up. The slave’s voice was thin and reedy, but Jova’s sharp ears could still hear what he said.
“It- It was on my master,” said the slave. “He died when- when you…he died. I couldn’t get it back. I promise. I’m not hiding anything!”
“No worries, friend!” crooned Ya Gol Gi, and Jova heard him give the slave a pat. “So you are not having your tabula? And you are telling the truth?”
“Yes,” the slave said, in-between sobs. “Yes, yes.”
“Dock, let him go free. We cannot be selling him and we cannot be feeding him.”
The slave began to cry freely. “Truly? You…you will let me go?”
“Yes, of course! What fool trader will take a slave with no tabula? We are only having so much food, too. You are on your own, friend.” Ya Gol Gi’s voice was light and cheerful. “Leave his bonds on, though, Dock. We can spare the rope.”
“But- but how will I walk? How will I leave?” babbled the slave, his voice rising in pitch even as it grew further in distance. Jova heard something being dragged across the dirt.
“He’ll make noise,” said Dock, ignoring the slave. “Raise a fuss. Attract attention. I told you, I don’t want to deal with wild animals.”
“Only coyotesnakes and little fall lions out here,” said Ya Gol Gi, dismissively. “Little stomachs. Easy to feed.”
A cold rush ran down Jova’s spine, as the man began to scream. Everyone could hear him now. There was a sharp crack, and the man fell silent, and then it was just the sound of Ya Gol Gi pulling the next person in the throng up onto their feet.
Jova waited. The slaves were systematically processed: some were taken away, others were patted down until their tabula was discovered. The ones that didn’t have tabula were the ones that were in danger. Jova’s secret did not make her safe at all.
She needed to survive. If she could live, she could escape. How could she convince them that she had a tabula—not only that she had it, but that it was easy to find? That it was worth the effort of finding it?
Jova’s head spun with the lies she was trying to weave. What story would she tell? It had to be as close to the truth as possible. Roan had her tabula! But what would happen when they searched Roan and did not find it? They would hurt him as well, and Jova could not let that happen. Perhaps Janwye had it—but then Jova’s tabula was as good as gone, and so was she.
Before Jova could think anymore, they were upon her. They had moved so fast.
A rough hand tore off her blindfold. Jova’s skin throbbed as her ruined eyes were exposed to the open air, and she bowed her head, trying to hide her face. She could not, though, before a man’s hand raised her chin. The one called Ya Gol Gi scoffed.
“She is not a girl but a devil,” he sneered. “Look at this ugliness!”
“I can see,” said Dock, flatly.
“We should be burning her for the sake of the Lady Summer,” said Ya Gol Gi. “It is ill luck to be hosting a demon of the deep in our midst.”
“She is…novel. There are always eccentrics on the shadow market.”
Jova waited for them to finish, her heart pounding in her throat, as they discussed selling or throwing away her life as easily as if she was a loaf of bread.
A hand grabbed her shoulder and hauled her up. “Where’s your tabula, devil girl?” said Ya Gol Gi. “Tell us! Or are you mute as well as blind?”
“Pocket,” said Jova, her voice hoarse and dry.
The hand closed around one of the disks in Jova’s pocket. That would be Alis’s. “What a pretty girl,” said Ya Gol Gi, after a brief hum from it. “And yet she is not you. Are you stealing away the tabula of from-Fallow children, devil girl?”
Jova shook her head. “Friend.”
“Summon her,” said Ya Gol Gi, and Jova heard a grunt of indignation from Dock.
“I told you, I got a headache,” snapped Dock. “That bitch bit me when we took her out. I don’t need this.”
“Dock, I have been checking all-.”
“We in no rush,” said Dock, firmly, and that seemed to be that.
When Ya Gol Gi spoke next, it was to Jova. “What about you? Do devils have tabula?”
“Yes,” said Jova, hoarsely. “…Pocket.”
A rough hand dug in her pocket again, and Ya Gol Gi pulled out the second tabula in Jova’s pocket. It was Fang’s, Izca’s old pet. It was Jova’s only chance at survival. Don’t check it, Jova thought. Don’t check it, don’t check it.
“You up for this?” said Ya Gol Gi, scathingly. Dock’s stony silence was all the answer he needed. Jova heard the beginnings of a hum, and tightened her bound hands into fists. If she was going to die, she was going to die fighting. She would make Ma and Da and the Ladies Four proud.
“Bha wea vat, Ya Gol Gi! Sai ali Raj Mal Azu no chok ro baten zat!”
Something was thrown on the ground, and Ya Gol Gi shouted, “Ilen ta set, crippled one! You dare speak in such a way to me? You deserve never to be spoken to in the imperial tongue, you soft, weak, templeman infant. Your life sullies the people of Hag Gar Gan, stains our free power and dishonors who we are. Never presume that you are one of us again!”
“Sal iro et a Hag Gar Gan. Sal iro Rho Hat Pan,” said Roan. Jova felt a mix of hopeful and betrayed. Hopeful because Roan was so close to her; betrayed because Roan had never bothered to seek her.
“You are not Rho Hat Pan. You will never be Rho Hat Pan,” said Ya Gol Gi. “Run, crippled one. Run on your little stubs of legs.”
He hit Roan, hard. Ya Gol Gi laughed, as if he took a vindictive pleasure in it, and Jova stood and waited for him to finish. She was glad that Ya Gol Gi had been distracted, although she wished it was a different distraction.
Jova searched for a distraction of her own, as the beating continued. She needed a plan. If the slavers mistook Fang’s tabula as hers, what could go wrong? If they used it at all, then the truth would become apparent immediately. She would have to be perfectly obedient at all times, so as to give them no reason to ever use her tabula.
No. Jova cupped that small spark of hope in her heart. She would have to be perfectly obedient at all times but one.
Ya Gol Gi returned. Roan had fallen silent. And Jova, despite herself, had to speak. She couldn’t believe someone could be so unabashedly…evil.
“Why do you do this?” asked Jova. “Why are you so cruel?”
“Why do you ask me questions that annoy me so?” Ya Gol Gi bent down, his breath hot in Jova’s ear, and Jova knew that trying to reason with this man had been a mistake. “Perhaps tonight I shall teach you about cruelty. I will put my dick into you and make you scream with pleasure.”
“Then I’ll bite it off.” Jova did her best not to let the pulsing, pounding fear in her chest escape into her voice or expression. “My hollow was a pale, twisted thing from the Teeth of the Abyss, and I am a girl of the deep. I do not have eyes but I have very sharp teeth wherever you put it.”
Ya Gol Gi paused, as if considering her. Sweat beaded down Jova’s forehead. “Devil girl,” he spat, finally, and walked away.
Dock snapped her fingers. “Come, girl.”
“Where are we going?” asked Jova.
Her skull snapped forward as Dock hit her behind the head. “Ya Gol Gi is right. You are annoying.”
Jova said nothing. She bowed her head and followed, edging forward slowly with her tied ankles, painfully aware that she still wore no blindfold. Occasionally she clicked her tongue to get a better picture of where Dock was. It surprised her how much less clutter there was here: no trees, no wild jungle growth, not even wagons for supplies. Just human shapes, with steeds jostling and wandering among them.
“What are you doing?” asked Dock, as Jova clicked her tongue.
Jova bit her lip. “Just…seeing.”
“Well, stop it.” Dock sounded uncomfortable, and Jova did stop, although she couldn’t help but wonder just what she looked like with no blindfold. If she was the one who scared the grizzled slaver mercenary, that changed things.
“You wait here,” said Dock. She stripped off the ropes around Jova’s wrists and ankles, and Jova couldn’t help but wince as blood returned painfully to her extremities. “No running. We’ll catch you.”
No, you won’t, Jova thought, as she heard Dock walk away. But even as she thought it, she knew this was not the time to run. She couldn’t leave behind Roan or Bechde or Alis. They had to get out somehow, too.
Even then, she knew she wouldn’t make it far. She was a blind girl in open terrain running from the most skilled riders on Albumere. She had to be smart about her escape.
“There she is,” said an oddly warm voice. Something squawked from its direction. The beastmaster? “Everyone is whispering that our nets are catching devils now!”
Jova turned, unsure what to make of the situation.
“Blind beast, sniff out your blind girl,” said the beastmaster, and Jova felt a familiar warmth nudging her side.
“Uten!” Jova exclaimed, hugging the molebison’s snout. Uten grunted and sniffled, making a happy wheezing sound as Jova stroked her fur. To Jova’s surprise, Uten had been kept extraordinarily clean well-groomed.
The beastmaster let them embrace; it was a small kindness, but one Jova did not fail to notice. “Gen, u-ha?” he said, to another person. “Iro ka at bet.”
An old man’s voice, too low for Jova to hear, muttered something in reply.
One hand on Uten’s snout, Jova stood straight and waited.
“Do you always keep…it like that?” said the man. “It might become infected. Or inflamed. And it gives the Lady Fall a muse for my nightmares tonight.”
“I used to wear a cloth over it,” said Jova, as politely as she could. “It was taken away.”
There was a rustle of cloth, and suddenly Jova felt a cloak that was far too big for her draped over her shoulders. The hood hung over her face and obstructed her hearing, but the furs were soft and warm, if a bit musty.
“Th-thank you,” stuttered Jova, unsure what to say.
“I cannot be speaking to you otherwise,” said the man. “Your face is giving me the chills.” He cleared his throat. “Now, I am Dep Sag Ko. What is your name?”
“Jova,” she said. “It is…nice to meet you, Dep Sag Ko.” Talking to him, she almost forgot that this man was part of the group that had attacked, killed, and captured so many of her traveling companions.
“Jova,” repeated Dep Sag Ko. “Very good. Now, Jova, I have an important question to ask you. Are you ready?”
“What the fuck does this thing eat? I have tried cabbage, straw, meat, and my left hand, and this intransient animal takes to none of them.”
“She grazes,” said Jova. “If you let her walk on her own for a little while she’ll find her own food to eat. It’s normal if she eats the grass and the dirt, she’s usually just looking for worms. And sometimes I feed her winter crickets as a treat.”
“Ah,” said Dep Sag Ko, sagely. “Da, u-ha? Hak yash crickets.”
Once again, the old man mumbled something back in reply.
The beastmaster put a hand on Jova’s shoulder. “You are taking care of this animal, Jova?”
Jova nodded. “And some others.”
“Then you stay with me,” said Dep Sag Ko. “You do as you do. No fuss, no trouble. We go to the market, I sell you to a cushy pyramid lord, and you make me a ton of money. Agreed?”
Jova just barely inclined her head, and she did not say anything. Even in this situation, she felt guilty about making false promises under the eyes of the Ladies.
Dep Sag Ko patted her shoulder. “So easy this way, huh? Not like the others. You are not so bad for a templegirl zealot.”
A blush rose on Jova’s cheeks. “I’m not actually a-.”
“You wear the bandages of the zealots,” said Dep Sag Ko, prodding the bandages that Izca had tied around her wounds before he had fallen. “You wear the coza of a templegirl. You train your own steed and you speak like one from Moscoleon. Not a thing you can hide from Dep Sag Ko! Of course you are a zealot! Unless…you mean to say you are not a girl at all? Did you misspeak, little devil?”
There must have been something Jova could say, but she did not know what. She kept her mouth shut, as Dep Sag Ko guffawed at his own joke.
Suddenly, Jova heard a soft whine.
“Shoo! Go away!” Dep Sag Ko paced away, and Jova heard the snuffling and snorting of Fang as the pigwolf retreated. She bit her lip. Had the beast really come this whole way? Did that change anything about her tabula situation?
“It’s been following the new catches since we left, trying to get an easy kill,” snorted Dep Sag Ko, walking back. “I swear, it is the same beast that killed Ri Har Po. I should skin it and roast it over a pit.”
Jova gulped. If Fang died, his tabula would break—and she would be exposed.
“Found him near you, actually,” said Dep Sag Ko, pushing on Jova to walk as they moved away. “What do you say? Fly back and bring me his soul, devil girl?”
“Let the dead rest,” Jova muttered, remembering what Roan always said. It was automatic, thoughtless, and unprovoked. It wasn’t really directed for anyone.
But the moment she said it, they stopped. The old man began to mumble and mutter in a feverish rasp, and although Jova could not understand a word he was saying, Dep Sag Ko seemed to be listening intently.
“My u-ha—my, how do you say, my shaman—he wishes you to go with him. He wants very much to hear everything you know about, er…sleepwalkers?” Dep Sag Ko paused in his translation.
Jova listened intently. On Albumere, the old were the wily: the only ones still alive at that age were the ones who were willing to do anything to survive. This shaman u-ha was important.
“He wishes to know about…the walkers…of dreams.”
“The Dream Walkers,” whispered Jova. She remembered a wooden badge and an unfulfilled promise, what seemed like a lifetime ago.
“Yes,” said Dep Sag Ko. “Tell him everything.”
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.
As she splashed water over her face and forearms, clarity rung in Jova’s head like a clarion bell. The cold shock brought sudden vitality back to her limbs, and she scrubbed her hands vigorously in the trough. She could hear pacing beside her, and the fevered muttering of the woman Janwye as she recited her address to the Holy Keep.
Jova hung her head, letting the water drip down her fingers and back into the trough. She pursed her lips, considering speaking up to ask Janwye if she had cleaned her hands thoroughly enough, but the thought of the woman’s reaction if she was interrupted made Jova hesitate. She wished Roan would return with the supplies soon. Waiting in the stables with the fieldwoman was doing nothing for her nerves, and even blind Jova could tell Janwye possessed a short temper.
Instead, Jova listened. It was hifalutin rhetoric, one that Ma would have scoffed at and Da would have pretended to understand, but Jova listened all the same. It was interesting.
“I beseech you, Holy Keep Tlai,” said Janwye. “When Kazakhal soldiers massacred towermen and sandmen on the Day of Burning Tower, Keep Izec sent his zealots into the dark marshes. When the Seat of Winter sheltered traitors in the War of Whispers, Keep Hron turned the tide in the siege when the zealots marched north. When the Wilder clans threatened joined the Restoration Rebellion, Keep Kago rallied the-.”
“Don’t mention Kago,” blurted Jova, and she bit her tongue.
There was a scoff, and Janwye said, “Why not?”
Jova searched for the words, but she felt ineloquent. Her hands still dripped into the trough, and she busied herself washing her arms again.
“You don’t have to wash anymore, the blood is gone. You’re clean,” said Janwye, and Jova had no real choice but to stop after that. “Do you bear me ill will, girl?” There was no pause between her sentences. She seemed to say the words as soon as they came to her, quite unlike thoughtful Roan.
“No, I don’t,” stuttered Jova, immediately. “I just…you shouldn’t mention Kago, is all.”
“He was one of the most successful Keeps in history,” said Janwye, and she sounded more confused than angry. “He might not have won against the Wilder during the War of Broken Chains, but it was a noble effort, no?”
“He’s controversial,” said Jova, quietly.
“What? You’re mumbling.”
“He’s controversial,” repeated Jova, clearing her throat. “He was a foreigner and didn’t seem to show any faith to the Ladies. He developed Moscoleon, but most of those developments were secular. It might be a bad idea to bring him up, is all.”
Janwye did not hesitate to ask, even if her tone was questioning. “What is Secular?”
Wiping her hands on her coza, Jova tried to remember how Roan had explained it to her. “The Moscoleon part of Temple Moscoleon,” she said. “Not the Temple part.”
“I do not understand,” said Janwye. “Are not the Temple and Moscoleon one and the same?”
“Well, the- the Keep has two responsibilities,” stuttered Jova, trying to explain herself around Janwye’s rapid questions. “One divine and one mortal. That’s what secular is. Everything to do with mortal men.”
“Ah. Like the Dream Walkers, then?”
Jova furrowed her eyebrows. “What?”
“Nothing,” said Janwye, too fast to not be a lie. “A slip of the tongue. So you think I should not mention Kago in my address at all?”
Jova shook her head. “Tlai and Hron are good, though.” She paused, and smiled. “They won, after all.”
“Thank you, child,” Janwye said, and Jova dared a wider smile. Janwye’s fieldwoman accent made Jova feel lofty and noble. “Roan versed his stable hand well. I would have thought he was training you to be one of us, but…alas. Lady Winter and Fall know what’s going on in that man’s head.”
“So I’m not the only one who can never tell what he wants, then?” asked Jova, smiling, not addressing Janwye’s one of us comment, although she kept it in the back of her head. Who exactly was “us”?
Janwye laughed, and it was light, melodic, kind. “Oh, Ladies, no. No one could crack Rho Hat Pan, not even our teacher. Tell him his spear form was superb and he’d do nothing but mope all day, but if the stew was just passable the night he cooked it he would never stop bragging about it.”
The fieldwoman’s laughter became a little rueful, a little sad. “Back when we all rode together, he’d talk from sunrise to sunset, on and on and on. He…he changed after his accident, though. Came back with Zain to this place, never left.”
Jova wanted to press Janwye to continue, but she had fallen silent and the girl did not know how to ask further.
Janwye cleared her throat. “I formally apologize, child. Earlier, I was abrasive and rude to you when you were hurt and struggling, and for that I ask your forgiveness. You…I see why Roan would care so much about you.”
“Oh—well, thank you—but there’s no need to apologize,” said Jova, quickly, but she felt a hand press against her palm and Janwye kiss her fingers lightly.
“As a lady of Alswell to a lady of Moscoleon,” said Janwye. “Things have improved. I see clearly now.” She let go of Jova’s hand and said, as she straightened, “I don’t think I ever actually introduced myself. Janwye, who speaks for Bechde, whose liege is the farmer Greeve.”
“I’m Jova. It’s nice to meet you, Janw…Janiweyay…”
“Just call me Janny,” said the fieldwoman, and she ruffled Jova’s hair.
Jova nodded. She twiddled her thumbs together, and then scratched her chest. “Er, Janny…”
“You’ll be staying in the city tonight to talk to the Keep, yes? Do you think I could…do you think I could stay with you for a bit? So I can say goodbye to my…to my friends?” At the thought of Ma and Da, Jova’s chest clenched. She hung her head, her fingers drumming against her sides. When would they come back?
“That’s not my decision to make,” said Janwye, rapidly. “Roan and Zain will have to decide whether it’s safe for you to stay the night.”
Jova must have looked very disappointed, because immediately Janwye said, “Don’t worry, Jova. It’s hard to leave your friends behind, I know, but you’ll see them again soon. This is just temporary. Zain will tell them where you’ve gone, and when you come back you’ll have all sorts of stories to tell them.”
Jova sat on the ground, nodding. It seemed Roan would not be coming back for some time yet. “You’re very nice, for a stranger, Janny.”
Janwye sat next to her, and chuckled. “I know quite a few people who’d have issue with that statement, clever little girl.” The fieldwoman groaned, suddenly, tapping her foot on the stable floor. “Where is he? I have to prepare for the address tonight…”
“I’m- I’m sorry if I interrupted you,” said Jova, quickly. “You can still-.”
The fieldwoman patted Jova’s shoulder dismissively. “I wouldn’t be able to concentrate anyways. I just wish Roan wouldn’t take so long doing everything. By the Ladies!” She began tapping her foot again, and barely three seconds had passed when she sat up straight and said, “Oh! Want to see something fun, Jova?”
“Well, I can’t actually s- I mean, I…alright.”
There was the sound of cloth shifting, Janwye rummaging, and then the fieldwoman was pressing something into Jova’s hand. “Hold it like that,” she said, wrapped Jova’s fingers around a little wooden box, made of something soft and bendy like balsa. “Not too tight, you don’t want to crush it. Feel the buzzing?”
Jova could feel more than that. There was the steady tap-tap-tap of something crawling inside, and as she turned it over in her hand she felt tiny holes in the side of the box.
“There’s a spring beetle in there,” said Janwye. “I have another one just like it. Feel the holes? Those are for breathing, and sometimes I slip seeds in for feeding. The box is very fragile, so if you hold it too tight it’ll crush the beetle inside.”
It seemed a nice pet to keep, Jova thought, if not an extraordinarily practical one. She supposed even people like Janwye needed their own hobbies.
Something else slipped in her hand, and to Jova’s immense surprise she realized it was a tiny tabula. “Is this for the beetle?” she asked, feeling the disk’s surface in-between her thumb and forefinger.
“It’s for a beetle,” said Janwye. “There are four more boxes just like this, two each for two more friends. If we ever get in trouble, we just crush the box and the tabula is going to shatter when the beetle dies. That way we can always tell whether we’re safe or not. Feel this one? It’s for my friend who rode to Mont Don. It’s whole, which means she’s fine. I have another tabula right here for my friend who’s talking in Shira Hay. So even if they’re whole continents away, I still know they’re safe.”
Jova nodded. Gently, she handed the tabula and the beetle back to Janwye. “Do you think Zain could give my friends one of those beetle boxes?”
“They’re not exactly easy to make,” said Janwye, laughing. “But who knows? Maybe the Ladies will send a ladybird to tell your friends how you’re doing instead.”
It was nice, sitting with Janwye, just talking. Jova could almost forget everything that was happening outside, all the danger that the city of Moscoleon now carried for her. Roan’s stables were nice and quiet, except for the comfortably familiar sounds of the three beasts who were, at this point, Jova’s old (and only other) friends.
Jova scraped her foot on the ground. There had, of course, been Arim, but he had left her. She had talked with Arim’s wild gang once or twice, but once she had learned that Roan’s old enemies had been part of that gang she quickly began to avoid them. She had kept a cordial distance ever since, from everyone, except the people who had already gained her trust…
“What are your friends like, Janny?” asked Jova.
Jova heard Janwye begin to talk, but she was cut off by rapid hoof beats approaching. “Here comes the cavalry,” she muttered, and she stood. Jova followed suit.
“Janwye! Jova! I have the supplies,” said Roan. “Prepare your mounts, we must be moving quickly. Zealots have already gathered around Copo’s house. They are…we must be moving quickly.” He paused. “What were you two doing on the floor?”
“Sitting, Rho Hat Pan,” said Janwye, as she walked away. “Can’t people sit in this place?”
“There are benches just a few paces away, within eyesight,” said Roan, reproachfully. “The floor is being dirty…”
“I sit where I please, tyrant!” shouted Janwye, as she left the stables to get her mount. Jova smiled. Now that her audience with the Keep had been secured, the fieldwoman seemed much more jovial.
Roan clicked his tongue as he drew near, and Jova found his hand after a moment of waving hers in the air. He pulled her up, and Jova found herself wheeling her arms, unbalanced without a walking stick to lean on.
“Are you needing help?” asked Roan, the concern evident in his voice.
“No, no, I’m fine,” said Jova, steadying herself.
“Find Uten, then. Yora has already been prepared, and Chek is carrying the supplies.” His tone was brisk and straightforward, all business again.
Jova nodded. She began to shuffle towards the stables, and then paused and bit her lip. “Is Ell back, Roan?”
“He…” Roan paused. “The truth is that he has returned, but you may not. It is too dangerous to waste time, especially around a known residence of yours. Zain would be under too much pressure. We cannot risk it.”
“Can Ell come with us, then?”
“That is up to Zain to decide,” said Roan, quietly. “Go and find Uten, Jova. We must be going soon.”
“Why are you so urgent?” asked Jova, and she stood her ground. “Roan, you can tell me. What did I do?” And she waited, trusting Roan to speak the truth.
He chose not to speak at all.
Jova drew herself up. “I’m not leaving then, Roan. I’m not going to walk away from everything I have until you tell me what’s going on!”
The autumn wind swirled around them, and Jova found herself shivering in the cold. She stood tall and straight, unmoving, nonetheless. “You have changed,” said Roan. His tone was even. Jova could not tell if he approved or disapproved. “You have grown defiant, Jova.”
“I would never have left the house of that pontiff if I hadn’t.”
Roan took a deep breath. “Jova, I formally apologize for-.”
“No! No, apologies this time, Roan!” shouted Jova, and she stamped her foot on the ground. The worry and doubt was beginning to morph into anger and frustration. “You keep apologizing and apologizing but you don’t do anything about it. You don’t let me do anything about it!”
There was no answer. Just like the Ladies, just like the whole world, Roan did not answer.
“My childhood was running,” said Jova. “Ever since I was a kid, I can’t remember anything but running. I finally made it to this city, I made a life here, I made friends, and now you’re telling me I have to leave that behind?”
Silence, nothing but silence.
Jova stumbled forward, stumbled into the dark, grasping for Roan. “I have a family here, Roan!” she screamed. “I deserve to at least say goodbye!”
“No one has a family on Albumere, Jova,” said Roan, quietly. “That is why you must run.”
The girl stopped, breathing heavily. She bit her tongue.
“It is not what you have done that is an issue, Jova,” said Roan. “It is the attention that it will bring. People will be looking much closer at you, and they will be finding many things worth questioning. Do you understand? You are unique and your loss cannot be afforded. If a second would risk you, then a second shall not be given.”
Roan put a hand on Jova’s shoulder, and steered her gently towards Uten’s stable. “What do you need me for?” asked the girl, standing firm, refusing to budge.
“Not just I. People like Zain and Janwye. People we are associated with.” Roan sighed. “This is what I wish to apologize for, Jova. For the unseen influence I have had in your life. For the pushing and pulling. For the path I set you on ever since you first came to Moscoleon. I am as culpable as you for what has happened, if not more.”
Roan clicked his tongue, and the scrape of paws on the ground indicated Uten shuffling forward. Jova put a hand on the molebison’s side, but did not mount her just yet.
“You say you want more than an apology, Jova? Then it shall be so.” Roan pressed something into Jova’s palm, a hard wooden object. Jova scraped her thumb over it; it fit between her fingers, like Janwye’s wooden box, but it was flat and circular. “An emblem of my brotherhood. It depicts a crescent moon.”
“What does it mean?” asked Jova, brow furrowed.
“We are the unseen influence. We are the push and the pull. You say you want the ability to do? To no longer run? Come with me. We will give you that power. I cannot promise you will return unchanged, but you will return.” Roan took the badge gently back from Jova’s palm. “It is time to go now, Jova. Let the dead rest.”
Jova nodded, sullenly, feeling a yawning pit opening in her chest. Despite everything Roan had said, all she heard was that she would not get to say goodbye.
“Repeat it, Jova. Say it with me. Let the dead rest.”
“Let the dead rest,” whispered Jova. She heard Roan grunt, felt his hands under her shoulders, and she was lifted bodily onto Uten’s back. She closed her eyes, and patted Uten’s back. Roan said she would return. Roan did not lie.
“Chek! Yora!” Roan snapped. “Ha a ei! Mat ye kan!” The fall mule’s snorts and the staghound’s panting were close behind them. “Janwye, the supplies are ready. We are leaving, now.”
A clip-clop of hooves accompanied them, as the procession made its way out of Roan’s stables. Jova tightened her grip on the saddle on Uten’s back, listening to the twitter of the ladybirds and the whistle of the wind fade away. It was as much of a goodbye as she had.
“We’re moving slow, Roan,” she said, quietly.
“So as not to draw attention. Once we leave the city limits, Janwye will lead the rest of the way.” Roan said nothing more after that.
Uten’s plodding lead Jova to trail behind Roan, walking through the empty streets of Moscoleon. She head the footsteps of the occasional passersby, but, imagining what they looked like, Jova realized how they could be mistaken as just traveling pilgrims, nothing more. It was so easy to uproot and move on.
Jova bit her lip, trying to keep her face still and impassive. A pilgrim would have no reason to look so sad.
She reached back and felt the braid of her hair, and a tingle rushed through her hands. She would have to ask Roan what it looked like. She had to remember how to do it again, for later.
Jova dabbed her blindfold. It had become dirty and stained in the last few days; she would need a fresh one soon. Da would not be there to get one for her. It was true that she had drifted away from her parents lately, but Jova couldn’t stop wanting to turn Uten around and go see them now, to apologize to Ma for everything, to pet Mo one more time…
It wasn’t for forever, Jova reminded herself. She would come back.
“Jova?” said a voice, and Jova jumped. It was just Janwye. “I heard you in the stables. Is it true that-?”
“Janwye,” said Roan, cutting in. “Inquire later.”
“Yes sir, great general and mighty lord, sir,” muttered Janwye, sullenly.
Jova shuddered. What had the old mantra been? Keep smiling. Pretend long enough and it might become real. She grinned as wide as she could and turned Janwye’s way. “What are you riding, Janny?” she asked, trying to change the subject.
“A summer elk,” said Janwye, and her tone had lightened. “His name is Cross. Do you want to pet him? I- oh, what now?”
Stamping feet cued Jova to action, and she stiffened. Someone was walking directly towards them, and fast.
“Roan!” screamed a voice, and it was anguished and pain-stricken. How was it familiar? Jova shook her head. The marbleman accent, the lofty tone…
Stel nickered as Roan reared the horse in. “Latius! What is the meaning of this?”
“I would ask you myself,” roared the banished prince, and he stopped somewhere in front of them. Jova held the saddle tight as Uten came to a halt. “Where are you running, Roan? Where are you taking your beasts?”
“Away,” said Roan. “For a friend. It is no concern of yours.”
“No? No?” hissed Latius. “What is my concern, then, is the filthy coonlizard creature the zealots found on Pontiff Copo’s corpse, you sandman bastard. Stripping the flesh from his face, Roan. He had no quarrel with anyone!” The prince’s voice broke.
Jova felt a cold creep over her. Copo was dead? She heard it, but did not believe it. If Copo was dead, that meant…
And suddenly, Jova felt that perhaps she had not washed all the blood off her hands.
“Put the hammer down, Latius,” said Roan. The animals were getting nervous. Jova could hear their stamping and grumbling.
“Was it the boy? The wild boy, that Copo rejected today. Where is he, Roan? Where may I find him?” Latius’s voice became guttural. “I will crush him. I will batter his skull in like he battered in Copo’s. Tell me, Roan!”
“Latius, have sense,” said Roan, although his voice too had gained a hard edge. “Be calm. The zealots will look for the killer and by the Ladies Four, if they do, their justice will be done.”
It was not a lie. Even in these circumstances, Roan would never lie. Jova looked down, hoping that Latius would not notice her.
“Why are you protecting him?” screamed Latius.
“I am not,” snarled Roan. “I did not know the boy, and neither did Copo.”
A muffled gasp came from the prince’s direction. “You lie,” he whispered. “You lie! The boy professed to being one of your clients, Roan, I heard him.”
“He looks half-crazed,” whispered Janwye. “Jova, behind me.”
“I have many clients, Latius, too many to keep track of,” snarled Roan. “The boy, whoever he may be, had nothing to do with Copo’s death. Now step aside, I have business to attend to and you are in my way.”
“How can you be so sure? Where are you in such a hurry to go? Answer me, Roan!” shouted Latius. Under Jova, Uten snorted and hissed, beginning to race forward, but she was too slow. There was a dull whoosh, a movement through the air, and then the crunch of a hammer on bone.
With a roar, Janwye and her mount charged forward. A column of flame scorched the side of Jova’s face as something ignited beside her, and she flinched back. Most people weren’t keen on summer animals at the best of times for fear of what might happen if they lost control, but Janwye was the one who was half-crazed if she chose to ride one.
Stel screamed. Jova half-expected Yora to leap into an attack frenzy, for Chek to break and run, but it was ponderous Uten who was the first to move. The molebison loped forward, and to Jova it felt like the earth was undulating underneath her.
Screaming with incoherent rage, Latius swung his hammer. Jova could feel the rush of air as it swung forward, the deep hum as it sailed through the air. Behind her, Janwye and her summer elk stopped, dancing out of range of the hammer, but to Jova’s horror Uten did not pause.
A follow-up swing hit the molebison squarely in the side. It missed Jova, but the blow was so great that the girl was nearly knocked off anyway. She clung on for dear life, her bones numb from the echoes of the impact.
Uten did not as much as flinch.
“Uten is powerful and strong, and is much sought after by the zealots who wish new ways to spread the word of the Ladies Four,” Roan had once said to her. “She is blind, but blindness is no issue with a good rider and a strong tabula, and she can endure blows that would fell lesser beasts.”
Jova tightened her grip on the molebison’s saddle. Was this the path the Ladies had always meant for her? A good rider. A strong tabula. And it wasn’t the pontiff that made the zealot. It was faith.
The girl clicked her tongue three times in rapid succession, and she made out Latius’s blurred form edging to her left. Heat billowed from her right, but Janwye did not move closer. It was good that she didn’t; on fire or no, the elk’s neck would break easily under that hammer.
With a sharp tug on Uten’s saddle, Jova pulled the molebison towards the left. Blind beast and blind rider crashed into the prince, and Jova could feel powerful muscles shift underneath her as Uten pressed Latius to the ground. Her claws clicked on the ground. Jova knew those claws from years of cleaning them: long, wide things shaped like shovels, and just as good at digging out flesh as digging out dirt.
“Hold, Uten,” said Jova, her voice low. “Janny! How’s Roan?”
The heat ceased suddenly, and Jova heard the patter of feet on the ground. “He’s out cold,” said Janwye, rapidly. “His chest is- there’s a healer back at camp, he can fix this. Stel, down! Down! Jova, Roan can’t ride and even if he could his horse is too spooked to carry anyone.”
Under Uten’s claws, Latius struggled and squirmed. Mouth dry, Jova rubbed her temples. “What do we do with him?” asked Jova, as Latius began to swear in the old marble tongue.
“Him?” There was a sound of hooves approaching, and then Jova jumped as a sharp crack rang through the air. It sounded like he had been struck. Latius fell silent.
“He’s not…you didn’t…”
“He got what he gave,” said Janwye, simply. “Come on, Jova, help me get Roan onto the staghound. We need to move fast.”
When Jova slipped off Uten, her legs buckled momentarily under her. She was breathing heavily.
She followed the sound of Roan’s shallow breathing. “Around, other side,” said Janwye, from Roan’s head. “Lift up his legs.”
Jova nodded, and measuring the distance in her head, she bent down to pick up Roan’s feet.
She found nothing.
Her hands grasped at thin air for a moment, patting the street. Jova began sweeping her hands in front of her, but still she found nothing. Had Roan fallen crooked? She edged forward, still grasping, until Janwye pulled her hands forward gently.
“Don’t worry, Jova, he won’t mind with the state he’s in,” said the fieldwoman.
Jova didn’t understand what she was holding at first. It was almost too smooth to be human, but she could feel the heat pulsing underneath, the tell-tale texture of skin. The girl felt a cold chill run down her spine.
“Janny, are these…Roan’s legs?” asked Jova.
“You didn’t know?” Janwye said, incredulously. “You didn’t…oh, Ladies, you didn’t know. He hid it from you.”
Jova let go, nostrils flaring. How long? Since the beginning? The only reason Roan had ever chosen to show her his kindness was because of her blindness. All a lie, a comfortable lie?
“Jova, I don’t know what Roan told you,” said Janwye, and her tone was low and hushed and quick. “But we can figure it out later. We have to move now. Help me put him up on Yora, and we’ll get out of here, and we’ll talk everything out once we’re safe.”
She sounded like Ma, and if Jova knew one thing it was that nowhere was ever safe. But she bent and hauled Roan’s oddly toddler-like form onto Yora’s back. They strapped him down with spare rope in one of Chek’s packs, and Janwye gently took the animals’ tabula from his limp hands.
Jova left Moscoleon with her head bowed and her lips sealed tight, wondering just how much of the city of miracles had been a lie.
The words seemed to echo in her head, unreal, distant. She had never anticipated this.
“Jova of the Temple,” he said. “Present your tabula.”
Jova wiped her sweating palms on her coza, holding her breath. What could she say? Was there to say?
She phrased her words carefully. “Why do you want it?”
There was a soft clank of metal on tile, and suddenly Copo’s voice grew closer. “Do you not trust me, zealot of the Temple? I have shown you what needs to be done.”
Jova suppressed a shudder. Even if she had a tabula, she wasn’t sure she could go through with that. She thought long and hard before speaking. It would not do to lie in the House of Spring. “I was told not to tell anyone where my tabula was,” said Jova, haltingly. “I was told that if I ever did, I would no longer be free.”
She felt cold, clammy hands on her bare shoulders. “And who told you that, sweet girl?” asked Copo.
“A- a friend.”
“A friend,” repeated Copo, and Jova could hear the disdain in his voice. “Do you trust the prattle of a wild child over the word of a trusted pontiff, Jova?” And his hand slid down her arm.
Jova tried to squirm out of the way, but Copo would not let her. “I’m sorry, pontiff sir, I just-.”
“It is true, you will no longer be free,” said Copo, and his grip tightened. Jova’s heart was beating in her throat now. “You will serve the Ladies, and all those who speak for the Ladies. Now, sweet girl, please, present your tabula.”
The incense made Jova’s head spin. “I don’t- I don’t have it.”
“You don’t have it?” repeated Copo, a hint of disbelief, of incredulity in his voice. “Did you lie, Jova? Are you truly the sandman’s slave? Or are you some common animal, who left its tabula behind in the hollow tree after the Fallow?”
“Pontiff sir, is there any other way?” asked Jova, breathlessly. “Anything else I can do to prove my devotion to-.”
“Answer my question, zealot,” barked Copo, and Jova flinched. “It would be easier for all of us if you would just tell me- where is your tabula?”
Jova twisted out of his grip, and fell onto the hard floor, falling on her hands and bruising her knees. She felt a hand grab her shoulder, and before she could stop herself she reacted. Her hand found her walking stick, and she twisted, hitting Copo hard. From the sound of the crack of wood, and the way Copo’s body moved, Jova could tell she had hit something boney. His face?
His voice, when he spoke again, was a nasal whine. “That was very bad of you to do, sweet girl. Very, very bad.”
“I- I’m so sorry,” gasped Jova, but her words were cut short as the pontiff grabbed her by the collar and dragged her away. She kicked and struggled, but Copo grabbed her with both hands and hauled her anyway, with prodigious strength for one who had seemed so soft and plump.
One of his palms was coated with something hot and sticky. Jova’s heart leaped to her throat. She had made a pontiff bleed in his own house. Even if she made it out of this alive, would she ever walk free in the streets of the Temple again? The pontiffs were a tightly knit, exclusive group. They would hear of this, they would all hear of this.
There was a clatter of tabula, and Copo finally let Jova go. She crumpled onto her knees, listening to Copo muttering under his breath, a low and constant stream of unintelligible words.
Her mind raced through the possibilities. What was Copo going to do? Would it be worse than what would happen if she ran? She had struck a pontiff in his own house; she did not know the ramifications because no one had ever had the gall to do it. Jova flinched as she heard Copo sweep aside what sounded like a whole hollow of tabula. Just how many slaves did the pontiff have?
Jova did her best to sit still as she heard the tabula hum. She did her best not to wretch out of fear and anticipation as she felt the heat from the summoning wash over her. She didn’t move as she heard claws clack on the tiles.
But the moment she heard the beast hiss, hiss like that monster from three years ago, Jova couldn’t take it. She spun, hitting anything within reach with her walking stick and bolted, tongue clicking rapidly as she sprinted to whatever exit she could find.
She could barely hear the sound over the pounding of her ears, and the echoes twisted and distorted as she ran.
She slammed into the frame of the door—was it even the door? Was it just the wall? A window in the pontiff’s high tower?—and she felt her away across the room, the snarl of the beast just behind her. She twitched; she spun.
Her walking stick cracked against the beast’s muzzle, and she could hear it stumbling back, whining. Jova’s grip tightened, and the space around her eyes throbbed. Not again. Never again.
Tense, she shifted her stance, listening intently. Back pressed against the wall, she didn’t dare speak lest she miss some vital movement, some unexpected attack.
But there was no pretense to Copo’s movements as he strode forward, his sandals slapping loudly on the floor. Jova clicked rapidly, trying to get an image of where the beast was in relation to him. It seemed to be pacing behind him, its movement erratic and irregular.
“Just tell me where your tabula is, sweet girl,” said Copo, his voice ragged and breathless. “I’m sorry that it has come to this, but I will use force if I must to prevent the intrusion of the Deep into a house of the Ladies- will you stop making that infernal sound!”
Copo grabbed her by the shoulder, and Jova shrieked. Her head was pounding, her heart was beating too fast to think properly.
The beast at Copo’s side snarled, and before Jova could stop to think she had batted aside Copo’s arm, spinning and cracking her cane once more over the beast’s head. She felt claws lunge for her thigh and stepped back reflexively, so that the beast caught instead only onto the loose petals of her coza. She lunged forward, and her stick caught in what must have been the beast’s mouth.
At the same time, the beast had charged. With a squelch, Jova’s walking stick sank into something firm but pliable. She heard the beast gag, felt it writhe and flop on the end of her cane. Its claws scrabbled on the base of her stick weakly as it struggled to back away. Jova felt a moment’s indecision.
Then she pulled her walking stick free and heard the low wheeze of the animal limping away. She was not a monster. She did not kill for no reason.
But Jova had barely had time to catch her breath when Copo’s arms closed around her neck. “Cease this immediately, girl!” he shouted. “Let go of your weapon!”
Jova could hear the low hum building up once more, and she knew she could not face a second beast, not if the first one had time enough to recover. Should she submit? But then what would she do? Copo would demand and demand her tabula and she would not be able to produce it.
She could not beat anything Copo summoned.
There was only one solution, then.
Jova twisted, trying to worm her way out of Copo’s grip. He tried to hold on, but Jova kept twisting and twisting until she broke free. The hum had stopped; Copo’s concentration had broken.
Not enough. Jova had to ensure her permanent safety. She brought her cane against the side of the pontiff’s face, and felt her hands shaking from more than just exhaustion.
The hum had started again, and Jova stabbed blindly down, trying to separate Copo’s tabula from his grip. “I’m sorry,” Jova shouted. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
Copo gasped pitifully as Jova’s blind attacks jabbed and struck his soft flesh. In the corner, the beast whined, but made no move to come closer.
Jova paused, head spinning, trying to think straight. “Oh, Ladies,” she whispered. “Oh, pontiff, I didn’t- I’m so- oh, Ladies, oh, Ladies…”
If she just took a moment to think, a moment to breathe. Damage had been done, yes, but she would find a way to fix it. She didn’t have to resort to violence. This was Moscoleon. It was a holy city. She didn’t-.
Copo grabbed her by the throat, and Jova screamed. She hadn’t even heard him get up over the buzzing in her ears, but now she could feel the man’s hand squeezing tighter and tighter around her neck.
She flailed. All those months of careful practice and technique with Arim left her just as much as Arim had. She hit every part of Copo’s body she could find, swinging so hard that she thought her walking stick might snap. She heard wood impact on Copo’s elbow several times before he finally let go, and when he did Jova did not stop. When she found his face, she did not stop.
When her walking stick finally snapped, Jova had gathered her senses enough to run.
Sound, touch, smell: all the senses Jova had come to rely on blurred as she stumbled out of the pontiff’s house. She felt so weak she would collapse down the long stairs, but somehow she made it down without falling. There was no miraculous strength this time, no one to take away the fatigue. It had seemed the Ladies had forsaken her.
The cold air outside of the den of still burning incense hit Jova hard, but it did not so much as brace her as shock her. She felt more disoriented now, not less. Where was there to go now? What was there to do?
She fell into a familiar rut; she staggered down the road to Roan’s stables, mouth dry, hands shaking, leaning on the splintered end of her walking stick as she limped down the street. It was good that it was a holy day. It was good that the streets were empty.
Jova hoped they stayed that way.
She couldn’t remember stumbling through the streets or falling through the backdoor of Roan’s stables. She didn’t know how she had managed to find her way back, disoriented as she was, but forces of habit came back easily in times of crisis. Jova lay on the straw and dirt, hugging her chest, unmoving, until Uten smelled her and began hissing and spitting. She shifted a little then, but only slightly.
Then she heard the pounding of Stel’s hooves, heard Roan shouting indistinctly. Roan gasped as he entered the stables—the strongest display of emotion Jova had heard from him in three years—and heard a thud like Roan had fallen from his horse.
There was an odd scraping, like something was sliding on the ground, and Jova finally sat up.
“You are not being alright,” said Roan, breathlessly, and it was a statement, not a question. Jova shook her head mutely. Something touched her shoulder, and she flinched, but it was just Roan’s calloused hand, rough and hesitant.
“What are you doing on the ground like that, Rho Hat Pan?” said an unfamiliar voice. “Do you need help? Here, I will-.”
“Silence,” spat Roan, and the venom in his voice made Jova flinch again. “Get your steed, Janwye. We will be discussing the Walkers at a later date. Right now, this girl is hurting and in need of assistance.”
“Roan…” Jova croaked, as the stranger’s footsteps pattered away. “Roan, he tried to…he asked for my…” She stammered into silence, unsure what was safe to tell him, what was safe to tell anyone.
“Take my hand, Jova,” said Roan, and he pressed Jova’s palm into his. He clicked his tongue and Jova heard Stel approach. With an audible grunt, Roan lifted himself up onto his steed. Jova didn’t know why, but it seemed to be costing him a great deal. Had he injured himself practicing earlier that day?
“Hold onto my hand,” said Roan. “We are returning to your Anjan and your Ell.”
Ma and Da. Jova choked back a sob, of relief, not grief. She was beginning to realize just what Arim had meant by having everything.
“You are taller,” said Roan, gently, as they walked out of the stables, Jova taking small, stuttering steps like she was newly blinded again. She couldn’t seem to hear her environment over the buzzing in her ears. “You have been growing since I first met you.” He spoke like he spoke to the animals, kindly and softly.
Despite herself, Jova felt her panic subsiding. She did not feel quite as shaken as they entered the familiar road back to the tenement.
“Jova,” said Roan, still gentle. “Please tell me what happened.”
Jova did not speak for some time, putting one stuttering foot in front of the other. “What happens if I hit a pontiff?” she asked, finally.
Roan’s silence was dark, and brooding. “How many times?” he responded.
Jova didn’t answer.
“Jova…is that your blood?”
Jova scratched her chest, shaking her head to clear the thump-thump-thump of her heart. “Some of it is,” she muttered.
“But not…all of it.” There was a pause, and then Roan tugged Jova’s hand. “Come. We must be walking a little faster.”
They were halfway down the street when Jova heard footsteps approaching rapidly, someone running. She tensed, but Roan tightened his hand and said, “Shhh. It is a friend with which I do business. She is being impatient.”
It was the woman, Janwye. “Roan, I do not appreciate this. I would expect more of a brother-.”
“Your initiative is admirable, Janwye, even if your discretion is lacking,” snapped Roan. “Be speaking of these things with Zain and I, no one else. We have polite company present.”
There was an annoyed scoff, followed by an almost sarcastic, “My apologies, milady. May I speak of more mundane politics with you, then, Roan?”
“That you should be saving for later too,” said Roan, and his tone was icy.
“For all I know, Alswell is burning as we speak. There is no later. I have heard nothing from the other envoys in Shira Hay and Mont Don! We have not rested since we left Alswell and it has still taken us weeks to reach Temple Moscoleon. We need the Holy Keep and we need you to-.”
“I said later,” repeated Roan, and the woman fell silent.
As Jova’s feet began to crunch on the gravel of the compound, she listened intently for her mother and father. Her nerves were tingling again; without Roan’s soothing voice, the full enormity of what she had done threatened to overwhelm her. She waited and waited in the empty square of the tenement, and she let go of Roan’s hand and sank to her knees when no one seemed to be coming.
“Zain!” snapped Roan, as Stel tossed her head and paced on the gravel. “Zain, come out!”
The resident pontiff’s feet crunched on the ground as he walked. Jova heard a small intake of breath from Zain, but before the pontiff could say anything Roan shouted, “Where is Anjan? Where is Ell?”
“The woman is, as I understand it, still out hunting,” said Zain, his voice soft and calm. “The man left for the market at least an hour ago. Something about enjoying his holy day. If I may ask…”
“No, you may not,” Roan said. Stel nickered, and Jova hugged her knees. She could still hear every impact of her walking stick on Copo’s face, still feel them shuddering through her bones.
Only the wind spoke for a few seconds, like the Lady Fall laughing. Jova’s brow furrowed. What part of the Ladies’ plan was this?
“The girl, through no small set of happy accidents,” said Pontiff Zain, and there was a hint of disapproval in his voice, “Was going to become a zealot. If she struck down someone inside a house of the Ladies…”
“I’m certain she did not,” said Roan, riding away from Jova to talk privately with the pontiff.
“You’re certain,” Zain repeated.
“She would not do such a thing,” said Roan. A temporary silence. “However, I have not asked fully.”
“Look at her,” hissed Roan, and although his voice was low Jova could still hear him. “What kind of trauma do you think she has just gone through?”
“What kind of trauma do you think she just inflicted?” the pontiff of winter hissed back. “The blood is on her hands, Roan! On her staff!”
“You think a blind little girl is capable of- of what, killing a grown man?”
“If she passed the first test of zealotry, I have no doubts as to what she is capable of and who she learned it from.”
“Not to interrupt your personal dramas, gentle sirs,” said a third voice, Janwye. “But I am running out of time. If I am to speak with the Keep before-.”
“Enough! ENOUGH!” shouted Roan, and Jova felt herself back away instinctively. “There is a girl who is injured and frightened and needs to be taken care of! She is more important to me than that fat slug of a pontiff, Zain! Yes, more important than all of Alswell, Janwye!”
Jova felt that she should have been flattered, but all she could feel was frightened. She thought she had heard Roan’s anger before, but never truly had she heard such rage and pain in the man’s voice.
“Listen to yourself, Roan,” said Zain, his voice doubly low. “You are losing control. There are other things at stake here.” Jova could not hear the rest of what he said.
She kept waiting, kept hoping that Ma or Da would return. She could feel the blood crusting on her fingers and forearms, now.
“Rotten to the core,” said Roan, suddenly, his voice much louder than the pontiff’s. “Not our concern.”
“If that is what you think,” said Zain, and his voice rose too, “Then leave this city.”
Stel’s hooves stamped on the ground, like frustrated hammers on a shattering anvil. “You would abandon me now, brother?”
“You are not being abandoned, Roan. Be calm and trust me.” A heavy sigh came from the cluster of grown-olds, presumably from Zain. “Janwye, where are the travelers you came with? The other fieldmen?”
“North and west, in a farming village on the jungle paths,” said Janwye. “But I don’t understand…”
Zain talked over her. “You will go there, Roan.”
“Where the zealots of the jungle will ambush and kill me?”
“Where the zealots of the jungle will join you. Janwye, you shall receive your audience as soon as is possible. Tonight, if I can. Make your best case, because once you step into the chamber of the Holy Keep I cannot help you. Roan, take your mounts, take as many supplies as you can. Leave quickly, before…before incriminating evidence is found. You are going west.”
Jova felt lost. She was eavesdropping on a conversation far beyond her magnitude, far beyond anything she had ever experienced.
“Why?” said Roan. “What do I tell the zealots that ask why I uprooted my entire business here?”
“You will tell them,” said Zain. “That you, and your little girl, are going to save Alswell.”