The limestone walls had been ground to near perfect smoothness by the sand and the wind. Even now, a turbulent sandstorm beat on the outer walls, and Jova could hear the pitter patter of sand grains against the crumbling entrance of the pyramid, like hard rain.
She huddled in her corner, waiting for the storm to subside. She knew just how precarious her situation was. She had no food, no water, and no plan. She was trapped in a desert that seemed intent on swallowing her whole, and her only shelter was a pyramid shunned for centuries for being cursed and haunted.
Despite all that, Jova wasn’t scared. She was beyond scared.
In these dusty, crumbling walls, Jova couldn’t find it in herself to be afraid. She had been afraid for too long. She clasped her hands together and huddled in further into the wall. “Ladies Four, I thank you,” she whispered. “I thank you for…”
She paused. She didn’t know what to say. She had run and run since her escape from the slavers, until she had stumbled into the shadow of the fifth pyramid, and what had the Ladies Four sent her? A kindly merchant, to guide her on her way? An oasis, for her to rest and recuperate?
No. They had sent her a sandstorm.
“I thank you for nothing,” said Jova. “I thank you for nothing.” She put a hand over her mouth, shocked at what she had just said. Jova sat and waited for punishment, but it did not come. Her heart skipped a beat.
“I have had a bad life,” said Jova, to the spirits of Ral Zu and any other gods or goddesses that cared enough to listen. “I have had a…a…a shitty life.” No one said anything to her. No one told her stop, no one threatened her, no one was there to listen and be disappointed.
“I’ve had a shitty life,” she repeated, in a hushed whisper. She stood up and held her arms out, screaming over the sound of the howling storm. “I’ve had a shitty life!”
Her voice echoed in the long halls of Ral Zu as she took a step forward. “My life is terrible!” she shouted, down the hall. She did not care that the pyramid was haunted or cursed or falling apart. She stormed as far into the catacombs as she dared, her angry screams bouncing around her. “Do you hear me, dead emperor? Do you hear me, Ladies Four? I’d like to see you live like I have! I’d like to see you live after your eyes have been gouged out!”
Jova stood, breathing heavily, waiting for a response. Her legs were sore from the constant running, and her head pounded from exhaustion and dehydration. She didn’t care.
“You made me think it was my fault,” she whispered, fists clenched. The storm outside seemed to be growing louder. “I told myself that it was always my fault! That if only I fixed myself, then things would get better! Did they, Ladies Four? Did they get better?”
Jova slammed her fist into the stone wall, and did not care how much it hurt. “How is it my fault that I had to spend eight years without a home? How is it my fault that I was a better fighter than Arim? How is it my fault that I had to leave Moscoleon without getting to say goodbye?”
Her hair, dirty and unwashed and uncut, had fallen around her face. Da’s warrior braid had long ago been undone by the elements.
“It’s not my fault.” Jova felt a pounding in her chest, a heat, a writhing. She tightened her fists. “It was never my fault.” She twisted around and screamed into the endless dark. “It was your fault! Damn you! Damn you, and your games! Damn you, and Copo, and Zain, and Ya Gol Gi, and Roan!”
Jova stood, breathing heavily, red in the face. She felt something else entirely different stir in her heart.
It was peace.
Jova took a step into the darkness. The storm still raged outside, in tune to Jova’s tingling nerves. Even though the air was cool and still inside the pyramid, Jova’s skin burned. She kept walking into the stone tomb.
She had something to prove.
Her steps continued to echo as she walked further into the pyramid, and now that Jova had stopped speaking, and the sound of the storm was growing more and more distant, she began to realize just how quiet the pyramid was. She did not know how far it went; she had only found her way in after crawling through a crumbling hole in the walls, and had no idea the scale or scope of Ral Zu.
Jova kept her hand on the walls as she walked, counting the steps under her breath so she wouldn’t get lost. The passageway was linear as far as Jova could tell, but she felt uneasy anyway. Even if she had been able to see, she wasn’t sure if she would be able to navigate Ral Zu with getting lost.
As Jova walked, she felt her heart slow. The anger and frustration were fading, but they did not disappear entirely. It had forged something inside her, like heat and pressure smelted an Irontower sword.
Her foot bumped against something hard, and Jova tensed. She poked her toe against it, fearing the worst, but it was just a stone outcrop. She clicked her tongue, and to her surprise a steep set of what sounded like stairs stretched on before her. Jova walked slowly, lifting her feet high as she moved from step to step.
It had to go up, she imagined, up to the very point of the pyramid. Although, hadn’t Roan said the pyramid was unfinished? Jova wondered if she was walking right back up into the storm, but she felt no wind, no prickle from the biting sand.
Her hands traced something like a doorway. Jova stepped hesitantly off the stairs: the acoustics were already somewhat strange in here. She clicked her tongue once.
She stopped dead.
This new chamber was cavernous. The echo stretched on for longer than it ever had, in the Teeth of the Abyss or in Moscoleon’s grand houses of the pontiffs, longer than anywhere Jova had been. On either side of her, more stairs descended down, and the floor of the chamber was littered with smaller objects, although Jova was too far away to tell their size and shape.
That wasn’t what worried her, though. What worried her was the thing in the center of the chamber. She did not know what it was, but its size could not be denied. It was not moving. Jova could only hope it did not decide to.
She walked down the stairs slowly, keeping her back flat against the wall. It was a long drop, if she slipped over the edge.
Her footsteps echoed as she walked. Jova swore she could still hear her first click echoing, but that was probably just her imagination. Nothing else made a sound, and no sound entered this solemn chamber. The storm outside could have stopped altogether and she would not have realized it.
On floor level, Jova clicked again. Hundreds of refracted sounds bounced back to her; Jova reached out a hand to touch the object closest to her, and realized she must have been standing in a gallery of these stone and clay statues. Her questing hands continued to explore as she walked forward, and Jova found that there weren’t just statues down here: tables and bookcases, metal jugs and urns, even what felt suspiciously like a coffin. Propelled onward by curiosity and just a little fear, Jova kept walking towards the center. If these small offerings were all man-made, what could the thing at the center possibly be?
Despite herself, Jova found herself smiling. Her hand wrapped around a tattered silk ribbon, and stroked the head of a porcelain horsehare. These were but trinkets, and not even frightening ones at that. They seemed to imply a gentler and kinder life.
Jova reached out, but found only empty space. She clicked. She was right next to the thing at center of the chamber, which had a wide berth of space around it. The sudden emptiness made Jova’s heart quicken, but she swallowed her fear. She was afraid of no dead emperor. She was afraid of no curses, or forgotten magic, or empty superstitions.
She approached, and reached out.
Her fingers touched gnarled wood, thick and twisted like a great root. Jova walked further hesitantly, until she touched at last the base of the mighty tree. “A hollow?” whispered Jova. That was the secret of Ral Zu? It had been so easy to find, so easy to access. What did they mean, this pyramid was cursed?
And then Jova bent double.
Her skin burned like it had been set alight. She gagged and coughed, collapsing over the root of the tree, sucking in breath through lungs that had suddenly closed. Jova held her throat, writhing, and hacked out a single breath as she spat blood over the ground. She felt like her brain was boiling inside her own head, and she could not tell up from down. Was it air she needed, or water?
Jova’s vision—Jova’s vision—flashed before her. She gasped in breath at the sheer shock of it. It was more than a memory, more than some dusty recollection, but it wasn’t quite as real as it should have been. It seemed hazy, incomplete, the details blurred or unfinished.
All around her was stark, pure white. Jova looked down, and saw in her stomach, as if she could see through her, something glowing, twisting, thrashing. It burned with an odd green hue, and though Jova saw her insides bleed where it cut her, she felt a strangely calm unconcern.
She looked up, and shrank back. A silhouette of a man stood before her, but it was not a man at all. It was made entirely from bark and wood, like some ramshackle doll pasted together from the nearest pieces some forest-dwelling entity could find. It stood, back straight, arms to its sides, featureless face turned to Jova. Two slits that glowed amber gold stared at Jova with the same apathy that she felt weighing on her.
The eyes slid down to Jova’s gut, where the thing still thrashed, and Jova saw its expression, or what there was of it, change immediately. She shuddered. The bark-made man had a look of pure hatred on its face.
Then the vision was gone, and Jova was left gasping and shuddering on the floor of Ral Zu. She was surrounded by darkness again, a darkness that would never again leave her.
The heat disappeared, as quickly as it had come. Jova could breathe again, and she did so gratefully, her hands shaking as she tried to get up.
She couldn’t, though, because the ground had begun to shake.
“What is wrong with this place?” snarled Jova, as she stumbled to her feet. A deep, bass hum reverberated throughout the massive chamber, with the shuddering and shaking of every pot, table, and statue joining in as accompaniment. It might have been Jova’s imagination, but the tree itself seemed to be moving.
She ran. Crashing through the decorations or offering or whatever they were, Jova ran through the gallery, back to the flight of stairs, back out into the passageway and back into the room where she had first entered, where the ground was not shaking and the wind had stopped howling. She clutched her knees, gasping for breath, without the faintest clue as to what had just happened.
Jova tried to put the facts together in her head. She had touched the great tree—perhaps it was a hollow, perhaps it was not, although what normal tree would grow to such titanic size?—and then she had felt the sudden sickness in her chest. It had stopped after the humming and shaking began, but not after the vision of the man made of wood.
There was nothing for it. All Jova could conclude was that the curse of Ral Zu was a strange one indeed. As she slowly made her way back to the crumbling hole in the wall, and began to haul herself over it, Jova chuckled. A fearsome curse it may have been, but she had survived it. That counted for something.
She stood in the sand, in the shadow of the pyramid, wondering where to go next. Her mouth was parched, and she had somehow cut her lip during her little adventure. Now, more than ever, Jova felt a need to rest. Perhaps, if she just slept in the very outer rooms of the pyramid, it would be safe to spend the night there…
Jova heard footsteps in the sand, and heard a low, sibilant hiss. She began to run before she even processed the sound. A wild predator? Or something altogether more dangerous?
“Only one place for a devil to run in this desert!” shouted a voice that made Jova’s heart sink. “What demons of the deep did you consort with in that tomb, little girl?”
Ya Gol Gi approached fast, far too fast for Jova to outrace him. She made for the pyramid. She was smaller and more agile, and would have the advantage inside the cramped passageways and rooms.
Something cracked over Jova’s back, and she fell to the ground, screaming. The scabs that had only just begun to heal opened again, as the barbed whip ripped into Jova’s back.
“Zat, Lo Pak!” shouted Ya Gol Gi, and Jova felt something as large as Stel or Uten stand over her. Hot breath steamed in Jova’s face even as clammy, slimy paws rolled her over. “I should kill you on the spot for your little trick,” snarled Ya Gol Gi. “But I am thinking instead I will bring you back to camp and make an example of you before anyone else with similar ideas.”
Jova didn’t fight back as Ya Gol Gi slung her over the beast’s back and began to ride away. Now was not the time, not with her still out of breath and the creature so close and ready to kill.
Only, if now was not the time, then when would it be?
“Zat zat, Lo Pak!” snapped Ya Gol Gi, egging the creature on. “Mosh sag aga kuar han, yag gar.”
Jova furrowed her eyebrows. “Zat zat” meant “go faster,” and “yag gar” meant “dirty animal.” Ya Gol Gi seemed awfully anxious for a man who had already captured his escaped slave.
The girl tightened her fists, and readied herself. She would not rely on the fortune of the Ladies any longer. She would make her own luck.
“Do not think to try anything more, devil girl,” said Ya Gol Gi. “Since the storm, we have not moved. The camp is in sight. If-.”
It was too late. Jova grabbed Ya Gol Gi around the waist and spun off the animal’s back. With a strangled yelp, Ya Gol Gi fell off his mount, and landed with Jova into the sand. They rolled down the dune, Jova thrashing and kicking even as Ya Gol Gi struggled to push her off him. His hand pushed against Jova’s face, his whole meaty palm wrapping around Jova’s mouth, and she struggled to breathe even as she punched indiscriminately at Ya Gol Gi’s face and chest.
Jova’s hand hit Ya Gol Gi’s ribcage, and suddenly he let go, crying out in pain.
Of course! Jova flexed her fingers. He had been hit just a few hours previously, square in the chest, by Stel’s hooves. That wouldn’t heal anytime soon. Jova began to strike at his ribs and chest repeatedly, her knuckles already sore and raw from hitting him so hard, and Ya Gol Gi’s screams turned to silent gasps at Jova’s unrelenting assault.
With a pained roar, he grabbed Jova by the shoulders and flipped her over, pinning her to the ground. Jova scrabbled desperately against Ya Gol Gi’s waist and side, as he pushed her face into the sand. Her hand closed around something hard, and round, and small.
Before she even ripped it out of his belt, Jova concentrated hard on the tabula.
Ya Gol Gi’s hand loosened at the same time the humming began. The tabula was vibrating hard in Jova’s hands, and though it took all her concentration to do it, it was working. Jova gasped, and Ya Gol Gi twitched, but just a second later he was under control again. The girl extracted herself from under the slaver, even as he knelt frozen in the sand.
“Who else knows?” asked Jova, the words coming painfully as she tried not to break her focus. “Who else knows?”
Slowly, Ya Gol Gi shook his head, and Jova knew it had to be truth.
“You didn’t tell,” Jova breathed. She had to speak aloud, it was too hard to think otherwise. “You didn’t tell anyone. Because…you would have been shamed even more. Tricked by a blind girl into thinking a mutt’s tabula was hers, after you had already been beaten by a crippled slave. Is that right?”
A slow nod. It was the oddest sensation, knowing that Ya Gol Gi had nodded without actually seeing it. Jova felt a phantom pressure on her neck, like she herself had lowered her head.
A voice shouted out from atop the dune, and Jova almost lost control right then and there. “Hide,” she spat, to Ya Gol Gi, as she pressed her back into the sand. It was paltry cover, but all the cover she had. Don’t look down, Jova thought. Don’t look down, don’t look down.
“There you are, Lo Pak,” said Dep Sag Ko, and the eelhound bayed and hissed. “Where is Ya Gol Gi? What did he need you for?” Dep Sag Ko took a step out, and despite Jova’s previous resolutions she closed her eyes and prayed. “Ya Gol Gi! Where are you?”
Jova twitched, as the tabula began to shake even more in her hands. She turned to her head to the side and saw—no, felt—that Ya Gol Gi’s eyes were bugging out, his mouth opening by fractions. “Silence,” whispered Jova, and though the humming grew louder, Ya Gol Gi did not speak.
“First the assistant girl, now him. Nobody wants to talk to old Dep Sag Ko now that u-ha has taken a liking to the new beastmaster,” grumbled Dep Sag Ko, as he walked away. “Lo Pak, gha de sal.”
Both Dep Sag Ko and the eelhound left, their feet crunching on the sand. Jova relaxed, and turned to face the man staring blankly into the distance next to her. The tabula had not stopped humming, and her head was starting to pound.
She needed to stay with this group, Jova realized, at least until they were closer to civilization. There was nowhere for her to go in this desert. And she could do it. There was only one thing that had to be done.
“Tell me again,” said Jova, standing, brushing sand off her coza. “You have told no one else?”
“Where is the tabula you thought was mine? Did you summon the pigwolf? What happened to it?”
“With…u-ha,” grunted Ya Gol Gi, through gritted teeth. “Yes…did it…when no one was looking. Locked it…up. Planned on killing it…after I killed you.”
Jova nodded. That was all she needed to hear. Fang she could free and keep alive, and there was already a rumor stirring in Jova’s brain she could spread, one about a newly freed slave who always made sure to finish the fight and bury his enemies. There was only one order left to give. Jova tightened her grip, and took a deep breath.
“Collapse, and stop breathing,” said Jova. She heard Ya Gol Gi fall to the ground, gagging and convulsing. “Collapse, and die.”
The tabula hummed until it began to crack and shatter in her hand. “Damn you,” Jova whispered, as she listened to the man choke to death on her order. “Damn you and everyone like you.” She felt no pity, no regret, and no remorse.
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.”
Blood was in the air. He could feel it and taste it; it was in his lungs and on his skin. An iron, metal taste, one that made his heart quicken and his nerves tingle.
The fall toad crawled out of his hiding space, puffs of air swirling around him as he cleared the air of the foul stench. The sac on Fosen’s throat dilated quickly, although not too much for fear of making too loud a sound.
A transparent membrane slid over Fosen’s eyes, as he crawled out from beneath the decomposing log. It had been moist and dark and safe under it, but Fosen couldn’t stay in there forever. All the movement had stopped and the danger seemed to have passed, but Fosen still moved with extreme caution. His steps were light and gentle; the leaves barely bent as he walked across the mulch on the forest floor.
Movement! Fosen froze and twitched, as a mass of humans marched past to his side. He dove into the matted vegetation, eyes unblinking as they came past. They were the new humans, the ones that made Fosen nervous; he did not know what to keep track of, with all their clothing that jangled and rattled and shook as they moved. Perhaps it was not so safe to move.
Fosen continued to crawl, always on wary of something that could hurt him, harm him, kill him. Everything else—food, rest, shelter—was a tertiary concern. Secrecy was paramount now, secrecy and security, and in secrecy he would find security.
A nervous croak escaped Fosen’s throat as he moved through the mulch. He stuck to the shadows, beneath the bushes and verdant ferns, but here the litter had decayed to the point that Fosen had to wade more than walk.
Another wave of humans marched past, and Fosen sunk into the underbrush to watch and wait. They carried with them a limp body, an arm dangling over the makeshift stretcher: a thin line of red traced delicately down the arm, around its hand, and off its finger. Fosen’s heart quickened. Blood was never a good sign.
As Fosen watched, the body was dumped unceremoniously into a nearby ditch. He could taste the foul stench even from here, and though rot was often perfect bait for food, now was not the time.
It was not as if he could have caught prey if he even had the opportunity. Being fed slugworms and winter crickets all his life had not exactly honed his skills as a hunter, and Fosen knew it. The fall toad was fat, pampered, and thoroughly domesticated.
But even he knew what fear felt like, and right now he was afraid.
He crawled on, little puffs of air clearing a path for him as he walked. It drained his essence, but the speed was worth it. He had to get away from this place. Distance was key. Distance and secrecy, then security.
More movement! No matter which way the fall toad seemed to turn, there seemed to be more of the rattling men around him, dragging bodies both dead and alive around the jungle, snapping the long leather tongues they held in their hands. Fosen retreated once more underneath a decomposing log, the bark flaking away as he pushed himself into the small crack between wood and ground, and held his breath as the men passed.
To his horror, the man sat down. He was joined by two others, all sitting in a circle, and Fosen had no way of getting out without falling in their line of sight. He kicked his back legs in vain, hoping against hope that he could somehow dig his way out the other side, but there was no such luck.
“Dal Ak Gan,” said a voice opposite him. The pitch was high, a tone that Fosen recognized as a human female, like mistress. Mistress was good to him, but somehow Fosen did not think this human would be as charitable. “What are we doing with the young ones?”
“How many are we having?”
“Two boys, migrants and vagabonds. And a girl, barely past Fallow. There are others, older, ten years or so, but we have dealt with them.”
“Chain them and sell them. The pyramid lords will be buying children for a high price.”
It did not sound the same as the language mistress and her people usually spoke (although Fosen could barely tell the difference between the human’s sibilant hissing and clicking at the best of times), but the fall toad understood well enough. All human speech had been open to him since he had first touched the golden disk, before mistress had taken it away.
Perhaps another might have wondered why that was, but Fosen did not waste his time with idle thoughts. It let him understand mistress’s orders and intentions, and so long as he could keep it that way he would not question why.
The woman rose, and her curved blade flashed in the sun. It dangled loosely from her hand, but Fosen could not help but fixate on it. “Others hold the children’s tabula,” said the woman. “One boy we are holding now until he speaks, the other swears his owner is dead. The girl does not cooperate.”
“You have searched them?”
The woman scoffed. “Hollow-born foals are blind and weak, but even they know to stumble towards the sun. Of course I have searched them.”
Fosen saw the man’s feet shift in front of him, but the man did not rise from his position. He was still far too close for Fosen to make his escape without being caught. “I am meaning no offense, La Ah Abi. Many things are easily forgot when the blood runs battle-hot, no?”
The woman stomped over and Fosen quailed. She punched the man in the shoulder, although her face was too far up for Fosen to see her expression. “Even when your heart is cool as winter you are forgetful, Dal Ak Gan.”
“And yours runs as the summer always, blood-sister mine.”
The man rose to grip the woman’s wrist, and Fosen saw his opportunity. His squat legs could only take him so far with a single hop, but the fall toad summoned a small gust to propel him forward, out into the open. He just need to move fast, get around the leg and out of sight, before…
“Dal Ak Gan! See here!”
Another one? Fosen bunched into a ball and tumbled back into the safety of the shadows, throat dilating in frustration. He had barely made four bodylengths of progress before the second man hopped lightly off his steed, an eelhound that began to sniff at the ground the moment the man dismounted. Fosen curled even further into himself, holding the air tight and still around him to keep his scent from traveling too far into the air.
This second man was dressed in a prodigious number of furs and skins, and flybeasts buzzed around his face, which was shiny with perspiration. A necklace of bone charms hung around his neck, as did a number of braided strings around his wrists. Smudged face paint streaked his cheeks, although Fosen could not tell what color, and he had pale scars running up his bulky forearm.
A black bird with brilliant scarlet plumage around its eyes and a massive bill streaked with yellows and greens hopped and squawked on the man’s shoulder. The translation was less precise here, but Fosen could still tell the general feeling from the animal. Joy. Triumph. Celebration.
“Dep Sag Ko!” said Dal Ak Gan, embracing the man fully and giving him a hearty thump on the back. “Good hunting, friend?”
“As good as the Lady Summer’s,” said the man with the beasts, smiling and revealing chipped teeth.
“And does your quarry still breathe?”
Dep Sag Ko shrugged. “Most do. Lo Pak was hasty with one, though. We shall be eating mule meat tonight.” At the sudden slump in Dal Ak Gan’s shoulders, he quickly continued, “Worry not, Dal. The staghound will more than make up for what was lost in trade.”
Fosen had more pressing concerns than the cluster of humans, though. The eelhound’s sniffling and rooting was bringing it closer and closer to Fosen’s hiding spot, and unless he moved soon he would find himself inside the jaws of the lanky, serpentine beast.
Its slick, pointed head swung dangerously close to the fall toad’s location. Fosen held back a nervous croak. The eelhound’s skin had an odd sheen to it, like slime, and while Fosen was no stranger to warty, mucus-covered skin, the eelhound also had a coat of thin, greasy fur that made Fosen nervous somehow. It had a prominent underbite, filmy yellow eyes, and a saddle with a carved marble handhold on its back. Occasionally, gills on the side of the eelhound’s neck would flap uselessly when it drew breath.
The eelhound drew closer, a soft growl in the back of its throat. Try as Fosen might, he couldn’t keep all the air around him still forever. Some little scent had to leak out, and the eelhound was starting to catch it.
Fosen waited, as the searching snout drew closer and closer. He began to fill his lungs with air. A powerful enough gust would both blow him away and slow the eelhound down, if he aimed right. All he had to do was wait…
The bird on the man’s shoulder screeched loudly, and the searching snout, bare inches from Fosen’s face, pulled away. The eelhound barked and hissed at the bird, which had started to hop back and forth on Dep Sag Ko’s shoulder. Snarling, the eelhound padded away, sometimes leaping up to snap at the bird with its serrated teeth.
With a great sigh of relief, Fosen relaxed. He had forgotten, though, about the essence charged winds building in his lungs, and so when he breathed out he found himself propelled backwards immediately, tumbling over the leaves as he skidded to a stop in the jungle floor.
He rolled over slowly, each movement precise and deliberate. Had they seen him? Did they see him moving?
No one and nothing had noticed. He was safe.
As Fosen began to crawl away, he noticed the same little clusters all over the former camp: the new humans stood casually, talking, nursing their wounds, while the old humans were nowhere to be seen, and always the stench of the corpse-filled ditch followed him. Fosen wondered where mistress was. He hoped she was still alive.
Fosen paused, right at the border of the trees. Freedom was so close; he could escape into the jungle and never be afraid of these men or any men ever again. Food was plentiful, as where places to hide, for a fall toad. He could just leave.
But Fosen was fat, pampered, and thoroughly domesticated. He wouldn’t make it a day without mistress.
The fall toad crawled back into camp, his wide eyes constantly panning to see if he could find where all the old humans had gone. New tents were being erected already over the still burning embers of the old campfires; they could almost have been the same tents, except these were more patchwork, more dirt-smeared, more primal in a way. Like Dep Sag Ko’s necklace, bones hung over the entrances of the tents, except these were much larger. Femurs swayed like wind charms and skulls leered at Fosen as he made his way further into the camp.
Fosen had only just ventured into the interior of the camp when he heard the sound of a person being struck. His bulging eyes rolled as he searched for the source, and he saw motion next to the smoking remains of the old fire.
The legless man did not cry out or yell as he was struck across the face. He sat on the ground, his hands resting almost peacefully across his stubby legs, as the other man slapped him across the face.
“You are still insisting you are one of us?” snarled his assaulter, pacing in a circle around the man. “A cripple does not carry the name of the Hag Gar Gan. Never make the mistake of thinking you are still one of us. Now, what is your name?”
The legless man looked the slaver straight in the eye and said, evenly, “Rho Hat Pan.”
The slaver hit him so hard this time that the legless man keeled over, a line of blood oozing from the side of his mouth. Fosen could see him coughing and struggling to rise, but the slaver put a foot on the legless man’s back and forced him down. “Tell me your name again, cripple.”
As Fosen drew closer, he could see that the legless man looked barely conscious. Still, he managed to mumble, “Rho Hat Pan.”
He didn’t rise this time, knocked to the ground by the slaver’s blow. The legless man groaned and rolled over, but could not seem to get up, and the slaver, to his credit, scoffed and walked away. Fosen made his way onward.
There was already a collection of the captured around that smoking pit, and Fosen inspected each of them carefully. One had a missing arm; another seemed to have no tongue in her mouth. Many more had much more recent injuries, gashes in their sides that had been clumsily bandaged and bruises swelling around their faces. None of them, however, were his mistress.
Fosen heard footsteps behind him and dove into the midst of the gathered slaves. None of them seemed to notice the little toad in their midst, and so Fosen hid among them as the slaver returned, with company.
Dal Ak Gan, the man from before, was with him, looking authoritative. Fosen recognized an alpha when he saw one, even a human alpha. Dal Ak Gan was in charge here. It was good to remember that.
The blindfolded girl, that came trudging quietly along, Fosen remembered. She had been with mistress a scant few days ago, and had filled mistress with feelings of happiness and nostalgia. And there had been something about her essence, something that had Fosen paying attention. He wasn’t sure how to describe it. Her essence seemed strangely…
The blind girl knelt with the others, and Dal Ak Gan looked over them and crossed his arms. “These are the unfit?” he said, in the guttural other language, to the slaver. The slaver nodded. “You have searched them for tabula?”
The slaver rolled his eyes. “Who would trust a cripple with tabula, Dal Ak Gan? It is not worth my time.”
Dal Ak Gan looked as if he was about to say something sharp in response, but as his eyes flickered between the crowd of slaves and his subordinate, he seemed to decide against it. “And where is the one you say is causing trouble?”
Before the slaver could respond, the legless man croaked, “I am here.”
Dal Ak Gan’s eyebrows rose. It was a human response, Fosen knew, of surprise. “He speaks the imperial tongue. How has a son of the steppes become so lost, hmm?”
The slaver put a hand on Dal Ak Gan’s shoulder and whispered something in his ear. Dal Ak Gan nodded slowly.
“Not this one. I see.” Dal Ak Gan surveyed the crowd again. Then, he said, in a much more familiar language, “Give me the one who is called Janwye.”
While none of the slaves pointed fingers, there was a noticeable shift in their stances: the slight edging away, the subtle turning of their heads. Fosen shrunk back as Dal Ak Gan followed those signals, walking amongst the crowd without a care in the world, until he reached a woman bound with so much rope that she could scarce budge an inch.
“She knew,” said the slaver, in the coarse, other language. “She was having a summer elk with her, too. Almost burned us to death.”
Dal Ak Gan did not acknowledge him. He knelt in front of the woman Janwye and held up her chin. One side of her face was so heavily bruised it did not even seem human anymore.
Fosen knew Janwye. He knew she was one of mistress’s friends. He hoped nothing bad happened to her, but even as he watched he knew he could not do anything to prevent it.
“How is it that you are knowing we are coming?” asked Dal Ak Gan. “Were we clumsy? Or did one of my own alert you? This is a perplexing secret to me, fieldwoman.”
Janwye jutted her jaw out and did not say a word. She was silent and defiant.
Dal Ak Gan stroked the bruised side of her face, and Janwye flinched. “You are noble, fieldwoman, but the time for that is over. Go on. Tell me how you are knowing.”
Janwye turned her head to meet the other man’s eyes, and for just a moment held his gaze. She opened her mouth slowly…
And spat right in his face.
Dal Ak Gan rose, wiping his cheek with the back of his hand, and Fosen could not see his expression. The feelings radiating from him were that of anger, contempt, indignation.
“She probably just saw our tracks. Nothing to worry about. There is no traitor in our midst, Dal Ak Gan,” leered the slaver, staring at Janwye. “Why don’t we just kill her?”
“No!” shouted the legless man immediately. “Forgive her, rider-lord. She is- she is sick in the head.”
Dal Ak Gan looked from his slaver to his slave, his lips pursed in thought. Suddenly, Fosen wanted nothing more than to be away from this. He needed to know where mistress was.
The legless man struggled to sit upright, and then began to crawl forward to Dal Ak Gan. “I supplicate myself to you, rider-lord. Son of the goddesses, free-as-the-wind lord, true heir to the lost empire. She is not well in the head. I- I can speak with her. She knows things, I am sure. She will tell you what she knows.”
Fosen watched as Dal Ak Gan circled around behind Janwye. The legless man did his best to follow, as the other slaves cleared a wide space around him, but he could only crawl so fast. He was like Fosen in that way, the toad supposed.
“She will fetch a high price in the shadow markets!” shouted the legless man. He was almost crying now. “Let her face heal. You have not seen her at her best. She is beautiful! She is beautiful, rider-lord!”
A twinge in essence drew Fosen’s attention. It might have just been his imagination, but he thought he saw a sad smile flicker across Janwye’s face.
“Imagine what she will buy you! Gorgeous silks, or the best blades that Irontower can forge. Or- or you may keep her for yourself! But she must live for that, rider-lord. She must live.”
Dal Ak Gan nodded slowly, putting his hand on Janwye’s shoulder. “Speak with her then, brother lost. Tell her to comply.”
“Janwye,” said the legless man. “Janwye, you must-.”
And then Dal Ak Gan wrapped his arm around Janwye’s neck and squeezed, hard. The legless man roared and leaped forward, but the other slaver caught him and pressed him down.
Janwye convulsed and flailed, a strangled choke escaping from her throat as she fought against the ropes binding her. Fosen could tell that the air was no longer moving in her lungs, that her breath was slowly running out. He summoned his essence and pushed, trying to help her, blowing tiny gusts of air into her mouth. It was an exertion from such a distance, but it was all he could do.
It was not good enough. Janwye’s face reddened as Dal Ak Gan, his expression unmoving, continued to strangle her. Her twitching eventually subsided. Eventually, Dal Ak Gan let her go, and she fell to the ground, eyes glazed, staring at some fixed point ahead of her.
“Janwye…” the legless man sobbed, reaching out for her. Dal Ak Gan stepped on his hand and the legless man slumped, crying into the ground. “Janwye, Janwye…”
“This is what happens,” said Dal Ak Gan, in his thick accent, “When any of you think to cross us. Nothing and no one can save you.” He twisted his foot on the legless man’s hand, but the legless man did not even seem to care anymore.
The two slavers walked away, leaving the body among the crippled and the injured. Fosen crawled away. He needed to find mistress.
Although now, he did not see the point. If the humans could not save each other, how could he?