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.
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 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.
“Dull rocks,” said Jova. She cocked her head, listening to the clack of pebbles on pebbles. “Shiny rocks. Shiny rocks again. Oh, now you’re just cheating, that was a dull rock and a shiny rock. Dull one’s in your left hand.”
“By the Lady Fall, that’s creepy,” said Arim, although he sounded more amazed than scared. “How the hell do you do it?”
Jova shrugged, trying to hide her embarrassed smile. “They’re very distinctive sounds.”
Arim yawned. “OK, enough fucking around, let’s get this done before you have to go work for the horse freak again.”
Jova bristled. “Don’t call him that.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s just that he-.” There was a distinctive pause. “Forget about it, OK?”
“Forget about what?” asked Jova, standing up. She used her walking stick to steady herself as she found her feet. “You always say that.”
“You can’t make me talk about it,” said Arim, sounding exasperated. “I made a promise to the horse fr- to Roan. You pay attention when you make a promise to a guy like that.” He paused. “How long you known him?”
Jova sniffed. “Three years, about.”
“Three fucking years,” said Arim, under his breath. “And it’s worked? I can’t believe it. By the Lady Fall, he’s lucky.”
“What’s worked? Why’s he lucky?”
“Nothing! Roan’s a scary guy, is all I’m saying.” Jova heard the wooden clunk as Arim picked up his spear. “Scarier than you, even.”
“Is that true?” asked Jova, bemused, twirling her walking stick as she shifted her stance.
“Sure,” said Arim. “Except when you start doing that thing with your tongue. Gives me the shivers, every time.”
Jova smirked and clicked. From what she could hear, Arim was standing to her left, his stance casual, although he tensed the moment he heard her.
“Every time, Jova!”
She hit him on the shoulder with her walking stick. “Are we doing this? Or did you make me wake up early and sneak out of the house just to chat me like a toucanrat?”
“You’re like a slave girl.” Pebbles shifted as Arim stood. “Leave the grown olds, stay with us! No one telling you what to do or when to do it. You don’t know freedom until you’ve got a gang behind your back, Jova.”
“Tell you what,” said Jova. “You beat me and I consider it.”
At the whoosh of air beside her head, Jova raised her walking stick to block. She parried Arim’s swing and shifted to hit back, focusing on the sound of his heavy breathing. The wooden stick connected with his jaw with a loud crack.
Arim lunged, and Jova twirled her stick to bat it aside. She couldn’t tell where Arim was targeting or where the lunge came from, but her spinning stick had a radius wide enough to catch the edge of the spear and force it aside. With a grunt, Jova pushed Arim’s spear down and kicked out where his hand should be.
She missed, her foot instead planting on the wood of the spear. She pushed, using her own walking stick as leverage, and the spear clattered to the ground as it was forced from Arim’s hand.
Immediately, Jova swept her stick low, hoping to catch Arim as he bent to get his weapon back, but no such luck. She waved her walking stick, but it found only empty air.
Three sharp clicks to her left, right, and center found Arim backing away, edging around Jova’s right. She shifted her stance, turning her head to face away from Arim. It let her hear him better with her right ear, and more than that it always threw him off when she hit him without facing him.
She rolled the spear under her foot, moving it just a little closer to her. She waited…
And the moment she felt Arim tug to get his weapon back, she stepped down, hard, using her momentum to throw herself forward. A crunch as something hit the gravel indicated Arim had fallen. She gave him a few thwacks on the side just to drive the point home.
“Ow, I yield, I yield!”
Jova smiled and held out her stick. She felt the force on the other end, and pulled Arim up. The boy’s hands made patting sounds on his clothes as he brushed himself off.
“I hate how you can tell I’m there without even looking at me,” complained Arim. “It’s unfair.”
Jova crossed her arms. “Say that again, to my blindfolded face.”
Arim just laughed. “You don’t get that excuse anymore, Jova. Maybe in the beginning, but by now I’m convinced you’re not actually human.”
“Then what am I?”
“Oh, something mysterious,” said Arim, and the direction of his voice shifted as he circled Jova. “A dark demon from the Teeth, maybe, with unholy powers taken from the depths of the earth and a tabula made of pitch.”
Jova clicked twice, and grinned. She hoped Arim flinched.
She raised her head. The air was getting hot. “Is it sun-up yet?”
“Might be,” said Arim, noncommittally. “Come on, let’s go again.”
“Arim, I don’t want to be late. Roan likes me to be punctual.”
“Oh, come on, you’ve got time. The last fight didn’t count, it went too quick!” Arim put a hand on Jova’s shoulder as she walked away. “How am I supposed to become a zealot if I can’t even beat a girl like you?”
“I’m not sure if I should be offended by ‘girl’ or ‘like you.’ I think I’ll go with both,” said Jova.
“Yeah, so fight me!”
“No, Arim. Go grapple with your boy gang,” said Jova, pushing him off.
She heard him sigh. “At least let me walk you there?”
Jova flung out her walking stick, and it prodded Arim right in the chest. “I can get there on my own, thank you.”
“Not for you, for me,” said Arim, and Jova felt a gentle hand push her walking stick down. “I want to learn all your little tricks. The test can happen any day now! I have to be ready!”
Jova shook her head. “A toucanrat, I swear. Well, come on then, don’t slow me down.”
She heard the patter of Arim’s eager feet as he raced up to walk beside her. “Maybe the pontiffs will be doubly impressed if I make my way through the entrance exams blind-folded.”
“It’s supposed to be a test of faith, not talent,” said Jova, exasperatedly. “Arim, you’ll never make it if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.”
Arim scoffed. “I know fours on four people who got their feathers for the wrong reasons. Bash, Izca, Nock…the way I see it, I’m rounding it out so it’s nice and holy.”
Sometimes, Jova couldn’t believe the wild child’s gall. It was good that it was so early in the morning, or else a pontiff might have been about and overheard. Jova clicked and listened, just in case, but there was no one else on the street.
It was an odd combination of coincidences that had led Jova to these daily sparring practices with Arim. First, Roan had given her the hardened walking stick; then, he had assigned her to groom one of his client’s steeds. It was just Jova’s luck, she supposed, that said client’s assistant aspired to be a zealot and needed someone to practice against.
“I thought you said you didn’t want me slowing you down,” said Arim, smugly.
Jova concentrated on the present. “Shush, you,” she said, striding forward. “I was thinking. You should try it sometime, it’s useful.”
“I’ll think about it,” said Arim. “Wait…no, I won’t.”
“Oh, haha,” said Jova, dryly, knocking Arim out of the way with her walking stick. “You’re very funny. Now, scoot, you really are slowing me down.”
“I’m going, I’m going!” Arim clapped Jova on the shoulder. “It’s right up ahead, so if you just keep walking-.”
“I got this, Arim,” said Jova, shoving her stick into his gut. “Go away. Shoo.”
“Alright, well, I’ll see you around, right?”
It wasn’t until she heard footsteps crunching away that Jova was sure Arim had gone. She sighed, and smiled. She appreciated all that the boy had done for her, but sometimes talking with him was exhausting.
Jova’s walking stick tapped on the ground. Ma had appreciated him, she mused. She had been wary at first, of course, and had no idea what Jova was up to in the mornings, but she seemed to like Arim. Da had taken a more resolute stance, although Jova had no idea why.
She had hardly walked ten paces when someone tapped her on the shoulder. She felt cool shells pressed into her palm, and heard a soft, male voice whisper, “A gift, child.”
Jova rolled the shells in her hand even as she traced the man’s palm. Soft and supple, a palm used to long days indoors and hot baths, no doubt. The sensible thing to do would have been to take the man’s money and leave.
She pushed the man’s hand back, shaking her head. “Thank you, sir, but save your charity for someone who needs it.”
The hand of shells withdrew, although the hand on her shoulder did not. “How…interesting. There is no shame in accepting assistance, child.”
Only a pontiff would preach like that. “I need no assistance, thank you,” said Jova, firmly. “I have my work to attend to.”
“As do I,” said the pontiff. His hand left her shoulder. “Fortune be with you, child.”
“Be it with you too,” said Jova, nodding her hand, waiting until she heard the pontiff’s footsteps walk off behind her, in the same direction Arim had gone, before moving onwards.
Jova was used to being treated like a cripple beggar by now; with her blindfold and her clothes smelling of manure, she could hardly blame them. They were pontiffs of the House of Winter, usually, but sometimes laymen who were feeling holy.
It was odd that men so willing to give their own away were so taken aback when told they could keep it.
She heard the clop of hooves and stopped respectfully, waiting for Roan to speak. After quite some time, he said, “You have been awake for some time.”
How could he tell? Jova brushed down hair, straightening herself. “Morning errands, that’s all.”
A long pause, and then, “The merchant-prince will be here sometime this afternoon. Prepare Yora, then Uten. I am feeling he shall be wanting to try both.”
Jova nodded, and started to walk towards stables. Roan rode at a steady pace beside her.
“Is he the one from the Seat?” asked Jova.
“Of the King, yes,” said Roan. “After all these years, I think he still entertains ideas of riding in and taking back Ironhide’s crown. The revolution had not been kind on him.”
It had not been kind to anyone, Jova noted. The Holy Keep had chosen to seal the Temple from the war, and rumor had it she had burned all the letters from both the old and new king’s envoys. No matter how much Keep Tlai hid, though, Banden Ironhide’s armies needed to get their food from somewhere, and the treacherous roads had made food scarce.
Roan coughed. “Your breakfast is as it is, on the bench. You may eat when you are finished.” And he rode away, without another word.
Jova could smell it as she approached, although only under the various earthy smells of the rest of the stables. For such a graceful creature, Yora sure did poop a lot.
She made soft, reassuring noises as she entered, clicking with her tongue and whispering nonsense under her breath. The staghound was prone to skittishness in the mornings, and Jova did not want to startle him.
She started with the hooves first, brushing her hand gently over them to pick out rocks and wipe away dirt, carefully avoiding the sensitive part of the heel. Roan had once had a hoof pick, but that had been traded away for food nearly a year ago, and Jova supposed Roan had never found the time to replace it. It was valuable, too, forged in the Irontower with their steel magic.
Yora tossed his head, and Jova clicked her tongue for him to hold still. She was determined to do a good job. In these troubled times, Roan had still provided for her, and her family, and if she would not accept the charity of strangers then Jova certainly wouldn’t accept the charity of a friend. These merchant-princes and arena champions, displaced by the revolution, paid generously as well. If Jova did well, they might come back as repeat customers.
Jova’s hand drifted until she found the bristled comb, and with it scraped mud and dirt out of Yora’s long fur.
It took nearly half an hour for Jova to finish, as she had to use her hands and not her eyes to make sure Yora looked presentable. He didn’t seem to mind; the staghound’s tail thumped on the ground happily as Jova rubbed his underbelly and behind his ears. He was like Mo, in that regard.
“Alright, you’re clean,” said Jova. “Don’t go rolling around in the dirt until after the prince is done, got it?” She patted Yora on the back and walked out of her stall.
Uten was next, but as Jova picked up her walking stick and found her way out she smelled the food and her belly rumbled. Roan had said to wait until after she was done, but the food was probably getting cold and the merchant-prince would likely not arrive until late in the afternoon.
Jova bit her lip, and knocked her stick on the door of Uten’s stable, listening. There was no sound in reply.
Well, Jova reasoned, she could let Uten sleep while she had breakfast. It wouldn’t hurt.
She smelled bean stew as she approached. Smoothing out her coza, she sat on the bench and cupped the bowl in her hands, taking a moment to enjoy the warmth on the chill autumn morning. It smelled more robust than usual, although it had gotten a bit cold.
Jova cleared her throat and said, softly, “The Lady Fall bless me, I give you thanks. May I be wise, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
She picked up her spoon, but for some reason her stomach had clenched. She sat, letting her head hang.
“It’s, uh…it’s been a while,” Jova continued. “In case you’re listening, I just wanted to say I’m grateful for what I have. Truly, I am.”
Jova scratched her chest.
“I just…I wanted to ask…” Jova tapped her thumbs on the side of the bowl. “I’ve worked hard. Ma and Da have worked hard, harder than anyone. And people here are always talking about miracles and your presence and I know I don’t always say my prayers or respect the holy days but if there’s anything you want me to do I’ll do it.”
In the stables, Chek snorted. A flygnat buzzed past Jova’s ear.
“I want answers,” said Jova. “That’s what you do, right? Lady Fall? You give answers? Ma and Da have spent the last three years looking, looking for someone like me. You’d approve. They were subtle about it, quiet. But they haven’t found anyone, anyone at all. I don’t have a tabula and I’m starting to get worried because I still don’t know why.”
Jova waited, hoping, listening. Was that the crack of dry leaves? Was the Lady Fall answering?
“I don’t know if you’re punishing me or guiding me or what,” said Jova. “But I want to know why. Please. I promise, I can be worthy. Just- just point me in the right direction.”
Like every other morning prayer before it, there was no answer. Jova slumped, and ate quietly, listening in vain for the answer of the silent goddess. Who else was there to ask besides the Ladies Four?
And then, at that moment, the banished lord arrived.
“Were you being born blind?”
“No,” said Jova. “It was an accident.” She felt her way across the stables, her fingers combing through the long hairs of the animals.
“I am finding this truth hard to believe,” said Roan, the steady clip of Stel’s hooves close behind Jova. “Was it an illness?”
“I didn’t get sick, if that’s what you mean,” said Jova. She did not elaborate.
“Your eyes were removed?”
A delicate way of putting it. Jova nodded, although she was not sure if Roan could see her.
“Like a pontiff’s sacrifice on the altar,” said Roan. “Except most of the sacrifices lose their lives with their eyes.” Jova wasn’t sure if he meant it as a joke or no.
Jova paused. “I had help.” It was the first time she had admitted it to anyone, including herself.
Roan’s silence was pointed.
“There was…an energy,” said Jova. “Someone helped me.”
“Someone, and not something?”
“Someone, something, whichever you prefer. I misspoke,” said Jova, a little irritated. “This is the city of miracles, isn’t it? Maybe the Ladies Four chose to save me.”
“You speak as if that was a lie,” said Roan. “And yet if the Ladies Four had not saved you, then you would not be speaking to me.”
“So you really think it was them?”
“You are here, are you not? So am I. So are the rest of us. We are all being saved by the Ladies Four, every day.”
“You think so?” asked Jova.
“At times they are subtle,” said Roan. “At times they are more blatant. We are all facing such times.” He sighed. “Some of us more often than others.”
Jova’s hand stopped. The steady breathing of the creature under her palm indicated it was asleep. “Does we include you?”
“It does. I am owing my life to the Ladies. There are those in this city who detest my presence.”
It was Jova’s turn to be silent. She waited, trusting Roan to continue.
He did not. “This one is called Uten,” said Roan. “A good and holy name. She is a molebison, and prefers the dark and the quiet. You shall wash and feed her, and lead her on walks if she seems agitated.”
Jova blew air out of her lips. “How am I supposed to do that?”
“Do not worry so. You shall not need to walk any of the others.”
“What makes Uten any different?” asked Jova, rubbing the fur on the animal’s side. It was soft and plush and thick, and felt good under her fingers.
“Because she is as blind as you. You shall make do.”
Jova bit her lip. She moved her hand away from the molebison’s side, and crossed her arms. It made her feel adrift and unbalanced, but Roan needed to see that she was unhappy. “Do you mean to be cruel?”
“No,” said Roan. “The truth should not offend you, blind Jova.”
Jova turned her head and snorted.
There was a pause. “Perhaps, though…” said Roan, hesitantly. “I am being too forward with this truth. I formally apologize.”
He waited. Jova let her arms fall to her sides. “I forgive you,” she said, and did her best to smile. She tried to think of a change of topic as the stifling Moscoleon night swirled around them. Roan had promised Ma to escort Jova safely back when they both returned to the compound, but he made no move to turn back: at least, not in a way Jova could hear.
“You don’t have many mounts, for a riding instructor,” said Jova, innocently. She counted only three: Yora the staghound, Chek the fall mule, and now Uten the molebison. Four, perhaps, if she included Stel, but Jova doubted Roan would ever let anyone else ride his personal mount.
“Most bring their own. It does only little good to learn to ride one type of beast, and then ride using the tabula of another. Yora is for those newcomers who seek grace and beauty. Usually they are ostentatious and easily offended, but they pay well and for that I appreciate their business.”
Roan paused again. “Have I said something funny?”
“Do you tell them that to their faces?”
“I used to, but I am finding I keep more clients if I do not. This is truth that I am wishing is not true.”
Jova used the walls of Uten’s stable to find her way out. She reached out, and a hand took hers. It was rough and calloused, and its grip was so firm it hurt.
“As I am saying,” said Roan, as they began to walk away. Stel moved slowly, so that Jova could keep pace. “Chek is sturdy and persistent, for those who wish to see if a beast of burden is a good investment. And 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. 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.”
“Truth,” said Jova, automatically.
Jova shook her head. “Nothing, I’m sorry. It’s just…a game I played.”
“I will expect less frivolity from a child as grown as you. Games such as these are having no point.”
Especially not with you. It’s boring if there’s only ever one answer. Out loud, Jova just said, “Yes.”
They walked on, at a glacially slow pace. “Are you sure I can’t ride with you?” said Jova, helpfully.
Roan’s answer was immediate and flat. “No.”
Jova turned, hand outstretched, trying to grab Roan. “I could hold onto your waist and not let go. It wouldn’t be that hard.”
There was a scrape of cloth and leather as Roan shifted in his saddle. “No, Jova. We shall walk as we are now.”
Meekly, Jova drew back. “Sorry,” she muttered.
Silence flowed back in. Jova squirmed. She had been prepared to do anything to prove herself capable, but this was not the anything she had had in mind.
“You scratch your chest,” said Roan, suddenly.
“You scratch your chest,” repeated Roan. “When you are agitated. You are not noticing.”
Jova let her hand fall. She squirmed, tapping her fingers on her thighs. Was Roan telling her to stop or just making an observation? “It just itches from time to time.”
Jova was beginning to hate Roan’s lengthy pauses. She shuffled forward, waiting.
“You have a pet name, blind Jova. Your friends, they are calling you little Lady.”
The girl said nothing. She waited for Roan to reach his point.
She waited and heard only silence, as bleak as the darkness behind her blindfold. But then, ever so softly, so soft that Jova, as intensely focused as she was in listening, could barely hear it, Roan spoke.
“There will be four, and a fifth to come.”
A shiver went down Jova’s spine. She did not know why. Perhaps it was the tone of Roan’s voice: so quiet and distant, when normally it was stiff and forceful.
Roan said nothing else; he probably had not even intended Jova to hear in the first place. But Jova would not be assuaged.
“What do you mean?”
A blank silence. Roan did not acknowledge her, at least verbally, although Stel’s pace stuttered slightly.
“Four, and a fifth to come. What does that mean?”
“Nothing,” said Roan, quickly.
Jova tugged at his hand. “Lie.” Roan came to an abrupt halt, and Jova stopped too. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck tingle. Was Roan looking at her? The stern, narrow-faced man in Jova’s imagination had eyes as cold as ice.
“It means nothing.”
“I don’t believe you.” Jova paused. “Are you scared of the truth?”
“Never, blind Jova.”
“Then prove it. Tell me what you mean.” Jova felt strangely electric. In this situation, Ma or Da would weave some fantasy about Jova before telling her to sleep; Rituu might have leaped into some fable in his alleged backstory. But Roan…
Roan would not lie.
“Are you familiar with the pyramids of Hak Mat Do?”
Jova cocked her head. “What do those have to do with anything?”
Without warning, Stel reared. Roan shook Jova’s hand free, and began to trot around her as he repeated, more forcefully, “Are you familiar with the pyramids of Hak Mat Do?”
Jova shook her head, mutely.
“They are enormous. Far into the dry desert, beyond the bounds of the city, but still very visible even from so far away. Their construction predates even the Seat of the King; they are as ancient as the lost empire of my people.”
“In the time before the First Age, before the First King, the empire of the Hak Mat Do ruled Albumere.” Roan sighed. “It was centuries ago, and yet the pyramid lords still cling to their forgotten legacy.”
Jova pursed her lips. She had known Hak Mat Do was old, yes, but powerful? Never.
“If you must know, Jova, there is a fable, and the fable is saying this. The emperor who built the pyramids ruled Hak Mat Do at its peak. It was said that his fortune had been granted to him personally by the Ladies Four, and never was the empire being richer or more powerful.”
Dusty old Hak Mat Do? Jova shook her head. For its power to no longer even be a memory, it must have fallen far.
“This emperor had four sons. He is loving each of them dearly.”
“What happened when he lost them to the Fallow?”
Jova perked up. Had his sons been like her? “Did the Ladies let him keep them?”
“No.” Stel’s hoof beats came to a stop. “The day before each of their fourth birthdays, the emperor smothered them. He was spiteful, and would rather kill his beloved sons than give them away.”
Not like her, then. Jova hung her head, grasping her hands together.
“For each of them, he ordered the construction of a grand tomb: Sag Gar, Dosh Mi, Zut Hal, Ya En. Summerborn, fallborn, winterborn, springborn. With the death of the fourth child, he had cheated each of the Ladies Four, and none were left to vouch for him. It is said they struck him down with an affliction. His skin burned like fire, and every morn he would wake bleeding from a dozen places, as if knives were cutting at him from the inside.”
“As he lay dying, he ordered for a fifth pyramid, Ral Zu. Many assumed it was to be his tomb, but he insisted that it be completed before his death. It was far from the other four, much smaller. It consumed him; finishing it became his sole goal. And at night, he whispered again and again: there will be four, and a fifth to come. The fifth, he would say, in his lucid moments, would change Albumere forever.”
“But…” Jova said. “If the fifth would be the end, why did he want to build it so badly?”
“Who knows? Ral Zu was never finished. Travelers shun it. They say it is cursed, but only because of the words of a senile old man, warped by time and superstition. So you see, blind Jova, it means nothing.”
“Then why did you say it?”
Roan paused. “Because I hoped I was wrong. Because we are looking for something more than ourselves, and sometimes our imaginations take us too far. I was being foolish.”
“No, you weren’t,” said Jova, and she smiled in the direction of Roan’s voice.
Again, silence. “One cannot live on starlight and dreams. Come, Jova. You must rest. Work will be hard tomorrow.”
Obediently, Jova took Roan’s hand as they began to walk away once more.
“Does everybody in Hak Mat Do know this story?”
“I do not know,” admitted Roan. “A Hak Mat Do teller told it to me, and I remembered it. I had not heard it beyond my own tribe.”
“What about Ral Zu?”
“The unfinished pyramid is deep in one of the most inhospitable parts of the desert. Foolhardy grave robbers go there, perhaps, but they do not return.”
“Did you go into the deserts often?”
“No. I am Hag Gar Gan. My business was in the steppes, not the deserts.”
“And what was your business?”
There was silence. And suddenly, Stel reared. Jova felt herself being thrown aside, skidding on her knees across the dirt road. She crumpled, shouting more in shock than from pain, her hands automatically flying up to shield her face.
Something hard and heavy shattered on the ground, a deep whump followed by a sharp crack. Jova could only crawl away from the impact, hands outstretched for cover.
“Back, Jova!” Roan shouted. Stel screamed, a high hoarse sound, as something else crashed into a wall near Jova’s head. Jova shrieked, falling backward, as stone dust rained on her face and arms.
“Go back where you came from, sandman!” shouted a voice. It was male, a middling tone. A teenager?
“Horse freak!” shouted another voice, similarly male and mid-toned, but with a different timbre.
Their words were slurred and their voices dipped and rose erratically. Jova found the corner of the wall that the projectile had hit, and slid behind it, whimpering. She could hear Stel’s frantic hooves a short distance away, but they were punctuated continually by shattering rock and Stel’s screaming.
“You remember when I say there are those who detest my presence?” shouted Roan. “These are such people. Go now, Jova, hide!”
Jova’s hands tightened. Her temple pounded. Running and hiding and crying- what did that prove? That she couldn’t take herself, that she was weak and needed coddling.
Jova stood up and shouted into the darkness. “Hey! Back off!”
“Who the fuck are you?” shouted the first voice. Something barked and snapped near the teenager, and Jova flinched. The voice laughed. “It’s a whole troop of freaks here. You, too, baygirl! We don’t want cripples and foreigners at the Temple!”
Jova took a deep breath, steeling herself. “I said back off!” She jumped as a brick shattered near her feet, but stood her ground. “You don’t- you don’t want to tell your friends you got beat by a little blind girl.”
They laughed first- then one of them shouted in pain and the other swore loudly. Jova smiled. Even she could recognize the sound of a horse charging.
There was a slick whistle, and the thunk of wood. Roan made no sound as he fought, but Stel whinnied loudly and often. She snorted as Jova heard her hooves impacting flesh. The male voices swore and shouted, but soon enough their footsteps faded into the distance.
Jova edged forward, hands reaching out until Roan took one.
“We did pretty good, didn’t we?” said Jova, smiling.
“We?” Roan’s voice was low, and he was breathing heavily.
“Yeah! I distracted them, you-.”
A sharp slap across Jova’s face made her fall to the ground. Her hand gravitated towards her cheek as her lips quivered; she could taste blood inside her mouth.
“You put yourself in needless danger. Your deception was obvious, your inability to defend yourself even more so. Do not do it again.”
“I just thought I could help. With the two of us-.”
“They were drunk and angry. They would have had no qualms about brutalizing a girl such as yourself, even as young as you are, do you understand?”
Jova choked on her protest. “Who were they? I thought this was a holy city.”
“The Temple is holy. The rest of Moscoleon is just a city, no different from the rest of Albumere,” said Roan.
There was the silence that Jova hated so, broken only by Stel’s labored breathing. “I’m sorry,” Jova muttered. “I just thought-.”
“You did not think,” snapped Roan, and his even tone broke. “You are blind. You are young. You are a girl. You cannot defend yourself. This is truth. Accept it.”
“No!” Jova shouted. Her head was still pounding and her ears were buzzing. “No, I won’t! If it’s true, then I’m going to change it!”
Roan did not say a word.
“You- you fought them off. You could teach me.” The blindfold around Jova’s was damp and her voice was breaking. “Please?”
Silence. An endless silence, a stifling darkness, emptiness all around her.
“I hired you, blind Jova. I took you as a worker, not a pupil. Focus on staying as one, rather than aspiring to be the other.”
Jova stood there, numb, her hands shaking. She didn’t know what she had expected.
“Come,” said Roan. “Your friends will be waiting. Stay behind me, follow the sound of Stel’s footsteps. Do not talk.”
Jova followed. She did not talk.
And silence reigned in the eternal night.