Chaff bounced in his seat as the prayer song droned on, craning his head to get a better look at the frozen pool of water at the altar. It was abnormally cold in the House of Winter, compared to the rest of Moscoleon, and Chaff shivered as the gathered sang.
“The winter has come and the snows have now fallen; we’ve locked all our doors and now we are walled in,” they sang. “So be ready to gather, to pray, and to bless; for now we are more even though we are less.”
At the head of the congregation a man in another one of those funny hats lead the singing, standing precariously close to the frozen surface of the altar. He hadn’t let Chaff bring the big guy in, which disappointed the boy to no end. This was the one building he had ever been in that could fit the big guy.
“Be gentle, show mercy in these troubled times; for a cruel world is the one world where one can be kind. Glory in her, and her shining face! Pray for a quick end in the owl’s embrace.”
Chaff looked down quickly as the pontiff passed, and it was just his luck since everyone else bowed their heads then too. They did that often, at these congresses of the faith, although why escaped the boy.
He sneaked a look at the Lady Winter, made of marble, standing at her frozen altar. Maybe she was supposed to do something while everyone was looking away, but she stood still and motionless, little beads of condensation dripping down her wings. Chaff turned instead to the bowed heads around him.
He didn’t see the girl.
It had been like this all day. Chaff had gone to every House of the Ladies he could find, and not one had her in attendance. He had gone to sunrise prayer, morning prayer, and now high noon prayer, but no matter how hard he had searched he had not found her. Perhaps this time he would actually pray, just to see if it worked.
The pontiff passed again, and Chaff ducked his head.
The singing at last ended. From the corner of his eye, Chaff saw the pontiff throw his head up, saw the stark lines etched on the base of his neck. He wondered how they had gotten there. Once, when he was young, he had carved a picture of him and the big guy into the side of a thorn tree. Perhaps pontiffs were the same. Perhaps someone made those marks when the pontiffs were made of wood, before they had become men.
His speech was concluding. “…and in this game of worlds, may fortune be with you.”
“May fortune be with you,” the congregation echoed.
“Fortune,” said Chaff. A greater power than kings or gods.
He walked against the flow when the others began to trickle out, towards the Lady Winter instead of away. She stood before him, wings outstretched, her face kind but her features skeletal.
The Lady of death waited as Chaff approached her.
A pair of sandals stood by the altar, the leather faded from the hundreds of feet that had worn them. Chaff slipped them on and stepped gingerly across the glassy surface of the ice. His thin pants were scant protection from the cold as he knelt before the statue.
“Tell me where she is,” said Chaff, holding up the girl’s tabula. He traced its single crack, waiting. Was this how prayer worked? “Do you know where she is?”
The Lady Winter had no answer for him, just as all the other Lady Winters in the city had no answer for him. Chaff ground his teeth. Where would the goddesses talk to him, if not the holiest place in Albumere?
“Jova,” said Chaff, staring at the Lady Winter’s face. There was no one left in the House now, except a child servant taking a broom to the floor behind him. “Her name is Jova.”
His gaze drifted down from the statue to the altar, to the ribbon of red laid across the pedestal. He wondered who had left it there.
The House was mostly silent now, but for the scrape of the broom’s hairs and the ambient whispers still echoing across the House’s high dome. Was that Chaff’s own voice bouncing above his head? Or were those the voices of prayers past, still asking the Ladies for answers?
Chaff clasped his hands together. He cleared his throat. “What about Sri?” He put the tabula back in his belt. “I never meant to…I just wanted to say goodbye, yeah? Where is she? Is she OK?”
The Lady Winter just smiled. A sad, resigned smile.
“Hadiss?” asked Chaff.
“Veer, and the rest of them?”
Chaff stared at the ground for a long while. He couldn’t bring himself to say it, but if he wouldn’t say it here, in the holiest place in Albumere, where would he say it? Chaff blinked rapidly, and looked up at the statue of the Lady Winter. Arms outstretched, like Duarch Fra Henn, in the plaza that Chaff had thought, however briefly, was his home.
“What about Loom?” he asked. “Is she…are she and Vhajja…are they with you?”
Just a smile.
The boy bowed his head. He wished the big guy could come in here with him. He felt awfully lonely. “Could you tell what she’s like, at least? Jova?” said Chaff. “If you don’t know where she is?”
“She laughed a lot,” said a voice behind him, and Chaff nearly smashed his face into the ice as he turned to look. The cleaning boy stood, leaning on his broom, watching Chaff with a half-wary, half-bemused expression. “She never spoke ill of anyone. She could tell a dull rock from a shiny rock just from the sounds they made.” The boy looked down to hide his smile. “She’d get up every morning before work to help me train with the zealot’s spear and she’d kick my ass every time.”
Chaff slid forward from the altar, until he was walking on solid stone again. He took off the slippers without looking down, transfixed on the boy. “Tell me more,” he said, clutching the altar wall as he stepped down the stairs. “Tell me more about her.”
A pendant around the boy’s neck bounced as he looked up. His eyes were watering. “She’s dead,” he said.
The next thing Chaff knew, he was kneeling over the boy and his fist had drawn back for another swing. “You’re a liar!” he shouted, and his voice echoed through the House. “Liar! Liar! Liar!” screamed the echoes.
The broom in spun in the boy’s hands and Chaff felt a sharp pain in his chest as the boy jabbed him with the handle. Chaff fell back, but before he could find his feet the boy had put the handle of the broom on Chaff’s neck, right under his chin. “It’s true,” said the boy, breathing heavily. “A patrol of zealots found the bodies on the road. Hag Gar Gan horde riders ambushed them.”
Chaff gripped the tabula in his belt. Cracked, but not broken. “That’s not true,” he snarled, from his position on the floor. “Not true.”
The boy’s eyes followed Chaff’s face to his hand, and the broom handle pushed a little harder against Chaff’s throat. “Who are you?”
What could Chaff say? A boy from the grasslands? A traitor to his friends?
“A martyr,” said Chaff, and he batted the broom aside. He gripped the cleaning boy’s collar as he rose. “Now, where is Jova?”
Chaff felt a sharp pain in his wrist as the boy slammed the wooden handle on his hand. “She’s dead,” said the boy, his wooden pendant dangling from his neck. “Let the dead rest.”
“Where is she?” Chaff grabbed the boy’s collar again, but was rebuked just as quickly.
“You’re going to hurt her,” said the boy. “If she’s still alive. If you find her. I don’t know who you are and I don’t know what you want, but I know you’re going to hurt her.”
“You know where she is, yeah?” said Chaff. “You gonna tell me where she is.”
With a hollow crack, the broom hit Chaff over the head. Chaff had no defense against the assault; this boy’s skill as a fighter far surpassed Chaff’s in every aspect. Years of pretending to be Kennya Noni started to come back to him. He needed to be fast, on his feet, get away…
Don’t run. Not this time. Don’t run.
Here, now, he was going to stand and fight. No more running away. Chaff struggled to his feet, even as the staff hit him squarely on the back. No one was here to help him. No one was here to save him now.
“You’re not welcome here anymore,” said the boy, grabbing Chaff by the arm, but Chaff fought and struggled and kicked, and if he couldn’t win at least he could stand his ground. “Leave!”
“She’s going to hurt you too. If you find her dead or alive, it doesn’t matter. You’re going to hurt and she’s going to hurt you back four and four times over.” The boy hit Chaff in the jaw, and Chaff tasted blood in his mouth. He wasn’t trying to beat Chaff away anymore, he was just trying to beat him, but Chaff would not stand down. “You call yourself a martyr? Fine! You’re going to die for her and she’s going to watch.”
The broom broke over Chaff’s head. His ears were ringing and his forearms were already turning black from his bruises. Blinking stars from his eyes, Chaff struggled to stand. One foot before the other, that was all he had to do. Put your feet beneath you. Stand.
“Now,” he said, wiping the blood from his chin with the back of his hand. “You gonna tell me where she is?”
The boy bent down and picked up his broken broom, the jagged wooden splinters stark in the chill light. He tensed, like he was going to stab. Chaff closed his fists and waited, ready.
“Arim!” shouted a voice from above. The man in the funny hat opened the door to a spiraling stairway, his robes askew. He held his hands up in a placating gesture. “What are you doing? You were to clean the floor, not beat this boy half to death.”
“He was asking about Jova,” said Arim. “Wants to find her.” He glared at Chaff, but lowered his weapon.
The pontiff raised his head and turned to Chaff. “The girl named Jova is dead.”
Chaff said nothing. “Liar, liar, liar,” the ceiling still echoed. He glared at the both of them.
Arim and the pontiff exchanged a glance. What were they thinking? Was it finally time for the truth? “Jova,” said the pontiff, very slowly. “Was last seen going to Jhid-.”
The double doors slammed open. When Chaff saw who it was, he couldn’t help but smirk. Lookout loved her dramatic entrances.
“You look like crap,” was the first thing she said. “You really couldn’t go one day without getting the shit beaten out of you? I get the feeling this happens every time.”
“I think we meet up later, yeah? How’d you find me?”
“Who else is dumb enough to bring a fucking camelopard to every House in the city? You’re easy to track.” Lookout grabbed Chaff’s wrist. “We found someone who knew her. Come on, let’s go.”
Lookout’s owlcrow squawked as Chaff drew back. The boy looked pointedly at the pontiff and his servant boy.
“She leave a mark here, too?” asked Lookout, glancing at the two.
The pontiff cleared his throat. “She was last seen going to Jhidnu.”
Lookout stared at him for quite some time. Chaff watched her eyebrows furrowed, watched as her head cocked slightly to the side just as the owlcrow’s turned, heard the hum of a tabula just barely audible even while he stood so close to her.
“Excuse my language, pontiff, sir,” said Lookout, finally. “But you’re a fucking liar. Have some decency. You’re in a holy House.”
And she took Chaff by the hand and led him away. The pontiff folded his arms across his chest, his sleeves embroidered with crescent moons glittering in the narrowing line of light as the boy, Arim, closed the doors behind them.
“Big guy!” shouted Chaff, as the camelopard cantered up to greet him. The camelopard had been eating if not healthier, then more than he had on that ship. He seemed happy, about that.
“Tired of liars,” said Lookout, as she climbed on the camelopard’s back, behind Chaff. “We’re surrounded by them, Chaff. In front of our faces, behind our backs, even inside us. They’re everywhere, and don’t you forget it.”
Chaff just nodded, adjusting in his seat. The big guy still had no saddle, despite Wozek pointing out a few nice and allegedly religious ones as Chaff had roamed the markets. The camelopard would never take one, and Chaff would never impose such a thing on his friend. “Where?”
“Forward, now,” said Lookout, gripping Chaff’s shoulders. Sinndi took to the air with a raucous screech. “Turn when I tell you to turn.”
The boy watched the streets as they rode. He didn’t talk much. His wounds drew a few questioning stares, but there really wasn’t much to it after Chaff had wiped away the last of the blood from the corner of his mouth. It wasn’t much. He had been through worse, and he felt that the people of Moscoleon had seen worse, too.
Lookout was directing him toward the center of the city. He got the impression that he was going up the closer and closer he was to the great temple for which the city was named, and when he turned to look, the poorer slums of Moscoleon did, in fact, slump beneath him.
“Keep going, Chaff,” said Lookout, tapping his shoulder. “He’s neighbors with the Keep, this one.”
Chaff made a face, and stared at the glossy streets ahead of him. “How do you find him?” he asked. He couldn’t imagine wandering into such an upper-class neighborhood without knowing exactly who he was looking for.
“I didn’t,” said Lookout, darkly. “But Wozek’s just popular with everyone, isn’t he?”
The boy didn’t like Lookout’s tone. Wozek had brought them this far, hadn’t he? And now Chaff was so close to finding her. It was thanks to him. Could it have just been his imagination that Lookout bore such animosity towards him?
“I don’t trust him, Chaff.”
Nope. Definitely not his imagination.
“And you shouldn’t either,” said Lookout. She kept looking around her, as if she was convinced Wozek—or one of his people—was watching. “I’m serious. Powerful men don’t get to be powerful by giving away more than they get. He wants something from you.”
Immediately, Chaff’s hand rested on his belt. All three tabula were there, safe and sound. They would stay that way.
“Not that,” said Lookout, rolling her eyes. “Chaff, if I’m going to be honest with you, no one wants that girl but you. Understand?”
That gave Chaff pause. He felt halfway between offended and relieved.
“He wants you. He wants to know what you are, and truth be told, I do to. You and your little friend.” Lookout pointed towards one of the more ostentatious Houses of the Ladies. It had black and white banners flapping from the sides, and lines inscribed in the shape of an eye over a doorway so tall that even the big guy could fit. “Look at that. This city is the most educated, most holy place in the world. Someone has to know.”
“I thought Shira Hay was the most educated place in the world,” said Chaff, as they passed.
Lookout flicked him on the head, and Chaff squirmed. “You’re missing the point, patriot,” said Lookout. “This is an opportunity for answers. Let’s get them.”
“Is the girl here?” asked Chaff.
“Well…no. Word says she isn’t. And, Chaff, that’s another thing. There’s something about her you have to know. She’s-.”
“Not here,” finished Chaff. “Let’s find her, yeah? Find her first. Then you do what you do, and I follow. But first we find her.”
The humming from Lookout’s pocket stopped, and the owlcrow flapped down from the skies. It turned its squashed face toward Chaff, and gave him an almost pitying look. “We’ll talk more later,” said Lookout. “With less ears listening. We’re here.”
The walls of the estate rose high around them; a stark contrast from the red brick of most of Moscoleon, these were the polished white of marble. Formed from hundreds of porcelain shards inlayed in the stone were the marble legions of the Stronghold, hammers ready while the sun shone above them. Their enemy was less recognizable. Chaff hopped off the big guy and knelt, tracing the carving.
“This one looks like the poltergeist!” said Chaff, pointing and grinning. “From the marsh!”
Lookout turned away. “I don’t need reminding,” she said. “They’re the demons of the deep. They represent sin or some shit.”
Some shit was extravagant. Chaff followed the carvings, and the epic battle that they told until he reached the black-iron gate of the compound, and peered through to the gardens. Slaves clipped the hedges while a dirt walkway led to a somewhat less grand house within. It was still one of the richest houses Chaff had ever seen, with grace and aplomb and all the trappings he associated with richness, but all the same he felt somewhat disappointed. A pompous exterior for a measly interior.
“The home of Latius,” said Lookout, folding her arms. “Excuse me, Prince Latius of the Stronghold, proud servant of King Cecis the Third.”
“But he’s dead,” said Chaff, flatly. “Banden killed him.”
“Don’t tell him that, I don’t think he’s realized yet,” said Lookout, with a smirk. “Go on, Chaff, Wozek and that brusher, Prav, are inside.”
“You don’t come with me?”
“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll man the walls with the big guy,” said Lookout. Her fingers drummed on the mosaic. “You go. You’re the runaway guy, after all.”
Chaff nodded, and pushed the gate. It opened without resistance. “Watch out for her,” Chaff mouthed, once he was behind the walls, although he had a feeling Lookout had seen him anyway. She saw everything.
The slaves didn’t make eye contact. They backed away as he approached. Apparently, the wild child in the elector’s scarf had been expected. He followed the murmur of voices, until he stepped around the side of the house to see Wozek and an unfamiliar man drinking mulled wine by a wicker table. Prav the brusher, standing at attendance behind Wozek, gave Chaff a stony nod when the boy approached.
“There he is,” said Wozek, smiling. “The boy with the quest.”
The man Lookout called Latius watched, and Chaff watched back. His hair was fair, his build muscular. His features might have once been handsome, but his nose was crooked like it had been broken a long time ago, and when he opened his mouth to speak Chaff saw that some of the teeth on the left side of his mouth were wooden.
“Your Jova,” he said, his hands folded around his goblet of wine. “Has gone to the Seat of the King.”
Chaff waited. For what, he wasn’t sure. A caveat. A condition. A fight, even. But Latius met his eyes, and there was no lie in them. Even Chaff could tell that much.
“She went with the fieldmen emissaries who came here some months ago,” he said. His gaze never left Chaff; his eyes were blue and cold. “Off to beg the false king for peace. They never made it, I hear, but the patrol counted only a quarter of their number among the bodies. I am not so fortunate that she should be among the dead. The sinful live on, while the righteous suffer for them.” Latius took a long drink. “It’s a pity Alswell didn’t put up more of a fight, though.”
“Their friends were scattered then,” said Wozek. “But we have come together, one by one.” He raised his cup in a toast.
As both drank deeply, Chaff scratched his head. Things had flipped. “Wozek, I thought you liked Banden-.”
“You look terrible,” said Wozek, loudly, cutting him off. Latius was still drinking. “What happened?”
“Got into a fight.”
Wozek mussed Chaff’s hair. “Your plainsman running tricks didn’t help then, I take it? I’ll teach you how a kazakhani fights on the road to the Seat.”
“I’m finding her first, Wozek,” said Chaff, shaking his head, remembering Lookout’s advice. “I’m not going with-.”
“Oh, but you are. We’re sharing the same road. You’re going to the Seat of the King to find this girl. I’m going to the Seat of the King for my people. And Prince Latius here, well, we’ve been talking and he’s thinking of going to the Seat of the King too.” Wozek turned to Latius, and his gaze never wavered. “The last of the marbleman princes, coming out of hiding to stir up the loyalists waiting in the capital.”
Latius leaned back in his seat, and nodded. Chaff didn’t know what was safe for him to say. If he hadn’t known better, he never would have guessed that Wozek was lying, but Chaff was Chaff and not a prince whose job it was to tell when people were lying.
“He wants to put a hammer in Banden’s head,” said Wozek. “And we…well, we’ll bring goodman Latius straight to him, won’t we?”
Latius raised his cup once more. “To better times.”
“To better times,” echoed Wozek.
Chaff began to walk away, to tell Lookout of the news, but Prav stood abruptly in his path. “This Jova,” said Latius, as he put his cup down. “Is not to be trusted. I hope you understand that, boy. She’s as clever as she is evil. She killed one pontiff and turned another. And once you’ve finished with her…”
Latius reached down. Chaff heard the stone scrape as the marbleman lifted his hammer from the ground beside him, and hefted it in his lap.
“I’ll put a hammer in her head, too.”
The boy gripped his hands into fists. His first thought was that he wouldn’t run anymore. He would fight for her.
His second thought was that he couldn’t beat a cleaning boy with a broom. How was he to triumph against a prince, trained in war?
“We’re all in agreement, then,” said Wozek, clapping his hands together. “We all want what’s best for each other.”
Chaff stared at Wozek, and decided right then that when Wozek had run with his bayman circus, he must have been the knife juggler. Only that kind of man would dare something like this.
How many knives, Chaff wondered, did Wozek have in the air? How many knives did Chaff have yet to see?
How many knives were falling towards him?
We do not fear the wrath of this world, for we are the free.
We are the walkers of the waking dream. We stand together as one, for we are brothers and sisters, a family of those who have none. We are the pieces of each other, we are the stars innumerable in the shifting night sky.
We are sworn to Albumere’s secret. We remember the world as it should be. We see the monsters that slumber at its core. We know what they dream. We know what they have done.
And though we shall heal this broken world, though we shall bind the wounds that make us bleed, though we shall make Albumere whole again…
We shall let the dead rest.
-The First Creed of the Dream Walkers
He kissed the ribbon she used to wear in her hair before putting it gently back on the altar. “Lady Winter,” Zain whispered, tracing the holy sign over the base of his throat. “Give her my best regards. Thank you for showing her mercy, and kindness.”
Zain waited, listening to the steady drip-drip-drip of the pool before the Lady Winter’s altar. The water flowed freely for most of the year, and only when it had frozen entirely were supplicants allowed to walk across and touch the statue of the Lady Winter.
“I miss you, Nonna,” said Zain, eventually. “We all miss you. Roan is as he is ever, mucking about with his animals, dreaming of better days. Janwye will return later tonight, to prepare for Ladies know what. I feel she has lost sight of what we were trained to do. She thinks only of the good of her people, not the good of us all. She is not ready for the sacrifices we were trained to make.”
He stopped, and listened to the drip-drip-drip.
“Of the sacrifice you made,” he added, quietly. Zain sighed. “I serve your Lady as diligently as ever. I am coming to understand why you all loved her so much in that chilly fortress of yours so far north, and while I might never see with eyes of an iceman I am beginning think like one. And I…I…”
Zain stuttered to a halt. He closed his eyes and cursed himself, under his breath. Even when she was dead, he was still too coward to say it.
“I miss you, Nonna,” he finished, quietly, and rose, sweeping the dust off of his robes. He traced the tattoos on his neck and chest again, and sighed, the memory of their etching lingering in his brain. No matter how much draught of the poppy they had given him, the tattoos had hurt.
Then again, Zain reasoned, they had not hurt nearly as much as her passing, and that was what the draught of the poppy had really been trying to mask.
He rubbed his swollen eyes, trying to block out the dull buzz in his ears as he walked up the winding staircase of his house of the Ladies. Mosaic windows glittered past him, each depicting the Lady Winter in some shape or form: her face kindly, her pose always gentle, the owl wings behind her back curled as if in embrace.
The Keeper of the Broken, the scriptures called her. The Mother Loving. And, Zain had to remind himself, The Shadow of Death.
The touch of the Lady Winter was the touch of mercy, of kindness, of generosity. It was an end to pain, a respite from a cruel world, a brief rest before one’s essence entered the game of worlds once more. Zain had come to peace with this long ago.
All the same, it felt selfish to leave the living with all the burdens of the dead.
The pontiff ascended to his private chambers. He didn’t use it often; perhaps the richly furnished bed, with its thick blankets and fall goose-feather pillows, would have suited the proud pontiffs of spring, but Zain preferred his hard slab of a sleeping table in his run-down, poor tenement. It kept him closer to his people, and his faith.
Zain sat heavily at his pontiff’s desk, reaching for his wax writing tablet. It had been sitting over the fire as he prayed, and now he smoothed it out with a flat stone, wiping the slate clean.
He set to work carving the letters in with his copper stylus, tongue poking out between his teeth as he wrote. It was tortuous work. He envied the scribes in the Seat of the King with their inks and their pens and their parchment. Those were the inventions of the modern world, while Temple Moscoleon puttered around in the dust of the other great cities: Jhidnu-by-the-Sea, Irontower, even sleepy Shira Hay had outpaced them.
But, alas, Keep Tlai enjoyed the trappings of an older age, and so the Temple obeyed. Zain scratched the glyphs into the clay, brow furrowed as he tried to think of an argument that would sway the conservative Keep. Moscoleon was a historical ally of Alswell; audience would be granted on that factor alone. But to truly convince her, who had practically cut the Temple off from the outside ever since Ironhide had taken the throne all those years ago?
Setting his stylus aside, Zain steeped his fingers together and thought. He had to think every word through before he wrote even one more down.
It would have been easier, a rebellious little voice in the back of his head whispered, if the Keep was a Walker as well, but even the brotherhood could not hope to have such far reaching power. Zain had even entertained fantasies of bidding for the Keep in his younger years, but joining one house of the Ladies had been hard enough. Joining all four, and then inheriting the divine declamation would have been near impossible.
Not if the post had been meant for him, Zain reminded himself. If the post had truly been his, then the Ladies would have guided him down the path the whole way. It was the Ladies’ will that Tlai should be Keep, and that was that. The wisdom of their decision would be proven eventually.
He shook his head and set back to work. It did not do to dwell on the past.
“Let the dead rest,” Zain muttered, under his breath, as he worked. The path to reach Keep Tlai was clear to him now. His would be a supplication: firm, but showing respect, appealing to the memories of Keeps past. To aid Alswell was solemn duty—nay, tradition, despite any tensions that had risen since the No-Hand War.
If only, if only, the words let him be so eloquent. Zain had limited space on the tablet, and had to carve cramped, tight letters into the wax, more a proposal than poetry. It irked him.
The motion was so rote and automatic that Zain’s mind began to wander again. He thought of the girl, Jova, and Roan. Would sending them to Alswell work? It was a way to get the girl out of the city, but more than that, it was a way to get Roan moving. Zain’s friend had grown restless in the Temple, and even now Zain squirmed at his false piety. It had been no fault of his; Zain did not doubt Roan’s honest intentions when he came to the peninsula and changed his name. But when his faith had not yet reaped its rewards…
No, it was better to send Roan out. Janwye would keep an eye on him, even while giving him the space to be Rho Hat Pan again. It was…healthy.
Zain’s hand was shaking too much to continue using the stylus. He put the utensil down, breathing deeply through his nostrils. It was the right decision to make, because it was the decision he had made. There was no point in regretting it now.
He could only hope that Albumere would be kind to Roan on this latest journey, the journey Zain had sent him on. The pontiff did not think he could live with causing the death of another friend.
As Zain began to write again, he found himself wondering whether perhaps Roan’s faith had been rewarded. It had taken years—countless years—but eventually he had found her. The blind girl. It had filled Roan with purpose again, with life.
More than that, said Zain’s practical side, it had brought fresh blood into the ranks. The last generation of the brotherhood was growing old. Zain traced the crescent moons embroidered on his cuffs, contemplative. The time was coming to pass the secrets of the Dream Walkers onto the youth.
His thoughts were jarred by a sudden clattering downstairs. Zain shifted, reaching for the trove of tabula hidden under his desk immediately. Gifts and taxes from hunters who foraged the wild jungles: Zain did not know what the amber was bound to, but each disk promised strength.
“Zain!” screamed a voice, female. “Pontiff Zain! I know you’re here! Get out!”
Something crashed at the foot of the stairs, and Zain’s heart quickened. The mosaics of the Lady Winter were precious works of art that he would not have vandalized. More than that, he had left Nonna’s ribbon on the altar below…
He rose and swept across the room quickly, concealing three tabula, chosen at random, in his sleeve. It was always good to have options.
“Anjan, show respect,” hissed another voice, one that Zain was more familiar with. Anjan was usually so withdrawn, so quiet, so reverent, that he had not recognized that angry, desperate scream. Ell still had the presence of mind to sound like himself, though. “He’s not going to-.”
Something snapped and barked, the harsh, jagged, animal sound echoing around the chambers of the house. Zain began to take the steps two at a time.
“How dare you, Ell? She’s gone. Jova is gone and you want to spend time dancing around with your- your civilized etiquette and your fucking manners and proper behaviors and-.”
“Anjan! She’s my daughter, too.”
Zain froze. He sucked in a sharp breath. So it was true? The couple’s behavior had always been suspicious, and Roan would never stop with his conspiracies and ancient prophecies, but if these two had truly kept a daughter so long after the Fallow…
“Lady Winter, what did you do?” he whispered, clutching the walls of the staircase, almost at the bottom. He took a moment to compose himself, before taking the last few steps and striding out the door of the stairwell, imperious, in command.
He nearly bolted when he saw the wild woman standing in front of the altar. Her long hair was in disarray, loose strands dangling around her face, and blood coated her cheeks, her chin, her forearms, her clothes. Her unwashed clothes only added to her frenzied appearance, and she stank of the scent of the jungle. Zain took a step back, realizing for the first time in three years just how much taller Anjan was than him.
One of the woodcut offerings to the Lady lay in pieces on the ground in front of her, shattered splinters of wood littering the stone floor. The woman’s weaseldog snarled and snapped beside her, the burn scars on its face stark and livid. Behind her, Ell stood, his face passive, his stance neutral, but his knife drawn: cold death in capable hands.
“Where is she?” hissed Anjan, and her voice sounded more like a demon of the deep than anything mortal.
Zain hesitated. Which would help more, the blunt truth or the comfortable lie? What lie might he even tell?
He had spent too long thinking. Anjan grabbed the back of his neck and bashed his head against the side of the altar; a little dribble of red began to diffuse into the pool, as Zain slumped, his vision flashing white.
“If you think I wouldn’t kill you because you’re a pontiff, you are wrong,” snarled Anjan, putting a knee on his chest. “I wouldn’t hesitate.”
“Like mother, like daughter,” mumbled Zain, before he could stop himself, head rolling, thoughts swimming.
Before he had the time to blink, a knife was at his throat, and Ell asked, very calmly, “What did you just say, Zain?”
His fingers touched the tabula in his sleeve. Was it worth it? Two strong hunter’s beasts would have been enough to take both of them down. Zain’s eyes flickered from hateful Anjan to cruel Ell. It would have been easy.
“I said that Jova has left the city,” said Zain. He had to tilt his chin up as the knife pressed a little harder, right over his tattoos as a pontiff of winter. “This city can no longer shelter her. She is with friends. Safe, as safe as she can be.”
“She’s not with us,” said Anjan, and the weaseldog barked as if in agreement. “If she’s not with us, then she’s in danger.”
Ell turned the knife up, the barest pressure cutting a thin red line on Zain’s throat. “Where? With who?”
“North, to Jhidnu,” said Zain, immediately. Lady Fall bless him, a lie was required here. He would not have this bloodthirsty pair hunting down Roan, not when the man had important work left to do. “I remembered that was where she came from. I felt she would be most comfortable there.”
“Why not here?” screamed Anjan, face red. “Why wouldn’t she be comfortable here? Why did you drive her out, Zain?”
It was no use trying to placate her. Zain closed his eyes, ready for the worst. He had done all he could for himself, now. It was up to the Lady Winter to decide his fate, all a matter of mercy and cruelty.
The blade left his throat, and Zain coughed, covering the cut with his hands and breathing deeply. “Come on, Anjan,” he heard Ell say. “We move fast, we can catch them before they get too far onto the road.”
Anjan did not even bother to reply; she ran out the door, the weaseldog bounding behind her. Ell gave Zain one last disgusted look before running behind them, knife still in hand.
Zain let the three tabula in his sleeve slip away, and massaged his throat, chest heaving. He watched the door, considering what retribution he might call on the couple for attacking a pontiff in his own house.
Finally, he decided against it. Mercy for mercy. There was no point in pursuing them. He had led them astray; he had done what he had to do.
Even then, it would have reflected poorly on him if he had forgiven Copo’s murderer but had persecuted some mere assailants. He clasped his hands together and sighed. Lady Winter forgive him for his responsibilities, but sometimes the brotherhood came first.
He looked up, to his chambers and his work, and told himself that he had to finish the supplication to the Keep before Janwye returned. For some reason, though, he could not find the strength in his legs to get up.
It was beginning to dawn on him, as blood oozed around the cut on his throat, that he had been seconds away from dying. As much as he had told himself he had come to peace with his death…
Zain bit his hand to try and stop it from shaking. He hadn’t been made for the frontlines. Brave Nonna, stalwart Roan, headstrong Janwye: they were all warriors and soldiers. But Zain, cowardly Zain, had always made his decisions from behind the shelter of his friends, and whenever he made an error they were the ones who suffered the consequences.
He could only hope that he bought Roan enough time with his lie. Things had become drastic indeed if a pontiff had to tell falsehoods in a house of the Ladies.
Step by tortuous step, Zain rose to his feet. He had strength enough for this.
But when he was about to walk away, he heard something behind him. Zain twitched, turning around, hand reaching for his throat again. Had they returned? Would he have to defend himself?
Silence. There was nothing.
Zain turned slowly, keeping his head down while he kept his eyes trained behind him. To any outsider, it would have looked as if he was looking at the altar, perhaps praying…
And he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Something small, fast, nimble, moving too quick to get a good look. It had emerged from behind the benches that rang the house’s outer chamber, where the layman worshippers would sit, and was making for the door when Zain turned around and shouted, “Stop!”
The something was a wild child boy, small, scruffy, dirty, and the moment he heard Zain he sprinted for the exit. Zain ran to follow, his sandals slapping on the stones, his gut already twisting from the effort and pain. Zain breathed deeply, puffing out his cheeks as he ran, and cursed the day becoming a pontiff had made a sedentary life for him.
Whoever the boy was, though, he was no Shira Hay racer. He stumbled and tripped outside, bouncing across the street, and was only just recovering when Zain pressed his foot on the boy’s back.
“Identify yourself, boy,” snarled Zain, pushing down on the struggling child. For the second time today, he appreciated the Ladies’ foresight; weight was something he could make an advantage.
Some pilgrims and passersby stopped and stared, but upon seeing the tattoos on Zain’s neck they kept walking quickly. Whatever a pontiff did became Temple business, and no one wanted to interfere with Temple business.
The boy stopped squirming, and lay flat on the ground. He mumbled something into the ground.
“Identify yourself!” Zain said, louder, his voice booming. It was his authoritative voice: the voice of the pontiff, the voice of the commander.
“Arim!” said the boy, spitting dirt out of his mouth. “My name is Arim.”
“And what were you doing sneaking around in my house, Arim?” said Zain, pressing harder. The boy said nothing, and Zain dragged him up, holding tightly onto the boy’s dirty collar. “Come, then. Perhaps your tongue will be loosened on the altar of the Ladies.”
The boy screamed, struggling for all he was worth as Zain pulled him back towards the house.
When they stepped inside, Zain threw him onto the ground, and then turned and pulled the wooden sliding doors shut behind him, letting the heavy plank fall into the lock. On the back of the doors was another carving of the Lady Winter, her wings extended, her expression stern.
The boy called Arim looked up, and quailed under Zain’s glare.
Zain looked at the boy for several seconds, and then sighed. He sat down on the supplicant’s bench and looked at the boy, leaving the door unguarded. It would still take him time to lift the bar holding it closed, but Zain wasn’t going to stop him.
“Arim, you said? That’s a slave name,” said Zain.
“A freed name,” said Arim, quickly, backing away. He sat on the ground, tense and jittery.
Zain nodded, smiling encouragingly. “I was a slave once, too, a long time ago. Being free makes all the difference in the world, doesn’t it?”
Arim’s gaze flickered to the altar at the center of the house, at the steady drip-drip-drip of water into the pool. “Are you going to sacrifice me for the Ladies now?” he asked, quietly, not looking at Zain.
“Sacrifice is only for those worthy of it,” said Zain. “It is an honor, not a punishment.” Arim looked so confused that Zain asked, “Are you truly a templechild, boy?”
“Yes,” said Arim, immediately. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I see many pilgrims, every day,” said Zain. “From many places far away. I see many more who are not pilgrims but nonetheless come from places far away. They, too, do not understand that sacrifice in the name of the Ladies is a privilege.”
The boy looked towards the door again, and licked his lips. “Are any of these people coming to see you today?”
“Not today,” said Zain. “Not on a holy day. The houses of the pontiffs are closed but for official ceremony on holy days, which is why I was wondering why you were in here…”
“It didn’t stop them,” said Arim, and then immediately he bit his lip.
Zain raised an eyebrow. “The couple? What did you want with them?”
Drip-drip-drip went the pool at the altar. The boy looked at the floor, tracing a dirty fingernail along the stone. “I knew the girl they were talking about.”
“As did I.”
“Is it true that she’s going to Jhidnu?” asked Arim, suddenly. He looked up, and his face was earnest.
Zain’s voice was even. “Do you intend on following her?”
The boy looked back down again and resumed his inspection of the floor. “No,” he muttered. “And good riddance. I just wanted to know.” His words were vindictive, but his head hung and his back slumped.
The pontiff of winter didn’t say anything. Sometimes, these people just needed the silence to open up long enough for them to talk.
He looks like me, realized Zain, with a start. Former slave, now freed, templechild. This Arim looked like Zain had before he had met Nonna, before Marion had taken him under his wing, before Roan and Janwye and the Walkers.
He looked like a coward, in need of saving.
“They really do act like real parents, don’t they?” said Arim, finally. “So concerned for her. They looked like…like they were going to tear this whole place apart for her. Like a real mother and father.”
“And how,” said Zain, slowly, “Do you know what a real mother and father are?”
Arim opened his mouth, a little surprised. He furrowed his eyebrows. “I don’t…I don’t know.” There was real confusion in his face as he stared at Zain, questioningly. “I don’t know. I just felt like…that was the way a mother and father should act.”
Zain felt the embroidered crescent moons on the cuff of his robes. They needed fresh blood in the ranks. Roan had already taken his apprentice. If Nonna were still here, she would have already taken three.
Perhaps it was Zain’s time, as well.
“You do not know, Arim, who was once a slave,” said Zain, slowly. “You remember.”
The confusion only seemed to grow. “From before the Fallow, you mean?”
“From before the Fallow ever existed. Before these,” said Zain, and he pulled the tabula out from his sleeves. He rose, and he could see Arim shrink away at once—just like he had, when Marion had first found him in that ditch on the side of the road.
“Do you have anywhere to go, Arim?” asked Zain. “Truly, honestly: do you have anyone waiting for you beside some cobbled-together wild crew? Do you have any reason to live, other than the fear of death?” Zain hadn’t. He had lived for nothing until Nonna, and when she was gone he had lived for her sacrifice.
Arim looked on the verge of saying an indignant yes, but then he looked up around him, at the hundred images of the Lady Winter, all staring sternly down at him. He closed his eyes, and shook his head no.
“Then please come with me,” said Zain, holding out his hand. “I have an offer that might interest you.”
Arim stared at his hand, but did not take it. “I don’t understand. Is this a job?”
“In a way. Not for the Temple, though.”
Still Arim did not take his hand. “Why me?”
“Why anyone?” said Zain. “I am not giving you the crown and kingdom, Arim. I am just giving you a trial. To see, perhaps, if you are ready to be part of something greater. You will not know what you are part of until it is well and truly over, and the road will be fraught with doubt…but it will give you something to live for.”
Hesitantly, Arim took Zain’s hand: the boy’s palms were cold and clammy. Zain pulled him up with a grunt, and put a steadying hand on the boy’s shoulder as he stood.
“What kind of work will I have to do?” asked Arim. “I’ve done cleaning for some pontiffs before. And a little cooking. And I’m stronger than I look, I can lift-.”
“None of that,” said Zain. “There won’t be much work in the beginning. It’s just listening to stories, mostly.”
“What kinds of stories?” asked Arim, his face splitting into the first smile Zain had seen on the child’s face.
“Stories about mothers and fathers,” said Zain. “Stories about how you can remember without knowing. Stories about who we are.”
The child fell into silence after that, contemplative if not confused.
I miss you, Nonna, thought Zain, as he led Arim past the altar, past the lonely ribbon lying across it. All this, I have done for you.
“Up here, go on,” said Zain, opening the door to the stairwell. “What story shall we start with, I wonder…?”
“Are there any stories with you in them?” asked Arim. “I want to know more about you, pontiff sir.”
Zain grinned. “Alright, then. We shall begin with a story about some very courageous people and one very cowardly one. It starts with an elderly marbleman named Marion, and how he found a fieldgirl named Janwye with a temper like you’ve never seen, and a crooked sandchild who called himself Rho Hat Pan, and an icegirl named Nonna who was as kind as the Lady Winter herself…”
The words seemed to echo in her head, unreal, distant. She had never anticipated this.
“Jova of the Temple,” he said. “Present your tabula.”
Jova wiped her sweating palms on her coza, holding her breath. What could she say? Was there to say?
She phrased her words carefully. “Why do you want it?”
There was a soft clank of metal on tile, and suddenly Copo’s voice grew closer. “Do you not trust me, zealot of the Temple? I have shown you what needs to be done.”
Jova suppressed a shudder. Even if she had a tabula, she wasn’t sure she could go through with that. She thought long and hard before speaking. It would not do to lie in the House of Spring. “I was told not to tell anyone where my tabula was,” said Jova, haltingly. “I was told that if I ever did, I would no longer be free.”
She felt cold, clammy hands on her bare shoulders. “And who told you that, sweet girl?” asked Copo.
“A- a friend.”
“A friend,” repeated Copo, and Jova could hear the disdain in his voice. “Do you trust the prattle of a wild child over the word of a trusted pontiff, Jova?” And his hand slid down her arm.
Jova tried to squirm out of the way, but Copo would not let her. “I’m sorry, pontiff sir, I just-.”
“It is true, you will no longer be free,” said Copo, and his grip tightened. Jova’s heart was beating in her throat now. “You will serve the Ladies, and all those who speak for the Ladies. Now, sweet girl, please, present your tabula.”
The incense made Jova’s head spin. “I don’t- I don’t have it.”
“You don’t have it?” repeated Copo, a hint of disbelief, of incredulity in his voice. “Did you lie, Jova? Are you truly the sandman’s slave? Or are you some common animal, who left its tabula behind in the hollow tree after the Fallow?”
“Pontiff sir, is there any other way?” asked Jova, breathlessly. “Anything else I can do to prove my devotion to-.”
“Answer my question, zealot,” barked Copo, and Jova flinched. “It would be easier for all of us if you would just tell me- where is your tabula?”
Jova twisted out of his grip, and fell onto the hard floor, falling on her hands and bruising her knees. She felt a hand grab her shoulder, and before she could stop herself she reacted. Her hand found her walking stick, and she twisted, hitting Copo hard. From the sound of the crack of wood, and the way Copo’s body moved, Jova could tell she had hit something boney. His face?
His voice, when he spoke again, was a nasal whine. “That was very bad of you to do, sweet girl. Very, very bad.”
“I- I’m so sorry,” gasped Jova, but her words were cut short as the pontiff grabbed her by the collar and dragged her away. She kicked and struggled, but Copo grabbed her with both hands and hauled her anyway, with prodigious strength for one who had seemed so soft and plump.
One of his palms was coated with something hot and sticky. Jova’s heart leaped to her throat. She had made a pontiff bleed in his own house. Even if she made it out of this alive, would she ever walk free in the streets of the Temple again? The pontiffs were a tightly knit, exclusive group. They would hear of this, they would all hear of this.
There was a clatter of tabula, and Copo finally let Jova go. She crumpled onto her knees, listening to Copo muttering under his breath, a low and constant stream of unintelligible words.
Her mind raced through the possibilities. What was Copo going to do? Would it be worse than what would happen if she ran? She had struck a pontiff in his own house; she did not know the ramifications because no one had ever had the gall to do it. Jova flinched as she heard Copo sweep aside what sounded like a whole hollow of tabula. Just how many slaves did the pontiff have?
Jova did her best to sit still as she heard the tabula hum. She did her best not to wretch out of fear and anticipation as she felt the heat from the summoning wash over her. She didn’t move as she heard claws clack on the tiles.
But the moment she heard the beast hiss, hiss like that monster from three years ago, Jova couldn’t take it. She spun, hitting anything within reach with her walking stick and bolted, tongue clicking rapidly as she sprinted to whatever exit she could find.
She could barely hear the sound over the pounding of her ears, and the echoes twisted and distorted as she ran.
She slammed into the frame of the door—was it even the door? Was it just the wall? A window in the pontiff’s high tower?—and she felt her away across the room, the snarl of the beast just behind her. She twitched; she spun.
Her walking stick cracked against the beast’s muzzle, and she could hear it stumbling back, whining. Jova’s grip tightened, and the space around her eyes throbbed. Not again. Never again.
Tense, she shifted her stance, listening intently. Back pressed against the wall, she didn’t dare speak lest she miss some vital movement, some unexpected attack.
But there was no pretense to Copo’s movements as he strode forward, his sandals slapping loudly on the floor. Jova clicked rapidly, trying to get an image of where the beast was in relation to him. It seemed to be pacing behind him, its movement erratic and irregular.
“Just tell me where your tabula is, sweet girl,” said Copo, his voice ragged and breathless. “I’m sorry that it has come to this, but I will use force if I must to prevent the intrusion of the Deep into a house of the Ladies- will you stop making that infernal sound!”
Copo grabbed her by the shoulder, and Jova shrieked. Her head was pounding, her heart was beating too fast to think properly.
The beast at Copo’s side snarled, and before Jova could stop to think she had batted aside Copo’s arm, spinning and cracking her cane once more over the beast’s head. She felt claws lunge for her thigh and stepped back reflexively, so that the beast caught instead only onto the loose petals of her coza. She lunged forward, and her stick caught in what must have been the beast’s mouth.
At the same time, the beast had charged. With a squelch, Jova’s walking stick sank into something firm but pliable. She heard the beast gag, felt it writhe and flop on the end of her cane. Its claws scrabbled on the base of her stick weakly as it struggled to back away. Jova felt a moment’s indecision.
Then she pulled her walking stick free and heard the low wheeze of the animal limping away. She was not a monster. She did not kill for no reason.
But Jova had barely had time to catch her breath when Copo’s arms closed around her neck. “Cease this immediately, girl!” he shouted. “Let go of your weapon!”
Jova could hear the low hum building up once more, and she knew she could not face a second beast, not if the first one had time enough to recover. Should she submit? But then what would she do? Copo would demand and demand her tabula and she would not be able to produce it.
She could not beat anything Copo summoned.
There was only one solution, then.
Jova twisted, trying to worm her way out of Copo’s grip. He tried to hold on, but Jova kept twisting and twisting until she broke free. The hum had stopped; Copo’s concentration had broken.
Not enough. Jova had to ensure her permanent safety. She brought her cane against the side of the pontiff’s face, and felt her hands shaking from more than just exhaustion.
The hum had started again, and Jova stabbed blindly down, trying to separate Copo’s tabula from his grip. “I’m sorry,” Jova shouted. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
Copo gasped pitifully as Jova’s blind attacks jabbed and struck his soft flesh. In the corner, the beast whined, but made no move to come closer.
Jova paused, head spinning, trying to think straight. “Oh, Ladies,” she whispered. “Oh, pontiff, I didn’t- I’m so- oh, Ladies, oh, Ladies…”
If she just took a moment to think, a moment to breathe. Damage had been done, yes, but she would find a way to fix it. She didn’t have to resort to violence. This was Moscoleon. It was a holy city. She didn’t-.
Copo grabbed her by the throat, and Jova screamed. She hadn’t even heard him get up over the buzzing in her ears, but now she could feel the man’s hand squeezing tighter and tighter around her neck.
She flailed. All those months of careful practice and technique with Arim left her just as much as Arim had. She hit every part of Copo’s body she could find, swinging so hard that she thought her walking stick might snap. She heard wood impact on Copo’s elbow several times before he finally let go, and when he did Jova did not stop. When she found his face, she did not stop.
When her walking stick finally snapped, Jova had gathered her senses enough to run.
Sound, touch, smell: all the senses Jova had come to rely on blurred as she stumbled out of the pontiff’s house. She felt so weak she would collapse down the long stairs, but somehow she made it down without falling. There was no miraculous strength this time, no one to take away the fatigue. It had seemed the Ladies had forsaken her.
The cold air outside of the den of still burning incense hit Jova hard, but it did not so much as brace her as shock her. She felt more disoriented now, not less. Where was there to go now? What was there to do?
She fell into a familiar rut; she staggered down the road to Roan’s stables, mouth dry, hands shaking, leaning on the splintered end of her walking stick as she limped down the street. It was good that it was a holy day. It was good that the streets were empty.
Jova hoped they stayed that way.
She couldn’t remember stumbling through the streets or falling through the backdoor of Roan’s stables. She didn’t know how she had managed to find her way back, disoriented as she was, but forces of habit came back easily in times of crisis. Jova lay on the straw and dirt, hugging her chest, unmoving, until Uten smelled her and began hissing and spitting. She shifted a little then, but only slightly.
Then she heard the pounding of Stel’s hooves, heard Roan shouting indistinctly. Roan gasped as he entered the stables—the strongest display of emotion Jova had heard from him in three years—and heard a thud like Roan had fallen from his horse.
There was an odd scraping, like something was sliding on the ground, and Jova finally sat up.
“You are not being alright,” said Roan, breathlessly, and it was a statement, not a question. Jova shook her head mutely. Something touched her shoulder, and she flinched, but it was just Roan’s calloused hand, rough and hesitant.
“What are you doing on the ground like that, Rho Hat Pan?” said an unfamiliar voice. “Do you need help? Here, I will-.”
“Silence,” spat Roan, and the venom in his voice made Jova flinch again. “Get your steed, Janwye. We will be discussing the Walkers at a later date. Right now, this girl is hurting and in need of assistance.”
“Roan…” Jova croaked, as the stranger’s footsteps pattered away. “Roan, he tried to…he asked for my…” She stammered into silence, unsure what was safe to tell him, what was safe to tell anyone.
“Take my hand, Jova,” said Roan, and he pressed Jova’s palm into his. He clicked his tongue and Jova heard Stel approach. With an audible grunt, Roan lifted himself up onto his steed. Jova didn’t know why, but it seemed to be costing him a great deal. Had he injured himself practicing earlier that day?
“Hold onto my hand,” said Roan. “We are returning to your Anjan and your Ell.”
Ma and Da. Jova choked back a sob, of relief, not grief. She was beginning to realize just what Arim had meant by having everything.
“You are taller,” said Roan, gently, as they walked out of the stables, Jova taking small, stuttering steps like she was newly blinded again. She couldn’t seem to hear her environment over the buzzing in her ears. “You have been growing since I first met you.” He spoke like he spoke to the animals, kindly and softly.
Despite herself, Jova felt her panic subsiding. She did not feel quite as shaken as they entered the familiar road back to the tenement.
“Jova,” said Roan, still gentle. “Please tell me what happened.”
Jova did not speak for some time, putting one stuttering foot in front of the other. “What happens if I hit a pontiff?” she asked, finally.
Roan’s silence was dark, and brooding. “How many times?” he responded.
Jova didn’t answer.
“Jova…is that your blood?”
Jova scratched her chest, shaking her head to clear the thump-thump-thump of her heart. “Some of it is,” she muttered.
“But not…all of it.” There was a pause, and then Roan tugged Jova’s hand. “Come. We must be walking a little faster.”
They were halfway down the street when Jova heard footsteps approaching rapidly, someone running. She tensed, but Roan tightened his hand and said, “Shhh. It is a friend with which I do business. She is being impatient.”
It was the woman, Janwye. “Roan, I do not appreciate this. I would expect more of a brother-.”
“Your initiative is admirable, Janwye, even if your discretion is lacking,” snapped Roan. “Be speaking of these things with Zain and I, no one else. We have polite company present.”
There was an annoyed scoff, followed by an almost sarcastic, “My apologies, milady. May I speak of more mundane politics with you, then, Roan?”
“That you should be saving for later too,” said Roan, and his tone was icy.
“For all I know, Alswell is burning as we speak. There is no later. I have heard nothing from the other envoys in Shira Hay and Mont Don! We have not rested since we left Alswell and it has still taken us weeks to reach Temple Moscoleon. We need the Holy Keep and we need you to-.”
“I said later,” repeated Roan, and the woman fell silent.
As Jova’s feet began to crunch on the gravel of the compound, she listened intently for her mother and father. Her nerves were tingling again; without Roan’s soothing voice, the full enormity of what she had done threatened to overwhelm her. She waited and waited in the empty square of the tenement, and she let go of Roan’s hand and sank to her knees when no one seemed to be coming.
“Zain!” snapped Roan, as Stel tossed her head and paced on the gravel. “Zain, come out!”
The resident pontiff’s feet crunched on the ground as he walked. Jova heard a small intake of breath from Zain, but before the pontiff could say anything Roan shouted, “Where is Anjan? Where is Ell?”
“The woman is, as I understand it, still out hunting,” said Zain, his voice soft and calm. “The man left for the market at least an hour ago. Something about enjoying his holy day. If I may ask…”
“No, you may not,” Roan said. Stel nickered, and Jova hugged her knees. She could still hear every impact of her walking stick on Copo’s face, still feel them shuddering through her bones.
Only the wind spoke for a few seconds, like the Lady Fall laughing. Jova’s brow furrowed. What part of the Ladies’ plan was this?
“The girl, through no small set of happy accidents,” said Pontiff Zain, and there was a hint of disapproval in his voice, “Was going to become a zealot. If she struck down someone inside a house of the Ladies…”
“I’m certain she did not,” said Roan, riding away from Jova to talk privately with the pontiff.
“You’re certain,” Zain repeated.
“She would not do such a thing,” said Roan. A temporary silence. “However, I have not asked fully.”
“Look at her,” hissed Roan, and although his voice was low Jova could still hear him. “What kind of trauma do you think she has just gone through?”
“What kind of trauma do you think she just inflicted?” the pontiff of winter hissed back. “The blood is on her hands, Roan! On her staff!”
“You think a blind little girl is capable of- of what, killing a grown man?”
“If she passed the first test of zealotry, I have no doubts as to what she is capable of and who she learned it from.”
“Not to interrupt your personal dramas, gentle sirs,” said a third voice, Janwye. “But I am running out of time. If I am to speak with the Keep before-.”
“Enough! ENOUGH!” shouted Roan, and Jova felt herself back away instinctively. “There is a girl who is injured and frightened and needs to be taken care of! She is more important to me than that fat slug of a pontiff, Zain! Yes, more important than all of Alswell, Janwye!”
Jova felt that she should have been flattered, but all she could feel was frightened. She thought she had heard Roan’s anger before, but never truly had she heard such rage and pain in the man’s voice.
“Listen to yourself, Roan,” said Zain, his voice doubly low. “You are losing control. There are other things at stake here.” Jova could not hear the rest of what he said.
She kept waiting, kept hoping that Ma or Da would return. She could feel the blood crusting on her fingers and forearms, now.
“Rotten to the core,” said Roan, suddenly, his voice much louder than the pontiff’s. “Not our concern.”
“If that is what you think,” said Zain, and his voice rose too, “Then leave this city.”
Stel’s hooves stamped on the ground, like frustrated hammers on a shattering anvil. “You would abandon me now, brother?”
“You are not being abandoned, Roan. Be calm and trust me.” A heavy sigh came from the cluster of grown-olds, presumably from Zain. “Janwye, where are the travelers you came with? The other fieldmen?”
“North and west, in a farming village on the jungle paths,” said Janwye. “But I don’t understand…”
Zain talked over her. “You will go there, Roan.”
“Where the zealots of the jungle will ambush and kill me?”
“Where the zealots of the jungle will join you. Janwye, you shall receive your audience as soon as is possible. Tonight, if I can. Make your best case, because once you step into the chamber of the Holy Keep I cannot help you. Roan, take your mounts, take as many supplies as you can. Leave quickly, before…before incriminating evidence is found. You are going west.”
Jova felt lost. She was eavesdropping on a conversation far beyond her magnitude, far beyond anything she had ever experienced.
“Why?” said Roan. “What do I tell the zealots that ask why I uprooted my entire business here?”
“You will tell them,” said Zain. “That you, and your little girl, are going to save Alswell.”
Roan reared in his horse, watching Jova as she clambered over the stalagmites in the damp cave. He did not move to help. The child would need to learn how to rely on her own strength, just as he had.
“Where are we now?” asked Jova, her voice echoing with the steady drip of water.
“In a cave the templemen are calling the Teeth of the Abyss,” said Roan. “One of many. The zealots shun it as a place for devil-spawn.”
“So why are we in it?”
“For the same reason they avoid it, I suppose,” said Roan.
Jova laughed, although Roan did not know why. He supposed she was just a happy girl. And yet, she insisted that her blindness was recent. Roan could only have dreamed of that kind of strength after his accident.
Stel tossed her head, prancing. Her hooves clipped hollowly on the stone floor of the cave, and Roan saw Jova perk up out of the corner of his eye. She turned her head from side to side at the sound, looking with her ears and not her eyes.
Jova stood straight, and clicked, turning her head slowly as the sound echoed off the walls. Roan nodded in approval. He hadn’t needed to remind her, that time.
“A good place to practice,” he said.
The blind girl scratched at her cheek, under the blindfold. “It echoes too much. It’s confusing.”
“The echoes are being loud and thus you are being able to hear better, no?”
“Says you,” said Jova. “Why don’t you try it? Have you ever done this yourself, before?”
The scars around Roan’s face stretched as he smirked. Truthfully, he couldn’t say he had. “No,” he said. “But I learned the method of teaching from one of the best.” He left it at that.
“Was your teacher another of your Hag Gar Gan shamans?”
“No,” said Roan, simply. He didn’t elaborate. His hand drifted to the badge pinning his cloak to his shoulders: painted wood, depicting a single cloud drifting across a crescent moon. Easy enough to destroy, should he need to, although he doubted it would come to that anytime soon.
“Now what?” asked Jova, standing so far back in the dark of the cave that Roan could barely see her.
“Now you walk back,” said Roan.
He could hear Jova stamping her foot. “What? What’s the point of that?”
“Without touching anything.”
“Oh.” Jova paused. “What if I stab myself on one of those rock things?”
“That would count as touching something.”
Stel shifted again, and Roan had to channel through the tabula to take away her fear. His vision swam for a moment, but when he was done Stel was calm and still. “Follow the sounds from here if you must,” he said. “And go slowly. I care less about speed and more about you not making mistakes.”
It was a simple exercise, and one Roan was confident he could guide Jova through, but he had to admit it would have been easier if he had the freedom to do it alone.
“What if she hurts herself?” whispered the woman, Anjan, as Jova made her way through the maze of stalagmites, clicking periodically to reorient herself. The girl’s arms were stiff against her sides, as she shuffled awkwardly towards them.
“Then she will learn to be more careful next time,” said Roan. He watched the darkness as Jova approached. Demon-spawn he was not worried about, but wolfbats and pale fall toads infested the caves. “If you will speak, speak louder. It will help her find the entrance.”
Anjan looked away, her brow furrowed. Roan’s gaze drifted to her hands, formed into fists, and kept a hand on Stel’s tabula, just in case. “But…”
“But I need a worker who can navigate my stables without crawling on the floor,” said Roan. From the way Anjan flinched, he could tell he had been too harsh.
“Yes…sir,” said Anjan. She still wouldn’t look at him. “I need to check back on Mo. Just…just make sure she stays safe. Please?”
“I will,” said Roan. He clicked his tongue and made Stel stamp her hooves so that Jova could hear, and paused. “Anjan?”
The woman paused as she made to climb out of the rim of the cave, back into the steaming jungles of the Moscon. “Yes? Sir?”
“I trust you have not told her?” said Roan, and this time he was the one to whisper.
Anjan looked Roan up and down, and said, slowly, “No. I haven’t. Neither has Ell. Like I said, mister Roan, we do appreciate all that you’ve done for us.”
“Hmm.” Roan looked over his shoulder at Anjan. He did not like how the woman seemed to affect a false personality around him. “Do you find me loathsome?” he asked, after a prolonged silence.
Anjan opened her mouth, and hesitated. She met his eyes. “No, sir.”
“I think…you’re very reasonable, sir. It’s good that you’ve found someone who…someone like her. I think, in your position, I would have done the same.” Anjan sighed. “I just wish it didn’t have to be Jova.”
“I apologize,” said Roan. He looked down. How much of that was a lie? All of it, none of it? Roan could never tell.
“May I go now, sir?”
“Yes,” said Roan. “Be careful. You are more than capable, but the world can be a dangerous place for someone who does not know how to defend herself.” He looked out at Jova, and clicked his tongue again for Stel to move.
He heard echoing footsteps behind him. One advantage of the Teeth, Roan had found, was that despite the near total darkness within, it was impossible for someone to sneak up on him.
“Roan,” said Anjan, and her voice rose. “We appreciate it. Whatever else you have planned for my- for Jova, thank you, but we don’t need it.”
Roan smiled. “So this is your voice when you speak truth. I prefer it.”
“Roan, please. Whatever plans you have, leave Jova out.”
“She burns to prove herself,” said Roan. He looked at Anjan, at the wild woman with her wide shoulders and angry face. “She submits to our authority but she is reckless when she thinks no one is looking. And I am sorry to say this, Anjan, but not even the Ladies Four will always be looking.”
Anjan almost looked like she was going to tear Roan off his mount right there in the cave. “You have no right to tell me how to raise my-.”
Roan glared at Anjan, and saw in her eyes barely restrained fury. “Why should it matter to you?” said Anjan, through gritted teeth.
He considered saying he needed an able employee, again, or perhaps that it was his duty as a man to give his charity. But, in the end, those would not be true. “I am selfish,” he said, simply.
Anjan looked away, her hunt apparently forgotten.
“I cannot teach her, but I know men who will, men whose faith in the Four is strong,” said Roan, turning away as well. “I will inform you if a decision is made.”
Anjan bristled. She stood next to him, breathing through her nose, as Jova approached.
“How’d I do?” asked Jova, a wide smile on her face. She did not quite look at Roan as she spoke, but he did not mind.
“You did great, Jova,” said Anjan, her voice warm. Stel tossed her head as a bit of Roan’s irritation leaked through to her, but Roan decided to let Anjan handle the praise. It was more effective, that way. He was not particularly good at it.
Jova grinned as Anjan took her hand, and then the wild woman looked at Roan. “We’ll come back later,” she said. “Let’s go check on Ell, huh?”
“But we walked all this way! Roan, is that it?” asked Jova, looking straight ahead.
Roan, to her side, nudged Stel forward. “I am not having the right to detain you if you wish to leave,” he said, and he met Anjan’s gaze.
Jova pursed her lips. “Alright,” she said. “But we’ll come back, promise?”
“I promise,” said Anjan, as she led Jova out of the cave. “Watch your step, now, it’s a bit tricky.”
Roan let them walk ahead before he followed, ducking his head to avoid hitting his head on the hanging stalactites as Stel climbed out of the cave.
The sentinel statues of the Ladies were still visible from the Teeth, and the jungle path was so trodden by the drunk and the foolhardy that it was not hard to find the main road again. Roan whispered a small thanks to the Lady Summer for sun and fresh air, and to the Lady Fall for showing them the path.
The sun made Roan sweat, and he could hear and feel Stel’s labored breathing. He rubbed her neck, as a silent means of encouragement.
As ever, the road was flooded with both pilgrims approaching the Temple and pilgrims leaving it. Anjan and Jova were already a far ways up ahead; Roan had to navigate around the pedestrians as he sped Stel up to a trot to keep up.
Once, he had, though, he rode a polite distance behind them.
Jova talked animatedly with Anjan, who smiled and laughed at all the right times. Roan watched from behind, his face betraying no emotion. In the end, what right did he have? The pontiffs spoke often of how two men could do the same thing, and for one it could be virtue while for the other it was sin. What was charity if it was done only for his own self-interest?
From the moment he had approached the blind girl sitting in the doorway, he had known he was indulging himself. Roan’s brow furrowed. It was weakness, not strength. True charity would have been to help one who could see and judge him, all of him.
Roan rolled his shoulders, sore from riding. One would think he’d be used to it by now, but Roan promised himself he could dismount and rest once they reached his hut at the compound. He blinked and shook his head. Idle thoughts, too, he would reserve for home.
He passed through the gates and breathed deep. Moscoleon smelled of incense and roasting peppers. He looked up at the great ziggurat, and for a moment he saw the great pyramids of Hak Mat Do again.
“Jova! Anjan! What are you doing here?” asked Ell. Jova took his outstretched hand and hugged him around the waist.
“It’s a holy day, after all,” said Anjan, sparing one glance back at Roan. “We thought we’d spend it with you.”
“With me and not the fine strapping lord?” said Ell. He, too, met Roan’s eyes, but Roan did not speak or move. “Well, I am flattered. Let me finish up these last few errands and I’ll be right with you.”
“Come on, it’s an open temple,” said Anjan, pulling Jova away. “Let’s have a look around where Ell works. The pontiff won’t mind.”
Jova nodded. She turned and waved, in the wrong direction. “Goodbye, mister Roan!”
Roan watched her go. He didn’t wave back, or say goodbye, or move at all. He just looked back up to the Sun Altar, but the illusion of the pyramids had been dispelled.
Roan sighed. The idle thoughts would have to be waiting for quite some time. Home, for him, was a long way off.
He clicked his tongue and directed Stel back towards the compound.
The ride was slow. Roan kept to the back roads, to better avoid the crowds. He told himself he had grown used to their questioning and sometimes revolted stares, that the expressions on their face no longer bothered him. He told himself that, at least.
Stel nickered as they squeezed their way through a cramped alley, and Roan traced her tabula and whispered into her ear. He closed his eyes, his head swimming. Every day, the commands grew harder. He knew he should have stopped, let both Stel and himself rest for a day or two, but he couldn’t. He had places to go, even if Stel was getting older.
He scratched the back of her neck. They were both getting older.
It was only when he returned to the compound did he notice his stomach rumbling. Roan closed his eyes. There wasn’t enough food to make a decent meal at the hut, and buying more would mean going back, out, into the crowds. Roan gripped his saddle tight. He was too tired for that.
He sniffed, and smelled freshly baked bread from the pontiff’s chambers. He sighed. “Come, Stel,” he said. “Let us go where the life is taking us.”
He walked in.
Zain did not look particularly surprised to see him. The winter pontiff and owner of the tenement bustled about, preparing flatbread in a stone oven. He gave only Roan only a cursory glance as he and the horse entered.
Roan coughed. “Does the afternoon find you well?”
“Well enough.” Zain scraped minced bell peppers and tomatoes into a bubbling stew and stirred. “Would you like to eat?” Before Roan could answer, Zain said, “In the name of the Lady Winter, I insist.”
“Thank you, brother,” said Roan. He did not get off his horse.
“Only those who have been sworn to the House of Winter may call me that,” said Zain, reproachfully, holding his hand over the tattoos on his chest.
“Have we not sworn deeper bonds, brother?” asked Roan.
Zain pursed his lips. “The Walkers are of men, by men. The Houses of the Ladies are more than that.”
Roan said nothing. He unclipped his cloak and looked at the badge of the crescent moon in his hand. This secrecy he could obliterate in a second, but Zain’s faith was etched onto his skin. Of the two, the truth of which was deeper could not be denied.
“Would you sit with me, then, Roan?”
The rider nodded. He shuffled awkwardly, trying to unfasten the various belts and buckles that kept him strapped to the saddle. Stel pranced, and Roan had to snap at her to calm down, unable to reach for her tabula.
Zain rose to help, but Roan waved him off. It was something he had to do alone.
“Crippled in body but whole of soul,” said the pontiff, and he undid the last strap despite Roan’s protests. Roan glared at him, but Zain’s gaze was cool and soft. “There is no shame in accepting help, even if you do not need it.”
Roan closed his eyes. This was true. He did his best to relax, although his limbs were still stiff as Zain picked him up and carried him to the table.
The stumps that were his legs dangled uselessly underneath him.
“Go, Stel,” he said, gesturing outside as Zain set him on the wooden seat. “Water and food, go on.”
The horse left at a leisurely pace, head hanging.
Roan hauled his legs over so he could sit in the seat proper as Zain walked around to sit opposite him. The pontiff put his hands together and closed his eyes. After a pause, Roan did likewise.
“The Lady Summer bless us, we give you thanks. May we be strong, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
“Fortune be with you,” Roan repeated.
Zain split the flatbread and gave half to Roan. He dribbled the bell pepper and tomato sauce over it liberally, although Roan eschewed it. Even after all these years, he still could not stomach Moscoleon food.
“You know what I find most distasteful about summer?” said Zain.
Roan looked up but did not answer.
“As it is a time of bounty, so it is a time of strife. Of fighting, of competition, of anger. But winter? Winter is a time of scarcity. In winter, the only bounty we may find is within each other. Eat, Roan.”
Roan took a small bite. Zain’s hands around his sides had made his stomach clench, and for some reason it would not relax.
“How is the girl?” asked Zain, after a long silence.
Roan raised an eyebrow. “Why do you take an interest?”
“Because you take an interest. Because you no longer wash or shave, but every morning, afternoon, and night, you make sure the girl has a hot meal waiting for her. Because you are a specter of the man I once knew. The Lady Winter asks us to give,” said Zain, kindly. “But never to take. Not even from ourselves.”
“Is this truth?” asked Roan. “It seems an unlikely one. How can there be giving if no one will take it?”
“Give to the world,” said Zain. “For all the world’s possessions are yours, and all yours its.”
“Even in a world of strangers?”
“That is the only way.”
“What of me?” Roan had to grip the edges of the seat to keep from slipping as he leaned forward. “You give me your hospitality and yet I am no stranger to you.”
“That is because I am mortal, and have more than one allegiance,” said Zain. He tapped the crescent moons embroidered on his sleeve. “Brother.”
Roan drummed his fingers on the table. His thighs shifted and he felt the rest of his legs twitch even though they weren’t there.
“She wants to learn how to fight,” said Roan.
“I am telling her I will not teach her.”
“Why is that?”
“Because you will.”
Zain rolled his eyes. “If you are that interested in the girl’s security, hire a marble soldier and let it be done with.”
Roan grit his teeth. “You haven’t even given me a chance to discuss this.”
“That’s because there’s nothing to discuss,” snapped Zain. “Zealotry is a choice you cannot make for her. She must do it, through her faith, and her faith alone.”
“I have lied as the snakerat does to protect my secret. I am selfish. I am not proud of it,” said Roan. “I have seen that I have hurt her and I must be making amends in any way I can. She is strong. She learns quickly. And if the Ladies Four were to bless a blind girl with the ability to fight as well as any other man-.”
“If that were the case, Roan, I would be amazed to see it,” said Zain. He pushed his plate away, having apparently lost his appetite. “Your faith wavers, friend. You hold onto it only when it suits you. And, worst of all, you know it.” Zain rubbed the bridge of his nose. “What are you trying so desperately to prove, Roan?”
Before he knew it, Roan’s fist slammed onto the table. It shook, and Roan felt a sudden impulse to stand, but of course he couldn’t.
“That this is Moscoleon!” he shouted. “The city of miracles! Where a man with no tongue can sing again, where a girl with no eyes can see again, and where I with no legs can run again.”
“Calm yourself, Rho Hat Pan.”
Breathing through his nostrils, Roan looked away. “That is no longer my name.”
“Is it not? If you have thrown away the name, why are you so desperate to cling to everything else that man once was?” Zain’s voice rose until it boomed. “You call yourself Roan, but you are still Rho Hat Pan. You thirst, if not for blood, then glory. Chase not forgotten dreams, friend. The war is over. Let the dead rest.”
Roan nodded, touching the badge on his cloak. “Yes,” he muttered. It was truth. It was for the best. “Let the dead rest.”
Zain slumped. He coughed. “If you like, I could help you-.”
“No,” said Roan. He slid his almost untouched plate back to the pontiff. “Thank you for the meal.”
He turned away, and tried not to look at Zain as he whistled for Stel. He hauled himself onto his horse and struggled to swing his legs over her back. He knew the truth. The truth was his shield. He was not afraid of it.
But, at times like these, as Roan kicked like a toddler to get into position, he was ashamed of its weight.
Jova nodded. She had heard the sounds already, but had doubted if they were from the city or just from a busy road. She edged forward, gripping her mother’s hand, her feet sliding more than walking just in case something was in her way.
“It’s going to be alright, Jova dear,” said Ma, sensing her hesitation. “I’m right here for you.”
It had been a long journey. At times, Ma and Da had carried her, but Jova had insisted that she at least try to walk by herself. For three days, she had managed; for some reason, she hadn’t once felt tired. Da had repeatedly called her swift recovery miraculous.
But, today, the fatigue had come back, a crushing weight that made Jova’s steps hesitant and short. She didn’t know where it had been or why it had returned, but in a way she was glad of it. She had to rely on herself, and only herself, if she wanted any hope of living life as normal again. Whatever had taken the pain away hadn’t been her.
It was a sobering thought, and one that made Jova edge even slower as the family approached Temple Moscoleon.
Ma gasped. “There’re statues, Jova. One for each of the Ladies Four. They’re huge! The one closest to us is the Lady Winter. She’s…well, she’s got these long robes, and she’s holding a child in her arms…”
Jova nodded, allowing her imagination to take the place of those visions. Try as hard as she might, though, she couldn’t feel the same wonder she had when Rituu had told her his stories. It seemed an irony that the daydreams she had conjured when she could still see the real world now appeared distant, watery, and blurry without anything tangible to compare them to. They were just daydreams. They were all in her head. They didn’t matter.
She heard the rattle of a wooden cart, the clip-clop of hooves, the chatter of people. She wriggled her toes, and felt bare, beaten dirt under her feet where before the path had been carpeted with the forest litter.
“We’re on the main road now,” said Da. He had been giving her a constant narration all along the trip. Jova squirmed. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate it, but she didn’t want to have her father’s voice explaining the world to her secondhand for the rest of her life.
The space around her eyes- or, where they used to be- throbbed. It was hot and irritated and prone to bleeding. Jova wondered what she must have looked like to all those people she could not see. Did they think her a cripple? Did they even notice her, or did they pass without comment? What of the looks in their faces? Disgust, annoyance, pity?
It was something she would never dare ask her father, something that she would never know.
“We can touch the statue,” said Ma, leading her on. Jova stumbled as Ma moved to the side, but did her best to hide it as they continued to walk down the busy road. Pilgrims from across Albumere jostled around them; Jova felt the press of their bodies around her as they streamed together towards…something.
The cluster of bodies grew denser and denser as they walked on. Jova hunched her shoulders, trying to make herself smaller. With no faces to associate with them, no sky to look to, no indication at all where open space was, the experience was intensely claustrophobic.
Jova’s hand closed tight around Ma’s, her only anchor in this violent, dark world. Ma gave her a reassuring squeeze and led her on.
“Here,” Ma said, taking Jova’s hand and stretching it out. Jova waved her fingers until she found rock: smooth, hewn, cool to the touch. “Oh, it’s amazing, Jova. So high I can’t even see the top from here. It must have taken ages to build something like this.”
“Or one strong man with a lot of tabula,” Da remarked. He wrapped his arms around Jova’s shoulders, as if shielding her from all the other people vying for a chance to touch the great statue of the Lady Winter.
Jova’s hand fell to her side. She would give them that chance. To her, it was just rock. It didn’t matter how tall the great statue was. It didn’t matter that Ma couldn’t see the top when Jova couldn’t even see it at all.
Ma’s voice was low, but Jova could still hear it over the noise of the crowd. “You look sad.”
It sounded obvious, almost painfully so. Jova found not sadness inside her, but anger. But…
What else was there to say? Her parents were trying to help. They were doing their absolute best, in the only way they knew how. She couldn’t have done much better in their position. She couldn’t blame them for that.
She smiled, with all her teeth, even though her heart was breaking. “It’s wonderful, Ma.”
How were Ma and Da reacting? Did they suspect her facade? Were they satisfied with it? More than anything, Jova regretted that aspect of her blindness. People had become a mystery to her, their once open faces now closed forever.
She kept smiling, the same way her parents kept pretending that everything was fine. Maybe if they all pretended long enough, it would be true.
“The walls are big and tough,” said Da, as they walked in. “Not as big as the Marble Stronghold’s or Irontower’s, but they’re defensible.”
“Of all the things you choose to talk about, Ell,” said Ma, exasperated, and for a moment she sounded like herself. Jova laughed, genuine.
“The real advantage is the jungles, though. No army can march through that without getting seriously worn out,” said Da, his voice carrying a hint of smugness. Jova felt a cool shadow pass over them. Were they under those same walls now? “No one’s going to be attacking the Temple soon with those kinds of natural defenses.”
“This is also sacred ground,” said Ma, dryly. “Jova, remember this: men like your father can come up with all sorts of fancy theories, but it’s the Ladies who hold the power in the end.”
“Yes, Ma,” said Jova, smiling.
“It didn’t stop Keep Kago,” said Da, as the shadow passed. “When the barbarian lord marched on the Temple, he treated it like just another city.”
“Oh, spare us the history lesson, civilized man,” said Ma.
They walked on. Jova wiggled her toes. There were stones under her feet, now, no longer dirt. Various squishy things squelched under her feet at times, but the frequency that Jova stepped on said things was much lower than in Jhidnu (and she had been able to see where she was walking, then).
The idea of a city with clean streets was even more unfamiliar than a statue so tall the top could not be seen, but then again, it was a holy city. Perhaps the Ladies swept it from the cobblestones with their divine power.
“What do the buildings look like?” she asked.
She heard Ma sniff. “They look brown. And red,” she said, in fragmented pauses. “A lot of them are short. But there’s a few that are tall. Erm.”
“They’re made from red sandstone and adobe bricks,” said Da, taking Jova’s other hand. “We’re walking through one of the residential districts- that’s a place where people live. There’s a bazaar up ahead, with stalls in all sorts of colors. Reds, greens, blues, on dyed weaves they use to keep the sun off. Even further up ahead there’s a step pyramid, with corners pointing to where each of the four statues of the Ladies are standing. It’s made mostly of sandstone, too, but the cap at the top shines like gold; the Holy Keep sometimes makes sacrifices there when the sun is at its highest and there are no shadows at all, which is why it’s called the Solar Altar.”
Ma made an annoyed sound, to the side.
“Anjie, we have been tromping around the wild for eight years,” said Da, a mock severity in his tone. “Teach our little Lady how to sniff out a blueberry from a mile away later; it’s my turn to impress our daughter.”
“Don’t listen to him, Jova,” whispered Ma. “I can teach you to sniff out a blueberry from three miles away.”
“There’s a reason we left your brute out in the woods, wild woman,” said Da, now haughty. “There’s no place in the city for animals like him or you.”
“I’m tempted to summon Mo right now and show you just how much of a brute he can be,” said Ma.
Jova giggled. Her parents’ banter felt natural, and normal, and good. “Tell me more about the city, Da.”
Ma faked a swoon. “Oh! She’s abandoned me!”
“Well, let’s see.” Da paused. Jova could almost see his face pursing in thought. Perhaps her imagination had not left her, after all. “They didn’t teach us much at the Stronghold about the other cities except military history, to be honest. Even the marble slaves had to know that. A good general learns from his mistakes, Jova, but a great general always learns from his enemy’s.”
“Just in case you ever happen to lead an army, Jova dear,” Ma quipped.
“We learned about guerilla tactics when we discussed Moscoleon,” said Da, ignoring her.
Jova laughed, remembering Rituu’s story about the bearmonkeys. “Gorillai tactics, Da?”
“Guerilla, my little Lady,” said Da. “During the time of the First King, the zealots of the Temple fought like nothing else against the Seat’s armies, stinging like vulturewasps before melting away into the jungle. Just like that!”
Jova shrieked as Da poked her in the side.
“The zealots are still here in this city today,” said Da. “My mentors at the Stronghold told me that they were passionate, but undisciplined. The pontiffs can hardly control them, and the Holy Keep can never prod them too hard less they turn against him.”
“Pontiffs?” asked Jova.
“They’re like priests,” said Da. “There’s one right over there. He’s collecting tax from a resident. You can tell he’s from both the House of Fall, because of the tattoos on his forehead and around his eyes, and the House of Summer, because of the tattoos on his arm.”
Jova concentrated, trying to pick out the pontiff’s voice from the ambient noises of the city. It must have been some grand, magnificent voice, she imagined, but she heard no such thing. She sighed, but remembered her resolution. She had to smile. A silly thing like not seeing the pontiff shouldn’t have changed that.
“How do you know so much about this place, Da?”
“I’ve been wanting to come here ever since I was your age, Jova,” said Da. “From the stories they told us…it seemed like a good place. A holy place. A safe place.”
Da paused for only a second. “Yes, Jova. I think it is.”
“Where are we going now?”
Ma spoke this time. “We’re going to find somewhere to stay. This is a chance for us to start new, Jova dear. No more traveling from place to place. And if anyone ever finds out our secret…” She paused. “Well, it’s a big city. Isn’t it, Ell?”
“It is,” Da said. “We could just move to the other side and no one would know any better. And there are people here who could tell us things no one in Jhidnu ever could.”
The secret. Jova had almost forgotten. Her blindness was one thing, but her parents still believed that bad people would hurt her for her secret and not for her inability to see? How bad could not having a tabula be?
But she just nodded and said, “OK.” She wasn’t going to question Ma and Da, from now on.
“We can take jobs,” said Ma, an unfamiliar emotion in her voice. Jova cocked her head. She hadn’t realized how few times Ma had sounded this hopeful. “There’s plenty of game in the jungles for Mo and I to hunt. It won’t be that different from the bay. Ell can do all sorts of jobs from the things he knows from the Stronghold, and you…Jova, we could find someone to teach you all the history your Da knows, all the history in the world. There are schools here, monasteries for people to learn. They’d be free, Jova. Can you imagine? They could teach you math, music, reading…” Ma stopped, realizing what she had said.
Keep smiling, Jova thought. Don’t let them down. “Maybe not the reading?” she said, keeping her voice light.
“Yeah,” said Ma, softly, the hope dying slightly from her voice. “Maybe not the reading.”
“There’s a tenement up ahead,” said Da. Jova could tell from his voice that he was trying to change the subject. “Shall we go look at it?”
“Alright,” said Ma, her tone light too. She adopted Da’s accent. “We shall.”
Keep smiling, Jova thought to herself, as they turned the corner. Pretend long enough and it might become real.
The sounds became softer and dimmer, and Jova felt cool shadows over her face again. Had they gone inside a building? She had heard no indication of a door being opened. Perhaps they had just walked down a smaller, more compact street. The mystery was maddening.
“It’s just up ahead,” said Da. “There’s probably a pontiff who we’ll have to talk to; he’ll lend us one of the smaller houses to live in, so long as we pay tax in food or goods. I’m not sure what they’ll be like. From here, it looks like they’ll have about two rooms-.”
“A pontiff?” Jova leaned her head quizzically. “I thought they were priests?”
“They are,” said Da. “But the pontiffs run everything in the Temple. It’s just the way things are.”
“We’re here. Watch your step,” said Ma, slowing down. Jova matched her pace, like Mo on the road. A well-trained pet, Jova thought, bitterly. Mo won out in that regard. He had eyes and a tabula, while Jova had neither.
Ma let go of Jova’s hand, and Jova flexed it. It was cramped and sweaty. She hadn’t realized how tightly she had been holding on.
Jova reached out with her free hand, feeling out the frame of the door with her hand. It was cut straight, to an exacting degree, but the material was rough and grainy.
“He’s from the House of Winter. You can tell from the tattoos on his neck and chest,” whispered Da, as they walked in. It was slightly cooler inside the building than on the outside, although not by much when Jova was standing in the doorway.
“You stay with Jova, Ell,” said Ma. “I’ll go talk with him alone.”
“What? No, we can all meet him together,” said Da, confused and just a touch indignant.
Ma’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I just want to take slow steps before sprints, Ell. What if he asks to see her tabula? We have to at least see how this city works before we get rooted out.”
“Now why would he ask to see her tabula?” asked Da in a soothing tone, although he kept his voice low too.
“I don’t know, it doesn’t matter why,” said Ma. “She might be an escaped slave, or- or…”
“It may seem unfamiliar to you, Anjie, but escaped slaves don’t stay escaped for very long.”
“Just give me this one, Ell? Please?”
There was a pause. Jova imagined Ma looking at Da, the pleading look in her eyes even as she stood tall and firm. At least, that was what Jova thought was happening. She couldn’t really know for sure.
Finally, Da sighed. “Come on, Jova. We’ll let Ma take over the business while we have a look- while we take a walk around, alright?”
“Alright,” said Jova, quietly, as she heard Ma’s fading footsteps. She leaned her head, trying to catch what she was saying to the pontiff.
Jova caught the words in fragmented chunks, as Da led her away. “We’ve come a long way… if you would… a place to stay…”
The pontiff had a loud voice, one that he projected around the small room. “How wonderful… new pilgrims are always… welcome men and women of the faith…”
“I didn’t realize how many folks came to the Temple,” said Da. “I think I saw a group from the Seat of Winter, and even Irontower. Most will only be here for a couple nights, finishing their pilgrimage. I don’t think many people come here to stay and live like us.”
“I see you have… rest assured…” the pontiff was saying. “Crippled in body but whole of soul…”
“Jova? Are you listening to me?”
“What? Oh, sorry,” said Jova, trying to refocus on Da. It was hard to keep up with two conversations at once. She wondered if she had ever had the same trouble seeing two things at once. She had honestly never noticed.
“There’re some carpets for us to sit on.” Jova felt Da’s hand shift in her grip as he lowered himself to the ground. “All the way from the west. They’re nice and soft.”
Jova nodded. She ran her fingers through the threads as she sat down. She was thankful that Da hadn’t mentioned how beautiful the designs were or how intricate the weave was. Soft was something she could still appreciate.
There was a sudden, hollow, knocking sound to Jova’s left. Her head snapped up, and her ears turned instinctively to listen.
“Both peasants and lords shall dine together: together, together, in Mos-co-le-on,” sang Da, a tuneless little ditty. “It really is true.”
Jova’s eyebrows furrowed out of thought. That knocking sound was like hooves on the road, but she had been hesitant to call them that when they were in-doors. She heard no accompanying patter of feet. Was the newcomer riding inside the small hut?
“Well, the Lady Winter take me,” said Da. “He’s talking with the pontiff; he really is living here. On our level.”
“What’s he like?” asked Jova. What kind of a man would ride a horse into a building? One with shoes so fine he would not sully them with the bare dirt, perhaps, or maybe one who was used to always being just a bit taller than everyone else. She imagined his features: long, angular, with high cheekbones and a haughty stare.
“I’ll tell you once he’s gone,” said Da, whispering conspiratorially with Jova. “I don’t think he’d like overhearing what I have to say.”
Definitely a proud one, then. Jova wondered how many slaves this newcomer had, waiting outside the door. She wished she could stand and look.
“But he’s living here, with us,” said Da, raising his voice again. “This place, Jova, it really is great. It’s a new beginning.”
Jova hung her head. A new beginning, perhaps, but not one that Jova had ever wished for, all those years trekking to this fabled city. And speaking of that fabled city…
“I’ll have to take your word for it,” said Jova, under her breath.
“What was that?”
Jova shook her head. “Nothing, Da.” Keep smiling. Pretend long enough and it might become real.