Felghaim had been rowing for the better part of a shift before there was enough light for him to squint her out through the long, finely matted strands of his hair, blearily uncomprehending. Nipple tingling, arms around the boy, Ridiath gave him a look that said it was inexplicable, and to not try to understand. Gerril pursed his bearded lips, recalculated, and announced the new shift rotation.
It took coaxing to pry the child from her breast when her shift came. Tugging her tunic back down, her left nipple became a center of radiating strangeness, always on the fringe of her attention. Her first shift off was with Ibleton. He balanced on the balls of his feet, elbows pressed against his knees, thick hands firmly laced.
“The Sergilé,” he said after a while, “why’d you want to do it yourself?”
She had to think to put it into words, even in Seclednar.
“To be able to say that I had.”
He considered that, and after a while nodded slowly, almost with the motion of the galley.
Weariness was beginning to soak into her bones, but she knew she could row as long as she needed to. Her next shift off, the boy reached for her, and she gave her consent by reaching back.
As he slid behind her oars, Efeddre said, “You would be more useful if you were giving milk.”
“And you would be more useful if you had a modicum of tact,” she replied mildly. That earned her an unreadable stare, curiously devoid of hostility. Felghaim snrrked. She considered telling him that when he spread this around the ship, to not let her know about it.
Rooting aggressively at her breast, the boy sucked hard. She settled herself to bear it until her next shift. Ridiath had the urge to wash the browning streaks of Efeddre’s blood off his back. She left them. Gradually, Felghaim’s pale eyes became fixed where the boy and her breast joined. Ridiath stared at him until he noticed, and nonchalantly moved his gaze to the horizons.
There was no line of land in sight, no mast or spar pricking the sky. They had moved by the stars, now they moved by the sun and the wind.
Her shift came, but almost before she moved, Fis eyed her, made a sign for abort, and stayed at his bench. She tried to let the hitch of insecurity pass over her, and was grateful for the rest. Toney traded out, and sat across from her, relaxing against the side.
She watched him look at the boy, taking in her partial nakedness without a flicker. She could read nothing other than contentment in his rounded face.
Shifting her legs and trying to maneuver the child into a more comfortable position, Ridiath asked, “How old is he?” She glanced down; to her he seemed three, perhaps four. Certainly on the cusp of weaning. A slow smile spread over Toney’s face, as if he heard the thought.
“‘Bout a year.”
Her eyes jumped to his face, almost believing it a joke. But Toney’s smile didn’t change. Unconsciously, she found Efeddre among the oars. Physically he looked young, younger than her by at least two years. She almost asked the question, then did not.
Measuring the wind, Gerril and Ibleton decided it was worth it to raise the sails. They mounted the mast and pulled in the oars. After they raised the lantine and the jib the galley heeled over, skimming the waves, and Efeddre moved over to her and took the boy.
As the day deepened, the child grew more listless, his eyes lost focus. Holding him close, Efeddre spoke to him so softly she almost did not hear.
“Badd a’thret gheshama, simul badd’i. Badd a’thret ghesht, tamsimul badd’i.”
They had brought food for a rescued prisoner, but nothing suited for a nursling. Efeddre tried to coax him to suck fish oil from his finger, and when he wouldn’t, fed him more blood. Watching him cut open his wrist above the scar, she felt uneasy, as if she shouldn’t be looking.
They sailed into the evening, and into the stars, kydele’s curtain a distant wisp, Gerril, Solme, and Felghaim playing quiet word games near the bow.
An itching needle was burrowing inside her breast. The sensation was almost intolerable. Staring out over the morning ocean, Ridiath steadfastly ignored it.
Holding the boy against her ribs, she listened with Fis to Oraun and Gerril retelling ocean-stories in Donse, stories from before Alan. Megars had been meaner then, it seemed, Dhomlar less quiet. Toney had been very young, and they shot a tease at him now and again, and he smiled serenely. Efeddre made no sign if he was irritated that he couldn’t understand, only stared out over the water.
The conversation shifted to their route, how to avoid capture if a ship were sighted.
“I always plan t’go for the thigh,” Felghaim said. His flattened hand nicked down toward the inside of his leg, near the groin.
“And Fis’ll make his heart burst by thinking about it,” Oraun said, deadpan. Fis had no reaction.
“What’d you do?” Felghaim asked her, brown cords of his hair hanging in front of his chest.
“I would hesitate,” she said after thinking. He nodded, accepting without judgment, and she felt a jolt of fear, that if she could not make the choice he might make it for her. Then she let it pass away; whatever would happen would happen.
“Just remember,” Oraun told her, “‘Less they gag you good, you can always finish by tongue.” She didn’t understand the last part of his phrasing. “Bite it,” he explained.
The boy had twisted her breast as Oraun spoke, and she winced, nodding through it. He rooted discontentedly, pinching her, and she shifted, tensing.
Idishe was saying something to Oraun as he smoothed out his scarf on one knee, but she was too distracted to pay attention. She tried to put distance between the child’s body and hers to get him to ease off, and he kneed her in the stomach. Her body jerked angrily, and he bit her.
Ridiath gasped, the stabbing pain too shocking to curse. He had all of his teeth. Grabbing her breast, the boy sucked at her angrily. The others glanced at her, and while she was hissing Efeddre stood and sat on the bench in front of her.
He pressed two fingers lightly against the soft part of her shoulder, and cupped the curve of the boy’s back with his other hand. He had touched her perhaps half a dozen times in the year she had known him. The heat of his fingertips was strange, unexpected.
“Relax,” he said. Closing her eyes, she heaved a breath through her shoulders, consciously trying to unbind each strand of muscle. Then, “Nama huibbikat’dd.”
There was a heartbeat or two of grim stubbornness, then the boy whined against her, squirming, and his mouth relaxed. She sagged a little with the relief, and his pressure eased into an unconcerned suckling. Efeddre pulled away. Ridiath glanced at him sideways, trying to discern his expression. She could read nothing, or at least could not read what she found.
When Toney took the boy from her, it was still a relief.
Across the ocean, a storm was mounting. It turned the western sky black. At the tiller Felghaim steered them north and east, using the winds gusting out of the empty west to push them closer to land. By midday a pelting rain beat down on the boards, and they packed themselves under a tarp, taking shifts to hold the tiller and manage the sails. The galley heaved as they cut it across the waves, and the boy began squirming.
Water poured down the slickness of Fis’ head as he trimmed the sails, dragging her braid down her back while she held the tiller. She couldn’t read the storm to steer into it, relying on Fis’ signals and Oraun’s correcting hand beside her. Sometime in the middle of their shift, the boy started screaming, audible over the wind and pounding rain.
When she was back under the tarp, he was still shouting, beating Toney’s chest and stomach with bony fists, kicking furiously. Everyone else but Efeddre began looking around in the moist dimness, away, unable to ignore it, unsure what to do. Neither Toney nor Efeddre said anything to him, and Toney did nothing but catch the occasional blow in his hands. Finally Oraun had to leave, crawling past Ridiath’s knees into the slashing rain.
The child kept yelling, snarling, until abruptly he went still and quiet. Without another sound he sat in the bowl of Toney’s crossed legs, his back against the curve of his belly. When he started to retch, Efeddre scooped him up and carried him outside, shielding him with his body. Ridiath pulled her knees up, resting her arms on them. The damp had seeped into every crevice of her body, tickling when it formed beads and slid down her skin. When Efeddre ducked back under the tarp, the boy was curled inside his soaked tunic. He rubbed circles into the child’s back, and he and Toney looked at each other. Toney stuck his hand through the arm hole of Efeddre’s tunic to touch the boy’s head, a caress.
There were two sun bridges when the rain softened to drizzle and mist. The heavy smell after a storm permeated the air, refreshing. On the off side of the galley ran the south-eastern coast of Secled, a gentle, grey-green stripe. It was almost numbingly quiet.