Fifteen

Finding the card players, Hannah flopped down onto the deck behind the biggest gap in the circle. Another audience member gave her a sideways look.

“I have cleaned. Everything.” He looked at her doubtfully. “Everything,” she said again, holding out her arms.

Seeming mildly disturbed, he decided to ignore her. Hannah leaned back on her hands, trying to figure out what they were playing.

The cards were wood, and long and skinny. They had shapes carved into them in various combinations, circles, triangles, lines. A complicated stack of them crisscrossed the middle of the circle, while the ones in the players’ hands were tied together like keys on a ring. Some they held up, while others dangled, showing the symbols to the other people.

A big guy with an actual beard moved one of the crisscrossed cards to another position and said, “Yunot.” Everyone else in the circle flipped the back card in their hand down to hang on the string. There was some serious degree of poker-face going on.

One of the guys in front of her shifted to lean on his other elbow, blocking her view. Hannah got up on her knees so she could see again.

A sharp-faced guy next to the bearded guy moved two cards to a different spot, and said, “Mimab. Icis.” The next guy got skipped. Hands braced on her thighs, Hannah leaned forward a little to get a better look at the pile.

The black guy in front of her turned away from his cards to look at her over his shoulder.

Very calmly he said, “You are making me nervous.”

“Oh. Sorry.” She scooched back.

A couple rounds went about the same, and then two guys started snapping off words to each other, rearranging the architecture of the cards in the center pile, each showing their hands to the people next to them. Those guys just said one word, “[Tip:Lilbe=Fair.],” every time they were shown the hand. Watching intently, other players in the circle were shuffling their cards in their hands with small movements, like they didn’t want to be seen.

She didn’t know what the hell was going on, but it seemed exciting, which was more than she could say for poker as a spectator sport.

“You,” someone said. “With me.”

Hannah looked up. He was skinny, severely tanned but white, with the trailing ends of a head scarf blowing around his waist, and pointy joints. He had a bucket in one hand, and a leather bag slung over one shoulder.

“Sure thing,” she agreed automatically, and pushed herself up, catching a whiff of something thin and pungent. Hannah followed him as he turned toward the front of the boat, still public, and her stomach relaxed slightly.

“So what’re we gonna do?” she asked, to give her time to fight
and yell in front of as many people as possible, in case it would help.

“You, are going to help me varnish.”

Oh.” He didn’t turn to look at her, but she thought he slid his eyes over. “I had to do that one summer working on a friend’s house. Sticky.”

He stopped near the low deck tucked in the front of the boat and set down the bucket, slipping the bag off his shoulder and catching the strap in his hand. She squatted, he knelt, and Hannah looked at the varnish job, finding worn spots here and there. It didn’t have the shiny, wet look she was used to.

Sticking a hand in the bag and rummaging, her overseer pulled some kind of implement made out of grey shell with a wooden handle.

“Watch,” he said, and with short, broad strokes took the varnish off down to the wood, leaving it grey and splintery. She tested the grip when he handed it to her, and he passed her another chunk of leather from the bag to pad the handle.

“Thanks,” she said. Setting it against the wood, she played with pressure and leverage and made an experimental scrape, leaving a scattering of tiny wooden corkscrews, and about half the varnish.

“More pressure on the front end, not the back.”

“Oh.” It worked better. He watched her for a little while longer then took out another scraper and started getting about twice as much done in half the time. Hannah shifted from a squat onto her knees, pushing her hair behind her ears.

Scrape scrape scrape. Her back was getting hot. Scrape. Humidity building under her hair made her want to pull it back, but it was her only protection from sunburn. It was also turning into one giant dread, a fact she was trying not to let drive her crazy. A greasy strip fell in front of her face, and she shoved it behind an ear again. Her overseer was already three boards down. Scrape. Scrape. Scrape. She reminded herself that discomfort was not a good enough reason to stop.

A sharp, hardware store kind of smell began wafting over, making her think of rows and rows of fat cans, and she looked over to see that Overseer had started painting on the varnish. Hannah wondered if she was doing a good enough job, and consulted the boards he’d done. Hard to tell. Depended on his standards. She went over that section again. She wasn’t sure how long it had been. A while. She wondered what time it was.

“Stop,” he said. She did, just now recognizing him standing over her. She wondered first if she’d done something wrong, and second that after the other day it was such a bad idea to lose track of where he was. The realization hit her like a little cold shock in the chest, but he just said, “Go drink. I’ll find you when we start again.”

~~~

They were still giving wide berth to one of the first big storms of the season as it threatened to pummel the distant coast. The northern horizon was clear, the only signs the pattern of the winds and the streaming schools of fish and flocks of birds moving west and south.

Jeik was wearing the ship around in a lazy loop, heading them into the next tack. The ship pitched forward, the pressure against the sails a physical sensation in Ashur’s body. A couple of men moved to trim the lines.

Nemasd’s a calm man, but I still can’t believe he hasn’t started flinching,” Gerril said, spreading his massive feet a little. Colae had released his conscripted labor from varnishing, and after disappearing into the hold the woman had returned to the circle of briggeie to hover over Nemasd’s shoulder.

This is the stupidest thing I have ever agreed to,” Ashur said, squatting in Gerril’s broad shadow. Everyone ignored him. Unfortunately Alan had traded shifts with Rher so he wasn’t there to hear it.

Kinda wish she’d tried to steal a knife and gut someone when she was helping with the samma,” Mehth said, watching her perched on her knees behind the circle of players.

Don’t wish for feathers,” Ashur told him reflexively, swift, jerky movement catching his eye.

Several gazes were already following a trail of black hair sprinting across the deck, and then Brac lurched to a halt in front of them, hands on his bony knees.

She counts with her fingers!

He started dancing in place, hands jangling. The others stared at him, perplexed. Ashur cursed under his breath, and the stares shifted to him.

Count to twelve on your hand.” Blankly, Mehth did, tapping the tips of his stained fingers with his thumb in rapid succession, then the first row of knuckles, then the second.

Sticking out his fists, Ashur released his fingers from the smallest to the thumb on one hand, then the other.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.” Pushing his hands on his knees, he stood. “Yapasfe.” Mehth looked at him curiously, then turned his head slightly to Brac.

What’s she counting?” he asked.

Uh, briggeie plays, I think. Brac was snapping his fingers almost soundlessly at his sides now. “That’s all,” he said abruptly. Ashur waved him off, and they watched Brac dash back toward the stern.

Mehth asked, “How d’the Drifalcand count?

They count to twenty-one, or not at all,” Ashur snapped.

After a weighted pause, Gerril said, “You count with your fingers sometimes,

Yapasfe.


~~~

His eyelid twitched when he caught the first vicious cadences of the cursing under the sound of the wind. Jormrher looked across Naal at Toney, giving him a flat, hard stare. Toney pointedly kept his eyes focused on his fan, delicately maneuvering a slat on the tower to complete his turn. Jormrher’s mouth tightened.

I abandon,” he declared, slapping his slats face down. As he stood the players eligible to claim them were already leaning over to pick through his fan, the woman peering between them to see.

Striding across the deck, the rush of the wind died abruptly as he stepped in the cabin.

Ramine dighm tal[1] okia slembarani nei lakasmoronif salawe[2]—” barely pausing for breath, “—yapasfe, idiot, stiff-legged jandakas[3]—”

Shoulders tensed halfway to his ears, the kid stood spewing hot ash while Dhomlar pinned himself against the wall, looking pained.

Walking up, Jormrher shoved the kid hard enough to catch him off guard, and he backed into the wall, jaw shut tight. Bracing a hand by his head, Jormrher used his height to crowd him as he pointed the spear of his thumb and two fingers at his face.

“You need to shut up and act like an adult and a contributing person on this ship. Now move. On.”

The kid stared up at him, his face growing harder, not backing down. After a long breath he ducked a shoulder and pushed his way past him. Jormrher let him go, their arms barely brushing.

And you,” he said, turning to Dhomlar, who looked equal parts relieved and resigned, “you don’t have to take his shit.” Dhomlar didn’t say anything, just closed his eyes and gave a silent sigh. Turning sharply, Jormrher strode back outside.

~~~

Day fourteen: Blood sports.

So there hadn’t actually been any bleeding yet, but Hannah was enjoying the silver platter array of shirtless, sweating men.

It was a pretty calm afternoon, only kind of hot, with puffy white cloud towers and blue sky, and the boat was staying relatively horizontal. A couple of guys had started some half-contact sparring, and since collected a peanut gallery of onlookers. Having been dismissed from stripping wood, Hannah settled herself in an open space in the small crowd, the sharp, sticky smell of varnish and BO following her everywhere she went. A few guys had looked up when she sat down, but no one told her to get back to work.

It didn’t seem like they were counting whoever won to advance to the next round. For that matter, there hadn’t really been any clear winners. Shiny brown with sweat, the guy who’d been in the last round was bouncing faintly, rolling his joints as he waited for the next contender. He was thin but built, the kind of body they had invented ‘sinewy’ for. Despite the fact that during the last round his hair had been used as a handle, he kept it loose, black and ragged around his shoulders. He grinned as a guy with a crew cut and some bulked muscle stepped up, and widened his stance.

A couple more pirate-people sat down in the gallery, and Hannah kept an eye out for Would-Be-Rapist. Unfortunately there were about eight other dudes who looked like him, so she avoided all of them. There was a flash of short, blonde hair in the corner of her eye as someone got up, and Hannah suddenly wasn’t paying attention to the sparring. He moved into her blind spot, behind the guy in back of her, and she waited until he reappeared in the other side of her peripheral vision and walked off before she relaxed enough to pay attention to the match again.

The fighters had circled a few steps, and without any of the typical hand-slapping testing of defenses, the bigger guy suddenly made a lunge for the knees. The incumbent managed to keep one leg free, popping the bigger guy at the crook of his neck. After some almost motionless grappling they got untangled, dancing away from each other. Some feinting, ducking, and the bigger dude got him in the nose, snapping his head back, but Wiry bounced back and got in a shot to the gut. Hannah started frowning, counting hits and unguarded openings. Bigger Dude got Wiry Guy’s head locked under his arm and bashed him in the kidneys before he managed to fight his way out.

“Does he… like to get beat up?”

“Any day he can manage it,” the guy beside her agreed, who despite the fact that he was probably shorter than her had the biggest hands and feet she’d ever seen on a person.

Hannah contemplated.

“Huh. There was a guy in my unit like that.”

The incumbent took a couple more hits he could have blocked or avoided, but he got in just as many before his sparring partner ducked out, laughing. Breathing hard, Wiry Guy scraped his hair behind his shoulders where it was sticking to the sides of his neck. A couple of guys in the peanut gallery made what sounded suspiciously like catcalls as he walked in little circles, shaking it out. Hannah’s ears zoomed in on the non-English, because she was trying to catch names, which reminded her to look out for Trich. She needed to exploit their first name basis. Checking out the crowd, Hannah looked over as someone stood up.

Stepping into the ring was the Twerp, pulling his reddish tank top over his head. He was not quite as tall and not as wide in the shoulder as the incumbent —which was to say, they were both short— but he still looked like he could take him. Wiry Dude grinned, showing a little red between his teeth, and crouched. The conversation died down a little, just one or two low voices in the background.

The Twerp was fast, and he was good.

Wiry Guy barely even reacted the first three hits the kid got in, sharp taps to the side of his head, under his arm, the inside of his knee. As the Twerp slid back out of range, he kept his center of gravity low. Swaying faintly, the kid stayed bolted to the same spot as the incumbent started to circle. He didn’t turn his head, just followed Wiry with his eyes.

A blocky pirate with a severe expression stood to get a better view, and someone in the front row moved his legs as Wiry’s orbit passed him.

The second Wiry Dude stepped closer, the kid spun around with a kick. Ducking wildly, Wiry rolled and popped up inside his guard with a punch to his solar plexus, getting clipped on the cheek before he jumped away. The Twerp came at him with a knee in his kidney and a punch to the chest, then Wiry got him in the jaw. It was getting kind of intense, but Wiry wasn’t calling the kid on going almost full-contact.

Snapping behind him, the Twerp wrenched Wiry Guy’s arm back in a submission hold that looked like it was dangerously close to breaking something. Hannah resisted the urge to wince as Wiry’s face twisted in a kind of silent gasp. Face hard but weirdly expressionless, the kid put deliberate pressure on the lock, pushing the limits of obvious pain. Then he let Wiry go, backing off. Wiry Guy was panting, arm hanging limp as he turned, watching. They scuffled, Wiry taking more hits than he was giving.

Then the Twerp got a shot to his side that was almost audible, and the incumbent staggered, hunched over like that had really, actually hurt. No one was talking now.

“Play fair,” someone called from the back.

The Twerp gave Wiry Dude a minute to recover, but didn’t glance in the direction of the voice. His next flurry of hits were all half-contact. Wiry Guy was flagging, getting slower and sucking air.

Uym,[4]” he called suddenly, kind of breathless, holding up his hands with a grin. The Twerp backed down, shifting out of fight mode as Wiry Guy heaved a few breaths before threading his way through the peanut gallery to walk it off. A couple of conversations started up then, like in an intermission, and the kid stood there not really sweating, but mouth-breathing.

The next guy to step up had been one of her guards, the bald one who was about eight inches taller than anybody else and built like a gymnast. They went at it, and it started looking more and more like professional finals. She couldn’t tell if they were pulling punches anymore. Watching, Hannah tried to figure out what exactly the deal was with Twerp. When did you have to start practicing to be that good when you were fifteen? Seeing him fight, Hannah was willing to give him sixteen.

This time the kid called it off, holding up a hand. He still wasn’t really sweating, but he was panting pretty hard. The gymnast relaxed, and the Twerp wandered off.

Hannah saw Wiry come back and plop beside a bigger guy who looked more like the kind of muscle that came out of gyms, who was watching intently as the gymnast and a new contender went at it. Wiry nudged him with an elbow, and the intent guy murmured something back, not taking his eyes from the fight. Hannah’s attention wandered, watching pirate-people busy doing things around the ship, and slipping in and out of an optical illusion that it was the boat was standing still and the water moving by. Stomach gurgling, she wondered if she was ever going to get fed regularly. She saw Wiry nudge his friend again, who was so glued to the fight he barely responded. The Twerp came back, naked and soaked, and Hannah’s eyes skittered away, not used to seeing naked teenagers.

Wiry guy pushed himself up and called toward the back, “Le, Cosag![5]

His gym-body friend jumped up like he’d been bitten.

Laemem, laememhom. Laberd,[6]” he muttered, following Wiry through the crowd and into the cabin. Hannah wondered if ‘Laberd’ was a name.

In the middle of the gymnast’s third round Hannah heard across the boat, “You know where she is?” and turned to see the pointy angles of the Overseer questioning a bystander, and guessed break-time was over.

“Coming!” she yelled, and a scrawny guy with a headscarf in the audience jumped.


  1. emasculated weakling
  2. you have the bartering sense of a parrot
  3. fuck you
  4. I abandon.
  5. Hey, Cosag!
  6. I'm coming, I'm coming.

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