He felt smothered, claustrophobic in his own self, no matter how big the cabin, the vibrating tension choking him. The cold, cold calm had shifted, slowly, over a night and a day, like the crawl of the glacier. His breathing was too fast for just laying there. There was nowhere to run, nothing to calm a longing that was more than lust. The arousal of his body was an afterthought. Thought struggled through the paralysis of feeling too much.
The luxury of his paralysis was something he couldn’t afford. Alan was incapacitated, Ashur was on his way to cracking, and everyone else was on edge enough to commit murder. He had to make himself useful before they sacrificed him to their fear. Unless she had changed her shift, Ridiath would be awake. Efeddre lay there, fighting it like being trapped under a wet fur, heavy as iron, even though he knew it would be so simple to get up, just get up.
Hauling himself sitting was, of course, pitifully easy. Then he had to muster himself to stand. Purpose helped focus the tension.
There was no land in sight beyond the eerie stillness of the sweet water. The storm season was giving way to the cold season, but the texture of the air was different somehow, wrong. He spotted a flock of dark specks in the distance, wheeling through a pale sky. Ridiath was upwind, so he saw her before he smelled her. He could feel the sharp weight of unfriendly stares following him across the deck, and ignored him the way he always did, by concentrating only on where he was going. No one was doing anything, no sails to man, no destination to motivate repair or preparation. That was dangerous on a floating bucket the size of a moderate cave and filled with nearly four dozen people.
When Ridiath turned to him, he saw that something had turned her hard and tense, watchful behind her mask. The weight of it looked like it had already ridden her for days. Ridiath was like a cold. What she felt, she felt for a long time. The last story she had walked away from him, and he considered that she might refuse.
“I have a story to tell you.” She didn’t respond to him at first, staring at him out of her hard eyes.
“Fine,” she said suddenly, arms dropping, her tone almost exasperated. “Now. There’s nothing else to do.” Her hands vaguely indicated the deck, her eyes a little wide, challenging him to refuse.
The chill of his tension didn’t allow for amusement, but he felt it roll underneath, a potential unreached.
“Is Kol on this shift?”
“He’s on the sterndeck,” she told him, eyes flicking past him and up. Turning, he didn’t see anyone over the roof of the cabin.
As he mounted the stair, Efeddre saw Clisand was on duty by the wheel, his skill useless. No sails to guide. The mizzenmast, he saw, was snapped near the base. What had been salvaged from the mainmast after the hurricane lay beside the jagged stump in in a pile of shavings, steadily reshaped into its new purpose. Kol was gazing across the tranquil blue stillness, one hip propped on the railing. Unlike most of the other men he wasn’t bearing the oncoming cold as the seasons shifted, but wore a light rough-woven coat, still open down the front.
Ever curious, his eyes moved to Efeddre as he approached, but they held no expectation. He certainly didn’t expect to be addressed. Efeddre stopped at the margin of conversational distance.
“I’m telling Ridiath a story. You may be interested in being there.”
Kol didn’t immediately straighten, but something in his almost black eyes was keenly interested. He had never invited anyone else besides Alan before. Efeddre turned and headed for the stair. He heard Kol’s long, nimble stride behind him, and listened to it follow him down the stairs. Ridiath had already picked a place in the broad, open space between the cabin and the mainmast. She hadn’t brought out her cold season gear out, her arms prickled.
Kol waited until Efeddre sat, then followed, folding himself to the deck with one bony knee up, closer to Ridiath. Efeddre caught movement, saw Shenele walking over, blatantly sitting within hearing. He found Efeddre watching him and stared challenge at him, Shenele, who was normally so timid around him. The challenge tightened the tension in him, and Efeddre forced the feeling down, looking away. It was after all, what he wanted.
“My mother told me this story, and the speaker before Sedronne told it to her, and the speaker before him told it to him. It was the first time we had needed a speaker to speak for us to the not-limdri.” He paused, thinking about what to say next. The heavy sound of Ecrembl’s crutch bumped through the deck, and Efeddre saw him settle against the railing behind Ridiath. Slowly, he said, “Do you understand empire?”
“It’s a Donse word,” Ridiath said.
“The Endon kept it, but they learned it from the Duchies. This story is from before they were the Duchies. This story is from before your people called themselves Secled. Before Endonsarre, before Serg. Do you understand?” He looked up, caught her eyes. He could see in the faint frown, her flickering eyes that she didn’t understand what he was asking, but she nodded, as if she understood what he meant anyway. “All of Secled’s fortresses, Lum itself, were not built by your people. The Secled only found them, abandoned. Laschdarvi was once the southernmost outpost of empire.” He paused. “How many years does Secled count back?”
Carefully, Ridiath said, “The lineage of the One-Ruler claims to have ruled for four-hundred years. There are texts in Endonsarre that say it is not so old.”
“This story is older than that. My mother had already lived three times what you will when I was born. The speaker before her spoke for most of his life, and the speaker before him was in her middle age.” Ridiath could understand lridrisy age a little better than many not-limdri he had met. She had been raised with numbers large enough to count sacks of grain, money, soldiers. Slowly, Ridiath nodded again, and he went on.
Efeddre looked up at Toney’s footfalls, watched him sit on Kol’s other side, not meeting his eyes, and settle a tangle of smooth fiber and a drop spindle in his lap. Wordlessly, he teased out the a shank of fiber, twirled the spindle, and watched it spin out into fine thread.
“In this time, there were more herds, herds that were so great that they could be seen from the northern mountains. There were the herders, and other not-limdri who lived fishing the tear-water or the rivers, and others who hunted smaller game where the herds did not wander. Sometimes a few of them would come into the mountains, usually the young, to see something new. We heard stories of the first farmers from them. Small people who saved seeds and scattered them on the earth and stayed to eat what grew, then moved on. They guarded what grew, wouldn’t let anyone else eat it.
“From the fishers we heard of the first ships. Broad, and deep, so big they cut open the waters, flying on wings, carrying people dark as slate who lived so far north the water never froze. The fishers told us stories of their people being stolen away, forced to labor until they were sick or dead. Empire started reaching south, and they built fortresses and cities in their wake. They slaughtered whole herds, forced the farmers to live in one place and plant more and more and give up what they grew.
“Hunters came to the mountains, trying to kill lridrisy for their pelts. When they understood we could change shape, they tried to capture us, take us north to show, to sell. We realized we needed someone to speak for us, someone who could fulfill the role they expected of a sovereign people. We have always had speakers, those gifted so that they can take a thing that one person or one methala understands, and say it in a way that another can understand it. But we had never had a speaker who spoke for all the methala. And all the methala chose Derrotam. She spoke to the hunters, took hostages and spoke to them, and then the emissaries. We had never had borders before, and she helped them burn lines on a hide that said where the mountains began and ended, what was ours that they could not enter without our permission. They called her monarch, and she didn’t correct them. The hostages lived with us as part of the limdri families, and it was they who first learned about rethor.
“Then, in Derrotam’s lifetime, the emissaries stopped coming. We heard no stories. The fisher people were gone, dead, or enslaved. The herders grew, and in the wake of empire, the farmers. They found the empty fortresses and planted around them, lived in them and thought they were safe. Empire had reached too far, grasping for the next land. They overbalanced, collapsed, fractured. Fought amongst themselves.
“The farmers left behind by the tide, though, they had learned enough from empire. They were rooted to the ground now. Even as the ground grew sterile under years of reaping, they couldn’t move. The Sergile are as they are because the people of the northern plains were the first to be conquered, and as empire receded in civil war they were the first to regroup and declare that they would never be conquered again. The Ribbon of Endonsarre was less affected. They absorbed what they could use from empire but they were much better situated to trade. Derrotam had passed on her learning to another speaker before the first envoys came from the southern farmers came to declare themselves Secled. The next stories we heard of the dark people who flew the waters where the water never froze, they were called the Duchies.”
He could have told it longer, could have told more details. As his voice stopped, it felt too soon.
“There are not many south of Serg who know that,” Kol said into the silence, something in his eyes bright. “I have heard a story, too,” he said slowly. “My uncle told it to me, of one of our most illustrious ancestors. They are all illustrious, but no matter.” Kol flapped a long fingered, slate hand. “In the days of Great and Glorious Damphortas, he flew south to the towering bones of the earth that touched the Great Ice, to hunt the greatest beasts ever hunted, cats so large they would barely be able to walk down a street, rumor had said. He searched for a pass, and more, but they eluded him, and eluded him, until one day he came upon a maiden in the wood.
“She was lovely and dark, and her hair was very straight. He made her many promises of safety and comfort and wealth, if she would come to his blanket–a man who has been long alone will say many things to a woman–but when he reached out to claim her she revealed she had tricked him cruelly, was not a maid at all, but a beast. The beast broke his bow and his spear and carried him off in its mouth and he thought it would eat him alive and crack his bones. Instead he was held captive, for a year and one more. By day the slaves of the great beasts, who served them in all things, would watch over him. The young women and men all walked around naked to torment him, but never offered to ease him. And by night he was forced to sleep among the beasts in a deep, dark cave, so he could not even go out at night to piss–” Efeddre actually snorted, a dry, dusty sound “–and he stayed awake all night listening to their terrible breathing, in terror of his life that one might wake hungry, and eat him.” Kol laughed, flashing his big, ivory teeth, eyeing Efeddre.
“Once, when Toney was still this high,” Kol gestured around his shoulder, tone changing, turning cheerful, “I asked him if it were true, if all his people were slaves to the terrible beasts, and if each solstice they must give up one of their children to be eaten alive by their masters, and that they must watch. It is said that that is how the beasts take on the skins of men and women.” Toney rolled his eyes.
“You did not.”
“How can you be sure? Your Donse was terrible.” Toney threw a wad of fiber at him. “I took your virginity, sprat. You must not disrespect your teacher so.”
Efeddre watched Ridiath follow the exchange, the quality of the banter almost enough to crack her reserve. Then her eyes found Efeddre’s, their edge turned calculating.
“Ibleton said the thing in Alan acts like it knows you.”
“It’s never met me,” he said, standing. He needed to get away from here, the presence, the attention suddenly overwhelming. Needed to go where they wouldn’t follow, where he wouldn’t be expected to answer. “But it knows me.” Let them be intrigued. “Tomorrow, I’ll tell you the story of how lridrisy came to live in the mountains.”
Hannah went outside, and nearly went right back inside. If Cosag hadn’t already taken the hammock she would have.There was nothing to do, and nowhere to hole up. She wasn’t even sure it was safe to go around cleaning because that would draw too much attention. She looked around for friendly or not-unfriendly faces to attach herself too.
The Twerp/Efeddre was sitting on one of the smaller boats, staring out into space. Nothing else was happening and everyone else was boycotting her. Maybe he would talk to her.
“Don’t talk to me,” he said just as she got close enough to hear, eyes never moving from wherever he was staring.
“Okay,” she agreed amicably, and kept walking.
He woke instantly to dark, stuffy air below deck, the air cool against the skin not pressed against Felghaim in the hammock. It had been a long time since he had gone to Felghaim’s blanket alone, and he couldn’t have said if the other man had welcomed him out of desire or because he knew he could handle Ashur. At least for a while; and that was to everyone’s benefit. It had been a long time, too, since he’d had quiet, subtle sex surrounded by sleeping men, privacy an illusion maintained by anyone awake to listen.
Beond’s voice had woken him, Ashur recognized in that instant clarity, the pattern of his body different from every man there.
“What is it?”
“It’s Juele,” he said, voice soft. “Something’s happening.”
Ashur tipped a leg out of the hammock, bracing his foot against the floor to keep them from swinging. Felghaim half-propped himself up at Ashur’s back, the rough texture of his long, matted hair tickling a hip. Ashur groped for his pants, dangling from the line strung above them.
“Where is he?”
Beond led him quietly through the hammocks, past Dhomlar’s quiet snores, past Werser’s soft mumbling, to the black hole that led to the bilge. Ashur climbed down after him, wooden rungs icy against his bare feet. Beond opened a lamp, casting a dim swathe of light.
Alan’s forehead was pressed against the damp hull, his hands knotted in his hair, face completely obscured. He huddled naked in a freezing puddle, every bump in his spine casting a shadow. The sound he was making wound its way into Ashur’s ears, and he knew how long it would tumble there, over, and over, like a drowned body caught in a rapid on the River. He crouched to see better, but didn’t touch him.
“Don’t know how long he’s been down here,” Beond told him, moving so the lamp shed light at a better angle. “Should we move him?”
“No,” Ashur said. “He came here for a reason.” Maybe to be surrounded by water. Maybe for the darkness.
After a long, careful pause, “What’s happening to him?”
“He’s being born.”
There was no frantic drive in that sadness, as if he had been leeched of everything else. There was nothing to do except be here, now. It was finally happening, and he didn’t know which of the two forks it had taken: If Alan had finally let it in, given it everything, or if he had held on until he finally crumbled into nothing. Ashur settled himself back, as dry a spot as he could find. “Cover the lamp. Go tell Fis what’s happening.”
Beond obeyed, and it was suddenly dark as pitch, the only thing holding onto his senses Alan’s low, long keening. He heard the wet creak of the ladder as Beond climbed up.
Eventually, he came back. Ashur heard him hoist himself up onto a barrel and settle to hold the vigil.
It was dawn when the keening shortened to panting, choking. Then that faded too, into little hitches, until it dimmed to silence. Alan gave no sound, not even of breathing. Ashur pushed himself away from the hull, moving forward on his hands.
“Alan?” he said gently.
Alan’s face tilted up, and the shadows in the embers of his eyes fluttered. He looked at Ashur as if he looked on a stranger, but a stranger he knew. Suddenly he stretched out on his side in the bilgewater, and Ashur quickly reached under his arm.
“Not here, Alan. Help me,” he told Beond. In the darkness they hauled his limp weight upright between them so Beond could pull him over a shoulder and cautiously hoist him up the ladders to the sick cabin. As he laid him in the hammock, Ashur brought blankets, handing one to Beond and shaking the other out, tucking it in, something easy, practical, mechanical.
He sat on the deck beside the hammock, shoulders bowed, and didn’t think.
He had forgotten Beond was there.
“You can go,” he said. “I’ll stay.”